“It’s not always about the twist!” This is the constant refrain from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton when talking about Inside No.9 and it’s true that, while early episodes often had a surprise ending, lately the show has been depending less on these, relying more on character and story. However, The Stakeout, more than any episode this season, lives or dies on whether you buy the twist at its centre.
It’s a twist that some will love, some will hate. I find myself as usual somewhere inbetween. The rug pull itself is executed perfectly, it’s unexpected yet foreshadowed subtly through the dialogue. However, it’s so completely disconnected from everything that precedes it, that it comes dangerously close to feeling like a cheat.
The Stakeout begins with the blood drenched body of Shearsmith staring at the camera, accompanied by his voice over. This introduction means the rest of the episode – two policemen on a stakeout across 3 nights in a graveyard – is permeated with an sense of dread. It raises the stakes right from the off, even when they spend their time guessing riddles and playing games, we know it will end with blood getting spilled, and the fun comes from wondering exactly what will befall Shearsmith to lead to his death in the back of a police car. The episode offers up a lot of possibilities, and settles on perhaps the most unnerving outcome of all.
This is perhaps the clearest example of a bottle episode the pair have ever attempted. It’s a two-hander, all set inside a police car and there’s very little action – apart from an excellent car chase! As ever, the real fun comes from the dialogue, which is full of jokes and foreshadowing. The back and forth between the two is excellent, playing word games and touching on the tropes of cop films. It’s a lot of fun but also incredibly touching, especially Pemberton’s relationship with his late partner.
Pemberton has been consistently impressive this series, with his performances in this and Love’s Great Adventure counting as some of the best work he’s ever done. Here he’s blunt and hostile initially, but this outward demeanour covers a tremendous amount of guilt and a vulnerability that he gets across brilliantly. Shearsmith essentially gets the straighter role this time as the fresh faced new partner, but gets to sink his teeth into some more interesting character moments in the episode’s climax.
It is also a dark one, both figuratively and literally, in which director Guillem Morales really makes the most of the limited setting, using low lighting to great effect, every shot is drenched in shadow, which only adds to the ominous atmosphere. This episode also contains Christian Henson‘s best work as composer thus far in the series. The music has been incredibly strong throughout, but the score is particularly effective here. Henson uses string instruments to create an eerie score that’s part mournful, part sinister, and it fits in perfectly with the unsettling tone of the episode.
The ending is shocking and satisfyingly gory, and on reflection it just about works for me. It all comes down to that opening – the mystery of how Shearsmith ended up where he is. Viewed through this prism, the ending is a macabre surprise, but as a progression of the story, it’s a bit of a stretch. I would have happily watched the two characters just playing Fortunately / Unfortunately and guessing riddles for 30 minutes, but then we wouldn’t have got one of the most unsettling endings since The Harrowing back in series 1.
This is the perfect way to end what has been an excellent series of Inside No.9. There have been no real lows and one all time great episode in Love’s Great Adventure. In this series more than any other, Pemberton and Shearsmith have pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished in just 30 minutes, and with two more series commissioned, they’re showing no signs of slowing down.