Right, now that’s more like it!
The episodes of Inside No.9 that I enjoy most are those with real emotional stakes, and the ones that manage to take you completely by surprise, – A Random Act Of Kindness does both, and is one of the most successful episodes of this series.
Jessica Hynes plays a single mother raising her sullen teenage son Zach (Noah Valentine) in that awkward period between completing his A-levels and leaving for Uni. A wounded bird brings a kindly stranger (Steve Pemberton) to their doorstep, and he quickly becomes a welcome presence in their lives, offering advice and helping Zach with his coursework – but who is he?
This might be a bit vague, but so much of the fun lies in the twists and turns that to reveal more would spoil the episode. Like Lip Service, there are several options for where the story might go, and Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have a lot of fun coming up with various red herrings and potential outcomes. Is the mysterious stranger Zach’s dad? Or is this the writers’ version of Brimstone And Treacle, where a malevolent force insinuates himself into a family home? Or maybe he’s their guardian angel? The truth is something I didn’t see coming, with a development that completely changes the episode in a way that never feels forced or tacked on.
The first half feels like a spiritual successor to Love’s Great Adventure unfolding with well observed realism, linked by interjections from Shearsmith’s narrator explaining Newton’s Laws of Physics. The writers use physics in this episode in the same way they used cryptic crossword clues in The Riddle Of The Sphinx, and magic tricks in Misdirection, applying these principles to the central relationship, and the beats of the story itself.
Jessica Hynes is incredible as always; she’s vulnerable and poignant, beautifully portraying her character’s deep sadness – the little humiliated chuckle she does as Zach lashes out her is such a natural, human touch, and utterly heartbreaking, and her ever-so-slightly drunk acting is so believable. Noah Valentine is equally authentic as her hormonal son, selling his callous manner coupled with subtle expressions of regret when he goes too far.
Inside No. 9 has often been compared to Black Mirror, (much to the chagrin of Shearsmith especially!) but this is the only episode yet that really invites comparisons with Charlie Brooker’s series. In particular the combination of futuristic technology with a very human story, and the almost universal feeling of regretting your past actions. If I’m getting picky, I do wish the emotional side of things had been resolved properly rather than the plot fully taking over towards the end. This episode cries out for a longer runtime – the narrative twists and turns are full of potential, but can’t be neatly resolved in the closing moments. In a way this works, leaving a thought provoking, beautifully elliptical ending, but it’s so subtle that it’s easy to miss the devastating implications of that final shot.
The ending does have several neat touches that are almost twists but ambiguous enough to inspire more questions than answers. How did Hynes’ mug actually get knocked over? And where did the bird really come from?
One of the most enigmatic, quietly ambitious episodes so far, A Random Act Of Kindness is a definite step back towards greatness, in what has been an uneven series, but is one of those stories that works really well, with well judged pacing and characterisation and some truly heart-wrenching performances.