Rake: “Cannibal” (Episode 1.04)

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Rake: “Cannibal” (Episode 1.04)

Ever on the lookout for a way to trim his debt, Kee asks his brilliant (if possibly insane) client for an investment tip. The client, Graham, suggests Kee load up on “Australian iron ore”—reminding us that Rake began life down under as a similar series, although one with a rougher, less likable lead. Peter Duncan, the creator of the original series and guiding force of the U.S. version, may be encoding a message to his masters at Fox: the closer the American show hews to its raw Australian origins, the better.

“Cannibal” was the original pilot of Rake, but was swapped out with a tamer, more winsome episode, apparently because Fox feared Kee’s bad habits (and his anthropophagic client) might turn off viewers. While I’ve been hoping for more willingness to work dark from Rake, this episode’s advantage is not so much that it has more edge, but that it doesn’t show the same compulsion to apologize for that edge by making Kee pitiable.

With a willingness to let Kee be Kee, “Cannibal” integrates Rake’s elements much more confidently. Both he and the show know themselves better. The necessary rawness lies less in the show’s tone than in Kee’s emotional exposure and his own awareness of his failures. If the show’s a little tougher going, it’s also much funnier, in no small part due to that honesty.

The American show may indeed need to diverge from the Australian version, but that’s more about tailoring the show to its star than tailoring the show to its audience. Rake stands or falls with Greg Kinnear, so if he’s not as brooding or brutal as he could be, then there has to be another way to locate the genial, charming Kee in the disaster of his life. A terrible person doing terrible things can be gripping, if not especially surprising. But there’s something naggingly compelling in an emotionally unexceptional human being doing terrible emotional things.

Mikki sees this truth in Kee, pointing out that he is, in a sense, too weak to be weak. The swashbuckling sinner he sets out to be is undercut by his need to be liked or understood. He didn’t visit Mikki to indulge in a sex fantasy he can’t have with the other women in his life; as she observes, his fantasy is just to have a female friend with no complications. That image of Kee—his essentially nice-guy impulses compromised by his carousing—fits Kinnear’s persona.

Less clueless than caught up in his compulsions, Kee even achieves a few moments of Zen. Maddy accuses him of carrying on with their son’s English teacher, just when the kid has “finally found a teacher he enjoys.” Kee, realizing he’ll have to take a bullet for Finn (who’s actually having the affair), offers a lawyerly “I’ll concede that.” But he also knows he’s not up to resisting Maddy’s grilling for long, so he persuades Finn to confess.

Kee’s case this week also benefits from its connection with his inner turmoil. Not only does Graham actually stand a chance of being convicted, the defense Kee concocts means changing the jury’s perception of someone who’s apparently morally unsalvageable. Though Kee hasn’t descended to cannibalism yet, the episode makes a slightly strained but ambitious argument that his own (sexual) taste for flesh stems from a similarly dark need.

On a less heavy level, Kee’s relationships with Ben and Scarlet work better, less as afterthoughts than in the last episode. At Ben’s father’s funeral, Kee and Scarlet have a nice exchange, easily combining their attraction (“Black suits you”) with Kee’s depressive streak (“That’s why I prefer funerals to weddings.” “Me too. Gives you a sense of finality. Weddings are so inconclusive”). Overall, we’re getting more of a feel for the secondary characters in the series without spending too much time with them, although Jules, Mikki’s pimp, seems strangely well-developed—from his snazzy caftan to his pampered attack dogs—for someone with no apparent place in Kee’s story now that Mikki has moved on to law school.

Incidentally, Kee’s weakness for betting sports (the Achilles’ heel of many a poker player) comes up again at the funeral. More accurately, Kee is weak at betting sports—he better hope his bookie didn’t get that bet down on the Packers-Vikings under 36. Betting against Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson, and parlaying with the Redskins? You deserve to get your legs broken. Friendly neighborhood strongman Roy goes a little easier, though, relieving Kee of his rotting, highly metaphorical molar (that’s what too much sugar gets you, loverboy).

Most of the supporting characters have both a professional and personal link with Kee, but his secretary, Leanne, doesn’t have much of a life outside helping him stay afloat. I’m not sure if that makes the role the most thankless or the softest gig on the show. She basically exists to drop droll British witticisms about Kee and his clients, but then again, her near-subliminal, riffing commentary gives her some of the show’s funnier lines.

Kee’s legal acumen improves in “Cannibal”, too, as he figures out that the video confession from his client’s supposed victim (revealing it wasn’t murder but suicide) was sent to his sister. Although this is the first episode Kee isn’t paid in food—thank god, given what his client might have in the fridge—it can’t be said the show’s obsession with food and hunger are scanted here. The cannibalism theme ranges from the comic (Eat Mor Peepul) to the poetic (in Graham’s courtroom soliloquy) to the grotesque, as the video confession ends with the lines: “Tell dad—tell him he was right all along. He always said I was crap. And now I will be.” The lines are so awful (in both the “horrifying” and “ridiculous” senses) but played so straight-faced as to just about work.

With Graham repenting of his flesh obsession, there’s still one more man-eater on the loose. Kee’s stalker, Margaret (another member of Kee’s M-menagerie) tries to run him down with her car. Margaret has yet to be seen, and maybe should remain so: a spirit of vengeance, an unappeasable fury out of Kee’s romantic past. Or is that too dark?

Depends who you ask. But there are dumb gambles and there are smart, calculated risks. Here, daring to preserve the more disturbing and difficult elements of the original series might be the smart money. As he leaves the courtroom, Graham insists Kee capitalize on the tip to invest in Australian iron ore. Those raw materials, properly mined, are gold.