The Pale Horse is the latest in a quintet of Agatha Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps, including The Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None, and Ordeal by Innocence. In each, Phelps has updated the material (if not the setting) to often land on a different killer from Christie’s source material, or to come about the revelation in a new way. The Pale Horse, now available on Amazon Prime, is no different—but your mileage may vary on whether or not you think those changes are a positive.
The two-part miniseries takes place in 1960s London and focuses on the character of Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell), who finds out his name is on a list discovered in a dead woman’s shoe. Game on! But it’s very quickly apparent that most of the people whose names on the list are already dead, and there are more deaths to come. Further, though Mark tells Inspector Lejeune (Sean Pertwee) that there is no connection with other names on the list (save one nephew), we know otherwise. But as these victims’ hair starts falling out and they appear to die of natural causes, the question remains: what is the connection, and who is behind it?
The answer, revealed by villainous monologue, is that the supposedly innocuous shopkeeper Zachariah Osbourne (Bertie Carvel) has a mail-order murder business where he seeks out the greedy and removes “obstacles” from their lives using the untraceable poison thallium. There are innumerable differences between this adaptation and Christie’s book (which you can read in list form here), but perhaps most confounding are the revelations about Mark himself.
Firstly, Mark has been shifted from a protagonist to an unreliable narrator to a flat-out murderer, one who also emotionally abuses and gaslights his wife Hermia (Kaya Scoderlario). Careful crime show viewers will also know from the start that poison is involved in the deaths from the list, but that the fact that we don’t get too many clear details about the death of Mark’s first so-called beloved wife Delphine (Georgina Campbell) is a clue that Mark himself may be involved in all of it.
And so indeed he was, having blocked out the memory of knocking over the radio into the tub to kill Delphine and then covering it up as if he hadn’t been in the flat at the time. It mirrors his reaction to finding his lover Thomasina Tuckerton (Poppy Gilbert) dead when he wakes up with her, covering his tracks again and making it seem as if he had never been there.
These clues, even before we know the truth about Delphine’s death, might have already started to point to Mark certainly not being the hero in this story, but his rather sudden turn to telling the witches he wouldn’t mind selling his soul to the devil, looking a figure of Christ in the eye and whispering “punish me,” wishing death upon his wife and Inspector Jejune, and ultimately killing Osbourne and stumbling out into the sun looking happy is … quite a heel turn within 50 minutes of screen time.
That all brings us to the final shot, of Mark picking up a newspaper which seems to cryptically implicate him (“Another Greenbrook Tragedy”) while he watches Delphine down the hall plug in the radio and carry it into the bathroom. “Not again!” he calls out. So is Mark dreaming again? Is he in hell? Does it mean anything at all?
Whatever decent mystery is set up in the first half of The Pale Horse regarding a string of seemingly unrelated deaths is wiped away by a number of bizarre choices in its second half. Part of that is the increased role of the More Deeping’s resident “witches,” who Mark (and others) believe are behind these voodoo deaths from afar. It’s pretty muddled here as to the outcome Osbourne’s assistant desired when she incorporated the witches (since her ploy was so obtuse from the start), since of course they end up being virtuous if strange. Yet The Pale Horse is not content to leave them as a sleight-of-hand revelation; rather, the ending suggests that their presence in the hospital room means they had something to do with Hermia’s sudden full recovery, and possibly with Mark’s nightmare at the end. So … they do have powers? Ok?
Something else that’s never really addressed again are all of the people who hired Osbourne to kill their relations—Yvonne Tuckerton (Claire Skinner) and David Ardingly (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) being two—who all seem to get off scot-free as far as the law is concerned. Mark, for his part, is essentially a serial killer now, but his fate seems tied (perhaps) to the supernatural rather than the law. Osbourne’s motivations for “playing” with Mark also don’t make much sense; why jeopardize his business by dealing with him at all? Just because he saw him leave the scene at Thomasina’s?
The miniseries’ culmination makes one wonder what these final revelations were meant to actually evoke in terms of either emotion or storytelling satisfaction. The Pale Horse is as its title suggests—slight, fine, a little baffling. A wispy reimagining of a classic crime story, one that is updated with a few more notes of profanity and an amoral narrator twist. Did we need it? Probably not; like many recent Christie adaptations, The Pale Horse has a fantastic cast that, unfortunately, is also largely wasted. Then again—props where they are due—Sewell sells Mark’s demonic turn very well, using his suave, collected veneer increasingly as a sociopathic mask. A something should be said of Hermia, who should have been given the chance at a better revenge, which is where it looked like things were headed for a moment. Give me a spinoff of Hermia and the witches, taking down bad men! That’s the modern update we needed.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.