Wherein Manny leaves Black Books for another store, Bernard’s life falls to pieces, and Fran tries to put it all back together again
Original airdate: 3/11/2004
Hey everyone, welcome to the final series of Black Books. It’s been fun watching all of these episodes; looking at what works, what quotes stick out in our collective consciousness, what makes this show so enjoyable. It’s such a simple show but its pleasures are evergreen. Series 3 is the one that seems to have stuck less in my memory, so I’ll be looking forward to watching some of these episodes with a relatively new set of eyes.
As I’ve alluded to in past reviews, there’s really at best a weak nod to continuity in Black Books. Plots get recycled as deemed appropriate for the episode. My sense is that the writers tended to go with what works best for the characters, even if continuity-wise it’s sorta wonky. So, while the series 2 finale ended with Bernard wanting to go on holiday, Fran ready to crash at home and Manny still working at the shop while Goliath Books looms ominously in the background; series 3 opens with Fran returning from holiday, Manny already de-camped to Goliath Books, and Bernard more miserable than ever.
In many ways, it’s like an episode crafted in response to an entirely different episode. As if season 2 ended almost entirely differently. Fran’s story in this episode is mostly about how, in her absence, Bernard and Manny’s acrimonious Odd-Couple relationship was so damaged that Manny quit (again). These are more familiar grounds for the characters. Having Bernard leave for a holiday by himself is a good laugh line to go out on, but I can’t imagine a lot for Bernard to do with that coming into series 3. For status quo reasons it makes more sense to re-visit the toxic co-dependence between Manny and Bernard.
And that odd co-dependence comes into play even in Manny’s new workplace. Manny, tired of Bernard’s abuses and seeking more respect from his employer, has joined Goliath Books. An orderly, efficient book shop of the sort we’ve seen Manny gravitate towards in the past. Having a ‘duty-to-do’ card and all of the other conformist aspects of the environment (business casual clothing, odd team speak and business jargon) would probably also be very familiar to the former accountant. But as we know, despite perks like automatic muffin dispensers, Manny’s not great in high-pressure environments, so its not surprising that there’s very little time in the episode where we’re even given to think that this is a good match for him.
Manny’s new boss, Evan (Simon Pegg!), is, in a word, demonic. Right from the get-go, his passive-aggressiveness toward Manny is so paper-thin that it may as well be aggressive-aggressive. Bernard may torture Manny or insult him for his appearance but it’s almost always with a twisted, never-would-admit-it, sort of affection, Evan does it with a sadist’s glee. There’s a contempt to Evan, all he sees in Manny is something to mold and bring under his heel. His demeanor only barely masking a burning, stinging contempt for how Manny comports himself. Simon Pegg is having a ball here, every look, every gesture, every line, he just loves being a miserable bastard to Bill Bailey. He might be the closest that the series has to an actual villain and he only appears in this one episode. It’s a wonderful performance.
Bernard’s, of course, let the shop fall prey mollusks and badgers with Manny and Fran gone. It’s a remarkable breakdown considering that Fran was only in Cornwall for a couple of weeks. It’s the usual sort of falling apart Bernard experiences though. He can’t admit that he messed up with Manny and now he’s incapable of caring for himself. He spends his days leering though a hole in the wall at his prodigal son while he sustains himself on mushrooms in his hair. When falling ill, he resolves that if oven cleaner can clean an oven, it could certainly clean him. Yet through it all Bernard maintains his pride, insistent on prolonging the fight even when Manny attempts to apologize.
Fran, of course, has no place to be. I think one of the things that’s remained consistent for her as a character is knowing that their lives only work when they’re all together. Trying to convince either to come around separately doesn’t work. It’s a lesson they learned when Manny left home the first time, and it’s one she tries (and fails) to deliver this time around. In visiting Goliath Books, Fran comes up against Evan, a foe so implacable he puts out her cigarette in his palm (and enjoys it). I do love her scene in the playhouse there, where she once again pulls out her Manny and Bernard impressions for the two make-shift puppets. She needs Manny and Bernard like they need each other, she’s just more honest about it. Hilariously, Bernard and Manny come to an agreement that Fran’s only interrupting their fight because it’s hurting her daily routine.
All is resolved when Manny finally has enough of Evan’s demands. Chased back to Black Books by a clippers-wielding Evan, Manny looks for Bernard to defend him. Sadly, Bernard’s blows do nothing but disgust Evan as he storms back to his book store. Evan then (probably) dies from his Duty To Do Card-based security system and we never hear from Goliath Books ever again. Fran, meanwhile, is about to pack and move to Cornwall before she realizes everything is back to normal. Threat to status-quo averted!
This episode is hilarious, if a little disappointing to me. I’ve always been a continuity-obsessed person and so while I can acknowledge that this is how the show operates, it’s never not going to bother me. I think there was a chance to go with something different and they changed it at the last minute to have it be a more standard episode. And that’s still fine! It’s still very funny. I just have to assume that they couldn’t come up with anything better where Bernard had been the one who left. Ah well, great lines, great guest star, all around great start to series 3.
Sorry for the week gap in reviews. I was laid up with the flu last weekend
- In Spaced, Bill Bailey of course played Simon Pegg’s boss, Bilbo Bagshot. Bilbo was a far less sadistic boss, only firing Pegg’s character Tim because he wouldn’t let go of how bad The Phantom Menace was.
- I really love the conceit that without Manny around, Bernard and the shop immediately fall into an (even worse) state of squalor. The presence of dead badgers is a new one though I’ll grant you.
- The latest round of Manny running away came about from Bernard introducing Manny’s hand to a sandwich toaster. The burn is covered by bandage Manny wears for the rest of the episode.
- Evan’s probably more malicious the more he uses corporate buzzwords. Using concepts like teamwork or cooperation are just marginally nicer ways of getting someone to do even more demeaning tasks. Manny, for his part, actually took it to mean Evan wanted his input, which is might be even worse.
- Evan want Manny to look like this:
- Bernard: Get your own Human Plaything!
- Bernard: Manny, I’m sorry… I’m sorry I ever let you in here, to rob me of my best years before leaving me a burnt out husk.
- Bernard: Look at him! He’s half Iago, Half Fu Manchu, all bastard!
- Evan: What do you see when you look at me, Manny? I’ll tell you what. You see me and you think to yourself, “Hey! There’s Evan. He’s a young guy. He listens to the Stereophonics, he rides a scooter – LETS SEE HOW FAR I CAN PUSH HIM!”
I don’t know what is about that line, maybe it’s the specificity of the Stereophonics, but it just kills me.
Streaming? How Do?
Black Books is available for streaming via Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime, and the Channel 4 website for UK viewers.