Black Books Series 3, Episode 6: “Party”

In which truths are revealed that are as bitter as a Beetroot Liqueur.

Original air date: 4/15/2004

And here we are at last. It’s funny that the final episode of Black Books is a bottle episode . The series has never had a wide range of settings, most episodes are centered in or around the shop.  The characters have dealt with unpleasant truths, they’ve exploded at each other, but never restricted to the same setting and plot.

It’s Friday night. Manny wants to go to a party, Fran always up for a new chance at connection, jumps at it but Bernard, per usual, doesn’t want to go. It’s been made clear before that Manny and Fran do go out, sometimes together, and have fun so I find the contrivances to get Bernard to come along a little forced. It’s fine though, Manny’s very anxious about getting to better know a girl, Rowena, and he doesn’t want to give the wrong impression by appearing with Fran. Now, I think it’s made obvious here and in other episodes Fran probably wouldn’t be “hovering” around Manny, I think she’d more likely be dancing or creepily hitting on someone, but I’ll roll with it. In any case, Bernard’s deceived into going to the party, and we pick up only on the aftermath.

Bernard’s made a mess of things at a party before, I’m thinking specifically of “The Blackout”. In that episode, it was his casual alcoholism horrifying normal people. Here, it’s his antisocial nature combined with his raging jealousy over Manny,  maybe, possibly, growing up and finding someone to be with. It’s implied that Bernard’s miserable attitude towards the entire affair hastened their exit. I suppose it it could’ve been worse; Belly Savales could’ve been involved.

They leave the party stinking drunk and looking to get a little worse. Manny’s miserable because he believes he blew his chance with Rowena, having failed to A) impress her and B), in a George Costanza-esque gesture, to place a personal possession of his behind for her to bring back to him. Manny’s wrong about this though, at least the not-impressing her part. By focusing on the object leaving plan. he failed to notice that she was following him around because she was into him.

Manny’s pity party kicks off an honest discussion about why Bernard is the way he is.  Bernard long ago gave up on it, scornfully throughout the show’s run deriding Fran and Manny’s attempts at bettering themselves or connecting with others. The number of times he’s turned out to be correct in regards to, say Fran’s follies, should not be taken as writ that he’s right though. If there’s any sort of theme that ties Black Books together it is whether making connections in life are actually worth the struggle, the pain, and the rejection.

Bernard’s claims that this all stems from the “death” of his fiancée, Emma, is perhaps a little disingenuous on his part. He may not realize it, but Fran learned that Emma felt so trapped by this relationship with  Bernard she had to pretend that she was dead. He’s always been weird this confirms, but he probably wasn’t always cynical about love and friendship and that’s heartbreaking. It’s hard enough trusting people when you’re weird and antisocial in the first place. However, I suspect that given Bernard’s own ego and his incredulity at Fran’s damning list of evidence that Emma was, in fact, alive, that he wouldn’t be able to accept fault in the relationship anyway. What choice is there for Fran other than to try to keep it a secret from him?  The fact is that she may well be right about Bernard’s heart being flint; because if you hit flint hard enough, all you leave are hard, razor sharp fragments.

When Bernard learns of this, clearly wounded,  he immediately unloads all of the secrets he’s been keeping from everyone about a certain Enid Katzenjammer. Bernard’s secrets are petty and are employed out of spite and the discussion devolves into two old friends really trying to tear each other down. Bernard once again zeroing in on Fran’s desperation for some kind, any kind of relationship with a financially stable man, Fran’s reposte involves reading a passage from Bernard’s short stories. Even Manny’s dragged into it by the revelation that Bernard, perhaps out of fear of losing him to something else, tore up Manny’s acceptance letter to the Open University.

The bitter recriminations are ended when Rowena shows up at the shop. As Manny goes off “upstairs” with her, Bernard and Fran patch things up. The episode winds down in a tender fashion. Bernard covers Fran with his coat as she’s passed out on his couch. He and Fran may never find happiness, but they’ll always have each other. Manny and Rowena engage in the Underpants Charleston, and Bernard gets some much needed closure by calling his supposedly dead girlfriend.

This episode encapsulates so many great things about the series. As much as there’s some sadness and bitterness to the episode, the jokes are a mile a minute and it never quite feels like a finale. Bill Bailey gets to play a musical instrument as he uses a tin whistle to accompany Fran’s impromptu Gaelic ballad. Manny’s anxiety also propels the action in this episode.  Tamsin Greig gets to indulge in some of Fran’s best gags, using her gift for physical comedy in Fran’s dancing, or craning her head about to get Manny and Bernard to notice her hairstyle, and one last bit of Cracked Fran when she sings said Irish ditty upon their return to the shop. Dylan Moran gets the best lines, he gets to go from zero to incandescent rage once or twice, but there’s also some sadness and vulnerability to his performance which we don’t see very often. The only time you ever see Bernard quite so vulnerable other than when he reveals he’s been in mourning, is when he’s completely out of his element. It’s subtle and quite nice.

As sad as I am that this was, indeed, the final episode, I believe it ended on a high note. I suppose it helps that the way the episode is written, the show doesn’t really end. There isn’t a finality to it. There are feints toward change: Manny with a girl, Bernard dealing with a past trauma, but there’s nothing permanent to it. There’s nothing about this episode that says it couldn’t have come back in a year. It’s done in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. It’s thoroughly satisfying to think that things just kind of continued on without comment. Maybe things changed, maybe they didn’t. It’s doesn’t matter.

Black Books is an incredibly watchable series, grounded in great jokes, wonderful chemistry between the main actors, and a gleeful cynicism. The fact that it could get by almost entirely on its core cast of three characters is a testament to how solid the series is. Basically any episode can be a good introduction to the show. There are times my Netflix attuned brain is bothered by its indifference to continuity, but then I brush it off. Its all in good fun, and excellent to sit and re-watch.

I’ve enjoyed re-capping and reviewing this series for you all. It’s been an interesting experiment. I know I’ve probably gone down a few rabbit holes here and there, but I appreciate everyone that’s come along on this journey with me. If there’s anyone out there who started watching it for the first time, please share your perspective on the series! I’ll probably review another series in the future, I haven’t decided what but ideas include Garth Marenghi’s DarkPlace, Man To Man with Dean Learner, among others. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to post them. I’m going to take a bit of a break but when I’m ready to start, I’ll post in the day thread or something to let everyone know what it’ll be.

Streaming? How Do?

Black Books is available for streaming via Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon Prime. It is available through the Channel 4 website for UK viewers.

Stray Observations

  • This is a bottle episode and Fran, Manny, and Bernard are either always holding, or close to, a bottle of booze.
  • Chalkboard gag: “CAN’T”
  • The open sign on the door, instead of saying ‘closed’ on both sides, now says ‘open’ on both sides.
  • Never noticed this before, but the bookshelf behind Bernard’s desk apparently belonged to a hospital library at some point.
  • Fran’s bottle of booze is Bludge. Manny’s is “Delicio’s Beetroot Liqueur”, Bernard’s is like a “choc ice fell into a bottle of bleach”. It looks like a bottle of fortified wine like Mad Dog 2020 to me. Never a good decision.
  • Manny’s topic of choice for flirty conversation? Offshore Wind Farms.
  • Seinfeldisms: Manny’s anxiety about not going to the party  with the proper number of people/his trick of leaving something behind. Also, Fran could give Elaine a run for her money in the bad dancing department.
    •  Actually, all three could, especially if it’s set to Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”.
  • Bernard’s parents are alive and they know that Bernard’s fiancée, Emma, isn’t dead since Fran told them.
  • How Fran found out about Emma not being dead is a ‘Fran trying to better herself’ subplot that was never to be. She takes up a new exercise routine called “Circ-Cise” an exercise class run by a clown where she meets Emma and discovers a horrible truth.
  • I love that Bernard’s short stories are shameless self-inserts:
    • “Feared by men and admired by women, Brendan Blake turned from the  window and patted Larry, ‘his barely hominoid, milk-fed gimp.'”

Quotable Quotes

Fran’s Irish Folk Song

Oh, Eamonn, Danny dear   I miss the Galway Bay 

And I’ll sing for all I got 

And a riddle-diddle Dublin and a riddle-diddle Donegal 

The English are all bollocks

Manny: This is the stuff Napoleon would have drunk if he’d been a bit strapped and he couldn’t get anything else.

Manny: It’s Friday night!

Bernard: Well it was Friday night last week, it’ll be Friday night next week and every week until we’re dead and even then the whole rotten business will on and on and on.

Bernard: Who is she then, this so-called person?

Bernard: Roweena! Roweeeeena! And what am I supposed to do while you’re doing the Underpants Charleston with this insane, blind tart?

Fran: Can’t you just call her up and say ‘I really enjoyed talking to you last night and I’d like to see you again’? EXCELLENT QUESTION FRAN

Manny: Fran, get the wine.

Fran: Sure.

Bernard: What? Lies! Subterfuge! Seething corruption!

Manny: You you you’re some kind of superior species, aren’t you? Homo Bernardus. Scorning every fool who believes in happiness.

Behold, every conversation about cell phones for the next twenty years

Fran: Look, Bernard, look at my new phone. It’s got web access, it’s got a camera, it can do everything.

Bernard: Can it stop boring conversations?

Fran: No, none of them can do that.

Bernard on a landline: Mine can. Shut up about your phone.