Poirot (Classic): S09E01 “Five Little Pigs”

Mais ouis, mes amis, but this week’s episode surely is perhaps the darkest, most bleak time spent with Our Belgian to date in the series as a whole. Fortunately for us, dear readers, it’s also one of the best in the entire shootin’ match, easily in my top 5 and if you think I’ve a bad thing to say about this one (or many jokes in the writeup, honestly), you’ll be sorely disappointed.

The Setup:

We’ve come a long way from the good-natured, affable hijinks of the early series, and the episode wastes no time in firmly announcing itself as a new era in Poirot; the old titles – and to a large extent the familiar theme – are gone entirely, with the episode instead opening silently with a new logo and credits playing over silence.

Cue the haunting, mournful music, and we see two different sequences juxtaposed throughout – in one, a 7-year old Lucy Crale gleefully rushes into the waiting arms of her loving mother and father, Caroline and Amyas Crale, while her aunt Angela snaps a picture of them, happy as can be.

In the second, Caroline Crale writes a letter in prison, then is led to the gallows, where she’s subsequently hooded and hanged for the murder by poison of husband Amyas.

Told you this was gonna be bleak.

The Crime:

Caroline Crale was tried and convicted of poisoning her artist husband Amyas, and not without good reason: ol’ Amyas was a bit of a rutter, see, and when his latest fling Elsa announces shamelessly to the household that Ammy’s going to ditch the missus in favor of her, one can hardly blame Caroline for stealing the vial of poison that later turns up in her dresser, or for poisoning her husband’s beer with it.

Fourteen years later, Lucy – having grown up with relatives in Canada – enlists Our Belgian to find out who really killed her father. She’s held on to a letter her mother wrote her from prison proclaiming her innocence, and now that she’s grown up and has money she’s determined to set the record straight.

And so begins a not-quite-Rashomon style cold-case murder mystery for Poirot, as he attempts to piece together the events of the fateful day so many years ago by interviewing the five people gathered at Casa de Crale that summer weekend so long ago.

The Suspects:

Well, there’s the vampiric femme fatale and subject of Ammy’s affection Elsa. Boyhood friend Phil Blake, now a hard-drinking stockbroker in London. Phil’s sensitive, emotional brother (and chemist) Meredith. Caroline’s little sister Angela and her governess Miss Williams round out the titular “pigs”, and it’s clear none of them have quite shaken off the events of the past.

And, friends, let me tell you, this cast knocks it out of the park, and very nearly the next park over. Because the investigation in the episode is really just a series of extended interviews, each one gets a chance to shine and really devour their characters; they’re simply magnetic in their individual one-on-ones with M. Poirot, and because of a neat directorial choice (more on this in a bit) we see them not only as they see themselves in the story but reflected through others’ retelling of the day in question.

What I’m getting at is when you have actors (Toby Stephens! Aidan Gillen! Marc Warren! Julie Cox! Gemma Jones!) this good playing parts this central in a plot that revolves entirely around their stories – there is no scene to investigate, no clues to be discovered – it’s a recipe for success, and it makes for a fascinating 90 minutes of television trying to discern who (if anyone) is lying about something.

Grey Cells:

Well, of course, almost everyone’s lying about something. We learn that Phil has had an unrequited(?) love for Ammy since childhood, Angela was trying to tamper with Ammy’s beer, Meredith fancied Elsa for himself, and Miss Williams actually saw Caroline trying to make the crime scene look like a suicide. As for that femme fatale?

Elsa overheard Ammy telling Caroline that despite Elsa’s proclamation that he was going to marry her, he was in fact going to kick her to the curb. So she stole the poison that Caroline had stolen (perhaps contemplating suicide herself), poisoned Ammy earlier in the day, then put the empty vial back in Caroline’s dresser.

Caroline, having discovered Angela on the verge of doing it herself, assumed when Ammy actually was poisoned that her sister had done it. Carrying guilt from a childhood altercation that left Angela disfigured and blind in one eye, she quickly attempted to stage the scene as a suicide to prevent Angela from being blamed and never said a word during her time in prison, dying believing herself to be repaying a debt to her sister.

Poirot confronts the group with the solution, but admits that as this is all conjecture the best he can do without evidence is present his case to the authorities; Lucy then pulls a gun on Elsa, who almost welcomes the chance to absolve herself in death. Poirot convinces Lucy to not go through with the murder, and everyone just kind of leaves dejectedly, damage done, as that haunting score plays again over the end credits.

Bleak, friends. Bleak.


Wot I Liked:

Pretty much everything here. Writer Kevin Elyot and director Paul Unwin wisely keep the source material’s conceit of Poirot solving this entirely through present day interviews, rather than trying to reframe this contemporarily with the crime (something that made the book stand out in its day, apparently).

Each suspect’s account is accompanied via flashbacks that are filmed largely in Law & Order-style shakicams, lending a jittery, dreamlike quality to the events that underscores the fact that these are really years-old potentially unreliable memories we’re witnessing. Further putting us in the suspects’ shoes, much of the dialogue to the storyteller is delivered straight to the camera, again inserting us directly into the narrative from their point of view.

It’s a great technique, especially juxtaposed with the familiar, stationary close-ups of Poirot and the suspect as they cut back to the present day.  While the flashbacks are filmed with a bright, summery, somewhat blurred focus around the edges, all of the present day scenes are sharp and colored darkly, with shadows and gloom; what little sunlight there is in these scenes serves only to make the characters pale and drawn instead of warm and bright. Stylistically, this thing is aces.

And perhaps best of all, this case is Poirot at his essence; using psychology and human nature to interpret events long since past, and refract dialogue through a prism that assumes that psychology drives those events, inferring and deducing things that nobody mentions through sheer intellect. Again – nary a proper clue in sight here, but that doesn’t stop him from neatly lining up each account of the murder next to each other, finding the gaps in the narrative, teasing out what’s left unsaid, then filling those remaining gaps in with his incomparable understanding of human beings.

I think it’s a fantastic episode, and while prior eps have been leading us here, “Five Little Pigs” is where the series makes a hard left into more serious and emotionally resonant adaptations going forward. There’s still plenty of fun to be had along the way – Ariadne Oliver is right around the corner to lend a more cynical version of Our Man’s sidekickin’ – but you’ll start to see more time given to the supporting casts, less frequent but arguably more impactful screen time for Suchet, and this is really where the series starts to feel like Prestige TV.

Wot I Not Liked:

Next Week, on Poirot: A wealthy aunt! A broken engagement! Another homewrecker! None other than the Eighth Doctor himself Paul McGann asks Poirot to investigate, but is he barking up the wrong tree? Find out in… “Sad Cypress”!