Poirot (Classic): SERIES FINALE – S13E05 “Curtain”

I’m not sure how to do this.

I’ve always been terrible at endings, which is why I have a bazillion “Chapter One” files in my unfinished stories folder, and precisely two in the “Finished” folder.

Endings are hard, though, and satisfying ones even more so; but they’re altogether necessary for a story to feel like a story instead of just a description of events, and there’s a good case to be made that knowing how a story – or a character – ends only expands the possibilities for good stories to be told later on, to fill in the spaces between the beginning and the ending with a deeper and richer resonance.

There’s also a case to be made, in the saga of Hercule Poirot, that Dame Agatha saved her best trick for “last”. “Last”, of course, is in quotes because while Curtain was indeed the final book published before Christie’s death and the final book featuring Poirot, it was written in the 1940s and kept in a vault for the next 30 years while she kept filling in those “in-between” spaces in his story.

And so in “Curtain” – there’s virtually no meaningful difference between the book and the adaptation, thankfully – we end where we begin: at Styles Court, scene of the first canonical Poirot story and he and Hastings’ first case together.

Neither Styles Court nor Poirot is anything but a wan, decaying reflection of what they once were, however. The house (now a summer hotel rental) is by turns cheaply run, understocked, and far less sumptuous than in prior, better days. Poirot himself (now confined to a wheelchair) is in ill temper and even worse health, with a heart problem and severe arthritis. The accommodations which he finds himself in are far below the posh hotels and richly decorated apartments of his youth. Here there’s nothing but bad food, tiresome guests (save one Judith Hastings, Our Man’s all-grown-up daughter), and uncomfortable beds.

Oh yes, and a serial killer in attendance that Poirot has come to Styles hunt down.

Summoning Hastings to their old solving ground, Our Belgian implores Our Man to be his eyes, ears, and legs so that he may root out once and for all the killer he knows to be among the guests.

And so we get the cast of long-since de rigeur suspects: a stuffy ex-military man, a cad, the elderly caretakers, a rich socialite in an unhappy marriage, an aloof man of science, help staff with suspicious actions, you know the sort.

Along the way there’s a non-lethal shooting and a definitely-lethal poisoning. Fine.

It’s fine because the plot – solution notwithstanding, and we’ll get there in a hot minute – is really besides the point when it comes to this episode, because it’s not entirely about solving the case, it’s about how the friendship and working partnership between Our Men changes and endures before one of them dies, and how one man’s morality reaches its own reckoning.

Hastings, for his part, is still in mourning over the death of his wife, and it’s clear it’s had an effect on his relationship with Judith; admittedly terrible in matters of the heart (and perhaps overcompensating for not having been more of a part of her earlier life), he fumes at seeing aforementioned cad Major Allerton romancing his daughter. Upon learning that Allerton has a history of breaking hearts and leaving girls vulnerable (which I can only assume was a euphemism for ‘pregnant’), he becomes overprotective and argues with Judith over her choices. At one point, Our Man, determined to keep her from getting hurt, makes a fateful decision and makes ready to commit murder himself, to poison Allerton and settle the question entirely.

His friend Poirot, however, isn’t having it, and steps in to keep his friend from crossing the point of no return (in typical Poirot fashion, by drugging Hastings’ hot chocolate). He can’t let his friend become the same kind of monster he’s spent his life hunting down.

A hunt, incidentally, that has taken its toll on Poirot. His declining health means he’s running out of time to capture this one last monster at Styles Court, and he hasn’t the luxury of putting up with Hastings’ usual nonsense and wrong conclusions. He’s more venal in his discussion with Hastings than we’ve ever seen him — insulting him to his face without bothering to couch it in wordplay, genuinely angry when Hastings refuses to follow his instructions, and there’s hardly any trace left of the genial, generous person we’ve come to know and love.

But he’s still there for his friend to prevent him from murdering Allerton, and he’s there for his friend when he testifies at the inquest of Mrs. Franklin’s death by poison that she was suicidal – so that the police wouldn’t turn their attention to his daughter Judith, who had been having an affair with Dr. Franklin.

And he’s there for his friend even in death, leaving him a lockbox full of clues to help Hastings solve the suspicious suicide of fellow guest Steve Norton – found dead, shot in the forehead – that happens shortly before Poirot himself dies of a heart attack, in his final moments reaching not for his medicine, but for his crucifix.

But Our Man’s gonna Our Man, and he can’t make head nor tail of the clues. Four months later, however, he receives a posthumous letter from his dear friend explaining the solution to his final case.

Grey Cells:

The serial killer being hunted was Steve Norton. Not a killer of normal means, but one who had a gift for manipulation and persuasion, of telling people lies and exaggerations and half-truths in just such a way as to lead them into committing murder. Responsible for manipulating three other people into murder prior to the events at Styles Court, he had also convinced the elderly caretaker Luttrell into shooting his wife with a rook rifle, Mrs. Franklin into poisoning her husband (which went spectacularly wrong when Our Man idly revolved the teacups around so she ended up poisoning herself), and stoked the fires that led Hastings to consider attempted murder himself.

Poirot, of course, had twigged to all this, and in the letter to Hastings reveals that Norton did not take his own life, but rather – Poirot had murdered him.

Never as wheelchair-bound as he’d led everyone to believe, he invited Norton to his room where he confronts him with the truth; after a tense conversation, he drugs Norton with the same chocolat au sleeping powder he’d used on Hastings, then carries him to his room, lays him down on the bed and shoots him square in the forehead (being Poirot, his OCD wouldn’t allow for an off-center wound and blood spatter, which is just delightfully in character).

And so, nearing death, determined to keep fulfilling his lifelong mission, Poirot makes the choice that his friend cannot – to take that final step and become the monster he hunts. He prays for forgiveness, because there are simply no options left to him. There’s no evidence to convict Steve Norton, and no sign that his murder-by-proxy won’t continue unabated long after Poirot dies. To kill Steve Norton, he reasons, is to save dozens of other people from becoming that monster themselves, the way he saves Hastings.

It’s the point of inflection the series overall has been leading to, and for Poirot in many ways the only logical conclusion; having failed to prevent so many (so many) murders in the past, he can now act as judge, jury, and executioner knowing his time is up, and will be ultimately be judged by his God; he’s arrogant enough to make that choice, and we’ve seen enough of him prior to this in his beliefs about humanity and the sanctity of life to know that he understands the line he’s about to cross – and he’s willing to be damned for it.

One can easily imagine this as an off-brand Patricia Highsmith story, with Norton as the ostensible narrator, letting his slithering tongue and adeptness at working the margins of peoples’ fears and desires setting up the dominoes before circumstance gives them a final push – though it’s never sold as convincingly here as it could have been, relying on viewers to take his skill and the danger he represents mostly on faith. Poirot’s decision seems a little bit less necessary since aside from a (stunning) confrontation near the end Norton never really seems like a wicked evil genius worthy of Poirot’s final act.

One can also see this as a counterpart to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with its final twist swerving in the direction that would have been no less shocking than that of its predecessor had it been published in the ’40s. In today’s world of anti-heroes, it comes off as still unexpected but less of an outlier.

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Suchet, for his part, is magnificent throughout (and we finally get to see him without his fake moustache!), and Hugh Fraser is similarly amazing in showing us an older Hastings who’s no less lost at sea than his younger self, perhaps even more impulsive and emotional than in his youth.

The episode itself takes its sweet time, drawing out events and infusing the proceedings with the ticking clock of Poirot’s heart; we know there’s only so much time left with these characters, and the script plays that up for every minute it’s worth, creating a sense of urgency in the viewer to get on with it; but it’s not to be rushed, and I was just as hurt as Hastings was when Poirot excoriates him for being an idiot — I didn’t want our final moments spent in discord with these guys.

Poirot’s final moments are relatively underplayed; choosing the end as contrition for his act is about as big as it gets, but there’s no drawn out laboring, instead choosing to focus on Hastings’ reaction and shock, then quickly cutting forward to four months later. A good choice, because the real Denouement of the episode is Suchet’s narration and flashback as Hastings reads the letter sent to him explaining the solution. This recounting of events is infused with the Poirot we’ve come to love; patient, explanatory, cheeky, and warm despite the actual events it describes. Perfect for our real last moments with this character.

It’s not the best last episode ever, but it’s the only one that would make sense for the series. No indefinite conclusion that leaves further adventures to the imagination, no last-minute reprieve of our heroes, no Reichenbach Falls to magically return from having “died” offscreen; just a definitive end to the character’s story. There’s still plenty of space to fill in between the beginning and the end, should one wish; but the boundaries have been set. It’s all too rare in series, doubly so in detective series. I applaud it.

But as mentioned, endings are hard, and satisfying conclusions doubly so. Two years (!) ago when I started this series, I was unsure if I’d have the time and commitment to make it to the end, but I knew I needed to keep up some sort of avenue for my own writing, and this seemed as good a place as any to be able to keep that muscle in shape. A lot (obvs) has happened in those two years in the Real World (TM), but we did it, somehow.

In this damnable year especially — a year where so many (so many) connections were strained, broken, forgotten, or outright lost — I am grateful for this tiny place, our little club, where each week (uh, relatively speaking) we could celebrate a shared connection over something as trivial as an old television show. Talking about Poirot wasn’t just nerding out for me, it became a way to force myself to keep interacting with the outside world, to remember that there is still joy to be found in celebrating things we like, even when – maybe especially when – the list of “things we like” gets vanishingly smaller in the face of current events and an expanding awareness of everything wrong with The Real World (TM).

We’ve come a long way since that hoo-ha with a trunk and the mysterious case of that cook wot worked for the Claphams.

And it is with profound thanks and humility that this series ends on the Avocado. I’m grateful for each and every comment and eyeball that graced these pages (lurkers, you are seen), and so, so appreciative of your time and interest and letting me write too many words about this series and these books. It’s been a joy to revisit the show and share the enthusiasm (and sometimes disappointment) with you all, and I’m genuinely humbled by your appreciation and conversation.

Sometimes it’s been a slog (lookin’ at you, Series 10), but I’ll miss our weekly(ish) time together, and look forward to interacting with all or some of you in other places here on the ‘Cado. I’m playing Werewolf on the regular now, which has been great. And I’m pondering another “rewatch” series, perhaps the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, or perhaps something a shade more modern, like Fringe, another show I adore and have been meaning to rewatch – I don’t know yet. We’ll see after the new year arrives (and feel free to make suggestions in the comments).

Until then, I think my own personal opinion on this exercise is probably best summed up by Dame Agatha herself, in Poirot’s final words to his friend Hastings:

“Yes, they were good days.”