David Tennant Is a Brilliant Barrister in 'The Escape Artist'

Lesley Smith

Will (David Tennant) may be his chambers' most promising barrister, but he's flamboyant and ruthless only in the courtroom.

The Escape Artist

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: David Tennant, Toby Kebbell, Sophie Okonedo, Ashley Jensen, Gus Barry
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: PBS
Director: Brian Welsh
Air date: 2014-06-15

In their book, Law and Popular Culture,” Michael Asimow and Shannon Madder describe two definitions of justice. The first, substantive justice, delivers to individuals what they are due: “The guilty have been convicted, and appropriately punished: the innocent set free.” Procedural justice, on the other hand, guarantees that all correct procedures are followed, to protect the rights of all involved, for "even when we claim to be certain about what happened, it can still be hard to know for sure what would be a 'correct', 'just', or a 'moral' response.”

This will sound familiar to viewers of TV crime shows: over the last 30 years, fiction shows, along with reality television and news, have bombarded viewers with storylines that either celebrate fidelity to procedure or make clear an individual's perception of systemic injustice. Increasingly, say, in the past decade, TV shows are suggesting that the law is incapable of delivering justice as any layperson would understand it, and that extra-legal action is the only remedy available to the individual.

The BBC’s The Escape Artist, premiering on PBS on 15 June, offers yet another approach to the dilemma. Specifically, it offers a sophisticated approach. Following junior barrister Will Burton (David Tennant), the show underscores the subtle mechanics of everyday life, in order to show an oscillation between innocence and threat. Toward that end, Tennant reminds us here that he is never typical protagonist material. Skinny, sharp-featured, and just a little bit gangly, Will looks like any unabashed contemporary father and husband, donning the uniform of professional life when needed, but just as happy in a hoodie and jeans.

His capacity for straddling worlds is matched by his wife Kate (Ashley Jensen), whose beauty is the sort glimpsed for a heartbeat on a busy street rather than fixed for public consumption in a glossy glamor shot. (Both actors deliver low-key performances against the series' equally subdued locations and lighting.) The Burtons might live in a luxurious penthouse apartment, and weekend in a secluded cottage, but they twine LED mini-lights round their son Jamie’s (Gus Barry) bedroom and pin his drawings to the wall. The first social event viewers see in their home is Jamie’s birthday party, a scene that is positively archaic in its focus on the kids’ eating and parents’ talking, and in the total absence of music, spectacle, and catered cuisine.

Transparent blue-grey light filters over almost every scene featuring Will, as if the piece were shot in available light. (It’s not, of course: each shot is far too crisp, focused, and complex.) The chambers where Will works feature neither mahogany tombs nor plate-glass temples to conspicuous wealth. None of the lawyers indulges in voyeuristic obsession with graphic photographs of mutilated women and tortured bodies, even when they're trying such crimes. The only false note in the mise-en-scène is the disinclination of any character, including a woman who bathes naked in a moonlit bathroom, to screen any window at night. Such access does rather give away that something nasty is going to appear on the other side of the glass sooner rather than later.

This misstep aside, the series' careful fidelity to lived experience is critical to our understanding of Will. He may be his chambers' most promising barrister, but he is flamboyant and ruthless only in the courtroom. Modest among his family and slightly insecure in his social life, so it is a modest mistake that precipitates his descent into hell. For Will is not who he claims to be.

Throughout The Escape Artist's early scenes, Will reiterates his commitment to procedural justice, his belief that everyone, however heinous the crime alleged, however guilty he might appear, deserves a defence. At first, nothing in his latest case, the trial of Liam Foyle (Toby Kebell), a disengaged bird fancier accused of the violent murder of a young woman, disturbs that confidence. Through the clever manipulation of a legal technicality, Will secures the dismissal of the jury and Liam’s release, but by then, his exposure to Foyle over the weeks of preparation for the trial have left him not only unsure of his client's innocence, but also repelled by his affectless bonhomie and gratitude.

When Liam proffers his hand in a congratulatory shake as they leave the courtroom, Will ignores it, pauses, and turns away with a tight smile. Like the heroes of ancient Greek tragedy, he reacts as a human being at precisely the wrong time. His own failure to be the lawyer he claims to be, and enact the principles he espouses, initiates an accelerating spiral of passion, deceit and death.

As viewers, we quickly learn how fast, and how deeply, the ripples from Will’s momentary error will disrupt not simply the closed worlds of his chambers and his tightly knit family, but also his moral compass that dictates equal justice for all. This drama occurs on well-worn televisual territory, and it loads the emotional bases in favor of its protagonist from the get-go with a splurge of melodrama, albeit restrained. But The Escape Artist is unusually willing not to let the audience off the hook, and instead, to help us understand that the pursuit of substantive justice may prove as dangerous as the crimes it seeks to right.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.