On the surface, Rufus Sewell’s character Mark Easterbrook in “Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse” has it all — in the most polished TV sense imaginable. It’s 1960s London, and he’s a very successful antiques dealer; he has an endless collection of trendy slim-cut suits; he lives in one of those row houses that make tourists gawp; he’s got a car James Bond would envy and a beautiful wife.
But appearances are deceiving, because he’s falling apart at his impressively tailored seams. Women he’s slept with keep dying, and the police just told him that he’s on some kind of hit list created by a very successful and mysterious and, who knows, maybe supernatural serial killer. On top of that next-level weirdness, his hair is starting to fall out in chunks. Is Mark the “pale horse” referenced in the Book of Revelation — Death, the final horseman of the apocalypse? Or is Death coming for Mark because of the incredible number of people he’s wronged?
Thanks to his profound narcissism and arrogance — I mean, it’s earned, you guys have seen Sewell in a vintage suit, right? I know you have, because I picked the photo for this review — Mark is essentially unfazed by his first wife and his mistress dying until the wicker man and corn dollies start appearing around him. And in our post-”Midsommar” world, everyone knows that’s when things are going to start getting real.
This is both the good and the bad of “The Pale Horse” on Amazon Prime Video. It leans in hard to the contrast between slick, successful Carnaby Street-curious Mark and the visceral pagan folk horror of the English countryside. The costumes and production design are great, a tricky mix of expensive class signifiers and rustic vintage elements without being twee. But ultimately, this back-and-forth switch between these settings and scenarios, motives and motivations comes at the expense of crafting a plausible, earned ending to the core mystery.
Airing as two episodes in the U.S. on Amazon Prime starting March 13, this is the third Agatha Christie adaptation originally done for the BBC by executive producer Sarah Phelps; she previously served as EP on 2015’s “And Then There Were None” and 2018’s “The ABC Murders.” (More recently, she was the showrunner on the gloriously creepy “Dublin Murders” on Starz.)
“Pale Horse” is definitely one of the most woo-woo of Christie’s detective stories with an unusually significant dash of body horror added in, but this TV adaptation doubles down on it with the Wiccan-adjacent atmospherics. A balding woman is discovered dead in a London street with a hastily scrawled list of names in her shoe; almost every single person on it has died in sudden but plausible circumstances. All of the victims have a tendril of a connection to the peak-British-named town of Much Deeping, where a trio of witches read tea leaves, make herbal concoctions for mild maladies, and quite possibly hex people to death upon request and payment.
Mark is informed by police that his name is on this list — but with a question mark. Has he been cursed because of his toxic masculinity? Is he himself the curse, all polished cruelty that spellbinds women? If the question mark on the witchy hit list implies that maybe he can escape death, why is his recently-acquired emergency backup second wife suddenly stabbing the pillows on the couch with such vigor?
Despite Sewell and Kaya Scodelario — who plays the in-over-her-perfectly-coiffed-head wife 2.0 — selling every spooky undercurrent, all these questions resolve with an ending that’s too purposefully oblique. The scientific, empirical twist ending of the novel remains, but a coda is added alluding that all the preceding events took place squarely in the supernatural camp. (Emphasis on camp, frankly, although Kathy Kiera Clarke’s portrayal of witch Sybil is a fun triple-take-inducing switch from her work as the ditzy aunt on “Derry Girls.”) It’s whiplash inducing, more creepy for creepy’s sake than entirely sensical in the context of all the groundwork that came before.
This culminates in another problem: “The Pale Horse” originally aired in the U.K. last month and, in our woefully over-connected age, this kind of split trans-Atlantic release window creates issues for the audience. Even the most cursory and benign Google about the show results in a dozen articles dissecting the improbably layered ending, and offering critiques.
Much like the ITV-to-PBS voyage of the Jane Austen adaptation “Sanditon” — which also had an ending that pissed off a whole lot of people — it’s a fair question to wonder if viewership for “Pale Horse” would have been different if the show had a day-and-date release strategy in all territories. The experience of watching a program knowing there is a twist ahead is a very different one than trusting the show along its journey — and social media buzz has already tainted the well for “Pale Horse” not only about the existence of a twist, but also to the overall plausibility of the ending.
And yes, I understand, this review timed to the U.S. debut is part of the problem and not part of the solution. But as it is inevitable that more and more international productions are going to get brought to the U.S. to feed the endless maw of Peak TV, there is an argument to be made that intrigue and viewership would increase if spoilers weren’t accidentally just a click away — especially in this case, where the ending is fumbled.
After all, if you can see it coming, is it really a revelation?
Both episodes of “Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse” premiere Friday, March 13 on Amazon Prime Video.