Inside No 9 | The Trolley Problem review

Inside No 9 The Trolly Problem
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It’s a two hander tête-à-tête in this week’s Inside No 9. Here’s our spoiler-filled review of the new episode, The Trolley Problem.

This review contains spoilers.

It’s the difference between killing and letting die.

If last week’s Inside No 9 was like Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, then this week was akin to Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, with just a hint of David Slade’s 2005 thriller, Hard Candy.

The No 9 this week refers to a gothic-looking house, which we enter during a thunderstorm. We then meet therapist Blake Chambers (Pemberton) and suicidal stranger Drew (Shearsmith), the former having saved the latter from jumping off a bridge. It isn’t long before Pemberton and Shearsmith seed elements of doubt and unease into the script, as Drew notices Blake’s Cambridge certificate is actually from an online course, before going on to say that he enjoys playing games.

We’re now in the ninth series, and so the challenge for Shearsmith and Pemberton is that they know that we know they’re trying to trip us up. Both have talked at length about the difficulties of writing twists into a show whose, shall we say, rather dedicated fanbase are doing mental gymnastics with every line of dialogue, looking for clues and trying to guess.

This week, however, the first ten minutes are a masterclass in manipulation. We don’t trust Drew – of course we don’t, he’s a stranger – and it is established early on that he has what looks like a gun in his waistband. Then, when Blake hastily drugs Drew’s drink, we think we know where it’s going, until Drew then drugs Blake’s drink shortly thereafter.

Pemberton stole last week’s episode with his sharp-tongued drag queen, so it is perhaps fitting that this week unquestionably belonged to Shearsmith, from the maniacal laughter-turned-crying, to irritable inquisitor, right up to the last scene of triumph and tragedy. Shearsmith has always been a versatile actor, from the terrifying scenery chewing of Papa Lazarou in The League Of Gentlemen to his chilling performance as murderer Malcolm Webster in ITV drama The Widower. This script once again stretched every sinew of his acting chops and he more than rose to the challenge.

But before we get to the ending, the real meat of the episode was the problem of the title. Prey becomes predator as as Drew ties Blake to a cupboard and attempts to tease a confession out of him. Sometimes called The Balloon Debate, here referred to as The Trolley Problem, the hypothetical argument over, as this episode puts it, “killing or letting die”. We get the full rundown of concepts like The Bystander Effect and the Szondi Test as morals and ethics are discussed and dissected.

Read more: Inside No 9 | Boo To A Goose review

Any character who is referenced early on, especially in a two hander play, is always going to be important later. Blake’s child Robbie was doomed as soon as we were told he would be back soon – Chekov’s Son, if you like. All genre trappings aside, this was a revenge story, and considering how much they manage to cram into thirty minutes, a very impressive one at that.

Courtesy of a phone recording, we learn that Blake abused the trust given to him by Drew’s daughter Ellie, becoming her lover following a therapy session, a tryst soon troubled by Ellie’s obsessive behaviour, which turned into drug addiction and, eventually, death. Blake, Drew says, is culpable because a man fitting his description was spotted leaving her room shortly after she overdosed but did not raise the alarm. The power play between them shifts once again as Blake escapes, stabs Drew in the leg and plans to murder him by the river and stage it as a suicide.

Taking him out to the car, Drew tells him to fetch his coat, and to check the right pocket. Inside is a slip of paper with a number, which Blake rings. As ever, the clues were there early on, when Drew says “I want you to know what it’s like to be me”. Blake’s son is buried underground and running out of air. Only Drew knows where, and the episode concludes with possibly the most haunting image at the end of any of the No 9’s, which harks back to the very first episode Sardines – the flick of the lighter after Drew has poured petrol over himself and the reflection of the result in Blake’s glasses.

Though it’s fair to say that laughs were few and far between this week, it wasn’t all doom and gloom – the card after the credits proclaiming it to be a production of BBC Studios Productions Comedy seemed almost like an extra joke at the end – there was still humour to be found, especially at Blake’s insistence that he would save “Shakespeare, Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo and Mary Berry” but not “Hitler, Genghis Khan and Gregg Wallace”.

Some logical faults aside – anybody who’s seen Buried will know how patchy a mobile signal from an underground coffin actually is – this was an outstanding instalment of Inside No 9, and a shining example of why anthology television should be celebrated and, more importantly, commissioned in the first place.

Inside No 9 returns on Wednesday 22nd May at 10pm on BBC Two with Mulberry Close.

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