Inside No. 9 S6E3: Lip Service
Like all really great episodes of Inside No. 9, Lip Service is about power.
Because so much of stories that run at this length – something as tight and lean and forcefully limited as this – requires us to question who is actually running the plot at any given time. The set-up of this week’s outing, a Rear Window-esque bottle episode (directed with Hitchcockian glee once again by Guillem Morales, who just knows what the fuck is up when it comes to the look of this show) where Felix (Steve Pemberton) hires a professional lip-reader (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford) to spy on his estranged wife, seems pretty much straightforward: Felix is in charge of how things unfold in this seedy little hotel room. Even if he does spend a lot of his time badgered by the brutalist management style of hotel manager Muller (Reece Shearsmith, funny accent, funny moustache, giving it the most).
And it’s the shift of that power that makes this episode such an interesting piece to watch. At first – well, until those last two minutes, actually – Lip Service seems to be a meditation on the madness of love and the danger of obsession when it comes to romance.
I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again over the course of these reviews, but Steve Pemberton especially is just such a standout actor across almost every episode of this show; compare Felix this week to his vile showrunner last time around, the nuances he finds in the lingering stares around his empty hotel room, his sadness, his smallness. It’s just really fucking great acting, week in and week out, and I love how simply they play Felix in this story. Obviously, and almost offensively, I must spend some time talking about how fucking great Sian Clifford is in this quick half-hour; I’ve seen her most prominently in Fleabag (do I have to tell you to watch it? If you haven’t, do) as the highly-strung Claire, and it’s such a transformation to see her performance here; she’s funny, easy, even gentle in her handling of the hapless bachelor she’s servicing.
And if this was just a story of two people in a room together working out their romantic woes with one another and figuring out that they have more in common than they thought, it would still be a great episode of TV. That’s the real test of a twist in a story like this – even without it, does the story work? Would I have still watched it? Or is it reliant on the “gotcha” at the end to punch you in the gut (much like so many of Steven Moffat’s stories)? Luckily, Lip Service works even on that level. If your TV cut out before the last ninety seconds, you’ve still watched a pretty sweet, melancholy, and engaging wee story.
Of course, when the final twist comes, it’s one that shifts the entirety of the power from Pemberton to Clifford; she’s been working for a shadowy Government the entire time to frame Pemberton for the murder of the man that he believes his wife is having an affair with. It’s the kind of jaw-dropping twist that completely flips the episode on its head, hands the balance of power to her instead of him, and renders her performance – because that’s what the character is doing, performing, relentlessly, as the dowdy, attainable kind of woman she knows would take Pemberton off his guard long enough to pull him into that plot – all the more brilliant in retrospect. It’s a simple twist, in some ways – in a two-hander like this, with two major characters, during which you’ve believed one has been in control the whole time, turning that around in the last instant is how you completely wrong-foot the audience in a really memorable way.
But as a twist, I still love it. And it’s a nice reminder, after the first two more meta episodes of this season, that Pemberton and Shearsmith still have it in them to surprise. Even when you know that the twist is coming, they can lull you with an engaging enough story to forget that it’s on the way, and that lets it land with that gleeful evil Inside No. 9 style that really makes it work. Lip Service is a classic episode of the show, a short story with a bitter twist in the tail that practically makes you pucker. And God, I hope this season has a few more of them before we’re done.
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(header image via DVDfever.co.uk)