Inside No. 9 S8E4: Love is a Stranger

by thethreepennyguignol

Love is hell.

Well, maybe not, but online dating often is – I am haunted, to this day, by the man who’s dating site opener was that he would “soak my sheets” (with what? With WHAT?) – but it’s certainly an interesting premise for an Inside No. 9 episode. The natural veil that the internet provides to present a version of ourselves that might not be entirely accurate is ripe for both comedy and horror in equal measure, and, with Inside No. 9 firmly inhabiting the overlap in that Venn diagram, Love is a Stranger is a great set-up, as Vicky (Claire Rushbrook) delves into the world of online dating – and that set-up leads in to probably the best episode of the season so far.

It’s an interesting one, because the twist – that Vicky is a Lonely Hearts serial killer, reported on the news in the opening scene – is pretty clear from the start. If you know Inside No. 9, you know that there’s no innocent mention of a serial killer and, most likely, our leading man/woman will be the perpetrator or the victim. The most unlikely thing for middle-aged, Avon-lipstick-wearing Vicky to be is the killer, so obviously, that’s what she is. And, sure enough, come the episode’s end, she dispatches of a hapless Asim Chaudhry in her kitchen over the cherry tomatoes.

But it’s what comes in between those two scenes that makes Love is a Stranger such a bloody outstanding episode of the show. Really, this is a collection of short stories, played out in three-minute online speed-date meetings between Vicky and various would-be virtual suitors. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have an immaculate eye for detail in their character creation, and it’s perhaps no better represented than here, with a collection of one-off scenes that beautifully illustrate both Vicky’s dates and her own life, teased out in these brief snippets of conversation, camera movement, and mise-en-scene.

I mean, just take Vicky’s story on it’s own: she was a carer up until recently, after she lost her mother, and was left with the grim reality of a life she had spent more focused on someone else than herself – it’s all in the details here, with the wheelchairs still folded up in the background, Vicky’s stumbling over her description of herself as a carer – no, was a carer. It’s a tremendous performance from Rushbrook, from those strained smiles that start to soften when she sees someone she might actually like, to the same dress smoothed over the same insecure parts of her body on every date. If the only thing the episode did well was her, it would have been damn near perfect, but the small collection of dates we get to see bring it right into sublime territory. Director Jesse Quinones, a newcomer to the series, does everything right to support this excellent performance through his cinematography, and I’m looking forward to seeing him work on the show again sometime in the near future, hopefully.

What I love about Inside No. 9 is there ability to find these moments of humanity even in their most ridiculous characters. Shearsmith’s turn as the terse and taciturn Norman, quizzing Vicky on her age and hobbies and willingness to perform domestic duties, gets this stark little moment where he describes getting ice-cream with his mother before she ships him back off the boarding school, while Pemberton gets a twist in the other direction, appearing charming and kind at first before the reveal comes that he’s married and looking to cheat. Frances Barber, sharpened to a point, comes in as Lesley to try and recruit Vicky to a diet scheme, in a delightfully twisted and utterly evil trio of pyramid-scheming minutes; her barbed “so you found solace in food” had my jaw on the floor, the perfect play-pretend compassion from a character like her. Asim Chaudrhy (who’s ridiculously funny work in People Just Do Nothing really is as good as everyone says it is, by the way) is the one we see most of here, as Jai, and I love seeing him take on a softer, quieter role than his normal comedic ones.

Jai has a large mark on his face that leads him to self-consciousness, and watching him slowly open up to Vicky – and Vicky, in return, open up to him – is genuinely heart-warming, especially after we’ve seen what it means to her to warm to someone like this. Chaudhry and Rusbrook have really sweet chemistry in that first meeting, as Chaudhry reflects on the way people treat him, either as someone to be stared at or something to be roundly ignored. Vicky might be a serial killer, but she’s not immune to real connection, you know?

Of course, Jai makes a fool of himself at once when they meet in person by using pick up artist techniques on Vicky, leading her to realize, once again, he’s a dud, and to batter his face in with a mallet, as I’m sure so many of us ladies can relate to. And yes, there’s the twist, the twist we all saw coming – but the real twist is not that Vicky is luring dates in just for the thrill of the kill. No, she’s doing it because she really wants to meet someone, because opening herself up is so painful and so difficult that this seems, to her, a fair retribution when they let her down.

Love is a Stranger is a genuinely outstanding episode – the writing, the performances, the direction, they all come together to create this brilliant, taut, and totally absorbing story – and one I know I’ll be coming back to in future, because, with an episode this meticulous, it’s just a joy to see all the pieces fit.

If you liked this article and want to see more stuff like it, please check out the rest of my Inside No. 9 reviews. I’d also love it if you would check out my horrible short story collection, and, if you’d like to support my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

(header image via BBC)