THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
There are many things you can do in a "Robin Hood" retelling. The BBC's version of the legend has proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that killing off Maid Marian is definitely not one of them - though I'm sure many of us could have told them that *before* they actually went through with it. Prior to the airing of the third season of "Robin Hood", Laura Burrows of IGN interviewed Jonas Armstrong (Robin) on the upcoming series, with emphasis on the departure of Lucy Griffiths. She ended her article with this prediction:
"In total, the actor made light of Griffiths' quick exodus and did his best to throw us a few bones for the third season, but it seems that the writers may be scrambling to fill in the gaps made by a missing love interest and that the cast will be flying by the seat of their pants, acting scene-by-scene, until they came come to grips with an unsteady storyline." (August 4, 2008)
Burrows' prediction was spot-on. Although there are plenty of note-worthy things about Season Three, the show has lost most of its charm - not just because of Marian's death, but due to the complete restructuring of the show itself by new management. The man responsible for the decision to kill Marian (series creator Dominic Mingella) played no part in this season, credited as "creator" in the opening credits, but contributing nothing to the directing, writing or storylines at all. This is distinctly odd considering the self-congratulatory tones he took in various interviews and on the Season Two DVDs, in which he calls Marian's death an opportunity to "rock the show to its core," to "see a darker side to Robin," and to "open up new storytelling possibilities." If he was that enthusiastic about killing off Marian, why didn't he stick around in order to see his story through to its end?
Whatever the reason for his departure, there was a palatable sense of disorganisation in the Tiger Aspect/BBC studios in regards to "Robin Hood." Little effort was put into promoting the third season, the official website wasn't updated until a few days before the premiere, detailed plot synopsises were released prior to episodes airing, and the premature release of the DVD box set in the UK ensured that the final episode was leaked onto YouTube long before it was scheduled to appear on television. Interviews with the cast members were oddly evasive on the subject of Marian's death, but though a "close-mouthed policy" seemed to be in place, Richard Armitage made his voice heard, stating in no uncertain terms that he had grave concerns about the decision to kill Marian: "I think [the writers] are playing with fire."
All this behind-the-scenes trouble inevitably leeched the quality of Season Three considering that the show was passed on to a new batch of writers (only two of the thirteen episodes were penned by writers who had worked on the show before) who were clearly unfamiliar with the preceding storylines, and had little idea of what to do with the fallout of Marian's death.
For simplicity's sake, the following review is divided into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
As always, the brilliant cast of actors throw themselves into their roles with one hundred and ten percent, transcending the material they've been given and churning out urgent and believable performances despite the ridiculousness of the plots they're stuck in. The original cast members have incredible chemistry together, and by this stage have been working together for over three years. Such a history means that they are imminently watchable, even when they're being painfully under-utilized. This ensemble cast of talented actors, the characters they inhabit, and the performances they deliver are the number one reason to watch this show.
In terms of storylines, there are plenty of intriguing twists and turns among the "Team Castle" cast. A guilt-stricken Guy has swiftly become a loose cannon, and the Sheriff decides to cut his losses and rid himself of his once-loyal henchman. When Prince John (brilliantly portrayed by Toby Stephens) finally enters the scene, he soon has the two of them at each other's throats by promising Guy the position of Sheriff if he rids them of the current one.
Also in the mix is Guy's sister Isabella (whose existence contradicts two seasons worth of Guy insisting that he had no family at all, but never mind), an enigmatic presence whose loyalties are questionable and who arguably has the most important role this season as she instigates the power-struggles that drive the overarching plot. Richard Armitage and Lara Pulver capture the sibling dynamic perfectly, and their physical similarities mean they could easily pass for brother/sister in real life. For the most part, the "Dark Side" plot works very well.
There also seems to have been a bigger budget this time around, resulting in higher production values. The costumes are significantly improved, as is the general scope and atmosphere of the show. And someone has finally realised just how beautiful their surroundings are, for now there are plenty of establishing shots that exploit the gorgeous forest scenery. Speaking of eye-candy, this is the most beautiful cast since The Tudors
and perhaps the best way to watch the show is to simply ignore the plots and enjoy the view (though despite the presence of Lara Pulver, male viewers may find themselves a bit short-changed with the loss of both Lucy Griffith and Anjali Jay).
Finally, this show has always provided plenty of laughs. Like how the entire population of England doesn't seem to notice that Tuck is black, or how Prince John's secret weapon ends up being a lion that's so decrepit that it can't even walk in a straight line, or how Kate is slightly out of sync when chanting along with an angry mob. Robin invents the first hang-glider and then defies the laws of physics with it; and Kate performs CPR on somebody whose injuries don't actually require it. And as always, a raised hood is an impenetrable disguise; and hiding behind a twig or a sapling will render a grown man invisible. Good times.
As fond as I am (or, was) of this show, there's no denying that the writing is nothing short of abysmal. Although any one episode may serve as mindless entertainment, close inspection - or even "mild" inspection - reveals some of the sloppiest scripts ever committed to the screen. Many storylines are raised only to go nowhere, dialogue is often nonsensical, continuity is non-existent, logic is thrown out the window, characterization is butchered, and (as a result of all this) talent is squandered.
Anachronisms, silliness, and a dose of cheesiness were all part of the fun of "Robin Hood" right from the beginning, but in season three, the writers/producers lost sight of why people tuned in. I (and I'm sure many others) watched for the magnificent cast and the range of intriguing, poignant, complex relationships that they managed to forge between their characters: namely the warm camaraderie of the outlaws and the delicate balancing act between Robin, Marian and Guy. In season three, all this has been flushed away. Even the important relationships that *do* remain intact are given little to no attention (Robin and Much are practically strangers now, and there is no indication whatsoever that Allan worked with Guy for most of last season. Marian is hardly ever mentioned. Oh, and remember Will and Djaq? Nobody else does). In lieu of meaningful emotional connection, the show no longer has any real heart.
Rather, many plots rely on characters acting irrationally and against their own established personalities. Robin and Isabella's relationship ends just as incoherently as it begins. Kate flip-flops between anti-Robin sentiments to simpering fan-girl for no apparent reason. Guy leaves Isabella to drown in a dungeon and then can't seem to understand why she hates him so much. Much and Allan spend several episodes infatuated with Kate, yet have little to no reaction when Robin hooks up with her instead. For a monk, Tuck condones some rather morally dubious things. Allan saves Little John's life, only for John to immediately turn on him when a highly-untrustworthy person suggests that Allan is a traitor. Robin states that he implicitly trusts the man who killed his wife, and yet isn't prepared to give one of his own men the benefit of the doubt. Archer leaves his half-brothers to die after they've saved him from the noose, but then decides to join the team after Kate throws a tantrum. Even the extras behave inexplicably: a mob enthusiastically chants for Robin to be burnt at the stake, only to jump around cheering when he escapes two minutes later.
Um...is everyone a bi-polar schizophrenic with short-term memory loss? The swiftness with which characters declare their intentions, make foolish decisions, change their minds, assign blame, leap to conclusions, change their minds again, act rashly, and forget what happened three minutes ago is just mind-boggling, and I can only imagine that the erratic shifts in behaviour will be even more pronounced when episodes are seen in succession on DVD.
This choppy storytelling has never been more apparent than in what is known as "the flashback episode". With absolutely no foreshadowing whatsoever, the writers suddenly introduce a complex back-story between Robin and Guy that accumulates in the revelation that they share a half-brother. Neither man has ever mentioned their dramatic joint-history before, and the new information is relayed to Robin and Guy via Robin's long-lost father, who convinces them to save their long-lost brother, so that they can defeat Guy's long-lost sister. I can't believe I'm not making this up.
(And I've just realised why Robin gets over Marian's death so appallingly fast: if the writers had portrayed him grieving realistically, then his alliance with Guy would have been even more implausible than it already was).
Yeah, I know that the past two seasons were rife with their fair share of silliness, but by this stage, the show suffers from "mood whiplash". The writers are working in a context in which Marian's murder is hanging over everyone's heads, yet the producers' apparent desire to cater to a wide target audience results in the most erratic combination of content and tones I've ever seen on a television programme. It swings wildly between gritty drama, slapstick comedy, kiddie-friendly action/adventure, and melodramatic soap opera. Alongside vengeance, torture, adultery, murder, abuse, seduction, attempted rape and even mild incestuous overtones, are goofy child-friendly antics like hang-gliding, lion-taming, gladiator-fighting, and ninja-star throwing. At one stage they even stoop to gross-out jokes, wherein Tuck climbs up a sewage system and into a recently occupied privy.
Essentially, the show doesn't seem to know who it's for. Some parts are too dark and violent for children, and others are too preposterous for adults looking for a reasonable continuation of the serious tone the show set for itself with Marian's murder.
The departure of Will and Djaq left two vacancies in the outlaw gang. These were filled by the much anticipated Tuck and the dreaded "feisty village girl" Kate. Tuck initially acquits himself well, what with his enigmatic past and unclear motivations, but is soon rendered just another face in the crowd. Although this character was in a perfect position to act as a mediator between Robin and Guy, preaching the themes of forgiveness and atonement, he just ends up being Robin's PR spokesman with a tendency for impromptu speeches. What a waste.
As for Kate...well, you know you've got problems when a character's defining attribute is abject stupidity, and her only purpose on the show is to be the Mandatory Female. Whiny, pushy, sulky, petty, hypocritical, shrill, needy, dim-witted, arrogant... there's nothing even remotely appealing about this character, and her inability to do anything helpful, say anything pleasant, or be anything other than a complete liability gets very old, very fast. After her idiotic behavior gets her brother killed and her family's business destroyed, the outlaws inexplicably invite her to join the team, and we're subjected to faux-Marian stomping around Sherwood, blundering into trouble, emasculating the outlaws, and single-mindedly pursuing the only goal the writers bother to give her: become Robin's girlfriend. Even more nauseating, the outlaws seem to be under the impression that she's (in their own words) "amazing" and "brave and compassionate" and "a treasure," despite Kate never doing a single solitary thing to deserve these platitudes. Can you say blatant Mary Sue?
Oblivious as to how obnoxious she is, the writers give her way too much screen-time and eventually relegate her to the role of Robin's rebound girl, following a general theme of women going completely gaga over Robin. See Marian: dead because she couldn't contain her love for Robin in front of a crazy man with a sword, or Isabella: perfectly sane until the moment Robin dumps her, at which point she instantly reverts into a complete lunatic.
I know that not every female character in a show aimed at young people can be a positive role model, but it would have been nice if at least ONE was.
(Seriously though, the victimization of women on this show gets immensely disturbing after a while. Not only do we have Marian's stabbing at the hands of a man who claimed to have loved her (a scene that Dominic Mingella called "the consummation of Guy and Marian"), but also the fact that Isabella goes evil as a *direct* result of domestic abuse and her dysfunctional relationships with Robin and Guy. She is ultimately cast as the irredeemable villain, despite both men inflicting unprovoked violence on her several times. Kate's instantaneous hatred of Isabella is the result of her inevitable jealousy over Robin, and when left to her own devices, Kate is merely a damsel-in-distress who gets threatened/arrested/kidnapped practically every episode, requiring a male character to rescue her from her own staggering incompentence each and every time. Even the prominent guest-stars Ghislaine and Meg are both sacrificed on behalf of men they are trying to protect.)
Ultimately, the biggest disappointment of Season Three stems from the fact that the new writers don't seem to have much affection for, interest in, or even basic understanding of the characters they've inherited, and many of their storytelling decisions are just...well, "mean-spirited" is the only word I can think of to describe it.
Why were Will and Djaq written out of the show in such an unsatisfying way, never to be seen or heard from again? Why would Robin enter a relationship with the (married) sister of the man who murdered his wife? Couldn't the outlaws have been given something - anything! - else to do besides run around after Kate like a bunch of harangued babysitters with a disobedient child? Was it entertaining to see Isabella suffer a mental breakdown after a lifetime of domestic abuse? Was it meant to be fun watching poor Much get his heart broken by his best friend and a shrieking harpy? (After his passionate rant to Robin last season about how he's not appreciated, it was a bitter pill indeed to watch him reclaim his dignity from Robin only to sacrifice it all up to Kate).
If Allan had to die, would it have been so hard to let him go down in a blaze of glory instead of a heartless, meaningless Red Shirt death? After ignoring him all season, the writers have him shot in the back on the side of the road, failing in the attempt to deliver an important message, and dying in the belief that his friends consider him a traitor. What a pathetic and hateful way to get rid of one of the show's most popular characters.
Little John...was he even in this season? Was it really necessary to introduce the ridiculous plot device of the half-brother, a gimmick that required the restructuring of canon itself? Why was so much time wasted on hooking Robin up with Kate in a relationship that was never going anywhere, was void of any chemistry, and which played out like a bored rock star finally caving to a desperate groupie? Why Kate, period? The show gains nothing from her presence, and her aggressive, childish pursuit of Robin is just cringe-worthy. And Guy...well, I'm still speechless over what they did to him.
None of these storylines are particularly entertaining, instead each one lies somewhere between "annoying and pointless" and "way too dark and depressing for a family show".
Maybe I expected too much; but given that the writers were handed the legend of Robin Hood as well as one of the most talented ensemble casts in living memory, this show had the potential to be the best retelling of the story ever, something that was sabotaged by an onslaught of terrible creative decisions, starting from the moment Guy plunged that giant sword into Marian's abdomen. This was the first and biggest nail in the show's coffin, and to this day I cannot understand how Dominic Mingella could have deemed Marian's murder an appropriate and entertaining "twist" in what had previously been such a fun, light-hearted show. When did Marian getting murdered by Guy EVER seem like a good idea? What on *earth* was this meant to achieve? I'm sure that for many, this show died with her.
At times, this season does manage to capture some of its past magic (Guy versus the Sheriff; Prince John; Guy/Meg; Robin's reunion with Marian), but the new stories are a significant step down from previous seasons, especially since the new characters are emphasised at the cost of our old favourites (check out the cover art on the DVD: the fact that Kate's image is significantly larger than Guy's is the perfect visual image of everything that's wrong with season three). The BBC blamed poor ratings for the cancellation of the show, but unfortunately the writers had already put a lot of effort into setting up for a forth season, meaning that Season Three feels more like setup for the future than closure on the past.
But it came as no surprise to me when "Robin Hood" was cancelled - by this stage the Powers That Be had systematically removed everything from the show that made it worth watching in the first place.