Patrick Melrose and the Long Afterburn of Trauma

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in an adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s novels.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose.
Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose. Photo edited by Slate. Still by Showtime.

In the opening sentences of Bad News, the second novel in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, the 22-year-old Patrick is informed by telephone that his abusive father has unexpectedly died. After Patrick hangs up, in the elegant sentences that characterize St. Aubyn’s work, readers learn that Patrick had just recently administered a fix of heroin.

Patrick put down the syringe he had been flushing out, and sat beside the phone without moving. Was it bad news? Perhaps he would need all his courage not to dance in the street, not to smile too broadly. Sunlight poured in through the blurred and caked windowpanes of his flat. Outside, in Ennismore Gardens, the leaves of the plane trees were painfully bright… The sleeve of his shirt rolled forward and absorbed the trickle of blood on his arm.

In the opening minutes of Patrick Melrose, Showtime’s adaptation of the St. Aubyn novels starring Benedict Cumberbatch, a spot of blood blooms on Patrick’s shirt sleeve immediately after the same call. But it’s less a gracefully debauched detail than a prelude to the epic drug binge to follow, a New York City bender that involves quaaludes, speed, alcohol, IV cocaine, heroin, and a near suicide attempt.

The five books that make up the series—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last—follow Melrose from the age of 5, when his father begins to rape him, through a stage of terrifyingly omnivorous drug use, into marriage, fatherhood, alcoholism, sobriety, and an uneasy truce with the trauma that has disfigured his life. Over the course of the novels, Melrose, who is modeled on St. Aubyn, traces the sine wave of recovery—and does so in the pristine prose of a beautifully observed English novel. Patrick’s track marks, his fundamentally sarcastic disposition, his trauma’s long afterburn are all rendered with cool, Jamesian precision, a juxtaposition of content and tone that (as in Alan Hollinghurst’s work) reads as classic and modern simultaneously, a restrained and distanced solution to the potentially messy indulgences of memoir, to the easy uplift of a survival tale.

Can this style be transferred to television? Adapted by David Nicholls and directed by Edward Berger, the first three episodes of the Showtime series—all that was made available to critics—turn each of the novels into hourlong genre exercises. “Bad News,” with a 22-year-old Patrick burning through 1980s New York, becomes a Trainspotting-esque drug odyssey; “Never Mind,” the first novel but the second episode because it does not star Cumberbatch, is a languid summer nightmare set when Patrick is 8; and “Some Hope,” featuring a sober 30-year-old Patrick, is a Downton Abbey–style drawing-room drama. None of these episodes are bad, but they lack the magic trick that is St. Aubyn’s prose, replacing the books’ singular mix of high style and bleak substance with the energetic familiarities of genre.

The third episode is the closest analog to St. Aubyn’s writing. What does clean, old-fashioned, profoundly Anglo prose feel like on television? Masterpiece Theater, it turns out. “Some Hope,” a comedy of manners that may in fact be a tragedy, contains such hallmarks of the form as class tension, baronial real estate, icy put-downs, and royalty. The episode includes an upstairs-downstairs montage of a vast British mansion being readied for a party by unobtrusive servants (champagne coupes and tablecloths) juxtaposed with prep for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting (cookie plates and percolating coffee). It’s the sort of romantic treatment such down-heel gatherings don’t usually receive. But the majority of the episode takes place on the aforementioned estate, with the upper class mercilessly backbiting and falling all over themselves to please a cruel Princess Margaret. Sober Patrick’s reimmersion in his social class, whose members have such value but no values, inspires him to tell another person about his trauma for the very first time—while simultaneously losing his own temper at the hired help. Cumberbatch, as ever, comes across as fiercely, damagingly intelligent, almost unforgivably caustic, except for how much he also burns himself. Patrick Melrose, like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Alan Turing, slices through the world like some oddball princeling, strange and sad but also haughty and superior.

In picking its various genres, the show has taken its cue from the books, which wave at these respective forms without giving up the authorial tone that ties them so closely together. I wondered what the drawing-room style of the third episode might have done for the first, when, say, the quaaludes turn Patrick’s voice and interior monologue into a slur. Would a Merchant-Ivory take on out-of-control drug abuse perfectly capture St. Aubyn’s tone, or would it only romanticize that drug abuse? What in prose can feel like an inspired scaling up of lowbrow material—using rarefied language, as St. Aubyn does, to make drugs and abuse both crystalline and awful—on television might only seem banal. Upscaling the lowbrow, after all, describes most prestige television.

The episode least bound by genre is the second, in which Cumberbatch appears only briefly, and is also the most unsettling. It jumps back in time to Patrick’s childhood home in the south of France and chronicles the day that David Melrose first rapes his son. The surroundings—the beautiful home, the fig tree, the greenery, the Mediterranean sun—are as lush as those in Call Me by Your Name, but there is no love here, only cruelty. As in the book, the episode turns its attention to the inner life of a number of characters: power-mad David (Hugo Weaving), who burns ants with his cigar for fun; Patrick’s drugged-out, negligent mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh); various house guests, who appear in other episodes and have different reactions to the toxic family dynamic. Young Patrick, played by Sebastian Maltz, is a watchful, terrified, isolated boy even before his father abuses him. After, he immediately begins to explore self-harm, a child unsafe in a home full of vile adults.

Patrick Melrose is about a snob, but it does not want to be snobby; thus its genre play and the wonderful fluorescent colors of its title cards and accessories. This is not quite true of the books, which are about an aristocrat who is completely disgusted by other aristocrats while holding on to the tatters of an aristocratic worldview. St. Aubyn’s venomous hatred for the cruel, callous, dopey members of his social class courses through the novels, but as part of his damaging paternal remit, Patrick has been taught to be like them, taught that trying, striving, working, caring are fundamentally base. He goes on to do all of those things—to try, to strive, to work, to care, to write—but not without a complex mix of pride and self-loathing. That tension is expressed in his attitude, his put-downs, his disdain for Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy, and, most of all, in St. Aubyn’s perfect sentences, which reach out to the reader even as they hold themselves above. Watching Cumberbatch puke in a bathroom sink, nearly OD, as the world pinholes down, with a shot of IV cocaine, bang on a glass window 33 stories up in order to jump out, we are right there with him—not above, only in the muck.