Disability in Season 3 of the BBC’s Musketeers

Promotional poster for season three of The Musketeers. The four main characters stand in the foreground. They are from left to right: Athos (Tom Burke), Aramis (Santiago Cabrera), D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino), and Porthos (Howard Charles)

So I’ve been watching a lot of Musketeers recently, specifically season three. It’s a good season, and I’m a particular fan of the primary antagonist of the season, Lucien Grimaud (Matthew McNulty). However, I have noticed a repeating trend with the other antagonists of the season that is rather troubling, namely, many of them are disabled and play heavily into the “Evil Cripple” trope, which is described by TV Tropes as “rooted in eugenics-based ideas linking disability or other physical deformities with a ‘natural’ predisposition toward madness, criminality, vice, etc.” This is most apparent in the character of the Marquis de Feron (Rupert Everett). 

The half brother of King Louis XIII (Ryan Gage), Feron suffers from what appears to be some sort of degenerative bone disease, and is frequently seen using a cane and having difficulty walking. For the first six episodes of the season, Feron is a co-lead antagonist alongside Grimaud, devising plans and using Grimaud and the Red Guard to carry them out. He’s also portrayed as addicted to opium, which he takes to manage the pain of his chronic illness; in debt and constantly after money; and perfectly willing to commit murder and bear gleeful witness to wanton violence. He is portrayed as wholly unsympathetic, whereas the narrative goes out of its way to let us in on Grimaud’s tragic backstory, which in turn, garners sympathy for the character. Feron is given none of this, and even his crisis of conscious at the end does not come with a full change of heart.

Another antagonist, a one off character named Bastien (Harry Melling) in episode seven, “Fool’s Gold,” plays into both the “Evil Cripple” trope and the trope of a character pretending to be disabled to be perceived as helpless and unassuming. Bastien is a criminal who was recruited into the French army, but then deserted. He and a group of others had stashed gold in the area where a group of women had built up a small settlement in an effort to escape the brutality of the soldiers passing through their old village. He plays the part of a man with a leg injury in need of rescue to be brought into the women’s village and uses his position from the inside to allow his friends to come in and raid the camp. When we see him on his own and after he’s been exposed, he does not have the limp that we see him with initially. 

Even more insidious is the treatment of the character Borel (Stephen Walters) in episode five, “To Play the King.” Borel is a prisoner in the Chatelet who is severely mentally ill. Borel has what is likely meant to be dissociative identity disorder or some other form of psychosis that leads to delusions of grandeur. As you may be able to guess from the title, Borel believes himself to be the King. There is an attempt made at a “this man is ill, he should not be in a prison”  story line, but it falls flat because, ultimately, Borel is the subplot antagonist of the episode and we are told under no uncertain terms that while Borel may seem helpless, he is also very dangerous and a murderer.

D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino), not wanting to send an ill man back to prison, leaves Borel at a convent, which leads to the murder of several nuns, a guard and ultimately an attack on Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling). While the episode does fit into the season’s overarching theme of tension between the royal duties of the musketeers and their duties to the people of Paris, with D’Artagnan saying at the end “Why do I feel like I’m fighting for the wrong side?” the whole subplot leaves a sour taste in my mouth. 

Frankly, it almost feels worse that they teased the potential for the trope to be subverted. If they had let the Borel plot line end with D’Artagnan helping him and leaving him at the convent and with something good coming out of that, it could have been really good, and they could have put additional focus on the primary plot of the episode, which I do think could have used more time instead of trying to balance it equally with the Borel plot. I was actually really exciting the first time I  watched “To Play the King,” because it seemed that the mental illness plot line was going to be resolved well, which made it even more of a gut punch when they turned it right back around and ran head first into to the mentally ill murderer trope. 

As comes up time and time again with the way mental illness is portrayed in the media, people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. A 2017 post on gun violence and mental health from Joel Miller of the American Mental Health Counselors Association notes that, “rates of violent crime victimization are 12 times higher among the population of persons with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population.” So no, I really don’t care what the show runners tried to do with that plot line, they used a tired and harmful trope and if they were trying to subvert it they failed. 

Lastly I want to talk about Annabelle (Naomi Radcliffe). She is not an antagonist, but she is another disabled character who gets treated rather poorly. Also in episode five, “To Play the King,” she is involved in the primary plot; a riot has been incited within the prison and the prisoners allowed to escape because Grimaud and Feron have plotted to break into the King’s gold reserves in the vault under the prison. Her husband Joubert (Ian McKee) was the locksmith who designed the vault door and is now in prison because he fell into debt. Annabelle, who is blind, is taken as hostage motivation for Joubert to break into the vault he designed. 

Despite the fact that the plot hinges on Annabelle telling Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) and Constance (Tamla Kari) that she believes they went after her because of her husband, which leads to them realizing that there is a plot to do with the royal vault, Annabelle is given very little agency. It is indicated briefly that she is good at identifying her surroundings; she recognizes Constance by the smell of her clothes and can tell Constance and Aramis confidently that the man who took her was not an escaped convict, but was well off because he had fur cuffs and rings on his hands. So I have to ask myself, why was she written blind? A seeing character could have filled that role to much the same effect. Was it necessary for this character, who’s only function in the show was to be a victim, to be blind? Or was it done just to add another layer of perceived helplessness to an already victimized character?

Now, I enjoy Musketeers. Its overall a fun show, bolstered by the fact that three of the four leads are men of color and there are some really strong, multi-faceted female characters, but it’s hardly perfect, and the things I’ve mentioned above can be deal breakers for many, many people. I have friends who I know would say, “No I won’t watch this show at all” because of the mental illness subplot in “To Play a King.” Media does not exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to recognize, even in media you enjoy, where things go wrong.

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