The Ultimate Game of Sardines
I am very easily distracted—the type who flips through channels endlessly or opens an app on my phone only to get bored and switch apps, then switch back again when that gets old too. It’s my own short attention span that causes me to blankly smile, nod, and agree with someone when they insist that I just have to watch this fantastic show full of lovable characters with great chemistry, a riveting plot, and maybe even a deep message or two sprinkled in. I convince people that I’ll be sure to check out the hit TV show that everyone is raving about, and I do a good job of convincing because I really believe that I will get around to it. Eventually. Hopefully.
What I love about anthology series—shows in which the characters, settings, and plot change every episode—is that I don’t need to be patient, don’t have to wait to feel any attachment to the characters, and if I can’t bring myself to like the characters at all, no problem! The next episode, the slate will be wiped clean. No harm, no foul.
After finishing the latest series of Black Mirror—a dark, science fiction anthology series that serves as a commentary on both the opportunities and the dangers that advancing technologies can bring about, I found myself trapped in what those Amazon Fire commercials dreadfully referred to as the “show hole”. I Googled new shows to fill the void and saw Inside No. 9, a British dark comedy anthology series, show up in the results multiple times for viewers who liked Black Mirror. But where Black Mirror occasionally has links between episodes in terms of technology and the dangers it can present, Inside No. 9 has only two defining qualities that all episodes share: The home or apartment in which the episode takes place is always number nine, and there is always a twist at the end—sometimes several, like in the case of “A Quiet Night In,” a completely silent episode in which a relationship between a wealthy old man and his lover is not what it seems, and a dim cleaning products salesman is more than meets the eye. Aside from that, what will happen from episode to episode is anyone’s guess.
So I decided to give it a try. An anthology series with frequent twists sounded like exactly what I needed to fill the void Black Mirror had left behind, even if it didn’t have the biting commentary on technology that I had grown to love.
For the vast majority of the first episode, “Sardines,” I hated it.
I had been looking for a show that could draw me in immediately, and this one certainly wasn’t doing the job. To this day, I can’t say if it was my faith in a show that had been placed on the same pedestal as shows including Black Mirror and Electric Dreams that allowed me to power through it, or if it was some sort of masochism, but I somehow forced myself to sit through the entirety of what I had at first considered to be a huge disappointment.
“Sardines” centers on Rebecca (Katherine Parkinson), a British woman holding her engagement party at her childhood home, still owned by her father (the house, of course, being marked number nine). The episode opens with Rebecca wandering the old-fashioned house, checking doors and peeking under beds. After a few minutes, she opens an old antique closet in one of the bedrooms and finds Ian (Tim Key), a meek, awkward man who struggles to hold a conversation with her as she inexplicably climbs into the closet and shuts herself in with him.
Over time, we learn that it’s a childhood game that she remembers fondly and has decided she wants to play as part of her engagement party: a game of sardines. Someone hides somewhere in the house while everyone else separates and, one by one, as each person finds the original person’s hiding spot, they all cluster together in that same spot until everyone is packed in, and there’s no one left to search for them.
As I watched the episode, I kept waiting for the game to end and the scene to change. Maybe the party would continue as normal and the drama and suspense would develop that way. Or maybe the episode would skip the rest of the party entirely and move into the rest of the characters’ everyday lives. Maybe we’d see Rebecca’s wedding with her soon-to-be husband, Jeremy (Ben Willbond), and the mind-blowing twist would happen then.
It was unlikely that a show named for its domestic setting would go anywhere outside the house, but I held onto hope that, at the very least, the characters would switch rooms at some point. As the minutes ticked by, I started to get tired of the game of sardines, and it seemed that most of the characters shared the same sentiment. Yet the scene never changes. It starts in one room—mostly packed into the closet—and stays in that room the entire time.
The painful character dynamic begins with Ian and Rebecca standing awkwardly inside the spacious closet. There’s plenty of room and a faint strip of sunlight streaks in through the crack, keeping the characters (and by extension, the viewer) from being entirely in the dark, and yet the show still manages to make the drawn-out scene between them feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Ian mistakes Rebecca for Rachel (Ophelia Lovibond), the ex-girlfriend of Rebecca’s fiancé, who is a younger, more bubbly woman. We see a flash of annoyance in Rebecca’s eyes at the mishap, and the interactions between the pair only get worse from there. As someone who’s endured more than my fair share of uncomfortable conversations with people I only know vaguely and probably wouldn’t interact with outside of some event that forces us together, watching the horribly curt and inauthentic dynamic between the characters—packed with pseudo-politeness and passive aggression—was painfully familiar.
As more people start to join the makeshift sardine can of poorly feigned enthusiasm, you start to feel as though you’re clustered in with them. The camera is positioned so that it looks up at the characters at a slight angle, so that you as the viewer feel that you are being surrounded–a feeling that only gets worse as more people start to join the game.
First, Rebecca’s ill-tempered brother, Carl (Steve Pemberton), joins the pair, followed by Carl’s partner Stu (Reece Shearsmith), then Rachel (whose name is consistently used instead of Rebecca’s, much to Rebecca’s irritation), then Geraldine (Anne Reid)—an elderly woman who served as Rebecca and Carl’s nanny, and who mistakenly believes she was invited as a guest and not to serve drinks, and so on. As more people join in, you start to watch them huddle closer together and it almost feels like you’re being forced to huddle against them, too, as the camera continues to move closer to them because it has nowhere else to go, just as they have nowhere else to go.
But it isn’t just the lack of physical space that makes the episode hard to watch. The majority of my discomfort watching the episode was the terrible character dynamic, and part of what makes that dynamic so uncomfortable is the fact that none of them seem to have a good relationship with the others. In fact, most of them don’t even seem to know one another. It’s never explained why Rebecca chooses to invite her childhood classmate (whom she doesn’t seem to like), her fiancé’s coworkers, and her fiancé’s ex-girlfriend (along with her new boyfriend) to the party, but the fact that the majority of the guest list is made up of people who don’t have a close enough relationship with her to feel that her engagement is something worth celebrating only serves to make the entire scenario more absurd and less bearable.
At one point, the group discusses the presence of “Stinky John” at the party, an old classmate of Rebecca and Carl’s who one day stopped showering as a kid. Carl comments that “something must have happened to him” and both siblings jokingly agree that “Maybe we should trace it back,” followed by Carl’s unfortunate “Who do you stink you are?” quip. I dreaded the appearance of “Stinky John” because it became clear early on that his appearance would mean that the already intolerable and inescapable series of faux pas between characters would only get worse as the game they never wanted to play in the first place became more uncomfortable.
Sure enough, after the group kicks out Ian to the bathroom because it’s getting too cramped, Stinky John (Marc Wootton) makes his debut as one of the last people to find the growing crowd packed into the closet. He looks oily and unkempt, with faintly yellow teeth and greasy, stringy hair. The other characters immediately gag and recoil when he opens the closet doors and enthusiastically tries to step inside with them, and they work together to keep him out, even going so far as to pull the closet doors closed and pretend that it’s stuck. John doesn’t take the hint and reminds everyone that “You’re all meant to be squashed together,” but he eventually (and reluctantly) agrees to hide behind the curtains instead when the other characters insist that they can’t get the closet door open.
Once Andrew (Timothy West), Rebecca and Carl’s father, finally appears, the moment of reckoning arrives when he indignantly demands that everyone present needs to get into the closet, or it’s not a true game of sardines. Everyone, Stinky John included, gets into the closet, and the claustrophobic feeling gets worse than ever before.
It is during the most excruciating few minutes of the episode that the relationships between the characters—and the reason for their perpetual misery and contempt for each other—finally comes to light. After having accidentally called Rebecca “Rachel”—a running gag throughout the episode—Jeremy futilely tries to explain that he only got confused because both names start with “R.” While Geraldine tries to offer John a mint (failing both in subtlety and in getting John to take the mint) and the group passes the mints around, Rebecca cuts to the chase, asking Jeremy if he’s still in love with Rachel. Jeremy never responds, and Rebecca changes the subject by reminding her father of how much she and Carl loved playing sardines as kids. Andrew reminisces and nostalgically sings the “Sardine Song” that went with the game, only for Carl to suddenly snap at him, telling him “Don’t you dare sing that.” When Andrew snaps back at him that it’s “my house and I’ll do what I bloody like,” Carl looks miserable; not the same kind of grudging misery that he displays throughout the episode, but a genuinely heartbreaking, helpless misery. The camera pans to John, and though he doesn’t say anything, there’s a similar sadness written across his face as well.
Soon after, Geraldine recalls a cub scouts’ jamboree when Rebecca and Carl were kids. She mentions how much fun it was, until one boy “ruined it” by involving the police. Though most of the details of the reason the police were called are left to the imagination, the others only seem to grow more fidgety as she asks John what the boy’s name was. John, squished up awkwardly at the back of the closet, looks near tears as he quietly replies, “Phillip Harrison,” nicknamed “Pip.” When Geraldine, ever the instigator, asks what happened to him, Andrew is eager to change the subject and quickly answers that the family moved away to “Spain or some such.” Geraldine, who begins to seem less like an instigator and more like someone who genuinely fails to read the room, plows on, insisting that it was good that Pip moved away for “accusing [Andrew] of such horrible things.” Carl finally snaps and whispers that his father “paid them to go away.” Andrew insists that he was just teaching Pip how to wash himself, to which Carl responds “We weren’t all that lucky . . . were we John?”
Having had enough, Stu pipes up to remind the group that everyone is in the closet, which means the game is over. That’s when Rachel’s boyfriend, Lee (Luke Pasqualino), points out that Ian isn’t with them. None of the other characters seemed to have noticed that he hadn’t reappeared after going to hide in the bathroom, and even I had forgotten that he’d left the closet until his name was mentioned again. Jeremy tries to use it as his chance to leave, explaining that Ian is waiting for him at the train station and he needs to pick him up. When one of the other characters responds that Ian, the “boring chap with glasses,” is in the bathroom, Jeremy replies that that’s not Ian.
A hand turns the key in the wardrobe, locking it, and “Ian” begins to sing the “Sardine Song.” With horrified bewilderment, Carl whispers “Pip?” just as Pip pours lighter fluid onto the floor. The episode ends with the vengeful Pip holding a lighter in front of the closet full of people packed like sardines.
What I came to love about this episode was the fact that even after the stunning twist, I still wasn’t sure whether or not I liked it. The twist was deeply disturbing and unexpected, but I came away from the episode wondering if that was enough to make it worth watching the dragged out, deeply uncomfortable twenty-seven minutes leading up to it. It was like watching the television take on Waiting for Godot, waiting for something to happen over and over again only for the results to stay the same. There is finally a solution, of course—one that shocks and depresses just as much as any Black Mirror or Electric Dreams episode, but all I could think in the moments after watching the episode was that I could get the same terrible yet thought-provoking conclusion from other shows that kept me completely engaged from the beginning rather than only drawing me in at the end. I didn’t think, at the time, that this particular episode had anything of substance.
But just like sardines and the characters in this episode emulating them, there’s a lot packed into this episode. And what I think really sealed it as an excellent one in my eyes was the moment of realization: You are meant to feel trapped watching the episode. You are meant to dislike every minute of it and to feel as miserable as the characters do pretending to enjoy a childhood game as a large group of fully grown adults. The episode means nothing until the end, at least at face value, because you are supposed to read between the lines, listen to every inflection in the character’s voices, carefully watch their facial expressions as they react to small comments that seem inconsequential at first glance. And for me, as someone with a terribly short attention span, the necessity of reading between the lines meant that I did not appreciate the episode, or the seriousness of the message it sent, until curiosity struck me enough to watch it again, and to notice the things that I hadn’t noticed before.
When the siblings joke at the beginning of the episode that “something must have happened” to Stinky John, it’s not just a throwaway joke about John’s lack of hygiene, or a small glimpse into the mean-spiritedness of the siblings (Carl in particular), but a hint. Sexual abusers sometimes use “teaching hygiene” as an excuse for their depraved behavior, just as Andrew insists that he was just “teaching the boy how to wash himself.” What’s more, Carl and Rebecca joking about John’s lack of hygiene becomes even darker when you realize that they knew the real reason he never took a shower, since Carl himself had suffered through the same trauma. Whether the siblings, Carl in particular, are willing to make cruel jokes at John’s expense as a sort of coping mechanism (perhaps Carl mocks John as a way to feel better about his own experiences by thinking he suffered, but turned out much better than a man who can no longer shower) or as a hint that the siblings simply aren’t very good people, the viewer never gets to come to know. But throughout the episode, Carl seems standoffish and prude in general, refusing to show any affection toward his partner (even introducing himself as Stu’s “flatmate” instead of partner) until Stu snaps, “It’s not my fault you’re afraid of intimacy, Carl,” to which Carl responds, “It’s not my fault either. You have no idea.” As the viewer, you come to feel bad for Stu, and Carl’s insistence that “It’s not my fault” sounds merely like an attempt to shift the blame. But by the episode’s end, his standoffishness and fear of intimacy instantly becomes completely understandable.
It’s more than likely that Carl’s cruelty towards John truly is a coping mechanism considering how much the actions of his father truly haunt him, but what about Rebecca? It’s never revealed whether or not she suffered abuse at the hands of her father the way Carl did, but if she didn’t, her decision to hold her engagement party at Andrew’s home fully knowing what he had done to her brother and several others, has its own dark implications about a character who at first seemed like a regular woman trying and failing to hold an engagement party.
At one point, Geraldine proudly proclaims to the other guests that she babysat “all three” of Andrew’s kids since they were young. The third sibling, Caroline, isn’t present, and when Geraldine asks if she and her kids are planning to attend the party since she “would love to see the boys again,” Rebecca uncomfortably and unconvincingly replies that it’s too far to travel for them to make it. I assumed on first watch that it was a hint that Rebecca’s relationship with her sister is a tense one and that something terrible happened between them (and was subsequently disappointed at first when the episode ended and nothing came of it), but on second watch, it becomes clear that Caroline doesn’t attend her sister’s engagement party because she doesn’t want to bring her young sons near Andrew.
And that’s the most horrifying implication of this episode: the fact that everyone who knew Andrew well—his kids, his kids’ friends and classmates, his nanny (as in denial as she may have been, insisting upon his innocence years later)—all knew of the crimes that Andrew had committed. And despite that, Rebecca invites him to her engagement party along with his victims, and everyone tiptoes around what was, in essence, a very loud secret, one that Andrew paid to make go away, and largely succeeded.
I had disliked “Sardines” at first because of its subtlety, when it’s actually the subtlety of the episode that makes the ending so impactful. The awkward politeness and idle small talk between characters is excruciating on first watch, but the whole reason so many of the characters are so awkward or off-putting in the first place is because half of them are completely oblivious to the dysfunctionality of Rebecca’s family and keep asking questions or making comments that cause old wounds to resurface, while the other half—for reasons that are never explained, but could imply that the family dynamic is even worse than what is shown—have still chosen to remain in Andrew’s presence despite being fully aware of everything he’s done. It’s a grim, but not outlandish take on what it’s like to grow up with a horrible person who has the money and influence to make the wrongs they committed against you go away, and the episode is subtle until the very end because everyone avoids addressing the elephant in the room, either because they fear Andrew or because they have been conditioned to respect and accept him as the patriarch of the family regardless of his character.
It’s not often that I come to like a show after having watched it and determined that I couldn’t stand it. But after realization after realization struck me, I came to understand that what I disliked about the episode was the fact that it was painfully realistic, and, like the oblivious characters who didn’t know the truth about Andrew, I had failed to see the signs. And if you could fail to see the signs in an episode of TV show where you’re waiting for the horrible revelation to surface, how many more things might you miss in real life when it’s happening right in front of you?
Inside Number 9, season 1, episode 1, “Sardines.” Directed by David Kerr and Written by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. Aired on February 5th, 2014 on BBC Two as licensed by Hulu.