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Series / The Escape Artist

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When you're chained up in a safe at the bottom of a shark tank, you don't call Paul Daniels. You call Houdini.

The Escape Artist is a 2013 BBC drama/thriller miniseries that centres around the life of a defence barrister in the Crown Courts, William Burton (David Tennant), who is known for never losing a case, and for being able to get criminals out of "tight legal corners". This comes back to haunt him when he agrees to host the defence case for notorious murder suspect Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) and gets him off on a technicality. In the meantime, fellow barrister Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) has spent most of her career under Burton's shadow. When a horrific turn of events leads her to stand up as Foyle's barrister, she finds herself in danger as well.

This show provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Aborted Arc: Perhaps an Invoked Trope, in keeping with the theme of misdirection.
    • Early on, Kate says something about Will's brain, describing it as a "hard drive" that is "full" and needs to be "backed up." It sounds as if she's talking about an issue of Will's capability that has gone undiscovered by his colleagues, but is never mentioned again.
    • Tara, an ambitious member of Will's Chambers, suspects Will is interfering with the case when less-brilliant colleague Harris has "an uncharacteristic burst of competence." It's made clear she can ruin everyone's careers if she proves it, and at one point she follows Harris to a meeting with Will that barely breaks up in time. She spots Will, Harris and Danny leaving separately, but nothing comes of it.
  • The Ace: William Burton, described as being the best barrister that a criminal could want to get out of a tight legal corner. This backfires on him when he takes Foyle's case.
  • Admiring the Abomination: As he starts going into anaphylactic shock and realises exactly what Will has done, Foyle compliments him on the cleverness of his murder plan. He doesn't even know the full plan yet.
  • A Fool for a Client: Will defends himself when he's charged with Foyle's murder. Since he's a skilled barrister already, plus has set things up to make it look like self-defense, it works - though he is hampered by not being familiar with Scottish court proceedings, which are different from the Old Bailey.
  • Agent Scully: Maggie falls into this when Will tries to tell her how dangerous Foyle is.
  • Amoral Attorney:
  • Anti-Hero:
    • William Burton himself. While for the most part a Nice Guy, he is known for getting criminals off on technicalities. It's his job and he's supposed to represent them to the best of the ability as the law instructs him to, and because he honestly believes everyone deserves a fair trial, but his loophole for Foyle delves into this territory. He later shows that he's capable of murder, after Foyle gets away with the murder of his wife.
    • Maggie is also a public defender barrister, and like Will she believes in doing her job to the best of the ability. Unlike Will, she's more cynical and is fuelled partly by her rivalry.
  • Badass Bookworm: Will. As well as being an incredibly skilled and erudite barrister who is continually rattling off precedent from case law, he manages to successfully murder Foyle by making it look like Foyle struck first (technically true) and causing him to die painfully from a minor stab wound which gets infected by a kind of seafood that Foyle is allergic to.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Foyle spends a good amount of the series believing he and Will aren't so different. Will ends up proving he's not entirely wrong... by murdering him and then ensuring there's no evidence, while framing it as if he's trying to save his life. Then, to rub salt in the wound, Will goes on to live a fairly normal life, moving on from any darkness he may have held.
  • Because I'm Good At It: A large part of what's led Will's career to its heights; he makes precious little disguise of disapproving of some of his clients but sincerely believes in the law and that everyone deserves a defence and he happens to be brilliant at it.
  • Best Served Cold: In the climax of the third episode, Will murders Foyle by making him die painfully from a minor stab wound... which gets infected by a kind of seafood that Foyle is allergic to, as revenge for Foyle murdering his wife. The cherry on the top? It looks like he's being heroic.
  • Big Bad: Foyle is the psychotic murderer who goes on a vengeance crusade against his defending lawyer, Will Burton, for not shaking his hand. He then starts targeting others who weren't evil guilty of that.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Will gets to live as normal a family life as he can, and he's got more of his family to support him, but the fact remains that he murdered Foyle (although you're unlikely to find anyone who can blame him) and that his wife is dead.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Foyle's murder at the hands of Will is downright horrific, but it certainly feels well-deserved.
  • Blatant Lies: Foyle at one point denies watching more twisted forms of pornography; he might have gotten away with this had Will not been given his credit card records, so in this case it's not him being a Bad Liar and more there being concrete proof. He then goes on to claim that credit cards can lie, but Will obviously doesn't believe him and refuses to press on with that particular part of the conversation.
  • Brutal Honesty:
    • Foyle is told he needs to change his presentation style if he wants to get off the murder charge. He doesn't outright confess to it, but says this:
    Foyle: Here's the thing, Mister Burton. I don't know whether you've picked it up or perhaps your sixth sense might've... spotted it. I don't like people very much. I'm just not a very nice person.
    Will: I'm not going to judge you.
    Foyle: No. The man in red does that.
    • Later, when on trial, Will openly admits that he rejoices at Foyle dying as part of his defence.
  • Butt-Monkey: Almost nothing goes right for Will. He's more or less forced to defend a client that he can barely stand, has an unpleasant time doing so, then has his wife and son stalked, with Kate then killed while Foyle gets off scot free. He then ends up arrested for murder even though logic dictates he'd have no reason to save a man he wanted dead. Life eventually decides to Throw the Dog a Bone, but things will never be the same for him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Vadim, Will's client in the beginning. Turns out he's an ambulance driver with criminal connections. When planning Foyle's murder, Will gets him to illegally access his medical records to find his allergy, and his credit card information to find his holiday home.
  • Contrived Coincidence: In-universe; the barrister prosecuting Will points out that the chances of Will meeting Foyle accidentally, and then stabbing him with a knife that's coated in the juices of a specific shellfish he's deathly allergic to, are far too remote to be considered accidental and therefore Will's actions must be premeditated murder.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Will refuses to shake Foyle's hand when they part ways for the first time. Foyle's response is to stalk his wife, and then kill her and threaten Will's son.
  • Disposable Woman: Kate, Will's wife, is murdered by Foyle in the first episode to set up the rest of the plot.
  • Effective Knockoff: Maggie watches Will defend Foyle and uses his same methods almost play-for-play when defending Foyle herself on Kate's murder charge. Will describes Foyle as a "convenient" murder suspect due to his unlikeable manner and unsavoury tastes; Maggie describes him as a "convenient" murder suspect due to his legal actions undermining Will's career. Will gets Foyle Off on a Technicality due to an issue with the expert testimony; Maggie does the same by finding an issue with the warrant. She even uses the exact same phrases.
    Will/ Maggie: M'Lord, I raised this issue in good time.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Will is introduced piling into a London cab and having an animated conversation on the phone about a shotgun murder involving cocaine, pausing only to assure the cabbie that he's a lawyer. He gets out at his destination, which turns out to be his son's school, where he's giving a talk about being a barrister.
    • Foyle is first seen feeding his many birds with a really creepy smile on his face. He then has his own breakfast, only to be interrupted by the police with a search warrant. He laughingly tells them to return after breakfast. When they insist, he screams, "AFTER BREAKFAST!!!"
  • Evil Is Petty: Foyle makes an art form out of this. Solicitor tells him that he needs to be less Obviously Evil? Ask him to leave the room immediately. Don't shake his hand? Beware the consequences. Do shake his hand? Beware the consequences regardless.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Foyle speaks with a rather low voice.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Liam Foyle may talk politely and seldom raise his voice, but he's not a pleasant person and he can easily drop the mask when he wants to. His quote for Brutal Honesty shows he's fully aware of it.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: While Foyle is on his rant about lions, savvy viewers may be wondering why Will hasn't picked himself up after being knocked to the floor. Maybe he's frozen with shock... or maybe he's not doing anything because he's already done it.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Foyle should have paid more attention to his own creepy monologuing. During his and Will's first meeting, he asks Will if he knows about grey squirrels killing the reds. When Will says yes, Foyle expands that a species of black squirrel has now emerged and is killing the greys, meaning the predators have become prey, "which just goes to show, you can never be too careful." During the final confrontation, Foyle describes himself as a "lion" who should be allowed to attack sheep at will; in other words, a predator who doesn't know he's become prey.
    • When Danny visits Will at the cottage where he's staying, he says that people are worried about Will because it's "not like him" to just take off "on the fly." He says this after they've eaten the limpets Will has just gathered with his son, using the knife he will soon use on Foyle, which he's just "innocently" loaded with limpet. The plan is already on stage two or three.
  • When Will hugs his son goodbye at the train station before going to kill Foyle.
    Jamie: Dad? You're trembling.
  • Gaining the Will to Kill: It takes Kate being murdered, Will finding out that Kate was pregnant when she was murdered, and Foyle going free to get to the point where he considers killing him. After that point he's completely OK with the idea.
  • Genre Savvy: Both Will and Foyle show moments of this. Foyle at least seems aware of Just Between You and Me and mocks Will for thinking he'd be stupid enough to just confess when he could be recorded... Unfortunately for him, he didn't consider the possibility Will wasn't there for a chat.
  • Handshake Refusal: Will refuses to shake Foyle's hand when he gets him released. This inspires Foyle to stalk and eventually murder Will's wife, Kate. Later on, Maggie does shake his hand, but it doesn't help her with him.
  • Heroes Gone Fishing: Outside of his ultra-serious courtroom persona, we see a lot of Will's home life that's played for considerably more laughs such as his continued inability to operate the dishwasher. This later gets a dark callback after Kate is killed when he tries to turn on the dishwasher and breaks down crying.
  • Heroic Fire Rescue: Will carries a stricken Foyle out of a burning building. It's a ploy to paint himself as doing his utmost to try and save him when in fact he's doing the opposite.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Will's position forces him to defend criminals who may well be horribly unpleasant sociopaths. By the end, he ends up murdering Foyle and successfully getting himself out of a murder charge, although in a variation he's able to move on.
  • I Love the Dead: At one point during Will and Foyle's meeting, one of the various things gathered about him is that he watches porn involving "sexual inteference with a human corpse". This mercifully is not shown onscreen... however, the corpse of Mullens, a woman he murdered, is shown brutalised and described as having been sexual interfered with.
  • In-Universe Factoid Failure: Will proceeds in his own murder trial as if he's at the Old Bailey, not aware that Scottish courts are different.
  • Ironic Echo: Maggie probably regrets telling Will that he should've been more careful defending Foyle.
  • Irony: Will illustrates his job for his son's class with the example of a classmate being accused of stealing a pen; his job in that context would be convincing everyone that whoever saw him take the pen was mistaken. Examples of it being dark and the witness having bad eyesight are mentioned. This is how Will's own testimony against Foyle is discredited, when Maggie says he was emotionally compromised, that it was dark and that he wanted it to be Foyle for career reasons.
  • Jerkass: Foyle is this whenever he's not being Faux Affably Evil, best shown when he asks his own solicitor to leave the room out of spite.
  • It's All About Me: Maggie, when Will approaches her to warn her of the dangers of representing Foyle (he'd know, after all) just snaps that "you can't stand seeing me succeed!" as if their professional rivalry is the only possible factor in a case involving his wife's murder.
  • Just Between You and Me:
    • Subverted by Foyle, who seems ready to explain his motive but then tackles Will and finds his phone recording
    • An inversion over the usual mechanic; at the climax, Maggie explains a "hypothetical" scenario whereupon a criminal barrister in a position not unlike Will's could engineer a murder and Make It Look Like an Accident. Will, after sitting stony-faced at having this all laid out to him, points out with a certain degree of smugness that you'd need to have a body to test that hadn't just been cremated.
  • Karmic Death: After evading justice twice, Foyle dies painfully while his murderer manages to "prove" he's not guilty.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Foyle is not played for laughs at any point in the series.
  • Not Proven: The final verdict found against Will himself.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: During one of their confrontations, Foyle claims to Will that he's the way he is and shouldn't be judged for it, pointing out that a lion is not judged for being born a lion. Will also invokes this by murdering him and getting off on a technicality, though unlike Foyle he moves on to a more peaceful life.
  • Off on a Technicality: Played Straight but seriously - Foyle is released due to this trope, but not because of any nefarious, underhanded tactic by Will, but instead due to the trial judge's initial refusal to give Will's expert time to prepare his submissions. When this later becomes quite critical to the case, coupled with the leaking of details, the judge accepts that Foyle cannot get a fair trial and is forced to stay the indictment. Maggie also does the same thing when Foyle is charged with murdering Kate.
  • Once More, with Clarity: Maggie lays out to Will how she thinks such a murder might have come about. It's intercut with flashbacks to Will doing exactly those things.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Maggie has spent most of her career in Will's shadow, and she's not entirely happy about it.
  • Papa Wolf: Upon finding out that Foyle may be stalking Jamie, Will immediately rushes out to find him.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Will murders Foyle as he killed his wife, and he feels that the man robbed him of a joyful life, as well as likely the lives of quite a few others.
  • Poisoned Weapons: Will bribes a former client to life Foyle's medical records whereupon he finds out he's allergic to a certain shellfish, and then deliberately uses his knife on them and later slashes Foyle with it.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Will cold-bloodedly murders Foyle whilst operating under the guise of saving his life. It works.
  • The Reveal: Several near the climax.
    • Maggie twigs exactly how Will might have murdered Foyle, interspersed with scenes of Will doing exactly that.
    • The final scene shows Will's mother has an allergy tag on her necklace and therefore it was her Epi Pen that was used to hold the extra dose and she was likely in on the plot as well.
  • The Rival: Maggie to Will, although for the most part they get on reasonably well... Things understandably sour a bit when she takes Foyle's case, though she's sympathetic during Will's trial.
  • Secret-Keeper: At the end, Maggie tells Burton that she knows how he killed Foyle and plans to get away with it. While she could have gone to the courts and pieced together her theory, she chooses not to. Reality bites in that the courts can't order a new trial of Will's case unless new evidence comes to light. And as he pointed out, the cremated remains mean there will never be any evidence of the deed. If Maggie went to the police with a salacious theory with zero evidence, it would only be damaging for her own credibility. Also, she was probably as glad that Foyle was dead.
  • Shame If Something Happened: There are hints as Maggie lays out her "hypothetical" scenario of how Will could have killed Foyle that she might intend to advance her career by extorting him. Her theory leaves three possible means of discovery; the doctored Epipen (thrown out of the ambulance window in the middle of nowhere), the person whose Epipen he used (his mother, unlikely to come forward), and swelling at the site of the Epipen injection. The way she presses the point about the hypothetical murderer having to live in fear that someone could order a second post mortem that reveals the swelling, as well as her Oh, Crap! face when Will tells her that said murderer has nothing to fear if the body has been cremated, seem to confirm her intent.
  • The Sociopath: Foyle shows little to no reaction to being told that he's been found watching porn that's both illegal and on the disturbing side, calmly saying that he doesn't do that sort of thing.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Foyle almost never raises his voice.
  • Stalker Without A Crush: Foyle starts stalking Will Burton's family just because Will didn't shake his hand. His later stalking of Maggie may or may not delve into Stalker with a Crush territory.
  • The Summation: Given to Will by Maggie in the end.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Foyle. Towards both Will and Maggie; he murders the former's wife and threatens his son because he didn't shake his hand, and stalks the latter by breaking into her apartment even after she did shake his hand.
    • A subversion happens in the third act when Will has just injected Foyle with an epi-pen and therefore tried to save him in spite of everything, and Foyle's response is to whack Will in the back of the head with a large object. It later turns out that Will injected him with more of the substance he was allergic to and he was probably very aware of it while dying painfully.
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • In the third episode, Will is called out by the Scottish court judges he stands before, because he mentions that Foyle murdered his wife as part of his defence. They state matter-of-factly that Will confronted Foyle, but it's obvious that they are disapproving.
    • This is the reaction that most people have to finding out that Will is on trial.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Foyle is accused of murdering a woman in a particularly vicious way before the story starts, and later goes on to murder Will's wife, Kate, simply because Will did not shake his hand.
  • Would Hurt a Child: At one point, Foyle stalks Jamie, Will's son, plus one of his friends, with several disturbing implications. Nothing actually happens in the end, but not because he has a change of heart.