It might not be easy to watch one man self-destruct, but it’s impossible to look away. Patrick Melrose Episode 4, “Mother’s Milk”, remains masterful storytelling and the very best thing currently on television.
In Patrick Melrose Episode 4, adapted from Edward St Aubyn’s novel Mother’s Milk, an older Patrick, now a barrister and married with two children, returns to the family’s sprawling and idyllic château in the South of France. His mother, Eleanor, aged by makeup and a grey Jimmy Saville wig, is dying. When she does so, she’s giving everything away to a nebulous “foundation” administered by New Age Irish hippies, who have moved onto the grounds and possess no plans of leaving.
Patrick can’t sleep. So, he drinks. A lot. He is as much an addict as he ever was, having only swapped his poison of choice to something more accessible and less obvious. His vices also include sleeping pills, which he was supposed to take for thirty days and has been taking for four years. He experiences all of the side effects, much to the chagrin of his wife and children, particularly his precocious older son, Robert, but still can’t sleep.
Robert is, for all intents and purposes, Patrick himself. “Mother’s Milk” highlights all the similarities between them; their propensity for solitude, humourlessness, and roaming the expansive grounds. And, it must be said, the confusion and resentment they feel towards their fathers. Patrick occupies the same window as his monstrous father did, peering out at the boundless sun-drenched privilege. “I loathe the poison, dripping down from generation to generation, and I’d rather die than inflict the same thing on our children,” he says at one point. And yet here we are.
Also present in Patrick Melrose Episode 4 is Julia, also a parent now, although a divorced one with an extraordinarily nihilistic view of motherhood. As Patrick becomes drunker and meaner, he becomes more attracted to Julia, who in many ways represents the life of carefree excess he bottled away with sobriety. Only now when he creeps along the aching floor outside her room, his own son asks him what he’s doing there. Every attempt Patrick makes to flee from his past leads him headlong into his future, and the damage he’s doing to it.
It’s odd to return to the same place and find it relatively unchanged and still so different. The same insects chitter endlessly; the same spectres haunt the halls. But the folk-singing Irish spiritualists are new, a creeping modern infestation souring an already rotten husk with more deceit. There’s no wonder Patrick’s angry. A lifetime of neglect – much of it occurring within this house – seems a large price to pay for the legacy of his family to be gifted to charlatans. When he fills his wine glass, it spills over with bitterness.
It’s a difficult thing, to watch a man self-destruct. Although only partially autobiographical, the adaptation of St Aubyn’s novels ring with so much truth that it’s hard to not feel as though you’re there, in the South of France, in the cloudy glass or withering cigarette that Patrick self-medicates with. You swallow the same poisons. Patrick Melrose Episode 4 might be the most toxic with them. The mother’s milk is sour.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.