Patrick Melrose is a character portrait composed in the key of dread. As in the first episode, series director Edward Berger and cinematographer James Friend establish a visual language in which doorways are the thresholds of nightmares and the fig tree on the terrace looms as a specter of humiliation. The Melrose family’s idyllic Provençal getaway is beautiful but haunting, the scene of so many crimes committed by patriarch David Melrose (Hugo Weaving), who literally makes people tremble with fear by his mere presence. Though the house should belong to his son, Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch, giving the performance of his career), one day, it’s really not surprising when his mother, Eleanor (Jennifer Jason Leigh), leaves it to a hippie commune from Ireland. The house has no good memories, and though Patrick is furious at being disinherited, really, he is now free of his father’s ghost, in one way.
Doors in Patrick Melrose mark boundaries, and often those boundaries are a mere façade of safety and propriety. Young Patrick (Sebastian Maltz) may close himself within his room but he is not safe, for his monstrous father respects nothing and observes no propriety. He swans about the family summer home in lavish dressing gowns, holds forth at the dinner table, and makes the maid convulse in fear. David is a monster made all the more monstrous for his gentility and aristocratic grace. The class system that produced David also protects him, and the mores of the time in which a wife obeys her husband first and foremost all but guarantees Patrick’s complete abandonment to the cruel attention of his father. The only hope he has of protection is a closed door, and that is no hope at all.
The doors in the Melrose family summer home often stand half-open, allowing only glimpses into the interior life of the family. The first episode establishes a dread of doorways, and in the second episode, a door closes and the camera slowly pulls back, then transverses the beautiful spaces of the home and surrounding countryside. But no matter how gorgeous the French country is, that closed door represents a truth so awful it poisons everything, and the camera returns to it with a sense of inevitability. This door cannot be closed forever. It must open, and, eventually, must come a reckoning.
The trauma inflicted on Patrick happens behind closed doors, and later, we find, Eleanor was also suffering behind closed doors. But the evidence of those traumas spews across domestic spaces, whether it’s the wreckage of a ruined childhood or evidence of a crumbling marriage, and even Patrick’s addiction itself. Despite a ferocious will to stop the cycle of generational trauma, Patrick is stuck in his own cycle of recovery and relapse, his own marriage and family threatened by the shadow of his past. Back at the family summer home, he stands before a closed door, and whether or not he opens it represents his current struggle with sobriety. Indeed, it opens, and indeed Patrick relapses, choosing self-interest and self-destruction over family.
Yet every significant step of Patrick’s recovery involves a door, too. There is no more momentous act in Patrick Melrose than choosing, or not choosing, to pass through a doorway. Though Patrick chose to open a door during a summer getaway, back in the real world and once again in rehab, he is faced with another, similar door. This time, though, he leaves it closed and the cinema of the series seems to sigh along with the audience, relieved. That door remains closed, then Patrick walks through another, into group therapy, and there is applause. The colors also brighten as the lighting lifts, reflecting a little sunlight as Patrick begins what might actually be his final recovery.
The final shot of Patrick Melrose is a door. It’s not the elegantly carved palatial portals of his childhood, but a plain door at the end of a dingy hall. Yet it glows with light and beyond it is Patrick’s healthiest life. The camera lingers long after Patrick is gone, allowing reflection on that door and what it means for Patrick to pass through it. His trauma cannot be erased or forgotten, but it can be reconciled. In choosing to go through that door, Patrick essentially chooses his family over dwelling on the legacy of his father’s family. In Patrick Melrose trauma and recovery are a series of doorways which must be traversed until, finally, we learn to open the right doors, the ones that let light and hope into our lives.