Good Omens continues with Hard Times, and a six thousand year odyssey through the eyes of an angel and demon. It’s an addition to the novel that proves a highlight of the entire show
According to Neil Gaiman, when first approaching writing the script for Good Omens, he started logically – by going back to the book. He split the original novel into six roughly equal parts to try and see the shape of the series. Things changed a lot from that rough sizing exercise, of course. And prime among those changes was the result of Gaiman having a startling realisation about the third of his fifty pages chunks – Arizaphale and Crowley (ultimately to be played by Michael Sheen and Doctor Who’s David Tennant) weren’t in it.
The result is one of Good Omens most daring moves. An incredible half hour pre-credits sequence of all new material from one-half of the novel’s original creators. If any fans of the book had lingering doubts, that alone dissolved them faster than a demon in holy water.
And what incredible new material it is. We’ve already seen Arizaphale and Crowley during the exile of Adam and Eve, but this picks up shortly afterwards and continues to tell the story of their evolving friendship across six thousand years. Arizaphale finishes up his role as Angel of the Eastern Gate by literally bricking up the door behind him. God casts a suspicious at him over the flaming sword he’s somehow ‘misplaced’. But, nevertheless, he’s then assigned to watch over the human race on Earth. In parallel, Crawley the Serpent Demon has also been appointed to Earth to cause trouble. As a result, they find themselves frequently observers at the same events. And often each other is the only one they can talk to about what’s really going on.
“I’m not consulted on policy decisions!”
Early on, the sequence deftly illustrates how an angel like Arizaphale, living quite literally in the real world, might begin to doubt the reason of his superiors who are more remote from the consequences of their decisions. He tries to hard to keep to the party line on things like the Flood. “The Almighty’s going to put up a new thing called a ‘rainbow’ as a promise to not drown everyone again.” But he sounds unconvinced by his own propaganda. For his part, Crawley (or ‘Crowley’ as he becomes a couple of millennia in) quickly begin to realise that he simply can’t compete with the nastiness people inflict on each other. “Oh yeah, that’ll do it,” he sighs at the crucifixion upon learning Jesus’ crime of preaching to “be kind to each other.”
By the time of King Arthur, Crowley has conceived the Arrangement. Since he and Arizaphale are just cancelling each other out, they’d be just as well both not bothering. But it takes about five hundred years for him to talk the angel around into actually doing it (throwing in making Shakespeare’s Hamlet a hit to help seal the deal). By the French Revolution, they’re actually saving each other from tight corners. It’s partly because they don’t want the other recalled to their head office and replaced by someone more awkward. But mostly it’s because they’re becoming real friends.
“I didn’t really fall. I just, ya know, sauntered vaguely downwards.”
In all of this, Michael Sheen and David Tennant do an exceptional job of selling the evolution. From grudging professional respect, angel to (fallen) angel, to arrangements of convenience, to real affection, both play their roles perfectly. There’s a real subtlety to Tennant’s performance in particular. Arizaphale wears his heart on his sleeve even when he doesn’t want to. But Crowley appears to be genuinely trying to manipulate his counterpart at first. And his slow awakening of genuine sentiment is nicely played. And it gives us a direct line from that sniffy, wary nod of acknowledgement back In the Beginning to the latter stages of Hard Times when Crowley hisses that he and Arizaphale are no longer on opposite sides but that “we’re on our side!”
But what of the half of the episode that manages to take a more conventional position after the titles? Here Good Omens stays closer to the book and focuses on events in Tadfield. Anathema plays a different role in the End of Days than she expected when she passes an afternoon with Adam. She unknowingly shares with the Antichrist all her ideas and theories about life (along with a bunch of old magazines). These range from real-world concerns like saving the whales, nuclear power and pollution to the slightly more fringe. Well, I say, ‘slightly.’ By the end of the evening, a boy with the ability to reshape reality itself around him is going to bed dreaming of the Kraken, the lost continent of Atlantis, and a secret Tibetan order that keeps watching over the planet from their network of tunnels.
“My best operative? That would be Witchfinder Lieutenant… Table.”
Meanwhile, Arizaphale reaches out to his dedicated army of human allies to help stop the end of the world. And Crowley reaches out to his devoted army of human allies to do the same. Unfortunately, both armies are an elderly man in a one bedroom flat in London. In fact, they’re the same elderly man. It’s none other than Shadwell but, on the upside, he does have a glorified hatpin to smite his enemies with.
This really only nudges the plot forward imperceptibly. And it involves a trade-off with some other elements being cut down significantly. On the page Dog, Adam’s pet onetime Hellhound has a surprisingly abundant inner life, and this episode gives us our only brief nod to that. Famine’s introduction and summoning are also cut down to a bare-bones version.
Overall the result is an episode that’s a bit of a paradox. If you absolutely, totally, ultimately, had to skip one chapter of Good Omens without losing the thread of what’s going on, then Hard Times would be it. But at the same time, this potted history of the show’s central pairing is just too witty, fun and gorgeous to possibly miss. In some ways, it’s actually the heart of Good Omens.