There are no beats skipped (or missed – choose your preferred idiom) with this aptly-named series. Pretender really is great, no matter what it’s doing. It’s quite easy to spot the difference when a series really cares about getting details just right. There are no wasted moments, wasted conversations, wasted characters, wasted background shots. You want to savor every element, and you get the sense that the people behind the show were doing just that as they were making it.
The change of venue this time times us first to Nice, were Makoto has taken up residence as a sushi chef in training (a job Laurent has landed for him). The sushi restaurant in Nice is run by Chinese (as many sushi restaurants in the West are – Laurent’s statement about Euros and Asian culture is an overstatement but not without some basis in reality – and Makoto’s reaction to being mistaken for Korean is spot-on accurate for a typical Japanese person). Makoto, as ever, is trying to go straight, though that seems to be a Sisyphean task for him. He’s taken up residence at the boarding house/restaurant run by Sebastien (Febreze Boutique, which I’d assume is a stage name) and his daughter Marie (Wakai Yuki in Japanese, Leticia Lenard in French) – and grown rather fond of them.
There are some interesting things happening on the character front. I’m not sure if Cynthia (who seems to be the focus of this arc) is serious when she says Laurent is into Edamame or she’s just yanking his chain, but that would certainly explain some of his actions so far. Abby comes to Paris to help out with Makoto’s small-time con (more on that shortly), and it’s clear that she’s softened up considerably (belch notwithstanding). There seems to be a warmth between she and Makoto now, and it’s on display in a charming montage of them having dinner and dessert on a chilly French evening.
The con is simple enough. Sebastien and Marie have to sell their place because of accumulated debts, and Makoto decides to help them by conning an arrogant Englishman who berated his boss into buying the worthless painting hanging in the boarding house for €25,000. Cynthia, Abby and Kudou are involved strictly to indulge Makoto, who’s itching to run an operation himself – there’s no big payoff on the horizon. The only part of this that I don’t quite get is why Makoto is so hard up for cash, because I would have assumed his take from the Singapore sting had to be comfortably in seven figures (Dollars, not Yen) but there’s no explanation forthcoming for that.
Turns out there’s a reason that Laurent is a much better con man than Makoto. The mark turns out to be the “James Bond of the art world”, James Coleman (Yasuhara Yoshito, and it’s great to hear him again). And the painting turns out to actually be by the artist Cynthia said it reminder her of, the fictional Sergio Montoya – a lost masterpiece called “Snow of London” that’s worth 20 million Euros. Sebastien and Marie’s wonderfully deadpan reaction aside, selling a painting for 1/1000 of its value is hardly going to get Makoto into the confidence hall of fame. And given past history, we can’t be certain the whole boarding house/painting scenario isn’t a setup by Laurent and Cynthia to get Makoto unwittingly working for them yet again.
The plot thickens considerably with Episode 12 and another scene change, this time to London. We don’t see that town in great detail just yet – Nice in Episode 11 got much more of Great Pretender’s usual loving and exquisitely detailed treatment – but I suspect that will change over the next couple of episodes. Coleman is in league with ultra-rich heiress Farrah Brown (Honda Takako), who he uses to buy any painting he especially wants to keep for himself. It’s not the paintings Farrah wants to keep for herself, but both of them get what they want out of the deal – the paintings hang in a special room at her estate where he can visit them whenever he wants, and he visits them often. Everybody wins.
Everyone has a role to play here. Makoto and Kudou-san are gardeners at the estate, but it’s a different sort of bug they’re there for. Abby continues her role as the shop assistant from Paris, this time professing to want to become Coleman’s disciple. We see Cynthia at some unspecified point in the past working in a coffee house and poses as an aspiring actress , and worming her way into the heart of artist Thomas Mayer (Hirakawa Daisuke). He’s got talent, but mainly for copying the works of famous masters for reproduction. Cynthia and Laurent have obviously pegged him as the man who can give them what they need for this con, and it’s pretty obvious what that is.
The clincher here is James Coleman, who’s quite the fascinating mark. No doubt the guy is obnoxious, but you can see why he’s successful both professionally and romantically despite his lumpish appearance – he’s whip-smart and what’s more, undeniably quite charming. He’s also not abjectly a criminal in the sense that Eddie Gassano and Sam Ibrahim were – he’s just pompous and prone to abuse his position. While Coleman is no paragon of virtue by any stretch, one can see the slippery slope of moving from Eddie to Sam to James – at some point the con is all that matters, and the fiction of only taking from those that deserve to be taken goes out the window…
This is all utterly arresting, and once more a complete departure in tone from what’s come before. Great Pretender (fittingly) changes its skin with every arc, but somehow remains essentially itself – a neat trick to be sure. The attention to detail remains spectacular, right down to the paint stains on Thomas’ hands. But as always, it’s the character side of the story that’s the most interesting. Does Cynthia feel any sense of guilt over using the perfectly kind and utterly feckless Thomas, who’s totally in love with her? Do she and Laurent feel any over trying to con Farrah – who’s no crook and really, not even guilty of being a scoundrel – out of 30 million Euros worth of Montoya?