Reviews

Women with Rare Intellectual Authority Form 'The Bletchley Circle'

The resourcefulness and fearlessness of these women is a highlight in a series so well-written and well-acted.


The Bletchley Circle: Season 2

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham, Sophie Rundle, Hattie Morahan
Release date: 2014-04-15
Amazon

The second season of The Bletchley Circle continues to focus on a unique group of women, former World War II code breakers, as they use those skills to unravel crimes and conspiracies after the war. These women are in a position of real intellectual authority in a time when they were given very little, and that is part of what makes the series so watchable.

The second season wastes little time in jumping right into a new story, and quickly introduces another member of the Bletchley Park code breakers, Alice Merren (Hattie Morahan). Alice is first presented in a flashback to 1943 as a gifted code breaker who was also having an affair with John Richards (Paul McGann), a scientist and fellow Bletchley colleague. As the episode shifts to present day, Alice is in prison and awaiting trial for John’s murder.

Discovering John’s real killer, as well as the reasons why he was murdered, is the series’ first mystery and it brings Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), Millie (Rachael Stirling), Jean (Julie Graham), and Lucy (Sophie Rundle) back together. Jean’s loyalty to her former Bletchley ‘girls’ is what initially draws her to Alice’s case when she reads about it in the newspaper, but as it becomes apparent that she didn’t kill John (though she insists she did), Jean brings the rest of the women into the case.

Apart from the difficulties in solving John’s murder, Susan continues to struggle with the ramifications from her previous return to her code breaking past. Her role as wife and mother makes her more vulnerable to the dangers the women encounter, yet she is also unambiguously drawn to the work. The ways in which she tries to reconcile the two is as much a part of the first half of the season as solving the case.

Just as the Bletchley Circle comes together again for the case, Alice’s innocence and the real reasons behind John’s death come together in personal ways, although with larger implications. Morahan is a welcome addition to the Bletchley group as she conveys strength, as well as a devotion to family, similar to Susan, but in a more unconventional way. Her unique perspective and drive to get to the truth complements the rest of the group well and the series continues to present strong women who are true individuals.

Following Susan’s departure, Millie becomes the central figure in the series. In many ways, she’s Susan’s polar opposite. Millie is independent, choosing to remain unmarried. She’s also impulsive and gregarious where Susan is more serious and reserved. Stirling brings a different energy to the series when Millie is the focus, as she captures Millie’s worldly, free spirit perfectly. It’s precisely that free-spiritedness that places her in the center of a dangerous group of smugglers in the second two-parter of the season.

Part of what makes The Bletchley Circle so successful is the personal component to each case. The mysteries they take on are often related to a personal relationship for at least one of the women, and in turn, it heightens the tension and the stakes for them all.

Regardless of the current mystery, The Bletchley Circle is first and foremost, centered on the friendship between these women. Forged by a wholly unique experience, and the secrecy involved in that experience, they understand one another in a way that others can’t. The way their shared past affects their other relationships is also an important focus for the series, and it does so in a way that manages to enhance the bond between the women without diminishing the bonds with their respective families.

Unfortunately, Maxwell Martin departs the series halfway through the second season. She’d been the central figure of the show with a strong presence that brought Susan to life with a great deal of intelligence and warmth. Her absence is certainly felt, but it is a testament to the writing and characterization of the other women, including new addition, Alice, that The Bletchley Circle is able to maintain such consistent engagement with the larger story of these women.

The Bletchley Circle remains a smart, highly watchable series that puts women at the center of the story. With the sheer volume of detective and mystery series focused on a male lead, The Bletchley Circle focuses on women in a time period when they were afforded fewer opportunities to use their skills and intelligence. Their limited power makes their reliance on one another particularly integral to the story, as they must work together, often circumventing offices and procedures unavailable to them due to their gender, in order to gain access to the information they need. The resourcefulness and fearlessness of these women is a highlight in a series so well-written and well-acted.

The DVD release includes a behind-the-scenes featurette with interviews with cast and crew. They discuss character development, wardrobe choices, and the real life history that inspired the series. It’s an entertaining and informative addition to the show.

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