The first two seasons of Endeavour, the prequel to the Inspector Morse series that ran from 1987-1993 (with five specials that aired between 1995 and 2000), were traumatic for the central characters of Detective Constable Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) and Detective Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam). The first season explored corruption in the Oxford police force, and ended with Endeavour being shot in the line of duty. The second focused on more rampant corruption of powerful businessmen and high-ranking police officers, connected to the physical and sexual abuse of children at a now-abandoned children home.
The second season ended on a cliffhanger: Thursday’s been shot, and Endeavour’s been framed for the murder of Chief Constable Rupert Standish (Derek Hutchinson). He’s arrested. The final shot of the season is of Endeavour in a cell.
It’s to the series’ credit that these events have long-ranging consequences for the central characters; there’s no sense of “keep calm and carry on” for either Morse or Thursday. At the start of season three, Morse has left the force after spending months in jail, disgusted by the fact that even those he’s cleared of involvement, the entire case is sealed for 50 years. Thursday, on the other hand, shows both physical and mental consequences from his near-death; a piece of the bullet is lodged in his lung, which could literally kill him at any time. Normally a reasonable and thoughtful police officer, season three finds Thursday both ill and ill-tempered, taking risks he normally wouldn’t (chasing after suspects without back-up) and more prone to fly off the handle during interrogations.
The opening episode, “Ride” builds slowly to the conclusion that Morse and Thursday are better as a team: Morse’s intelligence and empathy are assets Thursday appreciates; Thursday, in turn, is mentor and father figure, both of which Morse is in desperate need of. The issues / traumas both have suffered don’t disappear, but it’s suggested that the work itself offers a palliative for the injustices they’ve both seen and suffered. Further, the crowd Morse associates with in the opening episode — wealthy friends from his Oxford days — aren’t the relief Morse is clearly seeking: the glittering parties and bright colors mask the emptiness that slowly reveals itself throughout the episode, a conclusion in keeping with the series’ continued emphasis on the moral corruption of the wealthy and powerful.
On both a visual and a narrative level, the series does an excellent job of conveying the period (1967), through the brighter colors of the costumes, the authenticity of the props, and the performances of even minor or one-off characters. Not unlike the BBC’s Life on Mars (which often used deliberate anachronisms to emphasize the possible fantasy element of Sam Tyler’s [John Simm] presence in 1973), it’s clear that sets, costumes, and attitudes created with an eye to authenticity. The welcome addition of a female officer, Shirley Trewlove (Dakota Blue Richards) offers a change in the dynamics of the male-dominated CID, in line with the shifting gender dynamics of the era. The fact that Morse himself is the one who is most appreciative of what Trewlove has to offer is in line with his characterization thus far; Trewlove is intelligent, observant, and a bit of an outsider, not unlike Morse himself.
The lack of a greater arc that characterized the first two seasons allows for more character work to be accomplished, even as the plots of the episodes seem to wander a bit. Thursday’s illness and Morse’s initial absence gives the four-episode season more of a downbeat, elegiac feel. It affected the mood to the point that in episode two, when DS Peter Jakes (Jack Laskey) announces he’s getting married and moving to the States, I was primed for the twist that he’d not live to see the end of the episode. (Spoiler: He lived and moved to Wyoming.)
The appearance of a familiar location from Inspector Lewis (the Mortmaigne Estate) and an important connection to Lewis’s future partner offers a strong narrative bridge between the two series; on the metatextual level, the continued presence Abigail Thaw, daughter of the original Morse John Thaw, as journalist Dorothea Frazil, is more than a tribute or plot device; she was one of the few non-police characters in season three who’s integrated into the world of the series and often necessary to the story itself.
The Blu-ray transfer is crisp and clean, making even the night scenes pop, and doing justice to the series’ focus on period authenticity. The special features, however, are fairly thin. A ten-minute documentary “The Making of Endeavour” allowed the set and costume designers to (justifiably) brag on how they recreated the last ’60s, and two interviews — one with Roger Allam and one with Shaun Evans –- offered some interesting insights into the series, their characters, and the dynamic between. I would have appreciated at least one episode commentary; when done well, they can offer additional insights from the perspectives of actors, directors, and other crew.
With sister series Inspector Lewis having aired its last episode this summer, Endeavour remains the last series inspired by Colin Dexter’s novels on the air. While the BBC might get more attention for its prestige dramas and fantasy series, ITV has consistently produced its own quality series, with perhaps its greatest successes in the mystery genre, such as Poirot, Morse, and Miss Marple. The tradition seems to be in safe (and familiar) hands with Endeavour.