This review contains spoilers.
Behind each of the cases solved by the young Endeavour Morse in 1960s Oxford lies a bigger mystery, one that taxes the audience’s puzzle-solving skills even as the detective remains blissfully unaware of the need to crack it. It is, of course, the enigma of Morse himself. John Thaw’s iconic portrayal of Colin Dexter’s dour, embittered yet thoroughly decent detective needs no real introduction, but Morse’s past exists for us only in outline: a broken engagement, a difficult Oxford career, an abiding resentment of the top brass who obstructed him at every turn.
Endeavour’s first series established Shaun Evans as a fine Morse, well able to capture the character’s established idiosyncrasies while making the role his own. Trove, the second series opener, provides Evans and the rest of Endeavour’s sterling cast with plenty of opportunities to showcase the subtle, thoughtful approach to Morse’s early life that worked so well in last year’s episodes. The show’s creators have worked hard to immerse us in an Oxford both instantly familiar and unsettlingly different from the city with which both this man’s life – and his deeply moving, lonely death – are inextricably entwined.
It’s 1966, and Morse is finally back at work after an unhappy, humiliating convalescence following his shooting at the end of the previous series. Even Jakes (Jack Laskey) seems pleased to see him, and Chief Superintendent Bright (Anton Lesser) offers a few stiff words of sympathy, both for Morse’s injury and his father’s recent death. Detective Inspector Thursday (Roger Allam) is concerned that Morse is suffering from what would now be termed post-traumatic stress, but the young detective constable is keen to return to the fray as soon as possible. As ever in Oxford, crimes soon pile up. Ardent feminist campaigner Kitty Batten (Jessie Buckley) is arrested for spraying beauty queen Diana Day (Jessica Ellerby) with red paint in protest at Day’s inclusion in a pageant to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Norman conquest of England. However, Morse and his colleagues soon have more to worry about than lashings of fake blood. When a man falls to his death from a city rooftop, it seems like a simple case of suicide. Morse is intrigued, however, by the stack of cards in different names found in the dead man’s possession, along with a cryptic note: D DAY FRIDAY 98018.
It transpires that the dead man was a private detective named Pettifer whose investigations evidently led him into dangerous territory, as Morse finds to his cost when a visit to Pettifer’s London office finds him both the victim of mistaken identity and the recipient of a brutal beating. None of this, however, can deter him from a case that troubles him as much as the private eye’s killing. Bernard Yelland (Philip Martin Brown) has visited all the police stations in Oxfordshire in a bid to find his missing stepdaughter, Frida (Tieva Lovelle), only to be given short shrift. Meanwhile, as Oxford marks England’s submission to Norman dominance with an exhibition of the magnificent Wolvercote Trove, the treasure mysteriously disappears overnight. The local constabulary’s hunt for the missing hoard leads them to Frida Yelland’s murdered body, and sets in motion a series of events that will link the disparate figures involved in the recent crimes, from the dead detective to Diana Day’s seedy manager, Val Todd (David Westhead) and back again to Kitty Batten’s father, Archie (Jonathan Coy).
Morse’s loss of confidence in the aftermath of his injury is sensitively handled, and highlights the importance of the growing friendship between him and Thursday. Evans and Allam have established a warm, bantering rapport, and one that touchingly anticipates Morse’s future bond with another down-to-earth family man, Robbie Lewis. Lesser and Laskey both add depth to their characters’ difficult relationship with Morse in this episode, while the guest cast also excels; Westhead creates a memorably sinister villain hiding beneath surface bonhomie, and Coy compellingly depicts a man with a dreadful secret. Arrogant medievalist Dr. Matthew Copley-Barnes (played here by Jamie Parker) will reappear in the Inspector Morse episode The Infernal Serpent; the erudite Morse manages to put Copley-Barnes in his place, even raising a smile from Jakes.
Like all prequels, Endeavour faces a problem: how to satisfy Morse aficionados without alienating new viewers. On this evidence, the delicate balance maintained in the previous episodes remains in place. The welcome return of Abigail Thaw as newspaper editor Dorothea Frazil provides a pleasing nod to her father’s unforgettable impact in the role of Morse. Meanwhile, two other important characters point towards the future. Charming pathologist Max DeBryn (James Carter) will still be in his post in the early years of Inspector Morse, but PC Jim Strange (Sean Rigby) will occupy Bright’s office. The mystery of how the affable policeman ends up leapfrogging Morse to the top spot begins here, and promises sinister developments to follow as Strange grows closer to the Freemasons. Morse wouldn’t be Morse, meanwhile, without a poignant romance, which he swiftly finds with sweet nurse Monica (Shvorne Marks). We know, of course, that it will come to nothing in the end, just as we know that his brief moments of domestic comfort with Thursday’s noisy, happy family will provide his only real taste of a settled home life. As the final scenes remind us, though, Morse’s outsider status permits him to champion people like Frida Yelland, a ‘nobody’ in the eyes of her killers. It’s an honourable path, and a lonely one – but, for Morse, nothing else would have sufficed.
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