Endeavour Series 4 Episode 1 Review: Game

Morse prequel Endeavour returns to ITV with what promises to be a richly rewarding fourth series...

This review contains spoilers.

It’s the summer of 1967, and we rejoin Endeavour Morse and his colleagues only a fortnight after the dramatic events of series three’s finale. The aftermath of that episode’s bank robbery casts a long shadow over Game. Joan Thursday, traumatised by her experience as a hostage, has abruptly departed Oxford for pastures new, leaving her parents bereft. For Morse, who’d realised his love for her too late, the suffering’s just as acute. He gets no comfort from Fred Thursday, who’s sunk into a depression that causes him to seek refuge in sullen hostility. The discovery of a missing man’s body in the river keeps them occupied, but the secrets that emerge with the drowned corpse bring their own share of grief.

The body is that of Dr Nielsen, a researcher on a cutting-edge computer project at Lovelace College. He was involved in the creation of the Joint Computing Network (JCN, or ‘Jason’) a state-of-the-art machine that’s about to face its first real test in a game of chess against Russian academic, Professor Yuri Gradenko (Robert Luckay). The investigation into this apparent suicide is soon complicated by the appearance of two more corpses, both in East Cowley Baths. The first is initially believed to be the victim of an accident. However, when the heartbroken parents of the third victim, Edison Smalls, express surprise at their non-swimmer son’s presence in the pool, the detectives realise that something very sinister is going on. The residue left by a strange oil on the two most recent victims’ faces establishes a connection, although links between the three victims are difficult to pinpoint. The investigation that follows will claim another life, and uncover a terrible family secret that’s remained hidden for years.

Game is a fine episode, and promises great things for the rest of Endeavour’s fourth run. Previous series have tackled a year from Morse’s life at a time, but the decision to split 1967 between this series and the last allows a sharper focus on the emotional turmoil that a single decision can create. There’s always been a certain melancholy behind the stories, but it’s been obscured so far this series by a raw pain that these reserved, stoical characters are finding hard to handle. This allows all the main cast members to shine, especially Shaun Evans, who skilfully conveys Morse’s simmering anger and confusion in the wake of two bitter disappointments: the loss of Joan, and the revelation that he’s automatically failed his sergeant’s exam after his exam paper mysteriously vanished before it could be marked. Chief Superintendent Bright warns Morse that his card’s been marked by the powers that be since he attracted unwelcome attention by exposing police corruption, and suggests that he consider leaving Oxford to begin again elsewhere.

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The emptiness of the Thursdays’ once happy home is poignant, and Win Thursday’s attempts to distract herself from her grief at her beloved daughter’s absence are particularly affecting. As so often, pathologist Dr DeBryn lends both humour and a quiet, dignified emotion to proceedings; his request that a victim’s body be treated with care as ‘she’s been through enough’ reveals the compassion behind his incisive wit. This episode’s rich in that kind of understated warmth and decency, with one character’s dedication to the men known as gueules cassées (French for ‘broken faces’: a term used after the First World War to describe soldiers returning from combat with devastating head injuries) serving to underline both the meaning of true humanity, and the consequences of its absence. Another such connection is provided by the image of a woman’s death mask displayed in the home of shallow crime writer Kent Finn (Adam James). L’inconnue de la Seine (‘the Unknown Woman of the Seine’) was – or so the story goes – retrieved from that river in the 1880s, her death presumed a suicide. Her tragic fate attracted less attention than her beauty, and her face, preserved in plaster, quickly became a must-have ornament in Parisian homes. Dehumanisation, in its different guises, subtly undermines the technological progress represented by the ‘thinking machine’ at the centre of the plot. The beguiling image of the unknown woman would eventually make its own contribution to science, oddly enough; in 1958, it was used as the basis for a model of first-aid mannequin. 

It’s almost exactly thirty years since Inspector Morse first appeared on our screens in an adaptation of Colin Dexter’s novel, The Dead of Jericho, which aired on January 6th, 1987. Writer Russell Lewis has promised a number of respectful nods to the career of the older Endeavour, and this episode delivered a few. In addition to the welcome return of Abigail Thaw – daughter of the much-missed John – as likeable newspaper editor Dorothea Frazil, there was another allusion to Morse’s future (or past, from the audience’s perspective). The role of Professor George Amory is played by James Laurenson, who appeared in that first episode three decades ago. A keen sense of time and place is also reflected in the wonderfully atmospheric locations used for the episode, from the Arne Jacobsen-designed St Catherine’s College – as radical then as the period computing technology on display here – to the eerie swimming baths, beautifully shot by director Ashley Pearce.

It’s hard to predict what will come next for the lost and lonely Morse at this point. For Endeavour’s viewers, though, this is shaping up to be a richly rewarding fourth series. 

Read Gem’s review of the previous episode, Coda, here.