This review contains spoilers.
It’s 1968, a year of political unrest and social upheaval. The assassination of Martin Luther King, reported in clipped tones on a radio broadcast at the end of this opening episode of Endeavour’s fifth series, brings a chill of foreboding from the outside world to Oxford’s tranquil streets. That peace, however, has always been deceptive. The discovery of the body of Joey Sikes (Victor Gardener) underlines the point. The boxer-turned-gangster, instantly recognised by Thursday as a bad lot, has been shot dead, but there’s a gruesome twist; a metal spike has been driven deep into his ear. This unnecessary touch suggests a nasty piece of gangland symbolism to pathologist Dr De Bryn (James Bradshaw), but the discovery of a distinctive shade of lipstick on cigarette ends found in the dead man’s car is a complicating factor.
The auction of Fabergé’s last great masterpiece, ‘Nastya’s Egg’, with its links to the ill-fated Romanov dynasty, seems at first to be worlds away from the grime of Oxford’s criminal underworld. When DS Morse (Shaun Evans) and WPC Trewlove (Dakota Blue Richards) are called in to investigate an apparent break-in at the college in which it’s housed, they find only a red rose. Morse is happy to consider it a student prank, but Dr Robin Grey (Roger Barclay) is convinced that it’s the calling card of a master thief known as The Shadow, whose job description involves lifting priceless antiques from their owners. He gets one of Morse’s looks for that, as does Ms Frazil (Abigail Thaw, always a welcome sight) when she collars Morse about the possibility of international art theft’s possible arrival in Oxford. The next time Morse encounters Dr Grey, it’s under rather more unpleasant circumstances. The academic is found dead in bed in his college room, stabbed through each eye with a steak knife. On his lips is the same garish lipstick discovered at the scene of Sikes’s murder. ‘Cherchez la femme’, as De Bryn puts it with his usual puckish wit.
Muse sets a particularly grisly batch of murders – Grey’s isn’t the bloodiest, not by a long shot; David Fincher would be proud – against a backdrop of more personal drama, small-scale by contrast but seismic in its impact on the lives of a cast of characters we’ve come to know and care about. Morse is still frustrated by his stalled career progression, while all at Oxford City Police are waiting for the axe to fall as their workplace awaits its merger with two other local constabularies to form the Thames Valley force familiar to viewers of Inspector Morse. Our hero’s future is starting to take shape, and it’s going to be particularly interesting to see how he and Thursday (Roger Allam) handle this major transition. Cosy pubs and crossword puzzles might be a fixture in Morse’s life, but the camaraderie he currently enjoys with a select few colleagues might soon disappear.
Other tribulations are on the horizon, setting up some intriguing problems for the rest of this series. Morse’s odd-couple lodgings situation with, of all people, Strange (Sean Rigby) is an amusing new development. We now know where Morse practised his passive-aggressive ways of shutting down unwanted conversations before Lewis came along, at any rate. Even at work, he has no peace. DC George Fancy (Lewis Peek) is a new arrival at the station, and swiftly makes a nuisance of himself by appropriating Morse’s desk. Things go from bad to worse as Thursday assigns Morse to the task of keeping an eye on the eager beaver new recruit as he learns the ropes. Fancy’s enthusiasm for sports and overbearing attempts to chat up Trewlove don’t exactly endear him to his new mentor. Still, Morse’s friendship with Jakes started that way, so there’s hope yet for this unlikely duo. Morse’s doomed attempts to fit in with his colleagues have always been a source of some of the funniest and saddest moments in Endeavour, so the new pairing promises much.
A more pressing concern for long-time viewers will be the state of Morse’s legendarily troubled love life. The unexpected return of Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers) throws him into turmoil once again, with the shadow of his refused marriage proposal looming over their awkward reunion. This tormenting reminder of a love he lost will doubtless affect any other entanglements we might see going forward, though we’ve been promised a fair bit of passion for the ascetic young policeman this series. Trewlove’s right there, by the way. Just saying.
Read Gem’s review of the series four finale, Harvest, here.