This review contains spoilers.
It’s the summer of 1969, and, as a fraught decade draws to its close, change is afoot in Oxford. When we last saw Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans), he and his colleagues were reeling from a terrible loss. The murder of George Fancy in a shootout at a gangsters’ haunt – an open-and-shut-case on the face of it – had been exposed as something more complex by pathologist Max DeBryn (James Bradshaw), who revealed that the fatal bullet was not fired from the gun that killed the men Fancy was attempting to apprehend at the time of his murder.
As we rejoin Morse eight months later, that puzzle remains unsolved. The man who could once bring together a case’s disparate strands with the same precise efficiency he employed on his beloved crosswords is at a loss. Much has changed for Endeavour Morse, and the moustache he’s now sporting is only the most obvious sign of his emotional turmoil. Still waters, though, run as deep as ever; on the surface, all is disconcertingly calm. His few months at CID having come to an abrupt end, he’s found himself forced to return to uniform. His peace is disturbed by a visitor. Jim Strange (Sean Rigby), still rising through the ranks with a management post in Division, drops by his old friend’s rural one-man station to share whiskey and some awkward chitchat.
Once, it would have been Strange who suppressed nagging concerns, barrelling on past oversights and injustices while Morse chipped away at the evidence. Now, though, his efforts to prod his former colleague into action fall on stony ground. Morse is harder, chillier, more remote than we’ve ever seen him. He’s polite and far from unsympathetic, but he’s been through too much to trust in investigations and fairness. Still smarting over Fred Thursday’s (Roger Allam) disciplinary hearing and demotion after the disastrous business with Fancy, Morse has had just about enough. “Don’t you care?”, Strange pleads. “Would it make a difference?”, Morse asks as he turns on his heel.
Morse at least has the privacy of his quiet little sanctum to withdraw to. Thursday, on the other hand, now answers to DCI Ronnie Box (Simon Harrison). If his name rings alarm bells, it should. Remember that glorious bout of fisticuffs in series five? Well, Box was the Sweeney-style copper – all booze, birds, and braggadocio – who impugned the much-missed Shirley Trewlove’s honour and faced the wrath of the gentlemen of Cowley as a result. Now he’s in charge, and Thursday’s misery is complete. There’s frost in the air between Fred and Morse, too, with their cosy lunchtime pints a thing of the past.
When ten-year-old Ann Kirby goes missing, manpower and police resources are devoted to the search. It isn’t until Morse goes looking for a horse reported missing by Mr Tingwell (Simon Hepworth), however, that the child’s body is found, arranged in an eerie tableau in front of an electricity pylon, as if laid out for burial. As DeBryn puts it to Thursday: “One might have known if anyone was going to find her, it would be him.” The Home Office scientist is, as ever, full of compassion beneath his dry wit. Bristling with polite indignation at Box’s tactless enquiries about sexual interference, DeBryn’s natural understanding with the equally sensitive Morse on the same subject is a quiet pleasure: “And…?” “No, no.” When these former colleagues find themselves sparking theories off one another again, the air crackles with its old energy. Box notices, and he doesn’t like it. One snide dig after another bounces off Morse’s tense frame as he bites his tongue, hard.
All clues point to drug-addicted Stanley Clemence (Aston McAuley), whose possession of her satchel is interpreted as a sign of his guilt by Box and his terse colleague, DS Alan Jago (Richard Riddell). Thursday doesn’t share that view. In a stylish flashback – one of a number of pleasing visual choices by director Johnny Kenton – we see Fred rescue the young man, then a toddler, from the house in which his father brutally bludgeoned his mother to death years earlier. Tragedy will strike and corruption on a grand scale will be uncovered before the unhappy youth’s innocence is, all too late, established for certain.
The case itself is satisfyingly complicated, with a late-stage twist involving Maggie and Alfred Skynner (Katharine Bubbear and Tom Canton) that compounds an already devastating loss, the depth of which is conveyed skilfully by Fiona Skinner as the dead child’s mother, in a scene of excruciating grief. The activities of the silkily sinister Dr Lester Sheridan (Roger May) – completely unrelated, as it transpires, to poor Ann’s death – make overt reference to the photography of author Charles Dodgson, known to posterity as Lewis Carroll, whose images of pre-pubescent girls he seeks to copy with his own disturbing snaps. Sheridan’s attempts to justify the abduction of Rosie Johnston (Abby Barnes) from a local fête, not to mention the three-year imprisonment of another missing child, elicits Thursday’s wrath.
A spiky conversation between Endeavour and Joan (Sara Vickers), who’s now employed as a social worker under the supervision of tough Viv Wall (Alison Newman), sets up conflict for the future in an episode short on cheer. Still, we do get to see Chief Superintendent Bright (Anton Lesser, brilliant as ever) find his vocation in the Traffic division with an educational video that counts as one of Endeavour’s greatest moments.
Oh, and as the episode closes, a little bit of Morse history is made. As Barrington Pheloung’s legendary theme plays us out, the young Detective Sergeant’s on his way to Thames Valley, transferred at Strange’s request. As a decade comes to an end, a new era is beginning.