Endeavour series 6 episode 2 review: the show’s finest hour to date?

Shaun Evans directs what may be Endeavour's best episode to date in Apollo. Spoilers ahead in Gem's review...

This review contains spoilers.

6.2 Apollo

July 20th, 1969: Apollo 11 makes its historic landing on the Moon’s surface. As a turbulent decade draws to its close, one lone figure takes one giant leap for his species, watched by millions huddled around black-and-white TV sets. And, in an ancient city back on that distant homeworld, another man is returning from a very different kind of isolation, only to find nothing quite as he left it.  

Endeavour’s in its sixth series now, a point at which most shows find themselves floundering a little. Characters, no matter how well-crafted, begin to exhaust their potential; scenarios, however compelling they may once have been, start to lose their intrigue as plot threads fray into irrelevance or are brutally cut. It’s a tough line to tread: paying due respect to established relationships while giving the treasured snowglobe just enough of a shake to keep things fresh.

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Apollo, the second film in series six, is a masterclass in how to do just that. Even after all this time, Endeavour – both the show and the character, it transpires – is still in the game.

The deaths of up-and-coming astrophysicist Adam Drake (Ben Wainwright) and his girlfriend Christine Chase (Katie Faye) in a car accident seem, on the face of it, to be tragic but uncomplicated. Appearances, however, can’t pull the wool over the indispensable Max DeBryn’s eyes for long. Drake certainly perished in the crash, but the pattern of lividity on Christine’s face indicates that she didn’t die at the scene. Endeavour and Fred develop a theory, nurtured by DCI Box, for whom every case is an open-and-shut-job: or at least, one that’ll close with a well-placed thump. Drake killed the girl for reasons unknown, then crashed his car deliberately in a tidy murder-suicide. Stranger things, and all that.

Mechanic Mac (Ross Boatman) puts a spanner firmly in the works with the revelation that Drake’s brakes had been tampered with. It soon emerges that the car wasn’t his, but had been borrowed from his colleague, Larry Humbolt (Sargon Yelda), who, along with his volatile wife, Isobel (Sophie Winkleman), attended the party Drake and Christine attended on the night they died. This divided couple, along with the party’s hosts, Elliott Wingqvist (Oliver Chris) and his languid spouse, Natalie (Alice Orr-Ewing), present a youthful, glamorous side of Oxford’s academic life that swings, as it turns out, in more ways than one.

Drake’s rising star had also hitched itself to another booming business: television, and more specifically, a sci-fi puppet show – lovingly, and delightfully, recreated here – that bears more than a passing resemblance to the works of the legendary Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. When Morse questions Jeff and Hildegard Slayton (Matthew Cottle and Mary Stockley) about Drake’s role as scientific advisor on their popular programme, it soon emerges that the womanising scientist wasn’t quite as clean-cut as he appears. As marionettes inch their clumsy way across a replica lunar landscape, their small steps manipulated by husband-and-wife team, Eric and Marilyn Gidby (Robert Hands and Terenia Edwards), a grimmer picture develops.

Scandal inOxford’s leafy suburbs, Morse in fine sleuthing form, and a last-minute twist that upends our cosy assumptions about guilt and innocence. So far, so Endeavour, surely? In theory, yes. In practice, Apollo is perhaps the series’ finest hour to date. Everything just works: Russell Lewis’s script, poignant and pointed; Matthew Slater’s score, best described as out of this world; and, above all, Shaun Evans’ superbly stylish direction. Endeavour’s always been fortunate in its directors, but its leading man’s stint behind the camera is a true standout. With an eye both detached and empathetic, he shows us just what can be achieved when an actor, with a unique perspective on characters, cast and setting acquired on the other side of the lens, gets the chance to call the shots.

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Not content with helming one of the series’ finest episodes, Evans also reveals new depths of light and shade in Endeavour Morse. The delicate, bookish youth of the early days has been through quite the wringer, and it shows. The morose stare, the chippy, take-no-prisoners wit, the suppressed rage. Fresh, yet familiar, because we’ve met this Morse – or rather, an older version of him – before. The man John Thaw came to embody is taking shape before our eyes, yet the transition’s been seamless. There’s a nice gag in the mortuary, when DeBryn bids both Fred Thursday and Endeavour farewell. “Inspector. Morse.” He will be, soon enough.

Most impressive of all is the breadth of the characterisation here. Fred, struggling wordlessly with Win’s emotional distance; Bright, cut to the quick by the mockery of his subordinates, and so touchingly responsive to a little kindness; Strange, attempting to hide his covert investigation into Fancy’s murder from Morse, and failing miserably; Joan, eager to prove her worth in her new job and infuriated by Endeavour’s resentful sarcasm. Like the constellations Humbolt points out to his eager kids, Flora and Matthew (Sasha Willoughby and Gabriel Payne, a delightful picture of sibling solidarity), each star burns with its own brightness, now and then dimmed by some inner turmoil, the patterns of their motion only visible from a far distance.

There’s a wonderful moment when Morse first encounters Gabriel Van Horne (Blake Ritson, all inscrutable charm) in his pristine sanctum of new-age codswallop, favoured by Drake’s smart set. Morse jumps at the sound of women screaming in unison, only to find a room full of adepts practising their primal yells. It’s a deliciously unsettling jolt in an episode full of pleasant surprises, and expertly releases some of the tension that’s been steadily building.  

The bleached-out sterility of the cultish surroundings is in sharp contrast to the inky darkness of that later memorable night on which we leave Endeavour, and on which three men, far from home, face their destiny as a certain someone’s future crossword clues. Flora, safe now from her wretched parents, tells him of a Cherokee legend, that of the Moon-Eyed People of North Carolina, who could only see by night. Perhaps he’s one of them, she wonders aloud.

Perhaps she’s right. Or perhaps it’s that lonely sun, still in the ascendant, that guides him on his way.

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