This review contains spoilers.
There’s a frost in the Oxford air, glimmering on the college quads as another year draws to a close. For long-time Endeavour viewers, though, it’s another chill that’s of more concern. The previous episodes of this brief seventh series have seen a growing froideur between Morse and Thursday: two friends we once thought couldn’t be parted, come hell or high water. Well, the former – or a vision of it, at any rate – has made its appearance. Turns out that a spate of unsolved, barely connected murders might do what a corruption scandal never could.
St Matilda’s College is the last bastion of all-female education in the University, but that might soon change. Much to the fury of Magdalena Byrne (Marianne Oldham), her academic colleagues are holding a referendum on male membership of the college. It’s a controversial topic, but no amount of protests – or Dr Byrne’s insistence that St Matilda’s student body is at risk, threatened from without by the ravening beasts of the opposite sex – can hold back a push for parity. When she drops the stereotyping, bringing up the hard fact that only five Oxford colleges permit women at all, it’s hard not to see her point. Another towpath murder, followed by a mysterious accident within the bounds of her sanctuary, doesn’t do much to soften attitudes on either side.
Zenana is the culmination of an unusually serialised run of episodes for Endeavour. A number of plot threads have been developing throughout the series, all of which untangle themselves satisfyingly in this final story. Behind the eerie, spotlight-grabbing towpath slayings that have monopolised both the headlines and the police’s attention, another mystery has been brewing.
Dorothea Frazil (Abigail Thaw, always a welcome presence) has been busily investigating a spate of recent ‘accidents’ in the city and its environs. She’s absolutely convinced that something sinister is behind these fatal mishaps. They are, after all, bloody silly ways to die. Morse, a little sceptical at first, is fully on board with her theory by this stage, but Thursday won’t credit it. The stage is set for a vicious bout of recriminations that only Max DeBryn’s unfailing dignity can, all too briefly, shut down.
It’s an episode of high drama, tragedy, and bitter grief for a number of our friends at Castle Gate. A spark of hope for the Brights is snuffed out in the cruellest way imaginable when Frazil’s suspicions are proved to be correct. If you come away from every episode of Endeavour thinking how bizarre it is that the dry colonial martinet of its first series has somehow ended up becoming one of your favourite characters, then Zenana will both confirm Lesser’s brilliance, and remind you of how far Bright’s come since those early days. Those precious domestic scenes with Mrs Bright (Carol Royle) make the end so much more heartbreaking. We don’t even need to be told how much he’s lost. Endeavour might get the operatic tragedy, but he’s not the only one to lose a lover.
And on that note, after a series filled with lots of bawdy jokes worthy of one of the lighter opera LPs in Morse’s collection, the question’s been answered. This is a tragedy, not a comedy, after all. When the ‘supernatural’ mystery of the towpath killers – yes, there was more than one – has been solved, it falls to Morse to work out who’s been profiting from the other deaths, Mrs Bright’s very much included. Ludo and Violetta are up to their necks in guilt, and only one man can bring them in. It’s a painful bit of foreshadowing. Morse’s propensity to fall for doomed women won’t end here, as we know all too well. Back toVenice it is, for the final act in a bloodsoaked narrative.
Kate Saxon’s direction and James Moss’s cinematography make this a suitable ending to a visually stunning series which piles on the nerve-jangling tension in its action scenes to the very end. What lingers in the mind is the tension between characters, and some superb acting. The entire cast is given plenty to get their teeth into, from Evans and Allam in some wincingly brutal altercations as festering resentments start to erupt, to Sean Rigby and James Bradshaw as Strange and Max observe their friends’ deteriorating relationship with horror. Matthew Slater’s score, as usual, brings out an even deeper layer of emotion.
Where to in series eight, then? Well, that letter from Morse to the absent Joan hinted that his heart might not have been completely turned by Violetta’s charms. As for his friendship with Thursday senior, the last scene said it all. The McNutt era isn’t upon us just yet…