Warning: contains spoilers for Endeavour Series 9 Episode 1 ‘Prelude’.
It’s May 1972, six months after Morse finally accepted that he needed to seek help with his drink problem. He’s back at Castle Gate after taking the cure – sober, dapper and in control… until his offer to escort Miss Thursday to the next wedding in her diary meets the news that Joan’s next wedding will be her own. Our detective had spent the last series so lost in booze that he’d failed to detect Joan’s emerging romance with Jim Strange. Now, he faces being the best man at a ceremony where he may once have hoped to be the groom.
Coming in second was revealed as the – somewhat unsatisfactory – motive for the episode’s main murder: an orchestra leader poisoned by the best friend who’d lived in her shadow since they were teenagers. Whether it was the killer’s unconvincing wig that signalled her as suspicious from the off, or the unconvincing idea that anybody would rather commit murder than simply get a new job or break a friendship, the resolution felt rather arbitrary. None of which mattered of course, because the meat of ‘Prelude’ was found elsewhere.
‘Prelude’ was well-named for the sense that Endeavour is gearing up to something monumental. The orchestra murder may have been by-the-numbers, but the secondary murders – those of a young man investigating his mother’s disappearance, and of an old London grass who’d come to Oxford to trade info with Fred – are leading somewhere. Somewhere ominous, more than likely. As ACC Bright said “Gang business. London business. Here in Oxford? Never ends well.”
How well it will end for Fred and the Thursday family in two episodes’ time remains to be seen. The return of Ronnie Box, Landesman Construction, and the hushed-up Blenheim Vale abuse scandal though, threaten devastation.
In its final series, Endeavour is picking up one of its most dramatic story lines. The last time we were at Blenheim Vale in Series 2’s ‘Neverland’, Fred caught a bullet and Morse was framed for murder. Even after those wrongs were righted, the establishment cover-up left a very sour taste. Add in the bent Soho police Fred encountered in last series’ ‘Scherzo’ (spot The Ostrich Fanciers’ Club card among Mickey Flood’s possessions?) and the stink of corruption that follows ex-copper Ronnie Box and any mention of Charlie Thursday around, and there’s a promising sense of building dread – helped in no small part by the tense string soundtrack provided by the Oxford Concert Orchestra. That was cleverly done.
Before the dread arrives, ‘Prelude’ let us spend a bit of time in Endeavour fans’ happy place. The brief scene of Morse and Thursday chewing over the case on that bench by the sun-sparkling river, a picturesque university college and a lazily steered punt as their backdrop, distilled the essence of their fruitful partnership and the shorthand they’ve developed over the years.
The concert orchestra setting too, could hardly have been more typically Oxford or Morse, with its evening-wear-on-the-lawn style, rakish viola player’s Latin gags, caricatured snob of a composer and beautiful guest soloist catching Morse’s eye. Throw in Dr DeBryn at his punning best, Ms Frazil’s wry erudition, Strange making a harmless tit of himself (wrong Hardy, matey), and a scene involving Fred’s sandwiches, and it was a welcome replay of some much-loved hits.
(Not least of which: a familiar-looking sale poster model for ‘Dexter Satchels’ on the wall at Burridges while Morse was waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. And what do we make of murder victim Andy Lewis, down from the North-East. Any relation to another Geordie we know of that name?)
The familiarity was needed to offset the sadness that in its final series (“the curse of the ninth”, as pompous Sir Alex described it in that meta-discussion of the inability to go beyond) Endeavour is starting to say goodbye. Bright is retiring and he wants to see his men to safe harbour before he goes.
The poignancy, as ever, came from everything that went unsaid between our two leads. Roger Allam and Shaun Evans (once again the director of some of this drama’s most nuanced performances from its regular cast) conveyed Fred and Morse’s awkward affection to great affect. Morse’s slightly woebegone look at a retreating Fred after their brief reunion over the college garden corpse, Fred’s swallowed words of worry and love at the pub translated into an unfussy “Mind how you go” and “Good to have you back” at the pub in the final scene… the words were sparing, but the emotions ran deep.
The orchestra murder plot did serve a purpose other than sound-tracking the whole thing, by demonstrating a dysfunctional mentor/mentee relationship to contrast against Thursday and Morse’s. Sir Alex and Christina epitomised an unhealthy obsession with, and unwillingness to let go of, a protegee. Thursday’s admittance to Win that he had nothing left to teach Morse, and Bright’s reassurance that he couldn’t have done more for him, was the opposite of that – a natural and healthy progression.
Fred’s hands were full of course, with his actual son. With Joan apparently settled, it’s now Sam’s turn to spin out of control and his chosen method – drink – is a familiar one. That was another nuanced moment from Evans, as Morse’s face registered Sam Thursday’s drunkenness before he deposited him at Joan’s and heard the news that took the wheels off his own sobriety.
Like Christ in the desert, Morse was tempted three times in the episode (Dorothea, Dr DeBryn and surprise returnee Ronnie Box all offered him drinks that he refused). But when he finally reached out for Joan, too late, and found her out of grasp, it took the ground out from under him. By the end of the episode, he was back to draining lonely pints at The White Horse, back to the man we know he’ll become. The end is nigh alright.
Endeavour Series 9 continues on Sunday the 5th of March at 8pm on ITV1 in the UK. It will air on PBS Masterpiece in the US at a later date.