A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a visual guide to the online currency Bitcoin, cheerfully titled “How To Explain Bitcoin To Your Mom.” Bitcoin is pretty complicated, so it’s nice to have an explainer with graphics. But why not explain Bitcoin to your father, or your brother, or your teenage son? Do they not need it? Or is it that moms need it more? What makes The New York Times think that rearing children is mutually exclusive from whatever it requires to understand Bitcoin—economics, mathematics, technology?
The Bletchley Circle has nothing to do with Bitcoin, but it’s tackling the same issue: the question of what women are capable of. The series takes on urban mysteries in London in the ’50s—but first and foremost, it’s about engaging the assumptions made about women in the world. In its first season, the series introduced four women who made lives for themselves during World War II by being codebreakers for the military; after the war, they found themselves in the more traditional roles of wife, mother, waitress, and librarian. Susan Gray, the protagonist of the first season, is both a mother and a brilliant mathematician. Needless to say, it’s likely she would have figured out Bitcoin all by herself.
What’s most appealing about Bletchley Circle is its blend of character drama with period mystery story; Miss Marple would recognize the techniques of these women, if not the women themselves. They juggle their domestic duties and the particular frustrations of female in the workplace with investigations, interrogations, and codebreaking. The characters, between them, fix machinery, map out murders, do math in the margins of textbooks, and root through police files for research. All of this, in a world where the highest-paying job any of them can get is “secretary.”
If the second season pales in comparison to the first, it’s because that delicate balance skews a bit further to the side of straight character drama. The Bletchley Circle’s first season works as a standalone entity exploring women’s lives after the war—an upsettingly bleak portrait, even though the story found a way to provide these characters with a happy ending. That story tied together the changing roles of women, post-war trauma, and the protagonists’ lives with novelistic force. The second season marks the show’s attempt to be more of a serialized procedural than a standalone series every year.
The second season reflects that with two short cases, instead of one case to structure the whole season. The first, “Blood On Their Hands,” takes up two hours with the case of an old colleague from Bletchley Park framed for murder. She didn’t do it, but she’s taking the fall for someone else—and won’t explain why. And in the second, “Uncustomed Goods,” Millie (Rachael Stirling) finds herself tangled up with a black market ring that turns out to be trafficking much more than Continental cigarettes and perfume.
Bletchley Circle has a bit of the sensibility that True Detective pulled off so brilliantly earlier in the year—where the darkness of crime or vice touches the investigators back, and begins to alter their lives. The best example of this is the first season’s main character. Susan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin, starts off the season as a reluctant investigator—a total 180 from her role last season, where she was the one who brought the girls together for one more case. But the denouement of last season’s crime, which had her facing off with a murderer, has given her nightmares and anxiety attacks, a fact that she is keeping from her husband and children. As with last season’s war-crazed rapist-murderer, what draws the women to these crimes is that they do not feel so far removed from London’s victims. A military scandal, covered up with layers of bureaucracy, and a human trafficking ring, where girls are being funneled out of Eastern Europe for brothels in the United Kingdom, both hit too close to home. One woman sees her daughter in a victim; another woman sees her husband.
Where Bletchley succeeds is in its unapologetic, decidedly feminine take on British life in the ’50s. In that respect, it is most like The Hour, which was canceled after a two-season run in 2012. Both shows rely on situations that are not, strictly speaking, all that realistic: The Bletchley ex-codebreakers have a surprising amount of time and legal leeway to investigate these cases, despite having no technical qualifications and very little money; The Hour’s Bel Rowley produced her own television show in her mid-20s—in 1956. Not impossible, but on both fronts, a bit unusual. As a result, both stories require a willing suspension of disbelief that may not be immediately accessible to savvy viewers. Period clothing and setpieces can only get you so far if the premise of the story doesn’t feel real.
But The Bletchley Circle and The Hour are both less about the period they’re set in and more about reclaiming them; for women, in particular. There is little good to look back on in that era—both shows, in fact, focus on sex trafficking in Britain, which was apparently a booming underground business that victimized many women. Both shows love period details; but both love playing with them more.
There’s a scene in Bletchley Circle where Jean (Julie Graham), the oldest of the group, determines that she has to impersonate a criminal in order to advance the case. She puts on a pearl necklace and a fur coat; Millie reaches across the frame and applies lipstick onto her friend’s face. It looks like a game of dress-up—because it is a game of dress-up. It’s hard to imagine a middle-aged woman would make herself up as a different woman in her free time, in pursuit of a deadly mob boss. On the other hand, it is fascinating that she does so. It’s playing costume drama in the costume drama that is The Bletchley Circle. Jean is offering an alternative identity for herself—and for women in general, when they watch this story.
The other show that The Bletchley Circle invokes is Sex And The City—a group of women, usually four women, strolling around a great city and chatting about their lives, over meals and codebreaking. Each character has their strength, which the show works hard not to make a stereotype—Millie is good with languages, Lucy has the photographic memory, and Jean is, well, “the old one.” Each, also, finds herself struggling with the expectations of the world they live in. The revelations are occasionally somewhat trite; the stories are familiar ones of learning to trust and taking on a new challenge. But there’s something revolutionary about all the trivia of The Bletchley Circle. And, of course, the women often have their best successes when they can lean on each other for support.
Though The Bletchley Circle is a mystery series, it’s not a show to be watched for the riddles—at least, this season isn’t. Instead, this is a season about re-examining the past with a feminine perspective. And if that sounds cozy, perhaps there’s a lot more for audiences to learn about women in history.
Written and developed by: Guy Burt
Starring: Rachael Stirling, Julie Graham, Sophie Rundle, Hattie Morahan, and Anna Maxwell Martin
Format: Four-part miniseries
Debuts: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on PBS
Full series watched for review