Early on in tonight’s episode of The Hour, I abruptly realized I had little to no idea how the titular program was even doing in the series’ fictional universe. I’ve had a vague sense that it’s been doing well, and Freddie tells Hector he has the ear of the public here, but it’s been hard to get a sense of what’s going on in the country at large, outside of the bunker we’re in with the characters. That’s not a huge flaw with the show—this is something that’s probably impossible to dramatize in just six hours of TV—but it is something that would be nice to get a greater sense of.
When The Hour threatens to put the voice of the opposition on the program, to respond to Prime Minister Eden’s speech on the war against Egypt, is that something that could really create problems for the government, or will the government be able to laugh it off? Granted, The Hour takes place in the days when there were very few TV networks, so The Hour probably has more influence than, say, 60 Minutes has today, and Fox News has proved that news programs with small audiences can have disproportionately large effects on the national conversation. But McCain and his other government toadies are so intent on keeping everyone on The Hour quiet that it almost feels as if the show is now some sort of British institution, instead of the scrappy little program the initial episodes sold it as. (This is another thing: I know time has passed, but I’m never quite sure just how much has passed between, say, episode one and this episode.)
On the other hand, there are some tremendous moments in tonight’s episode, tremendous moments that are tempered by some clumsier ones. To me, the central triangle of Hector, Freddie, and Bel remains reason enough to tune in, and that triangle gets some powerful moments in the episode. In particular, I liked the scenes where Bel realizes that her attempts to stay secretive about her affair haven’t been going so well and that pretty much everybody—including Marnie and Clarence—knows about her and Hector’s fling. The scene where Marnie humiliated Bel through being very kind, by pointing out that Hector usually cheats on her with silly little girls and how nice it was that he was dallying with an “intelligent” woman, was terrific, as was the scene where Clarence dressed Bel down for her destructive behavior. This was the first episode where I really got a sense of how much The Hour means to Clarence, and in that scene and the one where he talked with Freddie about how Freddie would have more chances, he became a much better realized character.
That said, I’m not as fond of the moment where Bel comes right out and asks her mother just why men get to have all of the advantages, and women—even extraordinary women such as herself—have to adhere to a hidden code that can never be broken. Yes, Romola Garai delivered this monologue well, and yes, it’s nice to have this unambiguously feminist moment in the midst of everything, but the whole thing felt a little too much like underlining stuff the audience is already thinking. We don’t need to be told all of this by Bel because the show has been demonstrating it so very well that we don’t need the compare-contrast between Bel’s world and our world drawn for us.
But the episode has a few too many moments like this, moments when a character underlines everything they’re already thinking and stuff we already know. Another occurs in the episode’s climactic moments, when Freddie confronts Lord and Lady Elms about how Ruth’s death wasn’t a suicide. No, it wasn’t, allows Lord Elms before launching into a speech about how silence isn’t the answer and men like him were the ones who killed Ruth ultimately and blah, blah, blah. Again, the whole thing is delivered well, but it’s underlining points the show’s already made quite effectively by just stepping back and observing how these people act. The revelation that Freddie was one of the Brightstones—bright young minds targeted by the KGB to possibly be flipped against the U.K.? That was pretty cool (if obvious), and I also liked the final image of Lord Elms looking down upon Hector and Freddie pulling away from the estate. But the speech itself was over-written claptrap.
So I’m of two minds about this episode (if you couldn’t tell). It seemed to veer wildly between some of the best stuff the show has done up until this point and then some pretty awful scenes that were meant to tell us exactly how to feel and exactly how to think about the characters. You’d go from something like McCain continuing to be a sniveling villain with no real dimension (well, maybe the fact that we all but get confirmation of his romantic involvement with Adam will be seen as dimension) to something as nicely done as the two scenes where Hector, watching Bel talk with Freddie in person and on the phone, has an inkling that he’s not going to be the one who ends up with the girl or the scene where Bel and Hector essentially break up over her desk without really saying the words. This sort of small-scale character stuff is where the show excels (and it’s increasingly pulling in the supporting cast); it’s when the series tries to go bigger that it falters.
Or maybe it doesn’t. By far the most compelling thread in tonight’s episode was, for once, the national geopolitical stuff. Eton’s government is swamped by controversy over the war over the Suez, and protests break out throughout London, protests that Freddie, Isaac, and Hector go to cover. While the show hasn’t done the best job of clarifying just how well the program at its center is doing, it did a very good job here of showing how a war the populace wasn’t exactly clamoring for can backfire into massive protests and unrest. The government’s attempts to use the new medium of television—a medium it still doesn’t quite understand—to keep everything controlled are too heavy-handed, and the show is doing a good job of how this heavy-handed approach is just making things worse. The situation in Egypt is making a whole bunch of people realize all at one that the British Empire may no longer be sustainable, and the tension and dread that follows that revelation is one of the very best things the show is doing. As we head into the finale, I’m just as interested in what happens to the country as I am the central characters or their news program. And that’s no mean feat.
- One of the reasons The Hour hasn’t really taken hold as the center of the show is because we’ve seen so little of it. You’d better believe if there were an American version of this show, several of the early episodes would have taken place almost solely during filming of one episode. I don’t know that that’s the right approach, but it would have made the news program feel more concrete as an entity.
- I do like the way everybody involved in the show seems willing to try just about anything, though. Now, they’re talking about putting Isaac’s sketch about the Suez on the air because why the fuck not?
- OK, I complained about McCain up there, but I did like the moment where he lays it all out on the table for Hector, and Hector doesn’t even have to get him drunk to get him to open up. He just knows that’s the only logical play for him to make.
- I have to say as an American viewer, watching this whole Suez storyline has been instructive in the way that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Or those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Or insert your favorite cliché here.
- Another nice character scene: Freddie asks Bix if they’re all right, and even as it’s clear she wouldn’t mind more, she lets him off the hook easily and graciously.