PBS’s new three-part miniseries Breathless pulls strands from popular recent series—the character drama of Mad Men, the politics of Masters Of Sex, and the lavish soap of Downton Abbey—to weave together a fun but probing series set in a gynecology ward in 1960s London.
The similarities to Mad Men are so obvious that I feel, simultaneously, like I have to talk about them and like they’re not even worth highlighting. In brief: Dr. Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) is an impossibly handsome, confident surgeon with a dark, mysterious past, who always swoops in at the last minute to outperform his colleagues. Replace “surgeon” with “ad man,” and that should all sound very familiar. Zoe Boyle’s Jean Truscott is a red-haired, charismatic nurse whose hip-swishing strut looks so much like Joan Holloway’s signature walk that I’d have a hard time believing Boyle’s preparation for the role involved much more than studying Christina Hendricks.
Even though these attempts to cash in on Mad Men’s success are barely concealed, they’re only surface-level details. Breathless plays out like a more over-the-top Masters Of Sex, and creators Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale resolutely lean in to the series’s more soapy elements. Dramatic moments are punctuated with dramatic music. The villain looks and speaks like a sinister stock type, and is also accompanied by sinister music. Everything from the sets to the faces are overwhelmingly beautiful. It’s the same kind of pomp and circumstance that makes Downton Abbey so much fun.
And under the aesthetics lie truly fascinating commentary. Like Masters Of Sex, Breathless seems to be saying something not only about how men treated women then but also how patriarchal society punishes and regulates women now, especially when it comes to sex. And in the context of its medical genre, Breathless focuses with particular scrutiny on the effects of sexism on women’s health. Jean’s finacé Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) unintentionally gets her pregnant despite assuring her unprotected sex would be fine, and he’s a gynecologist who should certainly know better, but as Jean’s friend Lily points out, that hardly matters. After her miscarriage, Jean then starts taking the newly available birth control pill and excitedly remarks that it’ll allow her to “be like a bloke.” In other words, to be like someone who doesn’t have to worry too much about unprotected sex. The doctors talk to their female patients like they’re either children or just vessels for bearing children. One woman’s depression is dismissed as menopause. From the dialogue to the camerawork, Unwin—who wrote and directed the first episode—uses everything at his disposal to evoke and explore the series’s questions about sex, sexuality, control, and relationships.
But while Unwin very carefully and convincingly constructs the social politics and power dynamics of Breathless, he teeters a bit with some of the more specific plot points. There’s the aforementioned cartoonish villain whose motivations for blackmailing Powell remain, at least for now, dubious. And it’s never quite clear why new nurse Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman) has such a problem with the fact that Powell has been performing underground abortions for women for years when she herself seems determined to break rules—especially in order to protect other women—in all other instances.
The most clumsy story is the very sudden love interest sparked between Dr. Powell and Angela. Calling it sudden even seems too kind: It materializes out of nowhere, and Powell’s attraction looks a lot more like obsession, especially when he follows Angela home after work one night after she keeps refusing to have tea with him. It’s already tough to swallow stalking as a romantic gesture, but we’re also just never given any reason to believe Powell’s insta-infatuation. So when he tells Angela “I’ve never felt like this” after she finally agrees to have lunch with him, the words sound hollow.
But for Angela, they work. She runs from the room crying. Because… she’s thinking about her absent husband? She’s afraid she might actually want to bone Powell? Who knows! For most of the premiere, Breathless expertly conveys and critiques the systemic and cultural sexism that allows men to control women in 1960s London, but the flirtations between Angela and Powell drip with male fantasy. In all other instances, Powell is portrayed in stark contrast to his colleagues who smoke pipes in visitation rooms and leer at female patients as if they’re photos in a textbook. He treats the women in the hospital like real people. But he treats Angela like an object to be won. He’s the smirking, arrogant surgeon who won’t take no for an answer, and she’s the caring, wide-eyed nurse who will probably, eventually, say yes. Powell never sees Angela when she’s at her most interesting in the episode, like when she springs into action to save a young girl’s life. All he sees is her perfectly winged eyeliner, and that’s, I guess, all it takes.
- I’m a little fuzzy on the details of Angela’s marriage… she says her husband “disappeared” as if that is a very normal thing for humans to do. No one seems to have any follow-up questions about it on the show, but I have about a million.
- I feel very blessed that we get to see Elizabeth eat her first pizza ever.
- Lily’s face when she realizes Jean has been using the souffle dish as an ashtray actually broke my heart.
- And now for a quick teaching moment: Dear straight dudes, I know television keeps telling you that stalker-like persistence works, but it doesn’t! Don’t do it!
- Okay, I love melodramatic soap, but Jean miscarrying just hours before her shotgun wedding and then still going through with the wedding because she thinks it’s her only shot at locking down Dr. Truscott? That was a little much.
- Jean’s wedding dress, though, is everything.