Foyle's War: The Eternity Ring

Foyle's War: The Eternity Ring

Foyle's War: The Eternity Ring debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain, in most markets. You should check local listings.

In a sense, Foyle’s War has outlived its own premise, although not entirely of its own volition. When the show premiered on ITV in 2002, the core idea of the series was to explore the lives of those on the British homefront during World War II, particularly how the sudden mobilization of young men into the army and young women into the workforce—not to mention the constant threat of German bombing or invasion—altered the fabric of society and, with it, the nature of crime. The show explored this through the eyes of its title character, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), who was rather reluctantly left behind to catch criminals and solve mysteries with the help of his driver Samantha Wainwright, née Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), in the town of Hastings on England’s southeastern coast. The first five seasons only made it from May 1940 to March 1943 before ITV decided to cancel the series in 2007, prompting creator Anthony Horowitz to condense all of 1944 and 1945 into 2008’s sixth and seemingly final season. Audience outcry at the cancellation led to the show’s revival, however, with a seventh season in 2010 charting the time in 1945 between V-E Day and V-J Day, a period when the war was considered more or less over in Britain, but a recognizably postwar society had yet to emerge.

The success of that season led, three years later, to this new—and, at least according to series creator and primary writer Anthony Horowitz, likely final—set of three episodes. It also helps to explain how a Hastings-set, wartime police mystery show has morphed into a London-based, Cold War spy show. Tonight’s episode finds Mr. Foyle being dragged out of retirement for the umpteenth time, on this occasion to investigate a mysterious spy ring that has baffled MI5. It takes well over half the episode for the show’s new premise to click into place—the obvious turning point is when Foyle and Sam finally reunite to get to the bottom of the mystery—and the episode’s structure is intentionally rather amorphous, even elusive. It’s not just that the episode hides the connections between its disparate characters, which include a militantly anti-communist British nuclear physicist, a fellow physicist who fled the Nazis and now keeps potentially treasonable company, a former police officer freshly returned from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, an MI5 officer with a secret nightlife, and a prospective Labour candidate in an upcoming London by-election for the House of Commons. It’s actually an open question whether any such connections actually exist.

The episode effectively merges the classic British espionage story, complete with references to “tradecraft” and other John Le Carré-approved jargon, and the police procedural mystery more typical of previous seasons of Foyle’s War. The transition is sometimes creaky, in part because the episode has to resolve off-screen the business that Foyle headed to America to take care of at the end of last season—which itself had also been sort of intended to serve as a series finale, at least before this latest revival—but the new espionage context does at least provide instant justification for the show’s continued existence. At one point, an irritated Foyle points out to his would-be MI5 masters that the war is over—which, by the show’s own professed logic, is the reason for him to at last retire, something he has long wanted to do—and the spymasters simply respond that the war never ended, but the enemy has simply changed. The transition from World War with the Germans to Cold War with the Soviets is a historical reality, and the show’s great challenge lies in convincing the audience that the early stages of such a nebulous conflict would somehow involve a random British cop, no matter how distinguished and steadfast he might be.

Here, Foyle’s War is able to lean on one of the great strengths of spy stories, as the audience is trained to accept that tales of espionage need not make total sense in the moment—arguably, the more confusing, the better—so long as the big reveal is ultimately satisfying. That’s true of the episode’s purposefully convoluted, contradictory story, in which what is technically the most serious crime is treated as a mere afterthought, and it’s also true of Foyle’s recruitment to MI5. It doesn’t really stand up to exacting scrutiny—and the show recognizes this enough to have multiple characters question his recruitment over the course of the season—but it’s entertaining enough in the moment, and, by the end of tonight’s episode, it feels right. That’s enough for the new format to work, although the season’s subsequent episodes do benefit from not having to trouble themselves with tonight’s storytelling gymnastics. As much as any episode of a British procedural mystery show can really be considered a table-setting episode, “The Eternity Ring” is one, but its narrative upheaval makes possible the season’s stronger entries, “The Cage” and “Sunflower.”

Compared to many of Britain’s great detectives, Christopher Foyle is often exceptionally virtuous and forthright; he lacks the cold, clinical remove of a Sherlock Holmes or the self-destructive urges of an Inspector Morse. He is a consummate professional, but that implies he is unerringly by-the-book, which isn’t the case. He is interested in justice in a more philosophical sense, rather than in the uncompromising demands of law and order, and he shows remarkable, not always entirely historically plausible, tolerance and understanding to multiple characters tonight. Indeed, only some of whom have committed acts that would no longer be considered crimes in a more enlightened age; at least once, Foyle shows more compassion to a confessed criminal than would his typical counterpart in 2013. Even when Foyle himself misleads people in the furtherance of his investigation—one that MI5 is forcing him to undertake, but still—everyone more or less forgives him his deception. This does perhaps slightly undersell the nuance of the character’s portrayal, but the fact is that Christopher Foyle can often come across as a borderline saint, which really should make the character a bit boring at best and infuriatingly pious at worst. The fact that this doesn’t happen is partially down to Horowitz’s careful writing, which never overplays Foyle’s virtues as anything more than quiet, honest dignity and compassion. The show understands Foyle isn’t perfect, but it makes a compelling case that he’s closer to an ideal than most.

But most of the credit for the character’s success really must go to Michael Kitchen, who consistently hits the right notes in the role. His interactions with his MI5 handlers consistently reveal a righteous indignation, but it’s only towards the end of the episode that he determines the specific reasons why his unwanted new bosses are so objectionable. His investigative and observational skills are on frequently display in “The Eternity Ring,” and Kitchen nicely underplays these moments. He is not driven by a compulsion to solve puzzles, again separating him from a Holmes or a Morse; solving mysteries is simply his job, and he’s damn good at it. He’s ably assisted in this by Honeysuckle Weeks as Sam Wainwright, who is completely, unquestioningly loyal to her longtime boss, even on the rare occasion where perhaps he does deserve the odd pointed question; she too displays an unshakeable decency throughout the series that transcends the petty strictures of rules and regulations, although Weeks’ performance makes it clear she doesn’t set herself up above the law any more than Foyle does. She just sometimes knows the difference between right and wrong better than her superiors.

All this might suggest that such straightforwardly decent characters do not demand the audience’s attention, and it’s probably fair that the charms of Foyle’s War are more subtle than some of its fellow genre representatives. But the show has always been about more than solving mysteries; it’s also about revealing the sort of world that needs someone like Christopher Foyle—and, indeed, someone like Sam Wainwright—to bring some much-needed compassion and understanding to his dealings with it. The Second World War presented a world gone mad, and that arguably goes double for the Cold War—albeit in perhaps subtler ways, in the absence of actual, protracted fighting, mobilization, and large-scale calls to sacrifice—and so Foyle and Sam provide two desperately needed voices of sanity. The whole show can metamorphize around those two, but as long as their essential strength as characters remains intact, Foyle’s War should remain worth watching.

Stray observations:

  • For those unconvinced by tonight’s episode, I would recommend next week’s “The Cage” as a significantly more successful presentation of the show’s new format.
  • I don’t want to oversell the show’s exploration of postwar society, as the stories of a lost soldier and a struggling Labour politician are really only fitfully interesting. They are theoretically compelling ideas, but the execution tends to be rather rote.
  • As is true of just about any British period drama, the costuming and set design are impeccable, although it must be said that the gaps in the budget do occasionally become evident —in particular, some of the exterior shots do really appear to be facades. 

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