It’s almost remarkable just how unremarkable Detective Inspector Robert Lewis is. He solves cases by carefully pursuing leads and gathering evidence, not through sudden flashes of deductive genius. He still grieves for the wife that he lost 10 years ago in a car accident, but he’s hardly ravaged by personal demons. His cases often take him to ancient, prestigious Oxford, but he is neither intimidated by the intellectual brilliance all around him nor determined to prove that, despite his working-class background, he’s just as smart as the university’s best and brightest. He’s competent and he’s compassionate, but he hardly seems like the sort of character you would build a long-running mystery series around. Of course, there’s an excellent reason for that: Lewis is a promoted sidekick, the longtime assistant on the much-loved British detective series Inspector Morse, now with his own show and his own detective sergeant to order about.
Airing under PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! banner—which this season has also featured Sherlock, Wallander, and the Inspector Morse prequel movie Endeavour—Inspector Lewis closes out its fifth year on the program with tonight’s episode, “The Indelible Stain.” American professor Paul Yelland (played by, of all people, Starsky And Hutch’s David Soul) has been invited by Oxford’s Criminology Department to present his controversial theory on how the human genome could help predict dangerousness, the underlying factors that predispose people to commit crime. Because pretty much all historical attempts to assess dangerousness have led to racial profiling, Yelland is denounced by department members and local protestors alike as a bigot, and the night ends in his murder by strangulation. Detective Inspector Lewis is on the case, ably assisted by Detective Sergeant James Hathaway, whose mysterious past, not entirely successful Oxbridge education, sardonic wit, romantic frustrations, and encyclopedic knowledge on seemingly every random topic imaginable all recall the late John Thaw’s Inspector Morse.
“The Indelible Stain” begins with Professor Yelland’s lecture on dangerousness, but the episode largely sets aside the possible thematic weight of this idea in favor of focusing on the characters involved, with Lewis dismissing the idea of predicting dangerousness with the veteran cop’s observation that, under the right circumstances, anyone could do anything. This means the episode sidesteps some potentially fascinating material—in particular, the episode occasionally suggests the unique difficulties Lewis and Hathaway face in investigating criminology experts without ever properly developing it—but it also avoids getting too gratuitously shocking. One of the episode’s most pleasing twists comes early on, when it’s revealed that Yelland’s theory wasn’t earth-shattering at all, but rather a bit of dull theorizing from a minor academic that the ruthless head of the Criminology Department knew would rile up Oxford’s liberal intelligentsia. “The Indelible Stain” offers potentially sensationalist elements like a radical, secretive anti-racism group and mysterious racist text messages that hint at some rather implausible ideological war going on just beneath Oxford’s surface, but these are all red herrings. The real reason why people commit crimes in “The Indelible Stain” are achingly, tragically personal, and that’s to Inspector Lewis’ credit.
Kevin Whately has been playing DI Lewis now for twenty-five years, which in true British fashion means he’s actually only appeared in 60 total episodes of Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis combined (although each episode is about 90 minutes long). Whately emanates both the pragmatic decency and tired irascibility of someone who has been serving the public for maybe just a little too long, and he’s at his best when offering compassion to those he meets in his investigations, particularly in his scenes with an inconsolably grief-stricken mother in the season’s first episode. Lewis also shares the absolute lowest of low-key flirtations with pathologist and fellow series regular Dr. Laura Hobson (Clare Holman), even if Lewis makes it clear to Hathaway that he still isn’t ready to pursue a new relationship long after his wife’s death. Both Whately and Holman capture how two middle-aged singles might show that they care for each other while still being a bit confused about what exactly that’s supposed to mean. Laurence Fox is a lot of fun as DS Hathaway, always ready with a cutting line to put some arrogant Oxford academic in his or her place—Hathaway is a Cambridge man, after all—and he conveys the sense of being a high-functioning mess with little more than his oft-exasperated delivery and the occasional cutaways to Hathaway subsisting on a diet of booze and cigarettes. Rounding out the cast is Rebecca Front, who gets to take a well-deserved break from Malcolm Tucker hurling profane abuse at her on The Thick Of It to play Chief Superintendant Jean Innocent. It’s not a part that gives her much to do, but at least it’s nice to see her get to play a competent authority figure for once.
“The Indelible Stain” isn’t the best this season of Inspector Lewis has to offer. That honor goes to the first episode, “The Soul Of Genius,” which weaves its central murder mystery around themes of obsession, sibling rivalry, the fear of being normal, and the unfathomable grief that comes with being unable to let loved ones go, with an amusingly awkward romance subplot and a bunch of allusions to Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Of The Snark, Pulp Fiction, and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple thrown in. The second episode, “Generation Of Vipers,” makes nice use of the show’s Oxford University backdrop by slowly teasing out the connections between some old classmates with a complex set of grudges between each other. It also manages the minor miracle of building a mystery around cyberbullying without coming across as completely hysterical and out-of-touch (at least not compared to what else is out there), even if it requires the viewer to believe everyone on the Internet lives within a five-mile radius of each other, which actually just about makes sense in the context of the episode. The only real misfire of the season is the third episode, “Fearful Symmetry,” which starts off promisingly in its exploration of a babysitter’s murder before collapsing in a jumble of contrivances and loose ends, all of which are meant to get the mystery to a final lurid twist that the show is usually better than. The episode also includes a career-minded woman whose unfeeling ruthlessness borders on being a sociopath, just like the department head in tonight’s “The Indelible Stain,” which is the sort of character type I’d really rather only see once per season, preferably not at all.
All four episodes of this season of Inspector Lewis use the show’s Oxford setting—some more effectively than others—to develop complex webs between a vast array of possible suspects, most of whom are very bright people doing horrible things to each other. Almost all the characters we meet on Inspector Lewis end up being guilty of something, even if it’s not a criminal offense. That’s especially true of tonight’s entry, in which just about every character—the murder victim very much included—is morally compromised. In that sort of moral quagmire, it’s almost refreshing to have someone as resolutely solid and decent as DI Lewis around to sort it all out. He’s no Inspector Morse, but then he never claimed he was.
- The grade is for both tonight’s episode and the season in general. For those curious, I would give “The Soul Of Genius” a very strong A-, “Generation of Vipers” a B+, and “Fearful Symmetry” a C+.
- The show is actually just known as Lewis in the U.K.—the addition of “Inspector” to the title is to make the Inspector Morse connection more obvious in a country where the characters aren’t minor cultural icons—and this is actually the final episode of the show’s sixth series. Masterpiece Mystery! aired two earlier series as a single season, hence why this is being called the fifth season over here.
- I’m pretty sure the version of the episode airing tonight is a few minutes shorter than what originally went out in the U.K. I haven’t had a chance to watch the British version to check for any cuts, but I didn’t notice any obvious missing pieces from the story.
- According to both Whately and Fox, the next season of Inspector Lewis will be the last, but it’s looking decently likely that the prequel series Endeavour will step in to keep the Morse franchise chugging along indefinitely.