The seventh and final series of Inspector Lewis will debut tonight as a part of PBS' Masterpiece Mystery series. It will debut at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain, in most markets, but you should check local listings.
Tonight’s “Down Among The Fearful” is the first story of three in the final season of Inspector Lewis, bringing to an end Kevin Whately’s 26-year tenure as the title character, Inspector (formerly Sergeant) Robert “Robbie” Lewis. As such, these last three stories theoretically have some responsibility to bring the character’s story to a meaningful end, to provide closure for audiences who have spent a quarter of a century watching this character. The challenge, however, is that for all the character’s legitimately remarkable longevity, he isn’t an icon of detective fiction; he’s the guy who stood next to an icon—specifically, John Thaw’s brilliant, lovably misanthropic Inspector Morse—for 13 years, and then he got a promotion. Lewis is the television character equivalent of a lifer, someone who is perfectly content to get through his career and his television series with as little fuss as possible and then quietly retire when the time comes. After 26 years and 59 movie-length adventures, the best description for Lewis is that he is just resolutely decent and solid.
How then can the show give the character a worthy sendoff to a character so fundamentally, unashamedly unremarkable? It’s nigh impossible to imagine Lewis bowing out like his predecessor did, desperately trying to solve that one last baffling mystery as his health fails him. It’s not that Lewis is any less committed to justice or the truth Morse was; it’s just that Lewis has always been far too sensible for such a dramatic fate. Indeed, tonight’s episode only hints at a narrative endgame in the vaguest of ways, and even then the focus is more on Lewis’ younger partner, Laurence Fox’s Sergeant James Hathaway. The Cambridge-educated, seminary-trained sergeant was designed to fill the acerbic, subtly damaged intellectual role that Morse occupied in the original show, and so he’s a much more natural character for the show to build its themes around. In tonight’s story, Hathaway’s religious background ties in neatly with the central mystery as murdered psychic Randolph James is revealed to be moonlighting psychological researcher Reuben Beatty of Oxford University, whose day job involved aggressively skeptical research into the nature of other people’s faith. It also adds some rather humorous symbolism to the neck brace that Hathaway wears after a car accident in the beginning of the episode.
It’s instructive to see how the events of “Down Among The Fearful” affect the show’s two central characters. The police note that Reuben’s work as Randolph James amounted to scamming the bereaved, as the avowed skeptic used his understanding of cold reading techniques to fake a connection with his clients’ deceased loved ones. Something like that should hit home hard for Lewis, who lost his wife in a hit-and-run before the series started. And while Whately layers in a little extra righteous indignation when discussing the Oxford researchers’ deceit, Lewis never explicitly acknowledges why he could so easily identify with the pain felt by Reuben’s clients. By contrast, the obnoxiously, pugnaciously skeptical researchers recognize Hathaway’s hidden but enduring religious faith and use this to needle him throughout the investigation. The story could potentially support thematic arcs for either Lewis or Hathaway, but the show only pursues the latter.
Even then, the episode is only moderately interested in its thematic implications about the nature of faith and skepticism in the face of death. Inspector Lewis is primarily concerned with its latest mystery, and so these deeper themes are present as much to obscure the solution to the whodunit as they are to illuminate some more profound truth. Various characters in “Down Among The Fearful” suggest that police officers like Lewis and Hathaway engage in much the same kind of ethically questionable investigative techniques as psychological researchers, who sometimes tear down subjects’ most cherished illusions in search of their desired answers, and cold-reading psychics, who use close observation of their subjects’ behavior and body language to extract information. On another show, the narrative purpose of such observations might be rattle the cops and provoke a crisis of conscience, but Inspector Lewis plays them more on a character level. The people drawing these parallels are themselves under investigation, and so their suggested connections are recognized and quickly dismissed as attempts to distract the investigators. Again, those distractions might well be the focus on other cop shows, but part of this show’s charm is that it’s about a pair of consummate professionals. They aren’t necessarily the best at what they do, as they make some key mistakes in this episode and miss some seemingly obvious connections. But these feel like the sorts of errors an actual detective might reasonably make, as opposed to the sort of mistake that would get a real-life cop suspended, pending a psychiatric evaluation.
All of this goes back to what fundamentally sets both Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis apart from other detective shows, and that’s their exploration of the divide between the university and the city of Oxford. Because the majority of cases directly involve the university, the suspects involved are typically driven, ambitious luminaries in their field who can call upon their considerable intellects in their attempt to outwit the police; indeed, when those under investigation are innocent of the specific crime, their powerful status usually means they have some embarrassing secret they are desperate to keep from the inquiring eyes of the law. Even more fundamentally, Oxford University’s best and brightest—not to mention the city’s most powerful businessmen and civic leaders—resent on principle that some nobody with a badge would dare to pry into their cloistered, privileged existence, and so characters frequently mislead and lie to a working-class, indifferently educated cop like Lewis just because they think they can. His predecessor Morse sported a fierce, ostentatious intellect that turned any such recalcitrance into an instant heavyweight struggle, but Lewis, as always, takes a quieter approach. Both tonight’s episode and next week’s “Ramblin’ Boy” feature characters who size up Lewis as an adversary and dismiss him to his face; it’s not difficult to guess how well that works out for either of them.
“Down Among The Fearful” holds no surprises for long-term Inspector Lewis fans, but it’s a worthy beginning of the end for the series, and it’s readily accessible to fans of the mystery genre. The subsequent stories, which are set to air over the next two Sundays, feature more of a wrap-up for the series, as Lewis and Hathaway both consider the futures of their personal and professional lives. There’s a minor ongoing arc for Hathaway that’s first hinted at towards the end of this episode, and next week’s episode in particular offers a poignant little encapsulation of Lewis’ legacy, as it reveals what he has meant to the people who he has worked with and helped throughout his career. Really, this final season just plays out like three more well-constructed, reliably entertaining entries of the series, with the show’s conclusion relegated to a minor, occasionally acknowledged subplot. That seems entirely appropriate, because Robbie Lewis just isn’t the type for drawn-out, heartfelt goodbyes or big, dramatic climaxes. He’s got far more important work to busy himself with, and he—along with the series itself—wouldn’t have it any other way.
- A few quick words on nomenclature—this show is simply called Lewis in the United Kingdom, but the show is known as Inspector Lewis over here in order to play up the Inspector Morse connection, and we follow the American convention. Also, this is actually series seven in the UK, but I believe PBS combined two seasons into one a couple years back, which is why we rather confusingly are calling this series six.
- I avoided getting into too many specifics about the episodes’ plots, since it seems wise to preserve their mysteries for those watching them for the first time with the PBS broadcasts. Suffice it to say that there isn’t really a weak link in this season, although “Down Among The Fearful” might actually be the least of the three. I must admit a certain weakness for next week’s “Ramblin’ Boy,” as it takes its name from one of my favorite songs and features one of my favorite Doctors as a particularly nasty suspect. But the best of the season is probably the finale, “Intelligent Design,” which features a pair of neatly constructed mysteries and builds in some good emotional beats en route to an excellent final scene. This show isn’t trying to do anything revolutionary, but it’s damn good at accomplishing its chosen goals.