The English country house tale is one of those endlessly renewable genres. For whatever reason, stories of lots of British people gathering in a large house and exploring a.) illicit romances, b.) class distinctions, or (most often) c.) both is just one of those things that people will always find fascinating, even though the age of the English country house has long since passed. (Indeed, it’s already passed in The Hour, even if none of the characters have yet realized it completely.) Trapping a bunch of attractive, emotionally repressed people in the same house and then giving them license to start tearing into each other (and hooking up) is often great fodder for drama, and authors have realized this for the last 150 years or so.
The third episode of The Hour is the show’s tribute to this genre, and the events set at the country house owned by the family of Hector’s wife, Marnie, are exquisitely paced and beautifully rendered. Naturally, of course, there’s a spy story interposed on top of this, one that keeps stepping in to throw wrenches in the proceedings, but even that gets stronger as the episode goes on. The idea of trapping the show’s central triangle in this house and then having two of them act on their feelings for each other is a good one.
One of the problems I’m having with The Hour is that its compressed length—six episode, as opposed to the 10-13 episodes it would require to really spread out and adequately develop all of its characters and not just the central trio—means that the show frequently has to use expositional shorthand to tell us who people are and what they’re doing. Sometimes, this is handled well enough (as in how we got to know Hector last week); sometimes, it’s a bit more clumsy (“James,” “Moneypenny”). But this need to rely on shorthand robs the story of any unexpectedness. Yes, we knew that Bel and Hector were going to hook up at some point. It’s practically required by the laws of sophisticated cable drama. But on a show with more space to play with, we’d get more of an elaborate drawing out of this storyline, with a nice focus on just how the two were coming to find their tryst unavoidable. Here, their relationship is rocket-fueled. What could be deliberate feels, instead, pre-ordained, and that makes all the difference between something that is predictable but still filled with juicy detail and something that’s just predictable.
So to that end, sticking the whole storyline in the midst of the English country house tale was a good idea. Because we’re already familiar with the tropes of the genre, letting the show briefly turn into a riff on that genre made the way that Bel and Hector’s relationship has been sped up much more palatable. It helps that Romola Garai and Dominic West have mesmerizing chemistry, of course (well, Garai has that kind of chemistry with everyone), but the second we get to that country house, it’s like the show is saying, “Hey, we’re going to hook these two attractive people up in this episode, and we’ll let you get to know a little bit more about them on the way there.” The country house storyline is relatively free of spy shenanigans, which gives the full weight to the hopes, dreams, and feelings of our central trio (as well as Marnie, who is being defined almost entirely via reaction shots). It’s just a good, solid piece of craftsmanship, and it’s filled with moments that could feel stupid—like the guy who gets drunk and starts blurting out harmful secrets—much more palatable. “Relax,” the show says. “You know this genre. We’re just doing a thing here.”
In a weird way, this very issue is what’s hurting the spy storyline, which is always filled with moments that prompt eye rolls. For example: The episode ends with Freddie and Kish having a tense conversation in the cafeteria, a conversation in which Kish offers an implied death threat. After a long, wonderfully tense moment, he lunges at Freddie, but Freddie’s able to bolt, racing down the hallway, finding every door blocked. He’s being stalked by a man both intent on killing him and seemingly having been given orders to kill him from someone higher up (perhaps McCain?). As the sequence goes on, though, it gets slightly more and more implausible. Freddie would really be this good at avoiding a trained spy? Even on his home turf? And by the time he’s somehow turned the tables and gotten the upper hand on Kish during their stairwell fight, the whole thing has grown ludicrous (even if I was quite taken with Kish’s decision to just pitch backwards over the stairs and down onto the hard floor).
Yet at the same time, the “ordinary guy who gets drawn into wild events he can’t comprehend and quickly gets up to speed” trope is one of those things that many takes on this genre have used. And yet in a spy novel or a film, there’s usually a process. Freddie’s gotten believably better at, say, code-breaking, but turning him into a man of action seems like a weird, not horribly believable step to take. Maybe he just got lucky. Maybe we’ll learn that his childhood on the Elms estate (one that may have led to the reason he already knows how to clean a gun despite not liking to shoot guns) toughened him up to the point where he’s readymade for this sort of adventure. But right now, it feels kind of silly, even as I liked the follow-up of Freddie realizing Kish had a wife and kids. (It certainly doesn’t help that the twists here remain maddeningly predictable, particularly the fact that Brightstone is a “who,” not a “what.”)
But it feels churlish to complain too much about this stuff because The Hour continues to do so many things right. It’s obvious that, say, Isaac and Clarence aren’t going to get the development they might get on an American cable series, where there would be more time to get into just what makes them tick, but closing them up in the office for a weekend wasn’t a bad way to suggest their depths without actually plumbing them. And there are so many lovely, terrific moments—like Bel and Hector’s dance of seduction in the midst of a sardines game or how he stood in the chilly night, smoking a cigarette—that I can’t complain too much. I’m still as hooked on this series as any other this summer; I’m just wishing that it would get some of the little stuff solidified, that it would nail down the difference between an A- and an A.
- This should go without saying, but many of my complaints about this episode can be easily undone by future developments in the three episodes to come. My friend and colleague Alyssa Rosenberg, who’s seen the following episodes (I think), seems higher on this episode than I am, so we’ll see.
- The show is very good at exposition when it wants to be, however. The way that Marnie’s family and all of their guests are laid out in the space of about 30 seconds is practically a course in how to do this sort of thing.
- An interesting parallel: The fictional drama starring Adam (the fiancé of Ruth Elms, who was hiding the fact that he was gay because of course he was) seems to be the story of a man who’s thrust into a larger-than-life situation and has to figure out a way to make himself over into someone else just to survive. It’s essentially the Freddie story encapsulated, even if he doesn’t yet seem to realize it. And there are intriguing hints that as Adam goes, so goes Freddie. This is just another way of expressing that.