I spent most of the last summer talking about how The Hour, for whatever faults it has, does “journalism drama” far better than The Newsroom ever did. And after what I felt was a somewhat shaky start to the season, here’s an episode that, again, whatever its faults, more or less demonstrates that in action. Where The Newsroom was all about characters having scoops simply fall into their laps, then not really pursuing them, The Hour shows us the dogged pursuit of the story, all of the little bits and pieces that add up to something more that then becomes a piece on the show. When something falls into Freddie and Bel’s laps, it’s usually because they sent Isaac to look it up, and when the two of them are on a story, they seem to care about little else, up to and including their own personal lives. (Well, that’s true for Freddie; Bel seems to be doing quite nicely with ITV guy, who continues to be dull as dishwater.)
The end of this episode also offers up a “crisis of journalism” story more compelling than anything The Newsroom ever cooked up. As you already know, the bulk of this season has revolved around an investigation of the El Paradis nightclub, a place where powerful men come to see sexy girls, who are sometimes whored out to them. We learn tonight that this happens so the owner of El Paradise—one Mr. Cilente (and I never would have guessed that was how to spell it without copious Googling)—can blackmail said powerful men into doing whatever he wants. “Whatever he wants” apparently just happens to include skewing things so his good friend, an engineer named Francis Tufnel, can get the bid for an important construction project, the missile sites that are the focus of the upcoming NATO meeting. Is it a little convenient that this all dovetails like this? Of course it is, but I probably have to let go of those objections and recognize this is the sort of show I’m watching. (Again, nothing here rises to the level of Freddie killing that guy last season.)
At any rate, The Hour is going to go forward with a story on all of these connections, and they’re risking the lives of both Bel and their source—Ms. Ramirez—to do so. At the last minute, however, Hector gets a mysterious offer from McCain, while hanging out at El Paradis, of course. The Chancellor is resigning, because of budget troubles, and if Hector and The Hour want, they can have an exclusive interview with the official, live from Westminster. The timing of all of this is a little questionable to Hector, but after he goes to see Commander Stern, who’s realizing just how deep in shit he is, Hector decides to pitch the interview anyway, knowing that Brown will have no choice but to pursue it, because it’s the more timely of the two stories before him. And, of course, whose blackmail photo turns up in Freddie and Bel’s hands at episode’s end? Would you believe McCain’s?
What I like about this is that it provides the characters with a binary choice, where the “right” choice from a storytelling perspective is the “wrong” choice from a character perspective. The Hour needs to pursue the chancellor story, because the program’s primary mission is to inform the public about the most important news of the day. The resignation of such an important official immediately trumps all else. Everybody in that room knows they’re being played, but everybody in that room also knows that they’re being played so skillfully they simply have to stand back and allow themselves to be used. If they don’t report on the resignation, they’ll look behind the times. They’ll lose ratings and maybe even their jobs. The revelations that would be in the El Paradis report are more earth-shattering to our journalists, but the resignation will be more earth-shattering to the average viewer, at least for now. It’s hard to come up with a choice where both sides can be so thoroughly argued, so well, but this episode does so, and the conclusion makes up for some weird storytelling elsewhere.
I’m feeling even more than I did before that this season is hurt by having to put a whole lot of story into just six episodes. It might have been cliché to have Tufnel’s identity be the subject of a season-long mystery up until this point, but everything about it comes up and is answered so abruptly here that I think I would have preferred the “Who is that man?!” scenes to what we got. Similarly, I continue to find Freddie and Camille’s relationship rather uninteresting, if only because the show jumped from “happily married newlyweds” to “suspicious wife who thinks her husband doesn’t love her” in what seems like record time. (I do like that Camille and her friends are trying to effect change by writing letters; it puts a nice point on the fact that all of the characters here are trying to build a better world, however they can.) And the relationship between Hector and Commander Stern has also had to be rushed through at record time, though this one has generally worked better, particularly in the scene where Hector reveals why he’s so loyal to the guy to Marnie.
Perhaps no aspect of this series, however, strikes me this way so much as the development of the bad guys. What I like about the heroes of this show is their level of nuance. You can accurately list several good and bad traits about Hector, Bel, Freddie, and the other staffers of The Hour, even if the program generally asks audience to take their sides. But the villains—in both seasons (with the possible exception of Clarence)—have been, more or less, generic bad guys. The plot between Cilente and Tufnel is standard-issue stuff. That would be all right if the two had any character depth to them, but they’re mostly just guys exploiting the system to get what they want. I’m not asking for this to be full-on The Wire, but every time we step into the El Paradis, it feels like the show becomes something else entirely, something shallower, and I think that’s where my disinterest comes from. (This is to say nothing of the ominous paper cranes of doom, which are really just silly.) Really, the entirety of the complexity of the villains this season hinges on Commander Stern, and the character as written and performed just isn’t up to it.
But it’s hard to get too grouchy with the show when the plotting on the way to the marvelous character moments takes shortcuts, simply because those character moments are so marvelous. I watched roughly the last 20 minutes of this episode with a smile on my face, because the show was executing a perfectly thought-out plan and nailing just about every beat of it. At its best, The Hour does as good a job as any show I can think of at showing the cost of being a good journalist, at showing how the story can come to take over your life. That was nowhere more apparent than it was in the last 10 minutes tonight, as Bel realized the futility of saying she could protect Ramirez (who goes missing), Freddie realized the straitjacket he was in, and Hector realized what he would do for a friend. Good, character-driven stuff, and I’ll be glad to have this show through the holidays.
- I know some of you were complaining about Lix and Mr. Brown having a kid together, and I’ll agree it’s another subplot that came up and left as abruptly as anything else this season. (Really, these middle two hours seem almost designed to lift out of the season, in some ways.) To me, it was all worth it to see Peter Capldi read the details of the two’s daughter’s life to Anna Chancellor and watch the two of them marvel at the idea that she might be studying music.
- The music at one point tonight switched to all jazzy saxophones and stuff, like we were in an ‘80s neo-noir directed by Michael Mann. Not my favorite choice in the world.
- Camille’s jealousy over Freddie spending so much time with Bel feels silly to me. Doesn’t she know that she’s just there to get in the way of the ultimate coupling of the show’s heroes? I mean, duh.