I always like The Hour best when it culminates in an episode of the show within the show, and that’s what makes the third episode of this second series the best so far. Everything’s building up to that final broadcast, when Hector will have to angrily question his friend on air, and the way that the series pulls all of those threads together is surprisingly elegant. I haven’t enjoyed the crime storyline as much as some, and I still think it’s rather silly when, say, Freddie hops into a cab and implores it to follow that other car, but when the journalists’ investigations dovetails so nicely with the story they’re going to air about a report suggesting homosexual acts be decriminalized being rejected, well, I’m not going to complain. That this also plays into Hector’s ongoing crisis of conscience and Bel’s flirtation with the ITV guy makes things feel even more elegant. It’s easy to weave this many threads together and feel like the script is forced; it’s much more difficult to make everything proceed naturally from what came before.
In both seasons of this show, the genre element has been my least favorite thing about it. When Abi Morgan is just making a show about the societal pressures of living in the 1950s, this show is one of the best dramas on TV. When she’s clumsily grafting on a genre storyline meant to illustrate those pressures, things start to get overloaded. It’s not that I don’t believe journalists would, say, ask a cabbie to “follow that car!” to get the story, but the whole moment is steeped in such action-movie bravado that it comes off rather poorly. (That said, nothing in this storyline is ever going to be worse than Freddie getting the best of his pursuer last season.) What I do like about these genre stories is the way they’ve let us get at central questions about our two male protagonists. The first season was largely about Freddie’s insecurities, and by playing up a Soviet spy organization that saw him as a valuable asset, the espionage stuff played into the main themes of the season. This season, Hector’s life is unraveling, and he’s lost. Thus, having him get pinned into the middle of an ongoing criminal conspiracy where he loses control feeds back into the main character story. (I can only hope season three features a science fiction tale for Bel.)
So, yes, I can appreciate how the genre stuff informs everything else, but I don’t find it particularly well executed, particularly as it seems intent on turning Freddie into an action hero. I respect that Freddie and Bel love the thrill of the chase, the thrill of getting to the bottom of a big story, but it really does seem like this story would be best at illuminating things we don’t know about Hector, and he’s mostly off to the sidelines of it for now. Maybe his involvement in questioning the Commander (whose name I still can’t get on my muffled screeners of this thing) at the end of the episode will be the pivot point, and now, he’ll help the others figure out just what’s happening with Kiki and the other girls. But perhaps the more important point here is that I just don’t really care about this storyline. I cared when Hector was involved, but now that it’s mostly just about Bel and Freddie trying to help a bunch of women who aren’t connected to the main plot, I’m finding it harder to work myself up about it.
While we’re speaking about storylines that have yet to work for me, let’s talk about Freddie and Camille’s marriage, which increasingly seems like it’s only there as an impediment to Freddie and Bel’s inevitable coupling. When Camille first popped up on the scene I thought, silly me, that she might be a character in her own right, that the show might be doing something interesting with the way that people can have crushes on each other for years, never do anything about them, and end up with other people they’re also well-suited to. Instead, we get one nice scene of Camille helping Freddie out on the job by accompanying him to the club, which gives us a bit of a sense of why he’s drawn to her, then she mostly disappears, until she returns to lurk as a presence in the background of a scene where Freddie and Bel excitedly talk over the case, as well as the presence of a strange intruder in Bel’s flat. I’m hopeful the show can turn Camille into something more interesting than an obstacle, but she might end up being an unintended victim of trying to cram this much story into six episodes.
In more surprising news, Lix and Mr. Brown have a daughter together, born during the Spanish Civil War, then put up for adoption, and the story isn’t as preposterous as that might seem. We’ve gotten hints about the connection between the two characters for a few weeks now, which either meant they were divorced or had a kid together, and everybody who picked option two can pick up their prizes at the door. But these scenes were well-played by Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor, and it was nice to see that Capaldi wasn’t just brought on to scowl at everybody, while the show was going to consciously remember that Chancellor was a part of some of its very best scenes back in series one.
One thing the show does that could feel clumsy but somehow never does is have episode-specific foreshadowing, to the degree where Lix talks with Bel about how nuclear armament will be a problem for their children, and Bel says neither of them has children, and Lix says she expects Bel will someday, and it somehow never once occurred to me that this would be feeding into the “secret past” plot. Similarly, you have Mr. Brown telling Hector that he’s a great journalist, only to have Hector wave it off by saying he’s just a good frontman. (“I think that’s how you see yourself,” Mr. Brown says, in one of the hour’s better lines.) Then, of course, he gets a chance to prove his journalistic mettle when the news show rolls around at the end. This kind of writing can feel incredibly inelegant, so it’s always nice to see it done well.
I’m still waiting for series three to get its hooks into me beyond whatever’s up with Freddie and Bel, but this third episode did a better job of laying out the players on the field and setting up the situations to come than the somewhat strained second episode did. There’s a lot of stuff happening this season, but the show tends to be at its best when it takes a moment to take a breath and reflect on everything that’s happening within its confines. The more the episodes can do that, the more successful they are, and that’s why tonight’s conclusion worked so well: It brought a bunch of seemingly disparate threads together, in a character-focused way, and it paid many of them off. More of that, please, show.
- Yes, this show is going to keep airing right through the holidays, and yes, I’ll be here to talk about it with you while that happens.
- The story of the fascist elements within Freddie’s neighborhood is an interesting one, but I’m not sure it’s a strictly necessary one, because it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to talk about without making it the focus of the whole season. There’s a way to make this work, and I’m not sure it’s having one or two scenes per episode where people in Freddie’s building talk with him about it. Then again, I’m still engaged in it, so it’s possible it will be brought into the main orbit of the story.
- People are still having Christmas parties, and I like the way the season is using the holiday to underline some of the mournfulness Hector himself is feeling, particularly as his wife’s career is taking off while he fears his own has stagnated.
- Bel kisses the ITV guy after he gives her a potentially useful contact. Way to stand up for journalistic integrity, Bel! (Nah. I know she likes him. But still!)
- Some people are irritated about the characters on the show having modern attitudes about social issues—like homosexuality—but it doesn’t really bother me. If crusading ‘50s journalists can’t have progressive attitudes about social issues, then who can?