The first season finale of The Hour is so close to being a great episode of television that the little flaws niggle all the more. Because this is a six episode season, there are lots of scenes where someone working on the program just pulls Freddie aside and tells him something he needs to hear. (All things considered, pretty much everything bad about the show was in the spy subplot, which makes me glad that it was mostly wrapped up here. I hope there are no espionage shenanigans in season two.) And because this is a six episode season, there’s less of a sense of loss at the end of Bel and Hector’s affair than there might have been had all of the steps involved gotten just a bit more time to develop. Neither of these developments is terrible, nor do either of these things take me out of the show. But they are tiny quibbles I have (as opposed to one major quibble I have that we’ll get to in a moment).
All of the stuff with the live broadcast of The Hour, though? That was excellent. In fact, I daresay that was some of the best TV I’ve seen all year. It’s crackling, exciting, and thrilling, in a way that overrode all of my earlier issues and simply made me sit there and watch with a big, stupid grin on my face. All of the stuff the show has set up all season converges on this one broadcast, and the series does an excellent job of juggling everything from the future of Bel and Freddie’s careers to Hector’s occasional inability to pull off interviews (mixed with his marital uncertainty) to Clarence’s concerns about his career to Lord Elms’ desire to make the men who’d killed his daughter pay. And it tossed in far more stuff in little asides, like the moment when Bel casts a glance at Lix and Freddie having a tiny moment of closeness or the bit where we see Sissy’s feeling a bit more charitable toward Isaac.
It wasn’t just fun TV; it was propulsive TV. It moved in a way that only a series that has confidence in its storytelling can move. The editing darted gracefully from the set to the control room to Freddie trying to track down Lord Elms. The cuts to the off-camera room where McCain, Marnie, and others watched the broadcast were always purposeful. Even the little sequence surrounding Isaac’s sketch worked perfectly to get everybody to just the right place they needed to be for the climactic moment to happen. This was storytelling where nothing was wasted. In many ways, I almost wish the show had done a little more of this, though it would have been perhaps unbelievable to have every broadcast be this dramatic. Having the climactic scenes of a season of The Hour happen on The Hour, though? It really reminded me of how the finale of each season of Slings And Arrows occurred at the big play that closed out the run. (My favorite of these, while we’re on the subject, was the production of Macbeth that closed out season two and had the giddy feel of the ephemerality of live theatre.)
Had the episode closed on that high—the high of Bel and Freddie getting everything they ever wanted in a way that essentially also cost them everything they ever wanted—I would have given it an easy A. Instead, it returned to the Brightstone business, and I don’t know that the final scenes really worked. I’ve seen some criticisms that it doesn’t make sense that Clarence was a Soviet spy, but I’ve been wondering if he wasn’t the culprit since last week (when at least one scene seemed to clearly foreshadow it). He’s been so gung ho about bringing up the spy at every opportunity that it always struck me it might, indeed, be him, so I can’t say I was surprised by the revelation. I was, however, disappointed, because I thought the reveal that Clarence told Freddie about the message passed to MI-6 to assassinate Nasser because he wanted Freddie to expose it live on air and he was disappointed Freddie went with the “personal” story instead was a real gut-punch of a moment. It definitely would have given the show more of a feeling of false triumph to have Freddie realize he’d been pursuing the wrong story from the first, and having Clarence just want him to run with the message because it would further destabilize the government felt a little cheap.
To put it another way: I’m fine with Clarence being a spy. Indeed, it makes some of his actions throughout the season (like how he might also be playing Bel to get her to put the sketch on and irritate McCain) make slightly more sense. But to have it all come out in this way seems designed, slightly, to let Freddie off the hook for not realizing that he was blinded in many ways by his personal connections to the Ruth Elms case. Clarence may be wrong in his motivations, but he’s right on the basic idea that this is a much bigger story than one dead girl. This is about a dying empire trying to grasp onto its vitality via any means necessary and doing blatantly illegal things in the midst of doing so. Freddie missed the story for the trees, even if Clarence was merely manipulating him, a Brightstone who could be flipped without even knowing he’d been flipped. (That said, I loved the moment where Freddie’s cynicism implicates the Soviets just as much as his own government. The whole world can never live up to Freddie’s rigid code, and the series wouldn’t have it any other way.)
But I’m willing to give these final, clumsy moments a pass because everything leading up to them was so thrilling and wonderful. Hector’s little grimace as he prepared to go home with Marnie told you everything about the future he’d chosen in a single expression. The part where Bel tells Hector she’s not going to be his mistress, and she’s certainly not going to be his wife was a much better version of the “Why can’t I choose to do what I want?” speech from last week. And the scenes where Bel and Freddie’s mutual world-weariness found a kind of solace in each other were pitch-perfect as always. This is a show with some great characters, a fascinating setting, and a good instinct for how to tell exciting stories in the world of journalism (something that TV hasn’t always figured out how to do). Here’s hoping season two ditches some of the goofy stuff around the edges and just barrels forward with what works so well.
- In a way, I really admire what that last scene was trying to do without admiring the actual execution. I do think the show is trying to let Freddie off the hook by making Clarence a spy, but there’s also a part of it that realizes Clarence is essentially right about what the real story was. I may come around on it on a rewatch of the whole series.
- I spoke too soon a couple of weeks ago when I said I didn’t know most of these supporting characters very well. Clarence and Lix were shaded in quite nicely, though I could have done with just a bit more for Isaac and Sissy beyond the generic stuff about being kids working in a world full of adults. McCain, sadly, never became anything more than a garden variety villain. All he needed to do was twirl his mustache.
- I’m kind of impressed with the decision to bring in Juliet Stevenson in this episode, just so she could sit and watch TV. I don’t know if British broadcasters pay by the episode (I somehow suspect not), but if they do, that was a neat call. She added to the episode, certainly, but she wasn’t strictly necessary.
- The music in this episode was frequently over-obvious and distracting. I could have done without it, for the most part.
- I loved the bits about the actual production of the show, including the moments where Hector has to ad lib for time while Freddie changes the programming order on the fly.