Weekend Watching: Foyle’s War

foyleIt has been very quiet around here, I know. It’s a combination of re-adjusting to the start of term and having been hard at work on my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch for the next issue of Open Letters Monthly, which has taken up the couple of hours each day when I have both time and energy for writing. I’ve been getting up pretty early (for me, anyway) a few days a week to get in some regular exercise, and that has meant I fade sooner at night, too.

In that faded state, when I don’t feel I can be particularly articulate anymore, or attentive enough to do serious reading, I’ve been working my way through Foyle’s War (I’ve also been watching it during my workouts, which helps me look forward to them rather than dreading them!). Other shows I’ve watched recently include ER (I started it from the beginning a couple of years ago and bit by bit have made my way up to Season 11)  Homeland (we’ve seen through Season 2 – I’m not sure how much more I want to watch), and Hostages (which we started watching because Toni Collette — who really deserves better — we only stuck with it out of curiosity about how they were going to get everyone out of the implausible tangle they’d created).  Compared to these (or to MI-5, which I have now seen twice all the way through!) Foyle’s War is very slow-paced, and it took me a while to adjust to that. I have occasionally felt that they could have tightened up the plots and told the story in one hour rather than over their more leisurely 90 minutes, but most of the time I appreciate the care with which different strands are introduced and then woven together into the case. I also appreciate that the plot moves slowly enough that I can easily work on my crochet at the same time (when not on the treadmill, obviously!).

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I’ve just started Season 6 (and Seasons 7 and 8 are not yet on Netflix), so I don’t know how everything develops now that the official war is over. One of my favourite things about the series to this point is its emphasis on the moral challenges of the home front, especially the need to fight for the values that the military campaign is ostensibly being waged in service of. (It’s hard not to wonder if the creators were deliberately hinting at similar challenges that have arisen our post-9/11 world.) It’s pretty clear that the show’s title is meant to mean something besides “how DCS Foyle spent his time during WWII” –his is a war against morally slipshod, self-serving, or opportunistic people who use the war as cover for their offenses or as a means to personal profit. “There’s a war on” never works as an excuse with Foyle, and that staunch clarity of judgment is clearly what makes him the hero of the series, surrounded as he is by greedy businessmen, dishonest politicians, power-hungry bureaucrats, and the many vexing shades of both incompetence and ruthlessness he runs into among those fighting the actual war. I think Michael Kitchen plays the part perfectly: he doesn’t parade his virtues, and indeed, in his own way he is also quite ruthless, but he conveys an attractive and endlessly reassuring combination of uncompromising principle, intelligence and humanity.

I think there’s quite a bit going on with the historical context: it would be interesting to work out more about just how the series is shaping its version of wartime England, something I don’t feel I have the right range of knowledge to comment on. It doesn’t strike me as a simplistically idealized portrayal of stoicism and valor, but the heroic music every time the RAF planes take off bespeaks a kind of ‘glory days’ nostalgia, and there’s plenty of talk about “the few.” Not that there shouldn’t be respect and admiration for their bravery or heroic stories about wartime sacrifice, but I’m curious about whether those who know more about this can see patterns or myths in the historiography of wartime Britain being used in significant ways in the series, whether subversive or conservative or predictable. The show seems particularly sensitive to the human costs of the victories that were won: I’m thinking of the S2 episode “Enemy Fire,” for instance, in which Foyle’s own son breaks under the strain of “combat fatigue.” I know there are shows about the making of the series and perhaps some of these issues are discussed — I’ve put off watching them until I’ve caught up on the series itself.

The one thing I don’t like about the show — and  in the spirit of this woman I’ve tried not to let it bother me too much — is Sam. Again, I haven’t seen the whole series, but by about half way through Season 4 I was at the point where if Foyle and Milner traded patronizing ‘isn’t she cute?’ glances one more time I was going to burst a blood vessel, not because she isn’t cute but because I wish so much that she had been written as a character with more gravitas. When I first met her on the show, I anticipated an arc of character development for her that would bring her (if probably unofficially) into the investigative team in a more serious way. Instead, though she has been involved in solving cases, her contributions have almost always been by accident or luck, and her personality has stayed perky and slightly silly, if good-hearted. It seemed both painfully predictable and wholly unlikely that a romance would break out between her and Andrew, who is a much more emotionally complex character. (His erratic comings and goings in the series keep the writers from having to deal with this in any serious way, at least to this point.) That it turns out Foyle never really needed a driver anyway was the final insult! There are more interesting (substantial, competent, deliberate) women in the show as secondary characters, but Sam is the only main female character, and I wish she’d been set up as one who carried her own weight, rather than as a figure of indulgent fun and chivalric or paternalistic concern.

foyleseason6I started S6 Episode 1 this morning so I’ve just entered the post-war world, though as the characters and stories emphasize, VE Day has not magically restored the world to idyllic happiness. The war Foyle was fighting continues unabated, returning soldiers struggle with how both they and their old lives have been transformed, and the realignment of the wider political world is creating new enmities. Also, Milner’s become a bit of a jerk. Wondering how this will go will be a good motivation to face another early morning session on the treadmill tomorrow!

I’d love to hear from other Foyle fans (or haters, for that matter) — but try not to tell me what happens in the seasons I haven’t seen yet! Am I underestimating Sam, do you think? What do you think the series is doing with the history of Britain in the war?