The 2nd season (series) of The Bletchley Circle ended a few weeks ago on PBS (it aired in January in the UK). I really like this show, though I’m never catapulted out of the ‘like’ category into the ‘love it/need it’ category. I think that is because the ‘season’ is so short (3 episodes in season 1, 4 episodes in season 2), that I never have a chance to get really into it. Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing any more episodes, as the show has not been renewed for a 3rd series.
I remember talking in my last review about the importance of seeing strong and smart women, working together in a world (1950s Britain) that at best, underestimates them and at worst, subjects them to violence and abuse. The second season didn’t shirk away from that.
The season begins with a new character. Alice.
Alice (apparently) worked at Bletchley, though not all of the season 1 girls knew her. She has been accused of murdering a man, and has not put forth any defense, ergo she will be hanged. Jean is convinced that she is innocent, and asks the other girls to help her prove it.
Susan, after the danger she and her family were in during their last escapade, is reluctant to help. It quickly becomes apparent that Alice is innocent, and also becomes apparent that Susan will be leaving the show and Alice will be brought on as the resident slightly-rude code genius. It’s hamfisted, but what can you do with 4 episodes? Seems like they could have kept Susan around for 2 more episodes, before sending her off somewhere. This is the part that bothered me the most about the second series.
During these first two episodes, we see that Lucy is now working at Scotland Yard, and Millie is working as a German translator. How strange it must have been to stop fighting the Germans and then almost immediately begin doing business with them again. And only a decade or so later, the beginnings of the EU. Strange to think of. The wars I’ve lived through, from the US, have only been with countries that were a-geographically distant, b-with vastly less powerful armies than ours, and c-of almost zero importance to our economy. (Western) Europe is so small compared to the US that it might be easier for me if I imagined the end of the civil war, and returning to normal trade and travel among the different states. Millie finds it odd herself, making such an about face. Working with people who had probably been Nazis. And they had no idea, but she was one of the women who helped break their codes and interrupt their plans. *Insert vague idiom about strange bedfellows*
The first two episodes revolve around saving Alice from the gallows, and uncovering a government experiment with chemical weapons, used on soldiers. Lovely. I vastly preferred the second two episodes, but they also made me uncomfortable and angry.
In episode 3, Millie is abducted from outside her apartment. She wakes up in a strange room, held captive. Millie has been using her connections and her skills to sell ‘black market’ goods that were hard to get during and after the war. In England, unlike the US, the ’50s were not a time of prosperity and consumer freedom. War rationing continued for nearly a decade after the end of the war. Millie seems to mostly sell perfumes and cigarettes, nothing dangerous or damaging. She works with a partner, Jasper.
Here’s the thing. Millie is my favorite character. She is the strongest, the bravest, and the most confident of all of them. She wears pants (get your pearls ready for clutching), she travels alone, she lives on her own, she holds her head up and walks with purpose. This in a time of our history and a place in the world where women were still very much expected to be quiet, modest, maternal, and submissive. If I had been alive at the time, I’m hoping I would have the strength to be like her. I’m saying this because I want to explain how a part of this episode really affected me.
Millie is taken in to see a woman, Marta, who was supplying Jasper (who was supplying Millie). Someone has stolen from Marta (spoiler, it was Jasper, because of course it was), and she’s going to take her proverbial pound of flesh from one of them. Jasper claims he can repay the money, and is given a chance to do so. Millie manages to talk herself into freedom, proposing she works with Marta as she worked with Jasper. Essentially she wants to cut out the middleman.
Only Millie does not in any way want to work for Marta, because she has just discovered that in addition to cigarettes and perfume, Marta imports girls. Young girls from behind the iron curtain, who can be easily ‘sold’ to wealthy men in the UK. That’s so horrifying I can’t even comprehend it. It is literally beyond my ability to understand, much like the Higgs Boson. But I know it happens every day, even now. Probably much more so now, since people are easier to move in this century than the last.
So Millie manages to talk her way out of the bad situation, which is part of her gift. Marta lets her go, and one of her goons drives Millie home. She asks him his name, and he shoves her against a wall and threatens to rape and hurt her. This scene made me so angry; I took it almost personally. It takes confidence to act like Millie does–that’s part of her protection from anyone who wants to hurt her. There’s a reason people tell women to project confidence, to keep from being mugged or attacked. If you walk through the world with confidence, in some ways you’re saying to potential predators that you have enough resources in this world that someone cannot hurt you without expecting retribution. But this man is so sure that he can do whatever he wants, that he has no problem showing he can physically dominate her. And she’s not a small woman–she’s 5’9″, she’s curvy (by Hollywood standards anyway!).
I’m writing this entry after a man, angry with women for rejecting him, went on a murder spree in California over the weekend. After posting videos and a manifesto about how much he hated women, and how much they deserved to die because they wouldn’t have sex with him. Women have responded on twitter, posting their own stories of misogyny, fear, assault, and general inhumane treatment. And everyone has stories.
I know I’m digressing wildly now, but just a brief (okay not so brief) word about the fact that very little has changed since the 1950s. Most women are in a position where they can be physically overpowered by men. That means most women have reasons to be afraid. No matter how confident you are, how strong or smart, your ability to walk around in the world could be shattered at any minute. You are able to be happy or sad or whatever you are, only until a man near you decides he wants to hurt you. I project confidence into the world, like Millie, and it keeps me free from most harassment. But, just like Millie, it could all be taken away. Which means I walk quickly, I stay aware, I keep my keys between my knuckles when I’m alone at night. I can only slightly comprehend how much worse it might be for women who don’t have the resources I do. I’m a white female, and am a pretty high-risk target because of that. Women who are marginalized by society have even less power. Because they are women of color, or they are children, or they are intellectually or physically disabled, or in a country illegally, they are more likely to experience abuse (sexual or otherwise) than I am. And they are far less likely to receive help or justice from the police. That’s a universal, throughout the world.
The Bletchley Circle, for all the parts that seem unrealistic or hamfisted, is an important show because it does not pull away from these issues. When I compare it to Downton Abbey, and the way Anna’s rape was …fodder for dramatic tension and how Bates was more concerned with his own revenge than with his wife’s happiness… I know they are different shows, different time periods, and very different pathos. Downton Abbey used rape the way Coronation Street uses tragic and improbable deaths (and also probably rape, but I haven’t seen enough of it to know for sure). To titillate, to engage the empathy of the audience, without much reality thrown in. The Bletchley Circle did not show rape. But it showed the systematic, widespread, abuse of women. From the girls being smuggled in by Marta, to Millie’s abduction, to Jean’s being shot, to Lucy’s abusive husband. These are pretty lifelike portrayals of the treatment a lot of women get from men. And the women keep going, keep fighting and pushing for safety, for their rights. I don’t think The Bletchley Circle is a perfect show. But I think it’s important to continue to have shows like it–that focus on women, and that focus on the different types of women, and the problems they face that men may not understand. I’m not saying that if every show were like The Bletchley Circle, there would be no more rape or spousal abuse. Obviously not a lot of rapists are probably watching it. But, I think if more shows acknowledge that these things happen (and how often they happen), then people who have been lucky enough not to see this firsthand, will at least not dismiss it as a non-issue. And maybe won’t see women speaking up about their own freedoms as an attack on men.