The Bletchley Circle aired on PBS during April & May, though it aired in the UK in 2012. Just a few weeks ago, iTV announced that they would be making a second series of the show.
Like Sherlock, this series (season) consists of only 3 episodes, 1 hour each. Really, it’s more of a miniseries, and I was entirely prepared to describe it that way until I learned about a second season. Miniseries don’t have further seasons, so I guess it is a drama series.
The show follows 4 women in 1950s London. All four worked at Bletchley Park, the center of code breaking intelligence for the Brits during WWII. Due to the Official Secrets Act, everyone had to hide their involvement in wartime divisions, etc., until something like the 1970s. So these characters lead normal, horribly dull lives. No one knows that they’re code-breaking savants and were very important to wartime efforts. They don’t get any recognition, even from family and friends.
It’s no wonder that Susan Gray, the main character, is desperately in need of something to do. She has a dull husband and 2 kids, and is chained to the stove like any good ’50s housewife. After hearing reports on the news about a string of unsolved homicides, she can’t help but see some patterns in the details. At first, she tries to go directly to the police, but she can’t work out all of the specifics of the crime without enlisting her 3 friends–whom she hasn’t seen since the war ended–to help her read the patterns. Gray would, if born today, end up an engineer, a statistician, a math professor. She’s exacting, efficient, a little too meticulous, a little boring. She’s played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who I recognized from her roles in Bleak House (Esther Summerson) and North & South (Bessy Higgins). I think AMM does a great job of portraying someone totally trapped by gender norms, who allows her life to be decided by feelings of what she should be doing.
In her determination to solve the puzzle and find the murderer, she enlists her three wartime compatriots:
Millie, the free-spirited, world traveling, modern woman. She lives on her own, she’s tough, she takes care of herself. You can tell how modern and independent she is because she is the only one who wears pants. She is my favorite, obviously.
Lucy is the youngest and most naive. She is very useful, though, because she has an eidetic memory. Unfortunately, she also has an abusive, douchebag husband. Lucy is maybe the most reluctant of the four. The violence they encounter during this investigation is probably worse than anything she’s ever imagined. After all, they didn’t even have CSI back then–not even the original CSI. They weren’t used to seeing dead bodies dissected and splashed about. She explains that it’s also worse for her because her memory allows her to see bad things over and over again in perfect and horrible recollection. That would not be my superpower of choice.
Lastly, there’s Jean.
She is the bossy older one, and she’s a librarian. She looks and seems everything dowdy and unattractive at first. There’s a quiet, assiduous power about her, though. She is integral to the group because she has contacts in other libraries and with other intelligence workers that they use to dig up info on their killer. Jean is more reserved and less emotional, but she’s competent and hard-working. She’s a Hufflepuff, in essence.
The ladies use their code-cracking skills to see other patterns in the killings–the girls were all on a journey, which they eventually narrow down to one specific train from St. Pancras. He must be on the train too, then.
They discover over the three episodes that the man is a necrophiliac (they don’t use this word, but it’s made clear that each of the victims is raped after she’s killed). They realize he has struck before, in other areas of England, and always pins the crime on someone else. Shortly afterward, he does the same thing with his victims in London, but the girls (especially Susan) are adamant that the police have the wrong man.
It all comes back to the war. They discover the real killer is a man who was trapped underground during the blitz–trapped underground with a dead woman. God only knows what he did with her body while he was down there, but it’s clear he’s trying to relive that with his victims.
As with any good mystery (as opposed to a police procedural), the authorities refuse to listen/believe what is truly going on. The girls are on their own. Susan, in particular, ventures too far in her search for the killer. All the girls end up in peril, but Susan is alone with the man twice. He follows her home, threatens her family. I won’t say more about what happens next.
Primarily, I think this was a show about women. In some ways it reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. You have these horrible murders, all perpetrated against young women by a man. You have strong female character(s) determined to stop them.
Of course, they’re radically different in setting and style, but the theme of misogyny and violence toward women is a commonality. The Bletchley Circle shows the lives of very smart, capable women. In their best circumstances, they are under-utilized and bored as housewives/waitresses/librarians. More often, they are ridiculed by other men, criticized or hit by their husbands. Even Susan’s husband, who is the most empathetic man in the show, doesn’t understand why Susan can’t just stay home with the children like a good wife would do. Everywhere they look, they’re told to conform to what society believes they should be and do.
At the same time, these four women work together remarkably well, care about each other, and are deeply committed to solving this crime. To saving other girls from this horrendous fate. Not to sound totally ridiculous, but it is about women protecting women.
The people who worked on this show did a great job recreating a particularly bleak time in English modern history. While America was having a huge economic boom in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Brits were still whipping out their ration books and dealing with economic crises left and right. It was a really austere place and time, even when you don’t consider the losses of the war (people, but also entire buildings and neighborhoods destroyed in the blitz). The show captures the dull lives, the last lingering period of tradition before the upheaval of the ’60s. The director even said they avoided sunlight when filming. They wanted to capture the lack of saturation, the lack of bright color that seemed to pervade the national consciousness during that time.
This wasn’t the greatest show in the world. There were parts of the plot that were thrown in and then cast aside without much explanation. The resolution didn’t make things precisely clear. The bad guy ends up dead, but it’s not clear to the audience that the women have enough evidence to prove he was the one who killed those other girls. I found myself wondering if they would be believed when they told their side of the story. And what happened to the man falsely accused of the crime? Last we heard, he was scheduled to hang for it. Now what? I suppose I’m supposed to have good faith and just assume it all worked out, but the justice system isn’t like that and I worried that despite the killer being dead, the nightmare was far from over.
On the other hand, I think it was a unique and interesting story. I like period dramas as a rule, I like women protagonists as a rule. If this had stretched for 10 episodes, I might not be as fond of it, but I’m definitely up for another 3-4 episode season (series).