In Episode 2 of Breathless on Masterpiece Mystery:
Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) has gone to visit Margaret (Sarah Parish), as you knew he would.
Jean (Zoe Boyle), the new Mrs. Truscott, is back helping Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) and Charlie Enderbury (Shaun Dingwall) with their moonlight operation, as you might have suspected she would. This time the emphasis really is on “operation,” because the patient at the start of this episode requires hospitalization for internal bleeding after a botched attempt to terminate a pregnancy.
There’s trouble aplenty for everyone associated with the New London Hospital. Plus lots of proof that the 1960s were not pretty, kids.
I’ve read that Breathless, with its relentless focus on the female reproductive system, was intended to be a darker answer to Call the Midwife. If that’s the case, the creators of Breathless missed the mark, in my opinion. Call the Midwife takes place in the 1950s, has a largely female cast, and sets a new standard in the art of jerking tears. (I defy you to make it through a full episode of Call the Midwife without a sniffle.) It succeeds gloriously because it celebrates the camaraderie of women living in a close-knit community, struggling together, and helping each other. (This is what The Bletchley Circle tried to replicate with less success.)
Breathless doesn’t thrive because it doesn’t give us characters we can like, admire, or identify with. Most of them range from sneaky to downright despicable. As Inspector Mulligan, Iain Glen who’s usually really good—though his characters often are really rotten—is playing someone who’s just…bizarre. Angela (Catherine Steadman) is boring. Elizabeth (Natasha Little) is confusing. Jean is becoming predictable. Richard is reprehensible. And I understand the whole antihero thing, yet even Otto isn’t someone I can respect. He’s just so insincere. The kindness he shows to his female patients seems to be less for their benefit and more for the sake of making himself look like a swell guy.
So, who can you root for?
Well, let’s talk about the Enderburys—Charlie and Lily (Joanna Page).
Things are not going well for them at all. They’re strapped for cash and Charlie’s a nervous wreck who never can seem to do the right thing. (Moonlighting with Otto doesn’t help on either score.) In Episode 1, he was passed up for promotion in favor of Dr. Mehta (Ronny Jhutti), who immediately began hinting that he’d be happier if Charlie found another place to work. Then a patient dies in surgery, and it appears that Charlie, the anesthesiologist, could be responsible.
Yet Lily, sweet Lily, loves him desperately and supports him unconditionally. It’s the dumpy housewife role that’s usually thankless at best, clownish at worst. Yet Joanna Page makes Lily a three-dimensional character, who just might be the most interesting of the bunch. A former nurse, she’s smarter than anyone gives her credit for. Yes, she’s fretful and uncertain of herself, but she’s also loyal, good-hearted, and resourceful. I appreciate the fact that series creators Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale haven’t made her an object of scorn thus far.
The rest of the episode is all over the place literally and figuratively. There’s a tremendous amount of ground covered, including a two-hour drive to Dorset for Otto and Angela, yet the plot hardly seems to advance. The series concludes next week. Maybe then we’ll find out what happened to Otto in Cyprus, what happened to Angela’s husband, or why Otto finds Angela so darned irresistible.
Leslie Gilbert Elmanis the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.