Breathless: Part 3

Jack Davenport as Otto Powell. The man can operate. Why can’t he cut to the chase?

This week’s final episode of Breathless on Masterpiece Mystery is also the final episode of the series. It wasn’t renewed. So, if you love it that might come as disappointing news.

At least the series creators did viewers the service of clearing up a few puzzling plot points. Issues are resolved. Characters evolve. Even the despicable Dr. Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) demonstrates believable and reassuring signs of humanity.

Lots of secrets are revealed both to the audience and the characters.

But, here’s the thing about secrets: They are only intriguing if they involve information that’s worth keeping secret.  If after the big reveal your reaction is, “Yeah. And?” the secret hasn’t delivered to expectations. It’s like the guy who corners you at a party and asks, “Want to hear something funny?” You just know you’re going to have to fake a chuckle when he’s through talking.

I won’t reveal the secrets because that wouldn’t be fair. We don’t do spoilers here. And there might be some viewers who genuinely were or will be surprised or shocked by the reveals. If you’re one of them, I mean no disrespect. Breathless has plenty of fans.

I give the creators Paul Unwin and Peter Grimsdale all credit for reminding the world just how dehumanizing medical care for women was in 1961. Unwin is a co-creator of Casualty, “the world’s longest running, prime time TV medical drama” (per the ITV press materials). It’s been on the air since 1986. In all that time, he’s dreamed up a lot of stories about hospitals and how they work—but perhaps never before about a hospital where the nurses are also expected to participate in a beauty pageant complete with swimsuit competition. (Miss Pediatrics, anyone?)

Sarah Parish as Margaret.
Also—and this cannot be stressed enough—Charlotte Holdich, costume designer. Brava! I rarely gush over fashion, but I want every single outfit that every single character was wearing. Even Lily’s crazy floral print dresses. As the producers have pointed out, Breathless is set in a very particular time post-war yet pre-sexual revolution. The Sixties have started to sway, but they’re not in full swing yet. The costumes in Breathless reflect this perfectly.

My frustration with the series is that it took too long to arrive at a conclusion we could have reached in Episode 1 if the characters had just told the truth and stopped being overly dramatic about everything. And by “characters” I mostly mean Elizabeth Powell (Natasha Little). Knowing what we know at the end of Episode 3 makes it even harder to understand why she just didn’t open her mouth about Mulligan to begin with. Tell Otto and be done with it. Looking at it objectively, Otto has as much, if not more, to lose if Mulligan carries through on his threats.

At least we finally figure out why Elizabeth treated Mulligan (Iain Glen) as a stranger even though they clearly had history. However, we don’t know—unless I missed it—what she was doing in Cyprus. (If I did miss that explanation, please tell me.)

People adore Jack Davenport or, as a friend of mine described him, “the hot guy from Coupling,” so I’m treading on thin ice when I say that, as Otto Powell, he just didn’t interest me—not in his state of seamless perfection nor as his layers were peeled back to show the messy stuff underneath. With a character as controlled and unflappable as Otto, you know everything’s going to work out for him. You never worry. If schadenfreude takes over, you might even hope that some misfortune finally wipes that smug smile off his face.

Jean and Angela dressed to thrill.
Then there’s Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman), the nurse who’s turned Otto’s head. Tell me: What is the attraction? Even Elizabeth says, “She’s special.” How, Elizabeth? In what way? (Then again, why am I listening to Elizabeth? She’s a selfish twit.) When Angela finally encounters her long-lost husband Joe (which you knew she would) her reaction doesn’t make her seem special at all.

At the end of the episode I didn’t feel as if I needed to know any more about these characters and their predicaments. I suppose that’s both good and bad.

My only unanswered question is the kind of spoilerish: Why were Richard’s parents at the funeral? I don’t mind if that remains a mystery. It is, all things considered, one of the more mysterious things about Breathless.

Masterpiece Mystery returns September 21 with two Miss Marple mysteries starring Julia McKenzie.

Leslie Gilbert Elman is 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.


  1. Elizabeth Mahon

    I have to agree with you Leslie. I’ve seen deeper mysteries on General Hospital. And I had no idea why Richard’s parents would be at the funeral of his mistress, unless she was a family friend? They wanted to support their lying, cheating son? The only person I had any sympathy for in this whole misguided series was Lily, and then perhaps Angela. I’m still not sure why Otto or Enderby never told the truth in the first place. I have so many notes about this series. Looking forward to Miss Marple though!

  2. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Lily was the best thing about this series, in my opinion. As I said last week, I am so pleased that the writer/creators avoided making her comical or pathetic. The conversation she has with Jean before the funeral was spot on. I had the sense that if the series continued Jean and Lily would have more in common than it would appear.

    The thing about Richard’s parents bugged me. If they thought Jean wasn’t good enough for him (and obviously they did), why would Margaret be good enough? And if he was so in love with Margaret, why didn’t he just marry her?

    We’ll never know!

  3. Dorothy Hayes

    I loved Otto and the actor, Jack Davenport, who played him. I didn’t think he was smug, just a tad. He’s confident. I did want to know more, at the end. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t continue but to say Jack deserves better and his wife, Elizabeth, should get on with her life. The detective inspector who blackmails Elizabeth is creepy, and perhaps his character is what didn’t ring true. I’m disappointed with the ending, I think it had a few more episodes to go. I want to know, what will happen to Jack? If a bit smug, he is an honorable character.

  4. Catherine Adams

    Could someone please tell me, if at the end Elizabeth was asking Otto for an abortion or if she just asked him to help raise her new baby on the way? That part just left me confused. Thank you!

    • Gillian

      No she wasn’t asking for an abortion. She wanted them to continue on with their sham of a marriage. She wanted him to now raise her rapist’s son as his own as he had been raising Thomas for the past nine years. She became very excited talking about how nothing needed to change in their relationship/arrangement. Talking about how wonderful their future as a (fake) growing family would be. Taking a family holiday by the seashore etc.
      Meanwhile the look of horror on Otto’s face as he sees himself trapped yet again. Any hope of moving on and developing a real relationship with Angela or any woman and having children of his own someday gone.

  5. DorothyHayes

    This is an eternal cliffhanger. But my imprssion was that she wanted an ab ortion from him. I had no doubt about it.

  6. Debby Long

    I loved loved loved this show and was thoroughly disappointed that it will not continue. I adore this era and think the cast of actors are splendid. The choice of music added just that perfect touch of ambiance giving it the 1960’s feel. Sad indeed.

    • Mary Ann

      I totally agree. Elizabeth was a selfish woman. She loved Otto. This baby was another trap out of guilt for poor Otto. The fashion!! . Bring it back… especially the coats 💕 loved it. Yes simple but spot on about women in the “60’s”

  7. Jerri

    I felt so bad for Otto at the end. Elizabeth is asking him to continue life with her which would include further obligations! So sad!

  8. Penny

    I found this amazing series on the BBC app. What a cool thing, and a groovy show. I was waiting patiently, watching the onion peel its skin to reveal the mysterious details of the characters little by little. AND THEN… it ENDED??!? What?

    We are left with the most ridiculous plot lines, because we aren’t given the time to let them be fleshed out! With time, they could have been. This is like taking a novel, say “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But Harper Lee only gave us 4 chapters, so we only have a thumbnail sketch of Scout, Atticus and Boo Radley. After this short intro, the trial starts, Atticus starts his defence and Miss Lee ends the novel.

    What happened in court? What happened to Scout on her first day of school? Was Boo Radley really a misshapen monster who terrorised the neighbourhood after dark??

    It doesn’t matter, because it’s finished, so we all should just MOVE ON. There’s nothing more to see here. Yes, I know ‘Breathless’ isn’t the same quality as TKAM, but we are drawn in just the same.

    Tragic. Simply tragic.

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