Ethics are as ephemeral as bits of data floating in the ether. Lines between what’s right and wrong refuse to stay firmly in place. They bend and blur and break to suit the purposes of certain individuals at certain times. Such conduct of convenience does not sit well with Inspector Lewis, whose moral compass is always in full working order.
“Generation of Vipers,” the latest episode of Inspector Lewis on Masterpiece Mystery, deals with purveyors of information on the Internet who are redefining the boundaries of privacy. They feel free to post your personal details wherever and whenever they choose, but just try to request access to their files in the course of a murder investigation. They’ll unleash the lawyers and threaten to sue you for invasion of privacy.
When a personal video is leaked to an Internet gossip site, an Oxford professor of English literature just might be humiliated enough to kill herself. The mere idea that someone’s malicious behavior led to the professor’s suicide infuriates Lewis, but it doesn’t take him long to find enough evidence to indicate she might have been murdered.
Once it’s laid out, the menu of potential suspects reads like an ethics violations most-wanted list: a real estate developer, the founder of an Internet gossip site, the head of a computer dating service, a journalist, an arrogant student. How will Lewis deal with an entire cast of characters motivated exclusively by self-interest?
Our core text for “Generation of Vipers” is William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Although it’s set during the Trojan War, the play’s message about the futility of war resonates with contemporary audiences. It’s also considered a commentary on the decay of ethical behavior in which characters freely lie and deceive to achieve their own ends.
It gave us the character of Pandarus, from whose name we derived the word “pander”—to gratify and exploit another person’s weaknesses. And these lines spoken by Pandarus gave us the title of the episode:
Is this the generation of love? hot blood, hot
thoughts, and hot deeds? Why, they are vipers:
is love a generation of vipers?
Love, as usual, is another driving force in this episode. Miranda Thornton, the dead professor, was known as the author of a book about how single women can thrive without men in their lives. So why was she looking for a match on a computer dating site?
Real estate developer David Connelly, gossipmonger Kit Renton, and dating doyenne Susanna Leland, all are curiously loveless. There’s something suspicious about that.
Meanwhile, Lewis and no-nonsense pathologist Laura Hobson (Clare Holman) are engaged in a romantic détente. Forget the “will they or won’t they”; it seems resolved that they won’t. So why do his hackles rise when the “new boy” D.I. Alan Peterson (Jason Durr) gets a little flirty with Laura?
Writer Patrick Harbinson, whose credits include “The Mind Has Mountains” from last season, also touches on the question of traditional gender roles, citing everything from Shakespeare to Monty Python. Early in the episode, Professor Thornton lectures on the duality of Shakespeare’s women: “for every female character in Shakespeare who conforms to society there is one who flouts it,” she says. That goes right down to Cressida who, in the professor’s words, “wished she was a man.”
Even Laura Hobson can’t avoid scrutiny. “How many women keep a fridge full of beer and read Patrick O’Brian,” Hathaway remarks to Lewis when Hobson offers them her apartment as a place to hide out from rampaging journalists.
Then there’s the character of Sebastian Dromgoole, whose name is probably a reference to Will Allen Dromgoole, a 20th century female poet from Tennessee. (According to her biography at the University of Tennessee Knoxville Library website, “Her father named her William at the suggestion of a family friend, who believed that giving his most recent daughter a masculine name would alleviate his disappointment at her not having been born male.” To which Miranda Thornton and Laura Hobson would shout “Bah!”)
Petulant Sebastian fills the obligatory role of the privileged student in this episode. He’s directing an audio production of Troilus and Cressida in which he’s cast his own girlfriend as “faithless Cressida.” When it’s revealed that he had a grudge against Miranda Thornton he becomes a murder suspect as well. (Freddie Fox, who plays Sebastian, is the first cousin of Laurence Fox—better known to us as Sergeant Hathaway.)
With the Internet representing a force for evil in this episode, characters wield the names “Silicon Valley,” “Palo Alto,” and “Stanford University” like weapons. Lewis starts out assuming that pulling the thread marked “breach of ethics” in the proverbial Web will lead straight to the U.S. of A. That is until the Web settles securely over Oxford, where everyone is connected, and ethical conduct is the sort of thing most of them merely read about in books.
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.