Netflix Hidden Gem #74: The Bletchley Circle
The Bletchley Circle: Season 1 (2012)
Director: Andy De Emmony
Genre: Period Drama/Mystery
Synopsis: Five women who worked together as code-breakers during WWII come together to catch a serial killer when it becomes apparent the police can’t (at least, not as fast as these women can). Their brains and bravery lead them on a thrilling and dangerous chase.
Overview: This PBS series’s unassuming name belies the real strength of the show, much like the apparent roles of the women (wife, mother, librarian, etc.), belie their intelligence and influence. Set in 1950s London, The Bletchley Circle follows a group of women who find themselves stuck in lives that seem dull and restrictive after their heroic work breaking Nazi codes, until Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) brings them together to catch a serial killer. “Serial” implies pattern, and pattern is something these intelligent women and trained code-breakers can see. At first, it seems like they’ll work in concert with the authorities, much like Miss Fisher (of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, another show worth checking out) works with Inspector Robinson, calling him in when she has her perpetrators in a corner. However, as the show goes on, the women discover that despite an initial show of trust and support from the authorities, their first false lead is treated as representative of their skill as a whole, and every subsequent tip is only paid attention to insofar as it supports the theories the police have already come up with–theories which are wrong, of course. So, the women must strike out on their own to catch this lurking threat to their peers.
The Bletchley Circle shies away from nothing; the women are not strong women supported by men, they are strong women supporting each other. The murders are not campy and so neat as to be unbelievable (and therefore not frightening), rather, they are disturbing and real, lending urgency to the work the women are doing. These women haven’t taken up crime-solving as a hobby, but to protect the lives of other women, just as they protected the lives of other Britons during the war.
While this show focuses on intelligent women almost to the exclusion of male characters, it doesn’t sacrifice realism for the sake of a message. When watching, you do not get the sense that the writer decided to portray only heroic women and only misogynist men in order to make a statement about gender roles in the 1950s. Instead, the women sometimes have doubts about what they are doing, and the men sometimes respect the work these women did in the war and really want to hear their ideas about finding the serial killer. It avoids painting all men with the same brush, and instead teases out subtler challenges women faced in society, generally, and not with men, specifically–challenges like domestic violence and losing careers they had when the war ended and their country said, “Okay, thanks for filling in, but the guys will take it from here.”
The series would not work, of course, without its skilled actors. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Susan, who first notices a pattern in the serial murders, and who brings her former colleagues together. She has made a name in the mini-series sphere (you may know her from Bleak House or Murder Comes to Pemberly), and deservedly so. Rachael Stirling (Snow White and the Huntsman), Julie Graham (Shetland), and Sophie Rundle (Dickensian) make up the rest of the main cast, and together they bring to life these intelligent and believable friends.
Of the period drama genre, Downton Abbey might have gotten all of the attention over the past few years, but the writing and performances in The Bletchley Circle offer something far more compelling and thoughtful. This is a chilling and gripping series that will have you simultaneously wanting the next episode and afraid to watch what happens next.
Featured Image: World Productions