“Endeavour” fools us for a time once Shaun Evans’ detective gets back to work sober, sharper and ready to rejoin DCI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) in the field. The young Morse’s return comes not a moment too soon, since a murder at the Oxford Concert Orchestra brings him to his old university stomping ground. This familiarity and Thursday’s grounding presence make us hope that Morse will somehow remain on the straight path.
But his fate was written and seen decades ago on “Inspector Morse.” Those stories, which ran between 1987 and 2000, cemented Endeavour Morse in our minds as a man who values his solitude almost as much as he prizes his ale and whiskey as author Colin Dexter imagined him.
John Thaw’s Morse was a touch rumpled despite his highbrow tastes, a picture that barely matches with Evans’ lanky, pressed exterior. But as this ninth and final season starts the younger man starts to resemble John Thaw’s sleuth, and the heartbreak registering on Thursday’s face is a tragedy.
A little sadness can’t be helped as we enter the final phase of “Endeavour.” That goes with the territory of a longtime series shutting down, but this is in a rare league. Between “Endeavour,” “Inspector Morse” and its spinoff “Lewis,” Dexter’s universe has played a part of “Masterpiece” for more than 36 years. “Endeavour” is longest running “Masterpiece” series among its contemporaries, and that means Evans has been playing the role for more than a decade. Where we’ve witnessed the steady dimming of the hero’s faith in his fellow man, the actor has lived it.
His take on the role also grants a particular flavor to this lament. “Endeavour” meets the “Mystery!” stable’s case-of-the-week qualification but the complexity of the whodunits is nothing compared to the intricacy of its character studies.
Prequels featuring younger versions of established characters are common in TV and film, and the typical approach fits these figures with nascent versions of their older selves’ quirks. But Evans and “Endeavour” creator Russell Lewis take a less common approach, building their argument for why such a dedicated crime solver with a sharp understanding of human behavior would become known for his emotional distance.
Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse and Roger Allam as Fred Thursday in “Endeavor” (Courtesy of Mammoth Screen / MASTERPIECE)
Morse’s unrequited love for Thursday’s daughter Joan (Sara Vickers) would seem to be at the heart of that, but she’s merely one disappointment among many. He loved and lost a con artist, survived being sold out by his superiors, and was still viewed by his coworkers as a prickly eccentric. Thursday and his wife Win (Caroline O’Neill) are the exceptions, with the veteran inspector often treating Morse more like a second son than a co-worker.
“Sooner or later, they have to fly alone,” says Bright.
In “Prelude,” the ninth season premiere, circumstances test that dynamic as a dangerous unsettled case reactivates, in a grisly fashion, goading Morse to revisit the file, disregarding the fact that his previous investigation nearly killed him and his partner. Succeed or fail, Thursday is on the road out of Morse’s daily life regardless, having been offered a promotion at a department in a different town.
“They all fledge in the end, Thursday,” says their boss Reginald Bright (Anton Lesser). “Sooner or later, they have to fly alone.” His words hold no assurance for Thursday who knows he and Win, along with Bright and DeBryn (James Bradshaw) have been the stitches and splints holding Morse’s heart together. Remove one and something inside may never heal. Then again, by the end of the season premiere, it becomes plainer that his friend already has a crutch that he’s unwilling to let go of.
Allam and Evans share an extraordinary chemistry that captivates no matter how flimsily some of the dots connect with each conspiracy, with Allam’s rightly sharing Evan’s spotlight. Each scene they share reminds us of what we’ll be missing when Thursday and Morse finally part. But these episodes also close out their time and ours satisfactorily.
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Evans took on Endeavour Morse when he was in his early 30s and looked the part of an eager university intellectual in a room full of working-class men who teased the green off him. Nearly a dozen years have passed for the actor, but for the character it’s only been seven; these last episodes are set in 1972. Whatever extra chronological mileage the actor has weighs more heavily on the man he portrays.
This doesn’t refer to any physical evidence of lines or furrows but the pressures of experience and the crush of expectation – or the lack thereof when it comes to others. One of the saddest moments is fleeting, when Morse catches a falling star . . . violinist. She trips up in front of him, and he gallantly prevents her from hitting the ground. Flustered, she thanks him, and you can see there’s a spark there.
Sean Rigby as Jim Strange and Shaun Evans as Endeavour Morse in “Endeavor” (Courtesy of Mammoth Screen / MASTERPIECE)
In an episode where Morse accidentally finds the girl from whom he’s carried a torch is marrying his dull but reliable co-worker Jim Strange (Sean Rigby) and he’s surrounded by bafflement about his sobriety, this meet-cute offers a spark of possibility. Maybe, for a time, the future Inspector Morse can enjoy a slice of companionship and music. But he’s walked through another version of this dream where the waking nearly broke him and he turns away, reminding us he isn’t meant for happy endings.
The final season of “Masterpiece: Endeavour” premieres 9 p.m. Sunday, June 18 on PBS member stations. Episodes are available to stream the same night at broadcast at 9 p.m. on the PBS app and online. Check your local listings.