The British detective show Endeavour finished its nine-season run in the United States earlier this month. Or maybe it’s a thirty-five year run if we start from Inspector Morse, which began its run in the United Kingdom on February 4, 1988, and carried through three different series—Inspector Morse, sequel Lewis, and prequel Endeavour—and twenty-six seasons of television. And it’s hard to know what to say—which I guess befits the occasion. Grief may feel like it’s flaying the flesh from our bones; it may make us wail, but ultimately it leaves us in a palace of silence.
Every story is ultimately a love story of one kind or another, and we always knew that Endeavour’s would have to be tragic, because there is no trace in the original series of anyone that we’ve met these last eleven years except for Morse’s future boss, Jim Strange. But still the show made us hope, didn’t it, year after year, that Morse would finally pour his heart out to Joan Thursday and allow her to be the home that he so clearly yearned for, the freedom and life that those of us who have watched the original show know he never did find. It’s the brilliance of show creator Russell Lewis’s writing that he managed to keep us believing that it was all possible not only even into the finale, but even after it was quite literally not. And then, when Endeavour finally said all the words we’d waited for, which really weren’t so many at all when it came right down to it—love needs only a moment—Lewis took it all away.
(Lewis, who is himself so private a person that he eschews photographs, actually appears from behind at the very end of the episode. After Morse’s choir recital, he hands a man his music. “Is that it?” he asks. “That’s it,” Lewis answers. And Morse walks out to his car. Somehow I find it all hurts more knowing that.)
I wanted Joanie and Morse together, and obsessed over how it could happen at least for a while, or perhaps how she might continue to exist in his life in some Kim from Better Call Saul fashion. And I guess she did, though in the most painful form possible. Really, Joan? You married Jim Strange? Really?
But stepping back, the deeper love story of Endeavour has always been the father and son relationship between Morse and Thursday, hasn’t it? From the time that we meet him in the pilot until the very end, Morse remains on some level the boy stricken by his childhood—the mother he lost, the father he didn’t connect with, the stepmother whose taunting drove him to consider suicide. And Thursday is the one adult in his life who has seen him for who he truly is—saw the talent and also the brokenness—and cared for him.
I’m sure some were daunted by the fact that Lewis chose for the final season to return to the mass pedophile ring storyline of season two (which actually begins as a puzzle of sorts in season one). But it absolutely fits with the character of Morse that the final word on his life would be a story about ensuring justice for children, no matter the cost.
As the series went on it quickly became also Thursday’s story, the tale of an older man who has not always walked the straight and narrow but wants to live up to the version of himself that he sees in Morse’s eyes. In the finale, he seems to come to the conclusion once and for all that this is impossible. “He was someone’s son,” Morse says of the biker Thursday killed to protect his own son Sam (keeping from Thursday that this biker was the sexually abused boy whom they had been trying to find for years). “But not mine,” Thursday replies. “Not mine.” And they’re obviously talking about the biker, but also, they’re not.
Yet the show ends their story not there in the serrated edges of failed hopes, but in what is ultimately the only hope for any father and son, any love—the choice of mercy. Roger Allam’s work as Fred Thursday has been exquisite all the way back to the pilot, a perfect complement to Shaun Evans crisp and damaged Morse. But the emotions that sweep across Thursday’s face as Morse reveals that he got back Fred’s money is as beautifully vulnerable a moment as you’ll ever see. It’s not just that Morse has returned to him his future. It’s that he continues to love Thursday despite what he’s done, despite the limitations of who he is, despite which son he chose in the end. In an episode filled with funerals and churches, how appropriate that their story should end on such a note.
It’s all terribly devastating in a way, too. I can’t help but think that in taking care of Thursday like this, Morse is also insisting—as he has often over the course of the series—that he has no legitimate reason to expect a deeper relationship with Thursday, or Mrs. Thursday, or the woman he could never bear to call Joan. He’s just the bag-man and driver.
And so when Thursday calls him “Endeavour”—which he’s only done once before, at the very end of the pilot, but now in a clear sign of just how much love he has for this boy, Morse corrects him. “Morse, sir. Just Morse.”
Still, when he then goes back to the churchyard with the gun that Thursday gave him, and loads a round, and fires it, Morse doesn’t kill himself. (God, the choice to include that scene. And Morse is so emotionally restrained as a character, even having just walked with him through all that he’s lost now once and for all, we still don’t see even the possibility of that moment coming. ) Instead he goes on, into a life filled with the ghosts of those he has loved, all gone now, but also music and the endless possibilities of beauty.
And in the distant future for Morse lies as well a heart attack on the same Oxford quad where, in the finale, Thursday himself suffered some kind of near-death experience. Despite his own rigorous sense of duty and self-denial, still at the end he follows after Thursday as a son.
Why do we watch sad shows? Maybe we’re trying to prepare ourselves for the tragedies that ultimately come into any life, the wounds that don’t heal, the losses for which there is no answer or replacement.
In a sense, the finale of Endeavour is itself haunted by its own oncoming demise. The retiring Superintendent Bright (the brilliant Anton Lesser) muses that “maybe time makes failures of us all.” A random character earlier in the episode talks of headstones as little windows into people’s lives. Even the rabid story-of-the-week villain is driven by mourning for the triumphal, imperialist version of England that he identified with. “Saying you were English used to be the greatest claim that a man could ever make,” he rants. “Now when people say it, it’s like they have something to be ashamed about.” On some level when I think of Endeavour, I’ll always see Morse on that dance floor all alone, watching the wedding party parade away to see Joanie and Jim off.
But, in true Morse fashion, the show chooses to end not in sorrow exactly, but in that strange kind of wonder that death can also fashion from the ashes of our lives. “Our revels now are ended,” Bright says, quoting The Tempest, while sitting at the graveside of his beloved daughter, while the camera passes over the empty offices—really, the empty set—in which our characters and the actors playing them have spent so many days putting on this tremendous play for us about duty and family and passion and poetry and music—oh, the music of this show. “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all…shall dissolve and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.”
It seems so sad, so ephemeral, life viewed in this way. And it resonates so profoundly because we know deep down that it’s true. But Shakespeare doesn’t leave us in that place of dissolution, and neither does Endeavour. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” we hear as we get one last look at the many wonderful figures who have populated this show, ending finally on a young and dashing Thursday, and Morse himself, singing, still singing, always singing, no matter the weight he carries, no matter the loneliness or grief. “And our little life is rounded with a sleep.”