JULY / AUG 2013: BY RUTH ANDERSON
The hallowed halls of Oxford may seem more suited to the rigors of academia than murder, but for over two decades that renowned institution has served as the backdrop for murders foul, mysterious, and strange. The perpetrators have been pursued by those practicing an illustrious tradition of investigative prowess with the fictional Oxford City Police, a tradition begun with Inspector Morse and continued under the auspices of Robbie Lewis and the enigmatic James Hathaway. Over the course of seven years and twenty-five episodes, Lewis and Hathaway developed into one of the most rewarding partnerships on television. This summer saw the duo take their final bow (only temporarily, one hopes!) in the Inspector Lewis finale, the successful culmination of this investigative odd couple’s friendship that will live on in memory as a sterling example of the enduring popularity of mysteries, particularly among those who prefer their investigations with a distinctly intellectual bent.
The Morse television series is based on the novels of Colin Dexter. Morse is brilliant but often surly, a likeable curmudgeon with the soul of a romantic and a passion for ale, opera, classic cars, and crossword puzzles. A senior Detective Inspector, Morse’s partner on the force is the affable Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis. For thirteen years, Lewis served as the antithesis of his rough-edged boss—where Morse feels deeply but is often incapable of showing it, Lewis is a softening, more social influence. A dedicated family man, Lewis relishes time with his wife and children, able to set aside the pressures and horrors of the job by seeking refuge with his family, a solace his solitary mentor is denied. But their partnership is undeniably brilliant. It’s heartwarming to see how they become more than partners, but also friends. Lewis is the heir apparent to Morse’s treasure trove of knowledge and experience.
Following Morse’s death in the series finale, Oxford received a seven-year reprieve from crime until the reintroduction of Lewis with a self-titled pilot film. Lewis’s life and demeanor has suffered drastic change since he bid farewell to Morse; his world was shattered when his wife was killed by a hit-and-run driver, an accident that has remained an unresolved and open wound in his life. After returning from an overseas assignment Lewis is shocked to discover that not only does his new boss have him marked for desk duty, but for the duration of the current murder investigation he’s been paired with a mercurial, soft-spoken intellectual, Detective Sergeant James Hathaway.
Those familiar with his origins will immediately recognize the set-up—after his loss, Lewis becomes more like his mentor while Hathaway is Morse reborn. There’s immediate tension, and for much of the first three seasons one has good cause to wonder if Lewis and Hathaway even like each other. Theirs is a slow-developing friendship and from the moment at the end of the pilot episode when the newly reinstated Lewis is told Hathaway requested to work with him, we know (even if they don’t) that they have much to learn from each other.
A recurring theme in the first ten episodes of Lewis involves the torture he suffers not knowing who is responsible for his wife’s death. The anchor that grounded him throughout the Morse years is stripped away and set adrift Robbie is in danger of emulating Morse in ways he’d never dreamed—living and dying by his profession alone. Hathaway suffers from his own brand of angst in the series, as he is never fully able to accept the evil he encounters in his work, torn between the spiritual life he strives for and the grittier realities of the police work he now lives.
Though each would never admit it, Lewis and Hathaway need each other to balance the extremes inherent in their individual natures. Arguably “The Quality of Mercy,” when Hathaway is instrumental in identifying the man responsible for Lewis’s wife’s death, is a turning point for them; the pair move from tolerating and annoying each other to a warm respect and genuine friendship. Hathaway takes a proprietary interest in doing his best to ensure that his boss continues to recover and heal from his earlier loss—never missing an opportunity to slyly suggest the lovely medical examiner, Laura Hobson, might be amenable to a date. For his part, as Hathaway helps steer Lewis toward reclaiming a personal life, Lewis takes a father-like interest in his sergeant. Lewis adopts Hathaway, providing the loner with a much-needed parental figure and the advice that accompanies such a role, whether wanted or not—but always well-intentioned.
While I’ve read rumors that Lewis may return for the occasional special, for all intents and purposes this summer’s finale gave the duo a fitting swan song. Finally able to lay his personal demons to rest, Lewis takes a leap of faith and begins a romance with Laura. In tandem with this long-awaited decision, he realizes that his work no longer needs to define his worth—if he retires, he can do so assured of a vibrant, meaningful life thanks to Laura and his desire to reconnect with his adult children. But leaving Hathaway on the force is a dream unfulfilled, as despite the younger man’s gift for police work, the reality of the profession has become increasingly untenable for him to cope with. Whereas one time Hathaway’s departure from the force might have been a crushing blow to their oft-tested friendship, here Lewis is able to give Hathaway one final gift—of unconditional and understanding support, and a sense of family and belonging the sergeant has too long been denied.
Lewis and Hathaway’s relationship is a study in how to build a meaningful, multi-layered friendship on TV, unforgettably grounded in respect, warmth, and humor. The series is a classic that bears constant revisiting, and if you’ve yet to meet Lewis and Hathaway you’re in for a treat—enjoy! ♥