TV Rewind: In a Time of War, Foyle's War Provides Surprising Comfort

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TV Rewind: In a Time of War, <i>Foyle's War</i> Provides Surprising Comfort

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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“Spring, and the smell of cordite in the air.”

It’s April. An invading force is flying over a country it’s in the grim process of setting on fire. One plane falls from formation, its fuselage torn apart by the anti-aircraft missiles being fired at it from the ground. Should any of the men on board manage to jump to safety, they’ll land in the pastures of some rural hamlet, where the farmers whose lives they’re set on destroying have woken early to milk their cows and drive their plows and plant furrow after furrow of potatoes to feed the troops defending them on the front lines. It’s spring, after all. Cordite or not, the crops won’t plant themselves.

What it is, too, is 1941. More precisely, it’s 1941 in a 2004 episode of the British detective drama Foyle’s War (specifically the Season 3 episode “They Fought in the Fields”). But you’d be forgiven for thinking I was describing something else. Another war. Another country. Another invading force. Another spring. It’s human nature, after all, to look for parallels between art and life; hell, in the world of Hot Take pop culture blogging, it’s practically an obligation.

Still, it would be hard to overstate how disorientingly familiar it feels to turn on an episode of Foyle’s War during Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. And not just because an authoritarian, ultra-nationalist state with genocidal intentions invading its European neighbor does more than echo the rough beginnings of the last two World Wars, either (although that’s obviously a real and disquieting factor). It’s because one of the signature elements of Foyle’s War is how cleverly it uses the conventions of the detective drama to both meticulously observe and uncomfortably sit with all the ways in which everyday life—not just farming, raising kids, making art, and going fishing, but also crime, corruption, and cold-blooded murder—adjusts to accommodate war. Having watched events in Ukraine unfold through the lens (and genre conventions) of Twitter, Substack, and WarTok: hard same.

And yet, even with all the millions of hours of content available that’s not expressly about a country working to muddle through daily air raids, shelling, and sweeping cultural, economic, and just plain physical devastation, Foyle’s War has nevertheless become the comfort watch I’ve been turning to these last few weeks. And not in spite of its wartime subject, but because of it.

Created by prolific British novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz (Paste readers might recognize him as the person behind Alex Rider), Foyle’s War stars Michael Kitchen as the quietly effective Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. Honeysuckle Weeks portrays his plucky young driver, MTC Officer Samantha Stewart, while Anthony Howell plays Sergeant Paul Milner, who has recently returned from the front line after losing a leg in Norway. It takes as its subject the baffling and infuriating criminal activity in and around the pastoral seaside burgh of Hastings over the course of World War II. It’s baffling because there’s a war on (who in even half their right mind would have the gall to think about doing crime while bombs are falling all around them?) and infuriating because, well, see above. There’s a war on! Bombs are falling! Who in even half their right mind would have the gall?

If that sounded cheeky, it wasn’t meant to be. As much as the point of the series is to underscore the fact that not even active enemy bombardment can stop the maelstrom forces of human nature, so too is Foyle’s moral indignation over the unbridled, selfish pettiness of every criminal and murderer he finds himself faced with on the homefront. Of course, a small measure of this indignation stems from the fact that it’s his seemingly unique ability to clean up these criminals’ petty, selfish messes that appears to be keeping the Powers That Be from accepting any one of his many applications to join up and aid the war effort directly. But it hardly takes 10 minutes for the pilot to establish that one of the reasons* the Powers That Be continue to reject Foyle’s applications to join the military is that his genuine and cuttingly polite disgust at those who’d use the fog of war to their own nefarious ends is likely to do more to help the war effort than anything he could do as a military officer. Not only does every new case solved, after all, stop short another roil of domestic tension from spiraling into unbridled chaos, but it boosts homefront morale, too.

(*The other reason, of course, is that both the police and military chains of command are just as rife with crime and corruption as the self-absorbed gentry behind most of the murders Foyle’s been left to solve in the Hastings countryside, and they all know better than to expose their many, many failings to his gimlet eye.)

Anyone who’s been paying attention to what’s been happening in Ukraine since February—hell, since 2014—will understand exactly how important morale is to the overall war effort of a country under attack. From President Zelenskyy’s unwaveringly firm personal addresses to his countrymen (and the rest of the world) via Twitter and the unflinching daily war diaries of Yevgenia Belorusets, to, well, all of WarTok, Ukrainians are using social media to demonstrate, in some of the most intimate ways imaginable, just how real everyday life continues to be, both in the face of and in spite of the air raids and random, indiscriminate shellings that have come to serve as daily backdrop.

Which brings me right back to Foyle’s War and the reasons I find the series’ backdrop of random, indiscriminate murder so… well, if not exactly comforting, then effective. Because even when it’s dressed up as part of a cozy British mystery series, the thing about murder is that, like war, it’s never fair. This means that the murders in Foyle’s War feel particularly senseless against the backdrop of World War II: A little boy evacuated from London gets blown up by a grenade ostensibly meant for the corrupt judge who’d resentfully taken him in. A conscientious objector stripped and sprayed with ice-cold water by the police in retribution for his pacifist beliefs winds up hanged. A British woman dies of a heart attack as she’s roughly separated from her German expat husband as they’re being interned as possible “enemy aliens.” Even the little mysteries woven in as red herrings often turn out to be just another grim reminder of the grinding reality of war, like the purported munitions factory in Series 1 secretly churning out coffins for the thousands of dead projected in Britain’s future.

In the wrong hands, all this senselessness could amount to nothing more than bleak nihilism—or, worse, treacly, unkeepable promises that a brighter future is on the horizon. But Foyle’s War confounds both storytelling temptations. It uses all of Hastings’ murders amid Britain’s wartime destruction and the unflinchingly moral but pragmatic character of Foyle to posit that there is often no good answer. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t dig in and do the best right thing that circumstances might allow.

To wit: At the end of one of the series’ earliest episodes, after the news breaks that Italy has taken the side of Germany and declared war on Britain, an Italian friend of Foyle’s is killed after an angry mob sets fire to his beloved neighborhood restaurant in the middle of the night. His only child, a British-born son who’d already enlisted weeks before, is left sitting, singed and shell-shocked, in the middle of the smoking debris. “What sort of a world is this, Mr. Foyle?” he asks at last, hopeful that the sharpest man in Hastings might have an answer for him even as he’s certain there’s none to be had. To his credit—and in keeping entirely with his character—Foyle doesn’t pretend there is one. What he says, rather, is nothing. It’s not until the young man leaves and Sam finally says, to no one in particular, “I don’t know what to say,” that he even attempts a reply. But even then, all Foyle can manage is a terse and unsatisfactory “Neither do I” before they turn and head off to do the best right thing they can manage, solving the next petty problem wartime Hastings has to offer.

Because what else is there to say? What sort of a world is this, after all?

It’s OK if you don’t know what to say. Neither do I.

Foyle’s War is available to stream on Acorn TV. The war diary of Yevgenia Belorusets can be read daily on Isolarii.



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.

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