Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Foyle's War: Sunflower (BBC, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the third episode in the current season of Foyle’s War, a BBC miniseries (it runs year after year but only presents three new episodes per year) which became a cult favorite some years ago due to the audacity of its concept: a police chief in a small British village that was evacuated during the early stages of World War II is brought to London and put to work for MI-5, the British counterintelligence agency (as opposed to MI-6, the British intelligence agency — basically MI-6 is the British CIA, the agency for which James Bond would have worked if he’d been a real person, and MI-5 is the equivalent to the counterintelligence section of the FBI). The episode was called “Sunflower” and dealt with Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) reluctantly accepting an assignment to protect Karl Strasser (Lars Eidinger), a former Nazi German SS commander who’s living in London, working under a Dutch pseudonym as an art history teacher specializing in Rembrandt, and whom the British government wants kept alive because he’s giving MI-5 presumably valuable information about the Soviet Union’s espionage networks. Foyle, who makes his loathing for Strasser quite clear throughout the episode, has to protect Strasser not only from various people who want to kill him (we presume they are Soviet agents who want to shut him up, but they could also be unrecusant ex-Nazis furious with him for cooperating with the Brits or ordinary victims of his activities during the war) but from two American agents who want to arrest him and put him on trial for war crimes. Midway through the episode Strasser actually is killed when a grenade blows up his car right after he’s shot by Thomas Nelson (Charles Aitken), who has a perfectly understandable reason for hating Strasser. It seems that Nelson was part of the D-Day invasion and his unit got separated from the main Allied forces and ended up behind German lines, where they were captured by a unit led by Strasser. Instead of taking them prisoner, Strasser simply lined the captured British soldiers up and had a machine gunner mow them down — only somehow Nelson escaped, only to be caught by Strasser in a field of sunflowers, where he was hiding. Strasser shot Nelson personally, but the bullet merely grazed him and Nelson was able to survive by playing possum until Strasser left. Somehow he got back behind Allied lines and was rescued, though not without a major case of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, and ultimately he came across Strasser in post-war London and shot him, but [spoiler alert!] did not actually kill him.

The grenade that blew up Strasser’s car was actually planted by MI-5, but Strasser was spirited away beforehand (just about anybody who’s seen more than five movies in their lives could have guessed that Strasser’s “murder” was a fake and he was still alive) so the Brits could hold on to him and keep the Americans from arresting and prosecuting him. (In fact it was the European allies, Britain and France, along with the Soviet Union who most strongly pushed for war-crimes trials and the Americans who were much more willing to let Nazi bigwigs slide if they could be useful in the Cold War against the Soviets and their Eastern bloc. But for the purposes of his plot, writer Anthony Horowitz had that backwards.) “Sunflower” — an ironic title since, as Strasser points out in his art-historian guise, the person who left him a sunflower as a message that he was going to go after him would more logically have been targeting a scholar of Van Gogh rather than one whose specialty was the Dutch painters of two centuries earlier — is a good episode, well directed by Andy Hay and lacking the mind-numbing confusion both Charles and I had complained about in the first Foyle’s War episode of this season, “The Eternity Ring” — in which presumably important characters kept cropping up out of nowhere and it was hard to keep track of who was who (especially since the people tended to look pretty much alike — Charles said part of the problem was Britain’s relatively racially homogeneous population; he said Britain really is “a black and white country” and it doesn’t have the wide variety of European ethnicities we’re used to in the U.S. even though all those Euro-Americans generally tend to get lumped together into the “white” category). “Sunflower” also has a nicely turned surprise ending — Foyle goes against his bosses, who are about to fly Strasser out of London, and double-crosses them by calling the two American agents to come to the airport and arrest him — and overall it’s a good example of the rather homey sort of British mystery the BBC generally does well. It’s simply not overwhelming in the way the very best mystery and crime shows are.