During the Second World War, the code breakers at Bletchley Park did invaluable work for the Allies, interpreting German coded transmissions to uncover their plans. It was demanding, life-saving work—and after the war, those involved could not talk about the work they had done to save their country.
Susan (Bleak House’s Anna Maxwell Martin) was one of these code-breakers. In a tense opening scene, we see her and her co-workers discover that a series of coded transmissions about someone called Dietrich are doubly encoded, making a discovery that gives their forces a decided advantage over the German troops. Nine years later, Susan is a housewife, mother of two, married to a man who has no idea what kind of work she did in the war. As far as he knows, she simply “has a head for puzzles”.
It’s this head for puzzles Susan puts to use when she hears a news report on the radio about a young woman who was found murdered in an abandoned bomb shelter. Her attempts at talking to the police fruitless, she turns to her old team from Bletchley—maps expert Millie (Rachael Stirling), Lucy with the photographic memory (Sophie Rundle), and their former boss Jean (Julie Graham). Each has moved on from the war: they work in libraries or restaurants, have husbands. More importantly, each has been trying to pretend that their new lives are as satisfying as the ones they had to leave behind—lives where they were useful, where they felt like their skills were needed and valued.
This is particularly the case for Susan, our heroine. It’s clear she loves her children, and her husband, but none of this alleviates the fact that she is painfully bored. In a conversation with Millie, she talks about her life. “There’s balancing the books, making the meat last the week…” Small wonder our entry into her present life is the furious clacking of her knitting needles.
The Bletchley Circle isn’t just an entertaining mystery; it’s a powerful examination of how the women who fought the Second World War, having experienced the joys and hardships of work outside the home, had to come back to those homes and make themselves fit inside roles that seemed ever more confining. Susan’s marriage is largely a happy one, but it’s clear her husband’s ignorance of her skills impacts things negatively. He loves her, yes, he might even admire those of her capabilities that he sees—but because he doesn’t really know her, know what she can do and just how brilliant she is, he’s always just a bit patronizing, a little condescending.
Maxwell Martin gives an excellent performance as Susan. She’s no stranger to playing intelligent women—her performance in South Riding was easily the best part of the series—and her skills are particularly on display here, as you see the wheels turning in her head, the millions of small calculations that go into seeing the patterns most people miss.
The Bletchley Circle creates a satisfying mystery in a fully-realized world with an engaging cast of characters. Not only that, it is a show about women and women’s relationships that doesn’t fall prey to reductive thinking and lazy stereotypes—something that is all too rare in television. I would urge you to give it a watch.
The Bletchley Circle airs on PBS Sunday nights. Please check your local listings.