The Hour: series 2, episode 6

An ending both satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

WARNING: Don't read ahead if you haven't watched the series finale of The Hour yet - contains spoilers! You can catch up on the previous instalment here

We all knew it would happen eventually. We knew there would come a moment when Soho gangster and Hour villain-in-chief Rafael Cilenti would stop using shadowy, suggestive threats to manipulate and intimidate those around him, and start using his fists. But I for one certainly didn’t anticipate that the casualty of that transition would be Ben Whishaw’s quirky, beautiful face.

It was with brutal shocks like this that the second series The Hour came to a close last night. Having set up so many parallel plots (see here and here for my enumeration of what they all were) there was a danger in this finale that the viewer was yanked through endings for all of them in succession, leaving the episode choppy and the audience exhausted. But this pitfall was avoided by giving this episode a strong central storyline of its own, meaning that each little story acted out its ending in the margin. Some of them were just the lightest of scribbles, too - we discovered that Isaac's radio play was heavily based on his colleagues at The Hour, and that Sissy and Sey struggled to find witnesses for their wedding because of racial prejudice, or that government press officer McCain finally stopped spinning for corrupt politicians and managed to transform himself into a proto-PR agent.

The Hour on air. Photograph: BBC

And that main action? A breathless rush to the finish line as The Hour team attempted to prove the connection between the corruption and vice in the West End and the arms race profiteering going on at the heart of the government. Freddie succinctly made the case for why they were seeking to make this connection early on, saying “These are men who decide policy, and they’re lying and deceiving their wives. Why should they get to decide what else goes on?” Hector and Commander Stern, old comrades-in-arms, each implicated in the story, both finally faced their own failings. Hector went on to publicly acknowledge his involvement with the club, interview the woman who falsely accused him of beating her on air, and even forgiving his wife for getting pregnant with another’s man’s child (which, given his own repeated adultery, was really the very least he could do). Stern, seemingly without the same support network, committed suicide in his car.

Before Freddie dashed off to try and save their story, he finally crossed the line in his relationship with Bel. She’d just had a bust up in the corridor with Bill, her ITV bloke, who had stormed off declaring her to be “impossible” and saying that their relationship “wasn’t going anywhere”. We should have known, really, when Freddie leaned in to kiss Bel that all would not be permitted to end happily for them – more on that in a second.

Despite everything, the show-stealing performance once again came from Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor. They finally received news of their long-lost daughter, only to discover that she and her foster parents had been killed in an air raid during the war. On reading the documents, Chancellor sobbed, frozen in a twisted posture in her chair by the weight of her sadness, while Capaldi yelled at her to get out of the room. When she refused, telling him to “do what he needed to do”, he exploded into his hitherto only hinted-at obsessive compulsive disorder, lining everything up neatly on his desk before throwing it all into chaos and collapsing on top of it, head on his arms in devastation. Eventually, after initially fighting her off, he allows Lix to hold him – and that’s how we leave them.

Anna Chancellor and Peter Capaldi stole the show. Photograph: BBC

Once again, the personal and the political were merged as The Hour arrived at its climax. Freddie sacrificed his own safety in order to get the key witness for their story to the studio in time, but as Cilenti and his goons pummelled his face and torso, you couldn’t help feeling he was doing it for Bel as well – proving to her that he won’t let her down, personally or professionally. The terrified, perfect face of Kiki DeLaine exposing the corruption and vice on air was inter cut with the horrifying spectacle of Ben Whishaw’s bloody, battered face (I know from the outcry on my Twitter feed that I was far from the only person strongly tempted to throw things at the television during this sequence).

They dumped him on the grass outside the studio, and for a few heartstopping moments while we watched Bel crying in her office, rereading the love letter she never sent him, we couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. Then he began to whisper “Moneypenny, Moneypenny” and she somehow heard the hated nickname and started running to his side, only for the programme to end before she got to there. Not for The Hour, the fond sickbed reconciliation and an implied future for the characters.

No – only a cut to a black screen, followed by the credits and our lingering doubts, that with Ben Whishaw’s burgeoning film career, The Hour will even have a third series.

I’ve really enjoyed blogging this series of The Hour and chatting to you all in the comments and on Twitter. If you’d like to read back through the whole series blog, you can do so here.

Leave his face out of it! Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.