Review: Historical Fiction · Review: Mystery

TV Show Review: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

Never having read the Phryne Fisher Mystery novels on which this show is based, this will be a review purely of the TV show. This is a largely spoiler-free review, except for the section “Overarching Plots.”


Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) returns from England to Melbourne in 1928. There, she promptly finds herself entangled in the murder of a friend’s husband. She follows her curiosity despite the disgruntlement of the local Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). Miss Fisher finds that she has quite the knack for detective work, prompting her to open her own private practice: the Honourable Phryne Fisher, Lady Detective. Despite his initial misgivings, DI Robinson grows to appreciate Miss Fisher’s keen eye for detail and insight into cases, and they become partners rather than adversaries. But there is something more sinister brewing underneath it all: Miss Fisher has darkness in her past, and it might be about to break out of prison and catch up with her.

The Characters

The Honourable Phryne Fisher

Miss Fisher: Well, I disturbed him and he ran off. I gave chase and he took a shot at me. So I did the only thing I could in the circumstances.

DI Robinson: You called for help?

Miss Fisher: I stabbed him in the shoulder.

Living in a world where the most popular shows seem to be the male-dominated variety of Doctor Who and Sherlock, I have long been craving a similar story about a remarkable woman who is amazing and beyond compare. I was contemplating writing such a story, but I couldn’t work out what sort of story it would be, or what sort of woman she would be. But it turns out I don’t have to invent one: that woman, ladies and gentlemen, is Phryne Fisher.

Phryne lives in a society dominated by the white man; and yet she refuses to cave beneath the force of society’s expectation and chooses instead to live life to the fullest, as she pleases. She can hold her own in an argument and doesn’t shy away from a physical fight, if it comes to that. Once she decides that she wants something, she doesn’t let a little thing like society or others’ opinions get in her way. She takes lovers as she pleases, and upon deciding to take a case, will find ways to insinuate herself into the investigation no matter what obstacles are placed in her way. She delights in shocking the conservative society she lives in, but this does not come at the expense of her elegance, sense and compassion. She champions the downtrodden and speaks out against injustice. She treats those in her employ with respect and affection, a family in all but name. She doesn’t hesitate to give aid where she believes it is deserved.

Detective Inspector Jack Robinson

Miss Fisher: If a tree falls in a forest…

DI Robinson: You are very likely somewhere close by, wielding the axe.

Jack is, in stark contrast to Phryne, a quiet, serious man dedicated to his job above all else. He is good at his job, a fact that Miss Fisher quickly picks up. Though at first doubtful of Miss Fisher’s presence at his crime scenes, he grows to trust and respect her as a fellow detective. His stoic exterior hides a man of compassion and open-mindedness: even at his most doubtful of Miss Fisher, he never once suggests that his objections to her presence have anything to do with her gender; once he acknowledges her skills as a fellow detective, he becomes her primary ally. All the same, he is also impervious to her attempts to manipulate him to suit herself, and quick to recognize when she is manipulating Hugh behind his back. He can hold his own in an argument with her, and is not easily shocked by her behavior, responding with wry wit, exasperation or amusement.

Dorothy “Dottie” Williams

Dottie: My priest says it’s unnatural, putting electricity through wires. Sooner or later, it will come in contact with the molten center of the Earth, and will blow up the whole world!

Dottie is Miss Fisher’s companion, who we first meet working as a maid in the house of a murder victim. Naive and innocent, Dottie is alone and terrified of the many dangers in the world, especially electrical appliances. Raised a devout Catholic, she takes her priest’s words as truth and would never so much as tell a lie.

After proving herself extremely hardworking and capable, Miss Fisher takes her on as her companion; and it is through Miss Fisher’s influence that Dottie begins to change. She begins to recognize that morals are not so absolute: to lie is wrong, but perhaps it is forgivable if done to catch a murderer. Though her faith and religion never waver, she begins to challenge her priest in his assertions about women’s roles in society, or in her “sin” of stepping out with a Protestant. Dottie’s slow but sure transformation from a timid, mild-mannered girl into a woman confident in her own thoughts is one of the highlights of this show.

Constable Hugh Collins

Constable Collins: Miss Fisher, wait, it’s pitch black!

Miss Fisher: Follow my lead, Constable. I have the eyes of a fox.

Constable Collins: Miss Fisher, slow down!

Miss Fisher: The carriage pulled up around here.

Constable Collins: Miss Fisher, wait!

Miss Fisher: It looks like something’s been dragged this way! Come on, men, keep up!

Hugh is a young constable under DI Robinson. Unlike Jack, Hugh is easily manipulated and outmaneuvered by Miss Fisher, and proves time and time again to be utterly helpless to so much as prevent Miss Fisher from stepping into a closed crime scene. Perhaps following the Inspector’s example, he never attacks Miss Fisher’s interference by citing her gender. Yet it is clear that he buys into society’s idea of gender roles far more than he initially lets on. Hugh’s struggle to adapt to changing gender roles is never more apparent than in his courtship of Dottie. He has been brought up to believe that it is his duty to shield women from the harsh truths of the world, support them and protect them. Yet as Dottie grows more independent and confident, so too must Hugh learn to adapt to her desire for more freedom than he expected.

The Rest of the Regular Cast

If I made separate entries for everyone, this would go on forever, so the rest of the main cast are as follows.

Bert and Cec, two cab drivers who are taken under Miss Fisher’s wing doing odd jobs. Slowly they warm to the unconventional environment that surrounds her, becoming a part of her family.

Jane Ross, an unfortunate girl who has been mistreated and forced to work as a pickpocket for a hypnotist. Miss Fisher, despite her claims that she “doesn’t do children,” takes her in as her ward when it becomes clear that Jane has nowhere to go.

Doctor Elizabeth “Mac” MacMillan is an old friend of Phryne’s, and the one to greet her at the docks in the first episode. She is a matter-of-fact woman of dry wit, and an unconventional woman in her own right: a medical doctor with a dedication to wearing trousers.

Aunt Prudence Stanley is Phryne’s aunt. At first, she appears to be a woman most concerned with reputation, gossip, norms and convention: Phryne and Mac share their disinterest in spending time with her. Yet underneath that adherence to convention is a woman capable of deep compassion, and even the occasional (if uncomfortable) admission of her own errors.

The Episode Formulas

It is sad but true: whether or not they begin that way, mystery shows more than most types of shows have a tendency to fall into a pattern that makes their episodes increasingly familiar once you work out the formula. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is one of the rarities that manages to avoid the most obvious pitfalls. There is no pattern to the character or role in the story of Phryne’s lovers. The writing seems thought out well enough to avoid any sort of pattern that would permit the viewer to guess the perpetrator based solely on their role in the story. However, there are certain patterns that emerge, all the same. I need to make clear, before I begin, that these are not meant to be negative criticisms!

Murder with Jack and Phryne

This is so obvious that I possibly don’t even need to state it, but I will anyway. It doesn’t matter whether episode begins as a search for a missing hat, or investigation of a burglary. It doesn’t matter if the episode begins with Phryne leaving Melbourne on vacation, or with Jack refusing to work with Phryne. If Jack and Phryne don’t start out working together, they will be by the end. If there isn’t a murder from the start, there will soon be at least one (probably more).

The World of Many Secrets

Apart from the last point, the biggest and most obvious pattern in this show is the sheer number of secrets that will come out in the course of an investigation. Practically every character will be hiding some secret that may or may not be related to the case, and Phryne or Jack will stumble across them while they investigate the murder. This certainly lends complexity to the plots of each episode; and sometimes it becomes possible to predict the perpetrator based solely on the fact that it is nearly the end of an episode and there is only one character who has not revealed any sordid secret yet. But even that is not always the case, because on occasion, it turns out that some character is not hiding any big secret after all.

The Action Scene and the Redundant Rescue

There isn’t always a life-and-death or fight scene near the end of an episode, but this does happen fairly frequently. When it does, generally Phryne will be struggling on her own, Jack rushing to the rescue. As a general rule, Jack will arrive after Phryne’s already got the situation in hand. Again, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, Jack is equally helpless and and a third party “saves the day.” Sometimes Phryne and Jack subdue a murderer as a team.

There is one thing that never happens: Phryne is never a typical damsel in distress, which is entirely to this show’s credit. She is always fighting, always the quick-thinker and always resourceful enough to rescue herself in a pinch.

The End: Jack and Phryne

The episode will always, without exception, end with Phryne and Jack, probably sharing a nightcap. Sometimes they discuss loose ends from the episode; sometimes they share casual conversation; on one occasion, they sing a duet. Occasionally, they are in a group, but more often than not it is just the two of them.

Aunt Prudence’s Jibes at Phryne’s Associates

This is cheating a bit because Aunt Prudence isn’t in that many episodes, but I had to include it because I love Aunt Prudence and these scenes always crack me up.

If Aunt Prudence is in an episode, you can count on it that she will take a metaphorical jab at one or more of Phryne’s associates. She has a heart of gold, but she can say the most hilariously insulting things completely in earnest. Sometimes these jabs are made directly to their object, and sometimes they’re made to Phryne.

The Failed Thwarting of Phryne’s Involvement

Again, this isn’t something that happens that often; it’s also closely tied to the “Murder with Jack and Phryne” pattern mentioned above. But I felt this one deserved an honorable mention.

Through some of the first season and on a few subsequent occasions, Jack tries to prevent Phryne’s involvement in his cases. He is never successful, because Phryne will invariably find a way to make herself invaluable to the investigation.

But this point makes the list because of the times when a character who isn’t Jack tries to keep Phryne out of an investigation. If this is caused by a police officer who isn’t Jack, either Phryne will drag Jack into the case or Jack will pull rank on said officer to involve Phryne (sometimes both). On a few occasions, Jack’s boss makes his disapproval of Phryne’s involvement known; and Jack takes all of a second or two to find a loophole that keeps Phryne involved anyway. (I have to wonder what he would do if it ever came in an order without loopholes: “You are forbidden from involving Miss Fisher in police cases.”)

The Overarching Plots

Each season of the show has its own overarching plot. The seasons are structured fairly formulaically, with the first episode introducing hints of the overarching plot. Over the course of a season, there will be a few episodes that softly touch on this plot before finally culminating in a season finale that at last addresses the overarching plot head-on. This section is practically three big spoilers!

Season 1: Phryne’s Long-Lost Sister

From the very beginning, we are informed that Phryne has returned to Australia on account of a certain Murdoch Foyle who is imprisoned and apparently did something to Phryne’s sister. As the season goes on, we learn that he was arrested for kidnapping another child; but he has never confessed to the kidnap or murder of Phryne’s younger sister Janey, who went missing when they were children. Foyle is a chilling villain in his resourcefulness and cleverness: he orchestrates a prison break by faking his own death and even enjoys a pleasant evening tea with Phryne’s ward Jane before Phryne catches on—but by the time that she does, he is long-gone, leaving Phryne’s household to drown in terror.

This is simultaneously the most predictable and the most well-executed of all the overarching plots. The show never forgets that Janey lies at its core throughout the first season: there scarcely an episode without at least a mention or flashback of Janey, even before Foyle’s manipulations begin in full towards the end of the season. Phryne’s pain is never far from her, and that fact is made abundantly clear to the viewer.

I called this plot predictable. I do feel that I’ve seen this before. The monster of some character’s past orchestrating a prison break just when that character was learning to cope; the villain obsessed with the mystical, convinced that his victims are being granted some great salvation by receiving death from his hands; the dead beloved who was taken by accident instead of the main character. Even his manipulative scare tactics seemed incredibly familiar to me, though I couldn’t pinpoint where, exactly, I’ve seen any of these elements before. What I do know is that after an otherwise incredibly dynamic season, filled with convoluted plots, abundant sleuthing and complex character motivations, we ended in a finale with a straightforward motivation and very little sleuthing: more of a thriller than a mystery.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I did. It was entertaining, and a strong climax to finish off the season. The element that carries it through, above all, is Phryne’s emotions. Phryne, for the first time in the show, hits near-hysterical panic in this arc when, after Jane has already been taken, she realizes that Jack has walked straight into Foyle’s trap as well. Essie Davis portrays this remarkably: Phryne’s elegance and composure are entirely gone as, trapped in a jail cell “for her own safety,” she realizes that Jack is in danger and can only cry out and beg for help.

Here I have to take a moment to sing the praises of the subsequent scene, in which Dottie turns a gun on Hugh on behalf of Miss Fisher. The subsequent affectionately bewildered dialogue results in Dottie breaking down in tears, and Hugh urging her to train the gun on him again so that he has an excuse to give her the keys. The subsequent jailbreak is hilarious and endearing, as Hugh and Dottie go through the motions of the non-existent threat.

In the end, of course, Phryne wrangles an admission of guilt from Foyle and saves herself from becoming the next victim; this even before Jack and Jane break themselves out of their prison just in time for Jack to tie up the loose ends. (And to catch Phryne, who succumbs to a paralytic she was made to drink.) I have to give another shout-out to the acting in the scene where they locate Janey’s grave and dig her up. It is portrayed entirely without dialogue: but Phryne’s pain is all too raw and the unquestioning trust between her and Jack shines through.

Season 2: Jack’s Former In-Laws

In the penultimate episode of season 1, Jack lets on that he and his long-estranged wife are divorcing. Thanks to the dedicated Foxspirit on Tumblr, we know that it’s been about a month since the divorce when Jack’s former father-in-law, also the deputy commissioner, finds himself framed for murder and requests Jack’s help. In the course of this investigation, we (and Phryne) meet Jack’s ex-wife, Rosie Sanderson, and her new fiancé, Sidney Fletcher. Ultimately, this episode, featuring the unsolved theft of a box of personal items from brothel customers and an innocent Deputy Commissioner Sanderson who ends up “accidentally” shooting the man who framed him, seems to have been designed to be ironic in hindsight. The season finale features Sanderson getting promoted to Chief Commissioner after Fletcher uses the aforementioned box from the brothel to convince the former Chief Commissioner to resign; and Sanderson covering up Fletcher’s illegal slave trade of white, blond-haired, virgin girls. When one of the girls turn up dead, Jack and Phryne try to investigate but find Sanderson blocking their way at every turn—and they don’t realize that he might be doing so to suit his own agenda until it’s nearly too late.

In stark contrast to the first season, this was unpredictable and not-too-expertly executed as an overarching storyline. Sanderson, Fletcher and Rosie show up in the season premier, the season finale, and one episode in between. Unlike the first season, where the overarching plot was always present and grew gradually in significance over the season, this plot shows up like a ton of bricks in the final episode. There is a faint foreshadowing in episode 6, Marked for Murder, wherein Jack and Phryne learn that Fletcher has bribed a football player to leave Sanderson’s team to join his own; they discuss whether Rosie knows this. But Sanderson, Fletcher and Rosie are not so much as mentioned in the other episodes, rather diminishing the impact of this storyline as a season arc. We haven’t gotten to know Sanderson or Fletcher all that well in three episodes, so while their corruption was certainly an unexpected twist, it didn’t have the emotional impact that it could have had.

Speaking of the emotional impact of Sanderson and Fletcher’s corruption, I need to take a moment to remark on what this season did to Rosie. Judging by the passage of a mere month between her divorce and her announcement of her engagement to Fletcher, it seems a likely assumption that she ended her marriage to Jack with a future with Fletcher in mind. Yet whatever Rosie’s feelings for Fletcher, Marked for Murder makes it abundantly clear that she is not entirely over Jack—and that Jack, in contrast, seems to have been set free by the divorce, and seems utterly unbothered by the fact that Rosie’s life has moved on. At the end of this season, when Rosie is faced with the devastation of her fiancé’s and her father’s crimes, she has lost everything. Everything that she loved or believed in is gone; maybe never was real at all. All she has is Jack—and even that is cold comfort, because his heart is now so utterly with Phryne. For Phryne and Jack, the fact that he came to her that night to offer a simple assurance was a monumental step in their slow, careful transition from partners to lovers. But I can’t help thinking of Rosie, bereft and alone. I can only hope that her sister is absolutely wonderful, in spite of the shock she must have shared—she must have known Fletcher well too, since he was their father’s godson. (I just assume that Jack took her to her sister’s. I’ve seen the theory that he took her to his own place, but I hope that’s not true, because that would mean that he left her completely alone in the middle of the night to go to Phryne.) Even worse, I wonder whether Rosie will ever be able to look Phryne in the eye again. We saw that they could get along well, once; but since then, Rosie’s implied jealousy and her cutting words to Phryne (inspired by her father’s dislike of the lady detective, and probably fueled by the aforementioned jealousy) have tarnished what might have been a friendship; and the pity she saw in Phryne’s eyes when the truth came out only made it worse. Rosie seems like a kind, intelligent woman, and I wish we could see more of her; but the way things left off, it seems unlikely.

Anyway, back to the plot, the final episode was brilliantly written. In the three relevant episodes, the dynamics between Jack, Phryne, Rosie, Fletcher and Sanderson were all masterfully crafted and executed. Sanderson’s caginess was such that I wasn’t terribly surprised that he ended up being a villain; but Fletcher as the mastermind behind it all was definitely a surprise. Unlike the season 1 finale, this season 2 finale is definitely a good mystery. There is sleuthing, complexity, a multitude of characters, and the action-packed climax is delightful. (Though at some point, I do have to wonder how 2 police officers, a lady detective and 2 cab drivers were a match for everyone else involved in this. They best Sanderson and Fletcher, of course, but what about all those other lackeys who were around? I comfort myself with the thought that there probably weren’t that many people around, since it was the middle of the night.)

Now: I stand by my complaint that this “season arc” is less an arc and more three loosely connected episodes with a ton of bricks that fall towards the end of the last. But I know why this is. There is, in fact, another season arc: and that is the arc of Jack coming to terms with his feelings for Phryne. I’ll discuss this at length in another post, but what it comes down to is this: because Jack has overcome any regrets he has about Rosie and is utterly focused on Phryne, the Sandersons could not be omnipresent throughout the season the way that Janey was throughout the first. So in some ways, this romantic arc is the more compelling one, because it is the one that is omnipresent from episode to episode, throughout the season, and straight through to the post-finale Christmas episode (which featured the laziest villain of the show to date). And this being utterly unmistakable despite being almost entirely subtext. That’s impressive writing and acting, right there.

Which brings me to season 3.

Season 3: Phryne’s Crazy Family Navigating Romance and Other Emotions

Right off the bat, I have to say that the “real” overarching plot of season 3 is quite a let down after the last two. Within the first minute of the first episode, Phryne’s father, the Baron of Richmond, shows up at her doorstep (inadvertently thwarting what may or may not be her and Jack’s first attempt at an officially romantic supper). He is in financial difficulty and appears to have abandoned Phryne’s mother under false pretenses. He spends the episode causing Phryne grief and driving her and Jack to extreme behavior. Phryne ends up giving her father money to wire back to her mother and putting him on a ship, but of course later in the season we learn that he has neither boarded the ship nor wired the money. It all culminates in the revelation that the Baron’s cousin, the previous Baron who had been missing and presumed dead, is alive and blackmailing the Baron for all he is worth. They put an end to this cousin’s scheme and Phryne takes it upon herself to deliver her father safely back to England to save her parents’ marriage, as her mother has despaired of the Baron in his absence (and presumably any letter or telegram would be assumed to be a con of some sort).

As plot threads go, this one is beyond weak. Once again, the story is told over the course of the first and last episodes plus one in the middle, and in the other episodes there is no mention of this plot at all. Furthermore, this time, the finale is packed with so many other threads that the conflict between the current and former Barons is practically only one of many subplots; while there is a murder and an investigation, even this plot is interrupted by other plot threads. The middle episode, Death at the Grand, is where this story is strongest: with the former Baron always dangerously present around the edges of the mystery, and Phryne all but begging her father for more information but left empty-handed.

I’d say that if the middle of a season arc is stronger than any revelation or climax, that’s a weak arc indeed. I’d also say that it’s extremely telling that in the finale, Jack makes a romantic overture in the middle of the investigation, while Phryne’s father is missing and they’re looking for a glow-in-the-dark bottle that made a murder victim glow in the dark. (Yes: if nothing else, this finale can boast a fascinating murder gimmick: the glow-in-the-dark poison! I have to wonder how much radiation poisoning all these characters suffered over the course of this episode.) While Jack and Phryne do have all manner of discussion in the middle of cases, they generally leave the game changer conversations for the end of the case. Of course, the writers were, in this case, faced with the conundrum that Phryne would be heading off to England more or less immediately after the case, and they wanted the romantic overtures to be initiated before she decided to depart. But all the same, the finale is more about the characters all coming to terms with their relationships to each other (particularly Hugh and Dot, Phryne and her father, Phryne’s parents, and of course Phryne and Jack) than about any mystery or thriller.

But it’s not just the finale that inspires my underwhelmed reaction to the season arc. This season, practically every episode featured some form of progression of Phryne and Jack’s relationship, as well as Hugh and Dottie’s. Starting with the first three episodes in which Phryne and Jack navigate that murky world of jealousy while Hugh and Dottie navigate that equally murky world of conversion of denomination, the season progresses to both conclusions, where Phryne is asking Jack to come after her and Hugh and Dottie are married.

Arguably, one could make a case that the overarching plot is Phryne trying to keep what remains of her family intact. Jane is presumably still off on the continent and Dottie is getting married, which will leave Phryne with nothing but her parents, who are teetering on the brink of divorce. This plot is compelling, and deeply so. Despite her angry or chilly approach to interacting with her father, it is clear that Phryne still cares deeply for him and it pains her to think ill of him, even when he gives her no reason at all to trust him. Once the reason for his erratic behavior comes to light, and she finds that her father’s solitary battle has nearly cost him his marriage, she chooses to do what she can to right this, in person. And that was a deeply compelling storyline, made more so by the details of her parents’ courtship interspersed throughout the episode Death at the Grand. So the mystery and the thriller of the season arc were lacking; but there was plenty of heart instead.

If the story ends here, I’ll be entirely satisfied.

No more major spoilers!

Gender Roles

One of the reasons I wanted to review this show was to discuss its subversion of the typical gender roles. Even if the show had been set in the modern day, Phryne and Mac are women who would inspire controversy: Phryne as an heiress who engages frequently and unabashedly in casual sex (just think how the media would treat her nowadays), and Mac as a career-driven lesbian. I (and the rest of the internet, I’m sure) have read entirely too many criticisms of this show on account of how Phryne “gives it away like Halloween candy” and how her casual approach to sex makes her romance with Jack “less compelling.” Which is to say nothing of the reviews that complain that it’s too feminine a show or that the men are not offered enough of a role. Well, personal opinion aside, I’d like to address the latter variety of complaint. (I think that the former point will be better addressed in a future post.)

This is, first and foremost, a show about murder mysteries. Phryne is a woman with a deep love of art and a keen eye for fashion. As such, the costumes, set designs and plots cater to that. Phryne at times is more attuned to the significance of clues than the policemen because she has observed the clothing and jewelry of those around her. Yet that never takes over as the driving force of any plot. I share neither Phryne’s love for art nor her love for fashion, but these interests are so tangential to the plots that this has never been an obstacle to my enjoyment. I learn a little about art and fashion in the course of watching the show, but it never lingers on those topics long enough to bore me, because ultimately the driving force is some mystery behind these topics.

Furthermore, let’s discuss the Bechdel test. This is a very simple test of how well women are written in a story:

  1. There must be 2 or more female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

Here’s food for thought: BBC’s Sherlock, possibly the most popular show in the world right now, fails. Certainly, from the start the show meets point 1. But they barely ever interact with one another at all. In 9 90-minute episodes, there have been perhaps 2 conversations that are between women. This is a show set in the modern day. Admittedly, the fact that the two leads are male perhaps makes it more difficult to find a reason why two female characters should converse, and yet the sheer absence of any such interaction is striking. Apart from Molly Hooper, the show also has a tendency to develop women as these nearly flawlessly amazing people with many a secret. This is a slow beloved by men and women alike, but its portrayal of women is utterly abysmal.

In contrast, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries passes both the Bechdel test and a gender-reversed Bechdel test as well as the Russo test, which tests portrayal of an LGBT character. Villains are sometimes men, sometimes women. There are cold, calculating women, sly, conniving women and hysterical, helpless women. There are slimy, villainous men, narcissistic, self-centered men and kind, noble men. The show does mostly portray characters who are, in some way, products of their genders. But that’s life, since gender tends to partially define who and what we are supposed to become; even more so in the 1920s. Women are shown to hide their intelligence and conceal any love affair they might have at great cost, whereas men are more likely to flaunt their intelligence and sheepishly admit their love affairs. It could be criticized as unequal gender representation; yet in this time and place, intelligence or sexual freedom in a woman would cause scandal, unkind whispers and isolation. It serves as a realistic social backdrop, and as a reminder that Phryne is very much not the norm.

There is one issue that tripped me up. When I first watched this show, I wondered at the depth of acceptance in Jack Robinson. Phryne became the person that she is through a combination of a turbulent childhood and bad experiences with men. Mac has, of course, been living as a woman in a man’s profession with the knowledge that she could lose everything for the crime of being in love. Both of them know all too painfully what it means to be a woman in a male-dominant society. In contrast to them, how is it that, against all odds, Jack, a white male with a good job, in a society where he has every advantage, is able to overlook all the prejudices of his society that are entirely in his favor and be open-minded?

If this seems a strange point of contention, I’d like to point out that giving up society’s ideas of the “place” of certain persons is not at all easy when you’re the one given the advantage. History makes this abundantly clear, but the show gives us its own illustration of this in Hugh’s struggle to accept Dottie’s independence. Hugh is always respectful of Miss Fisher’s role in the investigations, and willing to accept Dottie’s help. Yet when it comes down to it, he feels the need to protect her, and struggles to respect her desire to remain undercover at the site of a crime over his own instinct (backed by societal norms) to drag her out of there. He expects that marrying him will mean that she’ll stay at home and give up her job with Miss Fisher and her role in investigations: he is shocked to realize that this is a conflict for Dottie at all.

So, back to Jack: doesn’t it seem odd that he would be so accepting of Phryne’s subversions of the values he’s presumably lived with all his life? After considerable reflection, I’ve had to conclude that it’s simply a character trait. He’s been through a war, a crumbled marriage, and finally a divorce. Maybe, despite everything he’s been through, those experiences would not necessarily lead to anyone learning to see the world entirely open-mindedly. Still, I can accept that whether by nurture or by nature, he is that astonishing rarity: a person who can see past ridiculous prejudices despite never having experienced them for himself. (And we know so little of his life that who knows? Maybe he has experienced some form of prejudice, perhaps during the war.)

Phryne and Jack: An Unconventional Romance

I don’t just call this unconventional because Phryne is unconventional. I call this unconventional because this entire love story is unconventional. As the story goes on, the flirty attraction between the main pair turns into a plot all its own, despite not being talked about overtly all that much. Of course, the sexual tension that you could cut with a knife between two characters that turns into a will they or won’t they dynamic is absolutely nothing new. Unusually, though, this story makes a clear distinction between the attraction and the love story, which is incredibly rare and pleasantly unexpected. There is another long analysis to be had here, particularly about the roles of gender and jealousy in the portrayal of this relationship. Possibly also to question the importance that our society places on sexual monogamy, even before a romantic relationship commences. But that would be a very long analysis that would add to an already very long review, so I’ll save that for another day.


I am ridiculously fond of this show. It is beautifully designed and shot, expertly written, wonderfully acted and all round a delightful experience. I’m in the process of recommending it to anyone I think might be remotely interested. I’m so enamored of this show, in fact, that I’m currently struggling to watch any other show, on account of the ridiculously high standards set by Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I could not recommend this more than I do.

Buy the show here!


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