[SPOILER ALERT] It’s the scenario you inevitably find yourself in from time to time on a day with nothing to do, nothing except you, Netflix, and relaxing. You scroll through your options, gliding through the screen in front of you, and it feels like the boredom is pinching your optical nerves: seen it, ugh – not that, definitely no… and then boom, there’s Australian actress Essie Davis’ smiling face, sporting a bob, and pointing a gun into the air like a classic noir femme fatale. Her eyes are mischievous, inviting the viewer to just try her bluff. And like any good character, you can tell she has a dark secret, the makings of a Pre-Prohibition villainess.
Except she’s the hero.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries sounds like an Angela Lansbury-esque Murder She Wrote spinoff, but it couldn’t be anywhere further from the formula. Aside from the episodic mysteries, and a female independent-thinking protagonist, there’s very little that connects the two. Instead, Miss Phyrne Fisher is a fabulously self-styled “Lady Detective” in 1920s Melbourne, who provokes traditionalists and eroding taboos, and invokes the flapper philosophy of feminine independence on her many adventures. She tackles very modern concepts in a refreshing way, sidestepping any social discomfort and inspiring others around her to adopt similar tolerances.
This is a good placeholder to let everyone know that this is where I start spilling the beans – so I recommend watching the show and getting to know it firsthand (or you can scroll ahead!)
WOMEN’S ROLES AND REALITIES
One unusual (and brilliant) feature of the show is its progressive view on abortion and birth control. The show’s creators play on the conservative traditions by juxtaposing Miss Fisher’s modern attitude. In the first episode, these topics play out as part of a subplot. When Dorothy (Dot), Miss Fisher’s (very) Catholic ladies’ maid, picks up a packet of birth control unknowingly and asks what it is, Miss Fisher smiles and says “family planning.” Dot immediately drops it in shock, as if the act of touching it were contagious and sinful. In the very same episode, a woman suffers a botched back-alley abortion – because a legal and affordable one was not available in the 1920s. The show has a way of creating a dialogue about what is essential and important without putting too much political or sentimental emphasis on these topics. And, of course, these topics continue to pop up throughout the season because of its relevance to women. One minor character experiences a botched abortion by back-alley “expert” physicians; another minor character raises another woman’s unwanted child, raising her as her own daughter; and yet another offscreen minor character commits suicide because of a lengthy post-partum depression. The writers are very careful to include all the different ways that women react to preset roles of mothers and wives, never painting any character (despite how minor) into a generic description. There is always something interesting about how they use the expectations of women against the realities that women lived during this specific time and place.
In these early days of radio, temperance movements, and fabulous cut-at-the-knee dresses, the idea of gay and lesbian relationships were still unknown and homosexuality was definitely illegal – if at times technically – and only if you were caught. Several episodes in Miss Fisher deal with minor side characters that are embroiled with conflicts between who they love and what society dictates who they should love. One character pursues a death of a woman because of her intimate (and secret) romantic relationship with her which ultimately unveils a murder. Another character gets arrested after graphic, incriminating photographs taken of him and another man are discovered by the police. Miss Fisher uses homosexuality in this time period not just as a plot device, but as commentary on how the public and individuals treat homosexuality as either an illness or a tactic to separate from an “other”, and how treating each other as human beings should come first.
A POWERFUL, CONFIDENT FEMALE LEAD
The show’s commitment to the true philosophy of OPEN and FREE SEXUALITY, and a refusal to be tied down whether by monogamy or marriage is freaking amazing. Another thing I really love about the show is that its heroine is an unapologetic lover of love. Phyrne is extremely sensual, prone to sexually suggestable quips and observations. (At one point, she hands an inexperienced-in-love character on the show a book on the kama sutra.) It is part of her affectionate and physical nature, and part of her curiosity – exploring bodies with no limit. She refuses to take just one lover, often having a new one every episode. And she gives no justifications or excuses – she does what she wants. There is no sex-shaming, except by those who disapprove of her lifestyle (and who coincidentally also disapprove of the whole 1920s popular youth culture.) Moreover, there is no correlation between her sexuality and her skills as a detective; they are both separate, and both show her as multi-faceted, more than just one or the other.
Every amazing lady needs an amazing family behind her.
An orphan herself, she picks up strays as the show progresses. She does not judge, does not criticize unfairly, and tells it straight to runaways and derelicts she comes across. The cast of said “strays” range from the semi-permanent to the fleeting, but there is always a string of strong emotions that tie Phyrne to this group of misfits. Perhaps it is because Phyrne was a misfit herself, with her own tragedies that weighed her down at great points in her life. You see, it’s this type of writing into her character and the depth the actress, Essie Davis, brings that really make this show worthwhile. And it reflects on the way other characters around her have their own histories and backgrounds as well.
The first was Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams (played by Ashleigh Cummings), her assistant. After the first episode, she goes from being a lady’s maid to a personal assistant, a “Girl Friday” to Miss Fisher’s detective antics, serving as a first mate to the detective many times – a female “Dr. Watson” who fleshes out questions and offers intriguing angles different from Miss Fisher. Dot’s devotion is so strong for Miss Phyrne because of all the emotional turmoil she went through in the first episode, and she now has Miss Phyrne on a pedestal of sorts – to the point of rejecting her longtime beau’s proposal upon learning his expectation she would become a housewife and leave Miss Phyrne before she was ready to. Her innocence and childlike goodness are adorable, and the chemistry between Essie Davis and Ashleigh Cummings is like seeing two sisters sneakily getting along when mom’s out.
Another member of the cast is Jane, the young orphan girl she takes in after one adventure. Miss Fisher offers a home to her, raising her, educating her, and always offering love and support first and foremost. All Jane expected in her life was misery, pain, and badness – she was a thief, and a foster-child shifted from one abusive home to another. This was way before any sort of reform so the situations she was in were pretty terrible; the show sugarcoats it somewhat, but Jane definitely has PTSD from those living situations. Miss Fisher is patient, and kind, offering a place of healing without worrying about living hand to mouth and education for her knowledge-starved mind, altering her fate forever from doomed orphan to a girl with a chance.
SHE SOLVES MYSTERIES FIRST! WITH GUNS!
Miss Fisher is always ahead of the bad guys, and even the good guys. She beats Police Detective Jack Robinson at every turn at his own job, a fact that frustrates and bemuses the poor detective as he meets his match at crime-solving in every episode. Also, a flapper holding a villain at pistol-point with a gold gun – how amazing is that?
Conc: You should watch this show. Seriously. If you are a remote fan of the 1920s, amazing vintage clothing and hair styles, steam-punk, strong female lead (and supporting) characters, interesting mystery plots… you will really like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. An official FEMFlix pick.