The Dilettante's Guide To Hornblower

Hornblower, the lavish series of made-for-television movies based upon C.S. Forester's novels about the titular British naval hero, first aired in the United States on the A&E cable network in 1999 after premiering in England on ITV the previous year, and was an instant ratings hit and critical darling. It took home the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries, and rightly so: Hornblower is deliriously entertaining. Life in His Majesty's Navy in the final years of the eighteenth century looks like hell: the sanitation is sketchy, the food is crawling with maggots, floggings are a daily occurrence, limbs routinely get blown off by errant cannonballs, and everyone is forced to wear goofy hats. It's a curious blend of chaos and propriety: war is conducted under a series of polite, civilized rules adhered to by all parties, and yet it still manages to be vicious and appalling. The end result is perversely fascinating.

The Characters

Horatio Hornblower:
Hornblower is the reason why critics have spent the last six years predicting stardom for Welsh cupcake Ioan Gruffudd, even when he squanders his talents on career-imploding projects like 102 Dalmatians. One of television's most absurdly likable heroes, Horatio is grim yet adorable, brainy yet nubile, a Barbarella of the high seas, minus the hot pants. Classically trained and possessing 67% more eyelashes than a regular human being, Gruffudd's screen credits prior to Hornblower include small roles as an officer in Titanic, in which he demonstrated his ability to look fetching in a naval uniform, and as one of Stephen Fry's lovers in Wilde, in which he demonstrated his willingness to take off his clothes for the sake of his art. These two qualities have served him well as Horatio.

Captain Sir Edward Pellew:

Based upon a genuine historical figure, Pellew (Robert Lindsay) is the bombastic, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners-suffer-no-fools captain of His Majesty's frigate, Indefatigable. Pellew's gruff exterior can't conceal his gooey caramel center when it comes to Horatio, his shamelessly favored protégé and surrogate son.

Archie Kennedy:

Every hero needs a sidekick who's just not quite as daring or brave or clever as he is. Hence, Archie. Doomed, seizure-prone, self-doubting, passive-aggressive, incompetent Archie. Even though he never ventures far out of Horatio's shadow, Archie is a freakishly popular character with a fiercely loyal fan base that might well eclipse Horatio's. Possibly his admirers find Archie to be something of an accessible Everyman, fallible and flawed and relatable, the flip side of Horatio's remote, unapproachable brilliance. Or possibly they just think Jamie Bamber (Apollo on the new Battlestar Galactica) is way cute. Either way, fair enough.

William Bush:

Lieutenant Bush (Paul McGann, a former Doctor Who) comes into the picture during Series Two and, in the wake of Archie's untimely demise, picks up the slack and becomes Horatio's new best friend. Horatio's senior by some years, Bush has the gaunt good looks of a debauched Ralph Fiennes and a dry, caustic demeanor, though he's easygoing enough not to complain when young upstart Horatio is promoted cleanly over his head. Twice.

Series One (1999)

Episode One: The Duel (UK title: The Even Chance):
January 1793: Armed only with his wits and his extra-long eyelashes, seventeen-year-old midshipman Horatio Hornblower reports for duty aboard His Majesty's Ship of the Line Justinian. It's peacetime, so the ship is anchored and the men are restless. Horatio meets his fellow officers, who include neurotic, seizure-prone Archie Kennedy and sadistic, predatory Jack Simpson (Dorian Healy, oozing bemused malice). Upon first meeting Horatio, Simpson steals his mutton, gives a creepy speech about rendering unto Caesar, and orders him to dance a jig for his amusement. Horatio, weirded out by this rendering unto Caesar business, obeys.

Simpson ups the villainy ante by announcing that he'd like to reconvene the proceedings of the Inquisition. This turns out about as you'd expect, i.e. with Horatio pinned on his back on the mess table while Simpson climbs on top of him and asks if he fancies other boys. Horatio objects to the direction this seems to be heading, so Simpson beats the tar out of him and must be hauled off at gunpoint by kind midshipman Clayton. The next day, Lieutenant Eccleston punishes a battered Horatio for fighting by tying him up in the ship's rigging during a freezing rain; His Majesty's Navy is nothing if not a little kinky. Eccleston then pairs up Simpson and Horatio on a shore mission to round up deserters. It is never made clear whether Eccleston is just clueless or brilliantly, monstrously sadistic. Horatio and Simpson kill time on shore by playing cards. When Simpson, in a moment of offhanded buttheadedness, implies that Horatio is cheating, Horatio, who is surprisingly ruthless and calculating for someone who looks like an orphaned foal, seizes the opportunity to calmly maneuver Simpson into accepting his challenge of a duel.

Prior to the duel, Clayton bonks Horatio over the head, takes his place, gets shot by Simpson, and becomes the first in a long line to cheerfully die for Horatio. Simpson gets pegged in the shoulder, which does nothing to improve his disposition. Thus, the situation has been made much, much worse for Horatio. Fortuitously enough, France finally gets around to declaring war on England before Simpson can wreak vengeance. While Simpson remains on the Justinian, Horatio and Archie are transferred to the frigate Indefatigable, captained by the magnificent Captain Sir Edward Pellew.

Pellew summons Horatio into his quarters to bawl him out for dueling. Horatio tries to get self-righteous, but soon learns that no one ever wins a war of words with Pellew. Pellew yells at him for a while and puts him in charge of the unruly men formerly supervised by Simpson - notably, Styles, Matthews, Oldroyd, and Finch. The men don't cotton much to Horatio at first, especially when he breaks up their delightful below-deck game of killing rats with their teeth. Horatio, who is a dizzying blend of cuddly and scary when he's in his command mode, shouts at them and bosses them around and whips them into shape.

After the Indefatigable captures a convoy of French supply ships, Pellew gives Horatio a chance to test his mettle by taking command of the Marie Gallante, which has a gargantuan hole in the hull beneath the water line and is sinking fast. Happily, this gives Horatio a chance to whip off his shirt and dive into the ocean to inspect the damage. An underwater camera captures the moment; it's a beautiful shot, though perhaps not worth the punctured eardrum poor Ioan Gruffudd earned from filming it.

As the ship sinks, Horatio and his men plus the captured French captain and crew pile into a rowboat. Outnumbered, the English are soon overpowered. The French captain orders Horatio at gunpoint to hand over the compass and the chart. With a great, glorious smirk, Horatio tosses the compass overboard, thus solidifying his place as the coolest fictional eighteenth-century teenaged nautical hero ever. The coolness keeps on coming: Horatio, in anticipation of their French prisoners getting the upper hand, had deliberately mispositioned their location on the chart. The French crew becomes mutinous as they search in vain for the coastline, and right now this episode is so awesome that only a killjoy would point out that the shore is in plain sight in the background while the cast gamely pretends to be lost at sea. Horatio regains command of the boat just as the Indefatigable arrives to pick them up.

Next, the Indefatigable comes across the remnants of the Justinian, destroyed by the French vessel Papillon. Boats are launched to pick up survivors, mean old Jack Simpson among them. Pellew comes up with an incomprehensible yet daring plan to raid the Papillon. Simpson volunteers to join the mission; Eccleston, again demonstrating his trademark brand of oblivious sadism, teams him up with... Horatio and Archie. Is it wrong to find rich humor in the sick, panicky expressions Horatio and Archie exchange at the news that Simpson is coming with them? The veiled buggery implications get ratcheted up a notch when Archie enters his quarters to find Simpson waiting for him. Unsavory business is interrupted by the timely arrival of Horatio, but Archie's fragile nerves are discombobulated to the extent that he throws a spastic fit in the rowboat during their stealth attack on the Papillon. Horatio is forced to whack him on the head and leave him behind.

The raid on the Papillon gets off to a good start with a nice, ugly, ear-biting fight scene. Horatio traipses around in the masts and fiddles with the sails; it's not entirely clear what he's up to, but it appears to be vital to the success of the mission. Things go horribly awry when Simpson takes the opportunity to cut Archie adrift, then raises his villainy to despicable new levels by shooting Horatio. In the head. The bullet glances off Horatio's temple and knocks him off the mast into the sea, where he's pulled to safety by Finch.

The French shore batteries fire upon the Papillon, now under English command, and mortally wound Eccleston. With his dying breath, he leaves command to Horatio, who is bleeding profusely and pitching kitten fits about getting shot in the head. Simpson tries to usurp command, but Horatio does his thing where he gets grim and icy and bossy and scary, and everyone rushes to obey him. When they approach the Indefatigable, they find it under attack by three French ships. Horatio leads a sneak attack while still running the ship under the French flag; his strategy consists of running around the ship, ponytail flapping about madly, while shouting "Fire!" a lot (eleven times in all), which, to his credit, he does very, very well. The Papillon blasts the French ships to bits and the Indefatigable is saved, thanks to Horatio's quick wits and daring. Get used to it; it's going to happen a lot.

All that remains now is to settle things with Simpson, vis a vis another duel. Simpson fires on the count of "two," the rat bastard, and clips Horatio in the shoulder. Horatio is granted a free shot but refuses to take it. Ever the gracious loser, Simpson tries to knife him in the back and is killed by Pellew, who has been lurking on a nearby cliff with a rifle in case of such of an eventuality. Oh, Simpson. You were a fine, fine villain. We'll miss you. Horatio and Pellew have the first of what will become their traditional end-of-episode exchanging of compliments and stroking of egos, then Horatio celebrates by bossing around his men as credits roll.

DVD Feature: A click-through biography of C.S. Forester. Feh.

Episode Two: The Fire Ships (UK title: The Examination for Lieutenant):
We're in Cadiz Bay, off the coast of Spain. By now, Horatio has been promoted to Acting Lieutenant, which means instead of the goofy bicorne of last episode, he now has to wear some kind of top hat, which is the least flattering of the various headwear he dons throughout the series. Elsewhere, a Spanish ship has blasted apart an English supply ship, thus putting a bold and definitive end to Spain's alliance with England. The ship and its vital cargo were placed in danger due to the recklessness of legendary Captain Foster (Denis Lawson, coasting on his lifetime supply of cool points earned by a) being Ewan McGregor's uncle, and b) playing Wedge Antilles in Star Wars). The Indefatigable rescues Foster and brings him on board. Horatio, who is easily impressed by authority figures, becomes instantly smitten with Foster, and vice-versa. Captain Pellew gets his nose out of joint over their mutual admiration society and spends the next few scenes going far out of his way to act aloof to Horatio. Soon, Foster is transferred to another ship, though not before goading Pellew into putting Horatio forward to take his examination for Lieutenant.

Horatio begins studying for his exam. He soon becomes insufferable, grousing that the noise of the crew disrupts his concentration. Due to the loss of the supply ship, the crew have been placed on half-rations; they're surly and mutinous, and don't take kindly to bossy Acting Lieutenants telling them to keep their noise levels down. The kindly and wise (if hobbity) Lieutenant Bracegirdle eventually takes Horatio aside and tells him, in the nicest possible way, to stop being such an ass.

Finch develops scurvy from the reduced rations. Showing a unique blend of compassion and monstrous selfishness, Horatio keeps Finch conscious and alert through the worst of his illness by forcing him to drill him on questions for his exam. Finch dies anyway, but at least Horatio gets in some quality study time. The men take Finch's death hard, especially an unruly seaman named Bunting (Andrew Tiernan), who begins making mutinous rumblings. After Bunting is caught by Horatio in the act of stealing food, he's led through a vicious gauntlet and gets flogged by the entire crew.

Because the food situation is dire, Horatio is sent to negotiate supplies from the Moors in Oran, who, in a bit of hysterical miscasting, are played by a bunch of pale English actors. It should be noted that Horatio, in deference to the warmer climate, has switched from the unflattering top hat to a very cute wide-brimmed straw one. Bunting stows away in Horatio's boat, but is discovered and restrained. Horatio's meeting with the (very pale) Moors unfortunately coincides with an outbreak of the Black Death. Because they've been exposed to the plague, Horatio and his men can't return to the ship without serving out a three-week quarantine. Horatio loads up an empty supply ship with the bartered goods (which include a whole bunch of live cattle), so that the supplies might be saved in the unlikely event they don't develop the plague. Ever the optimist, Horatio also arranges for Pellew to send him his books so that he might study for his exam, just in case he lives to take it.

Horatio, captaining the Supply Ship of the Damned, makes peace with his looming grisly demise by getting a tan and letting a few windblown curls escape his ponytail and fall across his face in a most flattering manner. He also slaughters one of the cows so that his men can at least eat well during quarantine. He's at his very, very best here in keeping morale up in the face of near-certain death; the next time I'm quarantined on a plague ship, I want to make sure Horatio is in charge. Horatio tries to study for his exam, but can't because, ahem, the cows are too loud. When they go ashore to find fresh water for the cows, they're attacked by the Spanish; in the chaos, Bunting, knowing he's destined to hang for desertion, makes a break for freedom (we get a chase scene with Horatio and Bunting that inexplicably goes into slow-motion for a while; Mr. Andrew Grieve, you've done a lovely, straightforward job of directing this excellent series thus far -- why the sudden need to get artsy?). Horatio is forced to shoot Bunting, which kills his buzz about captaining the Best Damn Plague Ship Ever. On the way back with the water, he finds that the ship has been looted by Captain Foster, who has violated their quarantine by stealing their fresh beef. Horatio quarrels with him over the theft and thus falls out of his good graces.

Having served out their quarantine without falling ill, they have a joyous reunion with the Indefatigable. Pellew pretends to be enraged at Horatio about the flagrant waste of beef to feed the crew, but is transparently overjoyed to have him back.

Examination day arrives. In the madness of preparations, Horatio can't find a clean shirt and thus must wander bare-chested below decks for a while. Just because it's gratuitous doesn't mean it's not appreciated.

The exam board consists of Captain Hammond, who becomes a key nemesis to Horatio in later episodes (it's worth noting that he's crabby and anti-Horatio even in this brief early appearance), Captain Foster, who is still holding a grudge, and some other guy who doesn't get much to do. After how obnoxious Horatio has been about studying, it's richly satisfying to see him completely bomb his examination. As he stammers his way through his answers, there's a commotion outside -- the Spanish have set fire to one of their own (abandoned, presumably) ships and sent it on a collision course with the ships in the harbor, the Indefatigable among them. Foster and Hornblower board the flaming ship and steer it away, thus saving the day for everyone.

Back on the Indefatigable, Pellew pours a lightly-charred Horatio a drink and cheerfully informs him that, even though he totally, grievously, humiliatingly flunked his exams, it's still a pleasure serving with him.

DVD Feature: A click-through dictionary of nautical terms. They're not even trying, are they?

Episode Three: The Duchess and the Devil:
Horatio and his posse, joined by grouchy Midshipman Hunter, trap a shore party of French sailors, steal their clothes, and, disguised as Frenchmen, raid and capture their ship, Le Reve. Upon their triumphant return to the Indefatigable, a secretly delighted Pellew does his routine where he pretends to be angry with Horatio. Horatio is not yet so wise to the ways of his captain that he doesn't fall for it. He's given the task of sailing his captured ship back to England, but first, he and Pellew are invited to a lavish dinner party. At dinner, where Horatio is stranded out of his social element (and yet still manages to charm the socks off of everyone present), he encounters the flirtatious and bawdy Duchess of Wharfedale (Cherie Lunghi). The Duchess is to be his passenger on his voyage to England, a duty he views with due trepidation.

Before departing, Pellew gives Horatio a packet of super-top-secret dispatches to deliver to England, which, he cautions Horatio, must never, ever, ever fall into the hands of the enemy. Oh, Pellew. Just toss them into the ocean now, or hand them over to the first Frenchman you see. It'll be easier that way.

While sailing through a thick fog, Horatio steers Le Reve smack into the middle of the Spanish fleet. Since pretending to be French worked pretty well for him in a couple of other sticky situations, Horatio tries it again by flying the French flag and making his crew wear French uniforms. The Spanish fleet sees through this ploy and forces them to surrender. When Horatio goes to throw the super-secret dispatches overboard, the Duchess tells him to give them to her, arguing that the Spanish would never dare search a woman of her stature. He does, which is not his most brilliant decision ever, especially since minutes after the Spanish come aboard, the Duchess starts flirting with her captors. In fluent Spanish.

Horatio and his men are taken to a Spanish prison. Against all conceivable odds, Horatio and Hunter end up sharing a cell with good old Archie Kennedy, who has been shuffled around from prison to prison since he was cut adrift by Simpson at the end of the first episode. Broken in body and spirit, he's now surly and full of weird antagonism toward Horatio. Still suffering from seizures, Archie wakes at night in a cold sweat shouting Simpson's name. Ah, Simpson. Dead two episodes and still instilling terror in all the little midshipmen. It's a stalemate: Horatio won't try to escape unless Archie comes with them, the men don't want to waste time waiting for Archie to get his act together, and Archie would rather stay where he is, thanks very much.

As it turns out, prison isn't all that bad, at least for Horatio, who gets all sorts of perks on account of being a) an officer, and b) totally adorable. The Duchess, killing time until she can hitch a ride on a Spanish ship to neutral waters, gets permission from the genteel prison commandant, Don Masseredo (Ronald Pickup), to have Horatio accompany her on her daily strolls, during which she tutors him in the demands of polite society and flirts with him outrageously. This terrifies Horatio to no end. Archie, with Hunter's enthusiastic support, tediously tries to starve himself to death. Undeterred by Archie's petulant ingratitude, Horatio nurses him back to health by yelling at him, pulling multiple guilt trips, and force-feeding him oatmeal; if Horatio is ever in charge of nursing me through an illness, just smother me with a pillow. When Horatio argues that Archie would do the same for him if he were in his position, Archie snits, "But you're not, and you never would be." This is the most insightful observation Archie will make in the course of the entire series.

Archie recognizes that the Duchess is actually no Duchess -- she's a London stage actress. Horatio, already regretting his decision to give her the dispatches, almost gets heart failure at that bit of news. The men are frustrated that Horatio is spending all his time dining with their Spanish captors and getting molested by duchesses instead of planning their escape, and honestly, they've got a point. The men, led by Hunter, make a half-assed escape attempt that goes horribly awry. Horatio takes the blame for it, which fools no one, especially not Don Masseredo -- but he gets punished anyway, imprisoned in a tiny grate-covered hole in the earth. This is the same punishment that nearly drove Archie out of his tiny little head; Horatio, naturally, comes through the experience pretty hale and chipper. There are moments when Archie's simmering resentment of Horatio becomes a little more sympathetic.

Even after the Duchess departs the prison on a Spanish ship, Horatio still gets to take his afternoon walks along the shore. On one such walk, he and Don Masseredo spy a Spanish ship on the run from the Indefatigable. The Spanish ship hits an outcropping of rocks and begins to sink. I can see what the filmmakers are trying to do here, and points for effort, but it's damn hard to have a gripping scene in which two characters watch a distant sea battle through a spyglass. Horatio gets permission from the Don to lead a rescue expedition to save the drowning Spanish sailors; Masseredo agrees after Horatio gives his word that they'll return to prison afterward. The rescue goes well: Hunter, newly contrite since Horatio got tortured in his stead, drowns, but that's no big loss. Among the rescued passengers is the Duchess -- soaking wet, but still safely in possession of the top-secret dispatches.

Horatio and company are fished out of the sea by the Indefatigable. He delivers the dispatches to Pellew, who would have been much better off just hanging on to them in the first place. Horatio and his men, Archie included, return to the prison, whereupon Don Masseredo gives Horatio a pat on the head and pardons them all on the grounds that Horatio's just too damn noble and adorable to keep locked up. And rightly so.

DVD Feature: A shameless bit of A&E promotional propaganda disguising itself as a behind-the-scenes featurette. Length of featurette: 22 minutes. Number of references to Hornblower being about a boy becoming a man: Nine.

Episode Four: The Wrong War (UK title: The Frogs and the Lobsters):
In London, Pellew meets with General de Charette, a French Royalist who wants England's help in supplanting the Republicans. While this is going on, Horatio, who got promoted to a full lieutenant at the end of last episode despite the debacle of his examination, gets fitted for a new uniform. While I'm a big supporter of the ongoing near-fetishistic attention paid to Horatio's cute outfits, I'm surprised and disappointed at the missed opportunity to squeeze in another shirtless scene. The Indefatigable is to ferry the French troops (the titular frogs, in the culturally-sensitive lingo of Hornblower) as well the red-coated British Army (those would be the lobsters), to France. The army is commanded by the marvelously snooty Major Edrington (Samuel West) while the French are led by the maniacal Colonel Marquis de Moncoutant (Anthony Sher). Moncoutant travels with his own personal guillotine, which tells you all you need to know about the mad Marquis.

En route to France, the French and the English are at each other's throats. The friction between Edrington and Moncoutant threatens to derail the mission, so Pellew decides to send Horatio ashore with them to preserve the fragile peace. This is a sound idea in theory. When Pellew becomes sentimental about saying goodbye to Horatio, General de Charette notes that Pellew seems "particularly fond" of his young lieutenant. Special commendation to the actor for managing to keep all hints of innuendo out of his delivery of that line. Edrington and Horatio accompany Moncoutant into the town of Muzillac, where, prior to the onset of the Revolution, Moncoutant was the Marquis. Upon arriving in Muzillac, Moncoutant kicks off his triumphant return to power by shooting the new town leader mid-chorus of Le Marseilles, then sets up his guillotine and starts lopping heads. Horatio and Edrington stand around and look dazed.

Horatio and Edrington accompany the Marquis to dinner, where Moncoutant goes out of his way to antagonize the pretty serving girl Mariette (Estelle Skornick). Granted, the Marquis is a bastard, but since he's obviously doing it because he's getting his kicks from the way it riles up chivalrous Horatio, you'd think Horatio would have the sense to keep his mouth shut. He does not. After storming out of dinner, Horatio consoles Mariette and embarks upon a gloriously wooden and incongruous romance with her. They make a gorgeous but spark-free couple, with the glassy-eyed, discomfited expressions of enslaved humans forced to mate for the amusement of their alien captors; it's so awkward it's plumb adorable.

Meanwhile, Archie (Pellew has taken pity on Archie and made him an Acting Lieutenant by this point) has been left in charge of blowing up a bridge to cut off the Republican retreat. He's doing very little, and not doing any of it well.

More Republicans get guillotined. Horatio and Mariette grope unconvincingly some more.

Horatio takes a quick break from wooing Mariette to attend to his duty. He figures out that the Republican army snuck through town before their arrival and will mount a surprise attack from the other direction. When the army attacks, Moncoutant is captured and guillotined, to no one's particular distress. With Horatio stranded back in Muzillac, Archie won't blow up the bridge to stop the army's approach. Eventually Matthews has to take the fuse and light it for him. Horatio, deciding to cut his losses, grabs the girl and makes a break for it. As Horatio and Mariette scurry to cross the bridge before it's blown to pieces, Mariette is shot in the back by the Republicans. Archie darts across and drags Horatio to safety as it explodes around them, thus redeeming his prior ninety minutes of dithering incompetence.

Back on the ship, Pellew orders Horatio to give a report on the failed action. He tries, but ends up bursting into tears. Pellew would most likely cook and eat any of his other officers for going on a crying jag in his quarters, but because it's Horatio, Pellew is kind about it and keeps him from going all to pieces. In one of the nicest scenes in the entire series, he brushes off Horatio's uniform, gives him a rousing pep talk, and brings a somewhat slipshod and erratic episode to a graceful conclusion.

DVD Feature: At long last, added value! A richly entertaining documentary on the Royal Navy narrated by a waggish Prince Edward, who is clearly the member of the Royal Family it'd be most fun to go drinking with. Yes, that includes Prince Harry.

Series Two (2001)

(Following the American debut of the first four episodes in 1999, the high ratings and positive critical response resulted in the production of a total of four more installments, which aired here in 2001 and 2003. While still entertaining, these episodes don't quite reach the dazzling heights of the original four. If Hornblower as a whole is a wedding cake, the first episodes are the rich chocolately layers; Series Two and Three, with their reduced budgets and limited scopes, are the boiled frosting and fondant rosebuds: gorgeous accessories, but ultimately not vital to the enjoyment of the finished product.)

Episode Five: Mutiny:
It's now 1802. We open in Kingston, Jamaica, where now-Commodore Pellew is visiting Horatio. Who just happens to be prison. He's charged with, as Pellew calls it in his understated way, "Black bloody mutiny!" Pellew unnecessarily reminds Horatio that he's bound to hang. Horatio, who, as one would expect, is fairly plucky about his impending execution, gives his side of the story in the form of a flashback to the events of six months ago. Horatio is now Third Lieutenant of the Renown, under the command of mad, paranoid Captain Sawyer (David Warner, reunited with his Titanic costar Gruffudd). There are clear signs of Sawyer's insanity right off the bat, most notably in his strange immunization to the legendary Hornblower charm. In fact, he can't stand Horatio and takes every opportunity to deride and humiliate him. Archie is still hanging around, as the ship's Fourth Lieutenant (it should be pointed out that Archie has gained some level of competency in the intervening years and hardly messes anything up at all in these new episodes); Styles and Matthews have stuck with Horatio as well. The First Lieutenant, Buckland, is well-meaning but ineffectual. The brand-new Second Lieutenant, William Bush, reports for duty and has a meet-cute with his future best friend when Horatio pushes him out of the path of some random flying barrels and rolls around on deck with him for a while.

The Renown is en route to the West Indies to cut off a Spanish fleet based out of a fort at Santo Domingo. The crew is poorly trained and unruly, and Sawyer's lunacy is growing: during a sail-shortening mishap, cute young Midshipman Wellard, a protégé of Horatio's, is unfairly singled out for punishment and brutally caned. Drunk old Dr. Clive, a close ally of Sawyer's, doses Wellard with laudanum while tossing off lines like, "It would be a bad thing for the world if boys should ever cease to be flogged." When Horatio protests the brutal treatment of Wellard, he's given thirty-six hours of continuous watch, with the warning that he'll be hung if he falls asleep. Unable to stay awake, he nods off and is caught by Sawyer, who gives him a gun and tries to goad him into killing him. It's not long before Horatio and Archie start whispering together. When Buckland joins their pre-mutinous mutterings, the three get caught by Sawyer, and Horatio gets another thirty-six hours of continuous watch.

Wellard acts as a lookout while Horatio, Archie, Bush, and Buckland have a below-decks top-secret meeting to discuss the possibility of mutiny. They're found out by the gunner Hobbs. Fiercely loyal to his captain, Hobbs alerts Sawyer, who starts a hunt for the mutineers. The lieutenants scatter at Sawyer's approach and beat the world's least graceful retreat, managing to knock over buckets and bang doors and slam gratings as they go. Bush and Buckland get to safety, but Archie, Horatio, and Wellard are confronted by Sawyer, who, in a moment of confusion, somehow tumbles down the stairs.

With the captain concussed and delirious, Buckland ineffectually takes command. Up until now, this episode has been dark and claustrophobic, with below-deck intrigue and grim psychological drama replacing the cheery seafaring action of the previous installments. At this point, presumably a need was felt to somehow lighten the atmosphere. Strangely, this was done via a scene in which our heretofore demure, repressed hero takes a shower. On deck. While the entire crew watches and, yes, cheers him on. No, it doesn't make any more sense in context. In fact, it makes even less sense in context. I don't mean to be ungrateful, and it was mighty sporting of Gruffudd to bare his ass on network television to spike the ratings up a bit, but I prefer my gratuitous nudity to be a smidgen less gratuitous. Captain Sawyer comes to his senses, such as they are, right in the middle of Horatio's naked hijinks, and orders Bush, Archie, and Horatio arrested for mutiny and thrown in the hold.

With a madman in command and the sharpest people on board locked up (and yes, I am including Archie in that group, and isn't that just sad?), the attack at Santo Domingo is a disaster. They're outmaneuvered by the Spanish, and the ship runs aground. The Captain goes completely 'round the bend while Buckland frets and panics. Styles and Matthews free the lieutenants, then Horatio dislodges the ship and orders the doctor to declare the captain unfit for duty (which he does only after Sawyer shoots Horatio in the stomach with a fortuitously unloaded pistol). Sawyer is hauled off in a straightjacket, and Buckland assumes command.

And we come out of flashback. Pellew expresses his seasoned opinion that, having heard all that, he still thinks Horatio is bound for the noose. On that upbeat note, it continues directly into the next episode.

DVD Feature: A documentary, Sail 2000: Aboard the Eagle. I didn't watch it, as it looked boring as snot.

Episode Six: Retribution:
We pick right back up in Jamaica as Buckland and Horatio arrive for their court-martial. Rather ominously, Bush and Archie are not in attendance, nor is their absence mentioned. The court-martial judges are Captain Hammond from the Fire Ships episode, some other guy who doesn't get much to do, and... Commodore Pellew. Oh, for crying out loud. Does anyone think there's a chance any panel chaired by Pellew is going to vote to execute Horatio? Hammond, figuring they need a single scapegoat, attempts to paint Horatio as an ambitious ankle-biter who'd bend the rules for career advancement. Pellew tries to make an argument that Horatio should be promoted instead of executed, but no one's falling for that one.

Back into flashback: The crew, demoralized by the chaos in command, has been deserting en masse. Captain Sawyer is restrained in a straightjacket, but insists to anyone within earshot that he didn't accidentally fall into the hold: he was pushed by one of the mutineers, though he can't remember which one. Horatio and Archie vote to continue their attack on the fort. Bush and Buckland think they should proceed right away to their inevitable court martial in Kingston, but eventually agree to Horatio's argument that it will look better if they get a successful expedition under their belts before facing charges of mutiny. Horatio, Bush, and Archie lead a sneak attack on the fort in the dead of night. The reduced budget is nowhere more apparent than right here, because it's shot day-for-night. Filmmakers everywhere: Please don't do this. When you stick a blue filter over the camera and shoot during the day, it doesn't look like night. It looks, in a word, sucky. Rewrite the scene to take place in daylight, or throw a bake sale to raise the extra cash for a night shoot.

The attack goes well, if messily. Horatio blows a lot of stuff up with barrels of gunpowder, sneaks into the fort through a back entrance, fires superheated cannonballs at the Spanish ships (and blows up a cannon in the process), hauls a cannon up a cliff for some reason, and secures a decisive victory. Even the captured Spanish commander lavishes Horatio with praise for his cunning and daring. This infuriates Buckland, who starts to develop a Horatio inferiority complex. It happens to everyone sooner or later. Mad old Sawyer rubs it in, pointing out how the men all adore Horatio for his brilliance and charisma. In a jackass move, Buckland sends Horatio on a suicide mission to blow up the fort. Bush and Archie sneak off to help Horatio, who is perturbed at the way they ruined his noble death but grudgingly lets them help him blow stuff up. Some people should never be allowed around barrels of gunpowder.

After a daring jump off a cliff into the ocean while the fort explodes behind them, the three errant lieutenants return to the ship. Buckland, who has had his fill of Horatio by this point, puts him in command of the captured Spanish fleet as an excuse to get him far away from him. The Spanish prisoners escape and attack the Renown. Horatio returns to the ship in time to save the day, but Sawyer and young Wellard have been killed, Bush has been stabbed, and Archie has been shot in the stomach, a fact he stupidly tries to hide even while vomiting blood all over Horatio and insisting, "It's not as bad as it looks."

And we're out of flashbacks and back to the court martial. Bush and Archie are in the prison hospital, too injured to stand trial with Horatio and Buckland. Bush is more or less okay, Archie less so.

In a fit of jealousy, Buckland tells the judges that Horatio pushed the captain down the stairs. The gunner Hobbs, who is passionately pro-Sawyer and thus anti-Horatio, is called to testify, with the expectation that he'll confirm Buckland's accusations. Unexpectedly, Hobbs is swayed by the fierce loyalty of the other men to Horatio and says nothing. Captain Hammond calls upon Horatio to testify as to what happened. It's never fully clarified how, exactly, Sawyer came to tumble down the stairs, but the expectation of the judges is this: either Horatio did in fact push Sawyer and will tell the truth under oath, or, to clear the others and end the court martial, he will lie and confess to pushing him. The ambiguity is frustrating, but I'm going to put forth the opinion that pushing old men down stairs, even mad old men who flog cute midshipmen and make you stay awake for seventy-two hours of continuous watch, is just wrong. I'm pretty sure Horatio would agree with me on this, but draw your own conclusions.

Archie, whose condition is worsening, gets wind of Horatio's intention and steals his thunder by confessing to pushing the captain himself. The charges against Horatio and the others are dismissed.

Back in the hospital, Horatio lies to Archie that he's the bravest person he's ever met, and Archie dies happy. Horatio is saddened by the loss of his dearest friend, but perks up when Pellew drops by to offer him a promotion to Commander and a cool new job: captain of the captured Spanish ship Retribution.

DVD Feature: The click-through biography of C.S. Forester. Again. And a click-through guide to warships.

Series Three (2003)

Episode Seven: Loyalty:
1803: France and England are enjoying an uneasy peace, despite ominous rumblings from Napoleon. Horatio, decommissioned from Commander back to Lieutenant because of the peace, is living an impoverished existence in Portsmouth. He's behind in his rent, and he's already hocked his coat and his sword. Horatio's landlady's dowdy daughter Maria (Julia Sahwalla, so lovely as Saffron on Absolutely Fabulous, here frumped-out beyond recognition), is hopelessly in love with Horatio; she secretly buys back his sword and pays his missed rent.

Horatio runs into Bush and takes him along with him to the Officers Club where he's been making a living playing cards with Pellew, who is now an Admiral. The Navy has been playing fast and loose with the promotions, hasn't it? Joining them are Captain Hammond, still disgruntled that Horatio managed to escape the noose, and Hammond's nephew Jack, who has a whopping crush on Horatio. Jack is played by Christian Coulson, best known as young Voldemort in the second Harry Potter movie, so we know no good is going to come from this.

Pellew promotes Horatio back up to Commander (he crisply tells Horatio, "This is not idle favoritism." Indeed not -- I'd call it active favoritism), then gives him command of the Hotspur. Pellew introduces Horatio to their new French ally, snotty Major Cotard (smoldering Greg Wise, best known on these shores as the new Mr. Emma Thompson. Emma is a woman of keen intelligence and discerning judgment). It is Horatio's mission to ferry Cotard to French waters without arousing the suspicions of the French and thus disturbing the fragile peace, so that he may rendezvous with a friend who has important intelligence to pass along. Pellew drills into Horatio the importance of not driving England headlong into war with France. Horatio nods and pays no attention whatsoever.

Maria is devastated to discover that Horatio is leaving. She declares her undying love while he looks terribly embarrassed and tries to disentangle himself from her. She recovers from her histrionics long enough to knit him an awful pair of mittens as a goodbye gift. Horatio asks Bush to be his first lieutenant. Bush barely even winces at the blatant reminder that, yet again, despite his greater years and experience, he has become Horatio's subordinate. Horatio even gains himself a couple of young midshipmen groupies who trail around behind him and shoot him admiring glances: the competent Orrick and the incompetent Jack Hammond. The omnipresent Styles and Matthews also join the crew. The only job available for Styles is as Horatio's steward, even though he doesn't know how to cook, or worse, make coffee. This does not make Horatio happy.

They sail to France. A fire breaks out in the galley, presumably due to Styles' incompetence. Horatio, undercaffeinated and peckish, orders him flogged. (Horatio, my love, if you ever find out that it wasn't Styles' fault and indeed was an act of sabotage from, say, a traitorous Irish nationalist, you're going to feel awfully guilty.) Cotard's ally is not at the rendezvous site, so Horatio trots out his favorite trick: pretending to be French. He and Cotard disguise themselves as oddly glamorous French peasants and do a little spying, whereupon they discover Napoleon's secret army and unravel a plan to invade England. After accidentally provoking war with France, the Hotspur hightails it back to England.

Back in Portsmouth, Pellew is miffed at Horatio for violating explicit orders not to incite war, but is unable to stay mad at him. When Horatio begs out of an invitation to join him for a drink, explaining that he wants to check on Maria, Pellew is overjoyed at the prospect of Horatio finally getting his ashes hauled. Beaming, he gives him permission to sleep ashore for the night, much to Horatio's confusion.

In Horatio's absence, Maria and her mother have been taken away to the debtor's prison. He bails them out and earns a few more embarrassing proclamations of devotion.

Horatio and the Hotspur sail off again as part of a fleet on a mission to disrupt the French invasion. Pellew, heading up the fleet, comes up with some overly complicated plan involving firing off rockets and blowing stuff up. Horatio's end of the mission goes poorly thanks to Jack Hammond, who abandons Horatio in a moment of panic and leaves him to get captured by his traitorous coxswain Wolfe, who turns out to be a fervent Irish nationalist, clandestine ally to Napoleon, and self-proclaimed arch-nemesis to Horatio. It was Wolfe who set fire to the galley in an attempt to sabotage the mission. Horatio thus feels horribly guilty about having Styles flogged. As well he should.

Horatio leads his men in a daring escape from their prison through the latrines, then breaks out the barrels of gunpowder again and runs around blowing stuff up, ponytail flapping heroically behind him; I adore Horatio, but hanging out with him for any period of time would make me feel old and tired. Horatio gets recaptured by Wolfe and his old adversary Captain Hammond, who turns out to be yet another Irish nationalist and traitor to the British. Bush rushes to the rescue. In the ensuing battle, young Jack Hammond gets killed, Wolfe escapes to taunt Horatio another day, and Captain Hammond, horrified at bringing about his nephew's death, kills himself.

Back in Portsmouth, Pellew expresses frustration that Ireland is starting to chafe against England's rule. Horatio mildly suggests that perhaps their loyalty should be earned, not forced. Pellew quotes Corinthians at him ("when I was a child, I spoke as a child..."), which confuses Horatio to no end. Pellew then muses that it's hard for parents to see their children grow up. Horatio, not as clued in to their nice father-son dynamic as he should be, stares at him blankly.

Horatio visits Maria again. She breaks down sobbing until, desperate to get her to stop crying, he offers to marry her. And on her joyous acceptance and his look of stark horror at what he's just done, we slide directly into the next installment.

DVD Feature: Getting better: an audio commentary chock full of interesting production tidbits from the director and producer.

Episode Eight: Duty
It's Horatio's wedding day. He's preparing for the ceremony as best he can, i.e. by hiding in his quarters and throwing up his breakfast. While waiting for the bride to make her way down the aisle, best man Bush suggests that it's still not too late to back out, then engages Horatio in a hushed discussion about how Maria will probably be a loyal and devoted wife even though she's not very attractive. Men suck. Pellew shows up at the reception just in time to charm the bloomers off Horatio's new mother-in-law and to present Horatio with another top-secret mission. He seems a little surprised at Horatio's eager offer to skip his honeymoon and set sail immediately. Pellew orders him to sleep with his wife and tells him to report for duty in the morning.

Horatio spends his wedding night looking moodily out the window at his ship in the harbor. This does not bode well for the marriage. When Horatio arrives on the Hotspur, Pellew's wedding gift is waiting in his cabin: Pellew's own impeccable steward, Doughty, who, unlike Styles, makes a fine cup of coffee.

Horatio's mission is to track down the hobbity Mr. Bracegirdle, now captain of the Grasshopper, who went missing along with his ship after reporting some suspicious activity off the coast of France. Shortly after setting sail, the Hotspur gets caught in a storm and comes across a small rowboat lost at sea. An attempt to rescue the passengers goes nowhere until Horatio, exasperated with his crew's inadequacy in the field of show-offy heroics, dives into the sea himself and pulls them to safety. The passengers consist of a young Frenchman and his American wife, Betsy, who sports a flat, nasal accent designed expressly to punish us for years of slaughtered fake English accents. Betsy keeps wandering into Horatio's quarters to bat her eyes at him. Horatio, deeply distrustful of women these days, is needlessly snippy with her, to the point where she tries to slap him. He points out that it's a hanging crime on a ship to strike a superior officer, which might be apropos to the situation if he were in fact her superior officer. This does not deter her from continuing to wander into his quarters whenever the fancy strikes her.

Horatio finds the Grasshopper smashed to bits on the rocks. The entire crew except for Bracegirdle is dead. While attempting to take Bracegirdle back to the Hotspur, Horatio is beset by French troops, who throw entire cannons down the cliffs at him, which seems like a poor use of valuable munitions. The traitorous Wolfe, still determined to cement his spot as Horatio's arch-nemesis, boards the Hotspur with the intention of absconding with the young married couple. Horatio and Wolfe have a weirdly inept swordfight; at one point, Bush has Wolfe in his sights but won't shoot for fear of killing Horatio, so Wolfe escapes unharmed. Horatio determines that the young Frenchman is actually Jeroem Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother, on his way back to France with his American bride.

Horatio bawls Bush out for not letting Wolfe kill him. At times, it's not easy being Horatio's sidekick. Bracegirdle leads another land expedition to find out why the French are throwing cannons down cliffs. On his way back to the Hotspur, Bracegirdle's rowboat gets hit with a live ammunition shell, blowing him to pieces. Another live shell lands on the deck of the Hotspur; Horatio extinguishes the lit fuse with his hands (protected by the awful gloves Maria knitted for him), then, apparently upset that he missed out on another chance to die heroically, yells at his crew and flounces into his quarters. Bush tries to find out what's eating him. Horatio gives him a venom-laced speech that begins, "We are not actresses." Bush agrees that no, they are not actresses, and quietly backs out of the room, leaving Horatio to his hissyfit. Married life is not resting easily with Horatio.

The Hotspur returns to Portsmouth, where the young couple and the crew are forced to remain on board to prevent word from leaking out as to their famous passenger's identity. Horatio, the sole person allowed off the ship, is forced to return home and spend quality time with his wife and mother-in-law. Eventually, it is decided that Jeroem should be returned to France while Betsy, who is not welcomed by Napoleon, is to be transferred to an American ship and returned home.

The Hotspur sets sail again. An ongoing feud between Styles and the steward Doughty erupts into violence. In the fracas, Midshipman Orrick gets punched by Doughty. The punishment for striking an officer is death, but, even as grouchy as Horatio has been lately, there seems to be little chance he's going to have Doughty hung. Jeroem puts up a fuss at first when he realizes he is to be returned to France without his wife. He makes the strategic mistake of asking Horatio what he would do if he had to choose between his wife and his duty. Horatio argues passionately about the virtues of abandoning wives and manages to turn him over to his way of thinking.

There's a run-in with three French ships, during which Horatio trots out his favorite trick one final time: he disguises the Hotspur as a French vessel. It never fails. Somehow during the battle, in a twist designed to wrap up as many loose ends in as short a time as possible, Wolfe, ah, falls from the mast of a French ship and lands on the deck of the Hotspur, where he manages to get shot by pretty much everyone on board.

Horatio drops Betsy off at the American ship. Upset at his callousness about her forced separation from her husband, she tells him, "I pity your wife." Horatio sighs and replies, "I pity her, too." As compensation for being such a dick the entire episode, he lets Doughty escape with her to the American ship.

Back to England once more. Horatio meets with Pellew, who announces his retirement from active service. As one of his final official actions, he promotes Horatio (of course) to Post Captain, then expresses his wish that Horatio find something more to live for than duty to his country. It falls on deaf ears.

Horatio, spending New Years with his wife and mother-in-law, apologizes for being such a lackadaisical husband and vows to try harder in the future. Maria then announces that she's pregnant, which comes as much as a surprise to Horatio as it does to all of us who assumed he'd been shirking his husbandly duty in this area as well. The series draws to a close on Horatio's expression, which might be best described as delighted horror.

DVD Feature: The continuation of the audio commentary.

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