The BBC Christmastime period drama blast is in full swing, folks! We’ve had Call the Midwife, Poirot, and now this. May I just take a moment to thank the programmers at the Beeb for not doing this one on consecutive nights, which would probably have just killed me.
So, this episode is all about giving us a base for several of our characters: Thernadier (briefly), Marius, Fantine, and, of course, Jean Valjean and Javert. We’re gonna take them in blocks, ok?
It’s 1815, the year Napoleon finally got his ass fully kicked (all the way to St Helena!). When we begin, we see a soldier (Thernadier), robbing bodies in the wake of Waterloo. He comes across an officer who, it turns out, is not dead. The officer mistakenly believes Thernadier just saved him, and he introduces him as Pontmercy. He promises to do Thernadier a favour in return, if they both make it out of here alive.
A little while later, Pontmercy, somewhat recovered (though left with a limp), heads to his father-in-law’s house to visit his young son. Turns out Pontmercy is a baron, and his f-i-l is very wealthy as well. FIL is played by David Bradley, who never, ever seems to get to play a pleasant character. This is no exception. He hates Pontmercy because Pontmercy was on Napoleon’s side and FIL is a staunch royalist. He refuses to let Pontmercy see his son, Marius, who is now being indoctrinated to hate his own father and everything he stood for. The kid’s maybe four, so this sort of thing is pretty damaging. The nanny is disturbed by all this and tips Pontmercy off to the fact she takes the kid to the local church every Sunday, so he can at least see him (from afar) there.
Fantine! Oh, poor Fantine. She’s a wide-eyed naif working as a seamstress who meets a well-to-do young man named Felix at a party. She falls hard for him, and before long he’s set her up in a nice little room and they’re sexing on the regular. Her friend tries to warn her that guys like Felix are never serious about girls like them; that they eventually go back home and marry someone their parents have chosen, but Fantine has really bought into the Disney Princess fairytale myth and refuses to hear it. Somewhere in here, she has a baby whom she names Cosette. Her landlady looks after her when Felix comes by.
After about a year, Felix starts dropping hints that things may be wrapping up soon, which Fantine refuses to hear. He and his buddies take her and her friends out for a nice day in the park and a super fancy dinner. They keep promising a surprise, and at the end of the dinner the boys announce that surprise time has come.
They leave the room, and then send the waiter back with a note for the girls, announcing that the guys have all just left. Damn, that’s lousy of them. And it wasn’t clear at this point that Fantine had had the baby, so I figured Felix just didn’t know she was pregnant, but no! She goes home and takes the baby back from her landlady and cries, of course, while I mentally call Felix every name in the book for totally ditching both Fantine AND his child. The guys did have the decency to pay for the meal, which I thought they were going to skip out on as well, so maybe that’s why they can live with themselves.
But still, Fantine is kinda screwed.
And now to the star of the show: Jean Valjean. He’s living in the Toulon prison hulks, mining giant hunks of rock and mostly just keeping his head down. He does, however, manage to flatten a particularly horrible guard with a well-placed rock, letting the guy scream for a bit before moving the stone off of him. Establishing character moment: Valjean is extremely strong and also not totally a bad guy.
Valjean is in the last year of a 19-year sentence he got for stealing a loaf of bread. One of the other guards, Javert, hates Valjean (eh, hates all convicts, it seems) and taunts him for being an incompetent thief to get such a sentence. I dunno, I think that sentence says more about the horrifying injustice of the French penal system at the time than it does about Valjean’s thieving abilities.
Valjean, not being a fool, does not allow himself to be baited by Javert’s taunts. Not so some other prisoner, who winds up in front of a firing squad for going after a guard.
At last the year is up, and Valjean gets to walk away. But not so fast! He has to carry a paper around identifying him as an ex-convict. You can imagine how well that goes down at the villages and towns of France. When he does manage to get work, he’s paid half what the others get and is told to get lost. None of the inns will take him, so he’s sleeping on the streets.
An old woman comes across him stretched out on a bench by the church and directs him to a nearby house. It’s where the local bishop lives, and the man happily invites Valjean to join him for dinner and accept a bed for the night.
Over dinner, the bishop tries to engage Valjean in conversation and get him to see that there’s good in the world, but Valjean’s not having it. The gentle bishop backs off and apologises.
That night, Valjean sneaks into the bishop’s room and steals the silverware.
The following morning, the housekeeper notices the silver is missing. The bishop definitely knows what happened but is super chill about it. I mean, what does one need silverware for anyway?
Valjean doesn’t get far before he’s caught by some gendarmes who wonder just how someone like him got his hands on so much silver. They bring him back to the bishop’s place and the bishop tells them that not only did he give Valjean the silverware, but he gave him the silver candlesticks as well. Valjean blinks in confusion. The guards blink in confusion. My husband points out that Valjean is just as likely to get in trouble again at the next town over, only this time with about three times the amount of potentially stolen goods on him. I don’t think we’re supposed to think so hard about this.
Before Valjean leaves, the bishop suggests he try living a straighter life.
Valjean gets on his way, and on the road totally robs a little kid of the money he presumably got busking. The poor kid runs off, and after a moment Valjean gets a, ‘Jesus, what have I done?’ look on his face. He tries to find the kid, but he seems to have vanished. And that’s how Jean Valjean decided to start becoming a better man.