Previously on Parade’s End: Sylvia travelled to France, even though everyone told her to stay home. Her presence there was so disastrous it actually got Christopher sent back to the Front, so well done there, Sylvia.
So, to catch us up: Chris is on his way back to the trenches to become second-in-command of a battalion instead of serving with the horses as he wanted to; Cpt. Mckecknie, who hates Chris, is going to serve with the horses; and Potty’s being sent back to his battalion as a punishment after the dust-up with Sylvia last week. And they’re all being sent on the same train. Someone has a sick sense of humour.
The three men are currently stuck in that train, which has stopped. Cpt. M brings up that damn sonnet yet again, saying he still hasn’t opened it and will translate it when he gets the chance. Chris doesn’t give a crap. Cpt. M takes the opportunity to insult Sylvia, and Potty sticks up for her, which Mckecknie thinks is hilarious. He’s also mad at Chris because he thinks he should be in charge of the battalion Chris is going to join. Potty’s freaking out, thinking he’s going to die, but Chris bucks him up by saying that, when it happens, you feel no pain or apprehension. Even though Chris has no way to know that, Potty’s comforted. The train finally gets moving again.
Val wakes with a smile on her face and goes dancing downstairs, saying she can smell bacon. It’s her birthday, and she’s delighted to have a telegram, which her mother figures is from Chris. It’s not, it’s from Val’s brother, and it’s pretentiously in Latin. What a little snot that kid is. It reads: Happy Birthday Comrade, Long Live the October Revolution. What an idiot. His mother’s not delighted to hear her son’s a Bolshevik now and Val bursts out that the war would make anyone Bolshevik. She bursts into tears at the thought that Chris might be dead and runs upstairs. Her mother finally puts things together and follows her up, reminding her that Chris is a married man. Val tells her that, when he comes home, he plans to make Val his mistress. Her mother is not happy to hear that. Val promises he’ll stick to his principles and not divorce his wife. He’ll just cheat on her. Awesome principles he’s got there. Not that Sylvia doesn’t deserve it.
In the trenches, Chris reports to a fellow officer, Aubry, who explains the CO’s out examining trenches. He shows Chris around and says they basically have to try not to get shot while waiting for orders to go over the top. At which point, they’ll probably get shot. While they tour the trenches, Chris notices one man climb up over the trench edge and stroll right into No Man’s Land. That’s the commanding officer, Colonel William. Greeeeaaat. So, the CO’s a bit crazy. And probably a bit drunk, as he’s nursing a flask on his walk. He surprises a German soldier in his trench and stumbles back to his own. Chris tries to introduce himself but the guy gives him the brush off. And then the Germans finally start shooting.
At Val’s school, a group of girls are gathered in the locker room, secretly reading from Marie Stopes’s Married Love. Wow, where’d they get their hands on that? Also, I guess this means we’re in March 1918, which is when the book was published. Val catches them and sends them away, then finds the book.
Unsure what to do, she takes it to the teachers’ lounge. One of the teachers wants her to report it to the Head, because it’s terrible to expose young minds to such filth as actual sex education. Another teacher begs a fellow, Mrs. Ferguson, to read more. Heh. “Buy your own,” she replies. Hee! Val wants to put it back where she found it, because she figures the girls are going to get married rather soonish, and it’s best for them to be prepared for what they’ll have to expect, rather than going in completely ignorant. Mrs. Ferguson backs her.
France. Bombs fly like fireworks through the night sky and it’s rather chaotic in the trenches. Aubry climbs out to hurl a few bombs that hit their marks. Explosions go off, sending men flying. One German soldier lands in the trench, horribly injured, but still alive. Chris calls for stretcher bearers to take him away. The fighting continues. Someone climbs out of the trench with a machine gun and starts spraying the German trenches with bullets.
Later, Chris is trying to get some sleep, but he thinks he hears someone mining under the trench.
Elsewhere, Potty lies dead.
At Groby, Michael’s being tucked into bed by his nanny, but another maid comes in and says Sylvia wants him to come down for his goodnight, because I guess she can’t be bothered to come up.
Downstairs, Sylvia and her mother are arguing about the fate of Groby Tree. Mom thinks the tree should stay until Michael becomes master of Groby, but Sylvia, of course, wants the tree down before Michael has any say in the matter. Why does she hate that tree so much? Is it the connection to the past? Because Chris likes it? Why is she so hateful? She thinks the tree is pagan. Her mother thinks she just wants Chris to suffer and feels bad for him. Sylvia whines that she acts more like his mother than Sylvia’s. Given the choice, I’d rather be his mother than admit I had anything to do with the creation of someone like Sylvia.
Sylvia says she’ll spare the tree but she won’t go along quietly if Chris decides to take up with Val after the war. Her mother doubts that’ll happen, because Chris is just too upstanding for that. Sylvia thinks otherwise and promises to strip the flat bare rather than have the two of them living there. She gets all worked up just as the nanny brings poor Michael in, and she screams that she said she’d come up to say goodnight. The nanny quickly retreats and her mother suggests she take some time to go on a retreat and pray for a while. Sylvia’s been thinking of going to India. What is this, Eat, Pray, Love?
Back in the trenches, things still suck. Col. William has begun flinging bottles of wine at the enemies, for some reason. Chris looks befuddled and then reels off some orders to soldiers nearby.
Sylvia’s back in London, I suppose, and visiting with her friend Bobby’s (that female friend of hers) parents. She hears Bobby was remarried and tells Bobby’s mom, Lady Gorvina, that she went and saw Chris in France. Lady G thinks Sylvia’s going to ask her to have her husband (who’s in the war office) pull some strings on Chris’s behalf, but Sylvia wants her to do something for General Campion, who she says is being wasted in his current role. Jesus, what the hell? Is she trying to get everyone killed? Why is she doing this? Lady G’s husband comes in and Sylvia starts in on him and suggests he get Campion sent to the front lines so he can have all sorts of glory and be made Viceroy of India after the war. And with that, she excuses herself.
Campion himself comes back to London for a meeting and is greeted at the train station by Sylvia. Hang on—I thought he was upset with Sylvia after hearing about her running away with Potty all those years ago? When did they patch that up? Sylvia invites him to Groby for the weekend and he’s happy to accept. He asks after Christopher, which confuses her a bit, because she seems to still be under the impression he’s back at that depot. Campion awkwardly explains that Chris is at the Front, getting a chance at glory, “lucky beggar.”
That lucky beggar is currently slogging through knee-deep water in a trench and being startled by a bird taking flight. He stops to talk philosophically with one of the men before scanning the German trenches with field glasses. It’s pretty quiet just now. The other man praises the men in the unit and hints that they would be better served by a better CO. We also hear that Mckecknie’s with them again.
He is indeed, and he finds Chris in the trench and starts acting all squirrely. The two bicker about headgear, if you can believe it (Mckecknie won’t wear a proper helmet). Mckecknie thinks the battalion’s a mess because the CO’s a bit crazy and suspects Chris wants to have the man sent away so he can take over. Chris loses his temper, tells the man to shut up, address him properly as a senior officer, and get a proper hat already. Mckecknie finally falls in line.
Mckecknie tells Chris Campion will be joining them and taking command of the whole unit. Everyone’s making a return these days. Chris overhears someone playing a song on a bugle that reminds him of Val, and he chats a bit with Aubry (I think) about Aubry’s girlfriend, Minnette. Chris swiftly writes something down—I think he’s composing a song for the bugler—and then has a strange moment where he briefly thinks one of the soldiers is Valentine.
Chris next goes to see William, who’s worried about leaving his battalion in bad hands while he’s on sick leave. Chris promises to take care of the men. William mentions that people think Chris is Campion’s illegitimate son. Man, Chris gets some of the strangest rumours attached to him, doesn’t he? Chris says he’s Campion’s godson. Wow, really? And Campion sides with Chris’s horrible wife and had him sent to the Front? Worst. Godfather. Ever.
William cries and admits he’s not in a condition to command the battalion, and since the men seem to like Chris, maybe this is all for the best. He gives Chris his blessing.
Chris heads out to tour the trenches and finds a messenger bag, which makes him cry. I’m not entirely sure what that signifies, apparently that someone died, but I’m not sure whom.
Later, Chris takes a moment to rest and think of Valentine. When he comes back to the present, his corporal appears with a lovely tray (with a cloth on it and everything!) with sandwiches and coffee. They talk and Chris finds out the man grew up near Groby and his father worked down in the mines. They chat about Groby Tree, which they both love, because it wouldn’t be Groby without the tree. Chris says he’ll remember the man’s sandwiches as long as he lives. The bombardment begins and Chris finishes his coffee and smashes the teacup on a rock, which seems pretty wasteful. He says it’s so no toast less noble can ever be drunk from it, but I think the Front’s going to run low on teacups soon if everyone keeps behaving like that. Aubry joins him and asks if there’s anyone he’s fighting for. Chris says there is and Aubry says Chris will get her, in the end. I’m sure he will.
Chris heads back to the trench proper, and shortly after his arrival, a bomb lands, sending Chris and the other men sky high. The others fall, broken, dead, or horribly injured. Aubry’s screaming in pain, half his face bloodied, clearly in shock. Chris drags him away, calling for stretcher bearers, who take the man away. Chris, covered in blood himself (he’s been wounded in the shoulder, it seems) and dirty from having been nearly blown up, runs into Campion, who’s just arrived and immediately yells at Chris for being filthy. May Campion die right now. Seriously, what kind of an idiot is this man? Campion asks where the commanding officer is and Chris says it’s him. Campion’s enraged to hear that, for some reason, and tells Chris he’s going to send him home.
Val has a Married Love-induced sex dream about Chris.
At the front, the soldiers take a break for a talent show.
Sylvia goes to a jazz club in London and spots Gerald Drake at the bar. She goes over and starts to catch up with him. Wow, hearing Jack Huston’s actual voice makes me realize just how different and hard the voice he uses on Boardwalk Empire is. The two of them laugh and tease and she basically propositions him. So, I guess she’s decided not to be good anymore.
Later, Sylvia tells him she doesn’t think Chris will be coming back to her after the war, and she figured she might as well get something out of everyone in London thinking she’s a slut anyway. They talk about Chris a bit and Drake says Chris was up for some medal, but Campion said there were only a certain number to go around and he figured Chris would want to wait for something more prestigious. Wow, what a complete douchebag. Does Campion have any redeeming qualities left? Sylvia’s surprised to hear that Chris was wounded trying to save someone’s life. Drake says the war’s going to be over soon, with the American troops coming over in force. He asks her to come back to bed but she refuses.
Chris finally returns home, observed by Lady MacMaster, across the street. Inside his flat, we see that Sylvia has, indeed, stripped the place bare of everything except Chris’s books. She’s also left a note that makes Chris blanch and hasten north.
Guess what? She’s chopped down the tree. That HATEFUL BITCH! Why? WHYYYYYYYY? God, I can’t remember the last time I loathed a character as much as her.
Chris finds her in bed, totally pretending to be sick, but he refuses to play her game. Why’s she doing this? Whatever. She yells at him for not coming immediately after his discharge some weeks before. He shortly tells her he was in hospital and says goodbye. I wish he’d at least smothered her with a pillow before he left.
Back outside, Chris sifts through the wreckage of the tree, collects a couple of hunks of the wood, notes the mechanized spreader his father hated working out in the fields, and leaves.
In London, offices stand empty as people celebrate the end of the war in the streets. Val runs home from the school to happily embrace her mother. Chris plonks the two hunks of wood on the mantelpiece of his flat. MacMaster calls for his wife to celebrate, but she’s got a bee in her bonnet. To wit: “When I think of all the millions of men died and wounded, and that imbecile Tietjens strolling home without a scratch.” WOW. This woman has really become one of the crappiest characters amongst many in this program, hasn’t she? To run down a man who was wounded twice? While her husband sat on his ass in London and was handed a knighthood in return for work that Christopher did? HATEFUL BITCH! I’m starting to wear out those keys on my keyboard! Thank GOD this is the last episode. She goes on to say she’d been counting on the Germans to kill Chris so there’d be no risk of him calling in his many, many loans to MacMaster. Which MacMaster should pay whether Chris is alive or not, if he’s any kind of gentleman. Which he’s not, any more than Edith is a lady.
Lady Mac thinks the best thing to do is to try and get back on Val’s good side, so she immediately phones her up to brownnose. Edith tells her that Chris had no furniture (how’d she know that? Guess she saw the movers or something) and that he appeared to be a bit crazy. He also asked about Val. When Val reports the conversation to her mom, mom tells her Chris would never ruin her, but Val’s determined to try anyway.
She runs to Chris’s and meets him on his doorstep. He says, a little distantly, that he’s glad she came. She notices one of the Groby Tree logs in his hand and he tells her he’s taking it to Mark and invites her to come along. The heat between these two is…nonexistent.
At Mark’s, Mark yells at Chris for bringing Val there and says he doesn’t give a crap about the tree. Just to illustrate that fact, he tosses the log Chris brought into the fire. So, he’s unlikeable too.
On his way home, Chris shortly tells Val he won’t divorce the mother of his child, and Sylvia won’t divorce him. Val says she doesn’t care. They head into the flat, where they find Sylvia on the stairs, looking quite a bit like Norma Desmond. She claims she’s got cancer, like we should be so lucky as to see her get some miserable cosmic comeuppance. Val accuses her of lying. “This is what you do, isn’t it?” she says. Val’s got her number. Chris backs Val and, essentially, tells Sylvia to eff off. I don’t advocate violence against women, but just this once, I wish he’d punch Sylvia in the face before she goes. Sylvia stupidly tries insulting Valentine, which goes over as well as you’d expect, and she finally goes.
Upstairs, Chris luxuriates in the bath while Val prepares a makeshift bed. He dresses, and someone rings the bell. It’s a party of Chris’s army buddies: Cpt. Mckecknie, who now loves Chris and still has that sonnet; Col. William, who I guess is all better; and Aubry with Minnette, I guess. While he gets ready, Chris glances out his window and spots MacMaster across the way. Mac waves and Chris turns away. Fair enough.
Chris joins the party and is joyfully welcomed. Chris suggests a fire and tosses the last log from Groby Tree into the hearth. The men sing and dance and Mckecknie promises to translate that sonnet. But first, Chris has to dance with Val. They’re all uncertain and cute at first, but then they relax and it’s rather sweet. And later, they finally have sex and it’s romantically lit by the burning Groby log. Intercut with that, we get them dancing, Sylvia asking Campion if he’d marry her if she divorced Chris, and a battalion of soldiers being formed up so they can be formally dismissed. “There will be no more parades,” the CO announces. Off they march, applauding and cheering.
OK, let’s break this down. I don’t think it’s any secret that I didn’t particularly care for this. And it’s not because I’m a child who thinks everyone should be likeable or in some sense redeemable—I can accept that there are going to be characters you hate and some who have no redeemable qualities whatsoever. I don’t think that’s terribly realistic, but there it is. But the problem with this is that I didn’t like any of the characters. The only ones I came close to feeling anything for were Chris and Valentine, and Chris mostly seemed so dry and wishy-washy (Valentine too, to be honest) I couldn’t seem to be interested in him enough to actually like him. And I didn’t particularly care for how anyone was played either. Rebecca Hall was shrill, and Benedict Cumberbatch was dull.
Another issue I had was that this didn’t make for good drama. Not everything works well on screen, and I feel like this was too delicate a work to function properly. It had virtually no plot, and rather little character development, and yet it dragged on for five hours. That just seems self-indulgent. Five hours of not very much happening other than people being hateful and sometimes swapping ideas and absurd gossip is tedious. I get the impression it’s a lot better on the page, where you can delve more deeply into characters’ minds and understand their motivations. I understood very little of the motivations of characters like Sylvia or Campion. They seemed strange and completely inconsistent, which made the writing seem sloppy. Having characters do something just because you feel like it or just because it moves the story forward, whether or not it makes any sense, is just lazy. And I realize that you’re inevitably going to get a bonus by having read the story before seeing the film or miniseries. Fair enough. But those who haven’t read the story should still be able to completely understand what’s going on. Otherwise, that’s a screenwriting failure. And this is not a work that’s very widely read nowadays, so a fair chunk of the viewing audience probably wouldn’t have read the books and therefore wouldn’t be aware of the characters’ inner motivations.
It’s not that I totally didn’t get it. I understood that Sylvia and Chris were both people uncomfortably out of their time. She was ahead of it and he was behind. And I know this was a portrait of a world changing, and though both of those ideas intrigue me (both are present in Mad Men, for instance, which is a show I absolutely adore) this still wasn’t interesting to me. Much as I appreciate the fact that the success of Downton Abbey has made the Edwardian period cool again, it’s also had the effect of making everyone scramble to adapt anything—anything!—that takes place during that period in an attempt to capture that Downton magic. And don’t get me wrong, much as I love it, I believe Downton has major flaws, but at least it also has some interesting characters and actual action. Even the war scenes in this sort of bored me.
So, that’s that. Onward and upward, as they say. I’m sure there will be plenty of people out there telling me I’m an idiot who doesn’t know good drama, and that’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. Just as I’m entitled to mine.