Parade’s End: Something to Live For

Previously on Parade’s End: Christopher got trapped into marriage by the spoiled, childish, obnoxious Sylvia, who then makes his life miserable for a while before running off with some idiot. While she’s gone, Christopher falls for a suffragette. And then Sylvia gets bored with her lover and decides to come back.

Christopher meets up with Sylvia in the middle of some woods in Germany and thanks her for coming herself. She surprisingly gently breaks the news that his mother’s dead. Christopher, the man Sylvia keeps accusing of never showing any emotion at all, immediately tears up and tries hard to tamp down his grief, at least while they’re in public.

In the car going to the hotel, Sylvia observes that his mother’s death was probably due to the stress of her leaving. He tells her it was no such thing, that his mother was sick for a while. Sylvia puts out feelers on how her reputation’s fared in the wake of her abandonment and Christopher tells her he’s been putting the story about that she went to Germany to nurse her mother. Sylvia appreciates that for about three seconds, then bitchily says she wishes he hadn’t involved his “mealsack Anglican sainthood.” Oh, for God’s sake, throw her out of the car already. He saved your reputation, you hateful, worthless woman! Show some appreciation already!

She pulls out that little box she was playing with on her wedding day—it’s actually a compact, and then, for no reason, she pitches it out the window of the moving car. For equally no reason, Christopher stops the car and searches the weeds by the road to find it. What was that all about? What does he care if she tosses some trinket from one of her lovers?

He returns it to her and she comments that she saw Gerald Drake recently, and she couldn’t remember what she ever saw in him. His badass awesomeness? Oh, wait, I’m confusing him with his much better role.

At the hotel, Mrs. S is reading the train timetable and planning Christopher’s and Sylvia’s trip home for the funeral. Sylvia whines about having to go back and behave, even though it was her own damn idea in the first place, and the family priest snaps that the old Pagan gods are still at work in Germany and the sooner she gets out of there the better. Mrs. S mentions that the priest, Father Campion, I believe, has business in Berlin on their way home, which Chris figures is “Irish business”. Chris adds that they’ll go back to London, but they won’t be taking another big townhouse, which, it seems, was being paid for largely by Sylvia’s mother, so I guess that’s why he only wants the flat now. Best to not get more entangled with this family. Sylvia’s not happy to hear that they’ll be living in Holborn and Father C snaps that this is supposed to be a penance, not a reward for her. Go Father C! Sylvia pouts and stomps off to pray for death, like a five-year-old.

Once they’re gone, Father C tries to convince Christopher to raise his son Catholic, like his mother, but Christopher’s determined to leave the boy where he is, with his sister, who’s married to an Anglican clergyman. Chris adds that a war is coming in the next couple of years and warns Father C not to “fill his dance card in Berlin.”

Back to Groby. Mark and his father stand outside, checking out the glorious sunset. Father mentions that he’s putting Valentine’s brother through Eton and plans to cover him through university. It’s not an official arrangement, but he asks Mark to honour it should the old man die.

Everyone’s gathered for the funeral, and Sylvia, of course, is the last to arrive for the procession. She’s dressed just a bit too chic and fancy to be appropriate, disgusting her in-laws, who feel she’s making herself the centre of attention, which she is, because that’s all she does. Sylvia comments to her husband that the tree will have to come down before it knocks down the house, but Christopher tells her his father would sooner bring the house down.

Later, Christopher’s introducing his son to the most beautiful little pony, because it’s about time the kid learned to ride. He watches the first riding lesson and seems both pleased and slightly depressed.

Inside, Sylvia settles down for a bath in the dressing room, complaining about how there’s not a single water closet in the entire place, nor are there any ashtrays. Christopher arrives and is directed to the dressing room by the maid. When he comes in and sees his wife naked, he gets all embarrassed and looks away so he can tell her that his sister’s heading home and Sylvia should say goodbye to their son now, if she wants to. Sylvia stands up, embarrassing her husband further, and snaps at him to leave if he can’t bear to look. She grumbles and bitches and bitches and I consider creating some kind of keyboard shortcut for “Sylvia Bitches” because she does it all the damn time and I’m tired of typing it again and again. Before Christopher goes, she tells him he’s hurting himself for no reason, keeping the kid in Yorkshire, because she intends to be a good girl and live chaste and take occasional retreats to fancy convents. So, I guess her religion’s kind of important to her, then. Strange we’ve seen no real evidence of that so far.

Off to one of those convents she goes the following year, accompanied for the settling-in time by that awful friend of hers from last episode. Friend’s name is Mrs. Pelham, by the way. Sylvia thanks her for coming along, but tells her it’s about time for her to get lost. Mrs. P thinks Sylvia won’t last a day there because there aren’t any men. Sylvia sighs that she was tired of going to parties and things and having women cling to their husbands. Can you blame them? By Sylvia’s not interested in these men. She talks about how crazy brilliant Christopher is and how he wants to make her suffer. Yes, yes, it’s all about you. She plans to make him realize his failure at that by being in perfect humour all the time. Mrs. P observes that Sylvia’s soppy about him.

Eton cricket match. Valentine and her mother are relaxing with her annoying brother, who’s complaining about having to be there with all these privileged folks when he could be attending a lecture on imperialism. He’s a pill. One of the players hits the ball hard and Valentine runs and catches it, which earns her a round of applause. And then, who should show up but the General. Valentine’s mother pleasantly tells him he still owes her fifty pounds for running his car into her mare the previous year. The General stupidly mentions that Christopher was there, which catches his nosey sister’s attention, and you can just see all the malicious pieces fall into place as she realize that Christopher was out late at night driving the Wannops’ rig and pony. Things get uncomfortable and Valentine excuses herself and heads to the tea tent.

There, we find Mrs. S (why she’d be at an Eton cricket match I have no idea) complaining to Stephen, that politician we met last episode, about her milliner having to let some of her employees go. I have no idea what he has to do with that, something to do with the budget, I guess. Anyway, Valentine shows up and Stephen introduces her to Mrs. S. Valentine is polite enough, but then excuses herself by saying she wouldn’t want to continue inflicting her inferior mind on Stephen, which gives away her political position and allows Mrs. S to check her out and get all excited that she’s met a real live suffragette.

Outside the tea tent, Valentine’s accosted by that gray-haired man who I think is Chris’s boss, but I’m not 100% sure about that. The man’s gotten it into his head that Valentine’s Chris’s mistress and he’s super nasty about it. So nasty I can’t believe she doesn’t pitch the tea right into his face. He totally deserves it.

Montage. Chris on a train, Valentine watching cricket, Sylvia praying. It’s about the most boring, slow-moving montage ever.

Chez Wannop. Valentine’s typing something while her mother chatters about some article she’s writing, aided by information sent to her by Chris. The article’s about the Balkan Crisis, which Valentine thinks is all male spear-waving. She departs to spend the afternoon with Mrs. D.

She finds Mrs. D hovering outside the sitting room, where her husband’s having tea with a bishop and some other clergyman. Although there’s one rough spot when the bishop mentions the parish organ and Rev. D thinks he’s referring to his organ, but that’s quickly smoothed over and it seems like things go all right. The music in all these scenes gets really goofy and plonky, which makes these bits feel really out of step with a lot of the rest of action in this series. It’s like I’ve wandered into a completely different show sometimes.

In the hall, Mrs. D, who suddenly seems to have become Scottish, tells Valentine that MacMaster’s taken to visiting on the weekends. I’ll bet he has.

Rev. D emerges to show the guests out, and the third clergyman whispers an “all well” to her, which is sweet. Once they’re gone, Rev. D starts sniffing and insists he can smell brimstone, which means the devil’s afoot. Plonky music’s back, even though this scene seems like it should be a bit sinister. Mrs. D tries to distract him by introducing Valentine, but he will not be distracted. He advances on his wife, who keeps rather hysterically talking about MacMaster and poets. Rev. D’s praying loudly and undoing his wife’s blouse, and instead of going to get help, because who knows what’s going to happen at this point, Valentine just stands there, like an idiot. Rev. D somehow manages to tear his wife’s corset free, and Valentine finally steps in, saying she, too, agrees that corsets suck. She escorts him out of the room. Yeah, these scenes seem like they’re trying very hard to be some kind of comic relief, but all I’m getting is mood whiplash from them, when they’re juxtaposed by scenes of the really sad, awful main story.

While out for a ride in the park, Sylvia runs into the General and Potty. The General tells her that the Department of Statistics is in a lot of trouble with someone important and Sylvia laughs and says Christopher’s up in Yorkshire with his sister’s family for the holidays.

New Year’s Eve. Sylvia parties in the city while Chris rings in 1914 with his sister and her family. He talks politics and the possibility of war. Of course he knows perfectly how quickly it will become a two-front war, because hindsight is 20/20. This sort of thing annoys me both here and in the Newsroom, because it’s cheating to make a character or characters seem preternaturally brilliant and magically able to see the future when you’re writing about things in the past. Were there really a lot of people who were dashing around London perfectly predicting that World War I would break out in August 1914? I’m sure there were people who knew something bad was coming, but I doubt they anticipated anything on that scale. It was unprecedented, and it was kicked off by a fairly random assassination that almost didn’t even happen! You can’t predict that kind of thing! It’s like writing a book now that takes place in 1998 that has someone looking up at the Twin Towers and saying, “You know, in exactly four years, we’re definitely going to be at war with Iraq and Afghanistan.” We knew something was bound to happen sometime, but nobody envisioned 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Having a character do that seems stupid and unrealistic to me. There are other ways of showing that someone’s intelligent and tuned in to what’s going on without them being right all the time.

At dawn, one of Sylvia’s admirers sees her home, but she refuses his offer to come up and tuck her into bed.

Up north, Valentine reads a Christmas card from Christopher and smiles delightedly. In the dark, pre-dawn light, Christopher completes a puzzle.

Valentine and a lot of other very noisy suffragettes demonstrate in front of the National Gallery. Valentine takes a moment to duck inside and settles down in a gallery, looking very much like she’s waiting for someone. She admires Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus for a moment, but then some other suffragette comes in, asks what everyone’s gawking at, and starts hacking at the painting with a butcher’s knife. You hateful, stupid woman! See, this is one reason why so many people had a problem with the suffragette movement. It’s hard to convince people that you’re rational, intelligent human beings who should be part of the political discourse in your country when you hack up paintings, throw acid into mailboxes, and generally behave like hysterical, insane people, thus proving the point of the establishment that keeps saying you aren’t sufficiently in control of yourself to have a say in anything at all.

Sylvia’s checking out art in a much calmer gallery. Some admirer of hers chides her for being late, then introduces her to the post-Impressionists. She’s wearing a really dark lipstick that does nothing at all for her. Rebecca Hall, take note. That’s not your colour. She contemplates buying one of the paintings to annoy her husband.

Instead, she buys a pretty pen-and-ink which Christopher absolutely adores. And his excitement seems to actually make her happy. It’s the first time I think we’ve ever seen them seem like a semi-functional couple. Interesting. They admire the piece together, and then Chris blunders by suggesting they hang it in her room, which breaks the mood, because she thinks he doesn’t actually like it. He tries to recover by suggesting the breakfast room instead, but it’s a little too late now. Oh well.

Chris is taking a walk with MacMaster and talking about Mac’s love life. Mac wants to marry Mrs. D, but of course her husband’s still alive, and she won’t have him put in an asylum because she’s loyal. Chris, of course, understands. There’s also some talk of Mac’s finances—it seems he wants to borrow some money from Mrs. D, but Chris tells him he can’t do that, because he’ll be viewed poorly for that, so Chris will give him the money instead. Give, not lend. He doesn’t do lending, apparently. He cuts MacMaster a cheque and they talk about how MacMaster’s now in charge of the Royal Literary Fund. Chris guesses Mac will be on the Honours List soon. Talk turns to summer vacation plans: Mac’s going to Scotland, and Chris and Sylvia are going to her kinsman’s estate in Northumberland. Chris knows Mac’s going to Scotland with Mrs. D and warns him against it, but I doubt Mac will listen.

Mac and Mrs. D arrive at a gorgeous hotel in Scotland, and the proprietor almost immediately realizes they’re not married, not that he seems to care. MacMaster checks in under his own name, which is incredibly stupid, and claims Mrs. D is his wife. They’re shown to their grand room and Mrs. D starts to panic a bit, thinking everyone’s figured out they’re not man and wife. Mac reassures her, and she gets over it. They tumble to the floor and the camera pans to a newspaper article about Russia mobilising its army.

In Northumberland, the house party is walking around the moors and taking a rather uncomfortable-looking lunch in the great outdoors. There’s talk of politics and someone claims there won’t be a war. Sylvia gets bored and wanders over to the nearby cliffs overlooking the sea. Chris joins her and points out a circling fish eagle overhead. He tells her that war most definitely is coming and he wants to go see their son before things fall apart. Sylvia doesn’t want to hear about this, though I think it’s mostly because it’s all too awful to contemplate. She goes back to watching the eagle and Chris leaves.

In Scotland, Mac and Mrs. D return from a boat ride and, as they’re walking through the garden, whom should they spot but the bishop who was just visiting Rev. D a few scenes back. Oops! Mrs. D freaks out and insists they leave at once, but not together, because of gossip, I guess, though I think that ship has well and truly sailed. Mac calls Chris, who arrives, though I’m not sure why it’s better for him to be escorting Mrs. D home. He tells Mac they’re now at war with Germany and gets Mrs. D on the train, where they’re found by Sylvia and all the other people from the Northumberland house party. What’re they doing on that train? What just happened here? Why couldn’t Mrs. D go home by herself? Why is it better for Christopher to come? Why were any of these goofy scenes necessary?

Back in London, Chris is meeting with his boss (and now I don’t think he’s the same douchebag who accosted Valentine at Eton. I now have absolutely no idea who that guy was, even though he’s been in many, many scenes. Does he have a name? Can someone help me out here?). They’re going over troop numbers, and Chris doesn’t seem too pleased by what he’s seeing. Boss is insisting they need to ensure there’s a good reason to insist on a dual French/British command on the field, so I suppose he’s asking Chris to mess with the numbers again. Chris has had it at this point and resigns to go join the army.

Valentine’s brother is back home, yelling and arguing with his mother and telling her he’s refusing to fight. His mother calls him a coward. The phone rings and Valentine happily escapes to Mrs. D’s.

Mrs. D has called her because she thinks Valentine will somehow know how to induce a miscarriage. Because suffragettes were all about abortions and all. I guess there’s no chance of passing the kid off as the reverend’s. Valentine is shocked to find out Mrs. D and MacMaster were having a sexual relationship, because it ruins her romantic notion of their poetry-based relationship. She’s also surprised to find out it’s possible to have sex and not get pregnant. Mrs. D realizes Valentine’s useless to her, and Valentine bursts into tears, feeling pointless and crushed that this vicarious, beautiful, pure relationship she’d imagined between Mac and Mrs. D is, in fact, rather soiled.

Chris goes to visit the General, who seems mostly involved in planning parades these days. The General doesn’t seem to think much of Chris’s chances as a soldier.

Chris next tells Sylvia, who’s not pleased at the idea of her husband being in the army. Chris tries to comfort her but she won’t let him touch her, so he leaves to go tell Mac. Sylvia hysterically and mockingly calls him a paragon of honourable behavior and the cruelest man she knows. Says the woman who went back to her husband purely to torture him.

Mac’s having a party, which just so happens to include Mrs. D and Valentine. What’re they doing in London? Did they come down just for Mac’s party? Mac directs Chris over to Mrs. D and tells Chris that the bishop turned out to be a nice guy who knew Rev. D wasn’t right in the head and therefore didn’t spill Mrs. D’s secret getaway with Mac. No mention of the baby, though. Chris greets her, then tries to make his way to Valentine, but Mac stupidly keeps trying to introduce him to other people. Chris blows them off and drags Valentine away for a chat by the fire.

Chris makes small talk about some of the other guests before telling Valentine he’s joined the army. She’s about as happy about that as you’d expect. She tells him he’s more useful in England, but he doesn’t think so. He says he loves England and has a duty to her and her people. He doesn’t want to be the man who just watches the country fall apart without doing anything about it. And besides, he doesn’t have much to live for, because what he really wants, he can’t have. She quietly tells him he has something to live for, and remembers their near kiss, closing her eyes for just a moment. When she opens them, he’s gone.

Closing montage. Sylvia and Mark visit the opera, Christopher eats breakfast in his uniform, Sylvia’s brother gets arrested for being a conscientious objector, MacMaster gets his expected honours, the Wannops’ house gets stones thrown through the windows, Sylvia prays, Chris slogs through knee-deep water in a trench somewhere.

So, we’re now two hours in, and normally by this time one should be rather invested in the story, and yet, I’m not. I need at least one character I can cleave to and connect with, but I don’t care about any of these people. Sylvia’s so awful she’s very nearly a straw man character, so repulsive and miserable I can’t muster up any sympathy for her. If it really did seem like she was trapped here there might be something, but she did the original trapping, and then she was the one who went back. What exactly did she expect out of all this? A great, passionate love story? For her husband to welcome her back with open arms and go back to business as usual? That’s just not his personality. And Chris and his sense of honour, which he knows is keeping him completely miserable, is getting old. Valentine’s ok, I guess, but her idealizing the Mac/Mrs. D affair seemed so childish, and I wish she’d be a bit more assertive. So I’ve got nobody to invest me in the story, and all the stupidity with Rev. D just takes me right out of it. It’s pretty to look at, but slow as hell and strangely uninvolving. Maybe next week things will pick up. We can hope, right?

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