All good things must come to an end. And so it is with a heavy heart that we reach the final episode of the BBC’s triumphant adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.
The final episode has a hell of a lot to pack into a scant 60 minutes including the brutal horrors of life in the trenches and the resolution of the love triangle between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Christopher Tietjens and the women in his life- the charming but mercurial Sylvia and the sweet and innocent Valentine. There’s scarcely time to draw breath and the episode hurtles along at a somewhat frantic pace.
When we left Christopher in episode 4 he has been “promoted” by General Campion to seek glory (i.e. certain death) at the front as a result of his actions in Rouen striking Perowne. Initially the episode continues with the black as pitch humour of its predecessor with Tietjens’ journey from hell as he finds himself stuck in a bitterly cold transport train with McKechnie (a man who greatly resents him believing that Chrissie’s “promotion” is rightfully his) and Perowne-the ex lover of his wife. Cumberbatch’s face is a picture as a freezing, tired Christopher has to cope with McKechnie’s twitchy jabberings & Perowne’s fear all the while clearly praying that one of those shells whistling by overhead will strike them & have done with it.
But even in the midst of such a depressing situation Chrissie’s kindness shines through. When a quietly frightened Perowne asks Chrissie what happens when you die he hands Christopher the opportunity to hurt him. Perowne is scared and genuinely wants to know Christopher’s view (he is after all meant to be one of the cleverest men in England) and Christopher doesn’t stick the knife in, doesn’t try & score a cheap point, doesn’t exploit Perowne’s vulnerability- just gives a matter of fact scientific explanation. It’s a nice character moment. Above all else Christopher is a kind man (even if his particular brand of kindness did inadvertently lead to both Sylvia and himself being utterly miserable and alone for 5 years)and he won’t kick a man when he’s down-not even Perowne. Christopher gives Perowne a measure of peace in that carriage which we see eerily reflected on his face in a beautiful & distressing tableau of mud and death later in the episode when we see Perowne laying dead in the trenches.
Christopher arrives at the front and it’s every bit the hell you might imagine. I’d been looking forward to seeing how Susanna White handled the war sequences and she certainly didn’t disappoint. Every character & place in Parade’s End seems to have been given its own distinctive colour scheme by White – the crisp whites and creams and soft textures of Valentine’s rather prim wardrobe contrasting with the deep necklines and stunning jewel colours of Sylvia’s fantastic collection of dresses, the soft light & glorious chocolate box sunsets give Groby a suitably magical quality compared with the rich browns and deep cold blues of the Tietjens flat. But in the sequences at the front White really comes into her own. By day the trenches are bathed with a harsh cold blue-white light giving everything (including the mud caked, bleeding, exhausted men) a grey, faded quality as if these men might wink out of existence at any moment. And during the attack scenes the screen is flooded with sparks and flares of orange and green light as the camera pans over the apocalyptic wasteland that is No Mans Land. The sequence where Christopher is hit by the shell and flies through the air in slow motion is terrifying. Visually it’s simply extraordinary.
I greatly enjoyed the performance of Steven Robertson (who was utterly terrifying in the conclusion of the second series of Luther which aired last year) as Bill. Dumped at the front with dwindling men and no supplies, having to cope with the constant German bombardment Bill is quietly going to pieces before everyone’s eyes. Not quite able to stop himself shaking, with completely dead eyes and a death wish he thinks nothing of charging across No Man’s Land holding only a rifle to check whether “anyone’s home” in the German trench. He’s amused by and somewhat contemptuous of Christopher initially berating his lack of knowledge of the German ways of warfare and accusing him of being ‘Campion’s bastard” but later after seeing how the men respect him and aware that he is no longer capable of the job he willingly cedes command to Chrissie. It’s a quietly affecting and upsetting turn as we see what prolonged exposure to war will do to a man.
It goes without saying that Cumberbatch is superb in the sequences at the front. Christopher is exhausted, mentally and physically and the stress of the combat situation causes his mental state to become ever more precarious until he is actually hallucinating Valentine there in the trench with him. But when it comes to it Christopher steps up to the plate and very much becomes the man he promised Valentine he would be all those episodes ago – someone prepared to stand up and fight for his country. He quickly earns the respect of the men (the delightful conversation about birdlife “Who’d shoot a skylark on a battlefield?” harkening back to that fateful pony ride with Valentine) and takes command when it is relinquished by Bill (I enjoyed the surreal sequence of Christopher daintily enjoying his sandwich and rum being served to him by his batman while hell rages all around him). Most importantly he is entirely convincing as a soldier – Christopher isn’t the terrified officer who hides at the first sign of battle – he is in the thick of the action at all times and completely in control. His men trust him implicitly. So when Campion appears at the scene and rather abruptly relieves Christopher of command you find yourself oddly with mixed feelings – relief and elation that Christopher will be safe and dismay that he is being “robbed” of his chance of glory, his chance to make a difference.
The war sequences could have taken up an entire episode but instead they barely cover the first half of episode 5 as we must also resolve the love triangle.
The narrative rather abandoned Valentine back in episode 3 and we rejoin her working in her girl’s school and quietly advancing the cause for the need for sex education in schools.
However, it is the sequences between Valentine and her mother which are the most interesting as Mrs Wannop realises to her horror that Valentine is in love with Christopher. While Valentine screams her love from the veritable rooftops “every word we have said to each other is a declaration of love…I would gladly ruin myself just to give him one hour of happiness” Mrs Wannop cannot go against the rules by which she has lead her life. Despite her love for her daughter she is distressed that Valentine would even consider debasing herself by becoming nothing more than another man’s mistress. Because while she may want to be Christopher’s wife Valentine knows that he will never divorce the mother of his child – and there is no credibility, no honour in being someone’s mistress. It doesn’t quite fit with the feminist principles Mrs Wannop has raised Valentine to believe. And yet she loves him – her feelings for him mean far more to her than other’s opinion of her.
Meanwhile Sylvia, being no fool and being very aware following the events in Rouen that Christopher’s heart lies with Valentine decides to try and find herself a new man (setting her sights on General Campion). However she’s not prepared to let Christopher go just yet being as vindictive as humanly possible where he is concerned so incandescent with rage is she at the prospect that he is likely to leave her for his “gym mistress”.
She strips their home so that Christopher will have no comforts to return too (making it harder for him to live there with Valentine) before retreating to Groby. In the novel I’m aware that Sylvia is much more of an unredeemable bitch but in this series Sylvia has been nuanced and sympathetic (almost to the extent that Christopher has, on occasion, teetered on the verge of being unlikeable for his continued rejection of Sylvia and his obsessive focus on Valentine). So tonally it was a bit jarring when Sylvia goes full on Cruella de Ville in this episode, being gleefully vicious by hacking down the Groby tree (Cumberbatch’s face when he sees the stump of the tree is enough to make you weep) and pretending to have cancer.
Rebecca Hall is still glorious of course- I adored the visual image of Sylvia, clad in virginal white, hair fanning out around her like a halo propped up in bed pretending to Christopher to be ill. It’s an utterly desperate gambit of course born out of anger and humiliation that she allowed herself to be so vulnerable in Christopher’s presence and ultimately he rejected her. But Christopher is not the man he was when Sylvia married him, he’s grown and he instantly rejects her pretence of illness brushing off her jealous enquiries as to where he’s been after returning from the war (his gentle almost disappointed admission that he’s been in hospital (having been wounded in battle) visibly rankles Sylvia) and wishing her farewell with a firm goodbye.
And then there is that final sequence of Christopher, Valentine and Sylvia which is possibly my favourite of the whole series. Christopher’s sense of honour still will not allow him to call Valentine to him, to ask her to be his mistress, even when he is desperately alone with no wife, no son, goodness no furniture even in his flat. It’s ironic that he has the machinations of the ghastly Mrs Duchemin to thank for bringing Valentine to him. Duchemin is brutally dismayed that Christopher survived the war (“I was counting on the Germans”) as McMaster owes him significant amounts of money (not ideal for a Lord of his position). She contacts Valentine, feigning concern and pointing out Christopher’s predicament – lying that he has sent for her, so that Valentine will think kindly of her and use her influence with Christopher to encourage him not to call in the loans. (As a side note it’s been a joy to watch Anne Marie Duff turn Mrs Duchemin from a silly but kind, nervous woman forever on the verge of fainting to a bitter, cold snob who only invites Valentine (who was her only real friend) back into her life for brutally pragmatic reasons. Equally I enjoyed Stephen Graham as McMaster who ends the series a shade of the man he was under his wife’s thumb and too embarrassed to see his friend instead peering nervously at him through his window).
Valentine literally runs to Christopher and he is delighted to see her. After taking her to see Mark (who is horrified at his brother bringing his mistress to see him) and being dismayed at Mark’s lack of interest in Sylvia hacking down the Groby tree they return to the flat. Christopher nervously invites her up only to be immediately confronted by Sylvia – looking at her most regal. Sylvia starts spouting nonsense about her health and is furiously interrupted by Valentine (who has never looked as terribly young and unsophisticated as she does at that moment). Sylvia retorts with some half hearted insults and then Christopher and Sylvia just look at each other. Neither speaks a word and yet everything is resolved in that moment. Sylvia can see just how much Christopher has changed. He knows she’s lying through her teeth, he’s prepared to stand up to her and to fight for his love for Valentine. And Sylvia oddly respects that and in that moment – she let’s him go. And with a majestic swish and an almost believable wish that they’ll be very happy together Sylvia departs Christopher’s life.
It’s a brilliantly acted sequence between Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall – so much said, the death of an entire relationship without a single word being uttered.
And then with Sylvia off trying to get her hooks into General Campion Christopher is finally free to be with Valentine. And whilst we might get a brief sex scene to appease those who like such things it’s unnecessary. The moment where Christopher symbolically frees himself from his previous life by burning the log from the Groby tree and finally, finally takes Valentine’s hand and starts to dance with her is a declaration of love and a pledge to spend the rest of his life with her. It’s gloriously, beautifully, unashamedly romantic and a very fitting ending to the series.
Parade’s End has proved itself to be impervious to criticism. There are things I would have liked certainly (more episodes, the love triangle to be slightly more balanced, more Rupert Everett) but these are but minor quibbles. Parade’s End was a beautifully written and superbly acted series which will no doubt go on to be hailed as a classic and an example of the very very best that British television drama has to offer. It will be missed.
“There will be no more parades. Battalion dismissed….”