Parade's End

"What I stand for is gone."

"But to live for. You have something to live for."

Without question, "Parade's End" is the best television miniseries I have seen in recent years. This five-part installment from 2012 is something as rare as a classic love triangle both expertly crafted and superbly acted, with a sentimental and optimistic ending which feels both earned and logical, while simultaneously addressing political questions, moral values and social class dimensions in such a way that it does not come off as shoehorned but rather as a vital element of the story.

The show is based on a series of World War I-era novels written by Ford Madox Ford. This review does not go into detail on all the storylines but nevertheless it does contain spoilers for the entire series.

The reason I came across this gem was me looking through the filmography of Adelaide Clemens. I was very impressed with her role as Tawney Talbot on the television show Rectify and I wanted to see more of her. Okay, so maybe I just thought she's one of the prettiest girls I've seen on screen over the last decade. Sue me. Anyway I wasn't disappointed.

The two other main characters of the drama are played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Hollow Crown) and Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, Transcendence). We all know they're talented performers and every single one of the cast brought their A-game to this series.

This is a very beautiful show, a wonderfully filmed BBC costume drama at its finest. One nice touch is how it often establishes the time frame for a given scene with people reading period newspapers, such as the famous article of Kerensky vowing to continue the war against Germany. The dialog sometimes comes across as a bit stilted, but I believe it's more of a conscious choice than anything, lending a certain formal way to how the characters speak, and it's often supremely clever, packed with the trademark English dry humor. It wasn't exactly hard to find stunning screenshots for it.

The protagonist of the show is Christopher Tietjens, who is probably the most perplexing character of the series. The two ladies competing for his affection - in their own and vastly dissimilar ways - are his wife Sylvia and the young, idealistic and well-educated suffragette girl Valentine Wannop, who is quite a bit below them on the social ladder.

Christopher is an anachronism, and this is that which drives the entire plot of the story. It defines his problems, drives the action and points to the solution of the piece. He represents the old values of the bourgeoisie. It would then be easy to dismiss him as a mere reactionary but this absolutely misses the point. Christopher embodies an idealized version of the morals of the bourgeoisie during and after the French revolution, the values of the class at a time where it was still a revolutionary force. He's actually speaking out in favor of the women's vote at a tea party even before he meets Valentine.

As she notes, Christopher is living in a "glass cabinet" - he is championing a class, a system of values and a society which no longer exists, and perhaps never truly did, more resembling the role of the perfect feudal lord. He is a devotedly ascetic, old-school moral man believing in leading by example and protecting the rights of those under his charge. More than this, he is invested in what he refers to as the "parade" - the sanctity of marriage and keeping up appearances so as to not disgrace oneself or one's peers. In one of his most confusing yet significant ramblings, he tells Valentine how he's joining the war to "protect the 18th Century from the 20th". No, Valentine, I didn't quite get that either.

In contrast, Sylvia Tietjens is a monster. It would be rather boring if she was just a monster, but she isn't. She's a spectacular monster, played with incredible panache by Hall. Sylvia is representing the rotten bourgeoisie of the beginning of the 1900's, the laissez faire attitude - the vampires and exploiters of men to the point of virtual slavery, spitting at those beneath her. She is completely amoral and depraved, even seemingly taking pride in being so. She's the embodiment of the upper class as a cancer. In her most comical and recurring theme she consistently accuses Christopher of being "too perfect" such as that she comes off feeling inferior to him, yet her response is never truly to attempt to better herself, but rather to provoke him into striking back and lower himself to her level with increasingly outrageous behavior, being unapologetically unfaithful and scandalizing him at every turn. I would think there are very few actresses who could pull off a line like "you forgave, without mercy" in a way that makes herself out to be the victim.

Her weakness lies in how she gradually becomes absolutely obsessed with Christopher precisely because, after everything she does, she is still utterly unable to break him. In a ridiculous sense, Sylvia is in touch with her times and her social status - the predatory Capitalism, the subjugation of the colonies, the trampling of the working class under her iron heel and a life in shameless luxury - whereas Christopher is not. This is further indicated by the ire Christopher is drawing from his peers, precisely because of his devotion to his work, his utter inability to compromise his ideals and his brutal, acidic verbal beatdowns of other men in power who fail to respect or even be honest towards their subjects, leading him ultimately to be regarded as the most vile and debauched man in London due to slander from his enemies - an adulterer and a traitor to his country, none of it true. He can't even help doing his job well when it goes against his own interests, as evidenced by this brilliant piece of dialog between him and Valentine:

C- "The French were bleating about the devastation of bricks and mortar they've incurred by enemy action. I saw suddenly it was no more than one year's normal peacetime dilapidation spread over the whole country."
A- "How wonderful!"
C- "So the argument for French command of the Western Front gets kicked out of court for a season."
A- "But weren't you arguing against your own convictions?"
C- "Yes, of course. But Macmaster depends on me."

The third player, Valentine Wallop, is a symbol of the petty-bourgeois sympathizing with the plights of the proletariat amidst the increasing social contradictions of her age, which at this time and place were actually threatening her class with extinction. She's working for the vote for women and she's intensely pacifist. Her little brother, occupying a rather small role on the show, is a socialist and later a Bolshevik, writing her a postcard in Latin from the front, afraid it will get picked up by the censorship - "long live the October revolution!"

Where a lesser work would find this a golden opportunity to insert some synthetic plug against Communism, "Parade's End" significantly has Valentine exclaiming to her horrified mother, "well, it's enough to make anyone Bolshevik sending men and boys to murder each other in millions!" She is the least nuanced but most admirable of the three characters - outspoken, disrespectful of authority, perhaps a bit naïve and with a big heart.

This sets the stage for our drama - the love triangle between the moral traditionalist aristocrat, the corrupt would-be tyrant from his own class and the moral revolutionary commoner.

The conflict is symbolized by the Tietjens family tree at his grounds at Groby estate, where people from all walks of life have been hanging good luck charms for centuries. It is a symbol for tradition and the bond between the ruling class and its subjects. The tree's roots have grown too deep and wide and threaten to destabilize the very ground on which the estate is seated - another symbol for how the morals of times past have turned into obstacles for the needs of modern Capitalism - but in Sylvia's inimitable, shallow manner of thinking the main reason she wants to get rid of it is because it "darkens the view out the window". That, and out of spite for her husband, who dearly loves it and all it stands for - as he says, "young men and maidens have made their marriage vows under the Groby tree for longer than memory."

Her mother urges her to stay her hand and wait for her son to decide what to do with it once he is Lord of Groby but Sylvia bluntly states that his son will "grow up to be a Tietjens", so she won't even give him that choice. When she has the tree cut down with no sanction, that is the breaking point and the true conclusion of the triangle, in a single stroke showing Christopher that all the old values he lived for are dead.

In the end, Christopher chooses and chooses wisely. As his godfather told him on the field of battle, "well, there are no more parades for that regiment. It held out to the last man, but you were him", and as he himself says to Valentine, in a defining, game-changing piece of conversation: "My colours are in the mud. It's not a good thing to find oneself living by an outmoded code of conduct. People take you to be a fool. I'm coming round to their opinion."

The final shot of the series, with Christopher burning the last log of wood from the tree in the fireplace, dancing with Valentine at the post-war party with his fellow soldiers, is one of the most satisfying ends to any show I have ever seen.

It is good precisely because when I watched through this series for the first time, I fully expected Christopher to die in the finale, bleeding out in some ditch half-way to Belgium and setting up the standard tragic conclusion, as most of these great stories do - but this ending sends a powerful message. It is possible to change, and it is possible to find happiness even after you have let go of all your old baggage and sentiments. It is not a happy ending for the sake of it. It's a happy ending because ultimately that is what best serves the story.

There are of course many other characters in this drama - the timid, upstart Macmaster and his hypocrite mistress, Christopher's dad who commits suicide poisoned by false rumors about his son, the likable Irish priest most likely connected to the Irish Republican Army, executed on false charges of treason by Ulstermen, and Christopher's brother, who finally comes to understand him and take Valentine's side against his wife, and they are all well-crafted and well-played - but if I were to address them all, this would turn from an essay into a novel. You might as well go read the novels.

It's inspiring television. In one word, it's perfect.


Billie Doux said...

Just the cast list makes me want to try this one.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

You must. :-)