Recap and review of Parade’s End – Series Premiere and Episode 2:
When Parade’s End premiered on BBC last year, many accused of being little more than an attempt at a Downton Abbey cash-in, particularly after the underwhelming performance of the networks ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’ reboot. While tonally, the shows couldn’t be more different, there are significant points of comparison: both shows take place in and around World War I; both series are scripted by Academy Award-winning screenwriters, with Downton penned by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) while Parade’s End comes to us from Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love); both are sumptuously filmed and costumed, even if neither does anything new or original with the visual motifs; and, perhaps most amusingly, both series have a downtrodden female named Edith, who can’t seem to catch a break to save her life. But the differences mostly end there. For one, the story of Parade’s End predates Downton by quite a bit, as the series is based on a series of four novels by British author Ford Madox Ford (so nice, they named him twice), published between 1924 and 1928. However, most significantly, while Downton is a series with Victorian tendencies in its writing and production, Parade’s End feels more like the genuine article: high-born men clinging desperately to honor, fallen women, vindictive wives, questionable parentage, war, the whole nine. But while all the ingredients are there, it never really clicks all the way. At least not the first hour. The second episode, however, does a much better job of presenting an argument for why you should stick around.
The miniseries, to be told in five parts, follows the story of Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who fancies himself the last true English gentleman. He’s particularly prickly about honor and about the old way of things, which is why it’s surprising when, in the opening moments of the episode, he hooks up with the seductive Sylvia (Rebecca Hall). Sylvia is pregnant, and the paternity of the child is in question, as she isn’t exactly observant of the social mores of the time regarding chastity. But Sylvia’s promiscuity doesn’t prevent Christopher from doing the honorable thing, owning up to his possible responsibility and marrying her. Again, like Downton, time skips forward like Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road, and we discover that Sylvia is as self-absorbed and vindictive as she is beautiful. She runs off with one of her many paramours, leaving Christopher in disgrace. He takes a journey with his best friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham), and meets a beautiful young suffragette named Valentine (Adelaide Clemens — who looks like a beautiful collision between Michelle Williams and Carey Mulligan). As if on cue, Sylvia announces her intention to come back to Christopher, and like that, we have ourselves a love triangle. Though Valentine is clearly enamored of Christopher, the honorable gent can’t bring himself to act on his own burgeoning feelings for her, owing to his forthright commitment to honor and monogamy. It’s really the only worthwhile development of the first episode, yet it’s filmed so beautifully, as a lost Valentine plays Marco Polo with Christopher to find him in the fog. It does much of the legwork of communicating the grandeur of their yet-to-be-consummated romance, and compels the viewer to want to see them together. It certainly helps that Cumberbatch and Clemens have pretty good chemistry in their few scenes together in the episode, even if there’s something weirdly jarring about Cumberbatch as a romantic lead.
The second episode is more fruitful in selling why the series is worth watching, as the characterization here is rich. For instance, we learn that Valentine is earnest about female empowerment, but she’s also shockingly naive about sex. When her dear friend Edith Duchemin (Anne-Marie Duff) breaks down and admits she’s pregnant by her lover, Macmaster, Valentine reveals that she had no idea you could have intercourse without resulting in pregnancy. While this could possibly be chalked up to a deficiency in sex education that is indicative of the period, at a deeper level it displays that Christopher’s ideas about Valentine’s experience and worldliness are a misreading of her true character, while Valentine’s similar dreams of Christopher’s dashing nobility are undermined by Tietjens’ redoubtably formal, dry persona. This is no more evident than when Christopher confronts Sylvia about how they are going to handle presenting their reconciliation to the public, despite the fact that they’re privately still at odds. When he barges in and finds her in the bathtub, he averts his eyes, and throughout the entire conversation, he goes to great lengths never to actually look at her naked frame, despite having ostensibly fathered a child with her. You know, thinking about it, Christopher and Valentine are kind of perfect for each other, given their somewhat taciturn natures.
By the end of the second episode, Christopher’s frequent predictions about the world becoming embroiled in warfare come to pass, and he resigns his desk job to volunteer for active service, rationalizing that he loves every bush and hedgerow of his country. He has a single, heartbreaking scene with Valentine beside a fireplace during a party, and it’s one of the best scenes of the entire episode, as they linger on what might have been, now, on the eve of war. Adelaide Clemens is a remarkable discovery, and I hope we get to see more of her in the States, beyond this miniseries, as she has a very engaging, emotive face that can really draw you in. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch is dependably superb, approaching the whole business of portraying a romantic lead as if it’s as alien for him to play as it is alien for us to see. But that’s an excellent acting choice for this character, who is caught between his yearnings and his own moralistic duties, if not his principles altogether. Rebecca Hall is also outstanding, playing Sylvia as a spiteful, vindictive temptress with a secret undercurrent of sadness and self-loathing. We spend much of the episode under the impression that Christopher is merely a meal ticket for her, yet the inference that she truly does love him is heartbreaking, particularly when factoring in the notion that she likely only feels this way because she realizes she’s losing him. Because nothing is more attractive to a vindictive, controlling person than something they can’t have.
There are other great elements sprinkled throughout this two-hour premiere. The affair between Macmaster and Edith, the wife of the salacious vicar (Rufus Sewell), comes pretty close to being the most compelling aspect of hour two, particularly when Valentine snaps at Edith for giving up on love once it becomes apparent that she wants to abort Macmaster’s child since Reverend Duchemin will know that it couldn’t possibly be his child. The suffragette movement is also well-depicted here, as Valentine serves as an analogue for the changing times, while Christopher represents the increasingly anachronistic old guard. The closing montage, in which we see Valentine’s home vandalized by anti-suffragists, Christopher deep in the trenches, and Sylvia ruminating over her scandalous status while dwelling on the animal she’d stated she would most like to return as (a fish eagle) is gorgeously composed. Again, the show wears its high-end pedigree on its sleeve, owing to the sharp, incisive script from Stoppard, and the even-handed director of Susanna White (Generation Kill). The series may not have the compulsive watchability of Downton Abbey, but Parade’s End is definitely worth giving a shot, particularly if you’re a fan of Julian Fellowes’ much-loved series.