October 2015

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Such Promise Wasted: Watching Parade's End

Let me tell you how my heart just got crushed.



Parade's End was touted by many reviewers as "the thinking person's Downton Abbey" - a very welcome thing, after DA's disappointing second season (amnesia! convenient Spanish flu!) and every sign that the third won't be much better (convenient inheritance! whacky American jokes!). And I loved it, I truly loved it, for one very compelling reason.



Sylvia Tietjens (portrayed flawlessly by Rebecca Hall) would not be an easy person to be married to. Incredibly intelligent and easily bored, she seems to understand affection as getting a rise out of someone. Her ideal partner would need to be sensitive to this, meeting her contrary nature with conscious and almost constant engagement. Her ideal partner would not be someone who is so threatened by emotion as her husband, statistician Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch).

And yet, right up until the very end, I was rooting for these two crazy kids! It might be a casting problem (as in casting two very strong actors against a third who is irredeemably weak); this could be one of those cases where the script says "A is supposed to be in love with B" but it ends up that A and Z have such boodles of chemistry that it makes the script a lie. Every unexpected kindness from Christopher hits Sylvia like a ton of bricks, you can see it in her face, and you can tell that this is a woman who is completely smitten by her husband but too proud to ever admit that he has such control over her. But then too, there were many times that the storyline seemed to centre around how Sylvia realised that she'd made bad choices and was taking steps to correct them. Up until the very last episode, I really thought this might be where we were going.

But lest we have the strong, wilful woman find happiness, enter Valentine Wannop a.k.a. Milquetoast.



Valentine (Adelaide Clemens) is the wartime era's Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Like the perky Stella Coretti of London town, she is modern and fresh and young (as evidenced by her boyishly styled hair), and goes about cheerily quoting poetry, dispensing sage advice even (especially) when it's unwelcome, taking simple joy in a sprig of fresh flowers, and being so distracted at the thought of her One True Love that she can't even be happy her own brother is alive. This for some reason is regarded as a positive trait. And speaking of this One True Love, unlike the prideful Sylvia, Milquetoast cares nothing for abasing herself by becoming Christopher's mistress, because she does it for loooooove...

And good grief, they even have a song.

I think I just threw up in my mouth.

Is this seriously what "the thinking person" wants? I spent half of the series boggling at why anyone would be drawn to this bland character, and the other half wondering if this was the love story I was supposed to be rooting for when Sylvia and Christopher's story was so much more compelling. If so, I feel woefully out of touch with what the viewing public wants in their costume dramas.

I'm not trying to argue that Sylvia and Christopher were anything other than completely dysfunctional. Despite this, in their scenes together, they had a vibrancy that made you think that they might still work it out. Somehow. And that would have made an incredible story, one that obviously couldn't have been told in five neat episodes, but could have left the ending on a hopeful note about what people who aren't quite right can bring to a relationship.

In short, it could have been a really unique exploration of what love really is.



Instead, we got something genuinely regressive and offensive. Don't let her brief stint as a suffragette fool you.* Milquetoast is the ideal woman for the 1950s 1920s man, not only in Christopher's soft-focus visions of her in the trenches but also when they get together at the end. She compliments him incessantly, never contradicts what he says, and is completely unchallenging in every way. She is so morally pure that she knows nothing about sex (her heart is too full of poetry!), yet offers to be Christopher's mistress with no reservation and no strings. With his friends she is quiet and demure, the perfect little woman - unlike Sylvia who had the audacity to talk with them. Of course, Milquetoast could be criticised for being a homewrecker, but don't pay too much mind to that - Sylvia had an affair five years earlier, so she deserves whatever she gets now. Also, she is a bad mother.

RAGE.

It's been a long time since I've been so disappointed in a show, enough to rail against it. The thing is, up until the last episode, I thought it might go another way - that it would take that turn toward the untried and original. (Actually, I was hoping that Sylvia would throw Milquetoast into a thresher, but that was too much to hope for.) Instead, it plodded down the well-tread tracks to the inevitable happy ending, when Christopher gets his MPDG and Sylvia gets shoved away (almost literally, when Milquetoast shrieks at her for having the audacity to be in her own apartment).



In the end, Sylvia departs with an extraordinary amount of dignity for a woman who's been thrown out of her house by a Girl Guide, and we only see a brief glance of her trying to pick up the pieces with a potential new love interest. You go, girl! Back home at Chez Yawning, we get all the minute details of Christopher and Milquetoast's new life including her lovingly kissing the pillow where he will lay his head. And then Christopher signals the start of their new life together by burning a log from his beloved tree. It's suitably yawn-worthy symbolism to ring in the "modern era" with a mistress who promises to be an obedient wife who knows her place.

And yes, I know this is a novel and they didn't want to change too much of the ending. But to hold out a character with so much promise like Sylvia, and then crush her under the anvils of Christopher and Milquetoast's twu wuv without even a nod to the tragedy that her life had even become... really, BBC, you can do so much better than that.



* ETA: I'd almost blocked out the scene where Milquetoast complains that she fought for women's suffrage because she thought it would make her happy. Because that's the goal of political action, right, to make you happy. And she bemoaned the fact that even winning suffrage didn't make her happy. TAKE NOTE, WOMEN! POLITICAL ACTION IS NOT THE WAY TO HAPPINESS. GIVING YOUR LIFE TO A MAN IS.

RAGE.

Comments

First off the not serious thought. Benedict Cumberbatch,no matter what his hair color is will never not be dead sexy.

I haven't seen this but it sounds horrid... blah!
Heh. You know, I struggle with him as a blond, but there were definitely times when he was sexy in here. Most of it depended on his proximity to Sylvia, and the distance he was from Milquetoast.

It was so horrid! It could have been so good, and that's why I'm so very disappointed. The last episode felt like a moral lesson for uppity women. Grrrrrr.
OMG I love this rant so much. I would follow it into war and charm all the officers to get it out of harm's way if I had to! <33333333333333

I just looked up the ending of the novel because I thought I'd gotten myself spoilered when reading up on it last week, and was confused when what I thought would happen didn't happen in the last ep. Clearly not wanting to change the ending was NOT something they had an issue with. Which makes me hate the final ep even more because they don't even have the excuse of following morally outdated source material with a different view of what makes an ideal woman. WHY, LIL, WHY.

There were so many parallels with Stella, and also with Marian/Jenny that it was sickening. And the frequency with which complex female characters like Sylvia get dismissed as the undeserving harlot whilst self-righteous little precious princesses like Valentine get shoved in our face as perfection incarnate is really really pissing me off right now. It's 2012, for fuck's sake. If this is what the thinking person wants, that person needs to think harder, collectively. And if as a writer/director/producer you're going to tackle source material from the early 20th century and make it relatable-to for a modern audience, have the freaking balls to go all the way - don't bring it back to "bad girls may be interesting, but good girls get their man." PASS THE PUKE BUCKET PLEASE.

I feel like Sylvia's epic "you forgave without mercy" speech last ep applies to the show's treatment of her character as much as it does as a commentary on Christopher. It's like TPTB had the moral magnanimosity to grant her the scope to be brilliant and sympathetic and utterly compelling (much more so, I gather, than in the novel), but lacked the passion or kindness to follow that concession to any meaningful consequence. Or in less circumlocutory terms, "yeah, you can be cool, but you can't have nice things" :p

Such a clusterfuck. I can't get over how heartbreaking and compelling Christopher and Sylvia's relationship was, up until this ep. And I can't get over how utterly they blew it with this finale, in the most clichéd and tiresome way. What a sad, pointless waste.
I CAN'T BELIEVE THEY CHANGED THE ENDING LIKE THAT! That makes it so, so much worse. I expected more of Tom Stoppard. I don't even know why, he just seems more clever than that.

And the frequency with which complex female characters like Sylvia get dismissed as the undeserving harlot whilst self-righteous little precious princesses like Valentine get shoved in our face as perfection incarnate is really really pissing me off right now. It's 2012, for fuck's sake.

Yes, this. IDK, maybe I'm paranoid, but it seems to be getting even worse, like there's some backlash going on.

Oh, I love stretching the "forgave without mercy" in relation to the show. It fits so well, like it was on its track and refused to be pulled off, no matter how many bumps and delays it was forced to make because Sylvia rocked so hard. Yeah, they approached her with utter cowardice in the end.

BTW, Don't follow any comment into battle, they'll just swoon off with some flighty shallow meme and leave you with nothing.
lolol, also man, that last picture with Valentine on the stairs. Surely even if you've never HEARD of this show or these characters, you'd still want to smack that utterly bitchy look off her face. What. Teh. Actual. Fuck.
YES. Why did Sylvia have to have so much class and dignity? A good pummelling was definitely deserved right then!
oh my god. what. I'm kind of teary with my disappointment right now. Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck. What were they thinking? Stoppard and Susannah White and all the other reprehensible people with responsibility for this. How could they think so carefully about something, think about bringing the art of the period into the way they shot the film (I watched the making of chat, lol) and actively decide to condense the ending to this one moment. Where are the people I can write to about this? I haven't even watched it yet. I'm so disappointed. CLEARLY in the last episode when they brought Christopher and Sylvia together they knew they were shifting the expectations. It was such a good episode, the way he began to understand himself and her better, the way she was helping him towards self-awareness and honesty about himself in the wrong time. WHICH IS THE POINT OF THE STORY. Not to go back and bury himself in Miss Sweetness and Light. GORILLA RAGE. PLEASE. INSULT WOMEN MORE. Not only do we still have to put up with Vanilla being portrayed as the ideal woman, insulted by the idea of her as "political" and therefore "modern" even though almost nothing she did actually demonstrated that, we also still get expected to swallow the idea that being demanding and contradictory and persuasive is somehow deserving of abandonment and hollow relationships brought on oneself. Great.
Ugh everything you say about Valentine and her worshipping of Christopher and "their love" makes me feel ill.
Maybe I'll just go read the books rather than watch this last episode.
What were they thinking? That's exactly what I keep asking myself. I wanted more - no, I expected more, after the fourth episode.

CLEARLY in the last episode when they brought Christopher and Sylvia together they knew they were shifting the expectations. It was such a good episode, the way he began to understand himself and her better, the way she was helping him towards self-awareness and honesty about himself in the wrong time. WHICH IS THE POINT OF THE STORY.

This. So much this. It was by far the best episode of the series because it did these things, and because it embraced the complexities of their relationship and showed that yes, Sylvia did have something that Christopher very much needed to become a self-actualized character.

And after seeing the last ep, I don't know why they bothered with it at all.

If you watch it, I'd like to hear what you think. But if you don't, just imagine the ending of your choice - one that doesn't involve that insipid little suffragette. (The poor dear didn't achieve true happiness by winning the vote. Honestly. How insulting was that?)

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
Thanks for that opinion - I considered trying this one just for Benedict Cumberbatch (and to possibly widen my horizon with a genre I usually don't watch), but hadn't found time yet to look for a summary.

The beginning sounds very intriguing, but the end not so much. Now I'm not so sure if that really should be my first contact with costume drama instead of my usual sci-fi and fantasy.
Nooooo it should definitely not be your first, you will run screaming. I actually haven't loved any of the costume dramas I've seen him in - To the Ends of the Earth was boring and Amazing Grace was too predictable.

But I can recommend his co-star in this, Rebecca Hall, who was AMAZING in a little British film that came out last year, The Awakening. She plays a "ghosthunter" in the post-WWI days, when there were a lot of shysters preying on people grieving for the men who'd died. The story is beautifully told and kept me on the edge of my seat (and peeking out through my fingers) even though I'm not a huge fan of horror. It might be a good bridge for you.

And of course you won't go wrong with the classics: Maurice, Pride & Prejudice, North & South, and Persuasion. Those are my desert island films.
Thanks for those recs! I'll have to check them out.

The Awakening sounds really interesting :)