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[info]lilithilien wrote
on September 21st, 2012 at 07:33 pm

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.


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.


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