As my colleagues have written in their recaps of the first four episodes of “Parade’s End,” there is much to admire in the five-part miniseries. From the dense, multi-threaded and layered script from Tom Stoppard, to the sumptuous direction from Susanna White and a cluster of great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Adelaide Clemens, Stephen Graham and Rupert Everett. And at the middle of it all, perhaps one of the most buttoned up leading men we’ve seen in quite some time on the small screen, Christopher Tietjens. It would almost be laughable at how much his life has taken a downward turn since we met him at the start of the first episode, if it weren’t so tragic. As an era fades, so too does a particular way of English, gentlemanly life, and Tietjens will hold on to it until it nearly destroys him. But after seeing nearly every facet of his life crumble and corrupted, you yearn for Christopher — as his wife Sylvia long has — to finally submit to some kind of emotion. To break free and reclaim his life. And while he doesn’t quite do that in the finale, his victory such as it is, is satisfying in the way the character deserves.
But the finale takes a while to get going. Back in the war effort, Tietjens isn’t much liked, and after more actions (mostly by his wife) that bring dishonor to his name, he is sent back to the trenches. Sylvia always remains a spectre, forever stirring the pot, determined to make him hurt, yet protective of him all at the same time. It’s been said before and should be said again, Hall really smashes this performance, turning the character into one who is certainly easy to despise, but whose psychology is plain to see. You don’t quite empathize, but you do understand where she’s coming from, and it’s important when Sylvia so could easily be a one note bitch. And just like everything else in Tietjens life thus far, just when he’s on the cusp of finally reconciling with Sylvia at a hotel near the army camp, and invoke his long-awaited marital duties, they are interrupted by a knock at the door from a senior officer, separately wiled by his Sylvia’s charms and promises.
But as always, Tietjens bears the shame on his shoulders, even as news of his wife’s open courting of officers spreads like wildfire, and if that weren’t enough, cuckolder Potty Perowne (Tom Mison) is also sent with him to the battlefield. Naturally, what they find there is chaos. The CO is almost a Kurtz like figure, a bombed out shell of a man who has been fighting for too long, and walks brazenly into no man’s land as if a death wish is stapled to his heart, only to continually return alive. It isn’t long before Tietjens takes over his duties, and the respect he can’t find anywhere else, he seems to finally gain here, among the men and the muck. It’s a strange cruelty that the status he gains here eludes him elsewhere in his life.
Injured again, he finally returns to London, but not directly to Sylvia. He takes to his flat opposite Valentine, that’s now completely empty. But finally returning to the family estate at Groby, he bears witness to Sylvia’s trump card: she has ordered the 200 year old cedar tree cut down. It’s absolutely wrenching, a horrifying act that doesn’t just sting Tietjens, but everyone in the area (including an officer on the battlefield, in a beautiful moment shared over tea in the trenches) who united around its comfort and history. Again, Tietjens is nearly unflappable, but the straw has finally broken over his back. Saving a few logs from the felled tree, he brings them home, and they add to some rather beautiful symbolism later on. If the parade ends, then both Tietjens and his brother Mark honor the occasion by letting go of the past and Groby, burning what remains of the tree in their respective fireplaces at key moments.
Meanwhile, Wannop has a sexual awakening just in time for Tietjens’ return. The blue balls they likely both feel as this point is nearing the breaking point, and among her students’ belongings, she finds a sex advice book for married couples. As she notes with the other teachers at the school, sexual education for young women is simply not available, and since many of her students will soon graduate and become married themselves, don’t they want them to be prepared? As viewers will remember, Wannop herself was shocked to learn that one can have sex without getting pregnant, so this noble argument for her students is for her own edification as well. It’s all a little contrived, considering that Tietjens and Wannop finally consummate their passion (and a little corny when the passage read aloud from the book by the giggling school girls about a kiss on the bosom is physically mirrored during the brief sex scene), but we reckon time was running out.
And if there is a quibble with the finale, it’s that you almost wish the filmmakers had produced one more episode to give it a bit more room to breathe. You can practically feel Stoppard working feverishly to pull all the narrative strings together, which can sometimes come at sacrificing a moment you want to linger. In particular Tietjens and Macmaseter — their friendship now separated by class and the latter’s wife’s social climbing — deserves a bit more than a melancholy wave at the window. And the fate of Sylvia and the future of Tietjens and Wannop is left just a bit uncertain, though resolved for all intents and purposes.
But perhaps that’s not a bad thing, to be left wanting more. “Parade’s End” is wonderful accomplishment, smart, adult television that is truly a drama that doesn’t need to be beefed up or spoon-fed, and does leave the lingering question as to whether or not Tietjens was simply a fool. Clinging to acting like a gentleman and struggling to keep up appearances to leave one failed marriage for another relationship that has the odds stacked against it, he may be just as responsible for dooming his own parade. But love is a mercenary sport, and as Tietjens has shown, he’s not easy to beat at any game. [B+]