Redeployed to the Trenches, Christopher Tietjens faces mud, madness and death, possibly scuppering a reunion with Valentine Wannop and any chance of settling his affairs with his wife Sylvia, in the final episode of the mini-series.
Please note that while we won’t be discussing plot spoilers in the rest of this review, characterisation, performances and thematic material are discussed in depth, as well as minor references to the previous episodes.
With a sense of inevitability, Parade’s End reaches the site of the most brutal fighting in the early part of the twentieth century, and recreates the conflict of the era with exceptional attention to detail. Highlighting the sheer pointlessness of the war by this point, scenes are staged that play heavily on the absurdity of the situation – an astonishing, unexpected sojourn into No Man’s Land is one of the most dramatic moments from all five parts of this mini-series. Coupled with the accuracy of knee high mud in the trenches and the mindless bravery, compassion and hatred of the soldiers in bloody and horrific combat, this is one of the most vivid modern depictions of the Somme put onscreen, easily matching Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and certainly bettering the BBC’s other interpretation this year in Birdsong.
In the midst of this, we find Christopher Tietjens. And oddly, he thrives. Emerging as an exceptional commanding officer, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal enters the final phase, retaining that strict sense of honour but able to put it to genuine use on the battlefield, at times in counterpoint to the fracturing minds, petty squabbles and suspicion of others. To say much more of his performance in the last half of this hour would enter the realm of spoilers, but by the time the drama rolls around to its perhaps inevitable conclusion you sense the distinct evolution of this man, someone who has laid old ghosts to rest and risen above others to find fellowship in his fellow man, in a manner that transcends class and the clawing desperation to attain that we have seen in others throughout this journey.
The sense of evolution is not something we can apply to Sylvia alas. Rebecca Hall is given her final chance, and instead reverts to bad habits after the possibility of a form of redemption in her confession to Christopher last week. She is at her very worst this hour, returning to actions that are intended to goad her husband, culminating in a final act of childish spite that destroys his traditions and surpasses all else that she has done, a calculated and desperate final play to provoke a reaction, no matter how small it may end up being. Again, to say anymore would be too much, but the payoff to the entire arc of Sylvia’s character is apt and entirely satisfying.
And as for Valentine Wannop, we see a true maturation and realisation of the changes in her beliefs. Winning women the vote has been achieved, but her youthful desire for change remains undiminished, and expands to a wider intent for an expansion of women’s knowledge and control over their own bodies. Adelaide Clemens has handled this gently complex character with consummate skill, her inherent intelligence but also total desperation for the man she loves having formed a tricky, countering balancing act that peaks early in this hour in a scene that frankly leaves the viewer aching.
Indeed, by the final moving scene, there is a distinct sense of sadness that this remarkable mini-series has ended so soon. With its complex, well drawn characterisation, superb writing and focused direction, we’ve easily seen one of the best dramas of the year. Parade’s End is ultimately a story of a time lost, complete with its values and symbolism, to the onward march of technology and consumerism. Framing the First World War makes this crystal clear, and the themes of love and the emergence of friendship through shared adversity, rather than a hunger for success and wealth, makes this both an evocation of an age long past but also one of remarkable prescience for the world as it is today.
Look for our final detailed analysis of the mini-series as a whole next week.
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