For those for whom the word “recap” is not a big enough clue, this piece is essentially one long spoiler. If you want to go in cold when it airs on HBO in the fall, do not read.
“Parade’s End” has already proven divisive. It’s been widely praised by the punditry, but many viewers have expressed frustration with its wilfully muddled structure (apparently a hangover from the even more chronologically confusing books), in which events separated by years and sometimes countries crash together as though occupying contiguous spaces. It doesn’t help, say these critics, that these events then unfold with a minimum of helpful backstory, and little contextualisation, so we drop in mid-conversation or catch mere glimpses of relevant newspaper headlines or have to tell simply by the fact that this minor character is talking to this other minor character, that Something Is Up. It’s challenging for the viewer, and within the genre of the costume drama, which is frequently reduced to who-is-shagging-whom-oh-look-
It can also be rewarding. There’s no doubt that you don’t so much enjoy “Parade’s End” as earn enjoyment from it, if that makes sense, and scene-by-scene it can hover perilously near the boredom threshold. Yet somehow the entirety, for those who can be arsed, compels on a macro level; it’s a trick similar to that pulled off by the peerless “The Wire,” that drew us in by engaging our brains, and that engaged our brains by not ever forgetting we had them. "Parade’s End" is no ‘Wire’ but it’s thoughtful, well-made, witty television that leaves space for the viewer’s intelligence. Whether the viewer is in the mood to engage their minds is another question (and at 9pm on a Friday there may well be many who simply don’t want to).
In this regard, this second episode will not convert detractors, but what it may do is tip those of us who were perhaps intrigued but unconvinced, off our fences. And so with the small proviso that this writer was slightly less enamored of the first episode than our previous recappist, (probably would have put it at a B or a B+), let’s get on with dissecting the second of its five episodes, shall we?
Despite his cuckolding, Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) has arrived in Germany following the one-word summons (“Righto”) from estranged wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), to discover that his aging mother has passed away. From the outset, this episode is going to give us a different side of Sylvia: we see it in practically the first shot of her. There’s actual sympathy there when she breaks the news to him, but his subsequent coldness even in the shock of grief sees her resort to her old petulance, trying to shock him by announcing that it was either her leaving him or her coming back to him that caused his mother’s death. Tietjens retorts, in the first of the episode’s many gorgeous, acerbic, bitten-off rebuffs “She died of a medical condition, not a literary convention.”
They return to England for the funeral, to which Sylvia -- despite her protestations of chastity, and prior to going off to a retreat at “a convent where they let one bring one’s maid” -- wears a scandalously low-cut outfit. It has been a while since we’ve seen that much throat round these parts, though later, you horndogs, Hall will give us even more of an eyeful during a fairly prolonged nude scene. But of course, that scene is anything but exploitative, serving as a wonderful character moment between Sylvia and Tietjens, as well as being, along with the de-bra-ing of Mrs Duchemin, a simple metaphor for this episode’s focus. Because this is the episode where we somewhat leave Tietjens aside in favour of laying our female characters bare.