Review: Parade’s End (Episode One)

Downton Abbey is done for the season, and the wait for Sherlock is slowly ticking by (at least I think it is…), leaving me wanting some sort of British drama to fill my time. Sure, I have a few I’m watching, but they weren’t cutting it, so when I saw Parade’s End would be debuting in the UK in August (it starts tonight on HBO for US viewers and runs through Thursday night), it seemed it would easily fill my need for a British drama and lack of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based on the novels by Ford Maddox Ford, the five-part series focuses on a love triangle between Christopher (Benedict Cumberbatch), his wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and a suffragette named Valentine (Adelaide Clemens). Adding to the drama and confusion, everyone is coping with World War 1 and an ever-changing Europe for both the wealthy and poor. Sounds promising, right? After watching the first episode, I can’t decide if I like it or not, or what is possibly “wrong” with it, but it was clear it didn’t really fill the Downton hole and lacked the wit and insanity I love in Sherlock.

Like most beginnings, the first episode is kind of dull, filled with introductions and a lot of backstory, which jumps around a few times, and flashes up some fractured image of various scenes that looks like a shattered mirror more times than it needs to (I got the symbolism there, Mr. Director).

Christopher is a no nonsense, very smart man, who unfortunately is also bound by the “old, proper ways.” He meets socialite Sylvia on a train, they have a brief encounter and ultimately she ends up pregnant. Sylvia is a party girl (I’m pretty sure will flirt and sleep with any man around), and while she’s not sure Christopher is the father, she manipulates him into marrying her. Sylvia’s cheating continues as the years go by (she admits she only does it to get some sort of emotion out of her husband), but Christopher refuses to divorce her, making their already weak and miserable marriage worse. She runs away with her new love, only to cruelly point out to him that she doesn’t love him one bit and will be returning to her husband. While she’s away, Christopher goes on vacation with a friend and meets the lovely, young and wonderful suffragette Valentine, and falls for her. However, his honor to his wife and their life together prevents him from starting anything with her.

I must admit Cumberbatch and Hall do a wonderful job of being an awfully mismatched pair who still decide to be together for whatever reason (Social? Personal?).  After a while though, their messy relationship and outbursts wear on you, and kind of make the plot as a whole feel very sluggish. There were many moments where I didn’t even truly care where the story was going, or what the characters were supposed to be feeling. I haven’t read the books, but like most adaptations, I suspect they are much better and explain the tumultuous relationship more clearly than the miniseries will.

Watching Christopher with his son (or “son”) was an interesting moment. He gets up to soothe the child after he wakes up with a nightmare and later considers the child when deciding if he should take Sylvia back. Usually, the mothers, or more commonly the staff and nursemaids were the ones worried about the children in a similar manner. At the same time, this caring nature is such a shocking contrast of how Christopher acts the rest of the time: very straight and narrow, sticking to the rules and overthinking everything in his life (in one scene he’s actually correcting entries in the encyclopedia). It was kind of tiring and annoying to watch, making him feel more like a prop for such grand sets and costumes. Heck, most of the time I wasn’t quite sure why he was so…antisocial. It’s possible in today’s world, meeting such a man who would put up with a wife like Sylvia and be applauded and reminded of his honor and duty is a foreign concept, making it that much harder for me to understand in general, let alone in the drama. It might also help if I knew WHY these things were so darn important to Christopher, or to his family name–maybe this will appear in a later episode.

I love most of the actors in this series. I’ve seen them in other things and know they can act, and they are the main reason I feel like soldiering on through Parade’s End. Well, at least until the second episode.

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