Brideshead Revisited S1E3, “The Bleak Light of Day”

Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Charles Keating

(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)

I saw him already as being threatened, though I did not know how black was the threat. His constant despairing prayer was to be left alone, and since he counted among the intruders his own conscience, of all claims of human affection, his days in Arcadia were numbered. He did not fail in love, but he lost the joy of it.

The last scene of this episode is maybe the most heartbreaking of the entire series. Sebastian has locked Charles out. “Go away, Charles, there’s a good fellow,” Sebastian says, drinking on the windowsill. Go away, Charles? It’s the most unthinkable sentence that Sebastian could throw at his best friend; the two of them have been utterly inseparable for so long that they’re practically married.

Sebastian’s alcoholism, which is the spur against many backsides in the first half of Brideshead, starts to rear its head in “The Bleak Light of Day.” Julia invites the pair to Brideshead before a charity ball she’s “taken the lead” on; they get phenomenally drunk beforehand, continue drinking at the ball, and once they figure out that the ball is horrendously boring, move on to a nightclub. It’s the first appearance of Boy Mulcaster (played by Jeremy Sinden – one of two casualties of the Death Star trench in the miniseries – the other is Colin Higgins, who plays another Oxford student), who is a relentless party animal and totally hilarious. His parting shot in this episode, a one-liner about having to hurry out because his “uncle’s just snuffed it – taxi!” is a line reading on the same plane as Patrice O’Neal’s “Oh, most definitely!” Stephen Fry said once that the British comedian makes his humor from some level of humiliation, and Boy, who talks big about his friendship with the proprietress of the nightclub (“Ma Mayfield!”) and his relationships with the girls there, seems to have never stepped into the club before. It becomes obvious from the first that they should have stayed away; there’s a Tiresias in tails crying out, “You’ll be robbed, and poisoned, and robbed!” Curiously, Sebastian and Charles don’t drink very much; they spend their time alternately warding off and inviting the company of “the consumptive and the Death’s Head,” who are like the funhouse mirror female versions of our heroes. Ma Mayfield’s is one of those reprieves from the pain of Sebastian’s shame. He seems much more himself at Ma Mayfield’s, as puppyish and goofy as ever. His mistake lies in, while still very drunk, getting behind the wheel of a car. He causes some damage, swerving as he does, and he is pulled over.

Sebastian’s misdemeanor (which, miraculously, ends with only a fine after his judge is convinced that Sebastian is, comically, “unused to wine”) brings two characters into the Brideshead Eden, both of whom are serpents for the happy first people living there. The first is Rex Mottram (Keating), one of Julia’s beaux, who is a consummate politician. Canadian-born, Rex is not smart, but he is tough, and he knows how to handle a sensitive issue like this one. Shouting from his jail cell, once his cries of “I am the Viscount Mulcaster!” have diminished a touch, Boy suggests that Rex might be just the man to help them out. Rex has the gall to come up with the “unused to wine” line, and suggests “a tame don” who can give testimony as to Sebastian’s impeccable character.

That tame don is a man named Samgrass (John Grillo), the kind of bootlicking bourgeois who falls over himself when he gets the attention of Lady Marchmain (Claire Bloom). She’s having him write a book about her dead brother, Ned; Samgrass is delighted to be able to pronounce his friendship with Lady Marchmain, to be able to visit Brideshead, to be a bigshot. He’s self-aggrandizing but he isn’t unkind. He seems to genuinely like Sebastian and Charles, though surely he wouldn’t stick his neck out for Charles in the same situation. Both Rex and Samgrass are conniving, unpleasant, rough around the edges. There’s no grace in either one of them in the way that there is grace in Sebastian’s lithe frame, or in Charles’ reedy body, or in Lady Marchmain’s slim but imposing form. In comparison with them, Rex is bulky and Samgrass stout and neither one of them could ever be mistaken as even an adopted member of the Brideshead set.

Sebastian’s face during his trial, such as it is, is stricken. Like Don Draper, Sebastian’s first inclination when he’s in trouble is to cut and run, with Charles as his Rachel or Megan. Charles is a little more sympathetic than Rachel (Charles’ “That won’t solve anything” posture is a little gentler than Rachel’s “You just want to hide” castigation) but it’s the first time when he doesn’t follow Sebastian implicitly. There’s what’s reasonable, and there’s what Sebastian wants, and Charles knows that he can’t abandon his logic for his friend. Earlier in the series, he “forbade Sebastian [his] rooms” so that he could study for his finals; this is the same kind of principle, but in practice it makes Sebastian begin to believe that his best friend is “betraying” him, beginning to favor his family rather than Sebastian himself. Sebastian’s stricken face at the trial has less to do with having done something wrong than it does with having to face up to his mother, who will be saintlike and disappointed and inhuman with her righteousness. In a later episode, Charles will tell Lady Marchmain that Sebastian must be allowed to “feel free.” Charles isn’t quite right; Sebastian must feel that he’s allowed to screw up every now and then without the guilt piling upon him, and his experience with the law gives him just the opposite impression.

Thus the block quote at the top of this page.

Sebastian is blameless only in the most intimate of contexts; association with his family is an association with God, and an association with God is an association with failure, sin, shame. Only when he’s by himself, with his id, can he feel whole and unblemished. For a time, it seems, Charles and his Oxford setting were enough of an escape for him; as Charles becomes associated with his family, and with Brideshead, the dominoes begin to fall. “All claims of human affection” are suspect. His own conscience is disciplinary, not complementary. And Charles, who at this point knows him as well as anyone else, can only guess at how much trouble Sebastian is in, at how much damage he intends to do to himself. Sebastian typically had a drink or a cigarette in his hand, but it didn’t become part of his persona until lately. Now it seems that he can only function with one or the other around him.

I’ve had trouble in the past trying to explain what it is about Sebastian that makes him so tragic to me; he’s the type of character who, in real life, I would disparage pretty openly, something along the lines of “The first struggle of his life is self-induced alcoholism, aw.” It’s what’s at the roots of Sebastian’s illness that makes him more compelling; Sebastian has seen the expectations for himself, recognizes how vapid he is, how unfit he is to meet them, and has shrunk away. Perhaps that’s no more admirable than the alternative above; at least this alternative is relatable.

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