Brideshead Revisited S1E4, “Sebastian Against the World”

Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Claire Bloom

(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)

No new characters of any importance, no new threads to manage, no real change since last we met with our Brideshead friends. “Sebastian Against the World” is an episode built to bring serious issues to a head, and true to Brideshead form, “Sebastian” does so on a small scale. Charles’ narration tells us that there’s just been a big party of people at Brideshead, and that for them Sebastian has more or less behaved (while still drinking heavily), but that the absence of others besides his family and his best friend means that he is compelled to get stinking drunk now that he has the opportunity.

He chews out Charles for trying to take away his whiskey. “You’re a guest in this house – my guest!” Charles makes an excuse for him before dinner at Brideshead to the rest of the family, managing to ward off Lady Marchmain but unable to get Cordelia to yield to her desire to see Sebastian. Her return to the sitting room reveals the fact that Sebastian does not have a cold, but is formidably drunk. “Marquess’ Son Unused to Wine,” she screams, laughing but horrified, recalling the headlines after Sebastian got off the drunk driving charge. It makes for an awkward dinner; after dinner, over the port and tobacco that Kathy Bates and Kate Winslet make fun of in Titanic, Bridey asks Charles if he couldn’t have stopped Sebastian from getting tight. He takes it back quickly. “No,” he says. “I don’t suppose you could have.”

What is undoubtedly the most moving scene of the episode (although obscured with Waugh’s subtle-but-not-actually reference to Father Brown’s “unseen hook and invisible line,” which will be of such importance later) comes not long afterward. Sebastian, still incredibly drunk, has come down to apologize. We’ll talk about it later, Lady Marchmain says firmly, but it’s not the family Sebastian comes to apologize to. “He’s my guest. He’s my only friend. And I was bloody to him.” Andrews’ voice, which is Michael York’s voice’s little brother, cracks so perfectly on “bloody.” Everyone’s emotion in the room is apparent, from Charles’ humiliation to Bridey’s take-charge attitude to Cordelia’s heartbreak to Sebastian’s pain. Everyone else in this family, at other times, seems to be basically happy. Cordelia is joyful and Julia droll, Bridey content and Lady Marchmain peaceful. Only Sebastian, with his perhaps genuinely bipolar approach of mania followed by depression, can’t make the same claim. It’s killing him. Charles manages to get him most of the way up the steps before Sebastian’s paranoia kicks in again.

“Sebastian Against the World” is the fulfillment of Charles’ prophecy in the last hour, in which he proclaims “his [Sebastian’s] days in Arcadia were numbered,” when the “black…threat” makes itself known. Even during “Et in Arcadia Ego,” Charles was more important; “Sebastian Against the World” is less about any Charles than any other episode in the series, save one, although few of end in a greater change in Charles’ life. By episode’s end, Sebastian has been “sent down” from Oxford (a Britishism that is pleasingly euphemistic) and Charles has decided, with no friends and no place to go in town, to drop out and go to a Parisian art school. It’s the most abnormal thing that Charles does over the course of the episode; throughout it he is as conventional as they come. While Sebastian is floundering, searching desperately for support rather than condemnation (someone to be contra mundum by his side), Charles is doing all of the things we would expect an alcoholic’s best friend to try to do. He tries to make off with Sebastian’s alcohol. After his cover-up is exposed, he is relatively frank with Bridey and Lady Marchmain about Sebastian’s condition; he has two lengthy personal conversations with the latter, including one where she foists a copy of her brother’s biography off on him. (Charles, amusingly, fails the test she sets; if he were going to help her, Sebastian tells him, his letter concerning the book would have been far longer.) In another, he tries to advocate for Sebastian. “He must feel free,” he tells her, imploring her not to force Sebastian to live with Monsignor Bell and the other Catholics at school. Yet he has no real answer for her when she counters, truthfully, that Sebastian was free and developed dipsomania.

Charles faces a real Kobayashi Maru here, in the unenviable position of wanting to be Sebastian’s best bud but knowing that Sebastian needs a friend more than a buddy. In one instance, the two of them get sensationally drunk (which, even for Charles, feels like a real no-brainer of a bad decision); Charles drops him off at his rooms, goes to bed, and is awoken an hour later when Sebastian tries to jump a fence to see Charles, bloodies his hands, and gets caught by the police. Both men are only about twenty; this is more responsibility than either one of them ought to be dealing with.

Brideshead gives the lie to this idea that alcoholism (and other forms of addiction) should be punished. Charles is not far off when he says that Sebastian must feel free, but what he really means is that Sebastian must not feel judged. Consider how it goes when Sebastian comes downstairs, apologizes dramatically to Charles, and then almost gets into a fight with Bridey that Charles has to break up. “Go back to bed, Sebastian,” Bridey commands. It’s a 180 from the calm, bemused attitude that Bridey takes with Charles over cigars, a shift from “he can’t help it” to “you had better help it.” The first iteration isn’t necessarily great either – the ideal, of course, is probably a lot closer to “I will help you help it” – but Sebastian only sees condemnation. It’s the same shame that’s been biting him for months now, only expressed by a different person, the elder brother who is the man of the house, and that adds a special sting to his discomfort.

Sebastian’s insobriety is his primary mode in this episode. He stumbles and slurs and shouts, in many ways unrecognizable from the image of the suave gent he played up at Oxford and Venice; in Brideshead itself there’s not much to portray. That makes the two important scenes in this episode where he is sober especially noteworthy. In one, it’s the morning after his most offensive night; in the other, he is at Oxford, looking wistfully out the window. Sober Sebastian was always a little morbid; his oft-quoted thought from under the tree in “Et in Arcadia Ego,” that he would like to bury a little something everywhere he’d ever been happy and return to those places when he was old, is not a statement of being happy now but of being unhappy later. In the first scene, Sebastian has packed his bags, bathed and dressed, and is intent on running away to Charles’ house first thing. Charles knows that he can’t leave without saying goodbye to his hostess – you don’t have to be wannabe-nobility British to know that’s abundantly rude – and tries to slow down Sebastian. Sebastian is intent on running, and run he does; he gets to Charles’ house well before Charles himself does. It’s a key element of Sebastian’s personality. Surely part of the reason he needs to get out of Brideshead, hinting ominously that he doesn’t mean to return, is a great antipathy for the place and what it represents to him; surely another part of the reason he wants out is because he is so ashamed of himself that he’s too sick to stay another moment in the locus of his great shame. It’s a reaction he’s had before, and it’s a reaction he’ll have again. Later on in the series there’s a moment which is more reminiscent of the Desert Fathers than anything else based on just this instinct.

In the second sober scene, Sebastian makes it very clear what kind of life awaits him at Monsignor Bell’s. (Bridey, incidentally, spent his last year at Oxford living with Monsignor Bell and found him “charming,” which is indicative of what a good time it isn’t.) Mass twice a week, hanging out with Catholic freshmen, and constant surveillance: always being watched, always being reminded that he’s a loser who can’t even have a glass of port without one of God’s representatives on earth giving him the friendliest hairy eyeball in Oxford. It is unsurprising that Sebastian drops out, given those conditions. Easier to feel free in the Levant, where he’s gone at the end of the episode, even with Mr. Samgrass tailing him, than to stay in England where there is no escape from his mother, her god, or his own conscience.

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