Brideshead Revisited S1E7, “The Unseen Hook”

Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Jonathan Coy

(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)

Anthony Blanche can’t hide his revulsion when he thinks of Kurt (Coy), the German ex-soldier who is something between Sebastian’s ward and his pet. Anthony, who has acclimated to ’20s London in a way that he never could get along at Oxford, runs into Charles and Boy Mulcaster at a party after the latter two have done their part to combat the General Strike. (Seriously. I’ve always thought that if it weren’t for the bizarre ending of the novel/serial, more people would be saying, “They brought Charles home so he could fight the General Strike? Really?”) Boy Mulcaster, who was a better fit for the safe hedonism of Oxford, finds himself very much out of his depth at this party; Antoine can’t hide his pleasure there either, but not before he tells off Boy for his ignorance of the virtuosity of some of the performers. And so it is that the last chapter of Sebastian begins. The Oxford principals all show up again, mostly the same people but just different enough to be strange. Boy is as immature and blithe as ever, but with a position of some importance in defending England from socialists and communists and god-knows-what. Anthony wears more makeup than he used to, as slithery as ever, but where he used to traffic in gossip and scandal for the salacity of it all, he seems more interested in people as people, in the possibilities of art in unexpected places. Charles seems much the same, but only because we’ve been following him around; he is not the self he was at Oxford, and in this episode the sad, taciturn man with the mustache who commands troops in World War II is evident, I think, for the first time. Sebastian is not the only one who’s lost the joy in love since they were undergraduates, but the change in him is the greatest and saddest of all. Sebastian and Kurt, Anthony tells Charles, are living in Fez. Sebastian appears to have picked Kurt up somewhere, won’t get rid of him and his ghastly self-inflicted wound, and in the interim seems intent on drinking himself to death.

All of this might go on indefinitely, but Lady Marchmain has, as Rex predicted, taken a turn for the worse. Having at least as much guilt as anyone else in this miniseries (which is saying something for a miniseries with a deathbed conversion and a couple in love who decide not to marry because of said deathbed conversion), she summons Charles for a message that Julia, in the end, has to deliver. First, she regrets the way that she and Charles parted; second, she wants him to find Sebastian and bring him home so that mother and son can be reconciled. Charles, amiably enough, sets off.

About half of this episode takes place in Morocco, and for the most part it seems rather like tan England. Attempts to recreate Waugh’s colonial humor are still there, but at least they are somewhat muted in comparison to the source material. What’s particularly interesting is that Charles gets opinions on Sebastian from just about every corner before he actually manages to run into his friend. There’s Kurt, who is really just as repulsive as Anthony Blanche makes him sound. Afraid and helpless and cognizant that his benefactor comes from money, Kurt is desperate when Charles arrives; one half expects him to ask Charles if he’s his new dad. The literary nature of his injury is of course telegraphed. Kurt blew off his toe in a successful attempt to get out of the army, but the wound has mysteriously never healed and tends to fester instead. The crude symbolism is obvious: like Kurt, Sebastian’s self-inflicted wounds have only done him harm. There’s the British consul who knows about Sebastian’s general situation and thinks of him as a mostly harmless alcoholic, charming enough in person; that scene is almost like a time warp. There’s the dispassionate French doctor who has seen one too many alcoholics in his career and sees Sebastian as essentially a lost cause. Then there’s the monk, one of the many who help run the hospital where Sebastian has been kept for his pneumonia. He chuckles at Sebastian’s remarkable ability to get liquor even from inside the hospital, how they have to take bottles out of his bed. The pneumonia is a sign of how run down he is; he is still in his early twenties living in a beautiful climate and he is wasting away in a hospital bed. Charles and Sebastian meet face to face for the first time since their last fight. Sebastian is moist, pained, thin, but he manages half a smile. Do you think, Sebastian asks, you could smuggle in a bottle of brandy? It sounds like something he might have said just four years earlier, but there is a much older man’s pain in the question not unlike the much older man’s disease he’s harboring.

It becomes clear that Sebastian will not be able to travel home to speak to his mother before she dies; the trip could well kill him instead. Charles manages to put some affairs in order for Sebastian (which are designed to seriously curtail Sebastian’s ability to get drunk) before he has to leave Morocco, but Sebastian seems disinterested in finances and, truly, in Charles. As much as Charles seems willing to set aside the hurts in the past, Sebastian continues to harbor them. From his point of view, it’s understandable; here is Charles for the first time, but once again he has come at the behest of Sebastian’s mother, of Sebastian’s family. Even this appearance of his best friend is a reminder of the old betrayal.

At the end of the episode, he is able to return home to his small flat with Kurt, who is as indignant as a cat that Sebastian has left him for so long. Kurt demands a cigarette; Charles rises to find one for Kurt, but Sebastian shakes him off. That’s my job, he says. The final shot we have of Sebastian features him, as blonde as ever but languorous with illness instead of chic, lighting Kurt’s cigarette. I don’t think there’s a comparable moment in television to Sebastian’s ending, certainly not in a scripted show that managed to end on its own terms.

For one thing, the sadness of the last ten minutes or so in this episode is just dizzying. All of Brideshead makes me sad for reasons I’ve never been able to adequately express, but I think its perigee is in this final scene. I’ve said this before on this blog, but I am always struck by this realization nonetheless: how remarkable it is that the self-inflicted destruction of a minor lord, the kind of collapse that I would usually have no pity for (much like Sebastian’s French doctor), is for me the most depressing moment placed on scripted TV. (I stand by my assertion that the last scene of “The Bleak Light of Day” is more heartrending than this one.) Part of is the waste of any young person’s life; part of is the relatability of Sebastian’s endless guilt; part of it is Andrews’ acting, which is convincing; most of it is the memory of the laughter and smiles and pleasure that have been erased so completely from Sebastian’s body language and custom. In “Home and Abroad,” Sebastian and Charles were holding each other in the rain in Venice, learning about wine by drinking as much of it as they could, walking through gardens. In “The Unseen Hook,” despite whatever holiness is ahead for them, it cannot replace the happiness that they used to have. Sebastian appears to have landed in a situation where God has not yet made him good, as per Sebastian’s request, and yet there’s no benefit to it.

For another, Sebastian’s last scenes are unlike anything else on TV because he fades away. Very rarely does a character on television disappear in solids in the same way that he does. He does not die onscreen (indeed, there’s an outside chance, if a very bad one, that he’s alive in 1944 when Charles revisits Brideshead), and he is not sent off with an argument or the diagnosis of some new illness or a dramatic emigration. Like people do in real life, even the dear ones, he passes away, lost from our sight.

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