Dir. Charles Sturridge. Starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Claire Bloom
(My thoughts on the preceding episode are here.)
“A Blow Upon a Bruise” is maybe the most apt name for an episode of television ever aired, because it’s exactly how it feels to watch this painful hour; I’ve watched this miniseries all the way through a few times, but like “Home and Abroad,” it’s not an hour I return to frequently. In the former, it’s because the episode is a tad dull; in this instance, it’s because it hurts without the benefit of poetry or wit. It’s prettily reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s reaction to losing to Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate Race: “like the boy who stumped his toe – he was too big to cry, but it hurt far too badly to laugh.” From the outside, everyone appears to handle Sebastian’s deepening alcoholism with a relative calm; it’s only in the conversations held quietly in pretty rooms that we learn just how bitterly Sebastian’s benders and deceptions have hurt his family, and Charles too.
If “The Bleak Light of Day” introduces Sebastian’s flaws most subtly and poetically, and “Sebastian Against the World” at least allows Sebastian the image of a man flailing madly against a more powerful force, “A Blow Upon a Bruise” forces cringing moment after cringing moment on the viewer, scarcely allowing us time to recover from one misdeed or embarrassment before piling on another, and another. Charles may not believe in God, but Sebastian’s sins are certainly placed on Charles in a way that Christ would nod sympathetically at. From the very beginning of the episode, set at a train station, we find that Sebastian’s indiscretions have been piling up while offscreen. He pawned his valuables to get drunk over Christmas and was not returned home until Mr. Samgrass caught him in London. Mr. Samgrass really couldn’t keep up with him during their trip to the Middle East, and his giddy slideshow is marred by his patroness’ (and his patroness’ daughter’s) watchful notice of Sebastian’s absence. The episode finds a way to ensure that Sebastian hurts everyone in turn, and it starts with Cordelia, who vocalizes the question on everyone’s mind: “There’s a lot of you, but where’s Sebastian?” She’s waited for Sebastian to come home, and it turns out that Sebastian has no interest in being there and no interest in his younger sister. Bridey and Julia are both relatively phlegmatic about Sebastian’s alcoholism; Bridey, who is maybe the most faithful Catholic of the bunch, seems to chalk it up to God’s will and allows himself to sit back in his own confusion; Julia is mostly bothered because her brother’s alcoholism is interfering with her social life. The family dinners are chores for both, and Bridey in particular has to pretend he’s Sebastian’s father, but where the blows on Cordelia are more painful, it appears that Bridey and Julia take it more or less in stride.
The real pain is landed on Lady Marchmain, whose plan for sobering up her son requires the absolute cooperation of everyone else around her; unfortunately for her, Charles is still working under the premise of “Sebastian contra mundum,” and he decides to give Sebastian the money he’ll need to get drunk while ostensibly on a fox-hunt. It’s no accident that Sebastian uses the fox-hunt to slip away from his family’s watchful eye to go down to a pub and get right hammered. Aside from the fact there’s no other opportunity he’s given to be more or less alone, it’s a great insult to his social class. Only the rich would go fox-hunting on horses over great country estates; only a rich person could blow it off to drink at some bucolic but undeniably rural bar. It is as clear a sign that he’s done with he’s family as any, albeit a touch more symbolic. Lady Marchmain does not lash out against Sebastian – what would be the point? – but she does, in the penultimate scene of the episode, against Charles. It is a withering but even-toned attack on Charles’ character. “Did you always hate us?” she asks. Charles is unimpressed with her, and says so in the voiceover which ends the episode; she’s playing by a different set of rules than she is, and while he claims to understand her point of view, he doesn’t make any real attempt to explain his point of view to her in this episode. Charles occasionally implies that surveilling Sebastian is only more likely to create more shame, and more shame will cause more drinking, but nowhere does he clarify that point of view. As disappointed as he is with Lady Marchmain’s strategy, all he can do is mouth off about it to Bridey. It is clear that both the lady and the young man are too stubborn to actually fix the problem, and even if they were united together, Sebastian would be a nearly impossible nut to crack.
The hurt to Charles is lingered on less than the hurt to anyone else, even Cordelia, but it’s apparent by the end of the episode that the Charles and Sebastian Show has been cancelled. Sebastian’s intimacy with Charles has been fading almost since the beginning, but in the last three episodes it has accelerated with sickening pace. There is only one conversation between the two of them that has any of the joy or rhythm of the rest of the series, and it’s about how Sebastian manipulated Mr. Samgrass while they were in the Middle East together; it’s not the kind of lighthearted romp that Sebastian led them through with wine and strawberries in summer, or the sort of loving companionship he offered in Venice. This is a new Sebastian, who is manipulative and harsh. “More,” Sebastian says when Charles is clandestinely bankrolling him for the drinking session Sebastian will undertake without his only friend; the Sebastian who could cry about “He’s my guest, he’s my only friend, and I was bloody to him” is gone, and the one who’s left is either calculating and bitter or he’s drunk and incoherent. At the end of the episode, when Charles has decided to leave, he tells Sebastian it’s because he doesn’t think Sebastian wants him to stay. Sebastian affirms that analysis. It is a brief scene, the reflected image of the scene where Sebastian tells Charles that he’ll meet him at his house, and in its anticlimax lies the sadness. Sebastian’s alcoholism has robbed him and Charles of the ability to even have a cathartic thrashing to end their friendship.