We have now entered the home stretch. Say what you want about the quality, it took a lot of work to get here. So, for the finale, rather than just rely on my notes from re-watching, I’m actively writing each of these as I watch the episodes again.
This is the start of the top 10!
Blackadder ran for four seasons and, so far, three TV specials. Each season and each special took place in a different time period, but with the same actors playing similar characters in each season, with exceptions. The first season, The Black Adder, which, in my opinion, was the worst (though still great), is set during the kingship of the fictional Richard IV. The second season, Blackadder II, takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The third, Blackadder the Third, takes place during the Regency (for non-British peoples, this was the period at the end of the reign of George III where he was deemed incompetent and the prince regent ruled as proxy). The last season, Blackadder Goes Forth, takes place during World War I in the trenches on the Western Front.
Blackadder was a farcical comedy in traditional British style. The situations in the episodes were comically over-the-top and the dialogue was quick, witty, and often filled with a dark cynicism, just like the main character. While not part of season 4, the line that most defines the Blackadder character, and much of the show, is usually his speech to the Prince Regent in season 3: “A man may fight for many things; his country, his principles, his friends, the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child. But personally, I’d mud-wrestle my own mother for a wad of cash, an amusing clock, and a stack of French porn!”
The main character’s incarnation in season 4, Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan “I’m the real 9th Doctor” Atkinson), is a professional soldier in the British Army. He was decorated as a hero for his successes in battle, but, as he himself admits, that’s only because he’d been fighting in places where the indigenous peoples didn’t have guns. Now, being in WWI, he constantly comes up with schemes which are designed to get him out of the line of fire. In traditional comic fashion, they all fail miserably, usually because of the incompetence of his batman Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson), who always comes up with “cunning plans” which generally are nonsense, and his second-in-command Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), whose intelligence test scored negative. Nonetheless, the team managed to avoid dying in every episode.
Blackadder Goes Forth generally had an attitude that was decisively anti-war (at least, anti-WWI). The main character definitely came off as opposing the conduct of the British Army. Of course, his attitude was probably due in no small part to the fact that his immediate superior, General Melchett (Stephen Fry), is completely incompetent, and Melchett’s assistant, Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny), is a bureaucratic toady who puts his own self-interest over anything else. At one point, Captain Blackadder even suggests that the great plan of the British Command is “to continue with total slaughter until everyone’s dead except for Field Marshall Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan.” This is immediately confirmed by Melchett to indeed be the British Army’s plan. That was the sort of attitude that the show took towards WWI: That it was not only unnecessary to start, but that perpetuating it did nothing of any value to any party.
In this episode, the series finale, Blackadder receives a message from Command that a full-scale attack has been ordered for the next day at dawn. Everyone in the trenches is going over-the-top. Since this is basically certain death for him, Blackadder decides to pretend to be insane in order to get sent home.
Lieutenant George buys it and calls HQ to report Blackadder. While waiting for someone to evaluate him, Blackadder is asked by Baldrick why there even is a war. George states that it was due to German imperialism, but Blackadder responds with the line “George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think we can be entirely absolved from blame on the imperialistic front.” He then follows it up with the greatest explanation of WWI I have ever heard:
“You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent a war in Europe, two super blocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side; and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast, opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way, there could never be a war.”
Baldrick then points out that there IS a war. To this, Blackadder responds that there was only one tiny flaw in the plan: It was bollocks. Again, the writers didn’t have the highest opinion on the European politics of the time.
When HQ finally arrives, Blackadder overhears General Melchett telling the men that people claiming to be insane will be executed, so he is forced to abandon the plan. Then, remembering that Field Marshall Haig owes him a favor, he calls High Command, only for Haig to advise him to claim to be insane. Meanwhile, General Melchett, thinking that he is doing a favor, gives Captain Darling a front-line commission. Darling begs to be allowed to stay at HQ, but Melchett is too stupid to understand his requests, and Darling arrives at the front lines. He and Blackadder quickly forget their rivalry, as they are both about to die.
Up until this point, the episode had been fairly farcical, much like the rest of the series. Then, with one line, it changes. Hugh Laurie’s George, who up until this point was the most hopeful, loyal flag-waver that the British Empire ever had, says to Blackadder:
“I’m scared, sir. … I don’t want to die…I’m really not overly keen on dying at all, sir.”
The rest of the cast, likewise, admit that they’re terrified, and with hardly any jokes at all. They convey the real anxiety that a person feels when something awful is looming over them. The mood shift is palpable, and it’s made all the more distinct because it starts with the character who, up until this point, has managed to ignore all of the realities of his situation. Darling, who up until this point had been an antagonist, tells the group about his plans that will now never come to fruition, including marrying his girlfriend.
As the guns above them fall silent, the men hope that the war is over, but Blackadder reminds them that it’s just the British halting their fire so that they won’t be mowing down their own men during the push. At the last second, Baldrick tells Blackadder that he has a plan, but, for the first time in the entire series, doesn’t call it cunning. Blackadder then asks him if it’s a cunning plan. Baldrick says yes, but Blackadder hears the order to advance, and tells him it’ll have to wait. “Whatever it was, I’m sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?” And with that, the cast exits the trench and runs onto the battlefield. The sequence enters a slow-motion shot as the scene dissolves into the poppy-covered field which, presumably, is the remainder of the battlefield in the modern day.
Okay, so, upfront, I don’t necessarily fully agree with the characterization of the British Army that was put forth in this episode. I don’t think that they were completely insensitive to the number of people that they were losing, and I think that the episode should have thrown a bit more criticism towards the political blunders that led to the war. But, since they did manage to create a hilarious line out of the entangling alliances, I’ll give them a pass.
The episode is set in 1917, which was probably the lowest point of morale for the British. In the two years prior to this, not only had they not successfully advanced on the Western Front, but they’d been losing more troops compared to Germany in almost every engagement. This is probably the most damning fact for the British Army leadership, because, on paper, the British and French had the advantage in most of these, sometimes even 2:1. The largest advance was the Battle of the Somme, where they managed to progress 10 km inwards, while losing more troops than the Germans, despite the massive numbers and armament advantage. Despite the stalemate, relatively little public effort was made to bring an end to the war politically, something that made it seem endless and pointless. It was made even worse by the fact that the participants could have ended it under Pope Benedict’s terms before this episode took place, terms that, in retrospect, might have prevented WWII. Gas attacks were becoming more effective and deadly, and hope was now a scarce commodity. In short, it’s why a lot of great books were written by people involved in the War.
This was the perfect environment to set a black comedy, and it showed throughout the series. However, Goodbyeeee made a profound use of the comic set-up to drive home the horrible nature of war. In the Blackadder seasons which had preceded this, the cast members had often died at the end of the season, but it was always in a humorous or ridiculous manner. This episode went the other way, playing it deadly straight, killing off every character, apparently, in a very real way which is prefaced by them expressing a very real fear of it. The fact that they played the first half of the episode in the traditional style only makes it more jarring when the serious elements start to take over.
By having us grow to like these characters and then killing them off in such a dramatic fashion, the show conveyed a very sad, but important truth: There is no such thing as a “good” war. There are only two kinds of wars: necessary and bad. WWII was the former, the Great War was the latter, especially if you’re British. Remember, the British and the French technically won the war, and yet, they still view it as a colossal mistake that killed off a generation of men. The show sacrificed its own cast to make sure that people remember the price of war is blood and tears.
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