25 years later, Blackadder’s finale is still devastating

25 years later, Blackadder’s finale is still devastating

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.

Blackadder Goes Forth, “Goodbyeee” (season one, episode six; originally aired 11/2/1989)*

*Each season of what we collectively call Blackadder had a different title, so although this is the fourth season of the popular show, it is just season one of Blackadder Goes Forth. It’s confusing.

In which the boys go over the top…

David Sims: I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this episode of Blackadder. A couple dozen, probably? Growing up in England, in high school the rule pretty much was, if your teacher was sick, they’d just put Blackadder on and tell you to watch quietly. It’s about British history, so it’s at least vaguely relevant, right? Over the course of six years (1983 to 1989), Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, and Rowan Atkinson created four time-hopping seasons of this show, covering (in order), the Middle Ages, Elizabethan England, the Regency, and World War I. Each was more sophisticated and cynical than the last, and each featured Atkinson as the perennially sarcastic schemer Blackadder with Tony Robinson as his dumb and filthy sidekick, Baldrick.

The whole series has a special place in my heart, but Blackadder Goes Forth is probably the most impressive of the lot, and its finale, “Goodbyeee,” is forever seared on my mind. While the sitcom always had a snarky, clever edge to its examination of class hypocrisies, it never got quite this dark. But really, what other way is there to conclude a story about the trench warfare of World War I, where thousands of Brits (and Germans, and many others) ran at each other’s machine-gun lines for no particularly good reason other than they were told to do it?

For any American who’s never sampled the show, Blackadder must be a particularly surprising experience. There’s Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) as the ridiculously optimistic Lieutenant George, a dead-on skewering of the Britain’s Oxford-educated ruling class who merrily signed up for war in the millions because everyone else was doing it. Stephen Fry, as General Melchett, is the same type, one generation older and crazier and cheerfully ordering his men to their doom. And while most people around the world know Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, Blackadder is an equally iconic role for him.

He’s the easiest and best character to identify with in Blackadder Goes Forth, where his utterly selfish scheming makes the most sense to us. In other seasons, Blackadder sought personal gain. In Forth, he’s looking to survive, aware—unlike seemingly everyone else—that any kind of significant military action will get him killed.

Except for Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny), of course. Mocked throughout the show as a sniveling coward, his name a politically incorrect pun onto itself, Darling has done exactly what Blackadder might seek: guaranteed his own survival by serving as Melchett’s lickspittle. But he is doomed with the rest of them by the end of the episode—though granted a modicum of respect by his adversary Blackadder as one of the boys on the front line.

Blackadder is very much a British sitcom made before 1992. “Goodbyeee” is its darkest episode, but even it is loaded with sarcastic quips, silly puns, and harebrained schemes, which you would expect from any of the series’ episodes. Its astonishing achievement is balancing that expected silliness with genuine pathos and remarkably acrid commentary on the nation’s proud history; in that way, it feels like an achievement even today, 25 years after it left the air.

Brandon Nowalk: Oh my God, David. I just finished the episode and I have goosebumps. (Or goose pimples or horseflesh or whatever y’all call it.) Blackadder had been on my list of stuff to watch eventually—categorized, thanks to some lesser brushes with Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English) and Richard Curtis (Love, Actuallycome at me, Sonia), closer to stuff I should see out of obligation more than expected pleasure. I had no idea it would be this good, this funny and cynical and moving. The last time I felt like this was during In The Loop. And before that, Generation Kill.

It’s obvious from the start. I don’t know if you can always tell something will be good or bad from the get-go, but that first impression isn’t just an impression. You can see the acting—Atkinson’s droll expectation and Laurie’s youthful enthusiasm. You can hear the writing and get a sense of the style—savoring impeccable imagery like, “We’ve advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.” You can see the camera and editing—every little move and cut adding to the lively stage-comedy feel. You can see the art design—the richness and texture of the sets and costumes and props. It looks like sketch comedy—even with Atkinson in a slick in the pouring rain against a wall of sandbags crowned in barbed wire and everything colored like mud—but it’s also already planting the seeds that this is serious, that there are stakes to these characters’ lives. The big joke is also a statement.

So much modern television comedy just slathers on what the kids are calling the feels, as if it’s not enough to be funny. But “Goodbyeee” hits just right. First of all, a suicidal charge that’ll mean not romantic disappointment or an unhappy birthday but the death of 80 percent of the characters is an awfully good reason to forsake the funnies for the feels. And when Blackadder does go in for the kill, so to speak, it has the dignity not to wallow. Did anyone cry watching this? I didn’t even begin to get watery. Yet I daresay this is one of the most moving episodes of TV I’ll see all year.

The essential element is that it’s hilarious through two acts: Hugh Laurie mugging up a storm, the ostrich that started WWI, the running gag about getting low on supplies, culminating in that sudden spit-take in what looked until that moment like negative space. It’s got wordplay, it’s got sight gags, it’s got its fair share of dim bulbs. George’s gung-ho eagerness to kill himself for duty lays a foundation for what’s to come but plays as pure comedy. Blackadder understands death, so we worry about him. But I’m not convinced George really understands how death works, at least not until the end. So for most of the episode it’s just a pitch-black joke, the guy who just can’t wait to die. But by the time he gets his chance, it turns out he’s not so eager.

For some reason I was expecting a jokier ending, an absurdist “oh, well” or something. So the pivotal scene where Darling gets dismissed by Melchett came as a total surprise. There’s no weaseling out of consequences here as might happen in a sitcom. Power knows exactly what the powerless is going to say anyway, don’t you worry your little head. The poor guy is kneeling, cradled in the general’s arms, when all of a sudden the lights shine up the stage and the overpowering shadow of a soldier oozes across the carpet to take Darling to the front lines. Suddenly we go from this relatively low-key sketch comedy to this dramatic, expressionist theater. From this point on, there is no escape, not even for the cunning Blackadder.

I don’t want to take up all the space before everyone’s had a chance to chime in, but, wow, did “Goodbyeee” floor me. Was anyone else as moved as I was?

Pilot Viruet: Blackadder has also been on my to-watch list for a while now (along with a ton of British programs that I keep unfairly neglecting), so I’m glad that you chose this, David, because I’m going to watch the entire series this week. I was hesitant going in—not because I worried that I wouldn’t like it (I’m a fan of the cast and I’m fascinated by both the premise and the anthology format) but I worried that, because it’s a series finale, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it much sans context. But I was wrong! I ended up loving it: the running jokes, the occasional alliterative dialogue (everything flowed so well!), the silly historical mix-ups, the acting (though I grew up watching an awful lot of Mr. Bean, so it’s always odd to hear Rowan Atkinson talk), and, of course, the sad preoccupation with death that kept creeping up alongside the humor. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen anything else of Blackadder, because everything still clicked. 

It didn’t take long for me to know that I was going to love this show. It’s cemented by that very early scene when George is happily talking about the day he enlisted—a mixture of sweet nostalgia and funny anecdotes—that segues into him realizing that the rest of his buddies have died already. George’s transition from funny to sad is seamless, as is his immediate return to being cheerful. I think that’s why I liked "Goodbyeee" so much. There is an overwhelming sense of death and doom lingering above the entire thing, but it never overtakes the jokes, nor does it feel like a forced balancing act. Instead, they complement each other. There are laughs within the phone conversation, but they make that casually callous action of sweeping away toy soldiers even more chilling. 

I don’t know how exactly I was expecting this episode to end—but I definitely wasn’t expecting that. “Goodbyeee” sure did go straight for the gut-punch. Still, although it was unexpected, it wasn’t jarring. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other television show that could pull something like this off. It was an odd rollercoaster feeling. I went from laughing out loud for about 25 minutes straight to being suddenly shocked into silence, from the scene where George admits that he’s scared and doesn’t want to die. Oh, and those few seconds when some of the guys naïvely think that the war has ended? It’s a killer. 

The entire last scene is a killer, especially with the use of slow motion—and yes, Brandon, I was moved. (I didn’t cry either, though, which is weird because I’m known for crying at sitcom episodes. Dramas rarely move me, but some good jokes will inexplicably wreck me.) It was very affecting, it was beautiful and devastating, but mostly I just can’t get over how funny everything else was. I can’t wait to watch from the beginning. 

Sonia Saraiya: Unlike Pilot and Brandon, I had the unique opportunity to hear this episode summarized by David in person a few weeks ago (don’t worry, Pilot, I drank when he mentioned growing up in Britain). I don’t think I’d ever quite realized that Blackadder spanned different eras—but it certainly explained a stray episode I once caught where Hugh Laurie was a petulant prince in a foppish wig (Blackadder The Third, as it happens). So I knew what was coming—and yet the episode totally destroyed me, as it sounds like it destroyed all of us. It’s only because David said, in his spirited summary, “And then they all just... fucking die,” that I am even able to accept that they all really did die, instead of just fading away to black in the hazy, sanitized death that television offers us. Of course, the show makes it very clear they all die. I was just hoping against hope.

Indeed, what’s most devastating for me in this episode is hope: Hope is what Darling has right before he’s sent to the front lines, when he beseeches Melchett to let him go. Hope is what Baldrick has with his ridiculous schemes. Hope is even what grumpy Blackadder has, in the last moments, as he makes the call to the dismissive field marshal. Out of an episode with many heartbreaking moments, one of the most heartbreaking is when Blackadder, not unkindly, tells Baldrick to save his last plot for escape until “later.” The message I saw is that hope is the last thing to go, when you’re standing at the edge of your death, but not taking it from someone is a great act of kindness. (And the show’s class politics comes out strong there, too: Melchett has no qualms taking away someone’s hope, and neither does the old field marshal. Blackadder maintains his dignity, I suppose, by not taking away Baldrick’s.)

There’s so little I could say here that the episode does not say better itself: “Goodbyeee” does not stint on social commentary or precise deconstruction of character. It is, itself, a critique, which makes it a bit harder to write about. It’s critiquing something really big, i.e., the entire structure of our lives, but it’s still a critique—and a scathing one, at that. And the episode is very deft with shifting from what is cutting satire to moving pathos and back again without ever feeling like it has lost its train of thought. This is an episode that knows exactly what it’s doing.

Brandon, I’ve been reading some of your thoughts on Twitter about how sitcoms have swung away from snark and toward pathos—you said recently that lately it seems like sitcoms are more likely to make you cry than laugh (I am paraphrasing badly). You got into this a little before, but I’m curious how this episode fits into your thinking about this. I agree—sitcoms have gotten more “dramatic,” for lack of a better word. There is suddenly a lot of sincerity and humanity in the genre. And while those things are important, it also feels a little blithe to me, and perhaps to you all as well. Blackadder is refreshing in that light—because hey, the world is pretty shitty. What’s powerful about sincerity and humanity is exercising that in the face of a world still sends boys into battle because some other guy in a room decided it was a good idea. And let’s not get carried away with our own goodness, either—Blackadder is not a story about doing the right thing, it’s about doing what you need to do to survive. As touching as Blackadder’s expressions of kindness are in the episode—tolerating Baldrick, listening to George’s bravado and fear, and welcoming Darling into the group—I also got the impression that he is merely doing what he must do to live with himself, even if that life is going to last for just a few more minutes.

David, what’s your far more experienced take on Stephen Fry’s Melchett? Is he evil, or just stupid? His scene when he sends Darling to the front was one of the more excruciating to watch—when the episode turns from something darkly funny to something that is just dark, with moments of humor to lighten the load. (Which is to say, perhaps it is a metaphor for life.)

BN: Sonia, I think calling them “thoughts” is an overstatement, but that’s the gist. Why so serious, sitcoms? The subject’s too big for this space, but Blackadder is quite a model for pathos in comedy. It works on me the same way The Thick Of It does. It’s straight-faced machine-gun comedy about a very serious subject, and it plays me like a fiddle. The moment I stop laughing, the moment the jokes let up, I feel the gravity. At the end of “Goodbyeee” I wasn’t crying, and I didn’t want to. I was saying, “Oh my God.” Which is just as valuable a reaction as laughing or crying or throwing your remote at the TV to keep another damn sitcom from “getting real” for a moment.

The Thick Of It is a thematic cousin, too. The gravity in both comes from the way institutions trample their members. George signed up hoping to do some good. So did Hugh Abbott. But when the laughs stop coming, they’re both just fodder for the machine. In politics, that means you get to stick around as long as you’re keeping the wheels turning (or more accurately, as long as you’re not keeping them from turning). In war, that means you get to die. Now that’s moving and honest and relevant and everything else people say about sappy sitcoms.

Thanks to Stephen Fry’s General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth is even darker than The Thick Of It, though the threat of death helps. See, Malcolm Tucker will sack an MP like it’s nothing, but when push comes to shove, he’s a human. What he’s not is the highest authority. There doesn’t seem to be anybody above Melchett. And not only will he send you to your death, but he’ll smile doing it. And he’ll never even imagine that he was wrong.

After Melchett Catch-22s him, Blackadder checks in with his men, who are suddenly pretty serious after all. George confesses to not wanting to die. Next Blackadder asks, “How are you feeling, Darling?” and I don’t know why but I laughed loud enough for the neighborhood. Even at the show’s heaviest, it’s still hilarious. “Don’t forget your stick, Lieutenant.” “Rather, sir. Wouldn’t want to face a machine gun without this.”

SS: I literally thought British soldiers just called each other “darling” until the end of the episode. 

PV: To briefly touch on this trend of sitcoms moving more toward pathos—it’s something that I’ve noticed, but that I’m not fully on board with. Sure, I appreciate the light touches of sincerity every now and then, but not when they replace the jokes. It’s why I’ve been a little sour on so many family sitcoms lately—more often than not, they seem to forgo laughs in favor of dramatic storylines and forced emotions. It makes me feel as if I’m being told how to react.

But I didn’t feel this way about Blackadder. I suppose this has a lot do with how intense the subject matter is to begin with. It wasn’t exactly a comedic story with a few dramatic elements, but rather a dramatic narrative that was loaded with jokes. It’s incredibly funny, but it’s certainly no lighthearted family sitcom. 

But also: Blackadder didn’t have a downer, emotional ending solely because it wanted to make us feel something—but because that was the only way “Goodbyeee” could have ended. It was the natural conclusion to the episode—and, though I haven’t seen it, I assume to the series as well. I watched the episode again yesterday and was struck by the sheer impressiveness of the entire thing. It functioned on so many levels: as a satirical comedy, as a microcosm, and as a moving episode of television. 

DS: Let me just say that I am overjoyed that you guys were all into the episode! I guess I shouldn’t have been too worried—it’s a classic for a reason, but the combination of assigning a series finale and an older British show had me worried you’d all call me a softy. It’s even crazy to compare this to any other episode of this show—Blackadder had its emotional moments before, but always erred more toward farce, partially just because of the eras it was spoofing. There’s humor to World War I, but it’s of a darker sort. And really, once you’ve watched the ending, you realize there was no other option. Having the men just trudge on through their miserable trench lives wouldn’t really acknowledge the reality of going “over the top,” and having them win some spectacular battle would of course make no sense at all. The tone is just right: We don’t see them brutally cut down with machine gun fire (the set they’re running across is hardly pristine and the decision was made to cut away from it as quickly as possible), but the field of poppies is such a quietly devastating image in its own right.

Sonia, Melchett is hardly evil, although perhaps he’s totemic for the banal kind of evil that drove this war to fruition in the first place. He represents everything about the old empires that carefully designed the checks and balances of territory and alliances that led to World War I. Oxbridge-educated, completely disconnected from the experience of almost everyone else in the country, raised on the notion that warfare and conquest is a matter of honor and national pride. Of course, he’s super-heightened—ridiculously stupid, “barking mad,” completely disconnected from reality. But there’s a grain of truth to everything he does, and his decision to send Darling to the front line is representative of all those ridiculous concepts of honor I was talking about.

SS: That’s interesting—I know I haven’t seen the rest of it, but I wonder, now that I’ve seen this, if I’d be able to dismiss him as not evil. I’m sure you’re right—he’s intended to be more dumb than mean—but his utter banality, as you call it, makes him into a character capable of terrible things. But he is so familiar—he seems to me like every complacent person in power who embraces the status quo from their position of relative privilege, which is to say, pretty much every politician, and most of the rest of us, too. And it’s that that makes him chilling. It’s always easier to ignore the flaws in a system that serves you. 

The characters in the show are all clearly representatives of several different classes—and as an outsider into English culture, it’s fascinating to see how Blackadder skewers the same class that is universally adored in Downton Abbey, for example. But it’s also telling that they all go over the top together, and are all wiped out together. I read a bit about the show after watching this episode, and apparently, there is some vague indication that Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadders are all great-grandsons of the ones previous, so that there’s some sense of an unbroken line. It’s a superfluous plot conceit—we know it’s just the same actor, we don’t really need an explanation—but again that sitcom workaround comes to poignant fruition in this final scene, where not just Blackadder, but that line of Blackadders is wiped out. (Along with, presumably, the line of Baldricks that were always dogsbodies.)

You know, about a thousand years ago I wrote a 50-page paper on how World War I affected European painting (I know)—and one of the reasons I was drawn to the topic was because of how much Europe, and in particular Britain, changed after 1918. It’s like World War I is this hard line through history and on one side is the old ways, and on the other side is the new. Although World War II may have been more significant for America, the Great War is when a lot of ideas about what Western civilization meant disappeared in a cloud of smoke (or, you know, mustard gas). It’s very canny of Blackadder to end its foray through British history with Blackadder going over the top with his comrades. It’s sort of like saying, “The past is over. Now what?”

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