That’s a bit more like it! After last week’s uneventful start, things started to kick off this week. Or at least in comparison to last week they did – I could still merely reduce the plot down to a handful of events and that would probably suffice. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, it makes a nice change to the other series blogs where I’m either struggling to recap all the details of plots that are rushed the point of not actually making sense (Doctor Who), desperately picking up on every little detail in case it becomes important later on in the series (Mad Men) or trying to think of as many different synonyms for ‘idiotic’ in order to describe the characters’ actions (The Walking Dead).
After commenting on there not being so much of the apparently very important theme of parental neglect going on last week, it really hit you in the face in this episode. Not only was there the reveal that Mrs. Castaway was Sugar’s mother, who had not only prostituted her daughter out when she was only 13 but often delighted in telling her the lengths that she took trying to abort her (I suppose they made the right decision in toning down the character’s awfulness as she’s irredeemable enough as it is, and even though I mentioned it last week, Gillian Anderson still deserves praise for turning in such a physically unpleasant performance, what with Mrs. Castaway’s awkward limp and oddly beaky nose), but there was William’s almost comical disinterest when he told Sugar that he and Agnes had a 7 year old child, who was a disappointment to William as she wasn’t a boy and was also seen as a severe financial inconvenience – although as he could afford to put Sugar up in the fairly affluent area of Marylebone I doubt a shilling a week for a Governess would have been that much of a financial strain for him.
Otherwise William spent the episode either naked (Chris O’Dowd’s definitely working hard to make us forget about The IT Crowd), meeting a sticky end in Sugar’s writings, or off on business, leaving Sugar alone and getting very bored. This did mean, though, that Sugar was given the opportunity to start to develop as a character somewhat after being incredibly cold and distant in the first episode. In fact, as everyone around her’s pretty awful, she’s emerging as a fully-fledged heroine (even a sort of avenger for wronged women), rather than an anti-heroine. Her boredom-induced stalking of Agnes could very well have been creepy, but as the efforts of Williams’ frail and delicate wife (who had been making her health even worse by obsessively dieting on green beans after receiving compliments on her looks from a similarly pale and bony looking society figure, Mrs. Amphlett) to reintroduce herself to society were inevitably going to end in failure, it’s a good thing that Sugar was on hand, as none of the ladies of higher breeding were going to be of much help. Honestly I could have done without Agnes’ projectile vomiting at the camera, but otherwise I’m still of the verdict that I had last week that Agnes’ plot is the most well done in the series so far. I wasn’t aware of Amanda Hale before this series, but I’ll be looking out for her in the future as she’s managed to turn a character that essentially exists as a plot obstacle into something a bit more compelling and fully formed – a particular stand out moment for her during the episode being where she made her way out of the alley behind the Royal Albert Hall, following Sugar’s encouraging instructions, where every step she took seemed very self conscious and forced (it reminded me oddly of Natalie Portman’s bird legged scene towards the end of Black Swan) yet her face looked completely, blankly happy.
On that subject, another pattern (or theme, if you’d prefer) is starting to appear in the plot in this episode – that being the capacity of suffering that men and women have. While many of the female characters have unbearable burdens to endure, they generally soldier on stoically while the men give up at the first sign of difficulty. Sugar, even as a foetus, clung desperately to life, and both Lady Bridgelow and Mrs Fox mentioned their husbands dying very suddenly. Even though Mrs Fox spent much of the episode with a cough (a death sentence in a costume drama), it actually spelled the end for her love interest Henry Rackham Jr instead as, drunk and losing his faith with god due to Mrs Fox’s poor prognosis, he managed to burn himself to death when casting his bible into the fireplace. It’s a shame that the writer and director decided to show the actual moment of Henry’s demise however (it would have worked better, in my opinion, if they’d cut from him surrounded by the growing flames, to Sugar and William in the Rackham lavender fields, where William is informed of his brother’s death) as what should have been a muted, tragi-comic moment, was rendered rather unsatisfactory, even ridiculous when put on screen. I put it down to the fact that somehow the BBC (or rather the special effects companies who work on their dramas) are incapable of rendering fire satisfactorily, which has been the case with many an episode of the new Doctor Who as well.
Other than that, technically there was quite a lot of interest going on in the episode. There may have been a few things I didn’t care for – there was, for example, at least one jarring jump cut near the start of the episode – but there was a lot of beautiful detail to take in as well. In particular I thought the treatment of the colour in the final scene in the lavender field was quite stunning, and I liked the sly updating of some of the costumes – Mrs. Amphlett’s almost white hair and black lace dress, when coupled with her frightening skinniness, gave her a sort of Vivienne Westwood-esque, punky sort of look.
Although I still think things looked a little bit too clean in the less salubrious areas of London (Sugar’s panicking at the thought of William getting bored and abandoning her and ‘cast[ing her] back into the filth’ didn’t quite hit as hard as it could have done) I do get why the setting wasn’t entirely repulsive – the filthiness of the working conditions of the Rackham factory was meant to look so much worse to support Sugar’s old friend Caroline’s assertion to Henry that the offer of a job at the family factory was not a better option than prostitution. And the sound team clearly worked their hardest to get the sordidness of Mrs. Castaway’s across – the foley artist must have worn themselves out with the amount of whip cracking that they had to do. As an added bonus the way that Sugar’s old stamping grounds was filmed meant that the director didn’t need to rely on as many of people staring confrontationally at the camera in order to make the setting seem hostile – I only counted an old woman directly doing so, and the character of Colonel Leek (who I don’t recall being referring to by name in the episode, but was identified as a Colonel at least by his battered army uniform) half doing so. Hopefully he’ll manage to get rid of it entirely by next week’s episode.