Tim McInnerny, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson (BBC One)

“General Hospital”

Blackadder protects his special someone

(Available streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Netflix)

After the silliness of “Major Star” and larger than life antics of “Private Plane,” “General Hospital” is a refreshing change of pace. This episode is unique, the only one of the season to not feature Capt. Blackadder striving to leave the trench. Assigned out of harm’s way early on, Blackadder is able to relax and enjoy himself, certain he’s found the spy and comfortable taking his full three weeks to report back. There’s no sense of urgency, no fear for the soldiers put in danger each day the spy remains free. Blackadder cares more about his vacation than their lives, but then again, he is his own someone special—thinking of others does not come naturally for a man in such constant fear for his own life.

The monotony of this experience is highlighted in the first scene, as Blackadder, Lt. George, and Pvt. Baldrick play the world’s least interesting game of I Spy. Rowan Atkinson’s delivery of, “Mug!” highlights not only the character’s exasperation with his neighbors, but his growing desperation. Scheme after scheme has failed to deliver him to safety. This changes with General Melchett’s charge that he find the German spy in the hospital, Blackadder’s most straightforward route to a desk job yet. The camera introduces the thread of espionage before Melchett can bring it up, adopting Capt. Darling’s point of view and ducking down behind a desk before rushing up behind Blackadder. It’s an unusual use of the camera by season four director Richard Boden—for Blackadder at least—but it works well, spicing up the action, however briefly. Afterwards, it’s back to standard sitcom direction of the rest of the season, but with dialogue as loaded and sarcastic as Blackadder’s, “Our battles are directed, sir?” visual flourishes aren’t particularly necessary.

“General Hospital” takes its time, letting a handful of scenes stretch out for most of the runtime. These lengthier scenes give the episode its relaxed tone, but the funniest exchange is one of the episode’s shortest—Blackadder’s interrogation of Darling. The visual alone is fantastic, Darling trussed up in a chair, his pajamas neatly buttoned to the top and a chamber pot on his head. Tim McInnerny is great in the scene, Darling’s high-strung personality pushing him over the edge almost immediately. He can’t take the stress and Blackadder knows it. Atkinson barely suppresses a smile throughout, Blackadder fully enjoying his brief moment of power over Darling, and the culmination of the interview, with Darling giving examples of his British-ness—“I have a girlfriend named Doris!”—is absolutely hilarious. Darling’s furious scramble out of the room, complete with chair, once Blackadder is done with him is equally great.

Miranda Richardson is back here, playing Nurse Mary in an arc that is a variation on her “Amy And Amiability” storyline. Introduced as a saccharine love interest for George, Mary is revealed to be far more interesting and intelligent and a better match for Blackadder, only to be unmasked in the end as a villain. Of course, “General Hospital” takes things a step further and makes Blackadder completely mistaken in his accusations, costing him his clever, beautiful girlfriend and his cushy new job. Richardson is excellent here, making Mary a far more nuanced and interesting character than the heightened Amy. Her performance carefully walks the line, working equally well as a genuine blossoming romance and a dastardly manipulation and after the fabulous Queenie and psychotic Amy, it’s great to see Richardson in a more down to earth role. Given the dark tone of much of Blackadder Goes Forth, it’s surprising writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton don’t actually kill Mary off, even offscreen. It’s nice to know there’s a limit to the cynicism of this season.

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Once again, Baldrick’s role in the episode is limited, but as ever, Tony Robinson rises to the challenge and makes his few moments memorable. Baldrick’s continual mispronunciation of, “hostipals” is a source of simple humor and his inability to grasp the concept of I Spy is particularly delightful. Hugh Laurie is a lot of fun as the painfully unaware George and Stephen Fry’s delivery continues to make almost any dialogue work. Unfortunately, even Fry can’t save the late episode “pooh-pooh” exchange. It starts entertainingly enough, but by the third “pooh-pooh,” is trying too hard. It distracts, as does the episode’s earlier closeups of Darling, highlighting his twitch rather than allowing it to remain the comparatively subtle touch it’s best as. Fortunately, the rest of the episode is some of the best Blackadder of the season, and a lovely example of the show trying something a bit different before the end of the series.

Historical Hairsplitting: WWI saw many nurses serve with distinction, but among the most famous was Edith Cavell, a British nurse in Brussels who was executed in 1915 for helping Allied soldiers flee from German-occupied Belgium to the Netherlands. Cavell was one of a group arrested for this and, after confessing, she was sentenced to death, despite not having been charged with espionage. Cavell and the others are credited with helping around 200 men escape.

Cunning Plans: As far as Baldrick’s plans go, this episode’s is one of the more sensible—Baldrick recommends that Blackadder walk around the hospital asking everybody, “Are you a German spy?” and the eventual resolution of the arc is not much more subtle than this. Blackadder’s mistake is not in overestimating the Germans, but in not underestimating the British.

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Stray observations:

  • Blackadder has a lot of great moments here, but his, “Nah” after Mary’s, “I thought you loved me” is perhaps his best.
  • The Field Marshal Haig criticism continues here in the episode’s darkest scene. Melchett’s reaction to Blackadder’s familiarity with the Grand Plan, “total slaughter until everyone’s dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig, and their tortoise, Alan” is great, and his order to, “Hammer large pieces of crooked wood against all the windows!” prompts thoughts of a particularly witty and dry Blackadder zombie apocalypse movie.
  • Of the various dirty words discussed by Melchett, the most entertaining is easily, “job.”
  • While it aired 11 years after “Goodbyeee,” the 1999 millenium special, “Back & Forth,” is rather slight, and so rather than end on that note, I’m invoking reviewer’s prerogative and going to it first. And so…

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“Back & Forth”

Blackadder has some holiday fun

Created as a holiday special, “Back & Forth” is a diverting, if not laugh out loud, addition to the Blackadder canon. Closer in construction to “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” than “The Cavalier Years,” this special sees Lord Blackadder hosting a dinner party at the turn of the 21st century and falling victim to his own practical joke when the time machine he has Baldrick mock up to pull a fast one on his guests actually works. The two then travel through time, getting into scrapes and meeting historical figures. Much like “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,” the character winds up using his glimpses at the past and future to shape his destiny, and it’s great to see characters like Queenie, Nursie, and Lord Melchett return.

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The whole cast is fun, and Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson immediately feel at home as the latest Lord Blackadder and Baldrick, but the most welcome presence is the appearance, presumably for the final time, of Miranda Richardson as Queenie. While Blackadder’s attempt to distract her with a customer loyalty card is rather underwhelming, Queenie’s fascination with breath mints is a cute nod to history—Queen Elizabeth was known for her sweet tooth and eventually, her affinity for sugar led her teeth to rot—that fits well with the character’s persona.

The rest of the interactions are hit and miss, one of the most successful being Rik Mayall’s cameo as Robin Hood. This is the best possible use of Mayall’s Lord Flashheart persona—as an over the top, isolated, and very self-aware piece of a larger whole. Mayall’s energy is infectious, not overwhelming, and the scene is comfortable allowing the familiar jokes to land without excess punctuation. Equally fun is Lord Blackadder’s schoolboy revenge towards Shakespeare, with Colin Firth giving a delightfully flummoxed performance as the Bard. Other scenes are less effective. The stop at Hadrian’s wall seems to be included solely to allow Stephen Fry to show off his Latin chops, which is certainly an entertaining moment, but having this be the only scene to feature previous incarnations of Blackadder and Baldrick is distracting. Even more forgettable is the shoehorning in of Napoleon, though Blackadder’s horror at his creation of a French Britain is fun.

On the whole, this is a likeable, but utterly disposable installment of the series. It’s nice to check in with this talented cast once more, 11 years after the series finale, and see how easily the group slips back into their characters and comedic rhythms. Placing this special in the present, unlike “The Cavalier Years” and “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,” gives “Back & Forth” a strong feel of fan fiction, but this is a reunion show, intended as a bit of fun rather than a response to or continuation of the series four finale, and in that capacity, it works well.

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“Goodbyeee”

Blackadder says his final farewell

(Available streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Netflix)

Watching this episode is a singular experience. While the series reaches tremendous heights at various points in its run, each season bringing its own personality and flavor, nothing compares to what this finale is able to achieve. “Goodbyeee” is a masterpiece, a hilarious and painful crystallization of everything Blackadder does well. It is without a doubt the best episode of the series and more than that, it’s one of the best series finales in television history.

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From the opening moments, “Goodbyeee” stands out. For the first time, Capt. Blackadder, Pvt. Baldrick, and Lt. George stand outside in the rain, the dismal weather setting the tone for the rest of the episode. This will not be a cheery adventure about a pigeon or a farcical case of mistaken identity—the end has come and the show knows it. After this ominous introduction, however, the characters walk out of the rain. In its final episode, Blackadder will not become a dour, self-important drama, and once the stakes have been established, the writers and actors get right back to making the audience laugh. Perhaps the single most impressive element of “Goodbyeee” is its masterful balancing of comedy and tragedy. Both are interspersed throughout, with each character given moments of laugh out loud brilliance and poignant reflection.

Hugh Laurie gets the first opportunity to shine, George reminiscing about enlisting with his classmates and slowly realizing they’ve all died. The pathos of this moment is tempered, however, by the sheer ridiculousness of each of his friend’s names: Jacko, the Badger, Bumfluff… It’s impossible to take him seriously, yet impossible not to, and Laurie handles the scene superbly, deftly leaping back and forth from fond memories to crushing realizations, George never allowing himself to feel the full weight of what he’s saying.

Next up is Rowan Atkinson, who is remarkable throughout the episode, starting with his beautifully underplayed mad scene. Atkinson’s ability to make the simplest of words uproariously entertaining has been featured in several episodes of the series, but never as effectively as in this sequence, when “wibble” and “pah-pah” somehow become unimaginably funny. Blackadder’s confidence is a strong undercurrent throughout, allowing the audience to relax and enjoy Atkinson’s performance, and when it’s stripped away, his anxiety builds until it overtakes everything. Blackadder’s panic and anger are palpable and all too relatable. Just as he begins to crack, to take the episode to a point of no return, Baldrick mentions his Cunning Plan and Atkinson relaxes, letting the audience breathe once more.

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After being underused in the past several episodes, Tony Robinson finally takes center stage here. The secrets of Baldrick’s coffee service are amusing in their own right and set up perhaps the biggest laugh of the entire episode, Tim McInnerny’s perfectly delivered, “Ah! Cappuccino,” but Robinson is even better asking the questions so many would ponder on a night like this, giving them an earnest, pleading authenticity. The writers use the character incredibly well and his confusion allows Blackadder to expound organically on the war. The scene is a quiet one, the characters sitting around and contemplating the larger machine that brought them to this point; Blackadder’s, “it was too much effort not to have a war” is beautiful in its simplicity. It’s also delivered with a pair of underpants on Atkinson’s head and two pencils stuck up his nose—profound and scathing cynicism coming from a character with a tuft of hair sticking out of the crotch of his headgear of choice. It would be easy for an episode like this to veer into the maudlin or self-serious. Choices like this ensure it never does.

Much of “Goodbyeee” centers on the trio of Blackadder, Baldrick, and George, and rightly so, but two of its most significant exchanges are given to Capt. Darling. As mentioned above, McInnerny matches Atkinson’s underplayed style wonderfully while bantering over coffee, and later, he gives the episode its darkest moment, as Gen. Melchett sends Darling to the front. Like Blackadder’s underpants and pencils, this scene features a fantastic visual gag in the form of Melchett’s mustache net, and yet this touch of absurdity only adds to its power. While Melchett was getting ready for bed and lounging in his robe, Darling fell asleep at his desk, fretting over the men being sent to their deaths. Upon receiving his orders, McInnerny is an open wound, utterly vulnerable and desperate, yet completely unheard by his privileged superior, played with devastating obliviousness by Stephen Fry. Darling has been an annoying git all season, and yet in this moment, that fades away and all the audience is left with is his humanity.

This moment is further strengthened by its visual flourish as a spotlight shines on Darling, a light turned on by the driver waiting outside the office. As Darling looks on in horror, the man steps forward, his shadow creeping toward Darling over the rug, the long arm of the war reaching out to take him, set to the beat of a snare drum. The rest of the episode is shot very straightforwardly, giving the episode the feel of a stage play and putting the audience’s focus entirely on the words and performances. The laugh track, annoyingly juiced in much of season four, is comparatively subdued here and barring the aforementioned scene, there’s no music until the final moments’ return of the now plaintive theme. Director Richard Boden chooses these moments wisely, making his presence felt only when there are no words that can be said, when first Darling, then all of the men, face their fate.

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The episode’s final act, Blackadder’s failed last-ditch scheme and the men’s farewell, grows in weight as it progresses, finding ever-darkening humor in Field Marshal Haig’s tin soldiers and the contrast between his and Blackadder’s last campaign and their current one. With one last act of oppressive incompetence from the leadership, Blackadder resigns himself to his fate, and the episode does as well. All pretense falls away: Darling does not flinch at his name, George lets in his fear, and Doris, a punchline in “General Hospital,” suddenly feels like a real person. There are a few more jokes, each less effective than the last, and then in a final show of empathy, separating himself from the Melchetts and Haigs, Blackadder comforts Baldrick and ends the series not on a note of cynicism—the gut-wrenching, “Who would’ve noticed another madman around here?”—but one of hope, however measured and doubtful, “Good luck, everyone.”

It’s easy to imagine a different ending to Blackadder Goes Forth. Capt. Blackadder could’ve snuck away. He could’ve followed in his Blackadder The Third counterpart’s footsteps and maneuvered his way into the elite, leaving Baldrick and George behind. He could’ve been shot by friendly fire or refused to leave his trench while the rest of the men went over the top. There are a million ways the series could have ended, but anything other than the devastating one presented here would have been dishonest, and disrespectful of the sacrifice so many WWI soldiers made. Instead of taking an easy out, writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton embrace the insanity of the situation, and by showing its absurd humor along with its overwhelming bleakness, transcend genre to make a pointed, powerful statement about war and privilege.

Historical Hairsplitting: The Christmas Truce, mentioned by Baldrick, took place around Christmas Day in 1914, about five months into the war. It lasted for varying lengths along the Western Front and saw German and British soldiers walk across no-man’s land, sing carols, exchange gifts, and retrieve the bodies of their comrades. It was not repeated in subsequent years, with commanding officers threatening charges for anyone attempting to continue the tradition.

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Cunning Plans: Baldrick’s final Cunning Plan is one of his most straightforward—why not just phone the man in charge and ask to be let off the hook? For Baldrick, it would be useless, as he doesn’t have a personal connection to Field Marshal Haig, but luckily Blackadder does. Where this plan ultimately fails is that it puts faith in the command structure, shown to be a mistake continually throughout the season.

Stray observations:

  • For more thoughts on this episode, check out David Sims, Brandon Nowalk, Pilot Virulet, and Sonia Saraiya’s excellent TV Roundtable on it here.
  • Laurie’s reading of, “What madness is that?” kills me every time. His ability to make George likable and yet so completely unaware is impressive.
  • Baldrick polishing shoes with a rat is a nice callback to earlier incarnations of the character and Robinson’s nonchalance while doing so is fantastic as ever.
  • This episode features a quick shout out to Mrs. Miggins, which is particularly fitting considering the coffee sequence.
  • If Blackadder’s attire didn’t undercut the potentially preachy tone of his early episode diatribe, his succinct description of the pre-war plan, “It was bollocks” works nicely.
  • Fry thankfully gets one last glorious, “Bah!” in this episode. He has been an absolute delight throughout the season, and that remains unchanged here despite his more sinister role.
  • This episode gives a final painful nod to class privilege when Melchett offers to let George sit out the push, but sends Darling to his death. Despite Darling’s devotion to him, Melchett can only see him as an illegitimate son, not of the same ilk as himself and George.
  • I absolutely love this episode. It makes me laugh out loud, and then destroys me, every time. It’s quite possibly the funniest episode of the series, and it’s certainly the most dramatic. What I find most remarkable about it, though, is that every time I watch it, I like it more. I find new depth and humor. I feel strongly there is no such thing as a perfect television show or episode, but “Goodbyeee” comes dang close.

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