Sunday, April 8, 2018

REVIEW: 'Howards End' - Margaret Receives an Invitation to Howards End by Mrs. Wilcox in 'Episode 1'

Starz's Howards End - Episode 1.01 "Episode 1"

Margaret Schlegel receives a letter from her sister Helen, who is visiting the Wilcox family at Howards End. A misunderstanding sets in motion events which intertwine the lives of the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and the Basts.

I knew nothing about Howards End heading into its premiere tonight. Of course, I was aware of several of the actors in the series - including Hayley Atwell, Philippa Coulthard, Alex Lawther, Tracey Ullman, Matthew Macfadyen and Julia Ormond. They've given terrific performances elsewhere and are captivating to watch here as well. I also knew that Kenneth Lonergan wrote the series and Hettie Macdonald directed it. And yet, I have neither read the novel the series is based on or seen the Academy Award-winning film adaptation from the 1990s. It's clear that there is a bunch of history with this material. The book is considered as one of E.M. Forster's best while the film has received praise of its own. It seems like a daunting task for this creative team and collection of actors to find their own spin on the material. However, this is such a lovely and welcoming first episode. It doesn't feature a whole ton of plot. I'm not abundantly clear where things are going. There are some machinations going on to ensure that the lives of these three families will forever be changed because of their interactions with one another. But right now, the highlight of the show is the relationships between the characters. This opening hour is almost entirely about the characters and how they feel about any given thing that happens in their lives. It points out how these three families are extremely different. Some have money and some don't. Some argue about politics and sports while others are fans of the arts. There doesn't appear to be any common threads amongst them. And yet, they are drawn to each other as well because they represent differing points of view. It's a show fundamentally about the changing of the world and the ideas that shape generations. Every character is entitled to their beliefs. They are welcoming to discussion. Their lives are richer for it and that makes this show incredibly timely in a world that has gotten only more chaotic and stuck in its ways.

Of course, there are some plot details that happen before the premiere takes place just so the show can enter in on the exciting action. Margaret and Helen Schlegel first met Henry Wilcox during their most recent trip to Germany. It's there where Helen was invited to stay with the Wilcox family at Howards End, their family home. The opening moments of this premiere take the audience on quite a journey as Helen lays out in detail what the relationships of this family are actually like as she just observes them in their natural habitat. She sees a family that is obsessed with sports and practicing to be the best. The Wilcoxes are a family that enjoys going on grand adventures and seeing the world. Helen views them as worldly and so vastly different than the life she has ever known. She is inspired by the family structure of the household. When she is debating with Henry, she sees him as the man in charge of the house whose opinions dictate the beliefs of the entire family. He can engage in a spirited discussion with her about equality and how it may just be a fool's dream because the world will never treat all people equally. Then, she notes that Mrs. Wilcox is the one who actually controls this family. She's the one who can change the mood of a conversation just by injecting a few little words. She's the one everyone adores and aims to please. She's also the one who has a close personal attachment to Howards End because it is the home she has known for her entire life. All of these personal details are exposition at the top of the hour. And yet, they are so crucial to the audience's understanding of this world and its structures as well.

It's then all made more complicated by Helen falling in love with the youngest Wilcox son, Paul, for a day. She becomes so infatuated with him so quickly. But just as soon as the spark ignites, it is extinguished. It happens apparently because Mrs. Wilcox doesn't wish it to happen so that Paul can focus on his upcoming adventure in Africa. Helen can sense this change in mood the moment she heads downstairs for breakfast. She is so eloquent in speaking to Margaret about what happened. She just knows what happened and didn't need Paul to tell her or apologize for leading her on. She was still devastated. But she also understood why this had happened. Of course, it leads to a misunderstanding where Margaret believes she needs to go to Howards End in order to talk some sense into her sister or see if this is a genuine relationship that could work. She's unable to make that journey because her younger brother, Tibby, is too sick and needs to be looked after. So instead, she sends her Aunt Juley. Tracey Ullman is just such a delight in this role. She just doesn't understand how her family could invite so many people to their home for spirited discussions about subjects that shouldn't really be discussed. She's annoyed that Margaret hasn't gotten married yet. She believes she's wasting away her life. And yet, she's also completely willing to make this journey to drag Helen back home because this engagement can't be something that lasts. It turns out she doesn't have to put up much of a fight though. She's welcomed to Howards End for the day and is able to bring Helen back home with her. This visit was fun. But now, it's time for the family's orders to be restored back to normal.

That's what makes it such a surprise when the Wilcoxes show up moving into a flat just across the street from the Schlegels. This time though Helen isn't the sister interacting with them and forming a deep connection. Instead, that honor belongs to Margaret. It's curious why the Wilcoxes decided to move into this flat if they all had plans to leave shortly thereafter. Only Mrs. Wilcox was left behind. She was in a home she didn't love in a community that was strange and foreign to her. Margaret represented the only semi-connection she had to the world around her. Even then, it seemed very tenuous and unlikely to flourish into a relationship. Margaret wrote a letter saying that it may be best to avoid one another because of the awkwardness of Helen and Paul's brief fling. And yet, both Helen and Paul are out of the country. In fact, it seems like both Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox are left all alone in order to take care of their homes and themselves. It's a potentially isolating lifestyle as well. That's a good explanation for why a dynamic flourishes between them. It's so loving to watch unfold as well. Earlier, Margaret was talking about being challenged by the world around her and her beliefs. She was proud of her support for the arts and the conversations she could have about equality and the way the world should be run. But she welcomes some friction and opposition in order to be a more fully-formed person and not someone her small corner of the world has shaped in isolation. Mrs. Wilcox represents her first breakthrough into the other aspects of the world and how the generations see things differently. Mrs. Wilcox enjoys the spirited discussions that Margaret and her friends can have over lunch. And yet, Mrs. Wilcox still believes those conversations are best left to the men. She still holds power and respect. She still yearns to speak up more. But it also seems like these two are kindred spirits who are unable to tell the other their true feelings.

Mrs. Wilcox welcomes Margaret fully into her life. The two share so many personal details with one another. Margaret notes that she has no real connection to the home she has always lived in. She doesn't view it the same way that Mrs. Wilcox views Howards End. She wishes she could see herself the same way that Mrs. Wilcox does. These two women are so encouraging to one another. They push each other to get out and see the world - even if it's just for holiday shopping. Mrs. Wilcox invites Margaret to Howards End knowing that she would appreciate it more than her family currently does. Margaret even knows what Howards End looks like. Helen offered several details of the building's physical structure in her early letters. And yet, it's also apparent that the story is purposefully keeping Margaret away from Howards End. She is unable to visit Helen there to discuss her relationship with Paul because Tibby was sick. That illness ultimately didn't become anything life-threatening. Later on, Margaret has to turn down an invitation because she believes she has family responsibilities at home she needs to take care of. Of course, those don't amount to anything. They are just a convenient excuse to give. She still ultimately chases Mrs. Wilcox down. She gets on a train to visit Howards End. She reunites with her at the station. Mrs. Wilcox is so happy when she turns around and sees Margaret. She's so excited to share this piece of the world that means so much to her. Then, she turns around again and is surprised by her family. They have returned from their adventures around the world. As such, Mrs. Wilcox has her own familial responsibilities to look after. And so, it's tragic that Margaret made this journey only to have immediately go back home. It's disappointing while also making it clear that this connection between the two is the heart of this entire series.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode 1" was written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Hettie Macdonald.
  • When the Schlegels attend the symphony, Aunt Juley is worried about the mysterious man sitting next to Helen. She is worried because she doesn't want anyone to hurt her. She's worrying over nothing because Helen is ultimately the one whose actions make an impact. She accidentally runs away with the man's umbrella. As such, Margaret has to invite Leonard Bast back to their home to retrieve it.
  • It should be very interesting to see how Leonard becomes involved with more of this story moving forward. It's clear that Margaret and Helen share a spark of connection with him. And yet, he quickly runs away after getting his umbrella. He returns to a poorer neighborhood in London to a wife who clearly loves him. But he's also ashamed to be keeping a secret from her.
  • It's also notable that Leonard's wife is Jacky, a woman of color. That's a relationship that could be quite scandalous in this particular time. It feels like something that will definitely inspire a complex discussion. The show is very careful to include people of color in various different ways. The inclusion is important while it only seeming pivotal to the story in regards to Leonard and Jacky.
  • Margaret doesn't actually meet Mrs. Wilcox until she comes storming into her room in the middle of the day to apologize. All of her previous interactions were with Henry. Helen is the one who knows the entire family. Margaret just knows of them. But once she meets Mrs. Wilcox, she quickly forms a new friendship where she can bare her soul and not feel any judgment whatsoever.
  • Of course, it's also very ominous to see just how much time Mrs. Wilcox spends in her bed. She takes a lot of days where she is just sick. It's something mostly noted in her off camera remarks. And yet, it still shades her first interaction with Margaret. Plus, she's slow moving in the rest of the episode as well. So, this connection may not last as long as either of them wants.