Sunday, April 29, 2018

REVIEW: 'Howards End' - Tragedy Strikes and Forces Everyone to Reevaluate Their Lives in 'Episode 4'

Starz's Howards End - Episode 1.04 "Episode 4"

Refusing to punish Henry for his past transgressions, Margaret resolves to uphold their engagement. Helen unexpectedly leaves for Europe. The Schlegels, the Wilcoxes and Leonard Bast have a final encounter.

Do people ever really change? That has proven to be a central theme of Howards End. If the answer is yes, then what are the requirements for doing so? Does it only take one life-changing event for someone to completely change their minds? Or is it a much more gradual process over time where a bunch of little details are able to challenge one's preconceived notions about an idea? This story has seen the characters evolve in a number of ways. It has brought them closer together while also threatening to rip them apart. They were each confronted with who they truly are in the fiber of their beings. They were forced to address certain emotions and realities of their lives that they have never delved into before. It highlights the tragedy that is life at this specific moment in time. It tells the story of one man who never really connected with the world around him in an emotionally healthy and stable way until the end of his life. And yet, that doesn't mean he never found love or happiness. It just took him a really long time to truly embrace the views he cherishes and what he expects from the world around him. He doesn't understand the power of his words and actions until tragedy ultimately strikes. But that also doesn't make him an inherently bad or troubled person. That's certainly one reflection of him. Helen goes on quite a journey in her feelings towards Henry Wilcox. In the beginning, she marvels at his business skills and practical nature. Then, she withdraws after seeing that he's mostly a shell of a man. Then, she's appalled by how poorly he treats the less fortunate. That anger threatens to divide her family because Helen so passionately believes in helping Leonard Bast. But it all eventually winds up with acceptance. Helen accepts that Henry is a trouble man with regrets about his life but that shouldn't stop him from continuing to provide for his family and be loved by those closest to him. It's such a fascinating journey largely told through how much Margaret is willing to forgive and accept about the people closest to her.

Last week's episode closed with the revelation that Jacky Bast was Henry's mistress a long time ago. It was a twist that could threaten to ruin all of the personal relationship he has worked so hard to cultivate over the years. In fact, it could be most damaging to his engagement with Margaret. She is only one of a few people who understands the truth. Helen reacts in anger because she just sees a man in a position of power who abused a women and then did nothing to help her survive in this brutal world. Instead, he chose to return to his family without really connecting with any of them. He was still completely shut off to the rest of the world even though everyone valued his confidence and business opinion in any given situation. But it's more important for Margaret to find the strength to forgive him. Henry doesn't see himself as a man who deserves forgiveness. And he may not. The show paints a complicated portrait of relationships and the idea of acceptance. This is still shocking news to Margaret. But it doesn't change her perception of Henry at all. She has accepted that he has his faults. She knows that she'll never be able to change him nor will he change her. That's a sad way to look at the world though. It's also completely against what ultimately happens in the story as Henry does change because Margaret forces him to look at the world differently. She forgives him. She continues to pull him in close. She does so because she has made the commitment to love him. It's a relationship that puts so much distance between her and Helen. And yet, she is willing to put in the work to ensure that things remain as civil and stable as possible.

But the damage is still done because of these revelations. Helen is willing to flee to Germany in order to escape this life in London that no longer makes any sense to her. She was so passionate about helping Leonard. She believes she has too much in this world. It's not fair that she was given so much while others are struggling just to get by. She wants to help Leonard but he continues to be a very prideful man. Her escape to Germany does very little to ease the situation either. In fact, it puts a great deal of distance between the bonds of this family. Margaret and Tibby love Helen very much. Their bond as siblings is very strong. Margaret still feels the need to look after her family no matter what even though Helen is in Germany and Tibby has returned to school. But it also seems like Helen is completely unwilling to forgive all that has happened in England. She just wants to run away from life. She isn't really responding to any of the letters sent to her. Nor is she welcoming to anyone in the family wanting to visit her in Germany. She only eventually returns because Aunt Juley is sick with pneumonia. It's an illness that isn't life-threatening at all. Margaret definitely conveys that in her letters as well. It's not as dire as they initially suspected. It's still so heartwarming to see the family gathered to support Aunt Juley during this time of illness. But Helen is still absent. That forces Margaret and Tibby to be very worried about her. As such, it creates this whole miscommunication about them possibly thinking she has gone mad and should spend some time in an asylum.

Of course, that's not the reason why Helen has kept her distance from the family. Instead, she is ashamed because she is pregnant and unwed. That's such a destructive act in this culture. Women are looked down upon during this time for having sex outside of marriage. It's perfectly alright for men to have affairs without worrying about it affecting their reputation. But for Helen, it's a costly mistake. The Wilcoxes feel the need to defend her virtue by hurting the man responsible for her new condition. They need to follow the rules of society even though in doing so leads to inevitable tragedy. The Schlegels understand that the world is so much more rich and nuanced than that. This spark of connection led to this moment for Helen. Margaret just feels the need to care for her sister. She needs her to know that she doesn't wish to hurt her or abuse her for her sins. She wants to love and nurture her during this chaotic time. She just wants to spend one night in Howards End with her. She wants that permission from Henry. He refuses to give it because he just wishes to see Helen as this heathen who fell into this very unfortunate situation. He sees the importance of not coddling her while trying to defend her honor. He doesn't see how she can be forgiven. She will always be seen as damaged in this world. But this isn't conductive to the situation at all. Margaret needs to be with her sister. She'll do so no matter what. She wishes to include her husband in the proceedings. But she isn't able to reason with him. Instead, they just lash out at each other with Margaret spending the night in Howards End anyway and Henry sending Charles to clean up this situation. It's just pure chaos that leads to Leonard's shocking death because he is the father and he has gone up to Howards End to sort all of this out with Helen. It's so unexpected but it becomes a moment that will forever change the lives of all of these characters.

As such, it's very curious to see the action then jump forward a couple of years in time. It's important to know that Margaret has once again forgiven Henry for his transgressions. She has proven to be a very forgiving person who is willing to stand by her husband no matter what because she understands the complexities of the life he has lived. She knows just how painful it is to see what his actions have ultimately cost him. She is aware of the turmoil in his life. She continues to have sympathy for him. Helen is able to forgive him as well. The Schelegels are able to build a life for themselves with the Wilcoxes. They are able to live together peacefully in the home that Henry and Margaret have built for themselves. They are surrounded by the beauty of the world as well as their family. It's a stunning conclusion to the series because it proves that characters can fundamentally change over time. It's more of an arduous process for some though. At the end of the story, Henry is once again a man overcome with grief. He is tired from a life of questionable decisions that could have resulted in hurting many people. He is happy with the family that he has made for himself. But he also understands that everything is not as it should be. He is trying to make up for that with his final act. He decides to give Howards End to Margaret in his will. It's what Mrs. Wilcox wanted all those years ago. Margaret finally becomes aware of that as well. The Wilcoxes were always very suspicious about Margaret having some ulterior motive to steal this property from them even though they didn't care about it at all. The show kept coming up with more and more situations were it felt right for the Schlegels to move into Howards End. And now, it's important to note that it finally is passed along to Margaret with the only condition being that Helen and Leonard's son inherits it after her death. It's Henry trying to make up for his mistakes. It's the characters trying to create a better future while being content with the present despite the various struggles they have dealt with over the course of their complicated lives. And that is immensely beautiful.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode 4" was written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Hettie Macdonald.
  • The flash-forward is mostly to give an update on those characters most personally affected by Helen's unexpected pregnancy and Leonard's death. As such, nothing is really shared about what happened to Aunt Juley, Tibby or Jacky in those years later. Of course, it was probably better for the show to focus on the most important characters in that moment instead of needing to give an update on the fates of everyone across the show.
  • Of course, it's also sad to think about what happens to Jacky Bast. The last time she sees her husband is when he is getting up very early in the morning to go to some mysterious destination. She doesn't know about his relationship with Helen or their baby. She just learns after the fact that he has been killed by a bookcase falling on top of him. She could possible get some comfort out of knowing that a heart condition probably would have killed him soon as well. But it's still a tragic outcome that probably spiraled her even further into poverty.
  • Tibby has so many wonderful reactions throughout this series. Here, it continues to be so delightful seeing him interacting with these other characters even though he doesn't understand them in the slightest. He would much rather study Chinese than get caught up in all of this drama. And yet, he needs to help Helen as she plots her escape to Germany as well as ensure she gets the help she needs after being missing for several months.
  • Charles just wanted his father's approval. He was so desperate to get it he became the person he believed his father wanted him to be instead of his own individual man. That's a tragedy as well. He was living in the shadow of a man who could never communicate how he was genuinely feeling until it was too late. Charles built a life for himself. His wife stands by him as well. But his reputation will be forever tarnished by his time in prison for manslaughter.
  • I genuinely don't know if Starz will able to produce an effective awards campaign for Howards End. The limited series race has become much more competitive over the last few years. It's now incredibly difficult to get into those categories. This show absolutely deserves to be mentioned because it was so entertaining as a unique examination of life. The performances, writing and direction were all stellar. Now, we'll just have to see if it can get any more buzz that way or will just have to be content with the few people who have watched it since its debut.