“In the final analysis, The Casual Vacancy was constructed so that when three characters walk past a small, unaccompanied boy who is wandering between a dangerous river and a road, we understand why none of them stopped to ask him why he was alone, or take charge of him. I chose each of these characters carefully.
Gavin represents the utter apathy for which it is necessary (in the famous quotation) for evil to flourish. He cannot even remember seeing Robbie Weedon after he hears that he has drowned, nor is he troubled by the thought that he must have walked very close to the boy during his final moments.
Samantha represents the rush of everyday troubles that prevents basically well-intentioned people from concentrating on matters that do not directly concern them. She subsequently admits to having seen Robbie and feels deep remorse at not having acted. Samantha is also honest enough to acknowledge to herself that Robbie’s appearance made her less likely to help him.
Shirley represents a degree of unkindness that stems from her own basic insecurity, because her background is not so very far removed from the Weedons. I think it is very common for such people to be among the most critical and judgmental. She – not Howard – is Barry Fairbrother’s true opposite in the novel. Denying her roots and castigating those who remind her of them, she is the negative image of the man who admits where he came from and goes back to try and help others. Shirley not only sees Robbie and ignores him as she grapples with her own problems, she feels no remorse afterwards, merely heaping blame on others for the child’s death.
An interesting question is whether Howard would have stopped to help Robbie. I’d be fascinated to know what readers think, but I’m sure he would have done. Howard is a happy man, which makes a difference; happy people are often kinder than the unhappy.”
– J.K. Rowling, on July 25 2013
The ending is the conceit. The ending defines all that came before. The ending is whether everything is tied into a neat little bow and we are invited to marvel at how perfectly all the disparate elements have come together. The ending of this particular work is so important, in fact, that it seems almost pointless to even discuss any of the events that are featured in this final adaptation prior. This may seem like a bizarre statement to make, since the events leading up to the climax of any work are generally what allows it to flourish, not to mention come into existence in the first place, but so little of the original book that contributed to the events you know, actually mattering has been retained that it seems more fitting to simply recap everything that pads out the first 40 minutes, and then move on to discussing what’s really important: the climax.
It opens the same way they all open: we get peaceful shots of the Pagford countryside, with endless footage of Vikram jogging, which is supposed to be important for reasons that will only be revealed later. Tessa is demeaning Colin for hyperventilating on the day of the election, because here she’s a horrible wife and Colin doesn’t have OCD to provide context for any of this. Also, when Fats taunts his stepfather, Tessa asks “Do you believe in anything, Stuart?” to which he replies, “I put all my faith in doritos.”
Huh, I thought Fats believed in this:
The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest, it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.
It’s almost as if Sarah Phelps is willfully disposing of the brief bits about “authenticity” being thrown about by Fats and Krystal and admitting his character has no meaning anymore.
They also appear to be throwing in the “wives at war with their husbands” card at random now. Dr. Jawanda and Vikram are now bitterly angry at each other out of nowhere, presumably because of Dr. Jawanda’s outburst at Howard, but she’s the one suspended, it doesn’t affect Vikram at all, and she accuses him of having no code of ethics, which makes absolutely no sense and is irrelevant to anything.
Shortly after this Mary unloads her anger against her dead husband on Colin. This illustrates Barry’s failings as opposed to his virtues, at least, but Mary also says, “Everyone grows up next door to someone. It doesn’t mean you have to look after them for the rest of their bloodsucking lives,” which puts BARRY FAIRBROTHER’S OWN WIDOW IN DIRECT FUCKING AGREEMENT WITH THE GODDAMN MOLLISONS. So instead of this being a case of Barry’s human faults in not being able to keep his attentions everywhere, it turns all the way to “OMG BARRY WHAT IS YOUR TASTES.” She also exhibits borderline insane paranoia by repeatedly insisting that Barry’s passion for keeping Sweetlove House open directly led to his aneurysm and telling Colin the exact same thing will happen to him. Which means Colin is forced to actually be the voice of reason and convince her otherwise…. and everything is specifically designed to be the exact opposite of the book which is a shame because the book actually had solid coherent characterization so now you have the exact opposite of that. why must i keep writing after that ugh.
On the Mollison side of things, pointless conflict between Samantha and Shirley occurs when Shirley searches the former’s computer history to find evidence of her being the Ghost and provokes her further by taunting her for being an alcoholic and encouraging her children to turn against her.
We do get some more flashbacks of Barry trying to help Krystal and Robbie out, which are nice and show the positive effect he had on their lives. There’s also a strange scene added where Krystal and Terri have a brief bonding experience sitting outside after Krystal and Fats have apparently broken up.
Yes, you read that right. Because apparently we need to ruin everything about the original work, Andrew and Fats’ friendship doesn’t dissolve just because Andrew is a fairly normal teenager who actually has some morals – no, it breaks up because as Fats says when he confronts Andrew outside Howard’s deli, “you always said that no female would come between us as mates” and admits that his relationship with Krystal is purely sexual. So instead of a platonic friendship between two males naturally breaking off, we have instead the most blatantly homoerotic relationship since Batman and Robin. Well done, Sarah Phelps. Bravo.
Krystal and Fats break up because Krystal realizes this and asks Fats “What’s wrong with him having a girlfriend?” But this is actually a good thing, isn’t it? Because now how will the ending come about if Krystal has nowhere to go and no boyfriend to fool around with to get her and Robbie away from the rape, prostitution, and drug abuse that constitutes their abusive, dysfunctional home life?
I’m going to leave that question open for now because GUESS WHAT IT’S ELECTION TIME. Fats is smoking marijuana outside the building where the voting is being held, and offering it to the voters who go in, while being quick to remind them who his parent is. Because he wants to get himself thrown in jail, I guess. Except that instead of calling the police or complaining to someone inside, the hoi polloi of Pagford huff and puff and mutter “Disgraceful” under their breaths as they come inside. Because we have literally turned into a cartoon, I’m surprised Colin doesn’t run out at this point and chase his son while the Benny Hill music plays. Except that Colin should actually be clapping his son on the back yelling “Good job” because he ACTUALLY CHOOSES TO VOTE FOR MILES.
I feel like I have to add at this point to all the readers who live in countries without access to this miniseries that I am literally not making that up. You heard me. Instead of the wonderfully triumphant scene where Kay comes to Colin’s house and encourages him to go off giddy as schoolchildren to vote for him, Colin willingly chooses to vote for his competitor. We do at least get the glorious shot of Samantha marking “You’re all wankers” on the ballot and tossing it in the box at any rate, but that only highlights the fact that Colin should be doing that. It honestly makes no sense. Barry was supposed to be this grand inspiring figure from beyond the grave. It’s bad enough his widow doesn’t even support what he fought for, but now COLIN IS VOTING FOR THE PERSON WHOSE MAIN PARTY PLATFORM IS “I OPPOSE EVERYTHING BARRY FAIRBROTHER WANTED TO PASS”. The whole reason Colin ran was because he didn’t want Barry’s legacy to “go up in smoke”! If he doesn’t believe in himself, then why not WALK AWAY QUIETLY WITHOUT VOTING AT ALL. Did you even consider that, Colin? Holy Jesus Christ.
Matters are made infinitely worse by the fact that Colin literally ends up voting himself out of office. Yes, tell me how likely the outcome of an election is that a wacky school principal would ever come one vote away from a member of the Kennedys being elected (especially when said potential parish councilor’s son and influence on the kids you enrolled in his school is smoking weed right outside). Do please go on.
Following that, we get some more strange changes: Rather than getting fired for his illegal practices, Simon bizarrely gets promoted to management where he can lay off other people (this is the company’s response to hearing him being slandered online for theft?????????) and Samantha leaves Miles with a note.
So that all leads up to Howard’s birthday party. I used 4 bullet points to describe what happened there in the book. Here, I can use 3:
- Fats shows up and tries to apologize to Andrew. Gaia encourages them to hug and make up, so they do. It doesn’t matter, though, because they actually keep Fats and Gaia kissing (this time, while high and drunk) and subsequently breaking away so Gaia can throw up, of course. This last part doesn’t really matter, though, because it comes after Andrew catches them and is so furious he literally just smashes a perfectly good bottle of wine for no reason at all.
- Shirley and Howard congratulate Miles on winning the election, and assure him he can do much better remarrying someone else. Earlier we had a scene where Miles whined and complained about one of his posters being vandalized, but now he just stares and reacts to all that’s going on around him, well aware of how little a role he really played in all this as an actual personality. However, we do get a scene after this that’s actually fairly shocking and at least well-acted. It’s the only thing I can actually come close to liking in the whole hour. Samantha actually comes back and confronts Shirley for trying to turn the family against her, telling her she won’t go along with her game. (Hurray, a character decision/narrative development that actually makes sense!) And Shirley’s response is shocking. She brings up the fact that Samantha apparently was not providing for her children when she was born because she was “very ill” (perhaps an alcoholic?) and Shirley had to step in. Shirley insists that the children don’t love Samantha and blames her for that, encouraging her to leave them. But Miles has actually witnessed this whole conversation, apparently. To be honest, I was hoping for a lot more. I was hoping this would be the moment Miles finally stepped up and did something. Samantha did most of the work already, though, but he does take Samantha away carefully, and cow his mother into submission by not backing down and saying just this: “Aubrey and Julia Sweetlove. You do know they’re not coming. Don’t you?” The implication being that she doesn’t have the social clout and isn’t nearly as admired as she thinks she is, and that she perhaps isn’t any more important than him in the grand scheme, something only Samantha could admit in the book. It’s a little step for a man of 43, but it sows the seeds for him really standing up for himself. I have to admit, this is one of the few additions I really enjoyed. It still seems like a bit too little, too late, though. But Samantha and Miles getting back together was something that never really fit or made sense to me in the book, either, so I won’t get into that.
- Add to the list of missing characters: Patricia “Black Sheep Lezzy” Mollison. Which is a bit strange, considering the BBC doesn’t mind gay alien couple smooching on Doctor Who. But this isn’t a change that matters much, though, because Andrew catches Howard and Maureen fooling around himself now (although the book implied this mainly went on in the past), and he records them on his phone.
So now, the seeds have all been sown for the finale. Let’s discuss what’s really important. I quoted Rowling’s explanation of her ending at the opening of my review. Here’s her admirable literary adapter’s, in the interest of fairness:
“I was very straight with Jo and told her that I needed to write a different ending. It’s still heartbreaking, but I had to find some kind of redemptive moment at the end of it all, that sense that after the tragedy, someone gets to stand with a slightly straighter back.
Also, what works in a novel doesn’t always work on screen. Nobody wants a finger wagged in their face, and I learnt on EastEnders that if you just go ‘grim, grim, grim’, viewers will simply disengage.
If you’ve invested three hours of your leisure time to watch a show and get involved, there’s got to be reward. You’ve got to think that it was worth it and that the characters aren’t just a pack of s—s; they’ve got to be a little bit funny, a little bit understandable.”
So what are we left with, then?
Well, Kay was re-assigned as the Weedons’ social worker, and they are being forced to relocate to Yarvil. Obbo does not rape Krystal in this version, however. Krystal comes home to find Terri partying with her junkie friends, on the verge of smoking crack cocaine while telling her to loosen up. Obbo is there, out of prison, and he chases Krystal to her bedroom, but she manages to get away from him. He just warns her she’ll have to talk to him eventually, “because the thing is, Krystal, you’ve got nowhere else to go.” So I will give them credit for one thing: it’s clear how trapped Krystal is in her own life. Her hopes went out the window when Barry died, that much is clear.
But what I can’t forgive is what they build off of this. Krystal leaves with Robbie first thing in the morning, and since she and Fats are broken up now, instead of fucking him, she tries to put her plan from the book into effect but in the form of going to the Cubby Hole (where Fats just happens to be by sheer chance) and claims she’s pregnant and needs the house from his parents. Since that would all go down the drain once no baby turns up, it seems likely Krystal is actually supposed to be pregnant in reality. She doesn’t give any signs of it, so this is just confusing and stupid right off the bat. From there, it gets worse.
Fats responds the way you would expect, so Krystal goes to check on Robbie. However, he hasn’t actually gone in the water, at all, but Krystal sees his shoe in the river and jumps in to find him. She gets tangled in the wires of the computer Andrew and Simon threw in, and drowns. Robbie is found by Vikram and taken safely away. Andrew and Simon are randomly driving by for no reason, and they get out and realize what happened. So Simon (ONE OF TWO CHARACTERS SPECIFICALLY LABELED BY ROWLING AS “COMPLETELY BEYOND REDEMPTION”) gazes upon the consequences of his actions and feels genuine remorse and shock.
As for the Mollison front, it might as well be a soap opera akin to the one our writer so diligently worked on for the better part of a decade and more in the past, as Shirley dramatically confronts Howard looking like a possessed witch as she shows him the visual evidence of his adultery against her while he collapses of a heart attack, demonic music playing in the background as if it is beckoning them all to the gates of Lucifer himself. Then we are left with one last pointless scene, where it is clear Howard has survived in good health as opposed to the book’s ambiguity as to whether he would ever be able to leave. Which would make for a good tying up of his narrative arc here, but instead he sees the grim reaper one last time, because apparently Sarah Phelps thinks most people in hospitals who’ve just suffered heart attacks don’t. It goes to show he’s such a happy man who would have stepped in and saved the day, too.
Sukhvinder has been left with no narrative purpose at all, so rather than being a fitting climax to a character’s dramatic arc, we have one character we never paid attention to in the first place stepping in like the classic deux ex machina to save a person’s life because it would be really really sad if he didn’t do that, not because it has anything to do with what we know about him as a character in the past. It would just be too upsetting to watch people act the way we expect them to on Sunday afternoon BBC telly.
No voice for the raped, no voice for the self-abusive, no voice for the children who died before they were even able to become teenagers.
So what are we left with, at the end of all this? Krystal Weedon did not die as a decision to join her brother in the afterlife, trapped in the heroin-filled den of misery she tried to escape, as a culmination of her failed attempts to make life worthwhile for them both. She died away from all that due to a stupid freak accident that could have been avoided because despite supposedly loving her brother she didn’t bring him in the Cubby Hole with her for absolutely no reason. Fats being berated by Tessa and comforted by Colin is retained at least, but it doesn’t make any sense since he couldn’t have even known Robbie was there in the first place. There are no 3 people walking by to make us question the apathy of the human condition. According to Dr. Jawanda, “Anyone would have done the same.” So we have nothing to contemplate, nothing to make us question how things could have gone differently. What we are left with is 3 hours of our lives sucked away to watch, in the words of Shakespeare, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
And why? Because, by the admission of the writer who wrote all this, it would be challenging to the viewers to make them question their own lives and make them so angry at what they’ve seen on screen that they think about why 2 innocent children died in the hopes they could make a difference in their own community. It was only Colin’s fault he didn’t get elected to keep the addiction clinic open and a good person stepped in to save a 3-year-old’s life, when the novel already gave us the kindly empathetic dog-walker who stepped in to act, long after it was too late.
Norman Lear wrote in his book Even This I Get to Experience, “Wait a second. Who said the comedies that preceded All in the Family had no point of view? The overwhelming majority of them were about families whose biggest problem was ‘The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner!’ Or ‘Mother dented the fender and how is she going to tell Father?’ Talk about messaging! For twenty years-until AITF came along-TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view!”
And he fought hard in 1971 against a whole network just to get one line of dialogue passed because of the precedent it would set, when only a few mainstream critics bothered to care at the time. Sarah Phelps chose to make people feel good about themselves and about all people in the world because it would be too risky to try to get away with something else on television in the year 2015. That would be scary. That would make her something close to an important writer who knew how to manipulate the medium she chose to work in to influence the masses in ways she couldn’t manage to when she was writing her soap opera for 14 years. That would be too much work and too much at stake.
The last glimpse we get into the world of Pagford is a happy couple moving into the peaceful community, being told they’re “Pagford people” by the realtor. This is fitting, because it signifies that in 3 hours, the story ultimately never got past the main premise: “Behind the pretty facade, however, is a town at war….. Pagford is not what it first seems.” Phelps seems to think a 16-year-old boy having the girl he has a schoolboy crush on smile and sit next to him on the bus while the “Glory Hallelujah” choir plays as if it’s the second coming of Christ somehow makes that all easier to handle, though, so there you go.
Fuck you, Sarah Phelps. And fuck you to the BBC. You took God knows how much of my life that could have been better used and obligated me to spend it watching, rewatching, taking notes on, writing about, television not worth the name, just to compose rants that only a handful of people on the Internet will ever care about at best, but are still ultimately more thoughtful, passionate, and driven that anything you could ever hope to produce.
Markus Zusak, you’re looking better every day.