Paths cross when the Tsar throws a ball

By Kelly Connolly
January 26, 2016 at 05:35 PM EST
Laurie Sparham/BBC

There’s a reason duels have gone the way of burning people at the stake and avoiding white after Labor Day: They’re ridiculous. (I hear there’s a hit musical about them.) War and Peace’s second installment asks how we justify violence: How do ideals like honor and glory hold up when they come at the expense of the lives of others? For Pierre, they don’t — though he’d have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d come to that realization a few hours earlier.

Pierre doesn’t even know how to hold a pistol (“If you could just remind me, you point it and…?”), but he goes through with his duel with Dolokhov anyway. In a stroke of beginner’s luck, he makes the shot. Dolokhov doesn’t die, but he does get even more ornery and vengeful, and Pierre loses his moral compass, throwing a table (!) in Helene’s general direction before retreating to the countryside. On his travels, he meets a Freemason and turns to religion — in a ceremony that involves having a bunch of swords pointed at him — but his philanthropic new life philosophy only makes it easier for Pierre to live with himself. He still isn’t happy.

To lift his spirits, Pierre pays a visit to Andrei because Andrei’s a real bundle of laughs right now. After surviving a bayonet to the side, Andrei returned home on the same night his wife went into labor. He only had time to kiss Lise’s head before being ushered out of the room — and Lise didn’t survive childbirth. Now, disillusioned with the pursuit of wartime glory, Andrei spends his days raising his son and otherwise helping out around the house, but he’s consumed with remorse. He ignored his wife, and now he can never make it right.

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Andrei’s father suggests that he pay a visit to Count Rostov. Russia is at peace after brokering a treaty with Napoleon, but they’re maintaining an army just in case, and Rostov hasn’t recruited enough men to the cause. The Rostov family has been struggling since the duel; Nikolai used his father’s money to support Dolokhov during his recovery, only to wind up on Dolokhov’s bad side after Dolokhov proposed to Sonya — who rejected his proposal because she’s still in love with Nikolai. (Reminder: He’s her cousin.) Dolokhov proceeded to guilt Nikolai into a card game and play him to the tune of 43,000 rubles. If War and Peace were set in the 21st century, the Rostovs would settle their debts with a lucrative reality TV deal.

Instead, they move to the country, where Andrei pays them a visit. His short stay is enough to establish some obvious chemistry with Natasha (although when you look as good as they do, a lingering glance would be enough), and he leaves smiling, a little less empty than he was before. The Rostovs conveniently return to the city not long after. Their arrival coincides with a formal ball, which promises to be a big deal for Natasha. “Me, jealous of the little Rostov girl?” Helene asks before the big event. I’ve seen enough Cinderella stories to know what that means.

NEXT: Everything but the glass slipper

Helene has reconciled with Pierre for the sake of appearance, but she’s still got some men on the side, including Anna Mikhailovna’s son, Boris (Aneurin Barnard). At the ball, she walks off with the first military man to kiss her hand (UPDATE: He also happens to be the Tsar), leaving Pierre to work through two different kinds of crushing disappointment at the same time. The first: watching his wife flirt with other men. The second: watching the woman he really loves fall in love with his best friend. There’s no mistaking the eyes Andrei and Natasha are making at each other as they spin around the dance floor.

Andrei and Natasha’s relationship goes from zero to kissing-in-the-snow in no time. Pierre tells his friend to propose (“If you truly love her, don’t hesitate”), but The Immovable Jim Broadbent isn’t sold on the idea. He gives his son his blessing on one condition: Andrei has to spend a year abroad first. Andrei explains it all to Natasha and puts the power in her hands; while he’ll consider himself bound, she should feel free to change her mind. She promises to wait. I’m rooting for them, which probably means this won’t end well.

Six months later, the Rostovs pay a holiday visit to some extended family in the country — and not the “huge country estate” kind of country. It’s a cozy home in the middle of the woods, and Natasha can see herself living this life, too. She jumps up and dances to an impromptu family band like she knows the choreography. The escape to a simpler life has her brother and cousin feeling almost as carefree. When Sonya steals off in the night to a barn that theoretically tells your fortune (if you hear knocking, that’s bad; if you hear grains, that’s good), Nikolai follows her. They kiss to the sound of grains pouring around them.

Emboldened by the fresh air and the full moon, Nikolai tells his parents that he loves Sonya. He’s not going to marry the young woman they’ve suggested for him, even if she would save their family from the financial ruin that he technically caused. His mother turns on Sonya and refuses to give her blessing; Natasha tries to calm her down, but the best hope she can offer is that going back to war might cool Nikolai’s head. Because cooler heads usually prevail in war.

Medals of honor:

  • Those 21 rubles really made a difference, Nikolai.
  • “I adore you.” “Oh dear.”
  • Helene is manipulative and emotionally unavailable, but I kind of admire her.
  • “Just build the school, and the teachers will come.” Ahh yes, the old “if you build it, they will come” approach to education.
  • Today in Gillian Anderson Wears Great Things: that tiara.
  • A compelling argument in favor of marrying Julie Karagina: “There’s nothing wrong with her at all.”
  • “Christmas is coming.” “Oh, more expense.”
  • I can’t leave without a shoutout to that little bounce Pierre does when he sneaks up on Andrei.
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