Relationships heat up in the Russian winter
Credit: BBC/Laurie Sparham

Forget the war: The best conflict in War and Peace is happening on the home front. We have ourselves some romantic intrigue — and all of the terrible decisions that come with it. Did anyone really expect Natasha’s year-long separation from Andrei to go as planned?

Just as Natasha is prepared to reunite with her fiancé, Andrei’s wound reopens, and the doctors order him to stay put while it heals. She doesn’t take it too well — but in her defense, it’s been a long year, and a single Russian winter is long enough as it is. To pass the time, Anna Mikhailovna suggests that the Rostovs pay the Bolkonskys a visit; Andrei won’t be there, but at least Natasha can bond with Marya. She might even win over Andrei’s dad…if Andrei’s dad has become a completely different person in the last year.

He hasn’t. If anything, Prince Nikolai is grumpier than ever, and his misogyny toward his daughter is all the more blatant. He yells — loudly enough that the Rostovs can hear — that he doesn’t want to receive them, so Marya receives them instead. Marya isn’t great at small talk. Their meeting is all uncomfortable silence punctuated by the awkward chatter of Marya’s French companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne (Olivia Ross), who probably makes it worse. Nothing keeps you from finding something to say to someone like the constant commentary about how much you must have to say to each other!

The disastrous meeting takes a turn for the worse when Nikolai emerges long enough to complain about it. Marya tries to salvage everything by telling Natasha how glad she is that her brother has found happiness, but the damage is done: Natasha leaves feeling unwanted and unsure of herself, which is exactly the wrong state of mind to be in when meeting Helene. Helene can smell insecurity. From the moment they’re introduced at the opera, Pierre’s wife digs her daintily gloved hands into Natasha’s and never lets go, insisting that they sit together while Anatole leers over them both.

The Kuragins tag team Natasha with guilt and flattery until she has no choice but to attend an intimate party at their place. Anatole talks her into a dance and tells her that he loves her, but Natasha insists that she’s in love with someone else and tries to get away. Anatole corners her in the coat closet. Natasha thinks that’s kind of hot. Kids, it isn’t.

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After a few near-kisses, Natasha pulls away again, but she’s smitten. When Anatole writes her the next day with a dramatic declaration of his devotion (“Since last evening my fate is sealed: to be loved by you or die”), she decides that she feels more strongly for him than she does for the man she hasn’t seen in a year. That’s probably true. But she also decides that she feels more strongly for him than she ever felt for the man she hasn’t seen in a year, which is probably less true. “I have no will when I’m with Anatole,” Natasha swoons at Sonya like that’s a good thing. “It’s like I’m his slave. I’d do anything for him.” Natasha! Snap out of it! That isn’t love!

Sonya tries to talk her cousin down, but Natasha’s mind is made up: She writes back to Anatole. As she leaves to send the letter, she’s met by Marya, who regrets how badly their first meeting went and wants to make up for it. She’s 24 hours too late. Natasha accepts Marya’s apologies but tells her that she’s releasing Andrei from their engagement: “I made a mistake.” Present tense, Natasha. You’re making a mistake right now.

At least Sonya refuses to sit back and let it happen. She doesn’t intercept the letter, but she does help the household staff intercept Anatole when he comes for Natasha that night. Hearing about the scandal, Pierre pins Anatole against the wall and very nearly smashes his head with a table decoration. Cleaning up the evidence that this whole thing ever happened, Pierre takes the letter Natasha wrote to Anatole and orders his brother-in-law not to show himself in Moscow again.

NEXT: A most polite war

The only request Natasha has made since the scandal broke is to see Pierre, and he obliges, bringing the news she doesn’t want to hear: Anatole is already married. He has a wife in Poland. After a minute of denial, Natasha breaks down crying in Pierre’s arms, understanding for the first time that she’s a pawn in a game. Her mistake was her innocence, and she’s about to pay for it more than she deserves. Andrei is coming back to Moscow, and apparently all of his talk about how “free” Natasha was came with a restriction: If she acted on that freedom, there was no going back.

In Andrei’s eyes, Natasha is now a “fallen woman.” He understands that she had every right to fall for any man she chose, but he’s not ready to listen to Pierre and forgive her, either. “I wish I were dead,” Natasha sighs, which is the closest the miniseries comes to acknowledging the suicide she attempts in the novel. After that, it’s all a “serious illness” to be treated with leeches and sad candle-lit prayers in the church. In her recuperation, she bonds with Pierre, who still says that Andrei was wrong to abandon her for a year and then hold her to such high standards. He almost confesses that he’s in love with her, but he pulls back instead, suggesting that maybe he shouldn’t see Natasha so much anymore. Everyone’s timing is terrible right now.

Also terribly timed: The war is back on. (Not that there’s ever a good time for that.) It’s the summer of 1812, and the Tsar wants Napoleon to withdraw all of his soldiers from Russian soil, which Napoleon is not inclined to do. “It’s too late,” he tells Boris. “I’m going to take your country. But it’s all right! It’s not your fault.” He then pats Boris’ cheek and pulls his ear, and War and Peace becomes a light comedy of errors about a bunch of very polite people trying to take each other’s land.

The conflict hits Andrei when he’s down, and he enlists again, leaving his son with Marya and their father and riding off to battle. Anyone care to join me in a Marya Deserves Better campaign? She deserves better. She can’t even convince her father that they’re all in danger; the war gets closer to their doorstep every day, but Prince Nikolai is determined to carry on as usual. As the rest of the town packs up and moves out, he suits up for battle, only to fall from his horse and suffer a serious head injury.

The family manages to move him to one of their country estates, where he succumbs to his injuries. Before he dies, Prince Nikolai asks Marya’s forgiveness, and she realizes that he loved her all along — which is not an excuse for the way he treated her, but at this point, Marya’s got to take what she can get. Without her father around, no one on the estate’s staff respects her; Nikolai Rostov and a few of his soldier friends have to personally escort Marya and her family the rest of the way to the city, giving Nikolai and Marya plenty of time to flirt with each other. I never meant to abandon Sonya like this, but I think I ship it.

A family friend even offers to arrange their marriage, though Nikolai isn’t quite ready to leave Sonya in the dust. (“If only it were that simple.”) But they’re happy to see each other again, and Marya doesn’t hold any grudges against Natasha, which is a nice bonus for everyone — especially Natasha, who could use something good in her life now that Pierre has all but abandoned her.

Pierre’s been feeling aimless lately, and he handles it by going off to war. He doesn’t officially enlist. He just kind of shows up at a battlefield and waits for someone to hand him an interactive map and show him a 3-D presentation. Andrei isn’t too thrilled to have Pierre around for what promises to be Russia’s bloodiest stand, but Pierre is ready to assume the risks. They face death as they lived: regretting how they left things with Natasha.

Medals of honor:

  • Helene is pregnant, and the baby isn’t Pierre’s — or Boris’. (Boris went and found himself a match with a girl whose sadness he plays like a fiddle.) Helene wants to annul her marriage with Pierre. But what about his money?!
  • “You and I, Julie — sometimes I think we are both too sensitive for this cruel world.”
  • Gillian Anderson does not want to be guillotined.
  • “It’s considered a great honor, monsieur, to have one’s ear pulled by the emperor.”

Episode Recaps

War and Peace
War & Peace
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