Moscow falls and rises again as the epic miniseries marches out

By Kelly Connolly
February 09, 2016 at 04:22 PM EST
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Credit: Laurie Sparham
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Reading about war is one thing — seeing it is something else entirely. That’s true for anyone who found reading War and Peace easier than watching the bodies stack up on TV, but it’s also true for Pierre, who’s still playing war-time tourist. He oversleeps, then rolls up to the battlefield in his civilian clothes to ask if there’s “anything he can do,” like this is a Boy Scout camping trip and maybe he can earn his merit badge if he hands someone a stick.

If the reality of his situation hasn’t yet sunk in, it’s about to. Pierre accompanies a soldier to replenish supplies, only to watch the reserves — and the soldier — blow up right in front of him. Across the battlefield, Andrei has it worse. When he stares down a bomb rather than hitting the ground, he winds up badly injured, lying in the hospital tent beside a screaming Anatole, who’s already lost his right leg from the knee down. The rest of him isn’t looking much better. He and Andrei take hands; there’s no use for grudges when you’re dying.

The Battle of Borodino isn’t exactly a smashing victory for anyone involved, but General Kutuzov does his best to put a good spin on it: At least they’re slowly breaking the French army’s spirit. Kutuzov plays a long game. Napoleon’s spirit won’t be fully broken until winter hits; for now, he’s free to take Moscow. He tells his associates that he’ll show Moscow mercy, and his troops proceed to burn the city at will. He might need to do something about that communication breakdown.

The people of Moscow flee their homes, and the Rostovs do likewise — and, with a little prodding from Natasha, they take a contingent of battered Russian soldiers with them. The family opens its nearest country estate to the wounded, including a certain broody prince who’s hurt so badly that he needs a room to himself. Natasha’s mother suggests that they not tell her daughter that she’s sharing a home with her ex-fiancé, but Sonya knows better. Natasha and Andrei are reunited (and it feels mostly good — I’d prefer it if he weren’t dying).

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Natasha and Andrei have both grown up since their botched courtship. He apologizes for leaving her and for breaking off the engagement; she takes responsibility for being foolish. All that’s left is to forgive, and they’re both ready to do that — but, again, he’s still dying. By the time Marya arrives with Andrei’s son, her brother has taken a turn for the worse. The family holds court by Andrei’s bedside, and he dies with Marya at one hand and Natasha at the other. On a slightly less bleak note, at least Natasha and Marya are finally as close as they always should have been. They could both use the friendship.

Natasha hasn’t seen Pierre since the day she left Moscow. She offered him a ride out of the city, but he stayed behind; he’d decided that it fell to him to kill Napoleon. Classic Pierre. Pierre is a study in extremes: He sighs, “Oh, what the hell,” to drinks with the French soldier who’s taken command of his estate, only to turn around a few hours later and run into a burning building to save a child. When Pierre drags French soldiers off of the child’s mother, he’s taken into custody and nearly killed by a firing squad. A soldier pushes him out of the line without explanation, sentencing him to imprisonment instead.

NEXT: Dog days of winter

Pierre’s captivity is, at first, just a lot of sitting. He’s kept in an attic with a handful of other prisoners, including a peasant whose face you can find in the dictionary next to the word “kindly.” Platon Karataev gives Pierre some of his food and lets him bond with his dog, which raises the stakes tenfold for me. I can’t handle when dogs are in danger. And everyone is about to be on the move — since the French soldiers burned what the people of Moscow didn’t loot, they don’t have enough supplies to last the winter.

France retreats, prisoners in tow, and it doesn’t end well for Platon — or (brace yourself) his dog. The peasant develops a cough, and he’s shot as soon as he stops to rest. As the snow piles up and the prisoners move on, Platon’s dog refuses to leave his side. I’d like to get through the day, so I’m telling myself that the dog will eventually be rescued. It could happen. If Pierre could be liberated by the same man he once shot in a duel, anything could happen. Joined by Natasha’s younger brother Petya, Dolokhov and Denisov launch a surprise attack on the French regiment, freeing Pierre but losing Petya in the process. The news of Petya’s death kills his father, so, if you’re keeping track, Natasha has lost a lot of people.

The Rostov family is, to quote Natasha’s mother, “RUINED.” As if Sonya hadn’t already accepted the inevitable, there’s no way Nikolai can marry her now. She releases her cousin from their engagement, and he swallows his pride and admits that he has feelings for Marya. Marya feels the same. On the one hand, I think she’s too good for him, but on the other, I’m happy for them both.

But this is Russian literature, and there are still two people left unattached — and they just happen to care a lot about each other. Pierre is a new man after his ordeal. “It’s as if he’s fresh from the bathhouse all pure and clean,” Natasha marvels. That’s not the sort of thing you say about a platonic friend, especially not one who also happens to be single again, however tragic the circumstances. Helene’s pregnancy ruined her in Russian society, and she died attempting to abort the baby. Add loss to the list of things Natasha and Pierre have in common (along with every single character in this story).

The friends reconnect, and Pierre works up the courage to ask Natasha if she could love him. She could, and she does. We rejoin them a few years down the line, married with kids, settling down for a meal with their extended family and friends beneath a tree in a sunny field. This epilogue could not be more aggressively happy if it tried — and I’ll take it. They fought for this optimism.

Medals of honor:

  • Composer Martin Phipps is very good at making me want to cry, apparently.
  • Pierre’s first meal back in his estate, approaching a fork and knife like he’s never seen them before, is one of the finale’s best scenes: an effective, mundane glimpse at the unexpected side effects of trauma.
  • “When our lives are knocked off course, we imagine everything in them is lost, but it is only the start of something new and good. As long as there is life, there is happiness. There is a great deal, a great deal still to come.”
  • “Oh, do what you will. Ruin us. I give up.”

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War and Peace

War & Peace
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