15. "Goodbyeee," Blackadder (1989)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
We've come to the first series finale on the list, and it's one of the darkest TV episodes ever. In "Goodbyeee," Captain Edmund Blackadder and his crew are ordered to leave their trench for the "big push": a suicidal run toward German machine guns somewhere on the western front during World War I.
Blackadder: Millions have died, but our troops have advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.
Forget The Office; this is true squirm comedy. The only thing that comes close is the crucifixion scene in The Life of Brian. And "Goodbyeee" makes more of an anti-war statement than M*A*S*H ever did — and at one-fifth the time of the latter's series finale.
In "Goodbyeee," every bit of comedy is a build-up to the sight of Blackadder and the others running into a hail of German bullets, and we instinctively want to see the massacre. When a sitcom makes the promise of a bizarre or grotesque sight, it would be cheating to hold back at the last minute. Would "Lucy's Italian Movie" be a classic if we never saw her stomp grapes? Would Fawlty Towers be a classic if Basil's schemes didn't collapse in the final minutes of each episode? Green Acres is not among my favorite shows, but I give it a lot of points for an episode ("The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud") in which everyone keeps talking about the town's monkey-racing track. The story is resolved and the episode seems to be over, but then we get a brief scene of monkeys chasing a wooden banana down a dirt race course — as if the producers felt it would be unfair not to hand over the treat they had been dangling in front of us.
If "Goodbyeee" didn't end with the troops making the big push, it would be like a runaway train lazily coming to a complete stop in the middle of a desert, and that doesn't make good comedy or drama.
General Melchett: (as he orders Captain Darling to join the suicide mission) I'm just going to have to sit this one out on the touchline with the half-time oranges and the fat wheezy boys with a note from matron, while you young bloods link arms and go together for the glorious final scrum down.
Despite the episode's subversive committment to seeing its premise through, "Goodbyeee" is emotionally affecting as well as brutally satiric. When Henry Blake is killed on M*A*S*H (in the episode "Abyssinia, Henry"), we're spared from seeing his final moments. And though the series made some pointed observations about war during its run — say, by casting Leslie Nielsen as a reckless, gung-ho colonel — Henry's death seems simply random. His helicopter being shot down off-screen is akin to Mrs. Landingham being killed by a drunk driver on The West WIng.
By contrast, we see Blackadder's mounting desperation as he tries to avoid certain death — while Baldrick and George are blissfully unable to comprehend the enormity of the situation.
You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs
developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans
and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing
armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?
Blackadder: Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
Baldrick: What was that, sir?
Blackadder: It was bollocks.
Throughout the episode, Blackadder tries to get out of this nightmare, chiefly by sticking pencils up his nose and pretending that he's gone insane. Catch-22 has not having been written yet to explain the futility of this strategy, but right before the end, Blackadder admits that he should have had a Plan B ("who would have noticed another madman round here?").
And in a nasty twist, Blackadder's nemesis — Captain Darling (Tim McInnerny), the sniveling aide to General Melchett (Stephen Fry) — is ordered to join him in the big push. Their reconciliation, for the remaining minute or two of their lives, is another subversion of series finales in which everyone comes together in a group hug.
• According to Tony Robinson (via Wikipedia), the last scene was filmed on a polystyrene landscape, which caused the actors to bounce as their characters were supposed to drop dead. The scene was re-edited so that it fades to an empty no man's land (and then a field of poppies) before the characters actually fall.
• George gives an update on what's happened to all the school chums who enlisted in the Army with him. Being able to recall all their nicknames is a case of missing the forest for the trees.
George: Well, ah, Jocko and the Badger bought it at the first Ypres,unfortunately. Bit of a shock, that. I remember Bumfluff's housemaster wrote and told me that Sticky'd been out for a duck, and that Gubber had snitched a parcel sausage-side and gone goose over stumps frog-side.
George: I don't know, sir, but I read in the Times that they'd both been killed.
Blackadder: And Bumfluff himself?
George: Copped a packet in Gallipolli with the Aussies. So did Drippy and Strangely Brown. I remember we heard on the first morning of the Sommes, when Titch and Mr. Ploppy got gassed back to Blighty.
Blackadder: Which leaves...?
George: Gosh, yes. I, I suppose I'm the only one of the Trinity Tiddlers left alive. Blimey, there's a thought, and not a jolly one.
• There's a great cameo by Geoffrey Palmer, who's been in dozens of British series (including, most recently, Rev) but is probably best known in the U.S. as the doctor in the Fawlty Towers episode "The Kipper and the Corpse." In "Goodbyeee," he's a general who repays a debt to Blackadder in a most unhelpful way.
• The website This Was Television has a roundtable discussion on "Goodbyeee" (and the entire Blackadder series). Andy Daglas marvels that it never dips too far into silliness or sentiment:
...impressive is how effectively it balances—but doesn’t undercut—each remembrance of a vanished past or longing for a vanishing future with a customary joke. To wit, that crystal clear explication of 20th century geopolitics is delivered by a man boasting underpants on his head and pencils shoved up his nostrils. This doesn’t suddenly become A Very Special Blackadder, and the episode is immensely more special for it.