me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)1

[Previous pieces of the argument: the prologue; here episode one; here episode two; continuing with (episode 3a), (episode 3b), (episode 3c), and (addendum to episode 3). Same disclaimers / warnings apply as in previous posts. A short reminder of the way I started this series in the prologue: “What I write about Thornton … I also write of myself.” This is not a historical, but rather a personal, interpretation. Also, a quick reminder that in my interpretation I’m reading from the series alone as a document and my capacity for critical perspective on it as a human and a historian — I don’t consider the book centrally in these interpretations because I didn’t read it until I had seen the series approximately twenty times.]

[This episode is also going to require more than one installment of analysis. I’m thinking that 4(a) will be primarily about work. To make reading and commenting more easy than writing this material was, however, I’m dividing 4a into several chunks.]

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) rushes away to his appointment in episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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If episode 3 focuses on following Margaret as she experiences the aftermath of the strike and her mother’s death, allowing Thornton only three appearances, in contrast, episode 4 pushes the Thornton story forward at full speed, particularly in its first half, which is all tied up in Thornton’s (in)ability to resolve his problems in the factory. The beginning and the general direction of the episode make the romance and its resolution a secondary problem — and the way that the episode tacks on the series’ resolution to the romance not only makes the relationship between Mr. Thornton and Margaret seem an even more foregone conclusion than it is in the novel, it also subordinates the inevitable resolution of the romance to the much more problematic (and ultimately unresolved) issue of how Thornton addresses the conflict he himself has set up between work, personal principle, and self-interest.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) notices Higgins (Brendan Coyle) being pushed out of his millyard by Williams (Tom Charnock), in episode 4 of North & South.

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It seems as well as anything to start off with a problem that animated the discussion on my commentary on episode 1, when I made a casual statement about my feeling that Thornton’s transformation in the course of the series was minor at best. If I start by asking the question, “Does Thornton undergo a transformation, and if so, what does it consist of?”, then the starting point for me to understanding this episode is the first glance we get of him, in the opening credits, as Higgins has come to Marlborough Mills seeking work and is run off by the mill’s overseer. This tiny look at Thornton is easy to overlook, and initially we are not sure what the meaning of the backward look might be. Merely noticing, and then deciding to ignore, a scuffle?

Thornton’s look back here towards the minor eruption in his millyard confronts the viewer with the baseline behavior that sets up the next half of the episode. We last saw Thornton expostulating his plan to look to the future with barely suppressed rage in the wake of his betrayal of his own values for Margaret. So here we have Thornton, looking to the future. And: Thornton is concerned; he’s present; he’s distracted. He has to figure out what his priorities are, and his relative distance from the event in question is perhaps clearer if we think of the contratemps with Stevens that began and ended episode 1. Just as importantly, the scuffle is important because it inaugurates the story arc that brings Thornton most directly into contact with Higgins.

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Higgins (Brendan Coyle) approaches Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage), only to be brushed off, in episode 4 of North & South.

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If we read North & South as a drama about work and the morality that surrounds it, then Higgins is a much more central moral foil for Thornton than Margaret, particularly in this episode. Indeed, we don’t see her interacting with Thornton in it until almost a third of it is over, and then we don’t see her again until her farewell visit to the Thorntons. As we’ve noted, while the content of Margaret’s and Thornton’s moral positions may vary slightly, their structure is incredibly similar (which explains the conflict, I suspect). Thornton spends as much or more time in contact with Higgins as he does with Margaret, and the rather plodding quality of the script in several of these encounters (episode 4 was the part of the series where the script as a non-historical linguistic construction fell down most blatantly, in my opinion) points out the centrality of the Thornton / Higgins axis to this theme at every opportunity. At first, quite obviously, Thornton notices Higgins, but doesn’t appear to pay attention at all. Next, contact between them is casual, brusque. When next we see Thornton, he’s in a rush to get somewhere — we don’t know quite for what reason — so much so that his face never comes entirely into focus during the scene. The jostling glances we get of his face as he rushes by, vs. the camera’s long shot of Higgins’ frustration and then resignation, emphasize the power disparity between the two — what is merely an annoyance for Thornton constitutes a matter of vital importance for Higgins. Thornton can afford to behave this way; we might even say he’s attached to his capacity to do so. With this gesture, then, the foundation has thus been laid for the various dilemmas with which Thornton is about to be faced as individual, as factory owner, and as moral actor.

Where Thornton goes: the billiards room of his banker, Mr. Latimer. In the end, the conflict between principles, work, and self-interest, and their proper hierarchy meet here, where the tires hit the road, where the outcome of principle and skill and economics is represented in one act: what Thornton in episode 2 called “th’ efficient runnin’ o’ th’ mill,” the thing to which he declared his only duty, the thing in some form of which he takes his emotional refuge. You don’t really know how moral you are, it turns out, until you’re in a position where you might be tempted to prioritize something other than your actual priority; or how stubborn you are, until there’s a reason to call it all into question.

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The conversation between Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) and Mr. Latimer (Will Tacey) in episode 4 of North & South.

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The conversation that forces Thornton to articulate what’s really important and why takes up three themes in rapid and fluid succession: allegations about skill / work / professional capacity, individual virtue, and (business) principle. We start from the eternal problem between the financier and the producer — the financier who thinks he knows better than the now floundering entrepreneur he’s financed: Thornton shouldn’t have tied up capital in machinery. Thornton counters this charge by saying essentially that he knew what he was doing. He acquired large machinery for large orders and bought materials in bulk, and he claims that couldn’t have predicted that he wouldn’t be able to fulfill the contract. (Given the level of union activity clearly visible in the series’ version of Milton, we may be inclined to question this claim, but we’ve already traced Thornton’s extreme political naïveté or obdurate rigidity against clear signs from his environment in our discussion of episode 2.) Then, as Latimer allows that the bank will extend the loan, tacitly acknowledging Thornton’s points, he can’t resist a little chiding, and so comes the exchange about care: “You’ll have to be careful,” Latimer says. The obvious implication of this warning is that Thornton wasn’t careful earlier, and it is to this possibility that Thornton responds with his vehement insistence that no one can accuse him of having been either careless or frivolous. In these statements, the incongruous background of the scene comes fully to advantage — Thornton says no one can accuse him of being frivolous while Latimer chalks his cue stick. When Thornton then admits his frustration and his uncertainty about how to proceed, Latimer intensifies the apparent dichotomy between himself and Thornton, bending to take a shot as he informs Thornton that he should consider “more modern financial procedures … investments.” Thornton’s outrage is evident on his face — his slightly widening eyes, thank you Richard Armitage microexpressions, his reactive breath — even before his rash words burst from him. He refuses to “risk everything on some idiot money scheme.” And Latimer — who pays the piper, calls the tune — points out, effectively ending the conversation, that Thornton may soon have nothing to risk anyway.

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Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) at work at Marlborough Mills in episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

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I watch Armitage throughout this scene and find myself thinking it’s a wonder that he keeps Thornton standing, because all of the things Thornton really believes about himself and likes to believe about himself are drawn immediately into question by the situation in which he finds himself. At the same time, we finally see articulated something that’s been brooding below the surface throughout the entire series: pride. Don’t tell me how to run my business, he says, implicitly, with the explicit signs of exasperation. I know how to be — I have been virtuous, no one can say I have not been.

I know I have done the right thing.

But has he? I think the fact that Thornton loses the mill makes us conclude that he has, because it would simply be too much for the protagonist of a romance to lose both his livelihood and his principles. So he loses the mill, but he keeps his principles, and we’re happy, especially because the fact of his principles — the resolution that Margaret comes to see that a manufacturer can be a gentleman precisely because Thornton is so principled — apparently wins her for him (though romance is a matter I want to treat separately in a different post). Oh, yeah, and Richard Armitage is awesome, and that prejudices us for Mr. Thornton, how can it not? But the flimsy ending of the story — a crazy oversimplification of what was already an implausible insistence on harmonic resolution between “North” and “South” in the novel — can’t really disguise the failure of the series’ narrative to face facts throughout. (I forgive it this after reading Gaskell’s novel because I think the structural and social issues she broaches are much larger than she really realizes, though the series makes a valiant and often successful attempt to flesh them out.) We love romance, and we love the embattled underdog. Our prejudices aside, however, Thornton is clearly not an underdog of any kind. We should, we must, at least ask ourselves whether our sympathies are misplaced.

If we’re going to believe the story Thornton tells us about himself, then, logic compels us at least to consider the possibility that he hasn’t done the right thing. To get at the nature of Thornton’s failure, we have to talk about what Thornton is really expressing in the scene with Latimer when seen from a perspective less inherently sympathetic to him.

To episode 4(a)2.

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Don’t forget about the North & South global rewatch, scheduled for June 1 and 2! Times are here. Directions for connection are here.

~ by Servetus on May 27, 2012.

15 Responses to “me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)1”

  1. […] however, I'm dividing 4a into several chunks. The previous piece of episode 4 commentary is here (episode 4[a]1). There are two more pieces to this; I hope to publish them by Monday […]

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  2. […] me + mr thornton, episode 4(a)1 « Me + Richard Armitage said this on May 27, 2012 at 5:06 am | Reply […]

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  3. Ahhh… without a doubt, my favorite line in this whole write-up – that is, Episode 4(a) Part 1 – is the apparent afterthought understatement you’ve thrown in of ‘Oh, yeah, and Richard Armitage is awesome, and that prejudices us for Mr. Thornton…’ I choked on my water laughing at that line. 😉

    Interestingly, there’s another line that always rings true to me when I think of Thornton – and it’s uttered in frustration by Thornton’s sister, Fanny, in Episode 3 at the Crystal Palace exhibition – when she says, ‘Urrrrgh, John is SUCH a stick in the mud!!’

    This line completely caught me off guard when I first heard it. Yet it was so surprisingly accurate (as related to Thornton’s inflexible demeanor) that it momentarily broke even that spell of ‘Armitage awesomeness’ you refer to in your post. 😉 Thornton’s inflexibility also contributed to his downfall, I’d say, independent of his pride in believing himself to be right.

    It’s interesting that Fanny is considered such an unsympathetic character in the series – because one of her virtues is definitely her shocking (if at times also hilarious) honesty in expressing exactly what she’s thinking. 🙂

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    • Where she’s right, she’s right. Fanny was intended to be a comic character by the script writers — that’s why they originally planned to cast Daniela Denby-Ashe in that role, apparently. And yes, she certainly shares the more general Thornton bluntness.

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      • Egads, I can’t imagine DDA as Fanny now, not because she isn’t replaceable as Margaret (have you ever discussed who might have been a better choice for Margaret than DDA?) – but because Jo Joyner is just so wonderfully over-the-top as the much needed counterpoint to the staid and stoic duo of Thornton and mum.

        Fanny’s post riot hysterics is one of my all time favorite scenes. It’s a bit odd to see how swiftly they (the staid duo) both dismiss her comments as ridiculous, given the fact it WAS an angry mob of displaced mill workers (whose children were starving) that broke into the yard. 😉

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  4. You hit the nail on the head with your comment about prejudices for Thornton due to RA’s awesomeness. That prejudice completely overshadows everything Thornton does and in my eyes the character can do no wrong. At least that’s the conclusion I came to as I read your post which actually brought my bias out of the shadows. Your statement just confirmed it. Which makes me wonder if RA is capable of playing a dispicable character…you know somebody we love to hate. Gisborne comes to mind. I think the writers totally rewrote that character based on the audiences reaction to RA. But I digress.
    By the way, I think the movie would’ve been much better if someone else has been cast as Margaret.

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    • Interesting. On the first point — this is something I’d love to write about. No question that this script wants us to see Thornton as admirable (as did Gaskell), but Armitage is so focused on finding the contradictions in the character he plays that he undermines the villainous qualities of villains, at times. I’ve wanted to write about this for awhile but have such a backlog …

      Re: the casting of Margaret, what I always end up saying is that DDA was the weakest actor in an extremely strong ensemble cast. She is totally out of her element here in terms of the kinds of roles she usually plays. But I agree — this is the role I’d be most likely to recast in my perfect world.

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  5. […] thinking that this piece will be primarily about work. The previous parts of this piece are episode 4(a)1 and […]

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  6. […] thinking that this piece will be primarily about work. The previous parts of this piece are episode 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and […]

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  7. […] to North & South will be primarily about work. Previous parts of this piece: episode(s) 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and 4(a)3 and 4(a)4. Apologies for the delay on this. There are also some great comments […]

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  8. […] 4 of North & South as based on the theme of work. Previous parts of this piece: episode(s) 4(a)1 and 4(a)2 and 4(a)3 and 4(a)4 and 4(a)5.  There are also some great comments on the posts in these […]

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  9. […] their expedition, he dies because of his pride, because he can’t let go of his vision. (Remind anyone of Mr. Thornton?) Is that why I’m making this identification? In other words, is this cathexis not marking a […]

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  10. […] had to be instrumentalized. Which she knew she could not do. She let the Dementor cow her; she watched her mill fail, helplessly, in the belief that she could not have acted differently. And when her friends told her […]

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  11. […] thinking that this piece will be primarily about work. The previous parts of this piece are episode 4(a)1 and […]

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