Greatest Series Finales: Blackadder’s “Goodbyeee” a masterpiece of blackly comic satire
Blackadder Goes Forth, Episode 6, “Goodbyeee”
Written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton
Directed by Richard Boden
Aired November 2nd, 1989 on BBC One
Blackadder ran for four series in the ‘80s, following the exploits of various members of the Blackadder line throughout history, first a prince during the War of the Roses, then a courtier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, then the butler for the Prince Regent during the Regency period, and finally a Captain during World War I. Each series features Rowan Atkinson as that season’s Blackadder and Tony Robinson as his servant Baldrick, surrounded by a differing guest cast each season. As the series progresses forward in time, Blackadder becomes increasingly intelligent as he loses power and agency, with an exploration of Britain’s class structure a key element to the series. Though an anniversary special and several one-off skits were produced after the final installment of the fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, “Goodbyeee” serves as the series’ finale and creative peak, mixing high and low brow comedy with powerful social commentary to create an arresting satire that remains one of the best television finales of all time.
Throughout the season, Blackadder, stuck in the trenches, gets into and out of hijinks with his dogsbody Baldrick in his attempt to get sent safely away from the front lines, with the ever-present threat of the Big Push. There’s plenty of critique of the leadership during the rest of the season, as well as discussion of the meaninglessness of war, and their situation in particular, but this often takes a back seat to the comedy. Not so in the finale, which opens with the news that the Big Push will commence the following morning. With the stakes raised and reality of their situation oppressively present, Blackadder’s characteristic satire is front and center, as the episode becomes an exploration of these men’s desperate attempt to escape, understand, and process their fate.
At the heart of the episode are a stellar script Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and strong performances by the cast, who in this season included Tim McInnerny as Capt. Darling, Hugh Laurie as Lt. George, and Stephen Fry as Gen. Melchett, along with Atkinson and Robinson. As the incompetent Melchett, Fry is the picture of oblivious, aged pomposity. He rattles on about the honor of war, his desire to be up on the front with the young soldiers, and sends men off on suicide runs without a second thought. Laurie is wide-eyed and enthusiastic as the patriotic George, who can’t wait to give Jerry what-ho. McInnerny proves himself the master of the facial tick as Darling, an intelligent, weasely sycophant, who sticks close to Melchett to stay out of harm’s way, Robinson makes this iteration of Baldrick simple, yet practical, determined to make the best out of his situation, and Atkinson’s lines drip with sarcasm as the sardonic Capt. Blackadder.
There are layers upon layers of comedy throughout, from prop humor, to bodily fluid gags, to character-based silliness, to biting social commentary and each of the actors give fantastic performances. Atkinson is the standout, with moments of panic and desperation just as effective as his trademark desert-dry deadpan wit (who could forget his delivery of, “Wibble”?), but the rest of the cast get plenty to do as well. Robinson manages to sell a poem consisting entirely of the word, “Boom” 14 times, through only the power of his comedic timing, McInnerny caps a hilarious bit with the perfect line, apparently improvised on set (“Cappuccino!”), and Laurie keeps George likeably buffoonish, right until the final moments, when fear and uncertainty finally creep through his brash façade. Fry only has a few scenes, but they’re memorable ones, particularly his deliciously unaware decision to send his assistant to the front lines, so as not to deprive him of glory (a scene McInnerny is excellent in, all but melting to the ground in despair before accepting the futility of his fate).
The strength and variety of the episode’s comedy only heightens the effectiveness of its drama, and vice versa. By the end though, as the men prepare to go over the top, the laughs have fallen away, with the final jokes appropriately hollow. Ending with an appropriately cutting line from Blackadder, commenting on the utter absurdity of the situation, director Richard Boden pulls no punches, fading from the men charging over the trench into machine gun fire to a field covered in red poppies. It’s a heartbreaking finish to a series that, though it had always wryly lampooned British history, culture, and the class structure, had never made so bold a statement. There was talk at various points of continuing the show, but “Goodbyeee” ends so powerfully that another full series would pale in comparison, something the creators and cast seemed to understand, given the hilarious, but comparatively apolitical nature of the 10th anniversary Millennium Special. There are many great television finales, but few as effective and affecting, or with as much to say, as Blackadder’s “Goodbyeee”.