Speaking last year of the indiscriminate bloodlust of his hit BBC drama Bodyguard, Jed Mercurio insisted that there is no such thing as a “can’t-die character”. It is an ethos, it seems, that he inherited from French author Victor Hugo. By tonight’s final episode of Les Misérables (BBC1), adapted from Hugo’s 1862 novel, it is far quicker to list which of the show’s central characters aren’t dead.
The episode begins at the barricades, with the revolutionaries fighting in favour of a French Republic. That’s about as far as the explanation goes – for the most part, the series doesn’t dwell on the intricacies of the fight. Instead, its revolutionaries speak in vague truisms: they are “building a better world”, and “fighting to the last man” to do it.
Not quite to the last man, in fact. As they become increasingly outnumbered, rebel leader Enjolras (Joseph Quinn) instructs all those with wives, husbands or children to leave. “For you,” he says, “it is a braver thing to live.” It is one of a multitude of potent moments in the series’ swansong – though I have to question why no one seems to have a problem with a literal child cheerfully signing up to die. That child, Gavroche Thénardier (a mischievous Reece Yates), is quickly shot down on a bullet run, and laid to rest alongside his sister Éponine, who saved Marius’ life last episode.
Soon, Valjean (Dominic West) turns up, with “half a mind to kill” Marius (Josh O’Connor) for the crime of loving his adopted daughter Cosette (Ellie Bamber, struggling to tread water in a sea of world-class actors). He quickly changes his mind, though, when he witnesses Marius’ bravery, and saves his life instead.
But not before he has spared that of Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), who in his obsessive, vengeful quest to track down Valjean, has found himself tied up in a back room. Still, Valjean shows him mercy – a mercy his decades-long foe doesn’t know what to do with. “Do you wish to die?” asks Valjean, incredulous. “It would make a hell of a lot more sense than this,” says Javert, equally so. “Then you’ll have to arrange it yourself.”
And so he does just that. In one perplexing act of mercy, Valjean has won the moral debate that has been raging on since episode one: whether a person commits crimes because they are “degenerate”, or simply because of the way the world has treated them. “Everything I’ve ever believed to be true, everything I lived my life by…” says Javert to a fellow officer, “and he… he…” There’s that look again: that mix of puzzlement, anger, sorrow and respect that Oyelowo broadcasts so subtly, yet so precisely. His mind is made up. With his faith so shaken it may never settle, he jumps off a bridge to his death.
If only Valjean had trusted Cosette to land on his side of that moral quagmire. Convinced that she won’t love him if she knows of his past crimes, he exiles himself to the countryside after her marriage to Marius. (Mercifully, that romance takes a backseat in tonight’s episode, so the problem of their distinct lack of discernible chemistry is only a minor one.)
When Cosette tracks Valjean down, his hair has gone grey, and his hands are cold: apparently, a sure-fire sign that death is just around the corner. “I’m not worthy of your love,” he insists, before dying happily surrounded by it anyway. West believes Valjean to be “the greatest hero in all literature”, and he plays the part with all the care and intricacy such a character deserves.
The final shot, though, is not one of love. It is of two poverty-stricken children – children we’ve only briefly seen before, and who have little bearing on the story – begging to indifferent passers-by. It is an unkind, but necessary, reminder that the cycle has not been broken. Les Misérables indeed.
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