So now you know.
Steven Knight, who created noted bad-hair show Peaky Blinders, revealed his ultimate ambitions for Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in a finale that had it all: shootouts, weird kissing scenes, attempted suicide, a spot of angry horse-shoe forging, and the burning down of Satis House-slash-the original plot as conceived by Dickens. (Whispered: Enough.)
The novel returns again and again to a desire to turn back the clock; watching the conclusion of the BBC One/FX series, oh how I wished we could return to the source material, in which wealth was nakedly coveted and no one bleached their eyebrows.
In order to sift through the wreckage, we need to first recap the plot events according to canon.
In the novel, aspiring gentleman Pip comes to know Magwitch, his convict benefactor, very well as an adult, and in fact helps conceal him from the authorities with the name “Provis,” neatly bifurcating the selves we all conceal. The two form a fond relationship, and you feel bad when you learn Magwitch will be arrested again.
Miss Havisham has a moment of reckoning late in the story when Estella spurns Pip, and her dry old heart finally cracks. She repents for her depraved ways before falling into a fireplace, womp. Joe marries Biddy (because Mrs. Joe was hit with a crowbar by local skeeve Orlick and died quite a while ago) and they have cute little children that remind everyone of the pure child Pip used to be. Estella marries and divorces sicko Drummle, and Pip learns a Very Good Lesson about ambition.
It’s good. It makes some sense.
Knight took some liberties with this general skeleton. Here, I need to warn… ***sucks in air through teeth*** spoilers lie beyond! Fuck!
The TV adaptation
In the FX finale, Magwitch (Johnny Harris), in a fetching but dirty three-piece suit, connects with Estella (Shalom Brune-Franklin) directly by rocking up at her house and just … announcing that he’s her father, which goes over surprisingly well. He then confronts Miss Havisham (Olivia Colman), telling her to git out of bed and git dressed and warning her that Compeyson is on the way and that “Compeyson was born a gentleman and gentlemen do what they want,” always erecting statues of themselves and building nutmeg empires but also possibly stealing and murdering people YOU SEE WE ARE TALKING ABOUT IMPERIAL SIN AT THIS POINT.
After twenty (20!) years of reclusive spite, Miss Havisham just gets up, takes off her “demented candelabra,” changes into a charcoal non-wedding dress (she just had this hanging in her wardobes) and comes outside. How is this possible?! (Dickens: “I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust”).
Together, Havisham, Estella and Magwitch allow the sun to touch pallid skin for the first time in decades, it seems, and then they all burn a portrait of Compeyson (Trystan Gravelle) together in the courtyard. He’s not good-looking anymore, Havisham points out, so good riddance!
Estella doesn’t marry the “gentleman involved in nutmeg,” nor Drummle and his evil combover, nor poor Herbert “second choice” Pocket, and not Pip (Fionn Whitehead) the “Blacksmith’s boy.” She winds up a committed singleton, and the consolation is she connects emotionally to her dad, gets to dance with Jaggers (who is sleeping with Estella’s mother, so perhaps becomes a second dad?), and drops the steampunk look by the final scene.
Meanwhile, Compeyson is on the hunt for Pip and the mail-coach fortune (which here is lost overboard, but in the novel is repossessed by the state), while, fortune lost, Pip does a “Don’t stop me, Smee, stop me Smee” routine wherein he ties a rope around his neck and jumps into the Thames. Resident weirdo Wemmick (Rudi Dharmalingan) cuts the rope but can’t find him; Pip has washed up near a boat headed to the convict dockery at Gravesend—from the marshes we came, and to the marshes we shall return.
Jaggers tells Compeyson the money is gone, which sets us up for the Big Showdown at Satis House.
Since Pip has spent most of his adult screen time high on opium and looking like he fell out of an Irvine Welsh novel, he doesn’t have much to do here beyond pick at his skin and look generally wasted. He returns to Satis House where he meets Magwitch for the first time since the leg irons. There, he tells the ladies that he will protect them! Estella tells him the ladies will protect his useless skein and gives a speech recalling Connor’s K-town “air succulent” monologue on Succession (s/he doesn’t need love, it’s his/her superpower).
Finally, all the pieces moving into place, Compeyson shows up and apologizes to Miss Havisham for jilting her all those years ago, calling her “Amelia” (setting off alarm bells), kissing her hand, and asking for all her gold (and opium, if she still has it; how long does opium keep?). He threatens her with a gun, and she kisses him, then grabs his gun! What is love! What is money! There is a lot of action in which Magwitch is shot and Compeyson is tanning Pip’s hide when Miss Havisham shows up and blasts one into Compeyson’s back. Everything is on fire.
Pip marries Biddy in a recreation of the end of The Lord of the Rings; she tells him she doesn’t have time to be a submissive wife because she’s a Chartist (and wearing what looks like a Batsheva dress). Joe is happy, Pip is happy, it all seems pretty good, given what they’ve gone through. I almost expected one of those reels to run at the end where the cast all sit around singing “I Say A Little Prayer,” so bananas was the bag of tricks thrown at the screen in the final minutes—truly the full rotten wedding feast—they must have felt like a true band of brothers by the time they each took out their yellow dentures for the last time.
It is Steven Knight’s prerogative to give Miss Havisham a gun and send Pip off to the brothel, and, as my colleague Olivia Rutigliano has pointed out, a historical revisiting of the ill-gotten wealth clanging around the British upper class in the nineteenth century does add something. The tentacles of the Empire are dark indeed. But it’s worth asking if this adaptation makes any sense. For one, I just don’t understand how Miss Havisham gets over Compeyson in a day, nor how she wound up strung out on the literal devil for two decades—young Compeyson is no Darcy.
More importantly, the key relationships—between Pip and Joe, and Pip and Magwitch, particularly—are nearly absent in the FX series. My favorite parts of the novel concern Pip’s ambivalence around his small beginnings in Gravesend, and by extension the parental figures in his life. He tells Biddy that “I am disgusted with my calling and my life,” in outlining his “particular reasons for wanting to be a gentleman.” Everyone loves a rags to riches tale, and Dickens originally gave us one that interrogated the idea more harshly than did your Victor Hugo or, I don’t know, Annie. It’s a real Brewster’s Millions vibe in the novel.
Pip’s eventual rejection of the corrupted #blinglife in London is based on the kindness of his surrogate fathers, Magwitch and Joe. When Orlick (the local rabble-rouser) threatens to throw Pip into the kiln, Pip realizes that:
“Biddy and Joe would never know what I had been that night; none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through. The death close before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death.”
So it makes little sense for Pip to self-defeatingly jump into the Thames; we lose the whole point of finding in himself the need to make amends with the good dags in his life. The relationship with Magwitch (“from head to foot there was Convict in the very grain of the man”) gets Pip past his snooty prejudices, i.e., the fact that the uneducated Magwitch and Joe (“a mere blacksmith: how thick his boots, and how coarse his hands”) would both appear “common” to Estella.
In the TV adaptation, Pip is motivated by a desire to save the ladies of Satis House mostly just in service of an action set-piece, and because Compeyson seems like bad bad news, but in the novel, he comes to a slower appreciation for the flawed people who have helped him, despite their low station. He gives up his ~expectations~ and resolves to help Magwitch:
“For now, my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously, toward me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.”
Aye, it were a more generous story.