Several short scenes begin this episode of World on Fire, each lasting only a few seconds. We see Lois singing, followed by a shot of Harry and his few remaining soldiers walking down the road to Dunkirk in the mist. Nancy announces from Berlin that Belgium has fallen.
If you’ve watched the series from the beginning you know that the drama hops around a lot, and while this can sometimes be irritating or confusing, it’s sequences like this that pack a punch. In this episode, we see Dunkirk from several characters’ points of views, and it’s always the close-ups, as it were, that create the drama and make us care about what happens to them. You won’t see the familiar sweeping scenes of the beach crowded with lines of soldiers, or massive amounts of CGI to create a spectacle.
Lois has continued her singing career, despite her advanced pregnancy, and she and pianist Connie arrive at an RAF base for a gig (I am fairly sure that a pregnant woman would not have been allowed to perform). Even Connie can’t get Lois to share her plans for what she’ll do when the baby is born. But at the moment Connie is more worried about her husband Eddie (Ansu Kabia), the trumpeter in Albert Fallou’s jazz band in Paris, and since France is about to fall she has reason to be concerned. But we see him briefly on the road to the coast, trading jokes with enlisted men of color.
As Lois and Connie chat, the administration steps in for a word. Embarrassed, he asks if Lois could move around less when she sings. She and Connie tease him, pretending to misunderstand what he’s asking (is it that not everything moves at the same time?). Some of these boys have mothers, he explains, much to their amusement.
When they approach the stage for their rehearsal, an officer is playing Chopin on the piano. He apologizes, and introduces himself to Lois—Wing Commander Vernon Hunter (Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who, Broadchurch). He’s middle-class, cultured, and intrigued by her. Is it a budding romance? He asks tactfully about Lois’s husband and she tells him there isn’t one. He’s impressed by her openness and strength, and offended that people have criticized her.
I’m not fighting for Britain, not for Mr. Churchill, but so that people can live their lives in whatever way they choose. That is the only freedom I’m fighting for.
After the concert he asks if she will write to him, and she hands him an envelope with her address on it.
Harry and his men in Belgium are now heading for the coast, filthy and exhausted, along with a long stream of refugees. German planes fly overhead and everyone on the ground ducks for cover. Harry orders his men not to fire, because it will invite retaliation, and the civilians on the road will suffer. He sees a small child standing frozen in terror, and runs to shelter her, and she and her dog join his group, much to his sergeant Stan’s disgust.
They come upon a group of abandoned trucks, and discover a severely traumatized officer, Geoff (Matthew Romain, Sherlock), sheltering beneath one. Inside the truck are a handful of soldiers, all shell-shocked, including some French Sengalese soldiers. They tell Harry that they were not able to surrender because the German troops kill everyone. Stan is skeptical, and thinks they’ve deserted, and Harry for the first time tells him off. Harry arranges for Claudette (and her dog) to join another group of Belgian refugees, and in a heart-wrenching farewell tells her to be brave.
They finally reach a casualty clearing station and field hospital where an overwhelmed Webster is in charge, assisted by Albert. It’s good to see the relationship continue beyond Paris, and their interaction as colleagues and friends. Webster tells Harry he can’t take any more patients, certainly not the eight shell-shocked soldiers, including the fragile Geoff. Harry has no choice but to continue on with everyone, much to Stan’s disgust. They both know that having men who can’t obey orders and are so vulnerable lessen their chances of survival. He orders Stan to get a wound he’s been concealing patched up, about all the field hospital can offer. Stan grudgingly cooperates, commenting:
“I think I liked you better when you were a soft touch.”
Planes fly overhead but they’re dropping leaflets, not bombs. The leaflets show a map of the area, and indicate how German troops will converge on the two British units and two French units that are holding a vulnerable gateway to Dunkirk. When they reach the battered, war-torn town, Stan and Harry’s relationship explodes. Stan says he doesn’t believe in shell-shock, but he does believe in cowardice, and Harry, tired of Stan’s contempt and cynicism, officially dismisses him. They part formally but with respect.
Another quick, linked sequence: As Harry and his group settle down for the night, they quietly sing Bye bye Blackbird; we see Lois singing it on stage at the RAF gig; and Eddie, resting on the ground, plays the tune on his trumpet.
The next morning, Harry tethers his group together, knowing that anything could make them panic and scatter, to get them safely to the beach. A British soldier, noticing the dark-skinned Sengalese men intervenes, tells them that the rowboats are for British soldiers only. Harry is furious, and insists they accompany him:
“These boys are with me. I am the officer in charge and they are coming with us.”
It’s only when Harry and the others are on the rowboat that we get a panoramic shot of the ships waiting to take them to Britain.
Back in Britain, Douglas goes to see Robina, who is her usual chilly self. He shows her the headline in the newspaper that the British Expeditionary Forces, in which Harry serves, have been abandoned without warning. She agrees that it’s worrying, but Harry will be home soon, and then negotiations with Hitler can begin.
Douglas takes Jan out into the garden to play football, and Robina raps on the window to stop them, concerned for her herbaceous borders. Douglas tells Jan to ignore her, and they grin conspiratorially at each other, and continue playing. As Douglas leaves, he tells Robina that they’ll be in touch. She asks if that’s the protocol now. (Is she flirting? What a terrifying thought.) For the sake of Jan, Douglas explains.
Douglas turns up again, brandishing a newspaper with a headline about the Dunkirk evacuation. No, Robina hasn’t read the news. She takes the newspaper for the crossword puzzle.
Douglas: What use is a crossword when our sons could be dead?
Lois: I’m disappointed in you.
And she dismisses him. Alone at home, Douglas tries to identify faces in newspaper photographs, and his anxiety is sky-high.
Tom is now serving on the ship HMS Keith, a name he despises as lacking in dignity, and is at Dunkirk, rowing men to the British ships. He’s his usual smart-aleck self, joking and throwing out insults, but he threatens to shoot a desperate civilian who tries to force his way onto the boat. It’s Grzegorz Tomaszeski, who we last saw miles away, on the run. Grzegorz manages to get onto another rowboat, along with Eddie and Stan, as we hear Nancy’s broadcast announcing the fall of France.
Tom and his passengers abandon their boat and flee for cover as planes fly overhead, strafing the easy targets on the boats and dropping bombs. Tom is hit and falls.
Meanwhile in Berlin, Mr. Rossler has to deal with his employee Frau Pessler, an avid Nazi who he suspects is spying on the family. He is furious when he goes into the factory and finds that she has hung Nazi flags to celebrate the recent victory over Belgium. Worse, there is a letter on his desk about his daughter Hilda. Frau Pessler confronts him—she knows Hilda and her mother are in hiding, she knows about Hilda’s condition, and she threatens him. In desperation he hits her with an iron and kills her. There’s only one person he can turn to, Nancy, who helps him dispose of the body, ironically wrapped in Nazi flags.
Kasia Tomaszeski is still alive, and a steely killer of German soldiers in Warsaw. The enormous stress and constant danger are telling on her. We wonder how long she’ll be safe.
What did you think of this episode? Do you think Harry's new-found assertiveness will last?