As we embark on the first of its four installments, The Great Fire takes us to the heart of London in 1666, in the midst of the Restoration and at the tail end of one of the hottest summers its people can remember. With the trials of Cromwell’s puritanical republic fading from the nation’s collective memory, the only thing more ostentatious than the wigs of the wealthy are the parties that their equally well-coiffed monarchs hold on an apparently daily basis. But, under the consumption and spectacle of courtly life simmers deep-seated fear and suspicion, as the religious lines that divide the country threaten to cause havoc in its halls of power.
If you have seen the first episode of The Great Fire, please enjoy our recap. If you have seen the episode yet, there are major spoilers ahead so, you may want to watch the episode streaming below first. Enjoy! Our North American premiere presentation of The Great Fire continues Wednesdays at 9pm ET/6 PT through April 1, 2015.
Just as the politics of seventeenth century England were written along religious lines, so too was London’s society divided by stark differences in wealth. As the lives of baker Thomas Farriner, his sister-in-law Sarah, and their respective children make clear, hard work for modest returns is the norm for most of London’s inhabitants. And, as Sarah’s concern for her young son David indicates, the country’s troubles extend past its own borders, to a war being fought in Europe. With her husband, a sailor, missing far from home, Sarah is left to cope on her own, except for the help offered by Tom, himself a widower.
While the city’s centre is plagued (sometimes quite literally) by the effects of crowded living conditions and grueling work, the ruling class, physically removed from the realities of life in London, enjoy a seemingly charmed existence. Life at Whitehall, however, is far from carefree, and for Charles II, the stakes are just as high as they are for his people. Though years have passed since his father’s execution, he’s as wary as ever of the life or death implications that a moment of poor judgment on his part might have. The difference between him and a great leader, however, is that his worry is focused on preserving his own life, rather than others’.
When we first find him, however, the most pressing decisions facing the king have more to do with food, drink and women than with good governance. As his brother James is apparently tired of hearing, the country’s war with the Dutch is costing them both money and lives – each of which are more than enough to stoke unrest in the streets under the right conditions. But James’s exasperation isn’t necessarily with the news itself, but with the royal counselors’ reluctance to share it with the man who needs to hear it the most.
Though his advisors are unwilling to ruffle any royal feathers with the truth about his finances, the menacing (and unflinchingly loyal) Lord Denton is more than up to the task of watching Charles’s back in a much more practical sense. Minutes into the series’ opening episode, the king’s intelligence officer had his hands full defusing an attempt of the monarch’s life – the work of a Catholic acting against the Protestant Charles. But while James seemed satisfied that the would-be assassin was alone in his plot, Charles and Denton were united in their suspicion of a larger conspiracy.
Unfortunately for Sarah Farriner, that suspicion extended to her employer, the Duke of Hanford, believed to be a Catholic sympathizer. Under Denton’s surveillance, Sarah had no idea that her life, and those of her loved ones, was about to become endangered by, and entangled in, the paranoia surrounding the court at Whitehall.
Straddling those two worlds is the ambitious naval administrator Samuel Pepys, whose eagerness for advancement is only matched by his keen observations. However, while his curiosity and energy have thus far helped Pepys rise in public life, that interest rarely seems to extend to his unhappy wife, causing his most personal relationship to grow decidedly cold. If that development has been particularly bothersome to him, though, you’d hardly know it, and his behaviour doesn’t do much to win her favour.
If things are sour at home, then Pepys at least has the satisfaction of influence at the highest level. Part of a relatively small group with the benefit of the king’s ear, he occupies an even more exclusive circle of individuals who offer Charles sound advice, rather than parroting what he wants to hear. Still, the distinction comes with a price, and the boldness of speaking frankly is accompanied by significant risk should his views lead Charles astray. In the meantime, though, between his professional commitments and personal affairs, Pepys has more than enough of his own problems to worry about.
Back on Pudding Lane, the hottest day of the year in London eventually faded into one of the hottest nights, as Thomas left his daughters Hannah and Mary at home to deliver some unwelcome news to Sarah. Before he could tell her what he’d learned about his brother, however, Denton paid her an even more unpleasant visit, requesting that she use her position at Lord Hanford’s home to feed him information about his (presumably treasonous) activities. Seeing Denton outside Sarah’s home made Tom rethink his decision to pass on the message from the navy, and he made his way back home.
Upon his return to the bakery, he found that a spark had jumped from the ovens while the girls slept upstairs, sending the dry, wooden building up in flames. After a daring escape from their home, the real challenge of finding safety in the tinderbox of a city, and halting the spread of the fire, began to take hold. While Tom and his neighbours struggled to quell the fire, the Mayor of London delivered a master class in ineffective leadership, forcing them to continue to fight the blaze with water rather than tearing down houses to stop its progress. It didn’t take much difficulty to see that the decision would only cause further damage, and did little to bolster the people’s faith in authority.
Even more disturbing than the mayor’s wanting reaction to the fire, however, was Denton’s apparent order to apprehend Sarah just as the flames threatened to engulf her street. With her nieces and son temporarily safe in her house, her attempt to find Tom ended with her being hauled away by Denton’s agents, and given his cold determination to uncover any plot against the king, it’s safe to say she would’ve been safer battling the fire than in his custody.
Thus far, the private narratives and personal lives of The Great Fire’s key characters have proven just as chaotic, and potentially as destructive, as the fire that promises to cross all of their paths. One hour in, we’ve only just begun to see the ways in which the impending disaster might touch all of the city’s people, from those who, like Thomas, face the fire’s destructive power on the ground, to the willfully blind Charles, whose greatest test as the restored King of England, is surely yet to come.
– Kate Shepherd