Margaret Meldrew: One Foot in the Grave

This article contains spoilers for the final episode of “One Foot in the Grave.”

There’s a British sitcom called One Foot in the Grave, which I don’t believe has ever aired in the US. It’s all about a retired man who spends most of his time finding ways to get even with or teach lessons to stupid and/or selfish people. While it conforms more or less to the standard sitcom conventions, the humor was at times dark enough to stir up some controversy. Victor believes what’s wrong with the world is that “nobody does anything about anything.” An example of his philosophy: some jerk cuts him off in traffic, and he sees a computer company logo on the side of the guy’s car. He calls the man up, claiming to want to buy a computer. The guy comes to his home and Victor wastes quite a bit of his time before deciding not to buy, and informing the irate salesman he should remember this next time he thinks about cutting someone off in traffic.

Victor’s wife Margaret is fairly tolerant of Victor’s vigilante activities, but she often indicates he’s taking things too far, or creating more trouble for himself than for the wrongdoer. Until the final episode of the final series, in which Margaret takes center stage.

To sum up what happens in the episode: Victor has been killed by a hit and run driver who was never found. Margaret is coping with the help of a new-found friend, Glynnis, who lost her husband to a terminal disease just a week after Victor’s accident. Margaret tells a priest in no uncertain terms that the way she’s “coping” is that if she ever finds the bastard who killed her husband without so much as taking responsibility for it, she’ll kill him. The priest hopes she’ll find it in herself to forgive instead.

Letting people get by with their irresponsibilities on the basis of a noble notion like forgiveness was never Victor’s style. Neither is it the message of the show. It took a death for Margaret to reach Victor’s level of impatience with the human race, but she has reached it.

As Margaret tells Glynnis what a miracle it is they found each other, Glynnis develops a migraine. Margaret goes into the kitchen to put a couple of Glynnis’ migraine pills into a glass of fruit juice for her. There she stumbles across a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about Victor’s accident. She realizes Glynnis is the hit and run driver who killed Victor.

She comes back into the living room with the fruit juice, as ominous music plays. Glynnis reaches for the juice, but Margaret withdraws it and stares at her. Glynnis realizes what’s happened and confesses to her role in Victor’s death. She was driving too fast, she was tired, she was about to come back when she saw Margaret arriving to pick Victor up. She sought Margaret out to see what she could do for her, but never found the strength to tell her the truth.

Margaret gives her the juice – more ominous music – and Glynnis drinks it. The next thing we see is Margaret sighing and driving away. The obvious question (maybe not from my description, but when you watch the episode) is: did Margaret put an overdose of painkillers into the juice? The creators have left it open-ended. Personally, I can’t reconcile forgiveness with the show’s overall message about taking action when people behave irresponsibly.

For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What’s important here is that we have a woman in her sixties taking action in her life. If she forgave Glynnis, that’s certainly not something Victor would have done. If she killed Glynnis, that too is something Victor never proposed to do. Margaret may have chosen to be the passive partner, reacting to the plots Victor set in motion in their lives, but she is not Victor. She’s a very complicated and interesting person in her own right.

At first, I considered the open ending an artistic cop-out (that’s my usual reaction to them), but then I realized how the open ending forces us to think about her at length and speculate about just who she is and what she’s capable of. We see her taking various actions – deciding how to spend her time and take care of the daily business that Victor usually handled – so we learn that Margaret is a survivor, which is interesting. But it’s the question of whether she killed Glynnis that forces us to think long and hard about exactly who Margaret is, and what she’s capable of. It’s rare for TV or movies to encourage the audience to study women of any age or description. Here it’s actually unavoidable. In order to decide what you think happened, you have to get to know Margaret.

Comments

  1. behindbarrs says

    Wow. I just started watching that show, but I don’t think I will anymore. It sounds morbid!

  2. Robin says

    I think it’s aired on PBS, but I haven’t watched it. Might have to make a point of it if it comes up on the schedule again. Sounds quite intriguing. Particularly since I’ve just seen Annette Crosbie in Little Dorrit and she was quite good.

  3. says

    Thanks, Debi – fixed it.

    Behindbarrs, well, no, it’s not a happy shiny sitcom in which the human race is portrayed as gosh-so-nice. That’s why people like it. ;)

    Robin, she is great in this!

  4. Allan Provost says

    Just saw the last episode of “One Foot in the Grave” last night. A fabulous series full of wonderful comedy, but meaningful moments as well. The only TV series I was willing to shell out for. My feeling is that Margaret did not kill Glynnis. Not because she didn’t want to, but the migraine medicine is probably not strong enough.It is possible that she did overdose the woman who will wake up feeling terrible. I think what Margaret felt in the car is that Victor was right about people never doing anything about anything and there’s nothing she can do about it, but go on. She at least has the satisfaction of knowing what happened. Anybody who loves really intelligent comedy should watch this series.

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