This article contains spoilers from the series “World on Fire.”
There’s an indescribable emotion that comes up when watching the Season 2 premiere of PBS series “World on Fire” during a pandemic. While one shouldn’t conflate the experiences of those living in World War II with those living during the COVID-19 outbreak, catastrophes such as our current one generate pain and suffering for nameless citizens who are often forgotten by history and the media. “World on Fire” writer Peter Bowker speaks precisely to the experiences of the common person — eschewing the overarching themes of jingoism, nationalism and supposed heroism to focus on the big and small struggles of the ignored.
Bowker opens the premiere in Manchester, U.K. where two young idealists Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King, “The Songs of Names”) and Lois Bennett (Julia Brown, “The Last Kingdom”) protest a rally headed by the show’s version of the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley. After being arrested and promptly released on bail, Harry’s family is revealed to be upper-class, dismissive of their son’s relationship with Lois and his activism — a sentiment embodied by the matriarch Robina Chase (Lesley Manville, “Misbehaviour”). In contrast, Lois belongs to a working-class family, headed by World War I veteran Douglas Bennett (Sean Bean, “Possessor”). Class tensions are palpable as soon as Robina and Douglas infer each other’s social statuses.
There is much to unpack from the gravitas delivered by Manville and Bean. You are discomforted by Robina’s privileged lifestyle (particularly when she unironically calls herself an elitist) while feeling a heavy twinge of sympathy for Douglas — a pacifist (bizarre to associate with Bean’s previous warrior and expansionist roles) who is ashamed of the PTSD he developed from his experiences as a soldier. Yet both are slowly dragged into the impending doom of World War II through their children, and their reactions resulting from their experience of World War I oddly bring the two generations together through a unique, perhaps unholy, juxtaposition. Bowker’s talent for weaving multiple disparate elements within a 1940s-era melodrama shines brightest through the inclusion of two characters that, ironically, do not interact at all on screen.
The juxtaposition does not end there. Bowker sends the idealistic Harry to Warsaw as a translator for the British Embassy, where he promptly begins a relationship with local waitress Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichlacz, “DNA”). Aside from highlighting Harry’s dubious and debauched decision to casually discard Lois, the irony of this new relationship makes for yet another jarring comparison. When the bombs begin blasting across Warsaw’s neighborhoods, you will inhale with discomfort as you witness Harry propose to Kasia after she saves his life. The feeling will continue as Harry and Kasia prepare to return to England — Harry doesn’t tell his family about the engagement while his mother Robina prepares welcome parties that hinge on Harry’s arrival date and no surprise guests. You’ll find the blindspots of the privileged family in times of war especially aggravating. The episode’s cliffhanger finds Kasia pushing her brother onto the last train leaving Warsaw — she joins her family in enlisting in the Polish Resistance, an action Harry can barely fathom as his idealism begins to wear down through the beginnings of World War II.
Rounding out the expositions of Bowker’s hoard of characters, Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt, “The Night Clerk”) is an American journalist reporting on Germany’s war atrocities across the Germany-Poland border. A reporter with experience covering the Spanish Civil War, Nancy is clearly aware of the atrocities that transpire in eras of violence and war. Her experiences prompt her to warn her nephew Webster O’Connor (Brian J. Smith, “Treadstone”) to leave Paris. Yet Webster is another classic example of an American citizen enamored with the lifestyles of others and hopelessly attempting to fall in love with a Parisian local. In comparison to Nancy’s war-weary experiences and demeanor, Webster’s reasons for refusing to leave Paris ring just as tone-deaf as the actions of Robina. Bowker highlights that for every citizen who struggles with the injustices of society and war, there is another citizen who is completely unaware of them.
Bowker’s ability to mesh together a complicated exposition during the premiere of “World on Fire” hinges on his international cast and overarching narrative of retelling war on individual levels. The premiere highlights the messiness and chaos of people’s experienceswhen compounded by humanitarian crises. With the sheer amount of characters, unraveling storylines and unapproached relationships, you may wonder if the remainder of the second season will be just as chaotic and disorganized as the premiere. But the melodrama ends just as World War II begins — and would the show be nearly as realistic or as compelling if the premiere had been neatly presented?