John Thornton’s look back at me in North and South is widely respected as a period drama moment and deserving of a breakdown. Set in the 1850s, BBC’s North and South series follows the story of Margaret Hale, whose family is uprooted from Helstone in the south to the northern industrial town of Milton. A vicar’s daughter used to the dull and prosperous life and society of the south, Margaret struggles adjusting to poverty and the fast pace of the industrial Milton. She meets local cotton mill, John Thornton, and the two immediately clash as Margaret is critical of his business methods and treatment of his workers. Over time, they grow closer and come to understand their respective differences. Not only does this provide for a compelling and well-developed love story between the two, but it allows the series to address the social issues during the Industrial Revolution.
The moment Margaret says goodbye to Mr. Thornton as she leaves Milton after her father’s death indicates the full shifting point between both characters and their relationship. As Margaret pulls away in her carriage, Thornton is watching from above, whispering, “Look back. Look back at me.” It’s a heartbreaking moment. To understand why one must examine all the moments in their relationship leading up to her departure.
At this point, their relationship is extremely fractured — Margaret has rejected Thornton’s proposal, and he thinks she is involved with someone after seeing her embrace someone in the middle of the night at the train station. Margaret has also explicitly stated that she does not consider Thornton a gentleman; as a result, he believes that she would never consider someone like him for marriage. His fears were confirmed when she rejected him, and he openly admits to his mother that no one would ever love him except his mother. Margaret’s first encounter with the mill owner depicts Thornton as a harsh, stern individual and an unsympathetic and unforgiving industrialist. But as the series progresses, we see his struggles with running his mill and his evolving relationship with his workers. As his feelings for Margaret grow, we slowly see a gentler and more caring side to him that’s accompanied by feelings of vulnerability and loneliness.
On the other hand, Margaret does not share the same sentiments as Thornton regarding Milton. As an outsider, she sees only the suffering of the workers. In her previous life at Helstone, she had grown accustomed to tranquility and kindness from those she knew. She was taught to help those in need and be there for others, all traits that are shunned by northerners. From the moment she stepped into Milton, suffering is all Margaret has known — she’s seen hunger, she’s seen strikes, she’s seen poverty. She is surrounded by gloom and dirtiness. She’s seen her friend Bessy, Boucher, and both of her parents pass away. Everything she had of her former life was finally stripped away after her father’s death.
One of Margaret’s takeaway descriptions about Milton and its cotton mills comes from the letter she sends to her cousin Edith at the end of the first episode: “I believe I’ve seen hell, and it is white. It is snow white.” As she says goodbye to the Thorntons and gets in the carriage, we see the mill is blanketed by snowfall, falling back to Margaret’s description. At that current moment, Margaret is in hell. The white falling snow indicates that Margaret is at her lowest point, and she believes there is nothing more Milton can possibly offer her. While her feelings for Mr. Thornton have changed at this point and she now views him in a more possible light, she’s aware of how he views her after the night in the train station. Any hope she had lingering for Milton has diminished.
Meanwhile, Thornton is still convinced that the woman he loves does not reciprocate his feelings, nor is he aware that the stranger he saw was her brother. Despite all of this, he still desperately wishes for Margaret to look back at him. Why? Throughout the series, Margaret repeatedly looks back and makes eye contact with Thornton, often at the same spot in the mill where she and Thornton are standing as she leaves. Other instances include when she climbs the stairs during the strikers’ meeting and looks back to find Thornton staring over the window, or when she looks back at him during the dinner party as she’s being led away by Mr. Bell.
It’s a look that goes beyond the words from their exchanges, one that tries to look inside a person. For all they’ve gone through, Thornton still loves her deeply and wishes for just a hint that she feels the same. It brilliantly shows Thornton’s internal struggle; when he remembers the embrace with the stranger, he is flushed with emotions of betrayal and rejection, but he is still unable to control the bursting feelings that remain for her. To him, her looking back is that confirmation, that not only is she seeking him out, but she sees him, all of him, completely bare and as he is.
It’s a scene that displays the emotional journey both characters have gone through. Margaret feels all alone in the world, even though there is someone willing to stand by her side forever. Thornton has stripped off his layers, unguarded and exposed, faced with the horrible agony that he is alone and always will be. All of which could simply be gone if Margaret looked back as she normally did. It’s a simple scene with few words that encapsulates the heartbreak, regret, and surrounding sorrow and reminds you that sometimes, more is said when unsaid. And so much of North and South benefits from the unsaid, the quiet moments of wordless communication.
North and South is now streaming on BritBrox.