Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’
In Frank Miller’s influential graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, a lion-in-winter tale about an aging Batman’s final hurrah (until the sequels came out, anyway), the Caped Crusader’s trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth is faced with the grim task of destroying Wayne Manor and the Batcave so that the outlaw vigilante’s enemies cannot exploit them. As the bombs detonate and the whole complex collapses into the earth, a stroke fells the faithful servant simultaneously. The narration spells out what passes through Pennyworth’s mind in these final moments: “‘Of course,’ he thinks, as his head goes light. ‘How utterly proper.’”
Any resemblance between Downton Abbey and the Dark Knight is almost certainly coincidental. But there was indeed something utterly proper about the downfall of another devoted butler, conveniently occurring just as the show, if not the estate itself, shuffled off this mortal coil. Carson, the captain of the upstairs/downstairs ship and a far more ferocious guardian of its class system even than those who truly benefited from it, suddenly developed a tremor in his hand and ended his days as the head of the household. As symbolism goes, it’s a bit less brutal than Batman’s manservant dropping dead in the middle of burning his mansion to the ground, but it’s no less blunt. The old ways, those who practiced them, and the show that chronicled them, now must all step aside.
I reviewed the final episode of Downton Abbey, a show I treasure, for the New York Observer. It is likely the only such review to compare the show to The Dark Knight Returns.
Matthew Goode’s performance does Henry no favors either. With the exception of his touching breakdown after the death of his friend in a car crash, he’s stuck on store-brand Young Hugh Grant mode, without the endearingly irritating stammer. His allegedly charming and irresistible character delivers lines like “I’m hot, I’m cold, I can barely breathe, and it’s all because of you” as if reading them from cue cards. Compare this to the quiet, aching intensity of Dan Stevens’s Matthew Crawley the night before his wedding to Mary, when he told her “I would never be happy with anyone else as long as you walked the earth”; the line exploded like an atom bomb of absolute devotion, not some half-assed ode to teenage twitterpation.
Most frustrating of all is the fact that none of this would have been necessary had Julian Fellowes simply spent the past three seasons taking the pieces he already had on hand and building toward their eventual assembly. In other words, it is madness, madness, that Tom and Mary never got together. I mean really, did no one involved with this production see this? Both characters lost their star-crossed spouses to sudden death at tragically young ages—when the actors playing them moved on for greener pastures, that is. In so doing, Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay gave Fellowes a gift he’d never have gotten had only one of them ankled the show: a symmetrical vacuum the surviving characters could easily, artfully fill. Sure, it would have been tough to swallow at first. But after this season especially, featuring scene after scene depicting Tom and Mary’s abiding friendship and respect—not to mention their explosive argument after she sabotages Edith’s engagement, overflowing with the kind of anger only people who truly love each other can generate—can anyone deny the chemistry was there? Yet the gift went unopened, the chemical reaction uninitiated. Fellowes had years to build them up, but instead we got Tony Gillingham and Miss Bunting and Henry freaking Talbot. Madness. Madness!
And yet! Frustrating though the conclusion to Mary’s completely theoretical grand romance with Henry may have been, it wasn’t enough to ruin what surrounded it: scene after scene of payoff for longstanding storylines, giving a sizeable segment of the cast their best material in literally years.
I reviewed last night’s big big big Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. I did not wind up where I thought I would with this one.
I almost never say this kind of thing, but I believe my writing on Downton Abbey is among my best. Check it out, maybe you will too.
Sure, everyone does yeoman’s work in selling Henry Talbot’s supposed emotional connection to Mary, mostly by making the most of the emotions that emerge in the wake of the wreck. Actor Matthew Goode looks marvelously bottomed-out when next we see him—crouched near the track, smoking a cigarette, tear-lined eyes staring blankly, covered in soot. Michelle Dockery’s porcelain face can never really properly be described as “contorted,” but as Mary she widens her eyes and mouth into perfect black O’s of terror that slacken ever so slightly the moment she realizes it was poor Charlie, and not beloved Henry, who perished. “Do you know the worst thing?” she asks in horror to Tom Branson afterwards. “When they said it was Charlie and not Henry who was dead, I was glad! Think of that—I was glad!” Mary’s ability to self-indict for her coldness and callousness has always been one of her most compelling characteristics; here she’s turning it on herself in a way that simply isn’t fair, given how most anyone would involuntarily react under such circumstances, and it’s wrenching to behold.
But while her undue disgust with herself is as easy to parse as it is hard to endure, the devastation she ostensibly feels about the end of her relationship with Henry is impossible to connect with. Who is this guy, honestly? We’ve only ever seen him show up, be handsome and charming (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), and get psyched about cars. He’s a cipher, and no amount of late-night break-up phone calls can change that, let alone a bait-and-switch in which a minor character is sacrificed in order to fan the flames of Mary’s ardor.
If Downton is serious about matching Henry up with Mary by series’ end, this represents a tremendous dereliction of duty. Mary and Matthew had over two seasons of buildup before they finally tied the knot, during which time their romance was not only the central storyline of the show, but the symbolic representation of its entire old-versus-new theme. In the process of hashing out both the plot and the metaphor, the pair got so much screentime we couldn’t help but get to know them as well as any characters in the show. Henry remains a black hole, and if Mary falls for him for real, she’ll fall right into it and take the series along with her in the end.
I reviewed this week’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. I like a lot of things about this show, but the forced romance between Mary and Henry is not one of them.
After all, what is Downton Abbey but a chance to see, as Lord Robert put it, “how the other half lives”? To admire, as Molesley put it, “fine craftsmanship and beautiful paintings”? And isn’t the flipside of that, as Lady Edith laments, that the Crawleys’ “way of life is something strange, something to queue up and buy a ticket to see, a museum exhibit, a fat lady in the circus”? (Sadly, the program has not yet delivered on Lord Robert’s idea of giving viewers their money’s worth by showing them “Lady Mary in the bath.” Hope springs eternal!) Or put more darkly, as Molesley does, don’t people “start asking, ‘Why have the Crawleys got all of this and I haven’t?’” Aren’t there plenty of critics echoing Mr. Carson’s dire warning of “a guillotine in Trafalgar Square,” but as a positive thing? These are all sentiments expressed about the potential motives for and results of the villagers’ visit, but they describe the range of reactions to the show just as accurately.
And as usual, Julian Fellowes is studiously agnostic as to which side has the right of it. Given his biography and the state of the world, neutrality isn’t really all that neutral. But I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that there’s something inherently immoral about the setup of the show. Everyone on it is so nice that much of the horror of the British class system is elided, but if you’re dim enough to watch this thing and think “those were the good old days,” that’s hardly Fellowes’s fault.
So here is Chamberlain, dining at Downton as have countless men and women before him—only to face a literal eruption of blood from a human body that no one there had predicted or planned for, except perhaps for the stomach ulcer responsible. Is there something being said here about the experience of the real Chamberlain, who believed he’d secured peace for the people of Europe, when he’d unwittingly handed a monster the knife he needed to slit the world’s throat? There’s more to the episode than this of course—Mary gets wind of Marigold’s true parentage, Edith falls in love while she and her new editor invent the thinkpiece, Tom helps Mary get closer to Henry the racecar driver (while, god willing, getting closer to her himself), Thomas and Andy have their rapprochement, Carson is a dick to Hughes, the adventures of Denker and Spratt continue, etc. But I’ll be thinking of the crimson river bursting out of Lord Robert, and how all Neville Chamberlain could do was watch.
They almost never makes it into the actual reviews, but as God is my witness my notes for every episode of Downton Abbey are full of the wit and wisdom of the Dowager Countess, and this episode alone had at least three exchanges for the ages. There was her back-and-forth with Lord Robert about how despite her handsome racecar-driving suitor, Lady Mary needed more than “a handsome smile and a hand on the gearstick”: “I’m surprised you know what a gearstick is.” “I know more than you think.” There was her dismay with her supposed ringer in the great hospital debate, Lady Prudence Shackleton, for failing to come to her aid during the argument: “How can I present myself as an expert when I don’t know the facts?” “It’s never stopped me!” And there was her riposte to Lady Edith for daring to suggest Isobel Crawley had a right to be heard: “I suppose Cousin Isobel is entitled to put up an argument.” “Of course she is! She’s just not entitled to win it!” With that, Lady Violet began chuckling and cooing to herself, as if simultaneously appreciating her own rapier wit and soothing her frazzled nerves like a purring cat. So if I’m not shining the spotlight on Dame Maggie Smith and Lady Violet, it’s not because she doesn’t deserve it—it’s because she’s been stealing it so deftly herself.
But it’s Thomas Barrow and Lady Mary Crawley who are Downton Abbey’s major creations. As Thomas and Mary, Rob James-Collier and Michelle Dockery have great faces, great voices, and feel taut and unyielding in a way few leads this side of Betty Draper are allowed to be. The Dowager gets most of the laugh lines, but these two challengingly, rewardingly difficult characters get far stronger stuff, and we get more out of them in turn. On last night’s episode, we got plenty.
Tom’s in his Downton, all’s right with the world. I hope you’re sitting down, but yes, I, Sean Thomas Patrick Collins, am Irish-American. So when it comes to Downton Abbey, I relate to and root for chauffeur-turned-radicalt-turned-suitor-turned-aristocrat-turned-widow-turned-American Tom Branson the way tomboys connect to Arya Stark, or how people who believe sociopaths who slaughter human beings like pigs just need someone to love pull for Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham to finally make it official. So imagine, just effing imagine, my unspoiled delight when I heard his dulcet brogue ring out from off screen during the wedding reception for Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Picture my unbridled joy when he said he’s back from Boston for good, ready to rejoin the family and the place he loves. Take my hand in yours and pray with me that finally, finally, he and Lady Mary will get together, a romance I ship like the Royal goddamn Navy. And imagine the entire spontaneous outpouring of emotion, complete with cheering and laughing and literal clapping at my TV screen, occurring in the final sixty seconds of the episode, with no prior warning. That’s good television, ladies and gents.
I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. No, I didn’t watch the season as it aired in the UK. No, I don’t know what happens. No, I don’t want to know what happens.
Hidden pregnancies. Children switched at birth. Scandal in a great family. Nothing happening to Lady Edith, her daughter Marigold, and the Drewes—the family generous and unfortunate enough to have tried to help her out of a jam, only to be repaid by emotional devastation and physical displacement—would be out of place on your daytime soap opera of choice, back when you had a lot to choose from. But if you pick apart this central storyline from last night’s Downton Abbey, you’ll find it’s more than the sum of its suds. As is often the case on this show, the middling or superfluous b-plots that drive many viewers mad matter very little compared to the visual, observational, and emotional strength of its finest moments.
This was lost in my dismay over the death of David Bowie, but I reviewed last week’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.
Like the House of Grantham itself, Downton Abbey begins its sixth and final season in a much diminished state. The show’s fall from grace with American critics, who once discussed it as PBS’s entrée into TV’s New Golden Age, has if anything grown more precipitous over the past year; given the series’ rather aimless fifth season, perhaps that fate is at least somewhat deserved. And while comparing one’s take on a television program to the consensus is usually a mug’s game, for a show as status-obsessed as this one it makes some sort of cosmic sense. Just as Lord Robert, Lady Cora, Lady Mary and the gang must come to terms with their uncertain future when they visit a fire-sale auction at the former home of their aristocratic friend Sir John, we’ve got to figure out where it’s all headed. With only ten or so hours to go, is there still a place in the world for the Crawleys and their loyal servants?
The answer is yes, in the real world, anyway—though it’s only if you ignore the answer in the world of the show itself that this becomes apparent. Downton has repeatedly painted its big-picture theme of change coming to the genteel realm of the English upper class with Thomas Kinkade–like factory precision, to the point where you can satirically sum it up in a single tweet with, like, half the character count left over. On a plot level, too, the series has largely exhausted the youthful energies that drove it during its first several seasons, as the three people who best personified them—Jessica Brown-Findlay’s Lady Sybil, Dan Stevens’s Matthew Crawley, and Allen Leech’s Tom Branson—departed the show, taking much of its storytelling mojo with them.
Fortunately for you and me, we’re watching a TV drama, not writing a middle-school book report. Downton’s exceedingly circumspect front-line report from interbellum England’s class warfare has little to offer a commentariat trained to respond to a hardboiled cliché-fest like Jessica Jones as if it’s Marvel’s answer to Steinem and Davis, but ideally we’d made our peace with its lack of firepower in this regard several seasons ago. The lack of the Mary/Matthew and Sybil/Branson romances is a more difficult obstacle to surmount—this is a soap opera, after all—but not an impossible one. If, as it did in tonight’s season premiere, Downton simply continues its sharp observations of human behavior among fundamentally decent people, as animated by some of the loveliest faces, voices, and cinematography on the tube, it still has much to offer.
I’ll be covering the final season of Downton Abbey for the New York Observer, and I began with a review of last night’s season premiere. I think I write well about this show; maybe you’ll think so too.
I’ve made no secret of my ongoing enjoyment and appreciation of Downton Abbey. It’s a show that mines subtle yet deep and rich rewards from exploring the emotional nooks and crannies of fundamentally stable long-term relationships. It’s sumptuously costumed, beautifully shot (think of the strong, stark imagery of the slate-gray prison that opened tonight’s episode), and performed by a cast with some of the most striking faces and voices on TV. Yes, it’s a soap, but we’re all adults here, capable of understanding that when it comes to “guilty pleasures,” the pleasure ought to overpower the guilt. It’s a fine show.
Yet by the end of this giant-sized 90-minute episode, I found myself wondering what, exactly, I’d spent the past two months watching. Season One introduced us to the setting and depicted on the culture class between middle-class Matthew Crawley and the aristocrats to whom he’d suddenly become the heir. Season Two showed us the Great War’s effect on the household and resolved the abortive romance between Matthew and Mary at last. Season Three gave us their wedding, forced Lord Robert to face the modern world, and of course produced two of the most shocking deaths in television history, Sybil’s and Matthew’s. Season Four focused on how Mary, Tom and Isobel slowly overcame their grief. Season Five…had some awkward dinner parties?
Lord Sinderby, Atticus’s father, is an antagonist from the Magneto school, a commanding figure with the silhouette of a bullet and the hard-earned pride of a man who knows his accomplishments stand surrounded by an ocean of opposition. Actor James Faulkner gives him a glare that could melt steel; there’s honestly no better way for the show to finally sell Lily James’s Lady Rose as the rightful youthful-idealist heir to the departed Lady Sybil than by showing her failing to wither in its face. And his voice joins Downton’s dulcet pantheon of greats, a sepulchural croak that’s the stuff of Disney villains. (Don’t underestimate the aural dimension of good TV: many of the New Golden Age’s best shows, fromDownton to Deadwood to The Wire to Boardwalk Empire, are as much fun to listen to as they are to look at.)
Attention, everyone who complains that Downton Abbey ignores the ugly side of its sociopolitical setup: How do you explain tonight’s episode? No, not the part where Daisy the scullery maid almost loses hope for the future of the working class as the first-ever Labour government fails. Nor the part where Lord Tony Gillingham exercises his patriarchal privilege by insisting he knows what Lady Mary wants better than she does. Nor the part where Lord Merton’s sons unleash a torrent of racial, religious, and class bigotry at the dinner table. I’m talking about the part where Downton does something that the combined military might of dozens of nations have failed to do: destroy ISIS. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, haters!
Alright, so the death of the Crawleys’ beloved labrador with the unfortunate name has nothing to do with the rise of the nihilistic nightmare in the Levant, with no less august a figure than Hugh Bonneville, Lord Robert himself,calling anyone who thinks so “a complete berk.” Any resemblance between the killers and the canine is strictly coincidental. (This ain’t Archer.) But the cross-era echo, however unintentional, serves a worthy purpose anyway. It reminds us that hidden beneath the placid surface of the Crawleys’ existence is a roiling sea of resentment that their personal gentleness and gentility can’t keep covered forever. The dark side of Downton will almost always out.
Another rung lower on the generational ladder, Lady Mary continues to impress as one of TV’s least easy characters. Her self-possession and self-confidence are admirable, appealing, and, yes, very sexy traits, all the more so when she’s demonstrating them while sporting a stylish bob haircut and a gorgeously androgynous riding outfit. (Of course, everyone looked so good in that get-up — Lord Gillingham, Mr. Blake, Miss Mabel Lane Fox, Rose’s new beau Atticus Aldridge — that if the show suddenly became all horse-racing all the time I’d hardly complain.) Yet even at her best and brightest, she has an edge that’s hard to handle: joking to her rival-turned-ally Miss Fox that she showed up at the race looking hot so that Tony could see what he was missing, then telling Blake that she beat Mabel in the race despite the advantages of letting her be the first woman to finish because “I don’t believe in letting anyone win.” Then there’s her barely concealed contempt for her kid sister, which flares up even when Edith’s in extremis over the murder of her boyfriend Gregson in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch (!). Mary greets the situation not with empathy, but with exasperation so unfeeling as to be nigh unforgivable: “What did she think he was doing, living in a tree?” What a creep! Even here, though, we have to consider both that Mary doesn’t know all the facts (she’s in the dark about Edith’s daughter with the dead man) and that Edith is, indeed, behaving unreasonably, bordering on unstably. Just when you think you’ve got Lady Mary pinned down as hero or goat, face or heel, Fellowes and actor Michelle Dockery flip the script just enough to force you to reconsider.
I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. I continue to like this show a great deal.
It’s a shame that disliking sports has passed from lame through cool back to lame again, at least in the circles I run in, because man, I really dislike sports. Downton Abbey, though? That’s something I’m willing to tailgate for. (Since there are no team colors per se, I’ll be painting my bare torso in the likeness of Lady Mary.) And if you’re into the game of love, this week’s episode was a veritable Super Bowl. So let’s consider each competitor to see who took home the trophy.
THE LOSER: MISS BUNTING
On paper, this pint-sized but passionate left-wing teacher looked like a sure thing. She reawoke Tom Branson to both his politics and his potential as a romantic partner after the death of his wife. She took a healthy interest in improving the lot of one of the downstairs servants (the extremely grateful Daisy) and in tweaking Lord Robert for his calcified ways, something many of the best characters, and people, on the show have done to great effect in the past. The problem is that she took that last bit way too far. Even if his lordship were worthy of all that invective, Tom isn’t it, nor, as he points out, are his late wife and his young daughter. Lord Robert loves all three — shouldn’t that be enough to earn him some forbearance from a woman who purports to love Tom in turn? She’s so off-base about this that when she asks Tom “Don’t you despise them?” she seems genuinely shocked that his answer is no. A nice lady, and on the side of the angels, but she doesn’t know Tom half as well as she thinks she does, so it’s hard to feel too bad about her departure from the field.
THE WINNER: LORD MERTON
It’s not the first time I’ve said this, and it may not be the last: Lord Merton is much, much better at this game than Miss Bunting. Whereas she seems determined to make everyone uncomfortable lest her pursuit of Tom compromise her political ideals, Lord Merton approaches his courtship of Isobel Crawley with sensitivity and solicitousness. He shares her interest in medicine, her enthusiasm for positive change in society, and her ability to put others at ease when in their company, to the point where even his potential romantic rival Dr. Clarkson comes to like the man and his relationship with Isobel despite his own best interests. And that’s to say nothing of the prompting of the Dowager Countess, who’s initially so opposed to the potential match-up that she describes Lord Merton’s aristocratic background in terms even Miss Bunting might find extreme; she too is won over in the end. It doesn’t seem a romance for the ages, which on Downton makes it less likely to pan out. But however he does in the post-season, he played one hell of a game tonight.
In an episode where Lord Robert gets trolled to the point of apoplexy at the dinner table, Thomas attempts to chemically castrate himself, and Lady Mary groans “ohhhh, yummy” at a fashion show, standing out as the single craziest thing to happen takes some doing. So let’s hear it for Lord Tony Gillingham, whose berserk reaction to Mary’s attempt to break up with him — in Seinfeldian fashion, he basically refuses to be dumped — sends him skyrocketing to the top of the Downton Abbey holy-shit list. It’s not the worst thing ever to happen to Lady Mary’s love life, but it may be the most topically relevant, revealing double standards about male and female sexuality that persist to this day.
Tony’s steadfast refusal to take Lady Mary’s “no” for an answer is based on his conviction that no lady of Mary’s station could possibly sleep with a man she hadn’t intended to spend the rest of her life with. Nevermind that the stated purpose of their sexual exploration was to determine whether or not spending the rest of their lives together was a good idea in the first place! No, Lord Gillingham has retconned their liaison into a fait accompli, a preemptive confirmation of love everlasting. If Lady Mary believes otherwise, well, she’d better just think a little harder, huh?
The implied threat, of course, is that if Lady Mary really were speaking the truth of her heart now — if she slept with a guy and subsequently decided to dump him — then she’s no lady at all, and therefore her confidences, and her reputation, are undeserving of Lord Tony’s further protection. “I won’t be tarnished again,” she said last week, only to discover now that the greatest threat along those lines is the guy she said it to. Her predicament is painfully reminiscent of any number of recent real-world incidents: the theft and leak of nude photos from a host of female celebrities, the use of private information to intimidate feminist video game critics by the Gamergate movement, the attempts to expose the identity of the woman at the heart of the UVA rape story. When intimacy and privacy are weaponized, women bear the brunt of the impact.
I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer. I love this show, man.
[Warning: The following statement is NSFWR (Not Safe For White Russians); please escort any and all refugees from the Revolution out of the drawing room before continuing.]
If I had to describe Lady Mary Crawley’s sex life in a sentence, I’d turn to Karl Marx. History repeats itself, he warned us, first as tragedy, then as farce. How better to describe Mary’s dangerous liaisons? The first, with the dashing Turkish attaché Kemal Pamuk back in the pilot episode, ended in death and disgrace. The second, with eager-beaver suitor Lord Tony Gillingham in tonight’s episode, turns out to be a source of dirty jokes and awkward pauses, but little else.
That’s undoubtedly disappointing for Mary, and for any of us hoping for some genuine heat emanating from her sexy skullduggery with Tony. But the comedy was cute, and that counts for something. Tony’s groan-worthy response to Lady Mary’s room-service order — “Well, you’ve worked up a big appetite” — is exactly the kind of try-hard, corny crack you might make when you’re just starting to test the boundaries of newfound intimacy. Gillingham recovers well enough, it must be said, responding to Mary’s weary “I can’t bear vulgar jokes” by telling her “I’ll make note of that. I’ve made note of everything.” But given the grimace with which Mary greets him several days later when he pays an unexpected visit to her at Downton, it seems unlikely he’ll get the chance to put his research to any use.
“I can’t bear vulgar jokes”? Speak for yourself, Lady Mary! I reviewed last night’s Downton Abbey for the New York Observer.
God’s in his heaven, the King’s on the wireless, and the thirst is real for Lady Mary Crawley. Yes, in one of Downton Abbey’s most delightful developments ever, Mary has embarked on a secret sex safari with dashing Lord Tony Gillingham, determined to determine their sexual compatibility before tying the knot. So much of the business of tonight’s episode was about preparing for this clandestine fuckfest — ordering Anna to purchase birth control, rebuffing past suitor Mr. Blake, figuring out which clothes to pack based on whether they can be removed by a revved-up gentleman instead of an expert lady’s maid — that it might as well have been called Down-Low Abbey instead.
Which is great! I mean, who’d have thought that Julian Fellowes, Tory member of the House of Lords, would craft arguably TV’s most compellingly, uniquely sexual character, and a woman to boot? Downton never uses Lady Mary’s sexuality to make her a figure of ridicule or of menace, never presents her desire as foolhardy or grotesque, never surplus or insufficient to the needs of some male counterpart. She remains herself — charming, cutting, a bit aloof, serious enough about her own happiness not to make it subservient to anyone else’s — whether in the bedroom or out of it. This can be awfully, awfully sexy, as self-confidence often is: When Anna suggested choosing only certain dresses for the trip “so you can take them on and off without my help” and Mary responded “Well, I’ll have his help,” I all but collapsed onto my fainting couch. But it can make for some terrific, character-revealing comedy too, as when she tells Mr. Blake she’s only recently emerged from the “mist” that surrounded her following Matthew’s death: “And the mist is clearing around the lithe and supple figure of Tony Gillingham,” he deadpans. “Maybe,” she shrugs, completely indifferent to how this level of indifference looks. She likes Tony, she’s planning a getaway specifically to have sex with Tony, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Few women on TV (outside of the surprisingly sophisticated Broad City, of all things) are afforded that kind of emotional freedom.
Thomas Barrow reflects an essential truth about human nature, one virtually unreported on TV today: People who are right bastards to one person can be dear, true friends to another, and never the twain shall meet. Normally, morally “complex” characters are played like, I dunno, the asshole sister Princess Amber from the Disney Junior cartoon Sofia the First: kind of a jerk most of the time, but capable of growth and learning, and eventually able to squeeze out an apology and repayment to people they’ve wronged. While this beats the white hat/black hat model of old-school Hollywood fairy tales, it still relies on an emotional and ethical flattening in which people’s behavior is more or less constant no matter who they interact with.
Thomas Barrow is different. Here’s a guy who’s clearly capable of actual, sincere friendship. He got along with his ex-BFF O’Brien for years, and that kind of closeness requires more than just mutual scheming. Now, he’s a valued buddy and advisor to James, whose trust and friendship he won despite the friendship’s origin in Thomas’s unrequited romantic interest in the guy — an interest, moreover, that Thomas appears to have truly put aside, instead being happy just to be close to a dude he likes and respects.
Yet even as he coaches Jimmy through his tryst with the good Lady Anstruther (played by Anna Chancellor, unforgettably and unfairly dubbed “Duckface” in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Thomas is an unbearable bully to Baxter, the ladies’ maid whose employment at Downton he engineered in order to have a spy he could blackmail into compliance. He’s got neither patience nor pity for her, not even when she blows up his scheme by revealing her criminal record to Lady Cora before he can narc on her. The Thomas we see with Baxter and the Thomas we see with James are like two different men.
I don’t know about you, but that maps to my life way better than I feel comfortable admitting. I’d love to be a well-rounded person at all times, evaluating everyone with whom I come into contact on a fair and impartial basis, gradually overcoming my biases and jealousies and petty rivalries; I’d also love to have a healing factor and adamantium claws like Wolverine, and neither scenario is particularly likely. No, it’s far more frequently the case that I’m kind, caring, and careful around people I like, and a nasty little shitbird to people I loathe. You can blast Downton for its soap-opera plots and aristocratic airs all you like, but when was the last time you saw a show reflect this basic reality of human nature?
I’m psyched to be covering Downton Abbey for the New York Observer this season! I started out by reviewing tonight’s season premiere.
I wrote up 16 of the New Golden Age of TV’s most surprising and suspenseful scenes and sequences for Rolling Stone (with a little help from my fabulous editor David Fear). Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deadwood, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Lost, Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black, The Shield, The Sopranos, True Detective, Twin Peaks, The Walking Dead, The Wire. Read, then vote in our neat bracket tournament thing!
* There’s something very odd about Downton‘s Christmas-special storytelling model of whisking us off to a different location and surrounding us with new characters who will be a big deal now but, as best I can tell, never again. They did it last year with Lord Shrimpy and the Highlands, and they did it this year with Prince Edward and London (and, I suppose, Harold Levinson). It felt weirder this year, though, because without the narrative atom bomb of the male lead’s death, there’s really nothing tying this episode back to the main narrative. There’s a caper that’s successful but which in historical terms is futile, there’s a trip to the beach, and there’s Paul Giamatti. The end!
* What’s more, there’s very little resolution in the offing for that main narrative. No indication of where Mary’s headed with her suitors. Nothing firm on Tom and his political teacher person. (And obviously not a scrap tossed to the Mary/Tom shippers.) No revelation regarding Thomas’s hold on Baxter. Nothing on the final fate of Michael Gregson, beyond the news that he was waylaid by Nazis (!). Bates skates on executing Green, apparently. Even the sudden, and frankly delightful, autumn-years shipping of Isobel & Lord Merton and Carson & Mrs. Hughes (!!!!!!! serving Roslin & Adama realness!) is more gestural than actual.
* It was nice to see the banker from Sexy Beast put the moves on Shirley MacLaine, though.
* Some conversation or other that Mary had with someone about how hard it can be to make relationships work even when everyone around you is pulling for them made me realize the elegance of having everyone try to get Mary and Matthew together all those years. They weren’t starcrossed at all, except perhaps at the very start. That’s a really unique and almost perverse way to construct an obstacle for your romantic pairing to overcome — it’s too perfect, everyone wants it, and the weight of that is crushing to you.
* “Your strength has made me strong.” “My what?” And so after much adversity, Molesley comes out on top, having survived his fall from the top while still being, I dunno, basically decent and trying to put one foot in front of the other. I suppose that would be inspiring to someone like Baxter, who finds herself in the thrall of creepazoid Thomas apparently because she gave up trying to take all those little steps and was content to just drift along behind him.
* That’s the most consistent ethos of this show, in the end, quite aside from however you feel about however Julian Fellowes feels about the aristocracy or the class system: It celebrates the performance of difficult emotional work. Listen to Mary talk to Tony about grieving and moving on: “A year ago, I thought I’d be alone for ever — that I would mourn Matthew to the end of my days. Now I know that isn’t true, that there will be a new life for me, one day. And even if I can’t decide yet what life that should be, isn’t it something for us to celebrate?” A lot of people, a lot of shows, would say no, slow your roll Lady Mary. Mad Men is the best show on television and it’s all about how people are goal-oriented, routinely crushed by their failure to meet those goals, and often induced into bad behavior to get there by any means necessary. There’s no room on that show for a young widow to take stock of her situation and say “I miss my husband, it’s hard being a parent without him, two dudes are into me and I don’t know how I feel about either of them, I’m presiding over the methodical rearrangement of my family’s entire way of life, I am in many ways way way out at sea, but I feel better than I did, I feel like there’s a future for me, I worked at getting here, and I’m going to enjoy that feeling.”