Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’
* 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.”
* “Work’s like old age, milady: the worst thing in the world, except for the alternative.” Farmer Drewe succumbs to Downton Abbey‘s epigram epidemic.
* “It’s only me.” “I always feel that greeting betrays such a lack of self worth.” Shipping the Dowager and Isobel so hard!
* Was it me or did the Dowager more or less flee the babies?
* Anna tells Lady Mary the secret. Jeez, Anna. Surely you know what will happen.
* I’ve never heard anyone compared to “a sloth underwater” before.
* “Blimey! He puts a lot in a latter, does Alfred.” Can he cram in an explanation of why there was a storyline about him?
* “They’re sweet on each other, but it’s not as simple as that, is it. Then there’s Mr. Blake…” “I thought she didn’t like him.” “She didn’t, at first.” Anna and Bates taking the temperature of the vagaries of the human heart.
* “What’s the matter?” “I was thinking about a couple of people who are in a situation which will cause trouble.” “Will it make them unhappy?” “It’s hard to say. It’ll make some people unhappy.” Isobel asks the right question, there, and an unusual one. That’s the virtue of this show.
* Molesley and Baxter, sittin’ in a tree.
* “Won’t you defend your principles?” “No, not now.” Discretion is the better part of Branson.
* “Why ask the question when the decision has been made?” Another good question, thanks, Rosamund!
* “Well, I heard you had an interesting day. Whether or not it was tiring, you’d know better than I.” Worldly, fuck-wise Lady Mary wonders who’s been watering Cousin Rose!
* “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.” We all know that person.
* Actually this is a very strong Dowager episode. “If I told you the truth, Granny, you’d never speak to me again.” “Then you have told me the truth. But I’d like to hear it enunciated more clearly.” And then, “I’m a feeble substitute for the entire Crawley family.” “Mmm, yes. But you’re better than nothing.” Lady Violet’s increasingly a creature out of time, her clothing like a time capsule that emits disses at regular intervals.
* “I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.” Tom Branson gives voice to Downton Abbey‘s soul. The rejoinder — very convenient when you’re the people on top! — is obvious.
* “I probably should have stopped it sooner, but at any rate…I’m stopping it now.” The sigh thrown in there is the first moment that Jack Ross felt like a real person instead of some very weird, like, Disney World performer. So this is the out Downton gives itself for its “no way, not even on Downton” interracial relationship — Rose’s rebelliousness and Jack’s inherent decency. Yeah, alright, I guess. I can’t help but feel that if this is the best Fellowes could do, he shouldn’t have done it in the first place.
* Tony’s intransigence walks that fine line between clever and stupid, or as Mary puts it, “I find that both irritating and beguiling in equal measure.” His puppy-dog Byron looks become him, as does that unutterably romantic kiss earlier in the season, though Mary and Blake obviously have the Sam and Diane thing going. I take it this love triangle, the genteel past vs. the rough-edged future, is meant to be the equal of a potential Mary/Tom matchup? I’m a skeptic.
* I have no idea why Robert and Tom needed to go to America at all, really — shooting schedules for the actors — but at least we got a nice romantic kiss for Robert and Cora at the end. They don’t get enough of that.
* “My dear, all life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one, then the next, then the next, till at last we die. Why don’t you get us an ice cream?” Huh, maybe this is the soul of Downton.
* “He’s the most unconvincing fiancé I’ve ever come across.” That may have been Violet’s best line tonight, and that’s saying something.
* Green’s dead. Not a big surprise.
* “Friends forever.” Well, I didn’t think they’d do it, but the Daisy/Ivy/Alfred storyline has redeemed itself with this denouement, a detailed and touching argument in favor of treating people with whom you’ve had very high-stakes emotional struggles with decency and respect. How about that! “If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.” Even a Mrs. Patmore beat gets thrown in for good measure! <3
* "What sort of menage has that turned into while I've been away?" And a line of ladies looks on. Maybe that’s the soul of Downton.
Couple weeks late on this. Apologies, my lord.
* I enjoy when Robert and Cora mildly disagree. “I suppose we’ve made our decision.” If the aristocracy has always been this genially ineffectual how does it even exist?
* “I know plenty of relatives of English earls who belong in gaol.” You becha, Bob!
* Mrs. Hughes asks her not to send Bates to America, and suddenly Lady Mary gets stroppy about the servants not serving enough! I guess not everyone‘s genially ineffectual.
* “All those handsome stewards strutting down the boat deck.” “Don’t be vulgar. What do you know of such matters?” “I’ve been married. I know everything.” Worldly, fuck-wise Lady Mary is the best Lady Mary.
* Uh-oh, the Dowager’s got a cough. Cue near-death storyline!
* Even though his potential face-turn was abandoned immediately upon the start of the season, Thomas still has his good points, and his friendship with Jimmy, odious though Jimmy himself may be, is one of them. Watching them pal around is…nice…I guess?
* Poor Evelyn Napier, always the suit, never the suitor.
* At least Anna’s realized there’s no such thing as a secret at Downton.
* The Dowager refers to Isobel’s verbosity by likening her to “a drunken vicar.” Her conversational anticlericalism is a hoot.
* “Vive le difference!” Oh brother. Cousin Rose…there’s just nothin’ there.
* “But first, kiss me. Or don’t you want to?” “Oh, I want to. Don’t you worry about that.” Now that’s what I’m talking about! Rose may be kind of a cipher and Jack Ross is one of the most weirdly acted characters on a big show ever, but that’s a fabulously romantic exchange. A few more of those and there may be something to this.
* “Have you met my niece and her charming bastard?” Edith has learned the limits of the gentility’s gentility.
* “I’m killing the wanted child of the man I’m in love with and you ask if I’ve thought about?” We can, and should, take issue with Downton‘s handling of reproductive rights, but this line is a headshot on the well-meaning paternalism of the anti-choice movement.
* Keep saying “the pigman,” Downton.
* Branson meets cute with a political woman. I’m starting to worry that the show placing the shipping of Tom and Mary at the center of its entire architecture is a fake-out!
* Oh shit, Lady Mary getting muddy, hair down, goodness gracious great balls of fire.
* Yeah, a pretty grim take on abortion indeed. Don’t be a crying lady! Keep that baby!
* “The tears and the heartbreaks that’ll flavor my puddings for weeks to come.” If it taste’s good then at least some good has come of the Ivy/Daisy/Jimmy/Alfred storyline!
* I ship Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager.
* “You’ll be rewarded in heaven.” “The sooner, the better.”
* Lady Mary’s suitor can’t stay away. “Sounds to me as if the needle’s got stuck.”
* Wow, that was some look Bates shot Mr. Green. There’s the menace everyone supposedly sees in Bates all the time.
* The first “complicated feeling, elegantly expressed” of the evening comes in the exchange between Tom and Robert about pig farming on the estate: “I thought you were convinced.” “I am, but I’m allowed to be nervous.” Lotta shows out there with life-or-death stakes all the time that don’t have time for all the emotional work each of us does day in and day out.
* Edith’s storyline managed to be both supremely unsurprising — pregnancy as predicted! — and take a turn I didn’t see coming — Gregson’s not just avoiding her (from what I assumed were eventually going to prove to reasons that had nothing to do with “you put out so now I’m out of here”), he’s disappeared entirely and no one can find him. So it’s not that the show doesn’t do life-or-death stakes, or handle the latter well when it comes to that, just that it makes room for other things too. I thought Laura Carmichael handled it all very well fwiw, combining her usual “nobody loves me everybody hates me now I’m gonna eat some worms” demeanor and her recent coming-out-of-her-shell-somewhat demeanor and an “oh my god what the hell is happening” panic.
* Angry Isobel rules, basically. “I’m not your lady– oh, nevermind.” “Things! Things! Things!” It’s occasionally fun to see her come up short against the Dowager, who of course is right to say Isobel is fueled by indignation, but it’s more fun to see her as her own person, I think. Her sense of indignation coexists with her decency and kindness, and her awareness of how her own limitations impede other people. This episode showed her emerging from the mist, as Robert said, but that involved reaching out to Mary and Tom as much as it did whiteknighting for the gardener kid over the purloined letter-opener.
* “It’s a wonder you don’t burn the Abbey down and dance around it, painted with woad and howling.” Okay, that’s pretty great, I admit.
* “How you hate to be wrong.” “I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation.” That too, even though it’s easy and moreover a remix of something she said already a couple seasons ago.
* “You’re nervous because you’re intelligent, Alfred. Only stupid people are foolhardy.” This is a cool line and a solid aphorism and a nice defense of Alfred against dumb handsome Jimmy (even if Alfred’s a stiff and the servants’-quarters love quadrangle has been the show’s least interesting story for a full season now). But more than that, perhaps it’s also a window into Carson’s traditionalism. Change, modernity, the future, these things make him nervous because it would be stupid to be foolhardy about them, so he thinks. Right?
* Hahaha anyone who thinks Julian Fellowes is entirely forgiving of the aristocracy should note the obvious discomfort and condescension with which they greet Alfred’s unsolicited display of emotion about Carson. Like they just saw a dog they think is super-cute piddle in the corner.
* “Ooh I like that Valentino. He makes me shiver all over.” “What a very disturbing thought.” Only stupid people are foolhardy, Carson.
* Thomas and his spy Baxter — what to think, what to think. He obviously has something on her, or perhaps on a male relative. That’s the best I can come up with. This seems like Thomas’s undoing in the making at last, sad to say.
* “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” “That gives you a bit o’ leeway.” Mrs. Patmore with the layup.
* It’s very rare for Lady Cora to get a decent zinger — she is a very odd character in the context of this show in that way — but when she ostentatious meets’n'greets the Bateses at the restaurant, shaming the maitre d’ into seating them, she had a good one: “That seems to have made a difference. Thank God he’s a snob!”
* He’s also the wine merchant who tried to poison Daenerys Targaryen. A nogoodnik through and through!
* Also, was her joke about the maitre d’ killing himself a Python reference? She gets meta with a Ragtime reference later in the episode, so….
* “I’m not a victim. That’s not who I am. The worst part is that you see me as a victim.” No no, Bates assures her, he doesn’t see her as victim, instead he sees her as a helpless person he should have protected. The wages of the patriarchy is misery even for the loving and well-intentioned.
* Jimmy and Ivy…I don’t know. Not for the last time in this episode will a storyline be short-circuited to an extent because a female character with a botanical moniker has never really cohered into an actual person.
* Anyone else hoping for a Molesley/Carson fistfight when all is said and done?
* The Mary/Blake Sam/Diane thing… I don’t know about that, either. Won’t poor Evelyn Napier ever get his day in court? Is he always to be passed over for dashing if fragile Turks and minions of Lloyd George?
* “I’m not unhappy. I’m just not quite ready to be happy.” Good Lord, the scene in the nursery with Mary, Tom, and Isobel is one of my favorite scenes in the history of this show — gentle, sad, genuinely both bitter and sweet. “Well. Aren’t we the lucky ones!” I gasped “Jeeeeesus” when Isobel said that. The power of that choice, that decision to see it that way — the amount of emotional labor required, and the rewards of it. And then the kids come in. Remarkable work.
* “My people came over in the 1790s. We won’t go into why or how.” Haha you’re alright, Jack Ross, you’re alright. Actually, Ross is quite interesting, insofar as unlike basically every other character introduced to make the Crawleys uncomfortable with the changing world, the issues at play here are still very much a part of our day-to-day lives in a way we all recognize. (Class is also still an issue but it takes a different form than the English aristocracy, obviously. Racism’s just racism.) Indeed Downton is either asking us to show enormous forbearance or level pretty harsh condemnation on the various members of the family who’ve shown discomfort with Ross’s presence, depending on how generous you want to be to Fellowes.
* The problem, honestly, is Rose, who’s still not a person we know anything about. She’s a plot device, and a set of adjectives: young, vibrant, rebellious, naive. This isn’t Tom and Sybil, though that’s its obvious and intended antecedent. For one thing I don’t think we’re to believe Rose and Jack are in love, just that they’re fun sexy young people who enjoy each other.
* Insert joke referencing the Dowager’s remonstrance to Edith that she should let her time in London “rub off” on her here.
* Okay, so, yes, Anna’s fucked up — her concern for Bates is something to cling to.
* There was quite obviously more to Baxter than meets the eye, from the start.
* Huh, did Gregson cancel his order of the cow because he got the milk for free?
* First Wilde, now Byron — the Dowager shivving major literary figures left and right!
* “Nobody cares about anything as much as you do. ha ha! haha! hahaha!” I haven’t said this in a while, but Lady Violet laughing at her own jokes is the best thing about Lady Violet. I find myself hoping Maggie Smith came up with that on her own.
* Right, okay, so Thomas’s maid is gonna kill ‘em with kindness. So much for my theory last season that Thomas was going to find that acting friendly opened enough doors for him that being friendly would be easier to do than not.
* Uh-oh, Edith at the doc. Whatever could the matter be?
* Evelyn Napier’s back! I…don’t know why I got so excited about that, either.
* “The sight of me is torture for her which is torture for me.” Trill shit.
* Very long shot of Bates crying. Man, that was tough. But…I don’t know, Bates is not a character who lends himself to existential terror. Discovering that the woman whose love defines your whole life wants nothing to do with you and won’t tell you why would be horrifying, but his decency and stoicism, and Brendan Coyle’s performance of same, doesn’t allow for plumbing those depths.
* “I don’t want to lose you, Tom.” And with that line, the show at last acknowledges the way that, intentionally or not, it threw the entire weight of its storytelling mechanism behind shipping Lady Mary and Tom Branson, like I don’t think any show has ever done before. That they’ve taken it nowhere up until this point speaks well for Julian Fellowes, in much the same way that taking his time with Mary and Matthew — making them not star-crossed, but simply incompatible, for various reasons, for two full seasons — spoke well for him.
* Here’s what I don’t get about Anna and Bates. Bates finds out Anna was raped. He’s very kind and thoughtful about it, you know, after prying and whatnot, with the exception of declaring of the rapist “he’s a dead man.” Anna’s panic about this exact reaction turns out to have been borne out. But much of their ensuing conversation revolves around how Bates will basically do anything for Anna because she walks on water to him. If she said “John, listen, I know you’re angry, but if you kill this man and go to jail it will kill me, too, so I need your word that you won’t do anything, because it would hurt me terribly,” he’d agree, right? At least as far as the show’s calculus regarding this couple would dictate?
* “You are made higher to me, and holier, because of the suffering that you’ve been put through.” Whoa. That’s…whoa. That’s romance as Christian martyrdom. That’s Bates and Anna, I guess.
* Oh right the footman tried to be a chef.
* Anna a woman alone, isolated against the sky outside the Abbey. Why subtle when you can spectacle?
* “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.” Tell me about it, Lady Violet.
* The relationship between Isobel and the Doctor is one of my favorites on the show because of its politesse. “I’ll think about it,” she says of one of his attempts to persuade her back into business as a health advocate at the hospital. Then she adds “I will — I promise.” A promise to him and to her. lovely.
* “Don’t be transparent, Mama. It doesn’t suit you.” Throughout this episode Lady Mary’s Dowager comes out.
* Wait, Branson slept with thirsty maid? How did I miss that? Oh, right, the rape scene.
* “I am already full of regrets. There is nothing but regret in me.” The Irish can be exceedingly bleak. No, seriously, fabulous line. This is a well-written show, if you like to hear complex sentiments elegantly expressed, which I do.
* “It’s immoral to react in such a jealous and selfish way.” “If we only had moral thoughts, what would the poor churchmen find to do?” You see what I’m saying? That’s a funny Dowager line, but it’s also an exchange in which Isobel isolates and upbraids an emotion inside her she dislikes but feels nonetheless. You really don’t get that on TV very often — everyone’s either straightforward or deceitful. Few people are at the usual low-grade war with themselves that we all are.
* “I hope you find a way to make friends with the world again.”
* “Being a family means welcoming new members, isn’t that right Braithwaite.” Lady Cora can always be counted on for all-too-apt obliviousness.
* Say what you will about the conservatism of Downton Abbey and Julian Fellowes, but having Lord Robert refer to having doctors’ offices outside of hospitals as potentially creating “a nation of hypochondriacs” is not meant to make this position sympathetic.
* “Ivy moves so fast for a beginner, don’t she?” It’s fun to see Daisy take a crack at someone, but I still just could not care less about this footman/kitchen maid love quadrangle.
* “The woman you loved loved you.” “But it doesn’t change anything.” “It changes you, from where I’m looking.” Again, a complex set of ideas about interpersonal relationships expressed elegantly. And by Hughes and Carson, no less!
* An exception to this rule, and to my ears an appropriate one, is the bluntness with which Anna describes how being raped makes her feel, which of course is where this episode, and the season, and possibly the series, was going to rise and fall. “I’m not good enough for him. Because I think I must have somehow made it happen. I feel dirty. I’m soiled.” These are concepts that we learn about, if we’re lucky, in books and articles and essays designed to introduce them only to tell us “no, this isn’t true.” But Anna doesn’t have that. She can’t, and doesn’t need to, come up with some mellifluous way to reinvent the wheel about these feelings. She just comes out and says them. Mrs. Hughes tries her best to bat them down, but they’re snubnosed and strong.
* “Better a broken heart than a broken neck.” Perhaps Anna’s focus on Bates’s reaction is designed to show us her side of their mutual selflessness. Perhaps it’s designed to indicate she’s more comfortable worrying about him than she is dealing with how she feels about what happened to her. I think either is valid.
* Gillingham’s alright I guess.
* What a weird voice on that jazz singer!
* Cousin Rose dancing with a……………………
* LOL, leave it to the Irishman to punch downward in the social standings! This is as depressing here as it ever is.
* “I will find out” sez Bates. This is…less than romantic, dude!
* “Jeez, Mrs. Hughes.” That’s what my notes said, and I’m not sure why. But boy, is she a mover and a shaker this season! Oh wait, now I remember, it’s that Branson went right to her, of all people, to confess his dalliance, which I’m still not sure happened or not. Tom, she’s got enough on her plate right now.
* Gillingham pops the question after a whirlwind four-day courtship. “He’s dead, and I’m alive.” This is…less than romantic, dude!
* “You fill my brain.” Okay, that’s better.
* “You’re very persuasive.” “Then be persuaded.” Even warmer!
* “Take as long as you need.” Oh brother.
* Wow, Mrs. Hughes is Sherlock Holmes!
* “You can’t force me,” sez Edna of taking some kind of primitive pregnancy exam. Oh yes I can, says Mrs. Hughes. This is a troubling conversation to have given the concurrent rape storyline.
* Edna’s out, much to my surprise. This show moves quicker than Ivy!
* Edna reads Thomas, and vice versa. Glorious.
* “Edith’s about as mysterious as a bucket.” Lady Mary out-Dowagers the Dowager!
* “I don’t dislike him.” “Ooh, what a recommendation.” Violet on the comeback trail!
* Whoa, Edith and Gregson getting their fuck on!!!!
* “It’s good for you to be reminded you once had a heart, and it’s to reassure the staff that you belong to the human race.” IS THAT MRS. HUGHES’ ENTRANCE THEME I HEAR?
* “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.” -Carson. Again, this is a very well-written show! And this may be close to its raison d’etre?
* Glad to see a Robert/Bates scene. “My goodness, that was strong talk for an Englishman.” Bon mots for everyone!
* “Matthew fills mine, still, and I don’t want to be without him. Not yet.” Lady Mary letting Gillingham down relatively easy, given the stridency of his “he’s dead and I’m alive.”
* “I’ll never love again as I love you in this moment, and I must have something to remember.” Yes, it’s been quite a long weekend!
* On the other hand, Kissing someone you know you will not be with, just to feel good? Ah, that’s romantic as hell. Erotic, even.
* Jesus the sunlight on their silhouettes after Mary jilts Tony, talking to Tom and Robert in the foyer, goddamn. And then Rosamund and Edith, streaks of red against dark color, sitting in that room. This show is a marvel to look at and listen to.
* “You may find yourself feeling very sorry later” says Rosamund to Edith regarding sleeping with Gregson. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Is this why we had Tom and Edna’s short-lived pregnancy storyline — for foreshadowing?
I reviewed tonight’s Downton Abbey for Rolling Stone. That was a disturbing episode. Can a show like this take the weight? That’s what I try to figure out.
Back in black: I reviewed the Season Four premiere of Downton Abbey for Rolling Stone. I enjoy writing about this show a great deal.
Over at Rolling Stone I ask exactly that. Excited to be covering the show for RS again this season.
I’ve been keeping pretty busy these days.
At Cool Practice, I wrote about “Missing You” by John Waite and the kinkiness of crystalline-sheen ’80s pop rock. This is the sound of my soul.
At Vorpalizer, I continued my series of posts on alt-genre webcomics with entries on SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki and Forming by Jesse Moynihan. I also posted the second in a series on formative fantastic fiction, focusing on Taran Wanderer and the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.
And at Rolling Stone, I updated my list of the Dowager Countess’s best quotes from Downton Abbey Season Three with a few from the season finale.
Can’t think of very many things I’ve had more fun writing about than this season of this show. Thanks for reading.
I made a list of the 12 best Dowager Countess quotes from Downton Abbey season three for Rolling Stone. This was a fun piece to put together.
And at MTV Splash Page I wrote some stuff about who’d win in a fight between Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones and a bunch of X-Men characters, now that Peter Dinklage has been cast in the next X-Men movie. It’s every bit as silly as it sounds.
I sure love writing about this show, and tonight there was twice as much to write about it. Click for my review at Rolling Stone.
The thing about comfort food is that when someone serves you a piping hot plate of it week after week, you never suspect that one day they’re going to grab it and smash it into your face.
“We all live in a harsh world.” I wrote about whores, Irish, and other undesirables in my review of tonight’s Downton Abbey episode for Rolling Stone.
I freaking LOVED writing about this week’s Downton Abbey. It’s at Rolling Stone. #teamedith
I’m pleased to announce that I’m continuing my unbroken streak of getting paid to write about Best Drama Emmy nominees and covering the American airing of Downton Abbey for Rolling Stone this season. Here’s a cheat sheet I whipped up to bring folks up to speed, breaking the cast down couple by couple.
Let me also take this opportunity to howl into the void about the delay between the show’s debut in the UK and its rebroadcast here in the States. Thanks to this I’ve had preeeetty much the whole season blown for me, goddammit, just in the process of googling/wikiing around while factchecking this cheat sheet. Please don’t spoil me any further, but yes, I know that that happens, and no, I AM NOT EMOTIONALLY PREPARED FOR IT IN THE SLIGHTEST.
* I’m quite proud of myself for remaining almost entirely unspoiled about the entirety of Downton Abbey to date. What little I did happen across told me less than nothing. A TV Guide cover asking whether Mary and Matthew would marry only asked the question obvious to any viewer from the pilot on. And hey, when was the last time a PBS show ended up on the cover of a supermarket checkout-aisle magazine anyway? I was more happy for the show than irked at the TMI. More troubling was the season-finale review headline I saw in the sidebar at XOJane: “A Happy Ending No One Wanted,” it read, so at least to an extent, I knew where things were headed. (Once I figured out it wasn’t part of this Julieanne Smolinski piece on handjobs, that is.) But it was more cryptic than revelatory: Was it referring to an ostensibly positive outcome the characters nevertheless didn’t really want? Or did it mean the show had served us something it expected us to like, but we didn’t? I wasn’t spoiled, I was intrigued. (Having seen the ending, which was the happy ending I wanted thankyouverymuch, I still can’t figure out what they must have meant.)
* Rather, what I’d heard about the second season, from a comment here, a tweet there, was that it wasn’t as good at the first, and that this dimunition in quality was tied to an increase in the soapiness of the storylines. And indeed, as reported, Series Two was some sudsy shit. The evil ex returns! An imposter! Rejected by Father after marrying across the tracks! Pregnant after a night’s indiscretion! The climactic all-hands-on-deck natural disaster that threatens them all! Random and unexplained yet somehow reassuring flashes of the paranormal! The doctors say he’ll never walk again, for god’s sake! Each and every one of these plots was featured on The Young and the Restless over the past year, folks. Each and every one!
* But to be blunt — who cares? The show is a soap. It’s about romance and family among a huge cast in a fixed geographic location. Why not embrace, and enhance the production value, of as many soap tropes as possible? At any rate nothing here was more outlandish than Lady Mary’s first sexual encounter ending with the death of her lover in flagrante, for pete’s sake. All of it was handled with the wit and skill and beauty I’d come to expect from the show. (God was it beautiful to look at at times — the misty Christmas morning, the red afternoon light in the library as the family watches the touring war-hero general play a game, the swirling camera when Anna first spotted the secretly returned Bates down in the village.) And frankly, no one who watches Breaking Bad has any right to complain about any show being over the top or hard to swallow.
* For me, the show this season was notable as a showcase for a handful of the performers/characters, and for World War One.
* Rob James-Collier’s Thomas was certainly a grower this season. For starters his is the most underrated of the show’s Great Speaking Voices — the stentorian tones of Carson, the silken waveform of Lady Mary, the bedroom rasp of Lady Sybil, the posh perfection of Lord Grantham. Thomas’s voice sounds like it’s only slipping out of his mouth partway, like it’s hiding something in there somewhere. It sounds like it’s squinting.
* Aside from that, though, I think we got a lot more evidence that he’s more than just some Evil Queer stereotype. His homosexuality is treated with enormous, actually rather heartbreaking sensitivity this time around. (Granted, I thought so the first time, too — there was something crushing in watching him flail to get past that sleazy aristo played by Charlie Cox to get at the burning love letters that were to be his ticket to the top, crushing both in Thomas’s desperation and his lover/victim/victimizer’s swagger in physically overpowering him.) You can’t help but sympathize deeply with a man you’ve watched break down and cry over the suicide of the one person to whom he’s even come close to confiding the truth about himself over the entire course of the series. That that person was a badly wounded, blind, depressed stranger shows, I think, what Thomas truly thinks of himself. He’s a bully because he’s been bullied, overtly at times I’m sure, but also in a thousand ways large and small by the strictures of the heteronormative society to which he has no choice but to conform. Internalized oppression.
* But even his bullying was humanized. He unilaterally disarmed from his grudge match with Bates, and advised O’Brien to do the same. He was shown to display real fear and, I think, regret and shame over the results of his actions — when his attempt to become a black marketeer ended in ruin, say, or when he realized his dognapping had gone tits up. Like O’Brien when she looked in the mirror and saw a person who’d just attempted to injure a pregnant woman, I get the impression he wasn’t nuts about what he’d seen in himself, even if, in the end, his final scheme was rewarded.
* What’s more, his decision late in the season to be more cheerful, friendly, helpful, and productive may have been just an attempt to ingratiate himself with Carson and the Crawleys now that his prospects had dried up, but the fact of the matter is that, well, he became more cheerful, friendly, helpful, and productive. In the same way that his platonic folie a deux with Evil O’Brien in the first season helped incentivize bad behavior, I like to think that the new status quo, the new reactions and rewards he’ll receive for being a decent person, can’t help but steer him in that direction. The fact of the matter is he has a great smile, and he can be very charming and win people over just as easily by actually being decent as by faking it. Being a dreary, nasty fuck has very strong headwinds, and perhaps his new course of action will help him see there’s another, less unpleasant course he could set.
* In a similar vein, I came to internally refer to O’Brien this season as (to borrow a term from comics fandom, as I am wont to do) Nu’Brien. No, she wasn’t quite able to shed her old self — egging Thomas on with his black marketeering and shady attempts to get in Lord Robert’s good graces, making mischief with Mrs. Bates. But for the most part, she used her powers for good, not evil, even when her conception of “good” was as narrowly defined (PRESERVE AND PROTECT THE HONOR AND HAPPINESS OF LADY GRANTHAM) as possible. Like Thomas she had her moments of genuine regret — the atom bomb that was her realization that she’d essentially aborted Cora’s baby for nothing had its fallout, as did her poorly thought-through decision to alert the genuinely awful Mrs. Bates to Mr. Bates’ return to Yorkshire. And moreso than did Thomas, she was able to express concern and sympathy for the other servants, from William to Anna to, eventually, Bates himself. There are few things I value more in fiction than when characters overcome their differences to be kind to each other, so I found Nu’Brien rather moving.
* But even more than that, I just found her interesting. When you find out that in real life she’s pretty much a dime piece, you start not just to appreciate but to marvel at actress Siobhan Finneran’s physical comportment on the show. Unlike…well, every other character, I think, O’Brien reveals nothing with her face or voice. She’s like an automaton compared even to Thomas, let alone comparable women characters — Mrs. Hughes, say, or Mrs. Patmore, or Anna or Jane or Ethel or even Shore. That kind of control of one’s face and voice and body is admirable in an actor. She’s kind of the inverse of my beloved Mickey Doyle in Boardwalk Empire, her buttoned-up weirdness a contrast with his showy weirdness, but both of them every bit as watchable and pleasurable.
* So Lord Robert’s midlife crisis was provoked by an actual crisis! That’s smart writing, especially given how out-of-left-field his unfaithfulness to Cora would have felt were it not rooted in his deep disappointment in himself and in the system over his helplessness during the War. Of course there was the subtle and simultaneous strain of dissatisfaction with, even dislike of, Cora herself — her inability to meet his emotional needs or even recognize that he had any during Downton’s wartime period, her pragmatism-cum-coldness over the various interpersonal crises that developed during that time, particularly regarding Mary and Matthew. And his impotence over the War was echoed by his loss of control over the fates of Mary and Sybill, and even over Downton itself. All told, you had a guy who’d been raised all his life to be the center of his world suddenly discovering that a) he wasn’t, and b) in a lot of ways it wasn’t much of a world to begin with. He asked Jane, his ersatz paramour, if she ever wondered what it was all for. Can’t get more direct than that.
* But even before that, he had an exchange with Cora I wrote down verbatim: “I don’t think you’re a fool, isn’t that enough?” she asks him. “No,” he replies. “Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.” It struck me then as an astute take on how frustrating, even confusing, it can be to us when we find ourselves unable to take succor from our significant others and life partners despite the abiding satisfaction we receive from them in every other respect. But now I see it as the roots of a crisis of confidence, in himself and in the institutions that shored him up. Thus he went from a character I didn’t even mention in my discussion of Season One, during which his stalwart reliability rendered him a prop more than a player, to one of my favorite characters on the show. Hugh Bonneville rendered him utterly likeable throughout.
* The main “She’s Leaving Home”-type story here was Sybil’s, of course, and her runaway romance with the Bono of the motorpool. But I was more profoundly moved by Edith’s story, how she quietly came into full personhood as she took on the responsibility of providing for the wounded officers in Downton’s care. As everyone always said, there was little doubt that her sisters would find their place in the world, even if they never defied convention as Sybil did. By contrast, Edith is a prime example of the true cost of the sex and class system, which walls off potentially productive members of society on both sides of the divide from finding their true calling and making the contributions they’re truly capable of making. Only the apocalyptic upheaval of the Great War enabled Edith to do something other than wooing lower-upper-class suitors. When you think of Oscar Wilde imprisoned or Alan Turing killing himself, when you think of centuries of potential giants of politics or literature or science toiling unthanked on Mississippi plantations, when you think of half the population of Saudi Arabia forbidden even to drive cars, think of what these people could have done for the classes that oppressed them, of whatever stripe. The loss of the oppressed is far more grave, but it’s not just the oppressed’s loss, is what I’m saying.
* Am I the only one who started singing “How do you solve a problem like Lavinia?” to himself the moment she looked a little ill at the dinnertable? The show (I know, it’s all written by one dude, but “the show” is a hard habit to break) wrote itself into a corner with this lovely, pleasant, selfless lady — certainly more pleasant and selfless than Lady Mary even at the best of times! — and solved it in a manner I found rather crass, whatever its realism. It’s not as though she’d been allowed to develop into anything but the remotest corner of the Matthew/Mary/Carlisle/her love quadrangle, so while her loss illustrated both the reach and the caprice of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, we really only felt that loss through the other characters, not through Lavinia herself. This was the second time I thought the show grabbed real-world catastrophes and clumsily wielded them as two-bit storytelling tools — the other, and more egregious, being the time that both the Great War and the Troubles were reduced to farce in Branson’s wacky assassination/protest-by-prank mix-up.
* These were all the more striking in light of how well the show dealt with the War itself most every other time. Downton Abbey was never going to be an explicitly antiwar show — it’s just not a political beast, and at any rate a show that values loyalty and honor and courage as much as this one does is going to be fairly helpless in the face of the choice to depict cowardice as either a moral failing or an act of sanity against the insanity of the war itself. (Which I suppose is a political program, disguised as apolitical by centuries of morals established by the masters of war.) But that doesn’t mean that the show couldn’t use its focus on the complexities of familial and romantic relationships in the context of the old class system to shine a spotlight on war’s costs where those concerns intersected.
* I think my favorite example here is a simple, physical aspect of one actor’s performance: The black, angry, piercing depression in the eyes of Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley after he’s paralyzed. He displayed an intensity (and a handsomeness, not incidentally) he’d never been able to before, and the rupture in the presentation was sufficient to convey just how bad things really were for him, and by extension for everyone.
* But really I liked all the major war storylines: William’s slow death and its impact on Daisy, lingering even after he’d gone; the tale of two war widows with Robert’s beloved Jane and the shunned unmarried Ethel; Thomas’s million-dollar wound; Matthew and William’s painful goodbyes, and their bizarre it-was-all-but-a-dream returns from the front before inevitably heading back into the breach; even the craziness of the False Patrick, with his burns and bandages and Anthony Perkins voice.
* My one regret is that Molesley’s shirking never went anywhere. Between that, his doomed run at Anna (thwarted by Bates), his equally doomed run at becoming Lord Grantham’s valet (also thwarted by Bates), and his drinking at the Spanish Flu dinner, I thought he was headed for a full-fledged Character Arc, with said arc bending toward villainy, but the light comedic business with him getting drunk was the last we saw of him. He was the dog that didn’t bark.
* A few more observations:
* Good Lord did sleevelessness become Michelle Dockery. I found myself awfully glad Lady Mary was stuck with the one dress for the duration.
* What better time to cheat on your spouse or fiancée than when she’s laid up with a pandemic that’s killing millions worldwide?
* Just about the only thing that could make the Dowager Countess more entertaining was to have her start laughing at her own jokes, so thank goodness they did exactly that. “I do hope I’m interrupting something” and “I don’t expect you’ll see me again”/”Is that a promise?” are lines for the ages by the way. Also, any time I really look at Maggie Smith’s eyes, I think to myself that she’s got a truly great villain role in her somewhere, if the right part comes along. I mean a David Lynch-type villain, a villain who radiates menace. The Dowager Countess is a pussycat compared to what’s potentially in there.
* What a pleasure it is to watch a show during which the problem for the actors is that time moves fast rather than slow. I’ve been watching The Vampire Diaries (it’s fun! It’s like True Blood without the intentional camp factor, so it’s like this super-serious exploration of sexy young vampires and witches and werewolves taking their shirts off and literally ripping people’s hearts out on-camera), and at some point during its third and current season it hilariously revealed that not even a year had gone by since the pilot. Characters had gone from “la-di-da, cheerleaders, football players, popular girls, blah blah” to “my entire family and circle of friends has either been murdered by or turned into vampires” between the start of junior year and the Fourth of July. Lost is probably the best example of a show where each episode spanned a single day or so, at least for a while. Yet in comics like Love and Rockets, or in shows like Battlestar Galactica, we see just how rich for the storyteller and pleasurable for the audience taking advantage of the swift passage of time can be. I’m not 100% convinced that Downton Abbey has sufficiently aged its performers to account for, what, the passage of seven years of story time over the course of one year of real time, but it’s a challenge I find myself glad they’ve accepted.
* Most poignantly, I found myself pretty profoundly moved and disturbed by the scene in which the family and staff gather round the clock to honor the war’s end, because it reminded me of the now-quaint notion advanced by another of the Great Post-Millennial TV Dramas: “Wars end.” Ha, remember when that was true?