Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’
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.”
* “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.