Dan Stevens (aka Matthew Crawley) as struggling writer, Charles Dickens. HELLO. Also Miriam Margolyes, Jonathan Pryce, and Christopher Plummer. Best of all, characters who “won’t do what I want.” Oh Charles. I get you.
And for the record, he really IS working when he’s in there playing around with that accordion thingie.
Well, I didn’t think I was going to have time to do Downton recaps this season—I mean, I don’t have time; it’s crazy how much I don’t have time for it. But I watched episode 3 on the treadmill this evening and doggone it, I miss talking about it with you guys. I thought I’d see if I could knock out a quick comment on each major plotline—no frills, no photos, no direct quotes, because that’s what turns a recap into a nine-hour endeavor. (No exaggeration.) Sound all right?
Spoilers below, obviously. 🙂
DON’T DREWE IT
Let’s see, where to begin. I’ll focus mainly on this week’s episode (argh, here I go already), but we’ve got to chat about the whole Drewe of Yew Tree Farm situation. Or maybe we don’t. I’m too irritated by that whole hamhanded series of events. My heart breaks to think of the family leaving the farm they and their forefathers have nurtured “since before Waterloo.” The wrenching resolution of that storyline illustrates one of the dominant themes of this season: the question of agency. Who has it, and who doesn’t. The difference between doing what you want to do and what you must—and what kind of must it is. Duty? Desperation? Social roles? Lack of options? Sometimes the “want” and the “must” overlap, but not often, so far this season.
Mrs. Drewe wants Marigold back (wants not to have had to give her up at all), but she has no agency, no say in the matter. Mr. Drewe wants conflicting things: to keep his farm; to keep his promises; to protect his wife’s mental health; to take care of his family. The farm, which is part of his being at the cellular level, is the thing that must be sacrificed. He started this chain of events in motion by agreeing to raise Marigold, and then by giving her back to Edith, and he’s doing what he sees as his duty by handing in the lease and relocating his family, to remove Mrs. Drewe from Marigold’s vicinity. And…as a plotline, I think this stinks. It’s one of those places where I’m just yelling at Julian Fellowes: “Write it differently! Come on!”
SAD-EYED MR. MASON
Also out on his ear. Zero agency. New estate owner, new plans, old story. Of course it all seemed too coincidental last week—dear old Mr. Mason is going to need a new farm, and why look, there just happens to be a vacancy at Yew Tree. I made the same leap Daisy did, and this week I’m scratching my head, wondering why Cora hinted about “an idea” (strongly suggesting she was picturing Mr. Mason being able to take over for the Drewes) but is now being so cagey about it. Daisy, positively quivering with agency, is determined to maneuver her father-in-law into that gap whether Cora likes it or not. This is a pretty interesting turn of events, actually—Cora being all “oh, I don’t know, I wouldn’t get your hopes up” about it and Daisy just barreling ahead and announcing it to the world like it’s a done deal. “I want to get things settled,” she insists, when Molesley chides her for counting her chickens before they’re hatched. Daisy’s ready to start cracking open some shells. Her impetuous efforts to help Mr. Mason at the neighbor’s auction in Ep. 1 backfired rather badly, but it is to be hoped she’s more successful this time. I mean, that perfectly nice farm is wide open now, SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM, CORA? And how come this hasn’t occurred to anyone else? Robert makes such a convincing worry face but I’m not sure he’s had an original thought in a decade.
THOMAS, ODD MAN OUT
Second most infuriating storyline. Robert and Carson have accepted that a staff reduction is inevitable, but why fire someone when you can freeze him out? Thomas is openly, deliberately made to feel redundant at every turn. Carson seems to despise him. Honestly, this business seems out of character for Carson. He’s usually more direct. If you’re going to sack him, sack him already.
So Thomas goes on another job interview and I have to say, there was a moment in this scene that choked me up. The vast, empty house; the lonely old man. For a moment I thought Thomas was going to find a congenial and fulfilling position here: the chance to be important to someone, to be needed and useful. But the scene turned. The house is a tomb. Sir Michael is a ghost. Thomas, despite a dearth of other options, walks away from the opportunity. He won’t be the guy holding the tattered coattails of the 19th century as it staggers into the sunset, thirty years late. Nor is he eager to shift from being an under-utilized under-butler to the jack of all trades, master of none (no staff, that is) that is what Sir Michael’s servant will have to be.
What will become of him? I find I’m more interested in learning his fate than almost anyone else’s—with, I think, one exception. Another underdog, of course. But we’re coming to her.
THE HOSPITAL BUSINESS
War! Bloodshed! Venom! Hats with feathers perched at indignant angles! For three episodes, we’ve watched Violet and Isobel duke it out over the question of the Great Hospital Takeover. Good for the village, or bad for the village? Here again, of course, we’re grappling with the question of progress: is change a force for good, or for destruction? Everyone has an opinion except Robert, who isn’t allowed more than two opinions a season and he’s already spent one on the matter of where Carson and Hughes should have their wedding reception. (He was wrong, of course.) I expect he needs to save his other Season Six opinion for naming a new dog. Surely he’ll have a new dog to name soon, no?
But back to the hospital. Poor Violet, losing her allies one by one. Now even Dr. Clarkson is wavering. Isobel was pretty hard on him this week, and now he’s rethinking his position. Maybe a merger isn’t a terrible fate for the village. It’s interesting that in none of these barbed conversations has the subject of Sybil’s fate come up—how if the family had listened to Clarkson instead of the Important City Doctors, she might still be alive. I would have expected Cora to be more suspicious of the Royal Yorkshire.
One thing is certain: Cora has elbowed her way into this fight (as I certainly hoped she would), and Violet’s not going to forget that in a hurry.
ROBERT HAS INDIGESTION
This got ten seconds of screen time and had me convinced a heart attack was imminent and would either delay the wedding or interrupt it. But no, he just needed to burp. Carry on.
SPRATT AND MRS. BUSYBODY
Mrs. Denker is gleeful to have some dirt on Spratt—his no-good nephew escaped from prison and Spratt helped him on his way. She covers for him when the constable makes inquiries, and Spratt knows it’ll cost him, sooner or later.
…didn’t have much to do this week. Except make faces about Edith and be dressed down by her mother over the wedding plans, which I enjoyed. Cora calls her out for “bullying” Carson and Mrs. Hughes into having the reception in the Great Hall. Mary can’t fathom a situation in which her opinion isn’t the correct one (she’s more like her grandmother all the time) and is baffled—and a little insulted—by the suggestion that she might not understand all the nuances of a situation.
Then she completely misguesses the way her mother will feel about having Anna and Mrs. Patmore rummage through Cora’s closet in search of an evening coat for the bride-to-be. Cora, bursting in upon the unexpected trio in her bedroom, behaves very badly indeed, addressing them coldly and severely. I’m glad she had the face to apologize later.
ALL ABOUT EDITH
This is who I really want to talk about. I can never resist a good “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” I cheered when she sacked the heinous editor; I crossed my fingers when she agreed to have a drink with Bertie; and I positively beamed when they hustled all night to put the magazine together. Come on, Edith. Unlike so many of the people around you, you have opportunity. You have options. You have a magazine, for Pete’s sake. And a flat in London! You’re a Muriel Spark character waiting to happen and I for one can’t wait.
CHARLES AND ELSIE CARSON
They did it. Whew. I really wasn’t sure it was going to be allowed to happen.
Tom! I have nothing snarky to say. His return brings me one hundred percent delight, even his hokey ripped-from-the-Wizard-of-Oz line about having to go all the way to Boston to learn that Downton was his home.
Oooh, but does this mean Mary will have to share estate-running duties again? Or will Tom find something else to do?
As always, there’s so much more I could say. But I’m already late for the next thing. Chat away, my lovelies. Let’s pick it apart!
December 31, 2014 @ 8:22 am | Filed under: Television
Season 5 trailer for those who watch previews. Personally, I’m allergic to them.
Today feels like the weekend and I keep having to remind myself it’s only Wednesday. Guess I’m a wee bit excited about the return of Downton Abbey. Yes, I’ll be recapping the episodes again. Here’s my master list of recaps from previous seasons, if you need to brush up. 🙂
(Did you catch the two “Text Santa” Downton spoof videos last week? Part 1, Part 2.)
Searches for this phrase (minus the comma) keep popping up in my stats. It’s a Downton Abbey quote, Violet mocking Isobel: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance ’round it, painted with woad and howling.” She didn’t pause for a comma, which has some folks confused. ‘Howling’ here is a verb.
Here is a person who is painted with woad, and is also howling.
Woad is a blue dye extracted from a the plant Isatis tinctoria or “dyer’s woad.” Its flowers are yellow but you can get blue from its leaves. I learned a lot about it while researching my Martha books—woad would have been one of Auld Mary’s staples. Indeed, it was a staple in European textiles through the Middle Ages, until it was gradually replaced in commercial use by indigo.
You chop the leaves into a paste, let them dry, crumble them into powder, then sprinkle them with water and allow them to ferment, a process known as “couching.” Then you add a mordant, something to help fix the color into the cloth. In days of yore this was most commonly stale urine. (The ammonia in the urine serves as the fixative, as you probably learned from The Mammoth Hunters.) Fun fact: according to this dyeing site, the urine of male beer drinkers was most effective. The collection and sale of urine from certain cities was big business, at one time.
Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase “taking the piss.”
Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.
“No – you’re taking the piss” was the usual rejoinder.
In ancient Scotland, so the story goes, the Picts liked to paint or tattoo themselves with woad, especially before going into battle. In fact, that’s how they came to be called Picts by the Romans, from the Latin word “pictus” or painted. Julius Caesar wrote in his The Conquest of Gaul, “All the Britons color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color.” Over time his word “vitro” (glass) came to be associated with woad, and the image of blue-painted Scottish warriors stuck. Some modern scholars dispute the association, saying Caesar meant something else entirely; it is widely accepted that the early Britons did engage in body art but the contemporary thinking, as far as I can tell, seems to be that the paint was probably not made from woad. However, other experts will point out that woad has antiseptic properties, which could well explain its use in painting the skin before or after armed conflicts. And so woad lives on in battles (of the scholarly sort) to this day.
Whatever the truth may be, the blue body paint is exactly what the Dowager Countess had in mind when she tossed her barb at Isobel. If I had any kind of Photoshop skills you would be looking at Maggie Smith’s face painted with woad (and howling) right now.
If I enjoyed screencapping more, I would turn this into a fashion blog and do nothing but rhapsodize about this week’s costumes. What an eyeful we got! Alas, I lack the vocabulary, not to mention the fortitude.
In lieu of gown-swooning, then, let’s talk plot. This is the supersized Christmas special, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. Here we are in June 1923, with the gang heading to London for Rose’s long-awaited presentation at Court. All season we’ve seen Rose chafing to be free to be out and about in London society—you know, as opposed to the dull life she’s been leading up till now, going to jazz clubs and sneaking off to float down rivers with her secret boyfriend—and all season Cora has chirped at her to be patient. Well, it looks like Rose has survived the wait without scandal, despite the way the season has pretended her reckless disregard for social norms was bound to lead to catastrophe. Not only do we have nary a whiff of scandal, there is absolutely no mention of her erstwhile fiancé, Jack Ross, nor the broken heart she might have been supposed to suffer when he, for her own good, broke off the brief engagement last episode.
Eight months have passed since the Jack Ross adventure, during which interval Edith and Rosamund disappeared to Geneva and Edith has “come back looking more tired than when she left,” in the kitchen staff’s opinion. Of course we know what the staff does not: Edith has had her baby and is now sadder than ever, wishing she could have kept her little girl. She is not exactly enthusiastic about the London trip, envying Tom who gets to stay behind for a couple of days—he has an estate to run. He’s expected to show up at Rose’s ball, though. I mean, someone has to bring Lord Grantham his dog.
February 16, 2014 @ 9:31 pm | Filed under: Television
Darling, I’m so glad you survived your time in the land of Prohibition.
(UK / DVD episode 8. Also, spoilers below.)
Proving it has its priorities firmly in place, this episode starts with the VIPs: the Very Important Pigs. Look at ’em, up and drinking, fat and sassy! Oh, what a relief. I’m only sorry we never got to meet that dastardly fellow, the Negligent Pigman. After the great trough catastrophe, Tom and Mary have decided to offer sturdy Mr. Drew, whose devotion to Yew Tree Farm has proven his mettle, the job of Keeper of the Pigs.
Let’s just take a moment to savor this: Downton Abbey is full of grown men and women who require another adult’s help to change clothes three times a day, but Mr. Drew can be trusted to tend these somewhat delicate Pigs and FARM AN ENTIRE FARM. In fact, he’s so reliable that Edith is eyeing him as a potential foster father for her child. (She’ll be talked out of that by Aunt Rosamund, but that comes later.) For once I’m not making fun of the show; I think this is a pretty realistic depiction. I have no doubt that Mr. Drew is fully capable of running his farm and tending the Pigs. And while Mary has shown that she can do a hard night’s work in an extraordinary circumstance (and even elegantly scramble an egg afterward), it’s amusing how different the family’s definition of “farming” is from Mr. Drew’s. When Mary and Robert speak of “farming Downton themselves,” they mean making plans and hiring people to carry them out. When Mr. Drew speaks of farming, he means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to check on the Grantham Pigs before milking his own cow.
A recurring theme throughout the four seasons of this show has been how much happier the upstairs crowd is when they have some real work to do. During the War, we saw Edith blossom as an aide to the recovering soldiers (and, later, as a newspaper columnist), and Sybil grew from a restless cause-seeker to a woman who found real satisfaction in her nursing duties. We began this season with Mary and Isobel in zombie states, six months after Matthew’s death. The spark came back into Mary when she was nudged into taking an interest in the management of the estate, and Violet basically applied a bellows to Isobel, dumping the problem of Carson’s down-and-out former friend in Isobel’s lap, fanning the embers of her do-gooder zeal back into the fire she runs on.
We’ve seen it with Cora, too, this season: so many scenes in which she looks absently up from a book, smiles benignly, and does nothing of consequence—she has seemed more like an amiable ghost than a person whose actions have any effect on the world. This week, Cora was zooming around in a whirl of bazaar preparations, and although her somewhat vapid remarks seemed designed to elicit eye-rolls from her family as well as the audience, the truth is that organizing an event on the scale of that one is a mammoth undertaking. If you tried to assign me that job, I’d run away with the Pigman. I appreciated Tom’s insightful “beast of burden” remark near the end of the episode, his recognition of how hard Cora had toiled over the bazaar. I still found myself wanting to roll my eyes at everything Cora said—I’m serious when I say I think the script wanted me to—but Tom’s right. We very seldom see Cora at work, but she does work. There are parts of her job she could do a great deal better; she’s been only superficially aware of Edith’s misery and Rose’s mischief all season. But she organized a mighty impressive bazaar, and I’m glad Tom gave her her props.