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.)
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.
February 9, 2014 @ 9:03 pm | Filed under: Television
“You do realize even Alfred gets more screen time than you do?”
(UK / DVD episode 7. Also, spoilers below.)
Telegram! Robert has been summoned to America by Cora’s Horrible American Mother to assist Cora’s Impossible American Brother. There’s a scandal involving oil and a Senate committee who may or may not be favorably impressed by a titled brother-in-law, because nothing says respectable like an impoverished English earl who snaps up an American heiress to save his estate, and then loses her fortune on bad investments.
Bit of a flurry over the notion that Bates must accompany Lord Grantham to America. (I love how it’s always “America.” Last season, when Shirley Maclaine arrived to out-shout the Dowager, she referred to her home as “America” 100% of the time. You have to wonder if Julian Fellowes has ever chatted with any Americans long enough to discover that if you ask us where we’re from, we don’t name our country; we name our state. Unless you’re a New Yorker, in which case you name your borough.)
Anna puts on a brave face for Bates but sobs in the hall. Mrs. Hughes takes the case to Lady Mary, who puts on her best stone face and insists she would like to help, but she “must know the facts.” What is Mrs. Hughes to do? She reveals Anna’s secret, and Mary marches straight to her father and orders him to take Thomas to America instead of Bates, wearing that exact same stone face and saying, “I can’t explain it. If I could you’d agree with me.” I actually burst out laughing at this, despite the graveness of the subject matter. It’s so Mary. She expects her father to jump when she says jump and take her word that jumping is the gentlemanly thing to do in this circumstance. But by golly, nobody’d better expect her to take any request on faith.
All right, then, it’s settled, Bates stays, Thomas goes, Mary has a moment with Bates (“It wasn’t your fault, Bates. It wasn’t Anna’s, but it wasn’t yours, either”), and—HOLD ON EVERYONE, THE PIGS ARE COMING!
February 2, 2014 @ 9:10 pm | Filed under: Television
“Look, I’m as unhappy about this storyline as you are.”
So here we are at episode 5—that’s episode 6 by UK reckoning, or if you’re watching via Amazon—more than halfway through the season. And if I have realized anything during these past few weeks, it’s that I would pay good money to watch a show featuring Isobel Crawley as a village sleuth—a sort of “indigation-fueled ” Miss Marple (to borrow Violet’s excellent phrase) minus the knitting—solving local crimes in between rounds of barbed exchanges with her crotchety relation. The whole Young Peg plot was a predictable throwaway, really—he’s a thief! no wait, I’ve been sitting on the paper-knife this whole time—but it allowed for some of the most amusing dialogue and face-making of the season. (And some champion bell-ringing on Violet’s part.) Game, set, match to the Dowager, indeed. Did you catch the stink-eye Isobel shot the good doctor at that remark? Coming to take his staunch loyalty for granted, are we?
January 27, 2014 @ 6:49 pm | Filed under: Television
After the high drama of last week, this episode proceeds at a more subdued pace—right up until the final scene, which comes off like a promo instead of a scene: Previously on Melrose Abbey. But truly, there wasn’t a whole lot of Melrose in the house this time around. The most shocking development was that Mary voluntarily spent ten minutes in the nursery with baby George.
January 20, 2014 @ 2:29 pm | Filed under: Television
I once read a scathing review of my book Little House by Boston Bay in which the reviewer lambasted me for utterly mischaracterizing events in a small Massachusetts village during the Revolutionary War. The reviewer was something of an expert on the Revolution and was openly disgusted with my apparent ignorance. Such-and-such would not have happened during the War of Independence, he declared, did not happen. And he was right: because, you see, Boston Bay does not take place during the War of Independence. The novel is set in 1814, some thirty years after the end of the Revolution, during the War of 1812. The reviewer, it turned out, disliked my book because he thought he was reading an entirely different book.
It struck me this week that I’ve been doing the same thing with Downton Abbey. I’ve been mentally classifying it as the same kind of smart, probing period drama as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, when really what it is is a beautifully dressed Melrose Place. It is, I can confidently say, the most gripping and linguistically clever Melrose Place I’ve ever seen. But it’s never going to be Pride and Prejudice, in which every tiny morsel of plot supports the primary narrative and themes. Here we will have characters stride in, devastate a life or two, and stride back out into the credits, serving purposes more dramatic than transformative.
I’m trying to make my peace with this, trying to stop expecting a bite of orange when I sink my teeth into an apple.
And so we say goodbye to Braithwaite, that “manipulative little witch,” as Thomas called her, and to Lord Gillingham as well. Ah, Tony, we hardly knew ye. Mrs. Hughes dispatched Edna as effortlessly as she would have swatted a fly. (And just as viciously. “I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down”—good heavens! Since that’s exactly what happened to Anna last week, this remark is in rather bad taste.) It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Hughes is the real mover and shaker of this season so far, the catalyst of events in the lives of Isobel, Carson, and now Tom. I’m fully expecting her to be the eventual force of reconnection for Anna and Bates. Perhaps not; Anna is generally her own catalyst, but I can’t imagine Mrs. Hughes will be able to watch this painful distancing go on for long without interfering in some small way.
But I’m not quite ready to talk about Anna yet.
I liked Lord Gillingham quite a lot and I thought Mary’s scenes with him were her finest of the season so far—the layers of her emotions each distinct and apparent. Affection, wistfulness, regret, ache. But it was too soon, too soon, for us to root for that romance, and in the end, her gentle refusal felt entirely familiar. We’ve seen Mary in this moment before. The only fresh note was when her calm mask cracked, her eyes filled with tears, and she spoke of how Matthew fills her brain and she isn’t ready for that to change, isn’t ready to mentally leave him. That was a raw, honest moment, but still the whole story arc left me feeling like I’d been strong-armed back onto a roller coaster before I’d caught my breath from the last looping ride. Also, now I have to think about Tony being sad and stoic out in the world somewhere, making the best of a life with poor Mabel.
Will everyone please stop bumping into Isobel in the graveyard? We get it, she’s there a lot. One tombstony encounter would have been sufficient to make the point (and I’m certain we’re going to see another proposal before the season’s out—I only hope we don’t have to watch another regretful ‘I’m terribly sorry but no’).
At the Lotus Club—why on earth didn’t Tom or Tony go rescue Rose sooner instead of sitting there watching that drunken Bullock slobber all over her? Oh that’s right, it was to contrive a moment—and a very sweet moment it was—between Rose and the singer. Well, it could have been much less clumsily contrived. Now the question is, will Mr. Ross be dispatched brokenhearted in the next episode a la that nice young farmer, or is he the next Tom Branson/Michael Gregson?
Speaking of Michael, it’s remarkable how the bold, modern Edith shrinks back into her chastened, pre-war self the moment Rosamund raises an eyebrow in her direction. But then I think Edith has a lot of uncertainty about this very unorthodox path she’s walking. At least her aunt doesn’t underestimate her, the way everyone else persists in doing, year in, decade out. “Edith’s as mysterious as a bucket”—oh, come on. (I forget who said it—Mary? Cora?)
I’ll leave the tortured Kitchen Love Rectangle to the rest of you. Still wondering why Daisy chooses to stay at Downton in misery rather than go be mistress of her very own farm. If ever a woman needed a change of scenery, it’s that one.
As for Anna and Bates…I don’t know. I’m so unhappy about this story arc that I find myself just hoping it’ll all be resolved quickly, and then I feel sick, because of course that’s the point. What happened to Anna can’t be ‘resolved quickly,’ can’t be neatly wrapped up in a three-episode arc. It’s 2014, and rape should not be Melrosed.
I did watch an interview with Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, discussing her confidence in Fellowes and her feeling that the storyline is not gratuitous (i.e. not being played for drama only). I appreciate her thoughtful comments (here’s the link if you can’t see the video below), and I want to say I think Froggatt is doing a beautiful job of conveying Anna’s pain and trauma. But. But. Something still isn’t sitting right with me, and it’s what I talked about last week: the decision to create a rift between Anna and Bates before her trauma. His sharpness and jealousy, the suggestion that Anna was being a bit flirty with Mr. Green. Those two writerly decisions (and always, always with this show, we come back to the very visible hand of The Writer, who is meant to be invisible) are so wrongheaded they undermine whatever sensitive or unflinching exploration of a very real trauma they are striving to create.
I’m also bothered that Anna’s trauma is becoming all about Bates. He did kind of bully her with his “I will find out.” Bates is being written all wrong this season, period.
Well, Carson’s being written rather wonderfully, I’ll give Melrose Abbey that much. He wins best line this week: “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.” Oh, the layers of disdain he piles into the word ‘foreign’!
So who’s your pick for the next lady’s maid? A return of Miss O’Brien? She’s not that old. I’m trying to remember what ‘older’ women Thomas knows…
January 13, 2014 @ 7:31 pm | Filed under: Television
I don’t have the heart to do a full recap right now. That was a horrible turn of events, wrenchingly depicted, and I’m upset on about fifty different levels, not least of which is a fear that this plotline is being played for drama only and won’t succeed (even if it wants to) at taking a really meaningful look at that issue, which ought never never never to be played for drama only.
I will say this: even before we arrived at that terrible point, I was frustrated as all get-out by the way Anna and Bates were being made to behave. I say “being made to” because their interactions felt absolutely contrived, not organic. His cantankerous jealousy, her obliviousness to the villain’s obvious flirting. (And what are we to make of THAT? The price of friendly banter? Infuriating, and treads perilously close to suggesting her behavior played a role in what happened next.)
I set too much stock in TV relationships; this is a running joke between Scott and me. For a couple of seasons of The Office, I took it very hard if there was any whiff of trouble of a certain kind between Jim and Pam (after they were together). I welcomed organic challenges to their relationship—smooth sailing does not gripping viewing make—but I wanted believable challenges, not manufactured ones. And for many seasons, that show was remarkably successful in placing organic obstacles in their path. It was fun and refreshing to see them as allies and co-conspirators. So often, television seems to feel that as soon as the long-yearned-for romance is realized, it must Get Rocky and Face Threats. The Office accomplished something unusual in presenting us a strong Jim-and-Pam team that endured many years before a writerly wedge was thrust between them. (And for the record, during that final season, I kept hollering at Jim to SHOW PAM THE FOOTAGE. It was all there, his dogged devotion. My satisfaction when he finally listened knew no bounds.)
In Downton, I’ve taken a similar pleasure in the Anna and Bates relationship. They’ve weathered trials together, united. And now, even before the rape (it pains me to write that word so casually, as a plot point, which is my much larger problem with this episode than the subject of this paragraph), we’re shown little tendrils of doubt and discord coiling between them, and I don’t buy that for a second. Not to go all Kathy-Bates-in-Misery on Julian Fellowes, but, well, Annie Wilkes, whatever else her failings, did have a sound understanding of story.
Mr. Bates would never embarrass his wife in public!
But even that, the hamhandedly portrayed strife between Anna and Bates, seems almost inappropriate to complain about after what happened next. As for everything else that happened in this episode, I hardly know how to feel about any of it. I mean, how can there be a rest of the episode after what happened to Anna? I’m supposed to care about Jimmy’s sprained wrist and his oddly ambiguous behavior toward Ivy? About Robert’s deep discomfort over dining with a (gasp) world-famous opera singer?
I liked Lord Gillingham but am, like Isobel, not quite ready to watch Mary edge toward a new romance. Two episodes on, perhaps. For now I’d rather watch her duke it out with Lord Grantham over the estate. I did enjoy their conversations and was happy to hear the tartness return to Mary’s voice. Much better than Zombie Mary.
Boy, the good doctor hovers mighty close to Isobel’s side these days, doesn’t he?
Does anyone who talks to Tom remember that he, too, has lost a cherished spouse?
Molesley. I just. He’d be much less pathetic if he’d stop talking about how pathetic he is. But it rings true to character, at least. Molesley never has done himself any favors. Grumping aloud to the Dowager while serving dinner was a bit of a stretch, however.
I cared a lot about the Edith and Mr. Gregson storyline, until I didn’t. Trouncing the card sharp might have been an entertaining thread in another episode, but the show’s final moments retconned the rest of it for me, rendering all the mini-dramas frivolous.
Someone who’s seen the rest of the season, tell me it’s worth hanging in there for.
January 8, 2014 @ 6:09 pm | Filed under: Television
This two-hour episode took me a few nights to get through. All the time I was watching it, I was thinking, am I going to recap it this year? I’ve recently stepped away from GeekMom to take a new position as editor at DamnInteresting.com (a site that more than lives up to its name, and one Scott and I have enjoyed for years), so I won’t be recapping over there this year. I loved writing those posts last season, but I admit it’s a bit of relief to let go of the self-imposed pressure to get a recap up the night an episode airs. Those were some late nights I was pulling, for a while there!
But I’ll miss the conversation, and since I’ve been getting a lot of email inquiries about the recaps, I thought I’d open the topic for discussion over here. As always, this is an open thread, not a sequential play-by-play of plot points. So I’ll throw out a few things, and you can all chime in as you wish.
OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING
Once again PBS is conflating two one-hour British episodes into one long one for the American audience. Honestly, I don’t think this serves the show very well, nor will, I’d hazard, binge-viewing it on DVD. We have too many repetitive conversations in these two hours. A week’s space between them would have rendered the repetition less obvious. How many times must we listen to Lord Grantham orate that Mary must be kept wrapped in cotton-wool? How many times must Mrs. Hughes harangue poor Carson in one night of television viewing? It’s rather amazing, actually, that with the quantities of plotlines being unfurled here (I’ll attempt a tally in a moment) we wound up with so many repeated conversations. By the end, my head was smarting from all the hammer-blows.
Now, plotlines: let’s see.
1) Mary is very sad, and not terribly interested in her baby.
2) Lord Grantham wants to sell land to pay the death duties on the estate, and while he’s at it unravel most of the work Matthew did to save said estate’s bacon.
3) Tom and the Dowager Countess are united (among others) in wanting Mary to play a more active role in estate decision-making, and they’re annoyed with Lord Grantham’s reluctance. (See above, cotton-wooling.)
3b) Matthew left a will of sorts after all! Should we let Mary read it?
3b.1) Also, the stuffed doggy. ::sniffle::
3c) Mary owns half of Downton. Stay tuned for epic showdowns. Will there be anything left for wee George but rubble?
4) Carson’s shady old theater chum wants to see Carson to set things right, and also wants help climbing out of the pit he’s in. From the moment Mrs. Hughes digs through Carson’s trash, this becomes her mission in life.
4a) Said mission dovetails nicely with a push to snap Isobel out of her own grief-induced apathy. (I enjoyed that bit very much.)
5) Everyone’s got a Valentine! Who gave whose?
5a) Belowstairs love triangle continues from last season with no apparent progress. Daisy likes Alfred likes Ivy likes Jimmy likes messing with people.
6) This week’s special guest: new-fangled electric mixer, aka the worst thing to happen to Mrs. Patmore since presbyopia.
7) Nanny DARES to tell Thomas not to touch the baby? Beware his diabolical machinations.
7a) Oh but wait! Turns out Nanny’s a horrible person. Hooray, Thomas!
8) Boo, Thomas. Saucy former-housemaid-turned-lady’s-maid Edna fills all vacancies left by O’Brien’s departure, especially Co-Conspirator of Thomas. Watch your back, Anna. That’ll learn you to be nice.
8a) Really? REALLY? Lady Grantham is that ready to believe Anna would vandalize a garment out of spite? Has she MET Anna? Not buying it. Nor the dispatching of Lord G. to have Mr. Bates bring his unkind wife in line. I MEAN COME ON. (Sorry, that was the one that really got to me.)
9) Young Rose wants adventure, and what’s more adventurous than posing as a housemaid and half-falling for a winsome young under-gardener or whatever he was. Sorry, it was noisy in that dance hall.
10) Oh, Molesley. Poor Molesley. Chucked out of Downton, no new prospects. Pounding tar. Racking up debt. Pitied by all.
10a) Just because the Dowager Countess thinks highly of her butler doesn’t mean he is above petty jealousies and sabotage. Sorry, Mose.
10b) But if your plight makes Anna sad, you’ll be okay, because Mr. Bates won’t stand for that. In prison they teach you how to sneakily give money to people.
11) You didn’t think I’d forgotten Edith, did you? What am I, her mother? I adore Edith. She’s blooming with love, wearing fabulous garments, and gearing up to shock the bluebloods with her impending nuptials to a divorceé and (even worse) voluntary German national.
Plotlines I’m really invested in: 3c. I’m sorry Lord Grantham has become so insufferable, but in a way I think his character arc is the most realistic. A decade-long series of tragedies, shocks, and disappointments has left him insecure, vulnerable, and obstinate. He has felt powerless ever since losing his wife’s fortune and imperiling the estate, and his WWI chapter (here, be a jolly good figurehead, old sport) didn’t help. The more the women and former chauffers in his life berate him for his bad behavior (and it IS bad), the more stubbornly he digs in. He’s the 85-year-old who refuses to give up his driver’s license even after the fourth time he’s backed into the mailbox.
So I may not like his character, but I buy it, and I buy Mary’s too. She prophesied her position at the end of last season and reiterates it here: Matthew brought out a side of her (I smiled at “soft”—not a word that describes even happy-bride Mary) that was buried deep before, and has gone more deeply dormant now. What she needs is a good fight, and who better to clobber than Papa? Much better him than poor old Carson. The scene between Mary and Carson when she chided him for his familiarity broke my heart—and that’s how I know it was a good scene. It was one of the few where I had a genuine emotional reaction instead of a distanced, analytical one. And the thing is? I’m a viewer who wants to be drawn in and emotionally manipulated. Really. If I’m outside the story, picking, then your story hasn’t swallowed me. And I’m sorry to say that very little in this two hours truly swallowed me up. But it’s early days yet. We’ll see where things go.
What did you think? Favorite & least favorite bits? For once I’m not giving Best Line to the Dowager. It’s Mrs. Hughes, in response to Isobel’s “It’s none of my business”: “I never thought I’d hear you say that!”