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!
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…