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Monthly Archives: February 2014

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The “Best Original Song” category – usually an Oscar snoozer – has been the subject this year of more controversy than usual.

First, the Academy inexplicably snubbed all the songs from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen Brothers depiction of a folk singer in pre-Dylan Greenwich Village.   I can only assume the problem is that there were SO MANY good songs in the movie they canceled each other out.  Because the soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett is crammed with great music, including my favorite “Fare Thee Well,” sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.   (By the way, this song is credited as being a traditional folk ballad but Mumford rewrote it so significantly that I think it could have qualified as an original song.  Here’s the traditional version for the sake of comparison. )

Then there’s the controversy over the title song from the Christian-based movie “Alone Yet Not Alone,”  which was first nominated  and then declared ineligible on the grounds of inappropriate campaigning.  Charges of anti-Christian bias flew.  Obviously I’m not in a position to judge any rule violations that but I do note that it is a lovely song.

With the two best songs out of contention, it looks like the path is clear for “Frozen” to deliver Disney its tenth Best Song Oscar for “Let it Go”. This is not a type of song I usually like, coming out of the modern Broadway tradition of big big big big quavering singing and I don’t like this one either. It’s fitting that the song is performed by Idina Menzel, who plays Rachel’s birth mother on “Glee” because a lot of the Glee songs are belted out like anthems: “Here I am, look at me, I can SIIIIIINNNGGG!!!”

Back in the day, the “Best Original Song” category was almost as competitive as the best actor and actress races.  Some of the losers from the 1930s and 1940s include some of the most beautiful songs ever written (e.g., “They Can’t Take that Away From Me,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “I’ve got You Under My Skin.”)  Modern filmmakers are less likely to use original songs to advance a plot or set a mood, but the occasional great song does slip through.  With that in mind, here are my choices for the ten best Oscar-winning songs of the past 50 years.  (I don’t want to go back further because if I included films from the early days of Hollywood, this list would be made up of solely of songs from before I was born.)

10. Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire – 2008)

This is VERY original for an “original song.” It’s both exotic and westernized, providing an emotional release at the end of a generally depressing movie.  The lyrics are a combination of Hindi, Urdu and Punjab (i.e., unintelligible for a Western audience) which makes it all the more remarkable that it won.  Clearly the impulse to get up and dance transcends cultures and languages.  By the way, this particular video is from a 2009 concert in Argentina, which among everything available on YouTube, best seemed to capture the dynamism of the song.

9. “Flashdance” (Flashdance – 1983)

Sometimes I have trouble keeping the dance-themed movies the 1980s straight. There was “Fame,” “Dirty Dancing,” Footloose” and of course “Flashdance.”  What a feeling, indeed!  Hewing closely to a post-Disco vibe, the song seems a little corny now, and of course the movie itself is terribly corny – working class girl just wants to dance!! This was “Billy Elliott “before “Billy Elliott.”  In any event, I have to confess that I love the soundtracks to all the aforementioned 80’s dance movies, but “Flashdance” is my favorite song from all of them.

8. “Falling Slowly” (Once – 2007)

“Falling Slowly” is a very simple love song from “Once,” a movie about a street singer who connects with a Czech flower girl (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote and performed the songs).  They make beautiful music together, but that’s all they do together because she has a husband and he has an ex-girlfriend with whom he is reconciling.  Alas, their love remains unconsummated. Well, at least they have the Oscar and now a hit Broadway show.

7. Last Dance (Thank God It’s Friday – 1978)

I make no apologies in being a Donna Summer fan.  I even saw her perform this song at a corporate event the year before she died and she was fantastic.  Until I assembled, this list, though, I didn’t realize “Last Dance” came from a movie.  I can’t imagine how I missed Thank God It’s Friday.

6. “The Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia – 1993)

You have to say this for the Academy, they do occasionally reflect the musical tastes of popular culture.  Disco in the 1970s, Rap in the 2000’s and eventually even Rock with this award to Bruce Springsteen.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the movie “Philadelphia” came out; and even harder to believe there was a time when Springsteen deigned to appear at the Academy Awards. But then, this is the greatest AIDS awareness song of all time and I’m sure he wanted to use the Oscar platform to further raise awareness.

5. “The Windmills of Your Mind” (The Thomas Crown Affair – 1968)

“The Windmills of Your Mind” is one of the great sultry pop songs of the last 1960s, especially as performed by the always soulful Dusty Springfield.  Yet it’s actually Noel Harrison who performs the song in the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair.”  Hearing his rushed and careless rendition makes you wonder how this song was even nominated, much less a winner.  I’m including both versions below to demonstrate how two singers can achieve dramatically different effects with the same song.

4. “Skyfall” (Skyfall – 2012)

It’s really amazing that no song from a James Bond movie had ever won an Academy Award until last year when “Skyfall” finally delivered one.  Not “Goldfinger,” which is the best of them all, nor “Live and Let Die,”  “Nobody Does it Better” or even “You Only Live Twice.”   It would have pretty hard to deny Adele anything in 2013 and she certainly deserved it.

3. “I’m Easy” (Nashville – 1975)

Of all the movies mentioned in this list, Robert Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville” is unquestionably the greatest.  A story of ambition, corruption and backstabbing in the Country music industry, the film delivered several great songs, including this Oscar winner by Keith Carradine, who plays a selfish womanizer who somehow manages to make every woman in the audience think he’s singing directly to her.

2. “I just called to Say I Love You” (The Woman in Red – 1984)

Huh, this classic Stevie Wonder song comes from a pretty mediocre movie called “The Woman in Red?”  Who knew?

1 “Shaft” (Shaft 1971)

The most electric moment in the history of the Academy Awards arguably occurred in 1971 when a bare-chested, heavily chained Isaac Hayes and his synthesizer were rolled onto the stage during a wild performance of the theme from Shaft. (The only video I could find was in this Oscar wrap-up for the year. Scroll down to find it.)   This was the era when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin were considered the cool cats.  Not after this.

So what’s missing from the list?  Well, for starters, I really can’t stand any song by Barbra Streisand,  including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen” (the theme from “A Star is Born” so they’re off the list.  I also don’t like big loud anthems with a lot of booming vocalism, such as “You Light Up My Life” and “My Heart Will Go On.” Never been a fan of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was inexplicably a huge hit.  Having said that, have my perverse music tastes caused me to overlook anything that really should be included on the “best of” list?  Let me know.

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Last night’s season finale of “Downton Abbey” takes place almost a full year after the events of the  previous episode, and it seems like nothing has happened in the intervening year. What is the time-space continuum on this show anyway?  Things either move too fast or too slow. Oh sure, Edith had her baby, but everything else is just as we left it.  No progress has been made on the various romances (Mary, Tom, Isobel, etc.) that were launched earlier this season, Thomas is still pestering Baxter for gossip, Bates is still under suspicion for murder and the Dowager Countess is still dropping snark bombs on poor Isobel.

The episode could have been called “Jaws” because almost everyone on the show is either prey or preying.  Not only is there an actual card shark, but we have the spectacle of the doddering and impecunious Lord Aysgarth chasing after Cora’s mother and her fortune; the Lord’s daughter stalking Cora’s brother;  two suitors in pursuit of Mary; the American valet pulling strings to chase Daisy; and Lord Merton head over heels for Isobel. We also have the spectacle of the stolen and re-stolen letter from HRH.  Even Mr. Carson can’t go to the beach without Mrs. Hughes grabbing his hand and making double entendres, the vixen!

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the 1923 London high season, where cousin Rose is going to be a debutante. She is to be presented to a somnambulant King and Queen at Buckingham Palace and will then be the focus of a ball, so all the Downtonites travel to the Crawley’s heretofore unmentioned London house for the festivities.  Why, even Cora’s American mother and brother are coming for the event.

As usual, Mary is at the heart of the plot machinations and I have to ask: is she deliberately obtuse or does it just come naturally?  Because what do you know, Charles Blake is Matthew Crawley reincarnated and she treats him the same way she treated her former husband when first they met.   To Mary’s surprise, but not mine since I’ve seen an episode or two of “Downton Abbey,” Blake turns out to be the heir of a distant earldom in Ulster and the richest of all Mary’s suitors.  Well, well, well, this changes everything doesn’t it?  Of course we all remember that Mary fell in love with Matthew when he was the “Downton” heir and then hesitated when her mother was pregnant and it appeared he might remain just a middle class lawyer after all.  After Cora slipped on that baby-killing bar of soap, Mary wanted to resume the relationship but by then he’d gotten on his high horse and broken up with her.

This time around, she claims that Blake’s assumed lack of fortune was not the issue; no, what was really holding her back was the question of whether he was on the “same side” as far as the aristocracy is concerned.    She has, perhaps willfully, misperceived him as a Trotskyite because of his excellent pig handling skills and a few stray comments about the poor land-management practices of the big estate holders.  When did he ever say he wanted to do away with the aristocracy? For his part, why Blake is so taken with her is beyond me.  Who wants to be married to someone who so consistently misunderstands you, jumps to conclusions, doesn’t try to figure out what you really think and generally acts like a spoiled brat?

Besides, I don’t think anyone has thought through the implications of what it would mean for the heiress of Downton to marry another rich dude with his own estate.  All three of those guys are going to want to live in their own palaces, not at “Downton.”   How is Mary going to run “Downton” and protect little George’s interests if she’s off at Ulster?  I guess that’s a problem to be addressed a few seasons from now.

In any event, now that Mary knows that Blake is loaded, all the suitors are acknowledged to be on an even playing field. “Let battle commence,” she proclaims.  Let it commence?  What have we been doing for the last year?  It’s only now that we commence the battle for Mary’s heart?

And what about the battle for Mary’s soul, since she’s in a moral quandary about Mr. Bates, who clearly murdered the Mr. Green, the raping valet.  I thought we were finally finished with the story of Anna’s rape last week, but no, there’s one last plot twist, because Bates, despite being a master criminal, can’t seem to dispose of incriminating evidence.  Mrs. Hughes has found a ticket stub in the jacket of his overcoat that shows he was in London the day Mr. Green fortuitously “fell” in front of a cab in Piccadilly Circus.  Mrs. Hughes goes running to Mary, saying in effect, this is above my pay grade, and leaves it up to Mary to decide whether to turn Mr. Bates over to the police.

Mary, Mary, Mary.  Why is this an issue now?  Last episode you suspected Bates of murder but decided that it was a higher moral good to let it slide, since it was justifiable homicide.   Why does the appearance of a ticket stub change anything?  Yet you’re thrown into a panic and seem to be leaning toward going to the police once your suspicion is confirmed by hard proof. That is, until Bates extricates the Crawley family from a pickle through his forgery and pickpocketing skills.  You see, Rose is buddy buddy with Freda Dudley Ward, the mistress of Edward, the Prince of Wales (the very same fellow who will later abdicate for Wallis Simpson) and when a love letter from the Prince to Mrs. Dudley Ward is stolen by a Crawley acquaintance Bates is the only one with the skills to get it back.  It’s almost like Mary decides, well, he’s a murderer and he does have a lot of dodgy underworld skills, but he’s our murderer so we’ll keep him. And besides, one good turn deserves another.  You get us the letter and we won’t turn you in.

For the first time in the series I understand why Tom, Isobel, Sarah Bunting and all the other aristo-skeptics feel the way they do about the British class system.  At the top there’s a very dull king and queen and the heir to the throne is the appalling Prince of Wales.  The highlight of the season is a royal presentation – at Buckingham Palace no less – where a group of rich teenage girls curtsy in front of the throne and are nodded at by the bored monarch. As the commonsensical Mrs. Hughes notes, “Seems odd to me that a curtsy and a nod from the throne turns a girl into a woman, but that’s the way they do it so who are we to argue.”   After this event (which is very spectacularly shot),  they all attend each other’s parties and scheme about money and how to hold onto their social status.  Assembling these folks en masse and letting them loose in London makes them seem like unproductive parasites.  No wonder the masses are rising.

And in keeping with the “Downton Law of Three,” we are told repeatedly that the system is doomed and unsustainable.  Agriculture alone will not be enough to support these giant houses and massive staffs.  Isobel and Mary may look with disdain on their American relations, but the Yanks are not tied down by tradition and caste and can look more clearly at the future.

The Americans are clearly here to serve as thematic counterpoints to the Downton residents.  There’s no plot reason for them to be in this episode.  Why should Martha, Cora’s mother, care about attending  Rose’s debut?  Why does her brother Harold need to take a breather from the U.S. a full year after the Teapot Dome scandal is over?  No, the real reason for the Americans’ arrival is to speak some truths, offer some comic relief and provide some contrast to the hide-bound Brits.

Martha is given some of the smartest and insightful lines in the episode.  She rejects a marriage proposal that would make her a countess, observing that she wouldn’t fit into British society because she’d be seen as loud, opinionated and common, which she is.  She also tells the Dowager Countess that at least she’s “a woman who’s not afraid of the future,” unlike the Granthams, who see their world “slipping further and further away.”  Unfortunately Martha is portrayed by the once-vibrant, but now worn-out Shirley MacLaine, so  many of the best zingers they fall flat.

Paul Giamatti, who plays Cora’s brother Harold, seems similarly miscast as a tough American businessman and playboy. Playboy?  Really?? Like MacLaine, he doesn’t have the necessary energy to pull off the role.  Nor is it plausible to believe he would be so gauche as to approach the Prince of Wales with an outstretched hand and say, simply, “Harold Levinson.” Funny, yes, but plausible, no.  His Royal Highness is totally a jerk about it, stalking away in disgust.  Harold seems to have the last laugh – literally.  When the Prince harrumphs away all, Why-I-Never, Harold smiles to himself, knowing he has a great story to tell back home.

No, the best American in the cast is Harold’s valet Ethan Slade.  He’s got energy and ambition in spades.  Open-faced, optimistic and direct, he is a breath of fresh air in the stodgy servants’ chambers.  Hilariously he almost gives Mr. Carson an aneurysm by serving canapés and too-eagerly trying to get the guests to partake, like a barker at a carnival.  He’s also on the make, in his own winsome way.  After (inexplicably) taking a shine to Daisy, he manipulates his boss into sponsoring a picnic at which Daisy and he will work together.  Then he convinces Harold to hire her as his cook and take her to America (an offer she declines).   Good for Ethan, doing his best to exhibit the American spirit.  We probably won’t see him again, but if we do, I doubt he’ll still be a valet.

Some other thoughts about last night’s show:

— Once again, Edith’s travails get relegated to a bullet because her story is so poorly integrated into the overall arc of the episode.  She’s back from eight months in Geneva, where she had her baby and gave it up for adoption.  But now she’s changing her mind and wants the baby back.  Her ostensible reason is that if the father – who’s missing in Germany and presumed dead – leaves a sizable estate, the baby should inherit half of it.  Why half?  I guess she’s assuming she’s going to keep half for herself.  In any event, Aunt Rosamund advocates the more traditional approach to single parenthood – give the baby up and never look back – but Edith is stuck on her original idea to get Mr. Drewe, the tenant farmer and pig man, to raise the girl.  There does seem something inherently unfair in her decision to return to Geneva to get the baby she placed with a Swiss family, who took it in good faith. Nor does it seem smart to have the child raised in the immediate vicinity of Downton, where she can always be showing up to see how things are going.  My guess is that next year Mr. Greggson will miraculously return from German with a divorce and when they get married they will take the baby back once and for all.

— So Mr. Greggson went to Munich and immediately got into a fight with a bunch of brown shirts (i.e, Nazis)?  It’s a historical fact that in November 1923 Hitler launched the “Beer Hall Putsch,”  his attempt to overthrow the Weimer government in Munich.  It will not surprise me if Greggson turns out to be a spy for the British government with a mandate to keep an eye on Hitler; once der future Fuhrer is in jail, as he was in 1924, Greggson will be able to return to Britain (you heard it here first!!)

— The episode we saw last night was the annual “Downton Abbey” Christmas special in the UK, meaning that previous episode – the one that ended with the church bazaar on the Downton lawn – was actually the concluding episode of the season.  This is a helpful reminder, as if we needed it, that the show is written by and for Brits.

— Mary is rightfully aggrieved that no one told her that Charles Blake was a super-rich heir, but she should really be annoyed at herself.  She’s been seeing this guy for a year and never bothers to probe him about where he grew up, went to school, how he supports himself or any of the little details that someone should bother to inquire about a potential romantic partner. Nor does she  have anyone else check him out.  She’s a bad dater.

— Regarding Bates’ overcoat, when will wives learn not to give away their husbands clothing without first checking with them?  And if Bates is so concerned about cleaning out his pockets, why didn’t he do so during the past year?

— There really was a Freda Dudley Ward, who was in fact the Prince of Wales’ mistress until 1923.  Apparently the foreign press knew all about the affair, given Martha’s insight into the matter, which makes you wonder why Lord Grantham is in such a lather to retrieve the letter.  Who cares if the foreign press already know?

— I keep asking this question but never get a good answer: why does Lord Grantham continue to put stock in anything that Thomas says?  Last week he evidenced clear dislike for the guy, yet when Thomas comes tattling about Tom having a lady friend in the “bedroom level” of Downton while everyone else is away, he actually listens and quizzes Tom about it.  But there are no consequences.  What was Thomas’s strategy with this gambit?

— Of course Tom kind of deserves it.  He continues to be spineless, letting his teacher friend bully him into showing her the empty house on the night night when everyone is away.  His one redeeming act was asking the Dowager Countess to dance at the ball. That was sweet.  And what is this alliance he’s apparently fallen into with Edith?

— I saw part of a documentary about the Royal National Theatre in London and noticed that Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton (who play Violet and Isobel, respectively) are both longtime cast members.  They must have known each other for years.  I wonder if they like acting together on “Downton”? I can’t imagine that Penelope Wilton is truly happy with her character Isobel, although in a rare moment of self-insight Isobel does concede that was she being “smug and intolerant” in originally planning to avoid the ball.

–So Mosely gives Baxter the strength to stand up to Thomas?  Even he seems surprised at that news.  I’m getting a little tired of Baxter’s secret, whatever it is.  Seriously, how bad can it be after all we’ve seen these past four years?

Finally, I’m glad the season ended on a high note, with Mrs. Hughes putting the moves on Mr. Carson, although he only dimly perceives that’s what’s going on.  When he says he’s afraid of falling into the water at the beach, she says, “You can hold my hand.  You can always hold my hand if you want to feel steady.” When he wonders at her meaning she adds, “We’re getting on in age, Mr. Carson.  You and I, we can afford to live a little.”  Amen.

Movies have been a dominant – maybe even the MOST dominant – form of entertainment for more than a century.  Even today, people may spend more time in front of the TV set than they do at the cinema, but films still have a grip on the public imagination.  The number of people who watch the Academy Awards far outstrips the viewership for the Emmys, for example, and the most ambitious young actors still aspire to be movie stars, not TV personalities.

As important and influential as films are as entertainment vehicles and cultural touchstones, however, it’s not surprising that some of them have changed history in the real world.  Sad to say, many of these movies have not always changed history for the better.  In fact, usually when a movie makes a big social impact, it actually has a deleterious effect.  Consider my nominees for the five most consequential movies (again, not the “most important” or “best” movies, simply the ones with the biggest social impact)  The world would arguably been a better place if none of them had ever been made:

1. The Birth of a Nation 

“The Birth of a Nation” (1915) is probably the most important movie in cinematic history.  Until director D.W. Griffith created this three-hour epic of the Reconstruction era in the American South, most movies were short and basically as interchangeable as Saturday morning cartoons.  But Griffith showed that film could portray long complex narratives and that audiences could actually sit through a long film.

“The Birth of a Nation” is not on this list because of its cinematic importance but because of its role in reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan.  The original Klan had been a short-lived group of night-riders who terrorized freed slaves and so-called carpetbaggers in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.  The movement had largely petered out by the beginning of the 20th Century, until Griffith depicted the Klan as the heroes of his masterpiece, busily protecting the flower of Southern womenhood from the threat of rape and miscegenation.

According to Wyn Craig Wade’s The Fiery Cross, “The Birth of a Nation” led to the Klan’s resurgence and essentially invented some of the group’s most distinctive features, including the burning cross. In just a few years after the movie premiered, the KKK had millions of members and was back to terrorizing its opponents.  And of course the Klan was massive force for repression for decades after that.  That’s some legacy for a single movie.

2. The China Syndrome

It’s one of the quirks of history that the best movie about dangers of nuclear power came out just twelve days before the worst nuclear accident on American soil.  “The China Syndrome” premiered on March 16, 1979, to the fury of the nuclear power industry, which saw it as anti-nuclear propaganda.   But right on cue, in a coincidence that only a Hollywood publicist could hope for, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania malfunctioned and the nation waited for days to see whether it would blow up.  Of course the facility was never in danger of a Chernobyl-style accident but the movie had softened up the public to fear that possibility. (The title of the movie refers to a fictional scenario in which a nuclear meltdown could burn a hole through the earth all the way to China.)

Let’s face it. Any movie starring liberal activists Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas is bound to be propaganda.  But to give “The China Syndrome” its due, it’s an exciting action thriller that scares the snot out of you.  The effect of the movie was basically to kill the nuclear power industry.  Before 1979, electric companies were moving away from coal-fired to nuclear plants but after “The China Syndrome” the public so feared nuclear disaster that it became nearly impossible to bring any new facilities on line.  Depending on your point of view, this may or may not be a bad thing.  It is interesting to note, though, that many environmentalists have been rethinking their opposition to nuclear power, recognizing that burning carbon (especially coal, but also other fossil fuels)  to create power has contributed much more dramatically to global warming than nuclear would have..

3. Jaws

“Jaws” was Stephen Spielberg’s first big hit and it had an impact in two areas.  First it touched off an anti-shark frenzy that more or less persists today.  Of course people have always feared sharks, just as they’ve been scared of wolves, but “Jaws” ramped up that fear to new heights.

But more important is what “Jaws,” as the first major summer blockbuster, did to warm weather entertainment.  There was a time in the living memory of many Americans when movies aimed at sophisticated adult audiences were released year-round, sometimes even in the summer.  But “Jaws” made mountains of money, with young people returning again and again for the sheer thrill factor.  Same when “Star Wars” come out two years later.  Ka-Ching!  This changed the way studios approach the scheduling strategy.  “Jaws” is the reason that summer is full of superhero, alien invasion and other blockbuster movies.  Anyone who wants to see an Oscar-quality movie these days can take the first nine months of the year off.

4. Deep Throat

Ever wonder about the pornification of American culture?  A lot of the credit or blame can go to the movie “Deep Throat.” It’s hard to remember now but in the mid-1960s movies could not show nudity or sex acts.  These standards took a battering in the late 1960’s but nothing knocked them down like “Deep Throat,” an explicit porno movie that somehow achieved a patina of respectability among sophisticated audiences. At 61 minutes, it was relatively long, had higher production values and was played tongue-in-cheek (ha ha, pun not intended.)

Instead of being ashamed about attending the movie, quite a few celebrities including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Truman Capote, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Carson and Barbara Walters, bragged about it.  It was even reviewed in The New York Times. This seal of approval from the cultural elites opened the floodgates for the middle classes and unleashed a porn chic that has never quite gone away.

Given the impact that this movie had in the early 1970’s, it’s ironic that the movie itself is largely forgotten, thanks to the Watergate drama “All The Presdent’s Men,” which reconceived the term “deep throat” as a synonym for a secret inside source.  Live by the sword, die by the sword.

5. JFK

Despite conclusive proof that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy, a majority of Americans believe he was either part of a conspiracy or an outright scapegoat.  And Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” has done a lot to sustain that belief. “JFK” examines the events leading to the assassination and purported subsequent cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

Oliver Stone is an immensely talented directed but he comes out of a persistently paranoid strain of American culture.  It’s bad enough that “JFK” convinced so many people that a cabal killed Kennedy; what’s worse is that it has contributed to the perception that everything that goes wrong in the world is part of a conspiracy.  The Birthers and Truthers are the direct descendants of the “JFK” conspiracy-promoters.  Thanks a lot.

Downton Bazaar photo

Oh, how I love an English country bazaar! With their sack races, tea drinking, cake-eating, and flower-selling.  With their feats of strength, games of badminton, promendades on the rolling estate lawns, upbeat sound tracks, and warm clear skies.  With their arrival of suitors, smirking homicidal man servants, and existentialist-spouting Dowager Countesses. How I look forward to them.  And best of all, last night’s “Downton Abbey” bazaar didn’t culminate in the announcement of a World War, which was the case at the end of the first season.

No wonder Lady Grantham is so obsessed with making sure that everything comes off perfectly.  She’s so busy planning for the bazaar that she doesn’t notice that one daughter is pregnant, another daughter is gallivanting around London solving everyone else’s problems, a niece is engaged to a black jazz singer, and people are falling in love left and right.  Oh well, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” which Rosamund will translate for us when she returns from her French immersion course in Geneva.

This was the penultimate (that’s “next to last” for you non-English majors) episode of the season, so we spend a fair amount of time wrapping up tedious plotlines.  These resolutions are surprisingly anticlimactic, mostly because they take place off screen or by letter.

What, for example, are we to make of the (completely unsurprising) death of Mr. Green the raping valet?  We are supposed to infer that Mr. Bates, having cannily deduced where Mr. Green lives (by asking him! Now there’s Sherlock Bates, for you), hops the train to London, somehow locates him on the street and pushes him in front of a speeding car with no witnesses.  End of plotline.  That was easy.

When Anna was raped earlier this season I bitterly objected both to the rape itself and the way it was portrayed.  I feel some measure of vindication now that this has been resolved so cavalierly.  When a writer decides to expose the audience and a much-loved character to something as brutal as a rape, he better have some good reason.  Yet I can’t help feeling that Julian Fellowes simply needed a plot for Anna and Mr. Bates and never really intended to use the assault as a way to explore violence against women or any other serious aspect of the human condition.

And in fact, the rape story quickly became all about Mr. Bates.  Anna spends much more time worrying about him than she does about herself.  Even at the end, when Mary goes to London to convince Lord Gillingham to fire his valet, she does so because Anna is afraid Bates will kill Green if Gillingham brings him back to Downton.

Worse, Mr. Bates gets in a dig at Anna (that she used to find Mr. Green funny and charming) which skirts close to the edge of him saying she was partly responsible for her own rape because she encouraged him.  It was also a bit creepy when he returned from his day off in such a good mood, after presumably perpetrating a murder.  The dude just might be a bit of a psychopath after all, and I remain unconvinced that he didn’t kill his first wife after all.

What are the ethics of this murder?  Mary takes up the question with that noted moral philosopher, Mr. Charles Blake, who opines that if someone commits a crime in a good cause, it’s OK to let it slide.  So that appears to be that with Anna’s rape.  Rough justice was delivered and everyone – including the viewer – is just supposed to pretend it never happened.

Another story that got wrapped up also very neatly is Rose’s romance with the black jazz singer Jack Ross.  “Downton” time is remarkably elastic — plots can either go on forever or they can advance at the speed of light.  In just a few episodes, Rose proceeds from dancing with Jack at the club, to kissing him in the Downton kitchen, to lunching with him in Thirsk, to becoming engaged.  Tom sees them canoodling at lunch, reports it to Mary, and then immediately wipes his hands of the whole situation – hey, he’s got those pigs and the sassy school teacher to worry about! Mary quickly figures out that Rose is throwing herself at Jack to spite her hateful mother (remember, this is the woman who stole Mrs. O’Brien from Lady Grantham at the beginning of the season, so you know she probably does have a black heart.)

In any event, Mary goes running up to London to convince Jack to break off the engagement.  Jack is one of the “good” Downton characters so he does the decent thing.  Although he loves Rose he gives her up because he doesn’t want her to be unhappy (“tis a far far nobler thing,” etc., etc.)  He doesn’t want her to be pointed at and laughed at.  It’s inexplicable that this urbane, talented and decent man would ever have been attracted to Rose in the first place.  A more honest Jack Ross would have been all, like, “yeah, she’s a hot 19-year-old but she’s too flighty to stick with me very long, so I’m cutting my losses now.”  Instead, he sends her a letter calling off her engagement and that’s that.  Well, that was an easy plot resolution.

Another plot that finally got wrapped up was the Ivy/Daisy/Alfred love triangle, which has been putting us to sleep for years.   Alfred finally proposes to Ivy (by letter), Ivy turns him down (by letter) and Daisy’s so distraught that she flees to visit her ex-father-in-law Mr. Mason, who seems to know all about her business even though she apparently never visits.  Mr. Mason is another one of “Downton’s” noble characters and he advises her to return to Downton pronto to get some closure with the whole Alfred thing.  Don’t want to leave any jagged edges!

Alfred happens to be at “Downton” because he’s stopping by on his return from his father’s funeral, who has just conveniently died.  Despite getting the cooking job at the Ritz, he’s still hanging around “Downton” for one reason or another.  Having been told no by Ivy via letter he wants to get that extra-painful in-person rejection.  And then immediately, as soon as Ivy says no-no-no, a thousand times no, he turns his gaze to Daisy, who shows up with a basket of goodies from Mr. Mason.  Although this plot has bored me to tears, it does have a tremendously sweet conclusion. Daisy tells him that she loved him (not anymore, though) and wishes him well.  The true emotional pay-off, though, is when Mrs. Patmore follows Daisy out to the garden and tells her she couldn’t be more proud of her if she had been her own daughter.  Awww. Sniff, sniff.

Although Julian Fellowes is tying up many loose ends in this episode, he keeps a few story-lines wide open, particularly Mary’s courtship.  The episode begins with Mary and Mr. Blake recounting the story of their great pig adventure to an amused assemblage. Actually there are two people who are decidedly not amused: Mr. Evelyn Napier and Long Gilligham, each of whom realizes he has a rival.   As the episode progresses, Napier seems banished to the Land of Can’t-We-Just-Be-Friends, but Blake and Gillingham are mounting steady challenges.

Blake and Gilligham both show up at the bazaar and declare their intentions more strenuously than ever.  Gillingham, who has previously told Mary he won’t give up the pursuit until she walks down the aisle with another man, and perhaps not even then, continues to profess his love.   (It’s probably worth mentioning here that Gillingham, who became engaged to Miss Mabel Lane-Fox off-screen last episode, becomes unengaged to her this episode – also off-screen.  I wonder if she even exists or was just a made-up ruse by Gillingham to force her hand?) For his part, Blake says he hasn’t been able to think of anything else but her and when Mary tells him to bug off he replies, “I’m afraid I couldn’t allow that.  Not without putting up a fight.”

It would be great if Gillingham and Blake would settle this with a joust, but instead, being proper English gentlemen, they agree to drive back to London together.  Thankfully, Matthew Crawley is not at the wheel so they manage to make it back to London in one piece.  As the episode concludes, we are left with this closing image as the “ménage” walk off to the car:

The other major plot that remains seemingly open-ended is Edith’s pregnancy.  I say “seemingly” because it’s possible that it actually did wrap up – again rather anticlimactically. Lord Grantham tells us that Cora’s mother and brother (i.e., Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti) are returning to Downton for Rose’s debut NEXT SUMMER.  In other words, it looks like the series is jumping ahead a year, which would bring us many months after the birth of Edith’s child.

If next week’s season finale actually does advance the plot for a year, then it looks like the plan that Rosamund concocted will have carried the day.  Edith’s initial idea was to give the child to one of the tenants, Mr. Drewe, who is so good with the pigs.  Then she could watch the child grow up to be a manual laborer, like something out of a George Eliot novel. Rosamund points out the disadvantages of this plan, most of which revolve around the possibility that the secret could come out. Rosamend then comes up with a more traditional scheme: she will tell everyone she wants to go to Switzerland to learn French and wouldn’t it be nice if Edith could come too?  Then the baby will be adopted by a nice Swiss couple and if it’s a girl, she could be named Heidi and portrayed in a movie by Shirley Temple.

All the geniuses in the Crawley family are, “yep, that sounds like a good idea.”  Except for the Dowager Countess, who has seen this movie before.  She knows that when a young woman decides to spend half a year away from home she’s always pregnant.  She’s also the only one to see the absurdity of the premise: “Rosamund has no interest in French,” she says. “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.”  Then to Edith’s surprise (but not ours, since we’ve seen the mellowing of the Dowager Countess lo these many years) she is supportive and even offers to pay for her stay.  Comfortingly she adds, “Switzerland has everything to offer. Except, perhaps, conversation … and one can learn to live with that.”

Edith, Edith, Edith, you’ve had a tough life being the plain, middle daughter, but if you wanted your family to shower you with attention and support, it appears that all you needed to do is get knocked up.  She’s still feeling sorry for herself, though, suggesting that God doesn’t want her to be happy.  Granny (or is it Jean-Paul Sartre? I can’t tell) puts her in her place, though: “All life is a series of problem which we must try and solve. … the next and the next.  Until we die.” Pause. “Why don’t you get us an ice cream?”

Some other thoughts:

— The re-emergence of Mr. Mason reminds us of the essential silliness of Daisy remaining as a back-up cook at Downton all these years.  She’s a war widow with a pension, as well as something of an agricultural heiress.  As she and Mr. Mason are having their lovely picnic he tells her for about the four-thousandth time that she’s welcome to return to the farm and take it over.  What the heck is she waiting for?  It looks like a super nice life.

— Boy, these aristocrats move fast when it comes to affairs of the heart.  I thought Lord Gillingham was speedy when he proposed to Mary after spending a weekend at Downton, but Lord Merton, Mary’s godfather, is even faster on the draw.  One lunch with Isobel and he’s sending her huge bouquets.  Now that we’ve gotten rid of one love triage (Daisy/Ivy/Alfred) it looks like we have two new ones (Mary/Gillingham/Blake, and Isobel/Merton/Dr. Clarkson.)

— Then there’s the burgeoning romance between Mrs. Baxter and Mr. Moseley.  She’s hinting rather heavy-handedly at some mysterious past and we still haven’t figured out what connection she has to Thomas Barrow. When Thomas returns from America she declines to feed his voracious appetite for gossip, apparently mistaking Moseley’s ability to wield a sledgehammer at the bazaar for an ability to protect her from Thomas’ evil retributions.

— Speaking of new romances, why it turns out that the lively woman who flirted with Tom at last week’s political meeting was Sarah Bunting, local school teacher and agitator for social justice.  He never noticed her in the village before, but there she is popping up everywhere: walking in the street, breaking down in her car, and serving punch at the bazaar.  The chip that’s on her shoulder is the one that Tom used to have himself, before marrying into the Crawleys. She chides Tom for not knowing if he’s a Socialist, Liberal or something even worse, but he explains why he is now confused about his politics: “I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.”  How pathetically shallow his political thinking must have been if it can be confused simply by discovering that some aristocrats are nice.

— The most that Thomas and Lord Grantham can say about America is that it’s “interesting” “modern” and consumed by Prohibition?  I’m glad they aren’t writing any travel guides.

Mary and suiters

Sorry Downton fans, but as a card-carrying Baby Boomer I had to spend Sunday night focusing on another British import – the Beatles — and catch up with “Downton” on DVR.  Watching Paul and Ringo rock out on the 50th anniversary of their appearance on Ed Sullivan was great, but I did think that without the facelifts and dye jobs, Paul McCartney might look a little like the Dowager Countess.

In any event, it’s always a worrisome event when a “Downton Abbey” episode begins with a telegraph operator transcribing a message for the Crawleys.  We all remember the last time it happened: we learned that poor Patrick Crawley had gone down on the Titanic.  This time, though, it’s just a message from Cora’s mother reporting that Cora’s brother Harold is going down with the Teapot Dome scandal and beseeching Lord Grantham to hop on a boat the next day and scurry over to the U.S., where he can lend his august presence by sitting behind Harold when he testifies at a Senate committee hearing.

It is to Lord Grantham’s credit that he recognizes the absurdity of the request – it’s as if the characters themselves are finally beginning to push back against Julian Fellowes’ plot machinations.  But off he goes anyway, with Cora basically promising to make it worth his while when he gets back (or IF he returns – remember that Titanic thing.)

Lord Grantham’s departure sets in motion the main plotline of the show, since he’s not there when the pigs arrive and isn’t around to see the mischief that Mary can get up to in the sty.  He’s also not around to notice that Downton Abbey has turned into a Roaring Twenties version of “The Dating Game.”  Because all the eligible men in Yorkshire seem to be knocking down the door to woo Mary.

And here are the contestants:

Bachelor Number One:  A young Lord who has carried a torch for Mary since they were children.  Travels with a rapist in tow.  Too quick on the draw with the marriage proposals.

Bachelor Number Two.  Another young heir – soon to be a Lord.  Has carried the torch for Mary for at least ten years, but was found to be dull by her in 1914 and has not had a personality change since then. Has an unfortunate habit of showing up at Downton with house guests that Mary finds a lot hotter than he is.

Bachelor Number Three. A handsome young man of uncertain parentage but with strong opinions and a disinclination to fawn over Mary, which turns her on.  Apparently a pig expert.

You don’t have to get a Ph.D from the Downton Abbey School of Screenwriting, as taught by professor Julian Fellowes, to know how this is going to turn out.  And if she’s not turned on enough by Mr. Blake’s disdain for her, he saves her pig investment by noticing that the poor creatures are dehydrated, which results in the two of them carrying water in buckets to the trough and slipping and sliding in the mud (in their evening clothes, no less.)  You know the sparks are really flying when he playfully flicks a bit of mud on her face, like he’s Cary Grant and she’s Katherine Hepburn.  In the world of mainstream movies and television, this is practically a proposal.  The real question at this point is whether he has some secret that will disqualify him from marrying her.  After all this time no one has thought to ask him about his background and for all we know, he might have a crazy wife locked up in an insane asylum (probably not, since that plot has already been taken this season.)

Mr. Evelyn Napier, who foolishly introduced Mr. Blake to Mary, is so dim he might actually have Crawley blood in his veins.  When he returns from a night away from Downton to find Mary and Mr. Blake joking about playing patty-cake in the mud, he worries that Blake  may be falling for her. “Only trouble for me is that I’m afraid it’s increased the competition,” he remarks to Mary.  Um, dude, there IS no competition.  The only way you’ll win is if Mary somehow manages to kill this one too.

Meanwhile, the return of nice Lord Gillingham, brings the return of his not-nice valet, Mr. Green, whom I’m afraid is not long for this world.  It doesn’t take long for Mrs. Elsie  “Sherlock” Hughes to figure out that Mr. Green raped Anna.  The woman really did miss her calling at Scotland Yard.  This sets up one of the great Mrs. Hughes scenes, where she confronts the valet and forces him to admit it.  The guy, of course, is pure evil, and tries to claim that both Anna and he were drunk, as if in the throes of passion Anna battered her own face.  Mrs. Hughes warns him not to be a joker and to keep in the shadows, but the guy is such a jerk that he can’t help mouthing off at dinner, claiming that he went downstairs during Nellie Melba’s concert because he couldn’t stand to hear her screeching.

Bing! Bing! Bing! Mr. Bates finally puts two and two together, because the rape occurred downstairs during the concert; for a second I thought Bates was going to leap across the table and throttle him in front of the whole group.  Alas, that’s where the episode ended – this is practically a cliff-hanger!  Will Mr. Bates kill Mr. Green first or will Green have a convenient accident before Bates gets to him?

Now to the ethics of this plot.  Much as I adore Mrs. Hughes, once she identified the rapist, she should have gone running to the police.  It’s very likely that Green is a serial rapist and putting him away will prevent future crimes.  Also, since she allows Green to walk around free she gives Bates the opportunity to extract his revenge, which could result in his being sent back to prison.  I know Anna doesn’t want to endure the (undeserved) “shame” of being a rape victim, by c’mon, this is “Downton Abbey,” where everyone is so very understanding and supportive.  If they’ll let Thomas off the hook for being gay, they’ll certainly give Anna a break.  Look how Mary reacted when she heard the news – immediately convincing Pops to leave Bates at home so he could look out for his wife.  (Department of “no good deed goes unpunished, “law of unintended consequences” division: Because Mary intercedes on Anna’s behalf, Bates is at Downton when Green returns, setting the stage for Bates to murder him. It would have been better if he were on headed to America with his Lordship. )

While Mary’s playing “The Dating Game” back at Downton, poor Edith is in London dealing with the consequences of playing “The Bachelorette.”  In a melodramatic show with dozens of silly subplots, Edith’s story actually has some real emotional force.  Always the unloved middle child, she’s so desperate for affection that she’ll convince herself she’s in love with any older gentleman who looks twice at her. Remarkably fertile, she gets pregnant at her first rodeo and feels she needs to get an abortion to retain her social position.  She poignantly confesses to Aunt Rosamund that she doesn’t want to be an outcast, or the odd woman that everyone feels sorry for. Sybil, she says, could have pulled off the unwed mother thing, but not her  This is probably the most honest bit of dialogue Julian Fellowes has ever written.  And when Rosamund asks if she’s thought about the consequences she says this:   “I am killing the wanted child of a man I’m in love with, and you ask me if I’ve thought about it!” Whoa, she uses two words that tip us off where this is headed: “killing” and “baby.”

It’s not really a surprise that Edith doesn’t go through with it once she gets to the clinic and sees another women crying in the aftermath of her abortion.  The same thing basically happened to Joan on “Man Men” when she went to get her own abortion and decided instead to have the baby. And even on “Girls,” when Jessa got pregnant and her friends arranged for her to have an abortion, she conveniently had a miscarriage instead. “Downton” is not going to be the show that has a character doing what women won’t do on more courageous shows like “Girls” and “Mad Men.”  And in any event, it sets up more plotlines for Julian Fellowes to mine; we can see from the coming attractions that she’s planning to give the baby to a family in the neighborhood and I’m sure there will be many twists before we get that far.

Some other thoughts on the episode:

— I counted seven subplots and six of them were about sex/romance or the impact thereof (Mary’s suitors, Edith’s pregnancy, Anna’s rape, Rose’s dalliance with Jack, the Ivy/Alfred/Daisy/James love quadrangle and Tom at the political meeting). The one plot not about sex concerned the growing friendship between the two old ladies.  No wonder this show has so many female viewers.

— Speaking of the “Dowager has bronchitis” plot, this showcases Isobel’s best and most annoying characteristics.  She is actually a doer of good deeds by taking care of Violet in her sickness (and doesn’t look the least bit fatigued after 48 straight hours of no sleep).  But she also bossily bans Cora and Mary from the sickroom, brandishing the “I’m a nurse” card.  How many times have we heard that!  Only Isobel is allowed to do good at Downton.  It’s all me me me. Not like Mrs. Hughes, who does her good deeds in secret.

— The Dowager’s illness gives rise to the best lines of the episode.  When she’s delirious, she says of Isobel, “This one talks too much, like a drunken vicar.”  Then after she recovers Dr. Clarkson tells her that Isobel was the one nursing her; encourages her to act a little grateful, noting she’ll be rewarded in heaven.  “The sooner the better” she replies.  It’s interesting, by the way, that one who will be rewarded in heaven is the one who gratefully accepts the gift, not the one who gives it.

— Nice to see just a little bit of the old bitchy Mary.  When Mrs. Hughes tries to get her to convince Lord Grantham to leave Bates at home, she’s all: we pay you people plenty to do your jobs, can’t you just do them?  Of course she loosens up when Mrs. Hughes tells her it’s to help her chummy chum chum Anna, but still, for a minute we saw the old spoiled brat.  Then, when she and Mr. Blake are having scrambled eggs in the servants’ quarters (that she cooks, no less – send out the wedding invitations now!) it transpires that she doesn’t even know Ivy’s name.  Good for her; that means she’s been spared the Ivy/Alfred/Daisy subplot.

— Seeing Mary’s many suitors makes me realize how much I do not miss Mr. Matthew Crawley.  In fact, I can barely remember anything about him except that he was blandly handsome and a bit of a prig.

— Lord Grantham and Thomas sailed on the Cameronia, apparently a real vessel.  Here’s the photo.

Cameronia

— I thought this was a good episode but sooooo predictable.  Are we surprised by Rose and Jack’s dalliance?  By Ivy’s new-found respect for Alfred or Daisy’s continuing resentment?  Are we surprised that Mr. Bates finally figures out who the rapist is? Will we be surprised when Tom meets up again with that woman from the political meeting? No, no, no, no.

— Mr. Carson to Mrs. Hughes after she concocts a story to discourage Alfred from coming to the Abbey: “You’re quite a plotter when you want to be, aren’t you?”  Her response: “It’s a skill all women must learn.”  Like most of the men on the show, Mr. Carson is slow on the uptake if he’s just figuring this out.

— Considering that the Spanish Influenza of 1918 was the worst epidemic of the 20th century, the characters are pretty cavalier when talking about the flu.  Dr. Clarkson is worried when he diagnoses Violet with bronchitis, remarking “I just thought it was influenza.” Just influenza? Does he forget that dear Lavinia died of the flu?  And when Mrs. Hughes dreams up an excuse for Alfred to stay away from Downton, her story is that the inhabitants have the flu. Cough, cough.

— Has anyone else seen the trailer for the upcoming Liam Neeson movie “Nonstop”? Please note that Mary Crawley plays a stewardess and has the immortal line “This is a bad idea.” Not sure whether she’s speaking about her part or the idea of Liam Neeson being an action hero.

— So Tom has found a new politics buddy – Miss what’s-her-name, who seems less confused about her politics than he is.  Well, there goes the idea about heading for America.  By the way, in case anyone cares, the Lloyd George coalition government that the MP discussed at the meeting collapsed in October 1922.  Lloyd George was a Liberal and in coalition with Asquith a Conservative.  He had been prime minister during World War I, but no one can hang onto power forever (unless you’re Fidel Castro) and he was eventually booted out. (For more see this link  )

— The Brits seem to have funny ideas about America.  Lord Grantham absolutely must have a valet with him because the Americans have so many different costumes to wear at so many different times.  I know what he means, why just yesterday I wore a different sweater in the morning than the one I wore at night.  And then Mrs. Patmore is convinced that all we eat is steak and ketchup. Does she mean at the same time?  If so, she might have a point.

Downton servants

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that “Downton Abbey,” once lauded as an incisive depiction of the British class system, has largely abandoned class-based storylines in favor of sexual politics.

This is no surprise.  Historical fiction usually reflects the preoccupations of the era in which it is composed, and identity politics (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion) has displaced class conflict as the primary source of divisiveness in the 21stcentury.  Consider how hard it’s been for President Obama to promote his campaign on income inequality.  If the President of the United States can’t get people to care about class, how can Julian Fellowes?

I have no idea whether series creator and exec producer Fellowes relies on market research, but with women “Downton’s” principal audience, it’s only natural that he would double down on storylines that appeal to the ladies. And in any event, sexual politics — the examination of how patriarchal practices are perpetuated — has been at the center of the show since its beginning.  The initial storyline could have been written by Jane Austen herself.  With three unmarried daughters, the aristocratic Crawleys are in a pickle: their massive estate is entailed to the closest male heir, a cousin who has just gone down on the Titanic.  Like the Bennett daughters in “Pride and Prejudice,” the Crawley girls need to find suitable husbands.  If no appropriate aristocrat can be located, the Dowager Countess muses, they will have to marry off at least one daughter to some “Italian who is not too picky.”

Downstairs in the servants’ quarters, it’s not much different.  Mr. Carson, the deeply conservative butler, runs the house with an iron hand, and the women are restricted to cleaning, cooking and dressing the upstairs ladies.

What’s interesting is that over the course of the past four seasons, the women upstairs have gained considerable power while the women downstairs remain under the thumb of the patriarchy.   This allows the show to have its cake and eat it, too.  It continues to make gender inequality a primary focus while simultaneously giving female viewers the satisfaction of vicariously winning many victories in the battle of the sexes.

Consider the progress upstairs: two daughters took jobs over their father’s objections, and the third is co-managing the estate with him.  Like Tevye’s daughters in “Fiddler on the Roof,”  they marry or become engaged to whomever they like — even an Irish chauffeur.  The women in the family are usually united in female solidarity. Even the Dowager Countess is more loyal to her gender than to aristocratic tradition, urging her son Lord Grantham to break the entail so her granddaughter can inherit the estate.  There’s also a telling scene in season three when the Crawleys have lunch at a private home where the serving girl is a former maid who, in desperation, once engaged in prostitution.  Outraged at the impropriety of having his mother, wife and daughters invited into the presence of a one-time streetwalker, Lord Grantham bursts in and insists they all leave. But no one stirs.  All the women side with their former maid and Lord Grantham is left to stew, leaving his wife to observe, “Robert makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore.”

The well-born Crawley women gain the upper hand not only through solidarity but through the general fecklessness of their male relations.  Matthew Crawley, one son-in-law, is a good guy but bad driver and finds himself DOA in a car crash the day his son is born. Tom Branson, another son-in-law, is weak and insecure of his social status.  And the big guy, Robert Crawley, the lord of the manner, is an outright dolt: he loses the fortune of his American heiress wife in the stock market, has to be dragged kicking and screaming into modern estate management, and insists on retaining a society doctor whose negligence kills his daughter during childbirth.

But if the upper-class women are gaining some power, their servants are not so lucky. The only female servant who seems to have any influence is the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, who uses guile and moral suasion to undo some of the wrongs in the house.  But even she’s realistic about the gender imbalance and can’t overturn the double standard. Over the course of the series, two maids have been exiled for flirting with their masters.  Another got pregnant, was forced to leave — and, in a heartbreaking episode, had to give up her toddler son.  Edna, a lady’s maid, was sent packing after she seduced the son-in-law Tom in a futile attempt to get him to marry her. Worst of all, Anna, another lady’s maid, was brutally raped by a visiting valet to whom she was polite despite her husband’s warnings.

Is any of this historically accurate? My guess is that conditions for women were even worse than depicted on the show, especially for the female servants who had to clean endlessly and in anonymity.  And even with the looser standards of the Roaring Twenties, I doubt that upper-class women had the influence they do on “Downton.”  One thing I’m sure about, though, is that class conflict did not recede during the real 1920s, a time of profound labor unrest. But that issue will have to wait for a different series.  After all, the soapier and more female-friendly “Downton” trends, the higher its ratings.

downton-abbey-evelyn and mary

Evelyn’s back – that’s Mr. Evelyn Napier, the son and heir of Viscount Bracksome – and he’s having about as good a night as Peyton Manning, although he doesn’t know it yet.    Because he’s introduced his heartthrob Mary Crawley to Mr. Blake, and Mr. Blake is just the kind of bloke she likes, although she doesn’t know it yet.

Mr. Blake is a good-looking fellow who speaks his mind and doesn’t slobber all over Mary like poor Evelyn.  In fact, Mary and Blake take an instant dislike to each other.  Mary accuses him of being a “traitor” when he reveals that his mission is not to save the huge landed estates but merely to investigate what the impact of their dissolution would be on the nation’s food supply if they did fail.  Apparently being neutral must be construed as being on the “other side.”  Mary has frequently taken the “if you’re not with me you’re against me” approach to other aspects of her life and Mr. Blake doesn’t endear himself by pointing out that the prime minister David Lloyd George doesn’t care what happens to the aristocratic families as long as the agricultural economy doesn’t get disrupted.

For his part, Mr. Blake doesn’t cotton to Mary Crawley too much either.  “She’s the type who demands all this as her right, but she wants it on a plate,” he remarks to Evelyn.  “She won’t work for it.  She won’t fight for it. And her kind doesn’t deserve to survive.”  Ah, Mr. Blake doesn’t know our Mary.  First of all, she wants it on a silver platter, not a plate, for goodness sake.  And secondly, she is willing to both work and fight for it.  Why, wasn’t she out that very afternoon figuring out how to introduce large-scale industrial pig farming to Downton?

This is beginning to feel like “Pride and Prejudice” again, with Mary as the prideful Elizabeth Bennett and Blake as the prejudiced Darcy.  And we know how that turned out. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Blake has his own Pemberly stashed away someplace.  More to the point, though, this is just another rerun of the Mary/Matthew subplot that dominated Season One.  As strong-willed as Mary is, she likes a little pushback.  The mistake that Evelyn and Lord Gillingham make is in falling at her feet.  If they had seen how Matthew handled her by treating her with disdain they would have played it a bit more coolly and gone out of their way to get her goat.

Speaking of playing it coolly, Mary’s best scene in the show was the final one, who she descends to the servants’ quarters and comes upon Cousin Rose making out with the black singer Jack Ross.  Her expression never wavers despite the shock she must have felt at seeing her blood relative swapping spit with a musician.  How proper she is when she asks Ross to send his bill to Lord Grantham!  Such breeding!

Oh yes, the birthday party.  Of all the references this season to how Downton must cope with the rising tide of modernity, this one takes the cake.  To have a jazz band playing in Downton Abbey, just a few weeks after the fuddy-duddy Dame Nellie Melba screeched out her arias in the same spot shows that the Roaring Twenties have even come to Yorkshire.  I can’t tell whether Rose is being deliberately provocative or naturally obtuse when she provided no warning that the star of the show is a black singer but it was funny to watch everyone’s reaction as Ross materialized in front of them.  Mr. Carson almost had a cow.  Lord Grantham was initially shocked but he controlled his emotions better.  Only poor Edith is so slow on the uptake that she voices what everyone else is thinking – is it really appropriate to have this kind of entertainment at Downton.? But Granny’s there with the good advice: that she needs to be “wary of being provincial,” and to let her “time in London rub off a bit more.”

Unfortunately, Edith has let her time in London rub off on her a little too much, because here comes a letter: it appears that you’re knocked up.  Some thoughts on this.  1) It’s a good thing I was watching this on DVR because the letter flashed by so fast that I needed to rewind and freeze frame to read it. 2) The letter says that her condition and symptoms are consistent with being pregnant.  Now, there was no “rabbit test” in 1922.  Why did the doctor need to send her a letter when he could have told her the same thing right in the office?  I think the reason is obvious: to build suspense.  Because receiving letters is second only to eavesdropping as the primary way that people learn things in “Downton Abbey.”

In any event, Edith’s stricken reaction to the letter gives rise to the most ridiculous line of the show.  Somehow sensing that something’s amiss, Lord Grantham rushes into the room and exclaims, “My most darling girl.”  Edith quite rightly calls him on it, pointing out that she is certainly not his most darling girl.  He lamely tries the “I love my children equally” line, which never works in families where one child is favored and doesn’t work here either.

Unfortunately for Edith, in addition to being pregnant, the proud papa has vanished someplace in The Black Forest.  Maybe instead of hiring that private detective, Mr. Greggson’s company should deploy Hansel and Gretel to find him.  I hope he hasn’t gotten himself entangled with Herr Hitler and the rest of his merry National Socialist band, because it will take more than a card trick to get him extricated from that.  (Speaking of poor Edith, it’s just her luck to get pregnant after spending just one night with Mr. Greggson.  Matthew and Mary had been at it like rabbits for months before they conceived little George, but all it takes for Edith is a one-night stand.)

Two other important letters arrived this week.  Alfred learns via the post that he’s been accepted into the Ritz training program after all. So exeunt Alfred!  Thus ending the extremely protracted love quadrangle among the young servants.  Daisy is distraught, although why she wants Alfred hanging around mooning about Ivy is beyond me.  And in one of those O. Henry-like coincidences that Julian Fellowes is so enamored with, it’s just Ivy’s bad luck that on the day that Alfred departs she finally goes on an unescorted date with James, who turns out to have octopus hands.  Not satisfied with sweet kisses under a full moon, he starts to take liberties and Ivy’s all, like, “Why I never!” Fortunately we are spared another sexual assault on this series and James backs away fast, blustering about how a girl owes a guy a little treat after he takes her out – as if he’s a Division 1 “student athlete.”  The end result is that what had been a love quadrangle is not a triangle, not a two-sided romance but a group of single servants, all unhappy with everyone else.

The other letter that arrives is from Cora’s American brother Harold.  Apparently he’s involved in some oil lease problem with “Senator Fall.”  Why, this is just like “Mad Men,” except instead of linking plot developments to the history of the 1960’s, “Downton” is touching on the highlights of the 1920’s.  Because Senator Fall is actually President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall and those leases are connected to the Teapot Dome Scandal.  I hope Harold isn’t writing to Lord Grantham for business advice because we’ve seen what that is worth.  Of course we’ve already been told that Paul Giamatti has been cast as Harold, which means he’ll appear in future episodes, so perhaps he goes on the lam to Downton once his connections with Albert Fall are known.

albert fall

Harold’s friend, the aptly named Albert Fall

One character who is not on the lam is Pegg, the young gardener in whom Isolbel Crawley has taken so much interest.  If we can cast our minds back to a few episodes ago, Dr. Clarkson convinced Isobel to take an interest in the Peggs to cheer her up, because nothing cheers up Isobel like someone else’s pathos.  Ma Pegg was sick and somehow this translated into Isobel needing to find a job for young Pegg because nothing would cheer that lady up so much as seeing her son bowing and scraping to butlers and grand ladies.  So Isobel strong-armed the Dowager Countess into letting Pegg take care of the flowers.  Alas, two small knick-knacks went missing and the Dowager Countess blamed Pegg, to Isobel’s fury.

I can’t tell if Julian Fellowes is deliberately making her look bad, but Isobel’s objection is very lame: “Things, things, things,” meaning that people are more important than material objects and why get rid of Pegg even if he’s a petty thief.  Well, yes, but you also don’t want someone in the house who’s going to be stealing your stuff. This reminds me of the argument in “Annie Hall” when Alvy Singer’s father is mad because his wife fired the cleaning lady for stealing.   “She’s a colored woman from Harlem!” he says. “She has no money! She has a right to steal from us! After all, who is she gonna steal from if not us?”  It seems to me that Isobel’s strongest argument is that there’s no proof that Pegg stole it, as well as pointing out the logical fallacy of thinking that correlation (hiring Pegg) equals causation (the missing items.)

As it transpires, one item turns up in the cleaning basket, so Isobel finds a way to sneak into Violet’s study while she’s absent and lo and behold, it takes her exactly one second to find the missing penknife between the cushions in Violet’s chair.  Now how hard was that?  All this leads to yet another confrontation in which Isobel and Dr. Clarkson storm into Violet’s study demanding justice for Pegg, when it transpires that she has already hired him back.  Not only that, she had apologized to him for doubting his honesty.  It’s worth noting that Isobel does not apologize in turn to the Dowager Countess for thinking the worst of her.  In the end the Dowager Countess’s observation about Isobel’s motives is acute: “Some people run on greed, lust, even love.  That’s not her fuel.  She runs on indignation.”

Some other comments:

— Mrs. Hughes to the rescue again.  After Mr. Carson refuses to rehire that sad sack Mosely because he hadn’t shown appropriate gratitude upon being initially offered the job, Mrs. Hughes manipulates him into relenting by hiring Mosely for an even lower-prestige job: serving the servants.  Oh, the horror of a former butler reduced to waiting on servants!  So Mr. Carson gives in and Mosely’s back to spread his cheer among the staff.

— There was one genuinely affecting scene last night: the moment that Mary, Tom and Isobel reminisced about the days when they were first in love with their now-departed spouses.  Even Mary opened up, confiding that she was so excited that Matthew was about to propose that she didn’t even feel the chill of the rain.  Usually it’s everyone else who feels the chill when Mary is around, but we get the point.  Very sweet.

— Julian Fellowes is not American so can perhaps be forgiven this near faux-pas, but was it really appropriate for Mrs. Pattmore to say she was going to “jig about” to the music of a black singer?

— Anna and Bates are still having a tough time coming back from the rape.  He’s trying to be supportive and she keeps talking about how there’s a shadow over everything.  If only Oprah were around to give advice, they could sort this out.  But many more discussions like this and Bates is going to take the train to London to blow the rapist’s brains out.

— “Downton” has gone to some lengths to raise the likeability levels of the aristos.  Cora rescuing Anna and Bates at the restaurant where they were being snubbed by a maitre d’ who was a “snob” is a good example of how the Crawley’s are a lot more flexible and open to new ideas than their staff.  Lord Grantham makes a point of going with the flow when Rose has a jazz-themed surprise party with a black singer.  “I hope we haven’t shocked the servants too much,” he says, “Carson was about to faint.”  Contrast that with the servants. Carson, as noted, is the biggest snob in the whole show and is upset that he doesn’t get served the toast first. And Thomas is very particular about his rank and can’t bear the idea of serving food again.   “Downton” is a very silly show but one thing it gets right is the observation that the lower classes can be much more conservative than their social superiors.  After all, their status is very precarious and anything that upsets the social system threatens them directly.

— What’s up with Thomas and Baxter?  She doesn’t like spying for him and frankly she doesn’t do a very good job, just coming up with fragments that don’t really tell Thomas much.  I’m sure we will know soon enough what power Thomas has over her, but I would prefer that the show not tease us with this secondary storyline week after week.

Rudolph Valentino makes me shiver all over too!