Downton Abbey: Life is Not a Cabaret Old Chum, It’s a Bazaar

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.

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3 comments
  1. As usual – wonderfully summed up! I hadn’t realized this was penultimate episode. It seems like Julian took too long to get this year moving along. Still, I’ll show up for next year….

  2. Agree. I was about to drop out after the rape episode but stuck around to see what happened. Supposedly Julian Fellowes will not be the writer next year because he has a new show to produce, so perhaps new blood will bring new ideas.

  3. Julie said:

    I can’t wait to see the sequel when Tom and sybbie go to America and see what Anna does next after mr bates is hung for murder. Is Brendan coyle the next to leave the show?

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