Downton Abbey: Class Is In

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Last year I wrote a column observing that “Downton Abbey” had abandoned its natural subject of class conflict for an emphasis on sexual politics.  It’s obvious that Julian Fellowes read that piece and took it to heart because the Season Five premiere was all about class (I mean, he MUST have read it, otherwise I would have been wrong, which is a concept not to be entertained.)

From the very first scene, when Lord Grantham (aka “Donk”) grumbles about Ramsay MacDonald’s new Labour government, to the end, when he orders his handsome footman fired for between-the-sheets extracurricular activities with Lady Anstruther, we are treated to a series of moanings and groanings about how class distinctions are falling. These in turn are accompanied by some “Occupy Downton” grumblings from the servant class, who are wondering if life wouldn’t be better if they worked in a factory.

Why, there’s Mr. Carson being asked to serve as chair of the local war memorial instead of his Lordship.  Well I never!  And look, a mere schoolteacher is invited to the Crawley’s 34th anniversary dinner, where she proceeds to give the Lord a lot of lip about that very same war memorial.  And then there’s Lord Merton, for some reason besotted by the very middle class Isobel Crawley until the Dowager Countess steps in and reintroduces him to Lady Shackelton, a richer and more vivacious aristocrat.  We also have the spectacle of the Dowager Countess’ butler being such a snob that he refuses to serve Dr. Clarkson even a piece of cake, while the good doctor in turn refers to the aristocrats as a “different tribe.”

Yet in the end, while there might be a revolution in Russia, there’s not one yet at Downton; instead, class distinctions are still more or less the same as they’ve always been, and everything is papered over to soothe the anxieties of the one-percent.   Mr. Carson accepts the chair of the memorial committee only if they will name Lord Grantham as “patron” (whatever that is — sounds expensive).  Whew, wouldn’t want to have the Lord’s ego to be bruised, would we?  He might decide to invest the family fortune in another Canadian railroad!  Mr. Carson also tamps down any downstairs socialism, suppressing servant support for the Labour Prime Minister, who is said to understand ordinary people, which Carson dismisses as completely irrelevant to the needs of governing.

Also unchanged is the pathos of the pathetic characters: The pyromaniac Edith, torturing herself now because she placed her bastard daughter in the home of a tenant farmer; and the Latinate (or Spanish) Moseley, making himself ridiculous by blackening his hair to tempt Baxter with his renewed vigor and youthfulness.  The kipper-brained Daisy’s not quite as pathetic, but she’s developing a poor self-image because she can’t handle math, and is still storming around like a teenager told she can’t go to that sleepover party. And no wonder she’s bummed.  She’s been a lowly junior cook and widowed virgin with no prospects for advancement for over a dozen years (of course she could always leave and help manage her father-in-law’s farm but she prefers to scrub pans.)

To the extent there’s any change at Downton, which is set this season in 1924, about ten months after we last saw these characters, it has to do with a new frankness about sex.  Lady Mary confides in her maid that she’s reluctant to marry again without making sure she and he husband are compatible in the sack, or as she put is, “you know.”  Her main suitor, Lord Gillingam, must have bugged her boudoir because the very next night he barges in — not to ravish her but to propose that they take a trip together to give their nether regions a test run.  “I want us to become lovers,” he announces as matter-of-factly as if he were proposing that they go to the movies.   He must be pretty confident in his ability to satisfy the ladies THAT WAY, if he thinks a week of pleasure with him is going leave this ice princess panting for more.  And while we’re at it, someone should warn him that the last two men to scale Mount Mary are now dead. (Which reminds me, whatever happened to the other rivals, Blake and Napier?)

Meanwhile, in the drawing room, Tom is equally upfront with Lord Grantham on his sex life, or lack therein.  “Miss Bunting and I are not lovers,” he feels compelled to assure the Lord, who’s heard tales of Tom and Sarah cavorting in the upper floors during cousin Rose’s coming out party in London last year.  And then downstairs, Mr. Bates makes a smirky joke to Anna about what you need to do to become a mother.  Of course there’s also a scene of Jimmy the footman rolling around in in bed with Lady Anstruther.  Shocking all the way around.

In the end, this episode did what it was supposed to do.   It updated us on where we left off with the characters (since nothing seems to have happened in the past ten months), set the scene for the rest of the season, bedazzled us with flapper outfits and interior scenery, and left us rolling our eyes at the creaky plot machinations. Not a bad show; not a great show.

Some other observations:

— This was one of the less stupid episodes of “Downtown Abbey,” since only a few really preposterous things happened.  Perhaps the dumbest was the way Edith set the house on fire.  Bereft by the continued disappearance of her married beau, she flings one of his books into the fireplace and apparently swoons, not noticing that she has set the rug on fire.  Thomas Barrow needs to swoop in and carry her unconscious body to safety; we then discover that Downton Abbey offers fire hoses in every nook and cranny and that it only takes about 45 seconds to get the local firefighting squad to arrive at the scene.

— Julian Fellowes usually telegraphs and then spells out the most basic plot points (note the numerous times we are told about the Lord’s displeasure at being passed over for the war memorial committee) but there was one scene where the viewer was compelled to draw his or her own conclusions: Lord Gillingham shows up without his valet and Mr. Bates has to dress him.  “You don’t travel with a valet, these days, my Lord?” he asks, sweet as pie.  Not since you killed him, Bates! is the unspoken answer.  Fellowes is not eschewing exposition just so that we can figure this out for ourselves, though. No, the problem is that since the apparent murder of the valet is a secret, there’s no character who can remind us that Bates is the apparent murderer.

— Lord Grantham need not have worried about Ramsay MacDonald (see below) whose 1924 prime ministership lasted less than a year. And even when McaDonald became PM again in 1929, he wasn’t able to impose his socialist views on the country.  That didn’t happen until the Attlee government after World War II.

Ramsay MacDonald Photo

— No one ever seems to think through their schemes on this show.  Why did Barrow think he could go to Lady Grantham and tell her that he’d knowingly recommended a jewel thief to be her lady’s maid without her being upset?  And why did Edith think it was a good idea to get a local farmer to adopt her daughter?  Is she going to be happy watching her flesh and blood grow up to be a farmer’s wife under her very eyes?  And does Lord Grantham understand that if Mary marries another Lord, he’s going to want her to live at HIS estate, not at Downton?

— Speaking of Baxter, it’s painfully obvious that we’re going to learn that she stole those jewels for some greater purpose.  Like to pay for an operation for some family member.  She’s clearly in the Anna/Bates club of sacrificial martyrs.

— I’m also going to go out on a limb and predict that Sarah, the math teacher, will teach math to Daisy.  We might also learn that Daisy has some kind of math dyslexia, if that’s a thing.  Whenever someone on a show like Downton drones on about how stupid she is, it usually turns out that she have a learning disability.  BTW, why does Daisy need advanced math skills to work on the accounts at the farm?  Isn’t that just basic arithmetic?  I hope Miss Bunting doesn’t use the Common Core, because all Daisy needs to do is memorize adding and subtracting and she should be good to go.

— Thomas Barrow has the most amazing luck, doesn’t he? (Aside from the obvious fact of being gay in the early 20th Century.)  First he gets his hand shot clean through by a German sniper in WWI only to see it miraculously repaired as good as new.  Then for 12 years he manages to hoodwink both Lady and Lord Grantham with his lies about the rest of the staff.  And on the VERY NIGHT his scheming is exposed by Lady Grantham, putting his job in jeopardy, he manages to save Edith’s life and win Cora’s everlasting gratitude.

— Who’d have thought “Downton” would make a pitch for gay marriage, but there’s gay Thomas observing that “we don’t all have the option,” when Jimmy observes that everyone wants to “settle down” eventually.  Are we supposed to assume that Thomas’ malignant personality is twisted by his homosexuality? That’s not very politically correct.

— Marigold?  Odd name for someone who wasn’t raised in a hippie commune.

— Where the heck is Greggson?  I’ve theorized that he was a British spy sent to keep an eye on the Nazis, and indeed, there was a reference to Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch last year. But he’s been gone for two years now.  Did the actor who played him decide he wanted to star in a Broadway play like Matthew Crawley and Sybil Crawley did two seasons ago?  I’d look him up but I’m afraid I’ll find spoilers.

— Funniest tweet of the night? From @meninblazers:  “Glimpsing Lady Anstruther paw Jimmy is like witnessing Chris Christie hug Jerry Jones.”

— Good old Tom.  Not a lover, but also not a hater.  Still on the fence about going to America.  Still being led around by the nose by aggressive women.  He also seems to have developed some kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with Lord Grantham.

— Speaking of Sarah Bunting, she’s kind of a bitch isn’t she?  Mouthing off at Lord Grantham’s dinner party, trying to humiliate him by pointing out that the memorial committee didn’t want him as chair. Not a very pretty picture of a doctrinaire socialist.

— There’s a lot of busybody meddling with other people’s love lives on this episode.  The Dowager Countess trying to hook up Lord Merton and Lady Shackelton, while fixing up Isobel and Dr.Clarkson. Cousin Rose, throwing Sarah and Tom together.  His Lordship inviting Tony Gillingham down to proposition his daughter.  Thomas facilitating the midnight twist between Jimmy and the Loose Lady.

So on to next week. From the reviews it looks like we’ll see more class-based plot lines when Russian exiles fleeing Bolshevik Russia  land at Downton.  Dos vee danya.

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5 comments
  1. Excellent recap and spot on observaions about the flaws in characterisation, plotting and logic. I have seen the entire series (being in the UK) and without giving away the whole caboodle, let me tell you that in my opinion, its not going to get any better.

    • Thanks, it’s so annoying that this has already been seen in the UK because I don’t dare google any of the characters for their background for fear of finding out they were killed in a car crash (which already happened to me once.) Plus, I dare not make predictions knowing that so many people already know the actual outcome.

      • Which is actually good because it allows you to form your own judgement without any preconceived ideas and it allows someone like me to see things with fresh eyes. One thing I noticed that American critics and bloggers are good at is picking flaws, pointing them out and saying why. Here in the UK, its mostly taking the piss that said there are a few who do write perceptively.

        Looking forward to your future posts.

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