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Monthly Archives: February 2015

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When last we saw Isis, she was expiring of cancer (“I hate that word”) on the Crawley’s marital bed and I wondered if this was the last we’d seen or heard of her. But no, as per tradition, the very first image in this week’s opening credits was Isis’s cute little wagging behind. She might have been cast off the show like O’Brien, Sybil and Mathew Crawley, but unlike them she lives in our hearts and in our opening credits.

Furthermore, she plays an important role in the culmination of a season-long plot-line. When Lord Grantham summons the family’s dog monument builder (yes, you read that right), he glimpses a design for a memorial plaque and devises a cunning plan to satisfy Mrs. Patmore’s request to have her dead nephew honored even though he was executed for desertion. So well-done Isis. Now, if you could only inspire an ending to the Bates family drama.

In the U.S., Sunday’s episode is considered to be the penultimate one (e.g. next-to-last for you non-English majors) of the season. But in the U.K., this was actually the season ender and next week’s episode is the “Christmas Special,” which appears on Christmas Day, well after the season has ended. Consequently, as in any season-ender, this episode displayed a mad dash to wrap up as many plot points as possible.

The need to bring so many narratives to a satisfying conclusion leads to more problems than usual with Downton’s Time/Space Continuum management. It looks to me as if Downton has jumped ahead at least six months, if not more. First of all, the kids look a lot older. More important, the wedding of Rose and Atticus, which was just a gleam in their eye last episode is now on the verge of culmination. We also learn that the return of Rose’s parents from India was delayed by the change in government, which as you recall was anticipated last week by that astute political prognosticator Daisy Mason. A quick Google search shows that Ramsay MacDonald’s government fell in November 1924 so at the very least, this episode occurs in the spring of 1925.

Despite the passage of time, nothing seems to have happened in the intervening months. Isobel hasn’t decided what to do about her marriage to Lord Merton; Tom hasn’t emigrated to Boston despite talking about it endlessly; there has been no progress in the nation-wide hunt for the killer of Mr. Green the raping valet; Mary has no new suitors; there’s no news on the fate of the Princess Kuragin; Daisy’s still disgruntled about her fate in life. And then, after months and months of apparent inaction, events come hurtling to a close.

From a plot perspective, the most important concluding narrative is Rose’s wedding. Last year’s season-ender was set in London around Rose’s presentation at court and this year, we have a London episode about her getting married. I have to say that Atticus (aka Ephraim) and Rose do make a sweet, albeit feather-headed, couple. In fact, they might make the only happy couple in Downton history, assuming one of them doesn’t die immediately after the birth of a child, as is the Downton tradition.

The wedding brings together the parents for the episode’s only legitimate plot tension. Atticus’ folks are rich Jews. She’s nice but he’s sour and opposed to the marriage because he’s against Jewish assimilation in general. Rose’s parents we know from several seasons ago as the poor but titled Scottish nobility. He’s nice but he blew all his money through poor crop rotation or some such thing – the fate that Matthew Crawley helped Lord Grantham avoid. She’s sour and opposed to the marriage because she’s anti-Semitic. So you see, we have this reverse parallel: One nice parent on each side, and one sour prejudiced one. This sets off some interesting dynamics as Lady Susan tries to zing her new in-laws. “Tell me, do you find it difficult these days to get staff?” she asks.  Mrs. Atticus’ Mom replies, ““Not very, but then we’re Jewish, so we pay well,” which shuts her up, especially since the Shrimpies don’t have two pennies to rub together. Not able to head off the wedding through her personal obnoxiousness, Lady Susan tries to set up Atticus by having a prostitute photographed emerging from his room and then sending Susan the photos (btw, not to harp on details, but how does Atticus not notice the big flash that would have accompanies a 1920’s camera, and how was said camera able to take so many different photos in that five-second span? I’m not sure I could get my digital camera to take as many photos.)

Fortunately, it’s Shrimpy to the rescue. Suspecting the worst from Susan, he finds evidence that she hired the photographer. When she tries to grab the evidence away he utters one of the great Downton lines: “Get down you cat!” Gosh, how I’d love to work that into a conversation sometime! Almost defeated, she tries to kibosh the whole wedding one last time by announcing that she and Shrimpy are divorcing, which Mr. Atticus’ Dad disapproves of. But here, it’s Lady Sinderby to the rescue, announcing that if Dad objects now she will leave him and cause a real scandal. At which point Susan asks, “Am I just supposed to be a sore loser?” giving the Dowager Countess another great line, “Oh my dear, it’s far too late for that.”

It’s worth noting that the parallelism between the two objecting parents is not morally equivalent. Susan is driven by her fear of shame in an anti-Semitic world, but Lord Sinderby is worried that if his son marries a “shiksa” (kind of an offensive thing to say about your own daughter-in-law) his grandchildren will be completely assimilated and look down on their Jewish heritage. Not an entirely unwarranted concern. Lady Grantham’s father was Jewish and her surviving children are quite snobby and not particularly in touch with their roots.

Also, to the finer points of Jewish tradition, Judaism is a matriarchal system and “Jewishness” passes down through the mother. So Lady Grantham is not technically Jewish, nor will Rose’s be. This is probably only relevant today if you want to apply for Israeli citizenship, but it’s important in some traditions. Also, Rose and Atticus need to get married in a Registry Office because they can’t get married in a church or Synagogue, which is why there’s all the chatter about a Registry Wedding and also why it’s so brief. They then went to the church for a blessing, but alas, couldn’t go to the Synagogue to have a triple play of marriage ceremonies.

The Rose/Atticus wedding brings to a close one of the season’s subplots. Another one that finally comes to an end is the memorial for Mrs. Patmore’s poor shot-for-desertion nephew, Archie. Granted, Lord Grantham probably spent more on his statue for Isis than he did on Archie but it was still a nice gesture. See, the poor kid couldn’t be listed among the honored dead on the official monument. It seems like an elegant solution to have this separate plaque but it doesn’t get at the original problem, does it? As you recall, Archie is from another village, where it is not generally know he was executed for desertion, and Mrs. Patmore’s sister wanted to be able to say that his name wasn’t listed in that village’s town memorial because he was listed in the Downton memorial. How are they going to explain that he has his own separate plaque on the wall? Still, I shouldn’t kvetch about this because it was one of the most heart-felt plots of the season.

In fact, the scene at the dedication was probably the most moving event in the entire Downton series. Even during season two, when the war was underway, they never effectively dealt with the catastrophic consequences of the war, but this short sequence at the dedication, which lingered on the drawn and sorrowful faces of the participants, was legitimately moving.

The poem they recited, “For the Fallen,” was written by Lawrence Binyon in September 1914, at the very beginning of the war, and was recited by generations of school children in the years afterwards. The stanza recited in this episode was:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Here’s a video of the whole poem.

Another narrative that seems to be at an end is the whole issue of Daisy’s consciousness-raising. First Sarah Bunting was going to teach her math and somehow learning to add and subtract resulted in her becoming politically radicalized, and then almost immediately demoralized by the inability of the MacDonald government to introduce a socialist paradise. Then, on this trip to London, she goes to a museum, sees a few paintings and decides she’s been down a “corn hole” her entire life. She decides to chuck her career as an assistant cook and strike out on her own in London, where she will experience art, theater, poetry and bad fish and chips. Of course millions of young people have swarmed to metropolises from time immemorial so the desire to live in the big city is not new, but Daisy must be one of the few cooks to be brought to that point by a visit to an art museum. And doesn’t she already live in an art museum? After all, there’s a della Francesca painting right upstairs at Downton (or there was).

Having abruptly decided to move to London, she just as abruptly decides to stay when she sees Mrs. Patmore crying. So I guess it’s back to baking wedding cakes for other people’s marriages.

One final narrative that also seems wrapped up – thankfully — is the whole Edith/Marigold situation. Oh, Mary’s irritated that Edith’s so happy (“She thinks she invented motherhood”) but everything seems to be going her way for once. There have been no repercussions from her stealing the baby away from the Drewes and no one seems to care that she’s not minding the store at that newspaper she owns. Even Lord Grantham takes it in stride when he finally deduces that Marigold looks a lot like Michael Gregson . What’s interesting is that the never had a funeral for Gregson – they said they identified his remains but apparently they weren’t returned to the UK. I also wonder how it was even possible for her Edith to inherit the newspaper when his wife is still alive. If this were the “Downton” of a few years ago, I’d expect him to pop up as alive again as a British spy who’d infiltrated the Nazis. I think Julian Fellowes is keeping his options open because that discussion about his identification was pretty sketchy.

There are a few plot points that didn’t get resolved this episode. First, and most obviously, and most preposterously, is the Death-by-Traffic case of the raping valet. The guy is now known to be a serial rapist and he died two years ago, but Scotland Yard is treating it like the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby. Personally, I think Anna’s arrest is the police’s attempt to break Bates. When they first visited the Bateses and told them that Mr. Bates was no longer a suspect because the murderer was smaller, I think they were trying to get him to say “Whew, and all this time I thought you knew about the ticket to London I bought.” When that didn’t happen, it seems like they ratcheted up the pressure by arresting Anna. It looks like it might work because Bates now ominously says he won’t let her be tried for the murder, which I presume means he’ll confess to a crime he didn’t commit, at which point I will gouge my eyes out like Oedipus.

This plot has been unanimously condemned by bloggers, recappers and podcasters from the beginning, but it did result in one hilarious line. When the police started to take Anna away in the middle of the night and an officer called Mary “Miss,” she responded, “I am Lady Mary Crawley,” to which inspector Javert responded “I don’t care if you’re the queen of the Upper Nile, she’s coming to the police station.”

I have to say, I don’t understand why the Crawleys weren’t able to get Anna out on bail the next morning – what’s the point of having expensive attorneys if they can’t manage that? Anyway, I can only hope and pray that this plot will be relieved next week and doesn’t carry on to next year.

Two other narratives that were left open were the romances of the two elder women – the Dowager Countess and Cousin Isobel. How convenient that they have each found a love interest so late in life. Apparently Isobel’s been chewing on her pending engagement to Lord Merton these many months (it’s amazing how long the men on this series are willing to hang around while the objects of their affection make up their minds.)

The Dowager Countess’s reconnection with Count Vronsky seems a little soap operish to me, but there was moment of real truth in the episode when we saw her in bed in her PJs and without make-up. It was pretty brave of Maggie Smith to let herself look so old; she never looks less than her age, but that brief scene of her lying in bed exposed as an 80-year-old woman was quite a reminder that this romance is coming quite late in life. Her Russian admirer is much younger (only a few years older than me!) and it made me squirm to see him state his intentions to be her friend AND her lover. Of course when he compared the slum he was living in to sweet house that she lives in, I’m sure he’d have been willing to say anything for a permanent invitation.

The Dowager Countess seemed so charmed by Count Vronsky’s overtures that she advised Isobel to marry Lord Merton after all, even with his miserable sons. If they get married, I hope we see more of the Lord – he’s evolved into one of the more charming characters on the show.

The other unresolved plot is whether Tom and Sybbie will move to Boston and open an auto dealership.  And who knows, maybe Sybbie will eventually get a job as a bar maid at “Cheers.” This is another one of those prolonged and extremely boring “Downton” plots. Rose and Atticus could have met and gotten married five times during the period that Tom has been threatening to leave Downton. Just make up your mind, man!

Some other observations:

— There were two references to the end of the year so maybe the Christmas special (also known in the U.S. as the season finale) will be set at Christmas. First, Tom said he wouldn’t leave Downton until the end of the year and second, Mabel Lane Fox and Lord Gillingham are getting married at Christmas. If this is the case, then the year 1925 will be covered in a mere two episodes.

— Why does Miss Baxter continue to offer to testify that she saw Mr. Bates’s untorn train ticket, which would supposedly prove that he’d never made the round-trip? First of all, she’s already told the police that she wasn’t employed at Downton when the raping valet died, so why would she even notice it later. But more important, there are three women (Anna, Mrs. Hughes and Mary) who actually did see the ticket as they passed it around like a hot potato last year. Wouldn’t one of them be better suited to testify to it (although, I have to ask now, why none of them realized at the time that if it was untorn, it meant not used.)

— Now that Mr. Mosely, with his sympathetic back story, has ceased to be a figure of ridicule, the mantle of preposterous servant has been passed to Spratt. How hilariously over the top he is. Too bad he doesn’t work in the government because he has the soul of a petty bureaucrat. And what kind of name is Denker? Is she German ? Maybe she can find out what really happened to Gregson.

— Thomas Barrow has become a different person – competent, helpful and even willing to extricate his new jug-eared friend (who has an ambition to be a footman, of all things) from the Denker’s clutches. Those phony injections didn’t change his sexuality, but they seem to have changed his character.

— Atticus’s father, trying to be more British than the British, argues that the Indian Massacre of Amritsar of 1919, was justified. This is like arguing that the residents of My Lie or the protesters of Tiananmen Square were responsible for their own deaths. Shrimpy and Lord Grantham set him right. Btw, here’s a depiction of that massacre from the movie “Ghandi”

Finally, after several years of misjudgment, ill-temper and overall idiocy, Lord Grantham seems to have regained his equilibrium. He didn’t do anything particularly stupid this episode and did three nice things: 1) the memorial for Archie the deserter; 2) Selling the della Francesca to pay for improvements to the town’s housing; 3) figuring out that he has another granddaughter (and being proud that for once he’s privy to a secret that no one else knows).

So, as we head into the final episode, can this era of good feelings last?  You’d hardly think so.  Otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a drama.

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CHINA BEACH

The remarkable and unexpected success of “American Sniper” reminds us yet again that the film industry has made many good movies about the Iraq/Afghan conflict while television, outside of the news divisions, has avoided it almost completely.

Consider: “American Sniper” is now the highest-grossing R-Rated movie in history.  “The Hurt Locker” won an Academy Award.  Other movies had big ambitions and big name stars such as Matt Damon (“Green Zone), “Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Brothers”).  But on TV, virtually nothing.  No big-name scripted series, not even any exploitative reality shows.  The closest we’ve come are “24” and “Homeland,” shows about the war against terror as fought by civilians.

It was ever thus.   As far back as World War II, Hollywood studios were able to churn out war movies even as the battle still raged in the field. Television, on the other hand, has needed a considerably longer lag time to gestate a TV show about a war.  It took until the 1960s, 20 years after D-Day, before television produced a raft of shows about World War II (“Combat,” “McHale’s Navy,” “The Rat Patrol,” etc.).  “MASH,” one of the most popular TV shows ever, debuted in 1972, twenty years after the Korean War. And “Tour of Duty” and “China Beach” two shows about the Vietnam War, didn’t arrive until the late 1980’s, 15 years after the events they depicted.  At this rate it will be 2035 before there’s a TV show about the Iraq war (assuming there are still TV shows in 2035, that is.)

War is as good a prism as any to discuss the differences between television and film.  With their huge screens and darkened theaters, movies are dream-like immersive experiences.  And they are one-time stories, told in 90 to 180 minutes.  TV, on the other hand, is more intimate, coming into the home on a smaller screen. Crucially, television shows are serialized, with characters and narratives that are expected to last over the course of several years.

In a real wars people die, though, and it has been thought that audiences wouldn’t stand for shows that kill off their favorite characters or shows that use realistic violence.  And yet two of the most popular shows in recent years – “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” – have consistently dispensed with leading characters in the most gruesome and shocking ways. So audiences would probably survive if a popular platoon leader in a war show was killed in action.

Nor has it any longer true that TV shows have to be serialized over several years to be profitable.  As we’ve seen with “True Detective,” “Fargo” and “American Horror Story,” television can offer great anthology shows that tell one story over a 13-episode season.  It’s easy to imagine a TV called “Fallujah” that follows a different combat unit during a tour of duty every season.  That would certainly be more original than yet another true crime series.

Having said that, don’t count on a surge of war shows even if they might be artistically successful and popular. The reason it takes 20 years to bring a war-related TV show to the screen can be summed up in one word: politics.  War shows are like series about religion.  What it would take to make them popular isn’t worth it to Hollywood executives.  Look at the reaction to “American Sniper.”  It’s made a lot of money but stands accused of being pro-war jingoistic propaganda, costing the producers important liberal street cred.

War – rightfully so, given the stakes – is one of the most sensitive subjects in politics and a TV show about a contemporary war would have to thread a very small needle.  It would have to “support the troops” but not “glorify killing,” or worst of all, suggest there was any justification for launching these wars in the first place.

War is morally complicated, participated in by heroes and rogues, and any series that tried to depict that reality would open itself up to viewer protests.  An episode that showed a soldier killing a civilian would be criticized for besmirching the reputation of the troops, but an episode showing a civilian killing a soldier would be assailed for dehumanizing the local population.  How much easier to skip the whole issue altogether.

The absence of the war on television is part of the same phenomenon in which soldiers and veterans are nearly invisible in American society.  The people who fight the wars are drawn largely from the working class but it’s the upper middle class that controls the entertainment and communications industries.  It’s probable that people working in TV don’t even know one soldier who’s served in Iraq or Afghanistan, so war stories would naturally not be top of mind in the writers’ room.

Still, “American Sniper” did show there’s an appetite for entertainment that’s perceived as patriotic.  In an increasingly niche marketplace, TV producers have been willing to take chances shows soaked with violence.  It’s hard to believe there’s no room for an honest look at war.

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Last year at this time I confidently predicted that our tolerance for violence in football had reached a tipping point and that this would have serious consequences for the television industry, which has become addicted to football-related programming.

This prediction may yet come true, but it sure didn’t happen this year. Another season of football is over and the sport is as popular as ever. Sunday’s Super Bowl attracted 114.5 million viewers, making it the most-watched program of all time. Obviously, TV is more addicted to football than it’s ever been.

Not that football has become any less violent — not by a long shot. The concussion issue is as serious as ever, and there are a lot of fans, myself included, who grimace whenever a wide receiver gets demolished by a linebacker.

As if the concussion issue wasn’t bad enough, the NFL became embroiled in other violence-related controversies last season — first when it bungled the penalty for former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice, who was convicted of knocking out his then-fiancée, and then when it suspended Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson, who was convicted of child abuse.

The ensuing national uproar over these cases, and the League’s handling of them, did nothing to diminish football’s popularity, however. Perversely, the debate spawned by these scandals seemed to further cement the sport’s cultural domination. Football is now so important that the alleged under-inflation of balls used in the AFC championship game was considered newsworthy enough to lead the national newscasts for several days. At least NBC, which aired the Super Bowl this year, had a bottom-line motivation to hype the scandal in advance of the game, but what excuse did the other networks have?

Television and professional football have been inextricably linked since the 1950s, when they both began to force themselves on the nation’s consciousness. Since then, football has become the perfect TV sport. There are clear identifiable protagonists (the quarterbacks); there’s plenty of action, but also lots of time between plays to discuss and replay what we just saw; the games are primarily limited to the weekend, so each game is an event; and almost every game lasts a dependable three hours: just enough time to hold a viewer’s attention.

More than in any other sport, the actual attendees are essentially props for the real audience; indeed, anyone who has ever attended a game in person and sat through all the pointless “official’s timeouts” has noticed that game time is not managed for the benefit of the in-stadium audience but in order to maximize television advertising for home viewers.

Something that’s become increasingly evident over the years is that the Internet and television are not in conflict with each other, but actually working hand-in-glove to drive engagement with each other. This is especially apparent with football. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have all increased interest in televised games. So too have the vast array of podcasts now available to any sports enthusiast, and nontraditional news sources like DeadSpin and Grantland. And then there’s the phenomenon of Fantasy Football, which would not have been possible on this scale without the Internet.

We’ve gotten to the point where even the NFL Draft, arguably one of the least TV-friendly ceremonies in history, is now a major television event. Is the appetite for football endless? Apparently.

A recent Bloomberg study found that half of parents don’t want their sons to play football because of the danger of brain injuries. But the news about concussions coupled with the violent tendencies of the players hasn’t made a dent in the sport’s overall popularity. I’m not sure that the tipping point is any closer now than it was a year ago.

It’s probably not going to be our yet-to-be-tapped inner morality that pushes football over the edge. It’s more likely to be the greed of the sports industry itself. Sports fans are immensely valuable to television because 1) they tend to be men, a difficult demographic to reach on TV; and 2) they watch the programming (and hence the commercials) live. Sports programming is the single largest expense in the monthly cable bill. The Atlantic estimates that half of all cable subscriber fees go to channels that primarily offer sports. And that number would be even higher if the sports component of the retransmission consent payments made to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were included.

I haven’t seen any data to prove this, but I believe there are many households that would drop cable altogether if not for sports, particularly football. According to the law of supply and demand, there will come a time, though, when the ever-increasing costs of cable, driven by the greed of the leagues, will push more consumers to cut the cord — or discourage Millennials from signing up in the first place. We’ve already seen the first chink in the armor with the unveiling of Dish’s Sling TV, which will give consumers access to a small group of cable channels — including the all-important ESPN — via the Internet instead of the cable wire. Could sports fans stand to have access to only one sports channel?  Maybe if they were under enough financial pressure.

Until then, football reigns supreme. All Hail Tom Brady.

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Well, the two most popular shows on television Sunday night ended with grown men rolling around on the ground throwing punches at each other.  And while the Super Bowl, with its “Deflategate” scandal, unexpectedly turned into a soap opera, “Downton” unexpectedly turned into an examination of the uselessness of the modern man.

This episode of “Downton” featured at least four plots involving women trying to manipulate the egos of their men.  Let’s see how they did, ranked in order of success from the women’s perspective:

Mr. Carson, Inside Trader: Mrs. Pattmore has suddenly come into an inheritance of 300 quid and she approaches Mr. Carson for advice on how to invest it.  Mrs. Hughes thinks this is a bad idea, although doesn’t explain why.  Does she think Lord Grantham’s atrocious investment skills have rubbed off on Carson or is she just a First Wave Feminist who thinks women should handle their own investment decisions?  Probably the latter because Mrs. Pattmore admits she went to Carson because “he’s a man,” which gets Mrs. Hughes tut-tutting.

Carson might not be the brightest financial analyst but like many in the investment industry, he does know the value of insider information.  When Lord Grantham confides that he’s likely to choose a particular developer to construct houses on Pip’s Corner, Carson suggests that Mrs. Pattmore invest her funds in real estate via this very company, although he doesn’t seem to know whether the company is publicly traded or what.  Mrs. Pattmore is dubious of this advice; apparently she’s a disciple of Peter Lynch, the former manager of The Magellan Fund, who famously advised small investors to invest in what you know.  She decides to invest in a little cottage and list it on Airbnb instead of trying her hand in the stock market, but to soften the blow she and Mrs. Hughes concoct a scheme to make Carson think it was all his idea.  But boy, they lay it on thick: “It’s good to hear advice from a man of the world,” Mrs. Hughes purrs.  Once again, Julian Fellowes wants us to feel superior to the characters because Carson is too dense to see he’s being played, although it’s all too obvious to us.

Mr. Bates, Big Strong Man: Anna is somewhat less successful than Mrs. Hughes at manipulating her man, but at least she succeeds in putting him off for another episode or two.  In the plot that “Downton” viewers hate with every fiber of their being, the London police seem to be zeroing in on Anna as the murderer of Mr. Green.  To restate: there is no proof that Mr. Green was even murdered, only that he said “Oh it’s you” before being hit by a car; for all we know he could have been distracted or even trying to escape from someone.  Secondly, even if Anna was in London that day, so were about a million other people.  Are they all suspects?  The guy was a cad and could have had dozens of enemies.

In any event, Mr. Bates doesn’t know why the police are nosing around and apparently doesn’t know that they’ve fingered Anna.  It’s pretty clear that when that happens, Bates will fall on his sword and confess to everything to save her.  It’s also pretty clear that this is why Anna is keeping her trap shut; she knows what a hothead he is, which is why she didn’t want to tell him about the rape in the first place.  Bates offers some sweet talk about how he’s going to protect her and that they’ll have lots of kids, etc., etc. He’s the big strong guardian, although if he did want to protect her, he wouldn’t have put her in this position in the first place.  Anna played her cards well, but she’s got a pretty weak hand.

Lord Grantham, Near-Cuckold: Cora didn’t do a very good job in managing Lord Grantham’s ego; in fact she stuck a pin in it.  I know we’re supposed to feel sympathetic to Lady G’s feelings because she’s not being consulted about Pip’s Corner and whatnot, but seriously, couldn’t she have just gone to the guy and said, “Hey dude, my feelings are hurt”? Instead she makes snarky remarks and encourages the attentions of Mr. Bricker, who obviously has more on his mind than Piero Della Francesca.  I know that it’s not politically correct to blame a woman for any advance made by a man, but she must have known she was leading him on and she definitely must have known Lord Grantham was jealous.  (Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that she is completely oblivious to all her surroundings considering how many years she had the wool pulled over her eyes by O’Brien and Barrow.)

It’s not exactly a surprise that when Lord Grantham attends an all-night officers’ party dressed like a peacock, Mr. Bicker tiptoes down the hall and sneaks into Lady Grantham’s boudoir.  And it’s not exactly a surprise that Lord G comes home early and finds these two chatting away in their bathrobes.  For the second time in as many episodes, the Lord’s previously unknown volcanic temper gets the best of him and he whacks Bricker (with the back of his hand – how much can that hurt?) The commotion brings Edith to the door but Cora assures her that all is fine – she and the Lord were playing a game and broke a lamp!  Because that’s exactly what a child of any age wants to hear – that her parents are engaged in some kind of bedtime roughhousing that results in broken furniture.  In any event, if Cora wanted to get her husband’s attention, she sure accomplished her goal.  Unfortunately he’s not speaking to her now.  If this keeps up she’s going to have to play the “you killed our daughter and I forgave you, so now you can forgive me” card.

Tom, Growing a Tiny Little Spine: In our fourth example or women deploying heir feminine wiles, we have an example of complete failure.  Miss Sarah Bunting (aka, the worst dinner guest only) has tried to manipulate Tom’s working man ego all season, but like many women, doesn’t realize that when men make a definitive statement they are sometimes actually telling the truth.  Before the disastrous dinner party in the previous episode, Tom asked her not to pick a fight with the Crawley’s because “I love them.”  Apparently Miss Bunting does not teach English in addition to math and socialism since she went right ahead and picked a fight.  Now she says, “Don’t you despise them?” Hello?!! Knock-knock.  Anyone at home in that brain of yours? His DAUGHTER is one of “them.” At this point Tom’s had enough and breaks off with her.

Finally Miss Bunting takes a hint, and decides to take a previously unmentioned job offer far away.  Kudos to Julian Fellowes for at least one successful piece of misdirection in this episode because when Tom hears this new he tells Mary that he’s on the verge of making an important decision and then rushes off to find her before she leaves for good.  We are meant to assume that he’s chasing after her like the hero of some Meg Ryan Rom-Com.  But when he reaches her just before her departure, he merely says “sayonara.”  When she says, “I loved you, you know. I could have loved you more if you’d let me,” he gives her a big lip lock and says, don’t let the carriage door hit you on the way out.  Exeunt Miss Bunting, who completely misplayed her cards.

Fortunately for the male sex, there are also examples of English Gentlemen not being led around by the nose by their womenfolk. None of them actually live at “Downton,” however, where the testosterone seems permanently underinflated.  In order of virility, here are three men who show that the XY chromosome hasn’t completely withered away:

Charles Blake: You can see why Mary likes him.  He doesn’t slobber all over her like her other beaus do and he gives as good as he gets, just like Matthew used to.  You’ve got to admire his audacity in bringing together Mary and Mabel Lane Fox, even if the object of the meeting – to get Mabel to take Tony “Small Package” Gillingham back – fails. Or as Miss Fox describes the plan “Let me understand: I should take the discarded leavings of Mary Crawley, dust off the flour, and put them on my own plate?”  Now there’s a girl with moxie; they should build a whole show around her. “Mabel Lane Fox and Friends.”  In any event, she walks off in a huff without eating, leaving Mary and Blake to consume a huge fricassee on their own.

Lord Merton: Once thought to be kind of an empty suit, Merty suddenly blossoms as a bit of a Renaissance Man.  Not only can he knowledgeably discuss goiters with Dr. Clarkson, but he’s a modern man, unafraid of change.  “The truth is that most of the customs we think of as English were invented by the Victorians.”   Excellent point!  The Dowager Countess seemed to think that if she put Clarkson and Merty in the same room with Isobel it would be apparent to Isobel that Merty was a doddering old fool, but if anything, this little tea party might have sealed the deal.  It’s hard to see how this marriage will actually come off, though.  If Isobel gets married, she’ll have to move to his estate and presumably out of the show.

Atticus Aldridge – This guy doesn’t have the same elan as Blake and Merty, but he does hold his own with Rose.  He charms her with his attentions, and while he doesn’t announce it at the first meeting, he’s forthright with her about being Jewish.  Now, I know this is another un-PC to say, but he certainly doesn’t LOOK Jewish.  If anything, he resembles Prince William, the current heir to the throne, what with that blonde hair and weak chin.  For all her ditziness, Rose does get off the sweetest moment of the show when she tells him, “You’re English now, but you’re still Jewish – what’s the difference.”  Of course, after throwing herself at a black musician last year, a Jewish banker is very conventional. Also, it now becomes apparent why Cora had to confirm last week that her father was Jewish – as a way of introducing anti-Semitism as an issue on the show.  Although I cannot see how that can possibly become a theme, given that if Cora herself is Jewish; how can anyone else object to Rose making such a match?

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Alas, now we need to address ourselves to Edith, who drove the biggest plotline of the episode.  Mary’s casual remark to Aunt Rosamond last week that Edith is spending a lot of time with the pig-man’s daughter sends her up to Downton.  Rosamond is primarily concerned about avoiding scandal and believes – rightly – that Edith is about to undo all the work she put into hiding the pregnancy and spending 10 months in Switzerland. Granny can always sniff out a scandal and agrees that something drastic must be done.  Poor Marigold, who was stolen from one adopted family last year because Edith wanted her closer to Downton, is now apparently to be kidnapped from a second adopted family and sent to a “school” in France.  This is like something out of a Victor Hugo novel, with a little Dickens on the side.

Clearly no one has thought this through very much.  Do they think the Drewes are going to take this lying down?  The stink they would raise if their daughter were stolen would make the scandal so much worse than anything that would come out via rumor.  The solution to this is so obvious too.  All Edith has to do is explain to Mrs. Drewe that she’s the natural mother and I’m sure they could work out an arrangement. What is making Mrs. Drewe so wary is thinking that Edith is a madwoman.

The last scene of the show – Edith making a long distance call to London – is ambiguous.  Presumably she’s going to make some kind of arrangements to snatch Marigold and take her into hiding.  How does she think she’ll manage the costs of such a scheme?  Through her earnings as a columnist?  Or maybe she’s finally going to exercise her rights as the trustee of Gregson’s newspaper and get the paper to support them somehow.  Regardless, this show has become a walking commercial for secret adoptions, where the birthparents are cut off completely from the baby.  It’s tough on the parents (especially the mother) to let go but it’s hard to imagine that Edith’s arrangement is better for anyone.

Some other observations:

— Funniest exchange: Rose announces that someone has opened a nudist colony in Essex.  And the Dowager gasps: “In Essex? Isn’t it terribly damp? I think it’s a mad idea.” Isobel retorts: “I doubt they were aiming it at you.”  Apparently this was a real thing, though.  They called it naturalism and the club was called Moonella Group.  Alas, the Dowager Countess was right again. The Moonella Group only lasted at that site for a year.

—  Last week I joked that Rose was engaged in a community service project by helping the Russians at that soup kitchen, but now we learn that she goes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, which is a lot less service than we were led to believe. It also appears that her attitude is “Let them eat cake,” given that cake is her main contribution to alleviating their distress. What was striking about the scene with the Russians, though, is that any sympathy we might have had for them is dissipated by their anti-Semitism.  They don’t seem the least bit embarrassed by the pogroms that drove the Jews out of Russia and are outright rude to nice Mr. Aldridge (although according to Wikipedia, the Greeks, not the Russians were the major perpetrators of the Odessa pogroms of 1859 and 1871.)  This is another reminder, that although me might dislike the English aristocracy, they were not as bad as the Russians.

—  Miss Bunting might be gone but her influence remains, in the class consciousness of Daisy. She tells Tom, regarding the Crawleys, “We’re the future, they’re the past.” All this just because she wanted to learn arithmetic in order to do the books at the farm.

—  Do we need to be told multiple times in every episode that times are changing?  Isn’t “show, don’t tell” a basic principle of story-telling?  First it was the resistance to the telephone, then it was the radio.  It’s mildly interesting that the butlers – Spratt and Carson – are the most resistant to change.  I think we are supposed to consider them ridiculous figures, but it’s really piling on to have Carson claim in an age of Picasso and Virginia Wolf that John Singer Sergeant is a modern painter and Rudyard Kipling is a modern author.

—  All this talk by Bates about having kids makes me wonder how he’s going to react when he finds the contraceptive device that Anna has squirreled away someplace in their house.

 How I’d love to be invited to a cocktail party at “Downton Abbey”! Those cocktails looked delicious.

—  Thomas is starting to look like a vampire.  Whatever injections he’s giving himself to fight his homosexuality are turning him into a cast member from “Twilight.”  It’s certainly not curing his hatefulness, either.  He’s trying to create trouble for Anna and Bates, even though Anna has always been kind to him and Bates has never done anything to cause this antipathy.  And once again, a character has not really thought through the implications of his actions.  Does he really think his employers will look kindly on him turning in either Bates or Anna?

—  What are the Dowager Countess’s motives in trying to derail Isobel’s marriage?  Clarkson thinks she wants to prevent Isobel from becoming her social peer.  The Dowager Countess herself says she wants to save Isobel from ennui (or “a hollow existence in a large and drafty house with a man who bores her to death,” is how she puts it, apparently having personal experience of her own to back it up.)  I think maybe she just doesn’t want to lose Isobel as a friend.  They seem awfully chummy – always gadding about on adventures and assembling jigsaw puzzles.

By the way, thanks to Reddit I discovered a hilarious Podcast about Downton Abbey: “Up yours Dowton.” It’s definitely worth checking out.