Downton Abbey: A Stitch in Time

Gwen photo

A show like “Downton Abbey,” which heavily emphasizes the differences between the classes, is bound to be political, but it isn’t always ideological.  Julian Fellowes, a Conservative Peer, really tips his hand in Sunday’s episode (Season 6, Episode 4) however.   I didn’t expect it, but he’s against big government, sympathetic to capitalism and in favor of upward mobility.  As Mary says, if you let enough monkeys type away they will eventually produce the bible, and if you let Baron Fellowes produce six seasons of television he will eventually deliver a good episode, and this is it.

Of course there’s a lot of inanity, starting with Mary whisking Anna off to London to get a stitch that will firm up her incompetent cervix and preserve her pregnancy, but for once the motivations of the characters seem to make sense.

The ideological underpinnings of the episode are stated plainly in the opening scenes, when the rematerialized Tom Branson explains that he returned from America because Downton was home, not because he disliked the Colonies. In fact, he admires American capitalism, where a man can start from nowhere and “go all the way to the top.”  Mary and the others acknowledge that such a thing is not possible in the UK (perhaps forgetting that Benjamin Disraeli, a middle class Jew became Prime Minister in the mid-19th century).

The ideological commentary continues, with Mrs. Patmore calling Daisy “Karl Marx” and “Madame DeFarge,” the fictional revolutionary and guillotine enthusiast  from “A Tale of Two Cities.”  With Sarah Bunting exiled because of her boorish table manners, the task of anti-aristocrat ranting has fallen to poor Daisy, who’s in a lather when she learns that the Crawleys want to manage the former Drewe farm (aka Yew Farm) themselves rather than give it to her father-in-law Mr. Mason.  She thinks – falsely – that Lady Grantham promised it to Mr. Mason and that this new decision is an example of the perfidy of the upper classes.

Daisy’s one of those revolutionaries who gets radicalized only when some perceived injustice affects her directly (unlike, say, Isobel Crawley, who’s a do-gooder even when she has no stake in the outcome.)  And like many revolutionaries, she concocts a narrative based on stray facts, weaving them together into a story that suits her ideological prejudices.  She had jumped to conclusions when Lady Grantham said she’d see what she could do for Mr. Mason, and when it turns out that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion, she blames Lady Grantham rather than herself.

In any event, Lady Grantham in fact does intervene on Mr. Mason’s behalf, convincing her husband and Tom to give him the farm even though they could make more money managing it themselves.  (What kills me about this scene is that after all the bold talk about female empowerment, this decision is made without any input from Mary, the actual agent.  Seems like her authority is in name only.)  Daisy knows none of this and, over the objections of her fellow servants, goes stalking upstairs to confront Lady Grantham even though she knows it might cost her her job.  However, thanks to one of those famous “Downton Abbey” coincidences the family has just that very minute decided to give the farm to Mr. Mason after all, and she has nothing to complain about.  She emerges from this near-confrontation is a daze; her certitude that Lady Grantham embodies the evils of the class system is upended and she doesn’t know what to think any more.  Don’t even try Daisy; cognition is just not working for you.

(By the way, the Crawley’s decision to let Mr. Mason take over the Drewe’s lease is decidedly NOT capitalistic.  Under a pure market economy, they would have maximized profits but out of a sense of noblesse oblige they decide to practice a form of social welfare.  This will not advance Mary’s campaign to leave a modern working estate to her son.)

Ideology turns out to be at the heart of the fight over control of the Downton Cottage Hospital.  All season long we’ve thought that the Dowager Countess’s objections to the takeover by the Royal Yorkshire Hospital were rooted in power dynamics but it turns out she has a deeper philosophical concern.  For months she’s been running around positioning this simply as a battle of personal will.  Finally she decides to turn a tea party into a Tea Party.  She sounds positively Thatcherite. Or Randian.  She’s practically a Goldwater Girl.

“For years,” Lady Grantham explains, “I’ve watched governments take control of our lives. And their argument is always the same. Lower costs and greater efficiency.  But the result is always the same.  Less control by the people. More control by the state until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. … The point of a so-called ‘great family’ is to protect our freedoms. That is why the barons made King John sign the Magda Carta.”  Wow.  The Dowager Countess could be a commentator on Fox News.  Great Britain, of course, does have a national health service of the kind that Bernie Sanders supports and I’m sure the British viewers understood that this little diatribe was aimed at that particular government program, especially when the Dowager Countess concludes “Our great-grandchildren won’t thank us if we don’t fight.”

Even as the Dowager Countess is standing up to Big Government, we get another example of the virtues of American-style social mobility.  In what is perhaps the best scene in the entire six-season history of “Downton Abbey,” Gwen, the ambitious maid and Anna’s best friend from Season One, shows up at the house as the wife of the treasurer of a woman’s college (Rosamond is a Trustee at the school and wants Edith to also become a trustee there.)

All the servants recognize Gwen (as do “Game of Thrones” fans since Rose Leslie, the actress playing her is now better known as Ygritte on GOT) but none of the Crawleys know who she is since they never bothered to look at her face or learn her name when she was in their service.  She’s too embarrassed to tell the family she used to be their maid but Thomas Barrow, no stranger himself to outing, decides to expose her, asking her at lunch in front of the others if she remembers Mr. Carson.


Here’s Rose Leslie (aka Gwen) as Ygritte on Game of Thrones

Thomas makes clear that his class resentment is based on envy.  Gwen has managed to rise above her station and achieve what he has desired for himself.  Rather than emulate her and learn a new skill, though, Thomas tries to take her down a notch and embarrass her in front of the luncheon guests.  But it explodes in his face, as Gwen is able to evoke the name of the now-dead, much beloved Sybil.

Gwen, you’ll recall, was Sybil’s maid; when she learned that Gwen had dreams and ambitions she helped her learn how to type and then got her a job at a telephone company.  No one but Tom knew that Sybil had done this but as Gwen rolled out the tale, they were all reminded again of Sybil’s many kindnesses and general saintliness.  The funny thing is that I was never really a fan of the goody-goody Sybil but found myself greatly affected by Gwen’s story of how she had been so kind and generous with her support.  For once, Baron Fellowes has written a genuinely moving scene.

Gwen’s story made all the Crawleys feel ashamed that they didn’t recognize her at first and that they don’t measure up to Sybil’s level of goodness.  It caused Lord Grantham to chew out Thomas for trying to embarrass Gwen and even made Mary reflect for a nano-second on whether her life of bitchiness is the best use of her talents.  In addition to a story of kindness it turned out to be a celebration of hard work, ambition and upward mobility – those American virtues which are generally not appreciated by the English aristocrats.

There’s even an element of self-made accomplishment in Mary’s putative new suitor, the race car driver Henry Talbot, who made his appearance at the end of last season.  Will everyone who was surprised to see him show up again please raise your hands?  I didn’t think so.  It turns out that he’s the nephew of Lady Shackleton, who was summoned to Downton by the Dowager Countess to lend some moral support in her hospital consolidation battle.  Given that Lady Shackleton has no opinion or knowledge of rural medical issues, it’s clear that her role in this episode is merely to provide a convenient vehicle to bring Henry Talbot back into the plot.

Alas, he’s a younger son and about 40 healthy men would have to drop dead before he’d inherit a title so he needs to support himself.  Which he does through car racing and automotive enthusiasm.  But is that enough for Mary? The Dowager Countess doesn’t think so.  “Mary needs more than a handsome smile and a hand on the gear stick,” she advises, and as we know from her dalliances with Prince Kuragin, she knows who a gear stick is used for.

I made this point last year, but you’d think that a woman who lost a husband to fast driving would run screaming from someone who earns a living from car racing, but no, Mary is apparently attracted to danger.  Anna’s near miscarriage is a good excuse to scoot to London, where she meets Talbot for dinner a few days later.  “I hope this means you’re boiling up to make a pass before we’re done,” she challenges him. “Probably,” he concedes. “But will you accept?” “No, but I shall enjoy the process immensely.” Ah, Mary, you tease.

So Edith had a suitor last week, and now Mary has her own suitor again, so we seem to be headed for at least one or two more weddings before the series ends, because we definitely can’t end the series without resolving the question presented to us in the very first episode of the series: who will Mary marry?  My real question is whatever happened to Mr. Blake, the very eligible suitor from Season 4 and 5.  He must be finished with that Polish post by now, can’t he?

One thing I am pretty certain about is that Mary will not marry Tom, even though they seem so suited to each other.  She calls him a “brother,” which would make their hook-up incestuous.  She also tells him at one point to “please yourself.”  So yes Tom, please yourself.

Some other thoughts:

  • With the soon series headed to that great rerun factory in the sky, I always assumed we’d have a few marriages and at least one death to wrap things up.  And I’d assumed that the Dowager Countess, who’s about 110 at this point, would be the one to pop off.  But we keep hearing about his Lordship’s indigestion — he can’t even drink Port any more so you know this is serious.  Can we please get to the point of this? Last year the same symptoms turned out to be an ulcer.  Let’s not drag this out.  And if he does die, that means that little George becomes Lord George, because he’s the heir to the earldom, which would put Mary in complete charge of the estate since she owns a third of it outright and would then have control of the other two-thirds until George reached his majority.  How that fits in with her getting married again I don’t know.
  • In any event, I’m beginning to think we should call this season Four Weddings and Funeral.  If the chest-clutching Lord Grantham does kick the bucket we’ve got our funeral.  We’ve already had the Carson wedding, and it looks like the Crawley girls will get married, so we only need one more to reach that goal.  Andy’s looking rather fetchingly at Daisy and declaring his intention to live in the country.  Maybe at Yew Ram with Daisy and Mr. Mason?
  • There seems to have been a general rethinking of the Robert Crawley character this year.  A few seasons ago he was blowing fortunes left and right and spewing anti-Catholic venom but now he’s a kindly gent, somewhat wiser – a sure sign that they’re setting him up for a premature send-off.
  • The Carsons are back from their honeymoon.  I hope his performance while on the road was better than his namesake, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, who finished the night with four interceptions and two fumbles.  By the smile on Mrs. Hughes’ face we have to assume that all of Mr. Carson’s attempts were completions.
  • But why must the new Mrs. Carson continue to be called Mrs. Hughes?  We are led to believe that the Crawleys are so dim and privileged that can’t get used to a different name, but I suspect that Julian Fellowes believes that it’s US, the loyal viewers, who can’t get adapt to a change at this late date.
  • Hillcroft School, where Gwen’s husband is the treasurer, is a real school for women.  According to their website  it was founded in 1920.
  • They should just give Sgt. Willis credit as a main character given how much he drops by. Now he’s after Baxter to testify against her seducer so they can put him away so he can’t ruin any other women, two of whom have already turned to a life of prostitution.  Mr. Bates is sardonically glad that for once Sgt. Willis is there for someone else.
  • But really, does Lady Grantham need to be dragged into every aspect of the servants lives?  For someone who supposedly doesn’t know the names of her own maids, she seems pretty preoccupied with their doings.  She’s involved in Mrs. Hughes’ wedding attire, Daisy’s in-law problems, the Bates’ legal issues and now she has to have an opinion on whether Baxter should testify? I thought servants were supposed to make your life easier.
  • “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Moseley’s hackneyed observation is attributed to Edmund Burke but was popularized around 1920 (see here) so this is not the anachronism that I first thought it was.
  • The dysfunction in the Bates marriage continues.  Anna continues to keep secrets from him, after once promising to have an honest marriage.  She refuses to tell him she’s pregnant until the London doctor puts in his baby-saving stitch.  He’s not a dope.  He can tell something’s going on. If the point of the secret is to save him from anxiety, it’s obviously not working.
  • Where are the staff layoffs that Lord G talked about at the beginning of the season?  It seems like Barrow’s job is the only one that’s on the line.  And Lord G isn’t even pretending to conceal it from him any more.
  • Will Mr. Mason become a pig farmer?  And if not, who will manage Mary’s fat stock empire?
  • This is a real question for any of readers who understand British idioms.  Why do the characters always talk about going “up” to London when York is north of London.  Wouldn’t it make sense to for the refer to London as “down”?
  1. While I admire your recap, and I’ve enjoyed reading it – I am somewhat perplexed by own reaction to this the final season. Yes, we know going in that this is the final go-round. And for me – I have watched the entire series in the fall of 2015. That’s right – five seasons compressed into a much short time frame than how the show played out for viewers who watched the showed as it was current.

    But for this season I have apparently lost my sense of awe and excitement. What I am saying is that this the final season has failed to ignite for me. While in the real sense – we viewers never had a real vested interest in the goings on in Merry Olde ninety years ago. But we, as viewers cared greatly as we watched and enjoyed.

    For me, this year I can’t wrap my arms around that sort of feeling and thinking. I know you are putting in a major effort to write the show up – but I am going to ask you just the same -has the edge dulled a bit for you?

    • Hi, thanks for the comment. My own personal journey on this show has been that I liked the first season and was disappointed when the middle seasons descended into soap opera. When I watch the show it makes me crazy that it’s not better, because it could be. But I think doing the recap is fun. So my edge was dulled some time ago, but there’s enough going on to make it interesting.

  2. But really, does Lady Grantham need to be dragged into every aspect of the servants lives? For someone who supposedly doesn’t know the names of her own maids, she seems pretty preoccupied with their doings. She’s involved in Mrs. Hughes’ wedding attire, Daisy’s in-law problems, the Bates’ legal issues and now she has to have an opinion on whether Baxter should testify? I thought servants were supposed to make your life easier.

    In reply to this, Cora has been redundant as a character since the entail story line was resolved back in series 1. This is all to give her something to do. One of the things Fellowes is bad at is his inability to write out characters who have outlived their usefulness and/or hold up the narrative. Not to mention that each character is given a story line no matter how ridiculous and lacking credibility they are.

  3. Exactly about the redundant characters. He hasn’t known what to do with the Bateses for five years; hence all those murder plots. Or Baxter! How he strains to keep her in the show. This series would have been so much better if he had set out to do three seasons: the pre-war, the war and the post-war. Instead he kept recycling plots until the actors finally said enough!

  4. Good point and spot on about the Bateses, even Thomas and Daisy are redundant. My co-author and I have said that Robert should have gone early on to make room for Matthew. It was clear after series 2 that Fellowes didn’t really know what to do with Robert so he ends up transmogrifying as a reactionary buffoon and idiot who has to be lead on the straight and narrow by his wife who is supposedly more progressive than he is. Matthew’s death and the lack of major historical events really left a huge hole in the narrative and it shows.

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