Downton Abbey — It’s An Open House


Well that was a dud.  I’m talking about the Super Bowl, which was three and a half hours of inflated nothing, but also about “Downton Abbey” (Season 6, Episode 6).  With only three episodes left in the entire series, you’d think the show would be hurtling to a grand conclusion but it continues to lollygag as if it’s got all the time in the world.

The overarching theme of the season has been ch-ch-ch-changes and in Sunday’s episode we get a heavy dose of moaning and groaning about how the old times are giving way to the new.  Lord Grantham, the ostensible Lord of the Manor, lies upstairs impotent, bored and defeatist, having been brought low by the exploding ulcer that erupted at last episode’s Red Dinner Party.  Queen Mary, having consolidated her power during her father’s convalescence, has, in consultation with her prime minister Tom Branson, decided to open the house to gawking commoners as part of a fundraiser for the local hospital – the very one we keep hearing so much about this season.

The fuddy-duddies in the “Downton” household object in various degrees that are supposed to illustrate their characters, as if these character traits haven’t been hammered home for six years.  The Dowager Countess  can’t understand why anyone would pay to look at “perfectly ordinary house,” showing how out of touch with reality she is. Carson, the archconservative, thinks it’s an appalling idea because it will stir up the masses for revolution and guillotines in Trafalgar Square if they see how grandly the Crawley’s  live.  And Lord Grantham himself is generally opposed because of the inconvenience and a general reluctance to turn the family into exhibits at the zoo.  The ironic thing is that once people get inside the house they don’t really envy the Crawleys.

This open house plot serves little purpose in the overall narrative in the series except to provide foreshadowing for post-series future,  when accommodating nosy tourists is the ultimate fate of the estates like Downton.  In real life, Highclere Castle  is kept afloat through the income of paid visitors and the actual residents of Highclere, the current (8th) Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, only live in the place part-time because of the high volume of their paying guests who subsidize the upkeep of the house.

The house tour does serve one other plot function, which is to demonstrate once again that the Crawleys are unusually clueless about themselves and the world.  Having decided to open the house to the public, they have given no thought to the mechanics of having hundreds of people tramping through their rooms.  It falls to Edith’s practical beau, Bertie Pelham, to set them straight.  They need a servant in each room to make sure none of the hoi polloi walk off with the stray first edition, and they also need tour guides for each room, as well as ropes to keep people from straying into private rooms.  The various family members are pressed into service as docents but, somewhat amusingly, they are completely useless, and cannot offer the merest tidbit of background information about the architects who built the house or the creators of the artwork that adorn it.  Only Molesley knows anything about the house but as a servant he has to keep his trap shut.

Lord Grantham is under the impression that Edith is about to become one of the most interesting women in England, but she’s as incurious about the house she lives in as her sister and mother, unable to answer even the most basic questions.  But she’s better than Lady Grantham, who is forced to admit she never even noticed that the shields inlaid into the fireplace mantle were blank.

Meanwhile, upstairs in Lord Grantham’s lair, a random kid wanders in to deliver some “out of the mouth of babes” wisdom.  Why is the house so big, he asks Lord Grantham?  Why don’t they move into someplace more cozy?  They surely have enough money.  Lord Grantham calls him a philosopher, but he’s not all that astute, not understanding that the purpose of these grand houses is not to provide comfort for the residents but to display power and wealth.

Alas, the Grantham power and wealth is waning.  “Our influence is finished,” His Lordship tells his mother.  And she’s the one who feels this most keenly when she kicked to the curb by the Royal York Hospital Board of Governors who brutally inform her, via a letter, that she has been relieved of her responsibilities as President of the Downton Hospital.  Can we just back up for a second and say “huh”?  Last week I complained that I didn’t understand the governance structure of the Downton Hospital, but this is ridiculous.  The fight over the fate of the local hospital has been the main narrative arc of this season, with family feuds and shifting alliances.  The Dowager Countess, for example, is under the impression that she won the argument for local control because the hospital showed it had the wherewithal to save Lord Grantham’s life.  I have to agree – how much better do you want it to be than that?

In any event the Dowager countess misread the situation as did the rest of us who thought this debate had some meaning.  Out of the blue comes word that the “Board of Governors,” whoever they are, has decided to consolidate the two hospitals.  So all along it didn’t matter what Lady Grantham, Dr.  Clarkson, Isobel, Lord Merton and the rest of the gang thought?  There’s no climactic vote?  What was the point of all of that?

Naturally the Dowager countess is aggrieved that she’s been deposed as hospital president (which has the important responsibility of being the patients’ “representative on earth”).  Worse, her daughter-in-law is getting  the job.  But what makes her really steamed (justifiably IMHO) is all the scheming behind her back.  Lady Grantham knew that the Dowager C was being replaced but didn’t tell her and made her look ridiculous. Or she puts it in her own special way: “That she should connive at my humiliation, to revel as I am cast into the darkness!”

Lady Grantham feels badly that he mother-in-law thinks she’s a traitor, but not badly enough to turn down the opportunity to grab the reins of power at the hospital.  She’s going to be an active president, something that Dr. Clarkson wants. Sounding like a third wave feminist she informs Lord Grantham that she had one career as a mother and the girls no longer need her (indeed they don’t, we learned last week that Edith, born in 1892, is now at least 33 years old). Now she wants to embark on a second career.  I hate to tell you this, Lady Grantham, but having a leadership role at a charitable institution is not a career.  The difference between a career and a hobby is a paycheck.  You’re a volunteer.  Of course Lady Grantham (and Elizabeth McGovern, the actress who plays her) has wanted a more active role going back to the days when “Downton” was a convalescent home for officers during the Great War so she’ll finally get what she wants.

There is one character who does not accept the general defeatism in the Crawley family and that’s Mary.  When Lady Grantham intimates that they’re short-timers and that she hopes the Crawleys can “stay for as long as we can,” even though “it may not last forever,” Mary dismisses that as “weakling talk.” She insists that “Downton Abbey is where the Crawleys belong,” and that they “are not going anywhere.”   With hindsight from the 21st century we know she’s delusional – that Britain will be laid low first by the Depression, then by World War II and finally by socialism.  In fact the Crawleys will be lucky if George Crawley himself survives World War II – he’ll probably join the RAF and perish during the Battle of Britain.

On the other hand, you do have to admire Mary’s spunk.  She goes chasing after Henry Talbot, exploiting the love-sick Evelyn Napier (who doesn’t look too happy about the situation) to arrange a London dinner where they can hook up.  When they walk home together after the dinner they are caught in a rainstorm that looks even faker than the one in “Singin’ in the Rain,” and after running down a protected alley they have their long-anticipated lip-lock.  Mary finally confesses that she hates his car-racing because Matthew died in a car crash.  Henry confesses his love.  Mary says things are moving awfully fast. For her maybe but not for us since this moment was predestined since last season.

With only three episodes left, it looks like the Mary/Henry nuptials are the most likely to take place of all the couples on the show.  There’s a legitimate question as to what he will do as her consort, since Tom already occupies the position of estate manager.  I’m sure Julian Fellowes has some crazy unrealistic role for Henry up his sleeve so we’ll just have to wait and see.  In the meantime, here’s a tour of the horizon for the other potential marriages:

  • Edith and Bertie Pelham.  This marriage is almost as likely to come off as Mary and Henry’s.  He’s finding excuses to visit left and right and they’re making out every time they meet.  Bertie faces the same problem as Henry – what is he going to do with himself if he marries a Crawley daughter. But at least Edith owns a magazine and apartment in London so he can try to find a job there, which is a lot easier than job-hunting in Downton.
  • Mr. Patmore and Mr. Mason.  The viewing audience for Downton Abbey is pretty geriatric so there’s always been a lot of romance among the older characters (even the Dowager Countess had a potential lover last season for cripe’s sake.)   Baron Fellowes doesn’t want any of these romances to go too smoothly, though, and he’s constantly coming up with barriers to stretch out the plots.  In the Patmore/Mason affair, the stumbling block is Daisy, who’s jealous that her Surrogate Mother and Surrogate Father are on the verge of hooking up. She’s downright nasty about it, tossing Mr. Mason’s little love notes in the trash and generally trying to keep them apart.  This could not be less interesting.  OK, we get the point.
  • Isobel and Lord Merton.  Merty has been prowling around Downton all season trying to ingratiate himself with Isobel after his eldest son Larry Grey insultingly told that middle-class busy-body that he and his brother would never accept her as their stepmother.   Now all of sudden, Merty is parading around a super-sweet woman named Amelia Cruikshank, who is supposedly Larry’s fiancé.  She keeps assuring anyone who will listen that Larry is not Isobel’s enemy and that he would welcome her into the family.  All this is extremely fishy.  For all I know, Merty hired an actress to play his son’s fiancé.  First of all, it’s hard to believe that Larry Grey, the single-most odious character in “Downton Abbey” history (he’s the one who drugged Tom Branson in order to embarrass him), managed to attract this lovely woman. Second, it’s hard to believe Larry has had a change of heart about Isobel.  Third, even if he did change his mind, shouldn’t he be the one to deliver the message, not his fiancé.  All I can say is that if Larry really has changed his stripes, it must be because Julian Fellowes really does think his audience is full of amnesiatic morons who can’t remember a major plot point from season to season.
  • Andy and Daisy.  No progress on this front this episode.  Doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
  • Baxter and Mosely.  No progress here, either.  With their nice Platonic relationship, they seem like the couple least likely to marry by the end of the season.

As long as we’re looking at the romantic entanglements of the characters, let’s check in with the Carsons. Remember when Mrs. Hughes was worried about not measuring up in the bedroom?  That was the least of her worries.  Turns out that Carson is a domestic tyrant and overall douchebag who is disappointed with her housekeeping and cooking skills.  Boring.  I can only assume we’re leading up to some major explosion or tearful breakdown by Mrs. Hughes.  The only reason it hasn’t happened already is that Julian Fellowes needs to string this plot out a few more episodes.

Other thoughts and observations.

  • OK, it was sad to see Thomas crying in the dark in the final scene.  Not only is he about the lose his job but he confirms what he’s always suspected – that he’s ruined his reputation so thoroughly that no one will believe that there’s an innocent reason for Andy to be sneaking out of his bedroom late at night.  Well, what did he expect after all those years of scheming, lying and tripping Mr. Bates?   He can give George all the piggyback rides he wants but what he really should do is remind everyone how he saved Edith’s life a few seasons ago when she set fire to her bedroom.  He was just about to get sacked the and the rescue saved his job – is there a statute of limitations on gratitude in that house? (I think there’s a statute of limitations on Julian Fellowes’ ability to remember what happens from season to season.)
  • Hilarious that Mr. Carson tells Thomas that: “You are the under-butler, a post that is fragrant with memories of a lost world and no one is sorrier to say that than I am.  But you’re not a creature of today.”  If there’s anyone who knows what a lost world smells like, it’s Mr. Carson.
  • I recently started watching “Brideshead Revisited” to compare it to “Downton Abbey.”  These are two series about landed aristocratic families set in the early 1920s.  What strikes me about “Brideshead,” is that there’s very little moaning on that show about the need to downsize.  In fact, the dinners are much more lavishly staffed on “Brideshead” than they are on “Downton.” Every occupant and guest in the “Brideshead” home dresses for dinner in black tie and has his or her own footman.  In 1925 the “Brideshead” lifestyle carries on as it always has (and of course there’s no fraternization between master and servant.  I’m inclined to believe that “Brideshead,” which was produced in 1981 and based on a 1944 Evelyn Waugh novel, is a more accurate depiction of aristocratic life in the 1920s. Obviously the rich families eventually had to turn their homes into museums, but I think Fellowes has jumped the gun a bit on the timing.  Check out this dinner scene from “Brideshead” and notice the number of servants and how the family interacts with them.  Also notice that the drunkenness of the younger son, Sebastian Flyte, is sadder than anything shown in six seasons of “Downton Abbey.”

  • I hope Anna isn’t planning to dash off to London every time she has a sore ligament.  At this point she really should be seeing Dr. Clarkson for her pre-natal care. And let’s not forget that he was a lot better doctor for Sybil than the fancy London doctor that Lord Grantham hired.  Of course these trips to London do give Mary an excuse to arrange rendezvous with Henry Talbot.
  • For God sake’s Daisy, take those examinations already.  It’s not that I’m dying to hear how she does.  I’m just so sick of hearing about it. And I don’t understand what she’ll do if and when she passes.   And now we have to get excited about Molesly taking the same exam?  Gee I wonder if he’ll pass?
  • If Mr. Molesly does ace his exams, the schoolmaster has hinted at a job.  At the rate we’re going, no one will be working at Downton Abbey by the end of the series.  Mosely at the school.  Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, and Andy one big happy family at Yew Tree Farm.  The Carsons running their bed and breakfast.  Anna Bates off being a mom.  Thomas someplace else.  You get the feeling that Baxter will be the last women standing at the end.
  • Let’s count the secrets on the show.  I believe that Anna’s pregnancy is still a secret.  Marigold’s maternity is still a secret, although barely.  The fact that the Dowager countess is being kicked out is a secret for about half the episode.  Mary arranges a secret dinner with Henry.  Am I missing others?
  • Edith tells her group that Downton has a librarian who maintains the history of the house.  How inconvenient that he was out of town the very day they scheduled the house tour!  And how remarkable that he’s still on staff given all the downsizing that’s been occurring.

Pick me out something medium smart!

  1. I loved the line, “Pick me out something medium smart.” I would have lost my job as a maid at that moment… I loved Brideshead and you just reminded me as to why.

    • I can only imagine what her closets look like (if they even have closets — didn’t think of that until this second. I wonder if the clothes are stored someplace else?)

  2. I’m reading “Akenfield,” a social history of an English town where a lot of the inhabitants worked at the “big house”–and yes, servants and their masters didn’t interact. Servants might occasionally be told to smarten up by her ladyship, but that was all. Otherwise, they were meant not to be seen, so that the house’s air of magic would be preserved–flowers and food and clothing just appeared, with as little evidence of humanity as possible.

  3. That’s what was so eye-opening about re-watching Brideshead Revisted. There were A LOT of servants and hardly any of them had any speaking parts. I think Evelyn Waugh knew a lot more about this than Julian Fellowes.

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