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Downton Abbey

downton-xmas

Downton Abbey debuted six seasons ago as a fairly serious costume drama, quickly morphed into a high-end soap opera, and concluded the series Sunday night as a fairy tale with a distinctly “they lived happily ever after” vibe.  It’s almost as if Julian Fellowes came on the set one day and started pointing to each cast member like Oprah, yelling “You get a happy ending!” “You get a happy ending!” You get a happy ending!”  Did he run a fan fiction contest and decide to give the fans exactly what they most desired for every last character? Seems so.

The biggest surprise of this episode was that there were no surprises. None of the craziest theories came true. Almost everything that happened this season was preordained from the the final episode of last season, when the Crawley girls met the men who would ultimately become their husbands.  Oh sure, our heroes and heroines met some mild resistance as they marched relentlessly forward to their ultimate rewards, but these barriers were easily swept away.  That’s what happens when a deadline is looming.  I’m sure Baron Fellowes would have loved to wallow in a protracted and painful conflict involving Edith and Bertie’s dragon lady mom, but alas, he ran out of time and was forced to have the old bird simply change her mind.  Boy that was easy!

If there was anything unexpected about the episode (Season 6, Episode 9), it was that for all Fellowes’ talk about women’s advancement, he still fell back on the old Noah’s Ark approach to happiness: everyone needed to be paired up two-by-two.  And if they weren’t married by series end they were definitely headed that way.

The other great Down Abbey theme has been “times are changing.”  You can’t watch the series for more than ten minutes without someone bringing it up.   In the end, all the characters succumb (as we all must) to the inevitability of change.   But some are still not resigned to it, and I’m not sure where Julian Fellowes himself lands. In the very last lines of spoken dialogue Isobel says, “we’re going forward into the future, not back into the past,” to which the Dowager Countess replies,”If only we could.”  And if those last words aren’t ambiguous enough, the series ends with CGI snow falling on the house (which looks suspiciously like it exists in a snow globe) and  everyone singing that most nostalgic of songs, “Auld Lang Syne.”  So are we supposed to mourn or celebrate the passing of an era?  Both I guess.

In any event, the plot developments came so fast and furious that there really wasn’t time to dwell on big picture themes.  Here are the highlights:

  • Edith got married!  Did anyone think this wouldn’t happen?  In a more mature series Edith would have moved to London and become a successful businesswoman and perhaps met another successful London proprietor.  Nope. Not only does she have to be married but she has to marry a Marquess.  She’s back in town for exactly one day when Mary arranges for Bertie to meet her and propose again.  Apparently he had a change of heart about those “I couldn’t trust someone who doesn’t trust me” principals.  The only barrier is his uptight mother, who wants Brancaster Castle to become a moral center for the county.  She certainly won’t want a fallen woman for daughter-in-law, right?  Well, right, but only for about five minutes.   When Edith drops the Marigold bombshell she initially tries to break up the match (just as Lord Sinderby tried to break up up his son’s marriage to Rose) but eventually (wait for it — here it comes) she changes her mind.“Should I turn down a daughter-in-law who, in addition to having birth and brains, is entirely and unimpeachably honest?” she asks. “She was prepared to deny herself a great position, to say nothing of happiness, rather than claim it by deceit. We must applaud her.” Oh brother.
  • (Speaking of Edith, the only time I laughed out loud during the episode is when Lord Grantham gets the news of her engagement and rushes into tell his wife: “That was Edith.  You’re never going to believe it!” “She’s pregnant again!” Cora exclaims.)
  • (Speaking of the wedding, you have to hand it to Julian Fellows for lingering on the cleric’s line about whether any man can give just cause why Edith and Bertie shouldn’t get married.  He was definitely messing with us. How many of you thought Michael Greggson might re-emerge at that moment?)
  •  Isobel and Lord Merton got married!  As is explained to us multiple times in the episode, when they thought Merty would live a long life, his beastly son and daughter-in-law were only too happy to have Isobel take him off their hands so they wouldn’t have to care for him in his dotage.  But when it looked like he was going to pop off immediately from pernicious anemia (apparently a real thing) they decide to keep him close so there would be no messy complications from a deathbed marriage to a second wife. Intuiting that Merty has been kidnapped by his own family, Isobel and the Dowager Countess burst into the house and demand to see him.  Fortunately Merty he hears the commotion and runs away with them, leaving his rotten son in charge of the house.  And then it turns out that he doesn’t have pernicious anemia after all, just regular anemia.  Another happy ending!  Because what would an episode of Downton Abbey be like without at least one medical miracle to celebrate?
  • Carson retires! Speaking of medical miracles, it looks like there won’t be a one for Carson, who has a palsy (presumably some form of Parkinson’s).  He can no long reliably pour wine, which is about the most essential job in the house, so he offers to resign.  This would normally be considered a sad ending, but it’s a sad ending with the softest possible landing because his replacement will be Thomas Barrow, who takes the job with the understanding that Carson will be a sort of non-executive Chairman of the Board (i.e., in charge of the strategic issues at the house but not the day-to-day operations.)  So he gets to semi-retire with his dignity intact.
  • Barrow goes and comes! As for the aforementioned Thomas Barrow, he’s had a personality transplant this year and turned over a new leaf, trying to be a nice person.  The Granthams tried to get rid of him all season and as soon as he gets a job somewhere else, they want him back.  And now he’ll have the same relationship with Master George that Mary has with Carson.
  • Daisy succumbs. Daisy’s romantic problems have been among the most boring subplots of the whole series.  As Mrs. Patmore (aka Sigmund Freud) points out, she has exhibited a pattern of behavior in which she doesn’t like her suitors if they like her and only likes the suitors that don’t reciprocate.  Andy has been sniffing around for a while and Daisy could not have cared less, but when she gets a good look at him doing manly labor in his undershirt she is nearly undone with lust.  So she decides to move into the farm with Mr. Mason and there is a strong hint that she will hook up with Andy and Mr. Mason and Mrs. Patmore will also get married.  And so much for passing all those exams if she’s just going to be a pig farmers wife.
  • Oh, Molesly gets a full-time job at the school and Baxter finally decides not to go see her seducer in prison so that he will have “no power over [her].” (Why is this sub-sub-plot even still under discussion?)  Also, it looks like two of them will hook up eventually.
  • Denker outs Spratt and outfoxes herself. Denker deduces that Spratt is ghosting the advice column for Edith’s magazine and tells The Dowager Countess about it.  How she did that is unclear, and why she spilled the beans is also unclear.   I guess she ratted on him for the pure pleasure of being a bitch and because she hasn’t done anything pernicious in a while.  But if she really wanted to get rid of him all she needed to do was tattle on him hiding his fugitive nephew a few episodes ago.   I think we’ve seen that the Dowager Countess doesn’t like her servants tattling on each other.  Doesn’t Denker remember this?  In any event, the Dowager Countess finds the column highly amusing and Spratt rises in her estimate at Denker’s expense.
  • Lord Grantham appreciates the hospital president.  Like a spoiled child who’s jealous of a younger sibling, Lord Grantham thinks that his wife is spending too much time on hospital business. But when Rose (yes, she’s back too) takes him to a public meeting where the new consolidation plans are discussed, he’s very impressed indeed and gets over his qualms.
  • Miss Edmunds catches the bouquet!  Tom and Edith’s editor have been making eyes at each other for several episodes and the bouquet-catch is a signal that they too will pair off eventually.  After all Tom has the most romantic come-on ever: “We like strong women.  We like them very much.” Oh brother.
  • Anna delivers Baby Bates!  This is the kind of show where you know exactly when a pregnant woman’s water is going to break and it happens in Mary’s bedroom during the reception for Edith’s wedding. This is also apparently the kind of show where the mother-to-be has to deliver the baby in the very spot where her water broke. So instead of walking her to a more convenient spot they put her in Mary’s bed.   Out pops the baby in no time. But no worries about Anna needing to give up her job.  Apparently the Granthams offer on-site daycare so the little tyke will be put in the nursery with all the Grantham childen (and raised as their equal? I think not.)
  • Tom and Henry go into business! The last remaining subplot concerns Henry Talbot’s future occupation.  Guess what?  You’ll never believe it!  He and Tom are opening a car dealership in downtown Downton.  Who could have ever predicted that, what with Tom carrying on about his love of cars and his obvious man-crush on Henry?    Henry has conveniently lost his enthusiasm for racing after the death of his friend in the fiery crash, but he has to do something.  As Tom explains: “Women don’t understand that a man is what he does.  At least to himself.” I don’t think that last part came out exactly right, but now Tom and Henry will have their toys to play with.  They are even thinking about manufacturing cars.  WHAAAAAT?  They’re going to turn the town of Downton into a Yorkshire Detroit?  Doubtful.

The series ends in a warm bath of sweet syrup.  All our friends have had their innings and are in a happy place when the series ends.  It’s understood that Downton has endured its challenges.  And so what if none of the servants are working full time any more, what with all the pig-farming and B&B operating on the side? Somehow everyone will get by.

Fortunately the Downton denizens don’t know what’s ahead of them.  They’ll be hit by a world-wide Depression in just four years and ten years after that will be World War II.  Master George will almost certainly serve in the war and Downton itself might be requisitioned by the government for military purposes.  And after the war they’ll face high inheritance taxes and almost certainly be forced to turn over the estate to the National Trust.

No need to dwell on that now.  We leave Downton on New Year’s Eve 1926, at a time of peace and prosperity. In that spirit, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

 

Mary-6x08

As we hurtle to the end of the “Downton Abbey” saga, we are treated to a penultimate episode full of surprises, achingly obvious plot developments, plot resolutions, one or two scenes of real emotion, some pathos and a few nasty showdowns.

Sunday’s episode (Season 6, Episode 8) actually concluded the regular “Downton” season and had the feel of a year-end wrap-up, with lingering shots of the Crawley children playing around Sybil’s grave (that was weird, btw).  But we all know the REAL finale — the so-called Christmas Special, which aired on Christmas Day in the UK — is yet to come so there are even more plot twists still awaiting us.  (BTW, the series finale will be shown in two weeks so that it does not compete against the Academy Awards; given the demographic of the show’s fan base, it’s one thing to go up against the Super Bowl, but an entirely different thing to compete with the Oscars.)

Given that it was the final regular “Downton” episode it was entirely appropriate that it revolved primarily around the romantic prospects of the Crawley daughters.  “Downton” can dabble all it wants in class, gender and gay issues, but at the end of the day, it’s a soap opera and a soap opera must focus on the crucial question of who’s marrying (or sleeping with) whom.

Mary’s Story

It is not a surprise that Mary and Henry Talbot end up together again but it is a surprise that they got married so suddenly.  Presumably that’s so Edith can have her own wedding in the final episode.

When last we saw them, Mary had just broken up with Henry in the aftermath of the fiery crash at the racetrack.  That crash had brought back bad memories of Matthew Crawley’s unfortunate demise and Mary explained that she didn’t want to live in fear of another crash, but also didn’t want him to give up racing.  All this made sense.

Tom Branson, who has a severe man-crush on Henry, is not giving up his dreams of being the guy’s brother-in-law so easily. To Mary’s vast annoyance, he summons Henry to Downton to try again.  But what happens — to MY vast annoyance — is that everyone seems to have forgetten the reason Mary broke up with him in the first place.  Henry assumes it’s because he doesn’t have money or a title and never even mentions her fears about racing.  Ditto Mr. Tom Sensitive.  When Henry accuses her of caring too much about the social imbalance she tells him to screw off and he skedaddles back to London.

She then channels her inner bitch and wrecks Edith’s prospects (more on that below).  Mary really is an appalling person in this scene and she’s not much nicer later, when Barrow attempts suicide and she asks her father “Do you still think dismissing Barrow was a useful cost-saving move?”   Michelle Dockery really nails it in these scenes — she does a great job of conveying the conflicting emotions of someone who’s arrogant and too prideful to convey the subsequent remorse she feels.

Finally her lapdog Tom dresses her down.  Except for perhaps Carson, who would never question anything Mary did, Tom is the person who’s negative judgment she fears the most and he really lays into her for ruining Edith’s life and her own (“Like all bullies you’re a coward.”)   He calls BS on her when she claims that she didn’t know that Edith hadn’t told her fiance her secret.  But weirdly he still seems most pissed that she has blown Henry off again and won’t settle for happiness.  But again — no honest discussion about her fear of racing.

Ever the busy-body, Tom writes to The Dowager  Countess, who rushes back to save poor Mary from herself (and it’s typical of this family that she’s primarily preoccupied with Mary’s happiness, not Edith’s.)  The scene is touching — just as it was in Season Four when the Dowager Countess had one of these heart-to-hearts with her Mary when she was depressed about Matthew’s death.  It’s a rule of Julian Fellowes that if a scene works in one season by all means try it again in a second.  In any event, Mary does seem to be asking Grandmama’s permission to marry beneath her station and the old bird comes through again, unsurprisingly coming down on the side of love (unsurprising because she’s done this multiple times, despite supposedly being a classist of the highest order).  When Mary tells the Dowager Countess that she fears becoming a “crash widow” a second time, it’s treated as a big reveal, even though, as I pointed out, we learned this last week.

The Dowager  Countess also delivers what I guess we are supposed to believe is a sharp diagnosis of Mary’s romantic inclinations.  She observes that Tony Gillingham had money, prestige and a title but that Mary wouldn’t marry him because he wasn’t as clever or as strong as she was, unlike Henry Talbot who has all these qualities.  Oh really?  It is a weakness of Julian Fellowes’ writing that we cannot distinguish these two beaus from each other.  What has Henry ever said that was clever or interesting?  In what way was Tony boring?  If you put them both in the same room could you figure out who was the interesting one?  (Now Charles Blake, that guy actually was interesting and strong.) Fellowes continues to be President of the “Tell Not Show” Club.

Regardless, all it takes is one talking-to from Grandmama and Mary completely changes her mind.  She goes for a walk to Matthew’s grave to explain herself, an act that is conveniently observed by Isobel and who gives her daughter-in-law her blessing to remarry (again, something she already did once before in Season 4).  Then off goes the telegram to London summoning Henry Talbot.  There’s a nice scene where she accepts his proposal. They kiss. They agree to marry faster than a shotgun wedding.  One thing they do not do is discuss the issue that kept them divided — her fear of racing.  Presumably that will be addressed in the final episode.

The wedding is nice.  And as Lord Grantham sees the happy couple ride away in a horse-drawn carriage — a form of transportation with which the ancient Egyptians were probably familiar — he is moved to observe, “There goes a new couple into a new world.” Whatever.

Edith’s Story

What’s surprising about this story: that Baron Fellowes would dare stoop to that hoariest of cliches — having a character unexpectedly raised to nobility through the death of a distant relative.  What is unsurprising about this story:  everything else, especially Bertie Pelham’s reluctance to marry Edith after discovering that she’s been misleading him about her love child. After all, we can’t have Edith get married without one last obstacle.  I would almost bet that Julian Fellowes flipped a coin to see which daughter would get married in this episode and which in the next.

Did we all know that Bertie was his cousin’s heir?  I don’t have the energy to go back and check from last season.  If so, this was not commented on significantly enough.  Isn’t it odd, in a Cinderella-type way, for a Marquess to keep his heir employed at the castle as a hired hand?  Further, the Marquess is obviously gay (ogling the fishermen in Tangiers and being described as “delicate”) so why did everyone assume he’d produce a son of his own?  Even if he married and did the deed enough times to get his wife pregnant, he might have had daughters like Lord Grantham.

We’ll let that pass.  After pausing exactly one second to mourn the late Marquess of Hexam, Lord Granthan is delighted to observe that poor Edith, who couldn’t even get her dolls to do what she wanted, is going to end up as a Marchioness and outrank them all. Golly gumdrops!!  (Here’s a useful explanation of British hereditary titles but the ranking order is Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron.  The Granthams are mere Earls.)  Mary, that bitch, is completely put off that her sad sack sister is going to outrank her (among other things, Mary is the daughter of an earl and the mother of a future earl, but will never be a countess herself).

Bertie shows up on the way to settle his cousin’s affairs in Tangiers and also to press Edith for an answer to his proposal.  What a stand-up guy.  Even though he could marry any single lady in the Kingdom he still wants Edith.  But she’s afraid to tell him about Marigold and when he presses his case she leaves the impression that she’s accepted.  When will the characters on the show learn that when you have a secret, the secret controls you, not the other way around?  And under these circumstances, is it wise for Edith to pick a fight with Mary at breakfast?  Because Edith did provoke her by saying that Mary couldn’t stand it that she’s getting married when Mary’s man had left that very morning.

Regardless, there’s no excuse for Mary dropping the bomb that Marigold is Edith’s biological daughter. For a second I thought Julian Fellowes would actually surprise us and have Henry say he didn’t care, but no, we have to follow the expected path.  He’s a person of such high ideals that he can’t marry a women whom he doesn’t trust or, worse, who doesn’t trust him to do the right thing.  Yawn.  We know this is such a plot device to push the wedding into another episode.

Or maybe it was a device to set up one of the great confrontations in “Downton” history, when Mary halfheartedly tries to apologize and Edith tells her to shut up and calls her a scheming nasty bitch.  Boy did that scene feel good because Mary has needed a good dressing down for years.  I especially liked the way she says, “Who do you think you’re talking to? Mama, Papa, your maid?  I KNOW you.”  Right, they’re all afraid of Mary and have turned into her enablers.

But the scene that really did make me tear up a little bit was the quasi-reconciliation. When Edith returns for the wedding she has not exactly forgiven Mary,  shrewdly pointing out that Mary is only being nice now because she’s happy.  But when Mary asks if that’s the case, why is she there for the wedding, Edith describes that unique bond that only siblings share: “In the end, you’re my sister. And one day, only we will remember Sybil. Or Mama or Papa. Or Matthew or Michael. Or Granny or Carson. Or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.”  That’s surprisingly beautiful writing from Baron Fellowes.

Some other thoughts about the episode:

  • Perhaps nothing has been more tiresome on “Downton Abbey” than its obsession with secrets and the scheming to uncover them.  Finally Marigold’s secret is out, so at least that’s one down.  The wisdom of not trying to keep a secret is expressed most succinctly by Baxter, of all people, who was keeping a huge one herself for a couple of seasons.  When Molesly confides that he’s afraid his students won’t respect him when they find out he’s in service she asks, “Why not tell them?  Then they won’t have to find out, will they?”
  • So Thomas tried to commit suicide did he?  Another yawn.  The show has been telegraphing his unhappiness and loneliness all season (although he needn’t be lonely given that Baxter has repeatedly tried to befriend him.) Still, this bit of melodrama does yield one nice scene, when Mary and Master George come to visit him and Thomas proclaims that George is his only friend.  They are sweet together and it’s nice to see Mary and Thomas understand each other as kindred spirits who can’t help but lash out at others when they are unhappy.  The amount of damage those two have wreaked on the rest of the characters is too large to quantify, but the self-awareness is welcome.
  • The story about Mrs. Patmore’s B&B getting a reputation as a house of ill-repute seems unnecessary as we try to wrap things up.  But it does serve a couple of purposes.  I) It provides comic relief in an otherwise intense episode; 2) It provides the opportunity for the family to become big heroes by lending their respectability to the establishment and saving Mrs. Patmore’s reputation. 3) It provides yet another illustration of Mr. Carson’s descent into aristocracy worship and sheer unpleasantness.
  • Speaking of Mr. Carson, he’s becoming a real pill.  No. More than a real pill: a jerk. He’s unsupportive of Mr. Molesly’s attempt to better himself.  He’s all upset that the Crawleys might drag their names into the mud by visiting the B&B (which unknowingly hosted an adulterous liaison) and won’t let up about it even after Lord Grantham, with considerable irritation, has made the family’s position clear.  Worse, in a way, he’s snide to Mrs. Hughes, who supports the Crawleys’ face-saving visit: “I’ve always known women were ruthless but I never thought I’d feel the proof in my own wife.”  He’s lucky that Mrs. Hughes is a saint who takes the attitude, “You’re such a curmudgeon but you’re my curmudgeon.”
  • The Molesly story is inspiring but a little unbelievable as depicted.  Molesly has never been taken seriously on the show but through dint of hard work and self-improvement  he educated himself and positioned himself to take advantage of a teaching opportunity when it presented itself.  He earns our respect as an “every man” who’s kind and uncomplaining.  And yet the problem/solution formula is really off on this story.  In his first day of teaching the students he can’t control the class and no one learns anything.  On Day Two, he emerges as Mr. Chips solely by giving them a little lecture on the importance of education and by revealing that he is in service himself — just like the parents of the kids in his class.
  • Speaking of surprises, you had to think that something was up with the true identity of Miss Casandra Jones, Edith’s advice columnist, but you have to hand it to Julian Fellowes for revealing it be Spratt.  Of course it’s easy to surprise when you come up with something so totally preposterous, but what the heck?  It was good for a laugh.  I would have paid $100, though, for it to have actually been Michael Gregson’s wife, who is theoretically still alive in some insane asylum.  Not enough attention has been paid to the fact that Gregson left the magazine to Edith instead of his wife, and you have to wonder why no one challenged the will on that one.
  • No Denker?
  • I’m glad they squeezed in a moment of too for the Isobel/Merty subplot.  Isobel insists that the vile Larry Grey himself give his blessings to the marriage. Quite right.

With one episode left there are about 15 plot strands to be resolved, including which romantic couples end up with who.  Edith and Isobel seem like very likely brides.  In descending order of likelihood, other potential brides include: Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, Baxter, and Edith’s editor.  Also unresolved: the professional careers of Henry Talbot, Tom, Thomas, Andy, Daisy, and even the Carsons.  The best bet is that Thomas ends up with Bertie and Edith as their head butler.  Or maybe he finds employment at the Dowager House if Spratt becomes a highly compensated advice columnist.  We also need to see Anna give birth, so we will be jumping ahead to at least Christmas 1925 if not further.

Those of you out there who know the answers, please keep it to yourselves.  I’m going on Downton lockdown for the next two weeks.

 

Brideshead-Revisited-007

Before there was “Downton Abbey” there was “Brideshead Revisited,” an epic miniseries about the ups and downs of a fabulously rich aristocratic family living on a massive country estate.  This is a genre that could rightly be called the Anglo-novella — or maybe aristo-porn. In any event, in 1981 “Brideshead” appeared in the U.S. to critical acclaim and large audiences. I was as bedazzled as anybody — and my subsequent disappointment with “Downton Abbey” can be traced back to high expectations set by that earlier series.

By now I’ve come to realize that despite their superficial similarities, particularly their romanticized surface views of life in great houses, it’s unfair to judge the two series by the same standard.  “Brideshead,” based on the novel of the same name by Evelyn Waugh, is a serious work of art. And “Downton”?  Well, it is what it is.  It’s a romp, an entertainment with no ambitions other than to keep fannies planted in front of the television Sunday after Sunday.

I recently went back to rewatch “Brideshead” to see if I was remembering it correctly.  Although I’d forgotten much of the plot, my memory was accurate on the crucial point: it absolutely was a tremendous show, on a par with any of the great dramas in this current golden age of television.  It also got me thinking about the ways in which television has changed in 35 years.

The biggest difference between the two shows is that the producers of “Brideshead” had enormous respect for their viewers and didn’t think they needed to be spoon-fed every plot development or theme.  “Brideshead” is slow-paced by today’s standards, with a lot of “showing,” not “telling.”  It expects viewers to draw many of their own conclusions.

By contrast, “Downtown” creator Julian Fellowes neither trusts his viewers’ ability to keep the story straight, nor does he have any confidence in their concentration span.   Every plot development is telegraphed episodes in advance, and there’s a general “rule of three,” in which every new fact has to be mentioned three times so no one misses the point.

Further, the narrative arcs of the two shows are completely opposite.  Both shows begin with seductive and nostalgic views of the past, but “Bridehead” strips all that away to reveal family and religious dysfunction, while “Downton” strives for optimism, trying to show that all the characters are fundamentally like us, even if what unites us is our love for puppies.

Like most historical dramas, both “Downton” and “Brideshead” use history to reflect back the preoccupations of the present.  This is especially true in “Downton,” whose characters constantly rehash 21st-century class and gender issues in a way that no actual person from the 1920s would have done.

“Brideshead,” written by Waugh in 1944 and dramatized in 1981 (and therefore closer to the period in question), is not about class or gender at all. It’s about religion.  As a devoted Catholic convert, Waugh was intensely interested in how faith could distort lives even as it provided comfort and grace.  It’s unthinkable that a large modern audience would sit through such a subtle theological dissection.

Like everyone else, I am struck by the gorgeousness of the “Downton Abbey” sets, some of which are filmed on location at Highclere Castle.   But the settings in “Brideshead Revisited” are even more sumptuous, and you definitely get the impression that production budgets went a lot further in 1981. Not only does the “Brideshead” estate (set at Castle Howard) dwarf the “Downton” setting, but the earlier show was filmed at myriad other gorgeous locations, including Oxford University, Venice and London.  (At least half the appeal of an Anglo-novella is the beautiful English houses and countryside.)

Ironically, because the locations are more authentic in “Brideshead,” they are less glamorized than on “Downton,” which has been cleaned-up to look like something out of Architectural Digest. In other words, while the “Brideshead” public rooms are grander, they are more threadbare, while the private rooms are more cramped, and everything seems cold and drafty.

Along with the authentic settings in “Brideshead” are authentic relationships between the masters, who are the subject of the story, and the servants, who are seen but not heard.  There is no fraternizing between upstairs and downstairs, or gossiping among the aristocrats about the butler’s love life or the lady’s maid’s fertility.   There’s a general aloofness and distance among all the “Brideshead” characters that’s absent on “Downton,” where the characters talk as familiarly with each other as modern Americans.

I could go on about why “Brideshead” is better than “Downton,” but that doesn’t prove that television was better in 1981 than it is now.  In fact the reason “Brideshead” was such a hit is that it was a rare opportunity to watch high-quality television. The viewers who wanted a break from the cheesy prime-time soap operas of the early1980s had few options and flocked to “Brideshead” when it appeared.

Today, of course, television is downing in prestige television, and there’s no single show to rally around as there was when “Brideshead Revisited” came out.  More important, we no longer automatically assume that British television shows are better than American ones.  A couple of hours watching “Downton Abbey” will dispel that notion.

downton-abbey-recap

Downton fans, this will not be the usual comprehensive and insightful recap to which you have become accustomed because I am leaving for warmer climates first thing in the morning and only have time to dash off a quickie (which is what Tony Gillingham said apparently once too often to Lady Mary at the Royal Hotel in Liverpool). Here, then, are some abbreviated thoughts about Season 6, episode 7:

  • There is only one episode left, plus the Christmas special, and at this point in the season I expected more to be resolved.  With a cast of thousands the only plot resolutions this season are that: 1) the Carsons are married and seem to have overcome their difficulties with Mrs. Hughes’ cooking; and 2) Mr. Mosely passed his academic test (more knowledgeable than many Oxford and cambridge graduates, which doesn’t mean much if Brideshead Revisited is any indication) and has been offered a job at the local school, and is apparently going to leave service.  Everything else is up in the air.  Edith has been proposed to but hasn’t accepted or come clean about Marigold; Mary and Henry Talbot have broken up for now; Isobel and Lord Merton may or may not get together; Barrow is still job searching; Anna is still pregnant; and so on.  That’s a lot to wrap up, assuming the goal is to get closure on most of the characters and not just let the thing peter out.
  • The main plot point of the episode was Henry’s race at Brooklands (a real place according to Mr. Google) and its impact on his relationship with Mary.  The race car driver is presented in this episode as some kind of modern gladiator or jouster — loving danger and living on the edge. According to Lord Grantham it’s  “something gallant and daring.”  Until it isn’t.  At which point it becomes “a bloody awful business, a bloody, bloody awful business.” In other words, the whole Crawley crowd is turned on and thrilled by speed but then it turns out to be a rum thing when Henry’s friend crashes and burns up worse than the guy in The English Patient.   At which point Mary is like, “I’m out of here.” Having lost one husband to a car crash she’s not interested in trying her luck with another.  So that’s off. For now at least, although we can’t be sure since the preview for the next episode shows that Henry’s back and accusing her of being a gold digger.  But seriously, how was this relationship supposed to work out anyway? Is he going to open a speedway at Downton?
  • Henry’s late-night call to Mary is the first recorded case of drunk dialing, and in the years since, the practice has not produced any better results than this one.  Whenever a drunk guy decides to “carpe diem” or “seize the day,” his friends should wrest the phone from him.
  • Speaking of art imitating life, I just learned that the real-life fiance of Michelle Dockery, who plays Mary, died two months ago.   And from the looks of the tabloid photos he looks a lot like Henry Talbot.  And further, Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, introduced them. So Allen Leech plays matchmaker just like Tom, and Michelle Dockery loses her great love just like Mary did.
  • Speaking of Henry Talbot. I also just found out that Matthew Goode, who portrays him on Downton, also played Charles Ryder in the movie version of Brideshead Revsited.  Here he is in the clip below.  He’s no Jeremy Irons, that’s for sure:

  • I liked all the scenes with the Dowager Countess.  Having lost her position as hospital president in a coup, she decides to take off for France so she doesn’t say anything she regrets.  She says she’ll come back “when nostalgia has smothered my fury.” So off she goes to live among the French, but not before one last favor to Isobel.  Being an astute student of human nature she knows something is amiss with Miss Cruikshank, the fiance of Lord Merton’s son.  The Dowager Countess should have been a police investigator because all she has to do is ask a question and people immediately confess.  In this case, Miss Cruikshank admits she’s looking for someone to take care of Lord Merton is his old age so SHE doesn’t have to do it.  There’s some good verbal sparring in this scene “You’re a cool little miss, aren’t you? I’d feel sorry for Larry if I didn’t dislike him so much.” Although I don’t see that what Miss Cruikshank is doing is the worse sin in the world — the end result is potential happiness for everyone even if the motivation is a selfish one.
  • Poor Thomas Barrow. He’s being pushed out of Downton but can’t find a replacement job.  Worse, no one likes him even though his behavior has been exemplary this season.  Why he even taught Andy how to sound out the words “Tsar Nicholas.”  (And of all the words to learn phonetically — “Tsar”!) But it’s too late baby, oh it’s too late. He definitely a sympathetic figure sitting alone in his room while everyone toasts Mosely’s achievements.
  • I was not a fan of Mr. Carson being portrayed as a domestic tyrant so was delighted to see that put to rest.  All Mrs. Hughes had to do is trick him into preparing the dinner himself and experiencing how hard it is to pull off and – problem solved!!
  • Also easily resolved is the jealousy that Daisy feels about Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Hughes getting closer.  All it took was wise Mrs. Patmore telling her that if her daddy figure and her mommy figure become friends, it won’t mean that they will love her any less.  You could almost see a light bulb going off above Daisy’s head.
  • As long as we’re pairing up every single character on the show, what about Tom with Edith’s new editor?  She looks a lot like Miss Bunting without the class-conscious abrasiveness.
  • What the heck is going on with that photographer outside Mrs. Patmore’s B&B? Isn’t it a bit late in this series to be starting lame new plot points?
  • Tom continues to push Mary onto Henry, using dialogue that could have come out of the cheesiest Hollywood movie: “You will be hurt again and so will I. Because being hurt is part of being alive. But that’s no reason to give up on the man who’s right for you.” Oh brother. But I can’t help but think that it’s Tom who has the man-crush on Henry.  He’s always babbling on about how much he likes racing and cars and speed, etc.  I think he wants Mary to marry Henry so he’ll be around more.
  • Nice scene of Carson and Mrs. Hughes sitting on the sofa in the library.  And then Thomas bursts in and interrupts them for no good reason other than he can’t stand seeing other people being happy.  No wonder no one likes you Thomas.
  • If there ever was an episode that demonstrated that Downton lacks a tragic outlook on life this was it.  The all go to the race track and see Charles Rogers immolate himself, but all it takes is the arrival of a new puppy to lift everyone’s spirits.  It’s like a cat video on the Internet. Burn victim?  What burn victim?  And when Mr. Carson catches Mrs. Hughes laughing and asks what’s so funny she responds, “Just life, Mr. Carson.  Just life.”  So, to recap: we just saw a guy burn to death, which causes Mary to dump the most recent love of her life. Barrow is living an empty lonely existence. Grandmama is so hurt that she’s exiled herself to France.  And the takeaway is that life is funny?
  • The new dog is named Tiaa, after an ancient Egyptian queen.  I still think the reason they killed off the dog last year was that she was named ISIS.  Good thing the puppy was female or Lord Grantham might have called him Saddam.

downton-abbey-season-6-episode-6

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!

Mary and Tom

Well now we know who was responsible for World War II. The Dowager Countess had the chance to sidetrack Neville Chamberlain’s career before he became the prime minister who let Hitler take over Czechoslovakia and make “appeasement” a term of opprobrium to hard-liners ever since, but she muffed her chance and unleashed the dogs of war.

It turns out that before Chamberlain became the bête noir of conservatives everywhere, (here’s an article comparing Barak Obama to Neville Chamberlain for example) he was Britain’s’ minister of health. That’s a nice historical touch by Julian Fellowes. More important for our story (Season 6 episode 5), Chamberlain’s wife was the goddaughter of the previous Lord Grantham, the Dowager Countess’s little-lamented husband.   And never one to give up even though all her allies have deserted her, she induces him to dinner so she can harangue him into opposing the merger of the Downton Cottage Hospital.

How did she arrange this? As Chamberlain confesses to Tom (because future prime ministers are always sharing their most sensitive secrets with former chauffeurs), he once participated in a prank with his brother-in-law Horace de Vere Cole (an actual famous prankster, by the way: see here ) which the Dowager Countess threatened to make public unless he dropped by for dinner.

This is not a very well thought-out plan because all the supporters of the hospital consolidation are also invited to dinner and pile on against her. If the Dowager Countess had a blackmail card to play, wouldn’t it have been more effective to ask him outright to secretly kill the plan instead of forcing him to listen to a heated argument about it at dinner? After all, as the future appeaser says, he doesn’t really like a fight and is unlikely to wade into this battle.

In any event, this plan goes awry when the constant bickering causes Lord Grantham’s ulcer to erupt. This is one of the most shocking scenes in “Downton” history. Not shocking that Lord Grantham had an attack because that’s been well-telegraphed for several episodes now. What was disturbing was the way he spewed blood all over the guests at a formal dinner. It was like projectile bloodletting to match Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”

With only four episodes to go before the series ends, I thought this might be the end of Lord Grantham, especially once he managed to dramatically proclaim to Lady Grantham between attacks: “If this is it, just know I have loved you very, very much.” In a more serious drama he’d have bled to death on the way to the hospital. But medical miracles are an every-week thing on “Downton.” He is ferried off to the hospital where he is subject to a gastrectomy; this a partial removal of the stomach and it appears he will recover from it.

A couple of thoughts about this scene:

  • If the Downton Cottage Hospital has the wherewithal to perform a successful emergency gastrectomy, it sounds like a damn good medical facility and there doesn’t seem to be a need for a consolidation with the Royal York Hospital.
  • I found it very unseemly for Lady Grantham, who was, Jackie Kennedy-like, covered in her husband’s blood, to lobby Chamberlain one last time as she was headed to the hospital.   This is what you’re worried about at a time like this?
  • I still don’t understand the Downton hospital governance process. Who actually gets to make the decision on whether the proposed consolidation is accepted? In the season opener we learned about this proposal at a board meeting that was attended by several other silent and unidentified board members. Why isn’t the Dowager Countess lobbying them? Why do we have this endless rehashing among the Crawleys given that everyone’s already taken a position? Can’t we just vote and have this done with?
  • We’re supposed to think that Lord G’s ulcer was caused by stress, especially the stress of the hospital fight, although he hasn’t previously seemed unduly bothered by the debate. I believe the consensus now is that ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress, but I don’t know who has the outdated understanding, the characters or Julian Fellowes.
  • Julian Fellowes must be a frustrated physician because there’s always something medical happening in this show. Thanks to the miracle of Google, I now know what a gastrectomy accomplishes, why preeclampsia is dangerous, how to treat an incompetent cervix, etc.
  • Before the actual blood spewing, I so wish that Mr. Chamberlain had asked Edith how she occupied her time, giving her a chance to say, “Well, I inherited a magazine from my lover, who was killed in Germany by a group of jack-booted thugs, led by a man called Herr Hitler.  Let me tell you Sir Neville, that Herr Hitler is not a man to be trusted!!”

Lord Grantham’s dash to the hospital concentrates the minds of everyone at “Downton,” upstairs and down. “It only takes a moment for everything to feel quite different,” Mary muses. “Life is short,” Carson broods. “Death is sure. That is all we know.” Carson is “a man who’s been shaken to the roots of his soul,” Mrs. Patmore divines. “Everything he’s based his life on has proved mortal after all.” Only Mrs. Hughes, keeps her head, telling the downstairs team to stop their tinpot philosophizing and hop-to because there’s tea to be served.

Mary is the most shocked of all. Not only does Papa end up in the OR but she finally begins to figure out that Marigold is her biological niece and not just some lucky random kid. I’m sure what must be the most shocking to her is that everyone in the house – both the family and servants – seem to know the truth and that she’s the last to know.  She can’t even get her BFF Anna to spill the beans.

The ulcer/blood vomiting crisis causes Mary to have an Al Haig moment. She tells Tom that the two of them will have to take over management of Downton and keep Lord Grantham away from any estate-related stress. Oh sure, they’ll let him know about the “big decisions,” but the two of them will have to handle the day-to-day stuff.

“Long live our own Queen Mary,” Tom says admiringly.

This is the first episode where we get the sense that Mary is actually taking her responsibilities as estate manager seriously (although not so seriously that she can’t take the day off to go watch her new suitor Henry Talbot race cars.) She has, what seems to me, a legitimate concern that Mr. Mason is too old to handle the more physical challenges of pig-farming, what with the difficulty of separating breeding hogs and so forth. A visit to Yew Tree Farm is in order, during which she puts the question to him directly. Fortunately for Mr. Mason, the footman Andy is present and he volunteers to do the heavy lifting when he’s free from silver polishing. Apparently he’s got a powerful yearning to become a country gentleman. And of course we’ve seen that he’s sweet on Daisy so he’s trying to worm his way into her heart through Mr. Mason.

As for Mary, when she’s not seizing control of the means of production or second-guessing her tenant’s animal husbandry abilities, she’s amusing herself with Henry Talbot, the latest in a long line of handsome high-born men who have been entranced by her chilly charms. Almost all the other characters on the show have abandoned their period-distinctive traits of aloofness and snobbiness to the point where they seem like modern Americans, but Mary retains her essential bitchiness. She’s upfront that she only wants to marry someone of her own status. She definitely doesn’t want to “marry down”; and for that matter she doesn’t want to marry someone who would try to control her either. Matthew Crawley fit the bill because he was the heir to Downton Abbey (and we saw that she hesitated marrying in that brief moment when Lady Grantham was pregnant with a new heir.) But Henry Talbot? Who’s the heir to nothing and a mere race track driver? What’s he got to offer?

Poor Tom Branson. What a sad state his character has devolved into. There was a time when he was spirited enough to attract the equally spirited Lady Sybil Crawley. Now his only purpose on the show is to be Mary’s other BFF and neutered confidant. You can imagine the two of them curling up together with some popcorn and watching “Beaches.” He says things like, “There’s no such thing as safe love. Real love is giving someone the power to hurt you.” Ick. It’s hard to imagine any man outside the mass media saying something like that to a woman while completely sober.

Tom has taken it upon himself to promote the relationship between Mary and Henry Talbot, which seems to be the only game left in town for her with just four episodes left.   Barring the return of Charles Blake, which is apparently not in the cards because of some beef with the actor that played him, Mary will find a way to true love with this guy. Possibly because Dad’s ulcer/blood-vomiting shocked into realizing the evanescence of life, she might have a conversion to the merits of true love based on personality-based equality, instead of financial equality. And besides, as I’ve said repeatedly in these recaps, Mary cannot marry another heir to a landed estate because that heir will insist that they leave Downton and move to his estate. Given everything she’s gone though to preserve Downton for little George, that’s not going to happen. In other words, there can be no marriage of equals for Queen Mary. When a queen marries a king, the king is in control.

Some other thoughts:

Here’s a video of the Neville Chamberlain returning from his meeting with Hitler in which he had capitulated to Hitler one more time.

  • Edith’s courtship by Bertie Pelham is following the predictable path. He doesn’t seem to be spending much time up there in Branchester. He’s down in London again and rather shockingly ends up along at Edith’s apartment for drinks. A big lip lock ensues, but no actual hanky panky. I hope the extra-fertile Edith has learned her lesson on what a single night of fooling around can lead to.
  • What are we to make of Bertie’s cousin who is “more art than sport, if you know what I mean” and who likes to paint the young men of Tangiers. I think I know what you mean. Maybe Thomas Barrow could take a job at Barchester.
  • “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”  Excellent question, Carson. The Baxter plot, in which she is strong-armed into confronting the blackguard who convinced her to steal jewels, turns out to be dud. The guy pleads guilty before Baxter has to testify against him, which makes this whole mini-narrative arc seem particularly pointless. Why waste our time with a storyline that even the characters admit is anticlimactic?
  • Similarly, the story of the Carson’s newlywed blues seems like a time-filler. The difficulties of new brides keeping their husbands satisfied at the dining table is one of the hoariest plots in entertainment, but they usually involve young brides, not older couples who have decades of familiarity with each other. I gather the gripe is that Mrs. Hughes does not correctly heat up the food that Mrs. Patmore cooked. One week Mr. Carson is a sentimental old sweetheart and the next week he’s a dick. Geez. And how would he even remember how his mother used to cook anyway? That’s something that a 20-year-old groom would say, not a 70-year-old one.
  • Also really annoying is the burgeoning romance between Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason. Is the goal of this series to pair up every male and female character by the end of the show? Here are the potential marriages over the next four episodes: Daisy/Andy, Patmore/Mason, Mary/Talbot, Edith/Bertie, Isobel/Lord Merton, Baxter/Molesly. That’s a lot of lace.
  • And why would Daisy object to a Patmore/Mason union anyway? It would be like her surrogate mom and surrogate dad getting together.
  • The one good scene in the series was when the Dowager Countess learns that Denker had insulted Dr. Clarkson in a misguided attempt to curry favor with her boss. “It is not your place even to have opinions of my acquaintances, let alone express them … If I withdrew my friendship from everyone who had spoken ill of me, my address book would be empty. For a ladies’ maid to insult a physician in the open street! You’ve read too many novels, Denker. You’ve seen too many moving pictures.”
  • The Dowager Countess’s dismissal of Denker is a necessary corrective to the large amount of fraternization that’s occurring between the classes. Really, the lower orders don’t know their place but who can blame them given the inordinate amount of interest that the Crawleys take in their servants’ lives? Why here they are speculating about the relative power dynamic between Denker and Spratt or commenting on the assistant cook’s satisfaction with the arrangements at Yew Tree Farm. As noted above, are we really supposed to believe that a former chauffeur would attempt to worm a personal secret out of a cabinet minister? Or that a simple country doctor would argue healthcare policy in front of that same minister? This is all too much.
  • Somewhat related to the issue of fraternization is the fact that no one seems to be working very hard. If Baxter wants the time off to testify against her former lover, that’s not a problem; nor does Molesly have any difficulty getting the same time off to accompany her to court. If Daisy, Andy and Mrs. Patmore want to stop by Yew Tree Farm for a nice visit, no one seems to notice or care. Nor is there any problem with the Carsons getting away for a nice intimate dinner at their love nest.
  • Note all the blackmailing this episode: The Dowager Countess blackmailing Neville Chamberlain. Denker blackmailing Spratt. The prosecutor blackmailing Baxter’s seducer with the threat of her testimony.
  • We finally learn what we always suspected about Andy’s feelings for Barrow: that he’s doesn’t want to be alone with him for fear that he’ll make a pass at him. But all that goes by the wayside the second that Barrow offers to help him learn to read. In real life, it’s pretty hard for an adult to pick up reading, but I suspect Thomas is going to have a special touch with his ABCs.

“When we unleash the dogs of war we should go where they take us.” Good advice.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

ygritte

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 quoteinvestigator.com 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”?