Downton Abbey: Season 5, The Finale: Mary Sings Like a Bird

Well, we made it, folks. The season is over and we say farewell to the House of Grantham until the Year of our Lord 2016, just ten short months away. I’ve had a week to recover from the prospect, and think I’m ready to review what happened in the season finale. That is, if I can remember it.

Much took place in the final episode, which packed in a whole bunch of dead grouse and one giant Christmas tree. It all culminated with Lady Mary singing a carol in front of the master and servile classes as they gathered together. All of them, to a person, managed to listen to her warbling without openly weeping at the travesty that, of all the people there — so many of them fine — the most horrible individual present should be the one given the honor of singing Silent Night. I’ve never been so convinced of British reserve as I was in that moment, as I’m sure it took everything those people had in them not to cry.

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Downton Abbey: Season 5, Ep. 8: “What a Palaver!”

What a palaver! Tom says during a momentary lull at the latest ruined dinner party. This particular one is destroyed by Rose’s mum, Sour Sue, who, in the midst of her divorce from ol’ Squishy, has missed out on so many recent terrible dinners. Sour Sue decided that if no one else was going to say awful things at the table, then it might as well be her, since no one likes her anyway.

Apparently the British are only repressed when two or fewer people are in the room. A proper Brit refuses to even look at her husband in private, as that would be too indiscreet. No, the best thing to do is wait until you’re gathered around the table with the entire family, a complement of servants, and several near-strangers, then — one or two courses into an elaborate meal that cost 150 pounds a head factoring in food and labor — announce to all and sundry that you never did like your husband much. Or Jews for that matter. And did I mention? The host, as a person, pretty much makes me want to puke in my soup here. And his politics! His politics make me positively want to rip the hand-sewn beads right off my dress and scatter them around the room just before poking him in the eye with my oyster fork. Okay now, back to the soup, everybody! Nothing to see here! What a palaver!

Sour Sue preparing remarks for the dinner table. Topics for discussion  include anti-semitism, divorce, blackmail, poverty, and my intense dislike for my daughter.

Sour Sue preparing remarks for the dinner table. Topics for discussion include, but are not limited to: anti-semitism, divorce, blackmail, poverty, and intense dislike for one’s own child.

Love is in the Air

The show opens with the household in a flurry over the upcoming nuptials of Rose and Atticus. I had no idea what was happening for roughly the first twenty minutes, since the last we saw R & A they were ancillary to the real action, which took place at the last disastrous dinner party with Larry and Gary Merton. But here is Rose, suddenly taking center stage with a minimum of pre-wedding plot lines — stories which I fully expected to go on for years and years. So you can imagine my confusion (or maybe you don’t have to imagine it) when this episode opens with everyone running around the kitchen getting ready for a wedding. Whose wedding? I thought. But then I was distracted by the visual splendor of the elaborate wedding cake being made with great care by Daisy, who is not only a scholar, a budding farmer-socialist and a first-rate Undercook, but a sort of genius artist when it comes to sculpting roses made of icing. This particular cake is so special, it needs to be made over several days. It can only be crafted at Downton, where Mrs. Patmore and Daisy Undercook keep the family’s collection of giant cake pans, after which it will be transported down to London in an open-air motor car with limited shock absorbency, a hot, shaky, coal-smoke bellowing train for several hours, then another motor car, placed in the gentle hands of a taxi driver — watch the delicate icing roses, sir! — then hurried down to the bowels of the London house to clog up kitchen counter space for several more days in anticipation of a wedding reception, which will take place at some point in the future. The cake will taste like cardboard and the roses will have been crushed several times over, but at least it is there, on the table, towering over the proceedings like the 21st century anomaly it is. Continue reading

Downton Abbey, Season 5, Ep. 7: In Which Another Dinner Party is Ruined

You do realize that Mary is not even human, right?

“I’ve got an idea: how about we three keep walking and never go back there again.”

I watched this episode in the middle of a round of insomnia, sometime after midnight and before dawn, so my recollection of it might be mixed in with some thoughts I had while nodding off. If so, I apologize. One of my potentially imaginary impressions is that this episode was visually more interesting than most. It was less claustrophobic than they usually are; there seemed to be a lot more walking across the lawn and up and down stair cases and less sitting around on the couches. The scenes moved at a statelier pace, which was a welcome change from the usual leap from one mumbled conversation to another. Usually, I don’t even have time to get oriented visually before it’s off to another showdown between a couple of characters about what one of them overheard in the hallway.

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Wretched Excess: Downton Abbey

We all know a good thing when we see it. And we all know there can be too much of a good thing. Season 3 of Downton Abbey combines both axioms into a single sad thought: we knew Downton Abbey was a good thing when we saw it, and now there’s too much of it.

Last year it became apparent that, following the runaway success of Season 1 in 2011, the minds behind the series were a little flummoxed about where to go with the plot in Season 2. It was as if the fact that the audience for a show — a show produced by a public broadcasting entity — had exploded into the millions meant that the universe was now a topsy-turvy place and that the normal Masterpiece Theatre rules no longer applied. So the writers looked to their commercial brethren for inspiration, stuffing the series with tried-and-true tricks of the soap opera, sometimes combining three of these tricks into one character: amnesia, a paralyzed heir, a disfigured potential heir, an imposter of an heir, a few ludicrous marriages (including the last-minute deathbed wedding of two servants, complete with elaborate floral arrangements) a few convenient deaths, a few inconvenient love affairs, a near-miss love affair, battlefield heroics, battlefield cowardice, a murder trial and a missing dog.

This year I knew we were in trouble when Laura Linney, the host of Masterpiece Classic, delivered an introduction to Season 3 that went beyond her usual slow-paced, dimple-laden manner and entered into weird territory (even for her) when she referred to Downton Abbey as being “so addictive, it should practically be considered a controooolllled suuuubssstance”.

Say what? A drug reference in the introduction? The show hadn’t even started and I was already disoriented and painfully aware that watching it meant that I was part of some sort of pop culture phenomenon, like the Superbowl. Not exactly compelling to PBS viewers like me.

No series, no matter how fantastic, can live up to the sort of hype that has come to engulf Downton Abbey. And not only is Downton Abbey not that fantastic, it was never that fantastic. It was good enough, and certainly enjoyable from the start. I admit to watching it from the first minute it came on air a few years ago, as I specialize — like so many white middle class American ladies — in British period dramas. And to me, what makes a period drama compelling is the depiction of past lives in detail — the clothes, the houses, the interiors, the social structure. But what makes a period drama transcendent — one to return to again and again (and again…) is the story. The Story. And that, my friends, is where Downton Abbey seriously suffers. While making its viewers suffer along with it.

Laura Linney’s knowing introduction was followed by a show that gave us the rare sight of Shirley MacLaine — playing the role of the Crawley girls’ American grandmother — dressed as an aging flapper. When she descended from the horseless carriage and promptly launched into a string of bizarre insults toward her own, rarely seen grandchildren (in what apparently was an attempt to upstage the Dowager Countess) I knew the show had run its course. Because nothing about the way her character was written made any sense. In contrast, the Dowager Countess is never rude without subterfuge (and a reason), clearly loves her granddaughters and for heaven’s sake dresses her age. Still, we had to watch as Shirley MacLaine rambled around the house while continually being honest rude, all without a hint of wit to sharpen the boredom of her scenes. She must have referred to being modern, rich and American approximately one hundred times. At least it felt like one hundred. I don’t know about the rest of you people, but I don’t watch British dramas to see Americans traipsing around in the wrong clothes, condescending to broken-down aristocratic English families. The Crawley family couldn’t wait to see her (and her obnoxious lady’s maid) go home and neither could I.

The series continues with Episode 2, showcasing Our Dear Bates shuffling around prison, glowering at everyone and making us think that maybe he really did off his creep of a wife. He certainly looks capable of it. Sweet Anna is no longer paying attention to what is actually happening at Downton, instead running to and fro doing some amateur sleuthing. Edith is thwarted — then not thwarted!! — then thwarted. But wait! Oh nevermind, she’s still thwarted. Matthew is nearly overcome by his bizarre scruples. Mary speaks for all of us when she is at a loss to understand why in the world he won’t open the letter from Lavinia’s father. I have rarely felt more embarrassed for a male protagonist than when Matthew said he couldn’t read the letter “because the words would stay with him forever”. I think Matthew is in need of some serious therapy.  He managed to survive The Great War, temporary paralysis, the death of his betrothed and the news that his beloved found a Turkish diplomat dead in her virginal-ish bed, yet he is fearful that he will be haunted “forever” by a few words scribbled to him from a man he believes held him in false regard. What? Even Lavinia’s father, lying dead in the grave that Matthew — in such gentleman-like fashion — made sure he was honorably buried in, is shaking his head at Matthew’s stupidity. Just open the letter Matthew! Guess what? It will say that you are absolved of any guilt about the money, as Lavinia’s father knew that you had thrown her over when he made you one of his three heirs.

It turns out that’s what the letter did indeed say, more or less. Only it took Mary, the man of the family, to finally open it. THEN she had to race around below stairs looking for proof the letter was actually sent by Lavinia, asking the servants about who-did-what the day Lavinia died, because Matthew, before rolling over to his side of the bed in a huff after the letter’s contents were revealed, decided that it must have been forged by his husband wife. Yes, that’s it! She forged the letter that you refused to read to get you to stop refusing the inheritance that would save the Old Home Place. Oh Matthew. You don’t deserve Downton. And guess what again? In my ‘umble opinion, you aren’t going to get it, because one the other heirs — the one who supposedly disappeared in the wilds of India — will no doubt turn up to claim the fortune and deprive you of saving Downton yet again. I’m sure he will be disfigured (most likely from a tiger attack. Or perhaps from the excess consumption of chai) and it will take at least an episode to sort things out before he dies. Or marries Edith. Or dies before he can marry Edith.

Can you tell I’m bitter about Downton Abbey? I admit it. I’m bitter. A perfectly good enough period drama has been ruined by success. I’m going to keep watching Season 3 though, as at the very least I am deeply interested in what happens with the O’Brien vs. Thomas feud, which has me worried for everyone else in the house as these two randomly evil people fight to the death. And I want to be around to see if Matthew finds his manhood — with that wild-eyed Irish Republican brother-in-law around as an example, ready to engage in fisticuffs with everyone from Carson to Lady Sybil, he may have a chance at it. And I’m going to keep watching because, as we all know, the show is so addictive, it should be considered a controlled substance.