Downton Abbey, Season 4, Ep. 8: Skullduggery! Gumption! The Beach!

The last episode of Season 4 was extra long and extra beautiful, with scene after scene taking place in grand settings and everyone looking even more amazing than they usually look. After taking its sweet time with multiple, lengthy settee-based conversations and convoluted subplots involving pieces of paper, the show comes to a close with a final scene that was pretty darn touching, leaving us with the image of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, holding hands and wading into the ocean together. Just seeing Carson’s bare feet was worth the price of a PBS pledge drive alone.

I grimace because I care.

I grimace because I care.

Everything seemed sort of topsy-turvy in this episode, with characters coming out on top that have been flailing around until now or, in some cases, that we’ve never laid eyes on before now. Rose, Lord G., Lady G., Mosely, Harold & Madeleine, just to name a few. And this episode was epic, epic! because we saw the family’s London house for the first time. Wow. That is one beautiful, big house, even if the family members kept complaining about being in everyone else’s pocket, as the house only had six rooms per family member instead of the usual twenty. Stupid Mary claimed she would rather sleep on the roof than share a room with Edith. I was hoping a member of the staff would take her up on it and set up a bed for her there. And then gently sneak up on the roof in the middle of the night and nudge her over the edge while she was sleeping. (*cough*Bates*cough*)

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Downton Abbey: Breaking it Down, Season 4, Ep. 5

Downton Abbey consists of regular plot points revisited over and over, ebbing and flowing, but always, like the tide, returning. Plot points such as the Dowager Countess and Isobel’s sparring, Tom’s confusion over where he fits in, Mary’s confusion over whether she wants to have emotions, Thomas-es scheming to no avail and no clear purpose, Mrs. Hughes-es Chamber of Secrets, Lord Grantham’s generational and class angst, Carson’s generational and class angst, Lady Grantham’s low IQ, Molesley’s employment prospects, finding Edith a reason to stay alive, finding Rose opportunities to be immoral, finding Anna opportunities to be moral, finding Alfred a cooking job, finding Mrs. Patmore an electrical appliance, finding Baxter an electrical outlet (she loves that sewing machine!), finding Bates someone to kill.

Basically, watching this show is like staring at a carousel: the same horses go by over and over again, except every once in a while there’s a swan. Or an exotic animal. But other than that, it’s just the same horses going around and around.

Tom on a carousel Downton

Just a few of the many regular horses making the rounds:

Horse #1: Lady Grantham’s Commentary on the Painfully Obvious: “Oh Edith, you look so sad. Why are you sad?” Lady G., let us count the ways. First, there is the fact of her unfortunate appearance, which is not so much a matter of her features as a matter of the kicked-dog demeanor she trudges around with. Then, there is the fact that Matthew didn’t want to tour churches with her, the fact that Mary has never liked her, that her elderly neighbor jilted her once, then came back, then jilted her at the altar, humiliating her in a place chock full of every single person the family knows, then her sister died, then her remaining sister said that she would never, ever like her going forward, then her father was disappointed in her writing letters to newspaper editors feebly proclaiming that women are people too, then the editor to whom she has written a letter falls in love with her, but then it turns out that he’s already married to someone else, then he says he’s becoming a German citizen so that he can get a divorce and marry her so she thinks, great! I’ll go ahead and get pregnant by you. What can possibly go wrong? Then her new paramour disappears somewhere in the Fatherland, circa 1920-something — either he’s in a cabaret wearing eyeliner or he’s holed up with Hitler somewhere, ranting about awful modernism is and helping design the Nazi party logo, which are the two options in interwar-era Germany, according to History anyway — and now she’s stuck at Downton, with only a hard-hearted helmet-haired sister and an imbecilic cousin for company. (Tom’s never spoken a word to her as far as I can tell and Granny and Isobel aren’t fully aware she’s alive. No wonder her eyes are darting around the room like a cornered animal every time her father and mother try to have a conversation with her — which happened more times in this episode than in all the previous ones put together — Edith can’t believe they’ve actually noticed her and further, that they claim to care.) But Edith! Lady G wants to know, why are you so sad? What’s wrong?

Another one of Lady Grantham’s regular observations, usually made while lying in bed or wearing a dressing gown: “Poor Carson. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Do you think he’ll ever get used to living in the 20th century?”

No. For the hundredth time, No.

On another note, it was delightful to see Lady G out and about, if only at that “dreadful hotel”, and it was awfully nice of her to take up for Bates and Anna and participate in the farce that they were equals in order to embarrass the maitre d’. And Lady G showed amazing insight by recognizing that Bates and Anna seemed unhappy, weeks and weeks after everyone else had noticed. But at least she came to this realization at some point, so that felt like real character development.

Horse #2: Mary’s Grumpiness. Mary, with her stoney visage and aforementioned helmet hair seems like the oldest person on earth. Or, at the very least, older than her grandmother. And a whole lot grumpier. And being nice to one person in her life (Matthew, after years and years of being mean to him) does not make her likeable. Though there was that moment in the nursery this episode, where she and Tom and Isobel were sitting around telling boyfriend/girlfriend stories like 14-year-olds at summer camp and Mary gave that little speech about being all like, so, I think he’s going to propose? And I like, totally hope he will? and while she was talking she seemed so happy and young. Then Isobel and Tom each said their piece about being in love. It was a strange and not very believable moment, but very touching and lovely at the same time. Especially when Isobel says after a pause “Well…aren’t we the lucky ones”. Also, we saw the Nanny in this scene. Viewers, we are moving forward in the progression of the evidence for Nanny’s existence, from no mention of Nanny, to a mention of Nanny, to a glimpse of Nanny. The kids were missing in this episode, however, though we did have a long look at George’s empty highchair as Isobel sat in front of it during her heart-to-heart with Mary and Tom. (My favorite part of this episode. The heart-to-heart, not the empty highchair.)

The new setup of Grumpy Mary fighting with Napier’s boss (can’t remember his name) will provide lots of opportunities for her to grumpily nurse a secret crush on him while grumpily complaining about how hard the aristocracy has it these days while Lady G giggles in the background.

Exotic Animal: Thomas Barrow’s Scheming Comes to Nothing. Why is Thomas always so desperate to find out what is going on upstairs? He enlists lady’s maid after lady’s maid, hoping beyond all reasonable understanding that some juicy tidbit will come his way. I’m not sure what he is looking for, since nothing could top the most outrageously shocking incident all the way back in ’12, you know, that time Thomas was blackmailed into sneaking a Turkish Prince/diplomat into Mary’s room where he died in her bed? Before she dragged him across the house so that no one would find out? These days the news from upstairs is decidedly more tame. Baxter needs to just turn to Thomas and say, So you wanna know what’s going on upstairs, Thomas? I’ll tell you what’s going on upstairs: a big fat nothing. Nothing is going on up there. Unless you consider Lady G. reading a book while sitting on her window seat and me hemming yet another new dress on my sewing machine to be big news.

Maybe, in his desperation for action and excitement, Thomas is the viewers’ proxy. I’ve actually become sympathetic to Thomas’ go-nowhere hopes and dreams. Now that the door has slammed shut to Thomas being Lord G’s valet, O’Brien’s smoking buddy and Jimmy’s special friend, what is left for Thomas? Nothing. The theme of Downton Abbey.

Horse #3: Lord Grantham’s Emasculation. Not only are the ladies of Downton always telling Lord G what’s what, from throwing birthday parties to raising pigs to just who-it-is who will be traveling with him as his valet, now we find out that he is also being ordered around by his mother-in-law from thousands of miles away. She has summoned him to America to lend credibility to her no-good son, and Lord G. is dutifully boarding ship to steam over there and do her bidding. Lord G. needs to tell a few people to shove off, starting with Shirley MacLaine. (For all our sakes.)

Horse #4: The Dowager vs. Isobel Crawley. This regular plot point is at least entertaining, if repetitive, and now we have the doctor, Isobel’s toadie/sidekick, openly acting as referee. The viewers agree with the doctor’s call: game, set, match to the Dowager, every time. And that scene in this episode, the one at dinner, where the Dowager coolly assesses Isobel’s motivations provides amazing insight into why the Dowager always triumphs. Without the aid of degree in psychology or even a belief in the benefits of counseling, the Dowager completely dismantles Isobel’s self-righteousness, implying that it is possible for moral indignation to become a sort of vice, as it has for Isobel. As an aside, when the writing is this good, as it sometimes is, it makes me miss the show that Downton Abbey could be. If only every scene and plot line were as illuminated as this one.

Horse #5: Edith’s Failures. Already discussed. Already so numerous. Already dreading the failures to come.

Why Me?

Poor Edith. Dumbfounded again by life.

Horse #6: The Future of Downton. This recurring plot point is so boring, fraught as it is with tax bills and crop returns and soil nutrients and tenant truancy and clearing brush and mending fences and….so, so sleepy…must stop…listing problems with…the estate…before…I…fall…asleep…*snore*

Swan #1: Rose and Her Ways. Oh Rose. She is actually just an ugly duckling posing as a swan. Hopefully she makes just one quick turn around the Downton Abbey carousel before we have to watch another season with her character lurching from plot point to plot point. Quick, Lord G! Send that girl to India to join her parents! That way she can make out with a scantily-clad Dalit snake charmer and embarrass the family in Imperialist style. She and O’Brien would get along great.

Hmmm...which do I like better: dancing or jazz clubs or cranking the Victrola or kissing boys in alley ways or eating tiny little tea cakes with pink icing on top? A real dilemma...let me think...

Hmmm…which do I like better: dancing or jazz clubs or turning the crank on the Victrola or kissing boys in alley ways or eating tiny little tea cakes with pink icing on top? Hmmm…

Downton Abbey: When Bates Cried, We All Cried

A better episode, but the series will never be back to form. And I must accept this and move on with my life. Which includes the show, because I’ll keep watching until the last husband dies, the last engagement is broken and we figure out what is going on with Thomas and the new lady’s maid.

The Characters

Mr. Carson & Mr. Molesley. Mr. Carson. What a snob. But then, we knew that. And poor Molesley has done it again, managing to make the most of his downward mobility. Carson will never forgive him now. As an aside, I’ve noticed that Molesley and Gil Gundersen from The Simpsons have a lot in common; receding hairlines and a long string of employment woes are just a few of the ways in which they are alike. Each character turns up in an episode just long enough to get kicked around for a few minutes before slinking out a side door. And each character is a cartoon.

Ol' Gil from The Simpsons and Molesley from Downton Abbey: brothers with no mothers.
Ol’ Gil from The Simpsons and Molesley from Downton Abbey: brothers with no mothers.

Mrs. Hughes. She told Bates! Thank God, she told Bates! I’m not sure I could stand the tension of watching everyone suffer and Mrs. Hughes bite her lip, trying to figure out which secrets to keep and which ones to tell.

Bates-n-Anna. They hugged! When Anna cried talking to Bates, I cried too. And when Bates cried after he stepped out of the room, I cried even harder. Really, these actors deserve a lot of credit for ringing real pathos out of this melodrama. I was so happy they finally came together and reaffirmed their love that I hardly cared about the murderous gleam in Bates-es eye. Even the music playing ominously as he stomped away in spite of his limp couldn’t fully undermine my happiness. But I did observe that Mrs. Hughes looked genuinely frightened by Bates-es rage, which bodes ill. If Mrs. Hughes is scared, I should probably be scared too.

Lady Grantham. Lady G. had a big task this week: she had to inform Mrs. Patmore that a refrigerator is on its way. This job was so exhausting that she was unable to accomplish anything else. It was just too much for Lady G. to both inform Mrs. Patmore that, yes, it’s really true that times are changing AND decide whether or not to throw a birthday party for Robert. More on that birthday party in the next episode, after Lady G. has had a week to recover from her conversation with Mrs. Patmore.

Lord Grantham. Lord G. showed a bit more grit this week, even if it meant sneaking around to do it. But at least he followed his own conscience and paid a tenant’s debt while avoiding gambling with any of the family fortune, so things are looking up. And the prospect of Tom leaving for America actually had him pacing around in his dressing gown, nearly breaking a sweat. He seemed genuinely distressed, and it was very exciting to see him move at a relatively rapid pace.

Tom. Yay Tom! He actually remembered that he used to be a socialist! But oh no! Now he wants to run off to America to give his daughter a better life. He wants her to have a shot at being a real socialist, as he knows it’s too late for him now. The family has ruined him with their fancy expectations, all their demands that he wear scratchy-looking brown wool suits and work every day running the farm. I hope he doesn’t go, because I would miss him and the meandering quality he brings to his character nearly as much as Lord Grantham would.

The Dowager & Mrs. Crawley. These two are back in fighting form as the mourning period, which involved a lot of unnatural mutual admiration, has come to an end. The Doctor is once more meddling with Mrs. Crawley in the most boring way possible, giving her all sorts of stuff to do that involves taking up causes, like finding a job for Young Peg. And why is Mrs. Crawley so insistent that Young Peg (or whatever his name is) the Under-Gardener Plant Waterer is an upstanding fellow, the finest fellow in all of Yorkshire, the very best of England? She doesn’t know him from Adam and there she is in the Dowager’s living room/parlour/front room/sitting room demanding that he be hired in the name of all that is holy. Over the last several episodes I really enjoyed the break we had from the excesses of Mrs. Crawley, but I guess it’s business as usual now, and the Dowager will have to fend off Isobel’s goodness with her sharp tongue. Or maybe her walking stick, if it comes to that. Which we would all support. Maybe a good wack across the head would make Isobel wonder why it is that the doctor is always hanging around drinking tea and offering unsolicited advice.

Mary. Mary picked up her child this week and actually held him in her lap! There he was, Li’l George, propped up on Mary’s bony knees like a stuffed monkey while she looked like she was at yet another funeral. But at least she was there. For ten minutes anyway — all the time she had until the dinner gong sounded. And it was nice to see Mary breezing into the nursery like she’s actually familiar with the place, so she must be making regular visits, though the viewers wouldn’t know. Another fun discovery offered up in this scene: apparently there is an actual Nanny on the premises, though again, the viewers have no way to verify this. But someone must be taking care of those kids in between dinner gongs because they look hale and hearty, if a little stupefied. It was hard to believe that Sibby was actually playing “hurrakin” with her dad, or playing much of anything. Tom just made that up in an effort to avoid having a conversation with Mary about how awful and barren an English childhood is. In other Mary news, she smiled at Napier! Her face actually contorted into an expression of delight, which was delightful for all of us. Also, equally as surprising, she seemed thrilled at her father’s loan to the tenant, allowing him to stay on the farm. I don’t know what this is all adding up to, but the prospect of Mary being a decent human being is very exciting. Of course she still yelled at Edith, but being nice to Edith is apparently a bridge too far and more than we can ever expect from Mary, no matter how many times Napier comes to tea.

Edith. There’s really nothing to say here, except to acknowledge the disappointment and tragedy just over the horizon, and to wonder: why hasn’t anyone in the family figured out that what’s-his-name, her fella, is already married? Would such a thing have been a secret?

Rose. Rose who? Oh yes, that girl. The one who hangs around on the couch in the library and shows up at dinner every night. Rose’s assignment for this week’s episode was to repeatedly bring up the birthday plans for Lord G. which, it just so happens, she has a smashing idea for. I’m no soothsayer, but something tells me that this idea involves hiring a dance band. A dance band with a leader who croons like a little girl. Hiring this band will be of the utmost importance to Rose, and her birthday gift to Lord G. will be to keep him busy watching her act crazy at his party.

Jimmy-Daisy-Alfred-Ivy: Alfred didn’t make the cut in the French sous chef’s cooking competition (was anyone else surprised by how un-Gallic and un-terrorizing that chef was? I expected him to destroy Alfred and serve him up cold in a bowl of vichyssoise, but instead the chef asks him all sorts of sympathetic questions about his hopes and dreams, like a therapist). So Alfred heads back to Downton so that Daisy can stare longingly at the side of his face for years to come. And while he remains about a foot too tall for the kitchen, or anywhere in the house really, he is still the best cook and Daisy still cares but does Jimmy care for Ivy and what exactly does he have in mind for her and why is he such a boring villain? Is Jimmy even a villain?

Thomas and the new maid: Whoa. Finally, we have a story line that doesn’t fully foreshadow its own ending the way every other story line on this show does. Thomas is back to being the same crafty downstairs man we love to hate, but this time he’s playing the long game with an unknown quantity, the new Lady’s maid whose name escapes me. Where did she come from, exactly. In what way does she owe Thomas something? Will he be the puppet master he has strived to be for so long? And will Lady G. catch on that something’s amiss with this maid? We doubt it. The way to Lady G.’s heart is simple. Pour her some orange juice and pat her hairpins in place and she’s yours forever.

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.