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: Breaking it Down, Season 4, Episode 3

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In shock…this show is so awful…I can’t believe this…must contact my agent…surely my career can be salvaged…still in shock…nearly…comatose…

First, let’s just get this out of the way: this show is awful. Bad writing and a terrible plot have conspired to ruin what, during the first season anyway, was once a beacon of televised goodness across a crowded wasteland. But as every season brings new awfulness and I’ve lowered my expectations, I’ve learned to enjoy the Downton Abbey we have, not the one we want. And watching it is (slightly) less guilt-inducing than watching any of the Real Housewives, though many of the elements are the same: attractive vacant-eyed people throwing their money around in between arguments at dinnertime, unlikely love affairs and random stints in prison. But I do want to say that in spite of the atrociousness of DA: at least the actors are holding up their end of the bargain by trying to take this stuff seriously, so that’s worth something. And in the spirit of full disclosure: I plan on watching this thing until the show breathes its last, miserable gasp. Which might happen at any time, if the story lines are any indication.

The Characters:

Carson: We don’t want to hear about Alice anymore, unless it turns out she’s NOT dead and living in Yorkshire and ready to love again. And this time, she means business. The business of love.

Mrs. Hughes: Apparently the only one left with any semblance of good sense and decency, which is why nearly everyone runs into Mrs. Hughes room to share their problems. She should start charging a shilling for her services. Or a ha’penny. Or a sixpence (whatever — it’s all the same to me). And she should start sharing a few of those secrets too. Why did she have no problem digging Mr. Carson’s personal correspondence out of the trash a few episodes ago “for his own good” but can’t find her way clear to inform Lord G that his guest, the other Lord G, has an animal for a valet? Strange priorities. Someone should be sounding the alarm (discreetly, by tinkling one of those little bells) that a violent rapist has entered the house. When discussing this troubling matter with my sister, she mentioned that what is the point of the class system, really, if two aristocrats can’t rain all kinds of special aristocratic justice down on a valet for raping and beating someone right in one of those giant houses they claim to be in charge of? Do the police even need to be brought into it? At least Mrs. Hughes got rid of Braithwaite, though that’s no doubt not the last we’ll see of her. And why doesn’t Hughes enlighten that dimbulb Lady Grantham about Braithwaite’s character? She wouldn’t have to go into details. Just something like, “Trust me Lady G, Braithwaite is a terrible, terrible person and you’re lucky to be rid of her.”

Lord Grantham: Pathetic, out-of-touch and irrelevant. Why is he still around? I forget. Oh yes, so Mary has someone to undermine and Bates has someone to help get dressed.

Lady Grantham: Slightly less pathetic. Very slightly. And why does she talk as though she is holding a grape between her lips? At least she got rid of that awful Nanny a few episodes ago. You know, the Nanny for the children. But I’m afraid she might have accidentally gotten rid of the children too, since none of us have seen them since Nanny left. Someone might want to track down little Sybil and little George…

Tom: Oh Tom. Tom spent the entire house party, which seemed to go on forever, moping around for no clear reason, his big Eyeore eyes so, so sad. Even though he said, again and again and again, that he just didn’t fit in, it was hard to find a cause for the level of his despair, because not a single soul there drew attention to his newly-acquired status. As far as I could tell all the guests treated him well and he used all the right forks at dinner. It would have made more sense if he expressed unease for political reasons, because he’s clearly left his activism far behind him. How exciting would it have been if an Irish separatist had dashed into the after-dinner-cigar-and-brandy-room, shaking his fist in Tom’s face and accusing him of betraying the cause? If in the ensuing melee a brandy snifter was knocked out of Lord Grantham’s puffy hands and the business end of his cigar burned a hole the carpet? But nothing even remotely like this happened. Instead, Tom was just so super down in the dumps because, in his now highly developed social sensitivity, he just couldn’t believe that he called so-and-so Your Grace instead of Duchess. It was enough to send him into a tailspin. Enough to make him question everything he had ever thought about himself. About his own abilities. About who he was. Tom sat on the bench in the hallway in a self-imposed time out, thinking about how stupid he was and wishing that he would have just rented the dinner clothes instead of buying them. It was now all so clear: he would never wear them again. What a waste of a pound and sixpence. Or two pounds and a shilling. Or a shilling and a ha’penny. Then Brathewaite comes in swirling whiskey around, as transparent as water and Tom is so distraught at making a fool of himself in front of exactly no one (how could he not KNOW that Your Grace should have been referred to as Duchess? How could he not KNOW that?!). He is putty in Braithwaite’s hands. Or so we are left to surmise. As far as Braithwaite goes, her strategy with Tom has me suspecting that she was a lot less clever than we had been led to believe. What woman would consider it a Master Plan to ply a man with whiskey to the point of incapacitation before demanding, just a few hours into the next morning, that he marry her? He’s not even sure what happened between you. That is not exactly a successful seduction. And the answer is: no woman, that’s who. That is just a dumb plan and it would never, ever work.

Lord Gillingham: Another dimbulb who has an animal for a valet and demands that a widow of six months commit to marry him. Right now. Or it will be too late. Oh, she doesn’t have to marry him right now, he will wait a decade for that, no problem. She just has to swear to marry him at some point. Right now. Swear right now, on the spot, to marry him in the distant future. Sorry Mary, you lost your chance at happiness with that gem. But we viewers are not worried, if the past is any indication, Ms. Finch-Fox-Ardegarde-Castleberry, his intended, will die of the flu, or just from general malaise at not being the love of Lord Gillingham’s life (why on earth is Mary repeatedly the object of such devotion?) approximately 15 minutes to eight hours before their wedding day, and you will have a second chance at love with Lord G, the Younger.

Anna & Bates: Nothing to see here folks, except a train wreck. And for no reason other than the show writer’s malicious desire to undermine the happiness of his characters. Much weeping and gnashing of teeth are coming our way, and someone’s gonna pay.

Edith: Watch out, Edith! Your man is becoming a German citizen (for the sake of your love, cough cough) in the 1920s!  Your fellow may lose the baggage of his first wife in the process, but he will gain a dictator and a fervent belief in National Socialism, so all will not be lost.

Rose: Rose? Who is that? What? Oh that’s right. She’s a character on the show. And she might be breaking all sorts of taboos by falling in love with a fella who sings like a tiny girl. Is he black? I didn’t notice. Too busy wondering why in the world he was singing like a tiny girl.

Alfred-Ivy-Jimmy-Daisy: Hopefully Alfred will learn to cook and so will Ivy and so will Daisy. I can’t wait to find out which one will learn to cook the best! Then they will all have a cooking competition and Jimmy can marry the winner. Mrs. Padmore will be the Judge. If she doesn’t die of the pressure of being a Kitchen Maid Footman Cook-off Judge first.

Thomas: Thomas is looking better and better these days. I hope Lord Grantham secretly adopts him and that he (surprise!) inherits the estate after Lord G. kicks the bucket. He can open up Thomas Barrow’s Retirement Home for Disaffected Former & Preferably Gay Valets. There’s plenty of room at the Abbey!

That’s all folks, until next week: Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 5! And I can’t wait.

TRHdownton