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Archive for the ‘Edwardian drama’ Category

Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings …

for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace …

as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats. — Stefan Zweig, as translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, in Mary Queen of Scots (1935)

Hotel
This image is in the movie

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Welcoming the guests

Dear friends and readers,

I’m at a loss as to why or how Wes Anderson claims the connection of this and his group of film-makers’ The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Zweig the movie is so unlike what I’ve read by Zweig (and not only in his Mary Queen of Scots). Anderson has been responsible for the publication of a group of selected works by Zweig titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, and a fair reading shows the same unironic, deeply immersed reverie-voice of Mary Queen of Scots, this time lightened so as to tell the tale of his parents, childhood, and two stories, from one of which, the art-house film, woman-centered, epistolary, all over-voice, Max Ophuls’s The Letter from an Unknown Woman was made (see my Significant Women’s Films).

The Grand Budapest Hotel, featuring Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, concierge of said hotel, is a surreal tongue-in-cheek controlled caricature of other films of the upstairs/downstairs type from Downton Abbey (clearly in mind by its focus on a butler and ostentatious Edwardian feel inside the hotel) to the Grand Hotel (by Vicki Baum, adapted in 1929), to horror films, with an assassin who is a Frankenstein (Boris Karloff has not been forgotten) as brutal murderer. We rush through (as part of a long comic chase) scenes an archetypal museum — shown as basically a boring mausoleum that crowds are found in, why hard to say. We see armed groups at checkpoints at borders of countries with machine guns waiting for others in trains.

Checkpoint
A checkpoint

Have you got your papers? No! off the train with you — and death awaits. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (scripted by Pinter) in its simulation of scenes from everyday life characterized by impersonality, absurd demands from people at desks, convenience stores, uniforms.

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On the elevator

It is filled with bizarre images of our own society, from over militarized terrifyingly armed, masked police, to miserable prisons and prisoners, to half-crazed people starving, to rich people over-catered to at dinners, in lobbies, trains, suddenly on a carousel,

Carousel

and especially spectacularly a funeral for a grotesquely dried-up old super-rich lady, Madame D. (Tilda Swindon) that M Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) catered to, and was a lover of, as he is of everyone who wants him he says (generous man cannot keep anything to himself); a funeral, I say, where greedy relatives are led by a half-crazed would-be heir (Adrian Brody) who wants to murder M Gustave because the old woman left everything, and especially a picture, to M. Gustave. The picture is a caricature of admired art today (cartoon-like figures, mindless, with an apple — think Francis Bacon).

Images, stylized shots, sudden frozen or slow-moving stills whatever you want to call them are what the film has to offer at its best.

Görlitz
An inside shot

The way these are offered is this: We begin in a graveyard — young girl comes to Zweig’s gravestone (is it? — not sure) and finds many keys attached to the stone, and attaches one herself. She sits to read and we hear talking an over-voice of the bell boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), now grown old and owner of Grand Budapest. He takes us back to time to him as a middle-aged man by a young boy in a train station (I’m not sure which he is) and then back we go in time further to the height of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s life as a place for rich people to come on holiday to. But if you were expecting a sort of Gosford Park with an Agatha Christie flavor (I was), that’s not it at all: instead we get a browned kind of coloring film narrative so we feel we are in a past, and narrative over-voice (still Zero is talking) that presents to us all the types in the hotel, very tongue-in-cheek and slowly, stylized gestures, everyone moving in time with parallel gestures. Finally we meet, M Gustave, concierge, and watch him take up Zero. Then switch to Zero grown older as our narrator and he is sitting down with another guest — most guests sit alone – and proceeds to tell the story — and all drops away to reveal …

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People at work, scurrying about

The movie has problems — like most reviewers have said. First it has little story — once it’s established the Zero inherited the hotel and its in desuetude there’s nothing much to present. It does make fun of how people are often socially dysfunctional when they kid themselves they are socializing. Everyone eats alone. Zero does fall in love with a girl on the staff (there is a staff who we glimpse every so often eating downstairs in a corridor at a long table): such as it is, it’s a chase, with the old lady’s heir seeking to murder Gustave and his sidekick, Zero, and snatch back the picture. Agatha is Zero’s beloved’s name (honoring Christie), played by Saorise Ronan who trots about with the priceless (awful) picture; she is a stereotype of good cautious girl (good girl messages everywhere), bringing with her the baggage of awfulness (difficult, she’s difficult) from Hampton, Wright and McEwan’s Atonement where she played an adolescent girl who falsely claimed rape and of course ruined the lives of a beloved hero and heroine (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy).

Cook
Cooking downstairs to serve the people who count

Yes there is much anti-feminism if you call it anti-feminism to present mocking depictions of lecherous old women straight — not much tongue-in-cheek at all. The jealousy among the males for both the old woman and the young is not one of the areas the movie sends up. So male novels deriving from sexual anxiety are sympathized with.

The film is enlivened by appearances of famous stars — the friends of Fiennes? or Anderson? Bill Murray, Jude Law, William Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson (as “the author”). Each delivers a virtuoso moment. As will be seen it’s your usual movie: mostly males with the token two women.

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Personnages

What keeps it going is a long chase. Essentially it’s a stunt-movie. Fiennes and Revolori (and their stunt-men) performs feats of comic derring-do and miraculous escapes from prisons, down manholes, across snow-covered Alpine landscapes. Intertitles giving us chapter headings help things along.

Flight
Flight

It’s funny — I laughed at witty jokes now and again. We learn the world is a vast place made safe for the rich because they can make the right phone call to the right person who can send a luxury cab to pick you up anywhere you want — in the nick of time. Bob Balakan as M. Martin (head of everything) is hilarious at this. But it’s a game without meaning, put there for the Poloniuses of the audience, who need a jig or they sleep (the uttered jokes are not of the self-reflexive type I remember Ronald Colman uttering in Prisoner of Zenda) .

Prison

You could leave the movie not aware it is through the images a silent satire of our political world where 1% own everything worth while and bully and brutalize and terrorize everyone else — though surely you’d have to be dull to miss it. The alienation is conveyed mostly through Fiennes’s inimitable sudden moments of inquiring gentle candor or (conversely) wild savage cursing where suddenly he is human. I am not sure it does not reinforce favorite myths as the story-line may be said to be about how M. Gustave teaches Zero to take control by self-control amid mad antics (reminding me of Breaking Bad) and then we watch him hand this world over to Zero who however did not live happily ever after since Gustave died young as did Agatha.

It was playing in a huge theater near me which has 22 auditoriums, most of them playing utter trash films, junk, popular action-adventure, Disney whatevers the sort of thing I cannot get my mind to listen to to process. Grand Budapest Hotel was in theater 22 — way up on top, a small auditorium. I’ve no doubt it was there because Fiennes is a box office draw. There were quite a number of people in the auditorium given the size of the space — and we were subjected to 15 previews and loud obnoxious endless feeds of commercials. I did walk out to sit in the corridor until the movie started as the pre-movie stuff had the effect of making me so jarred and nervous I would not have time to calm down before the movie started. Somehow this real framing of the movie was fitting.

That I had to walk to get there (I’m policed by invisible computers which could flash light through my suspended license tags) through sidewalks not meant for pedestrians, fell twice, was fitting too. I wish the mood had been bitterer — Zweig’s stories are sometimes desperately suicidal.

Ellen

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Mr Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in final shots of the season

Shot of older man’s bare feet in water
Mrs Hughes: ‘Come on, I dare ya.’
Mr Carson: ‘If I get my trousers wet … ‘
She: ‘If you get them wet, we’ll dry them …’
He: ‘Suppose I get them wet …’
She: “Suppose a bomb goes off, suppose you get hit by a falling star — you can hold my hand then we’ll go in together …’
He: ‘I think I will hold your hand, it’ll make me feel a bit steady … ‘
She: ‘You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady …’
He: ‘I don’t know how but you manage to make that sound a little risqué …’
Hands held out, and grasping. She laughs good-naturedly …
She: ‘And if it did, we’re getting on Mr Carson, you and I, we can afford to live a little …
Medium-length shots of them going wading in together from the back …

EdithDrew
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) let know by Tim Drew [Andrew Scarborough] he knews who’s this little girl is and will take full responsibility for the needed lies:

Drew: ‘I tell you what I think? It should be our secret, milady, our secret ours and no one else’s. I’ll … uh… send a letter to myself and tell Margie [his wife] it’s from an old friend of mine that’s died who asked for me to take the child. She won’t question it; then nobody but you and I will know … ‘
Edith: Mr Drew, would you do that for me …’
He: ‘For you and the little girl milady yes …
She: ‘How comforting it is that there are a few good people left in the world’ –

Dear friends and readers,

Of the four codas thus far this was the weakest yet had the most beautiful moments and witty dialogues. I too thought of the marvelous song, “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, you and I, you and I oh how happy we’ll be …” and felt the Granthams really ought to get themselves more than one tenant as they have done so well in choosing this nobly hard-working one.

The weaknesses are serious. The central idea of the episode was to make us rejoice in Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James’s) debut in society, her presentation to the king, queen, prince, whose Edmund Burke-like meaning enunciated by none other than our most faithful liberal, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton):

‘It came to me that these balls and presentations and comings out are not aristocratic folderol, but the traditions by which members of this family mark their progress through life … ‘

Thus that Rose carries on being unbelievable in her child-like behavior, depicted shallowly when she is told something real about life — as when her friend, Madeleine Allsop (Poppy Drayton) hints to Rose that Madeleine’s father, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) is a debauched roué on the scent for money — and she giggles, astonished someone could be this way, just doesn’t cut it for the needed gravitas.

Except when for a short time Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) showed depth of feeling as a mother, grieved bitterly over her daughter’s death (and rightly) implicated her husband as at major fault, this second key character reveals a Fellowes’s lack of engagement with her. She really shows an astonishing lack of curiosity or insight into Edith’s long disappearance. It’s not believable — Fellowes can’t be bothered because making her understood would involved a deeply conflicted story. Cora has also shown no anger when her self-proclaimed “monarchist” husband lost all her money; this way Fellowes could have her do nothing herself about it: had it not been for that money, the Abbey would have been lost decades ago; mis-invested since by this same husband in railways, it was Matthew’s unexpected inheritance from Lavinia’s father (which we are reminded of in this finale) which has kept the building as shelter for a luxurious leisured way of life for the Crawleys. None of which Cora appears to register.

Fellowes wants us to believe her effective; her realm is making parties (luncheons, charity picnics, balls) so structurally necessary for the mini-series; no wonder everyone over-congratulates her upon these — But without the really able Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) Cora would not succeed at all — and in this episode we are shown that the real strength Cora depends upon is the unacknowledged Daisy (Sophie McShea), the power and great cook enabling Mrs Patmore, who, as she tells her fleeting suitor, Mr Levinson’s valet, Ethan Slade (Michael Benz) is “never excited.”

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is not much better. He really believes Bates (Brendon Coyle) when Bates says he has (implied) another man ready to forge what’s needed. He somewhat hysterically blames the Crawley family for a near scandal involving the Prince of Wales, and stage-manages an ill-thought out attempt to steal back a love letter from Sampson by gaining access to Sampson’s room and ransacking it. As Bates tells ‘milord,’ if he were to have a precious document, he would not leave it about, but keep it close to him on his person, say his overcoat. We know Bates did just that with his train ticket to London, though why he kept it in the overcoat one minute longer than he needed to is a mystery of the same type as why Lady Grantham does not see immediately that Edith is going to Switzerland where ‘there are good hospitals’ to have a baby. Grantham also never suspects Edith, no matter how guiltily she talks in front of him (“Just remember I would never do anything to hurt you”).

As benignity is the tune that Lady Grantham’s effectiveness plays, so it is Lord Grantham’s tune, but that need not preclude giving them some cunning. Fellowes is again not engaging deeply enough with his character. The initial mistake was not to show that a lord of such a minor would be necessarily be a local politician to some extent, his house kept up as a linchpin of county networking — as are all Trollope’s comparable figures no matter how asocial they might be by nature (a number are) and Fellowes knows his Trollope novels very well. The ironic telling reason for their hollowness is Fellowes wants to justify such people: the “toffs” are not, as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) tells Blake (Julian Overden), the villains of the world.

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At the gallery

Fellowes’s way of convincing us of this is to make them seem powerless.

And pace Edith’s words to Drew, this coda of a fourth season has a preponderance of good people left in the world: I counted three bad: Mr Green (Nigel Harman), rapist willing to strike again (not to worry, done away with); Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) whose spite, bitter resentment, bad-mouth snitching hardly has an objective correlative in his supposed insecurity; Terence Sampson (Patrick Alexander) who in this episode adds theft and intended blackmail to his card-cheating abilities.

Also number of weak or ill-advised, most notably in this episode, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) trying to marry Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) as an exchange of money and title; Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) a kind of minor devil version of Barrow (“Thank you, Wat Tyler” says Mr Carson to him at one point); the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) played by Oliver Dimsdale as far feebler than he was

Dimsdale
Grinning when he thinks of Rose’s father, “Shrimpy” (stuck in the heat of India, another helpless aristocrat)

Then there’s that bad-advice giver, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) who pressures Edith to give up her baby but clearly loves her (has spent months with her on the continent, watching her give birth, breast-feed her baby, wean it) and thinks she has done what’s best for all:

RosamundEdith
Rosamund appealing emotionally to her niece:

‘This is for the best if you’ll only keep silent; there’ll be other loves other children. Don’t cheat yourself of that I beg you … [you think] I don’t know then, trust me because I do …’

What saves the coda — and the series too — is the actual writing, the concision and suggestiveness of all the dialogues (which I quote from liberally here to demonstrate) and that all the rest of the characters are seen in depth, are well-meaning, reach out to one another, are not self-reliantly effective (win out) while in pain themselves.

To be “kind,” Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) informs Barrow Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) is to have “the advantage.” The series of scenes where the sensitive and intelligent Molseley protects Miss Baxter from Thomas includes this from Molslely:

I don’t know what Mr Barrow’s got over you and I don’t want to know; but you must’t let him do things that aren’t right, and you can’t let him bully you. That’s easy to say I know but if he draws you into his scehemes, that’s not going to be easy for you either. Sometimes it’s better to take a risk than go down the wrong path, that’s all

He’s already told her to trust to the views others are gaining of her: though viewer knows that Mrs Hughes is onto Miss Baxter’s over alert presence, Miss Baxter has betrayed no one. In their final moments as Molseley replaces Barrow by her side:

MissBaxterMolseley,

her words are:

Miss B: ‘I have to thank you, Mr Molseley.
Mr M: ‘Oh why’s that?”
She: ‘There are things in my past that made me afraid, but I’m not afraid any more. I’m not sure what will happen, but whatever it is, it’s better than being afraid. You’ve made m strong. Mr Molsley. Your strength has made me strong
He: ‘My what?’
She smiles

The parallel is to Edith who now has things in her past but by the end of the season is learning not to be afraid. Allen Leech as Tom Bransom almost retrieves his character. He is one of several characters who declare they are not ball-going, dancing types and declare at first they will not go to Lady Grantham’s ball after Rose’s presentation.

Tom is still exhibiting awkwardness and lack of confidence and self-esteem he has shown throughout this season, not least when he shows it’s the affection these people have shown to him that he has lapped up (of the museum-like library he says: ‘No it’s nice when everyone’s here and the fire’s going …’), especially with the schoolteacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) whom he likes, partly because she is as wry and disillusioned as he once professed himself (He to Lord Grantham: ‘We all live in a harsh world, but at least I know I do’): high on the balcony looking at the engraved designs for the family, she asks where Cora’s is and if it’s a dollar sign.

But like Molseley, he gives in and comes to London, even goes to the ball, and at the right moment he turns to a woman near him who he knows is herself in need of support and encourages Edith (the episode began with them walking and talking together). Edith has watched him dance with Lady Violet, the Dowager (Maggie Smith) after the Dowager had finally told him ‘These are your people; this is your family now,’ and he had said, ‘This may be my family, but not quite my people, and asked her to dance.

EdithandTom

Edith to Tom: ‘So did you enjoy it after all …
Tom: I enjoyed it fine, but we need to stand up to them, you and I. We may love them, but if we don’t fight our corner, they’ll roll us out flat
Edith: ‘You’re right, thank you for that …’

Edith then marches off to tell her obtuse mother she needs to take a trip to the continent, and her Aunt Rosamund that Rosamund cannot go for her. She brings her baby home. (One wonders if Tom knows …)

So in this coda the patriarchy is alive and sufficiently well that even less than respected strong males give important support and delight to strong but dependentconventional females. The scenes between Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) who is continually after Isobel to come to the ball, and when last seen is dancing with her are touching. He is bringing her out of her widowhood as surely as Rhett Butler once did Scarlett O’Hara:

IsobelMerton

Daisy refuses the indirect marriage proposal of Mr Levinson’s valet (he disguises it through persuading his boss to hire the English cook whose food has shattered Mr Levinson’s assumptions that all English cooking is inedible, but as she tells Mrs Patmore, ‘I’m that chuffed it’ll take me through to next summer,’ and for once is not jealous of Ivy but glad to see Ivy have her chance by asking if she might replace Daisy and go to America.

MotherDaughterpair

A mother-daughter pair will return for another season …

The most interesting of these alert complex males are Mr Bates and Mr Levinson — Paul Giamatti is magnificent as the uneasy uncomfortable Mr Levinson attracted to Aysgarth’s daughter. Their several gradually less awkward dialogues where she takes as an insult his open frank (meant to be American) cynicism about her and his motives are worth some study showing Fellowes’s subtlety when engaged with his characters and issues their clash of personalities bring out. This is a pair I hope is brought back next season as she has told him she will demand a commitment the kind of girl he has hitherto taken aboard his yacht did not:

LevinsonMadeleine

In an interview after the airing of this London season, Fellowes offered some insight into why Bates rivets us to the end:

So many women have had to conceal things that have happened to them, because if they reveal them, they went down, too. It was very important that it should be completely clear that it is not the victim’s fault at all. This was a chance to make the argument for the innocent rape victim who has done nothing to deserve it. And Anna, as either the most sympathetic character or certainly one of them, the audience could immediately grasp, she had done nothing to deserve to this. There is no sharing of guilt, no blurring of the edges of responsibility. Also, it created this mammoth thing that she and Bates had to get through, and Bates’s response is that he doesn’t love her less. He says himself, if anything he loves her more. What it has of course awakened is the kraken of rage in his belly.

Yes that’s it – and we’ve seen that deep rage against the order of the world, its injustices peep out here and there all along with evidence of sudden outbreaks over the “years” the show covers, from the time he invited Lord Crowborough (Charlie Fox) to search his drawers and room (Season 1, Episode 1), threatened Thomas at the throat (Episode 2) onto the clever doing away of Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy), manipulating her reputation for spite into an apparent act of suicide, and his survival in prison. It’s he whose skill in forgery and pickpocketing saves the Prince of Wales (who of course thanks the wrong set of people as they run the ball). Bates knows part of his survival and thriving depends on his not being thanked — on his taking no credit. When his rage is stilled, he lives with what the world has allowed him:

BatesAnna

And in Downton Abbey terms, it’s not a little. Anna has been our real heroine for four years now, from the time she took a hot meal up to Mr Bates when he was about to be fired because too many of the other servants and the Crawleys could not flex for a disabled man, to when she married and bedded him in one quiet day and night to now when she is determined to protect him more than herself from all that Mr Green could do or cause to happen.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is a cold performer in comparison. ‘Let the battle commence’ is the way once she learns that he is an aristocrat like she, she invites one of her men, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden)] to woo her and win her over another, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), a childhood sweetheart. Her ‘destiny’ is to save Downton Abbey for little George. Oh spare me.

Princess (1)
The princess leaves the set

I admit to being unable to see any act of hers as magnanimous (as I gather we are supposed to see her burning Bates’s London ticket that Mrs Hughes gives up to her); Blake’s first view of her is the more accurate: too privileged to understand her vulnerable humanity. Matthew never taught her that lesson either.

Princess (2)

The real question of that scene for me is why did Mrs Hughes give Lady Mary a chance to turn Bates in, as she, Mrs Hughes, has said all along he did the right thing. Fellowes leaves ambiguous whether Bates did murder Green; after all, as Mrs Hughes says to Lady Mary, we have no idea where Bates went when he was in London. I suggest Mrs Hughes’s ambivalent behavior was Fellowes’s way of making his program look law-abiding, respectful of civilized methods. In both Anna and Mr Bates’s story we have one of Downton Abbey’s serious forays — as is Sybil’s death in childbirth — into sexual experiences in life for real.

I have not done justice to the sets or photography of places — which as in the codas of the other seasons had some interest.

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The picnic by the Victoria and Albert Monument cost them a pretty penny

Nor some of the wry dialogues between Mrs Levinson (Shirley Maclaine) and the Dowager (who can put the other down more), the Dowager’s self-reflexive comments on the hour (she has “spent the evening in a who-dun-it”) or between Mrs Levinson and Lords Aysgarth as she dismisses his hunt for money through her — he seems never to realize that when she dies, it will go to her son. One of the best was that between Violet and Isobel setting off for London:

DuchessandMrsCrawley

Duchess: ‘I know I’m late, but it couldn’t be helped. Cora insisted I come without a maid. I can’t believe she understood the implications
Mrs Crawley: ‘Well and they are? …’
Duchess: ‘How do we get a guard to take my luggage and when we get to London? What happens then?’
Mrs C: ‘Fear not. I’ve never traveled with a maid you can share my knowledge of the jungle.’
Duchess: ‘Can’t you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?
Mrs C: ‘And must you always sound like the sister of Marie Antoinette?’
Duchess: ‘The queen of Naples was a stalwart figure. I take it as a compliment.’
Mrs C: ‘You take everything as a compliment.’
Duchess: ‘I advise you to do the same it saves many an awkward moment’

What I enjoyed most were the home-scape scenes (so to speak), the characters who were given depth and in numbers of their scenes, the beauty of integrity, which brings me back to the close and Mrs Hughes who for another season played the role of the insightful woman quietly working to achieve a sensible compromise.

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Mrs Hughes pinning up a postcard picture of the beach alongside Mr Carson’s other materials on the servants’ bulletin board

I have not really explained why I forgive this mini-series so much — next time, when I write of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

Ellen

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The writer and cast of Breaking Bad (HBO, 2008-13)

Dear friends and readers,

As I’m six years late for this Breaking Bad (a regional southern Virginia phrase meaning “raising hell” — male macho reveling?), having just watched the first three episodes of the first season a year after the fifth and final season of 16 episodes in 2014 brought this mini-series to an end; I see nothing wrong in photos of writer, cast, director, whoever is connected to the film as a frame for an opening blog on the first 3 of 7 episodes of the first season. Belated as this will be, as I proceed through the series my remarks may perhaps some interest as I am not going to go for awed wild screams of praise (such as I find everywhere on various sites).

I was absorbed by the opening three episodes; I recognize, appreciate, respond to quality TV when I see it: high production values, intelligently naturalistic script, verisimilitude and local accuracy in the small things (just like in costume drama), subtle intelligent acting, cinema like camera work, the latest things in film are there. As important, this series has become a sociological event: enormous numbers of people have watched and talked of it and praised it too. So it’s worth it to watch and try to think about the first and second season, and at least begin the third, which I may stop at, as (from the descriptions) the episodes become wildly physically as well as deeply emotionally violent. No need for recaps (see thorough retelling on wikipedia).

The motivating cause is quietly intensely significant as the cancer epidemic (and all the horrors in pain and humiliation that cancer brings) is known everywhere even if the news media stalwartly will not bring it out in the discussably open. Equally misery-producing are the extravagantly exploitative charges people are pressured to pay for medicine; and while in the last year it seems there will be a respite through the Affordable Care Act, the medical establishment, drug industry, corporate industrialism (protecting its right to pollute the environment if their huge profits call for it) are going to keep costs as high as they can. So Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his forties is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and has not sufficient insurance to pay for treatments, much less leave his family, which includes Walter Jr (R.J. Mitte)a son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr, and Scyler (Anna Gunn) a pregnant wife with any assets to getting on in a hard world with.

A many year under-appreciated chemistry high school teacher, White decides to make money by making and selling drugs (meth is the going abbreviation).

breaking-badCranston

As can be seen in this early shot of him after an initial disaster has landed him in the desert, he is a Casper Milquetoast type who quickly finds himself in over his head in trying to cope with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), an ignorant, coarse, ruthless self-destructive, stupid ex-student of his become drug addict and seller himself and the drug dealers to whom they mean to sell their product. Jesse fails to understand that chemistry knowledge tells truths about products and a plastic container of the type White wanted Jesse to buy could have been used to dissolve a corpse while his home bathtub dissolves along with said corpse, its flesh, blood, waters.

Breaking-BadJesse

Scyler has refused to (paraphrasing Walter) “get off his ass,” and her talk has led her nosy sister, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) to think Scyler’s son is smoking marijuana; when Scyler sees her hitherto mild-mannered husband whose idea of a joy happiness seems to be a surprise birthday party given him by his family, has not come home for several nights in a row, she jumps to the conclusion he is smoking marijuana. She enlists her brutal brother-in-law, cop, DEA, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). She immediately (no shriving time allowed) threatens to leave Walter.

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As the worrying wife

Meanwhile out of fear and casting aside his better impulses to save an articulate sympathetic sensible sounding drug-seller, White strangles a second drug dealer. After he disposes of the body far more efficiently than Jesse did, he returns home to tell his now suspicious wife that he has lung cancer and what he is going to do about it.

End of half of season 1.

Why is the reader not asking, is this not perverse? The last thing the action swings around is Walt’s cancer; the only person he tells is the man he strangles whose calm sensible mind immediately sees the connection between this dread disease, money and meths. We have but the briefest scene of diagnosis — an in ambulance which takes Walt form his part-time second job in a garage where he fell suddenly to the hospital, from which Walt goes home as quickly (spending as little) as he possibly can.

This film is enacting (as its title suggests) the inward and outward violence of US life as continually acted out by aggressive and desperate males. It’s not (as yet) Quentin Tarintino stuff, but the violence of real life. The violence is of the implicit bullying sort, and also close to the surface, it’s easy to bring it to the fore and make people act on it; a kind of continual abrasive atmosphere exists. Just that menace from men of a certain kind all the time and not far from the surface. Women in the US too. Yes it is obviously an implicit inditement of US society: we see how little teachers are valued, how little they are paid. Mr White is devoting his life to a subject he loves and knows a lot about, and the irony is for the first time he is turning it to account — cooking meths ever so expertly.

The violence is sexual — our Casper Milquetoast is not just a virile male from the get-go (pregnant wife) the first episode ended with him buggering his pregnant wife and her enjoying it. Take it from me, it hurts backwards, a lot. Her birthday present to him is to lay beside him in bed, he at rest, doing nothing, while she jerks him off under the covers (while browsing the internet). The voice-over commentary on the DVD of the first season is mostly frivolous, but here and there are some revealing features: the men all laugh at the actresses’s acquiescence in the sexy enacted on the screen. As I remarked, the wife’s snitching and pressure tactics makes the point that wives are a pain in the butt; her wrong guesses show her naive ideas about what drugs people take.

The series is racist — perhaps consciously so. Walter White is Mr White, the white man. Jesse Pinkman, he’s pink, the flesh-colored crayon in a child’s crayon box in the 1950s. The drug dealers are of course dark-skinned, eyed, Spanish speaking. The racism never goes away. The series takes place in New Mexico; across the border are these Mexicans who are animal-like. All are struggling for power and the whites have the big advantage.

It’s continually funny at times too. House of Cards has humor too, but it’s witty, sardonic lines, ironical speeches. Breaking Bad is more in the mode of the action coming near to be clown like — a weird black optimistic even sort of humor — as the two men work hard to haul a dissolving body through a broken ceiling, or they stumble and fall over the filth they create. Aaron Paul is especially hilarious – the character is so unself-consciously ludicrous with his gestures of pride, his self-esteem, his complacency as he smokes pipes of meth. The humor built up and Episode 3, the most murderous, was the funniest.

It’s important to see how Breaking Bad relates to British quality TV products too. It’s politics are as reactionary in that it has no acknowledgement there is such a thing as political thought or ideas in life. House of Cards and Downton Abbey both realize the stories are taking place in a larger political context. The difference is Breaking Bad simply has no outer political world, no perspective. The Brits give us reactionary Toryism (Fellowes) or desperation and pessimism from a humane standpoint but just as paralyzing (Andrew Davies in this case); the Americans give us nothing, a vaccuum. In Downton Abbey we are in a fantasy land of benign aristocracy (how they never were), in House of Cards we sidle along the corridors of high power.

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Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, White’s brother-in-law, cop (from a later season)

Breaking Bad — there are only the brutal police, more violent and with more impunity than anyone else. We are with the lower middle class and desperate working people who are policed. No NAFTA, no congress, no political or civic or human rights. We have to remember that the reason for the show is the advertisement; the program is filler in whose ideology is not allowed to be different from the ideology of the advertisement. No one is allowed any ideals to help them out of their mess at all; yes the family should hang together — literally as well a figuratively.

I am told the mini-series pulls you in as it goes, you become involved in the characters and the story takes telling, intriguing turns. Does it do more than the crude exposure of the monetary and sexual terms of the suffering (for they do suffer) male hegemony. Well I will try the next disk from Netflix, another 4 episodes to see.

Ellen

P.S. Among the good books to read on quality TV: Quality TV, edd. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, subtitled: contemporary american television and beyond. It has an excellent essay by Sarah Cardwell in it.

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MrsB
Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt)

MrBates
John Bates (Brendan Coyle)

She: ‘I wish I knew what you were up to yesterday [in York]. You’d never do anything foolish. You’d never risk everything we’ve built together [voices rises ...]
He: ‘Certainly not. You know me. When I I do a thing I like to have a very good reason for doing[voice falls off ...] ‘
She looks at him, he turns, begins to walk down the darkened hall, she stands there strained, then follows …

Foreverfriends
Daisy (Sophia McShea), Alfred (Matt Milne)

Alfred: ‘Forever friends.’
Daisy: ‘Forever friends.’

Dear friends and readers,

Let’s cut to the chase. Do we now have reason to suspect that Mr Bates did indeed murder the 1st Mrs Bates? This fascinating character who begins as a humiliated disabled man, loyal comrade and servant to his lordship, kindly, generous, sterling husband material, has many less than exemplary skills. It was his threat against a fellow-prisoner that helped him escape treachery in prison. He’s also a past master at forging signatures.

So, off-stage (how many recall that Violet, Lady Grantham aka Maggie Smith said she’s not keen on Greek drama convention?) the man who brutally assaulted and raped Anna Bates, Mr Green (Nigel Harman) died, it’s said by slipping or falling into the road, hit by a bus, a crowd all round, people saw it, Piccadilly it was. This is uncomfortably close to the way the 1st Mrs Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) bit the dust. Off-stage too, it’s [now] said she took an overdose deliberately, but did she? no witnesses at all, Mr Bates was framed (so we were led to suppose), but there was that split-second shot of her sprawled out on the floor, an odd position for someone not pushed down by someone else.

Did Mr Bates go to London on the day he told Mr Carson he was going to York, after having ascertained in a conversation with the hubristic Green that Green lived with his Lordship, Gillingham (Tom Cullen) just off Piccadilly? Or was it he overheard (as he seems to lurk in corners) Anna conveying somehow or other to the suddenly shocked Lady Mary that it was Green because Lady Mary has told her Gillingham will be back for visit with his man:

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Latercollectinghim

And what did he there?

He told Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who noticed something about him in the dark room cleaning shoes, that it had been “a long day.”

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The duelling code immediately recurred to obliquely by Anna upon being raped (Part 3) as her reason why she must not report the rapist, not hostilely but rather in fear Bates will have to pay for it by a life sentence or hanging “this time”, has reached fruition.

So too we see the workings of an aristocratic code of loyalty to one’s crew. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) will have evidence of Bates’s having been in London not York in the so-called Christmas coda to come; but in this episode she is already morally sure and so asked Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) whose judgement Mary now trusts if he knew someone he liked and that person did something troubling (word to this effect), what would you do, to which Blake: “But you don’t believe he was wrong,” Mary: “No,” Blake: “Well I’m guessing but I suspect I would say nothing.”

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I cannot condone it and know I ought to declaim against it — it’s a measure of how much this mini-series soap opera has won me over that I am content not to overlook it and deplore its source: revenge killing belong to the same world-view as honor-killing, is as lawless (& therefore dangerous to us all) as rape, or (for that matter) stand your ground laws. It’s unexpected even in the reactionary universe of Fellowes; doubtless he’d justify it by saying in the 1920s there was no recourse for preventing an occurrence of acquaintance rape from the law or courts (there is barely one now), and how were Anna and Bates to know that Gillingham had sacked Green. Green must’ve been having a bad week — not that he didn’t deserve to be sacked.

Far from boring characters as they seemed to be, as Season 4 began, the happily married pair, Mr and Mrs Bates lived through a differing but shared agon: she, raped, cannot bear any man near her at first, shamed, blaming herself, as some lines of Bates’s referring to how she seemed to favor Green at first (he: “You liked him so much … thought he was funny …” She: .. “Did I? I can’t remember”), reinforce her unhealed anguish; and their story turns on issues of hot moment today.

And like other of the threads of this season’s finale, only semi-resolved.

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People have been asking on a list-serv I’m in if this was the finale? well, within the aesthetics of soap opera there is no finale.

At the close of a phase of a min-series, there is usually not just an ending of one story, but the beginning of another and quite different one -— though the two may be linked thematically. Further the first doesn’t really end, but carries on, from a different angle, and the actual central tensions of the part of the story we were intensely engaged in (the coerced match of two fundamentally unlike and in their characters incompatible people) are not resolved or got over, but only deferred into a kind of stasis. Substories are set adrift … time moves inside the series and the characters age, some disappearing altogether … and then returning …

So what we had in this week’s hour was a series of semi-resolutions, persistence of other stories, new developments, continuations. Other bloggers have also noticed that at the end of each season, we’ve had the festivity where all are brought together, often on the great lawn around the Abbey: season 1, the garden party climaxing in WW1; season 2, the first and truest of the Christmas episodes, just one gathering after another, season 3, the cricket game reinforced by the dance and Christmas festivities in the Highlands; and now, season 4, the church bazaar. Such scenes dramatize all the characters’ relationships to one another; they function to reiterate, reinforce, reassure. The fictive system goes on. Perhaps it was a little obvious this time but the satisfaction of seeing favorite put-upon characters suddenly winning, worms turning, characters taught lessons or teaching them is too strong to be denied.

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Tom (Allen Leech) and Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis), at the bazaar as a local school teacher

New couples emerging: Tom and Miss Bunting first met at a political meeting, then he came across her in a field with her car stalled and reverting to his chauffeur past, fixed it and told her of himself and Sybil, of her death. I wish he were not so determined to separate himself from his socialism, to justify the lifestyle of the rich family who have taken him in as all about the work ethic, beasts of burden (like Cora, Countess of Grantham carrying a heavy bouquet of flowers in a heavy pottery). It feels like a betrayal of his character when he abjures his socialism; when he rejects the idea of types he is unsound, forgetting all his vaunted reading. He is swaying back and forth as he tries to find a new identity — no longer Irish revolutionary, now gentleman-steward for the Granthams and their son-in-law. We have to turn to Mrs Crawley to defend Tom as a political thinker (alas on muddled anti-socialist grounds that he shows how smart he is by doubting his former creed).

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On the other hand, I just love how Molsely and Miss Baxter are slowly coming together, each helping the other towards a stronger self-esteem, cheer, success (Molseley hits the jackpot when urged by Miss Baxter), culminating in Molseley getting between Thomas Barrow’s (Rob James-Collier) mean bullying and threats for information from her. Meanwhile her sewing machine on the servants’ hall table has become a fixture, an icon referred to, out of her past which we surmize we will learn more of next year.

Sewingmachine

Even Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) is coming in for a new friendship: Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), a Crawley connection, come to visit Violet, turns out to be a widower with unhappy memories of a failed marriage attracted to the widow with good memories.

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Dowager comically (she had not expected this) looking on

Sadness is not left altogether behind in these new pairs.

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As will happen Lord Merton has forgotten and asks Isobel what her son does?

It’s seriously part of Alfred (Matt Milne) and Daisy’s (Sophia McShea) moving goodbye scene.

At last the kitchen quartet generated real feeling — because they were given enough time and scenes. And because Mr Mason (remember him, William, Daisy’s dead young husband’s father) is brought back and his presence lends gravitas. Alfred is coming for a last goodbye now that Ivy (in this episode) has answered his letter containing a marriage proposal with a decided no, and, wanting to spare Daisy and not altogether in sympathy with Ivy’s (Cara Theobold) optimism that life has more in store for her than Alfred can offer, Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) has given her the day off.

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When she asks him, doesn’t he want her to stay past six, he says he’d like her to stay forever but “there won’t be too many people you love in your life and he’s one,” so she must say goodbye, with “nothing jagged, nothing harsh.” And in the event as Alfred begins to hint he’ll have her now, she says she loved him once, but “it’s too late,” and they agree to part “forever friends.” This is not smaltz and it’s given steel as when we last see Daisy even though Mrs Patmore says how proud she is of Daisy, the noble gesture has not made Daisy any the less hurt, raw (especially to Ivy still) and bleak from the experience:

Daisy

Others may disagree but I don’t feel there is the same complex of feeling in the story which sets another character adrift: the love affair of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and the very black Jack Ross (Cary Carr): I found myself cringe at his deference and complete lack of resentment or anger: he breaks off the engagement because he loves her so and would not want to “spoil” her life? Lady Mary’s argument against this marriage is one used by racists in the US for decades. It runs like this “I’ve nothing against it of course, but think how others would treat you.” Rose’s behavior is dismissed as daughter-spite and we get some unexamined mother-bad-mouthing all round (when in the Scots Christmas episode Lady Fincher played beautifully by Phoebe Nicholls as a woman unhappily married, frustratingly situated) as excuse. Well acted and wisely acted in an evasive understated way,

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It still won’t do. Fellowes revealed his own inability to endow this black character with full humanity or understand how a young white woman might like a kindly jazz artist.

The weakest because so clichéd matter was that of Lady Mary and her three suitors. It is another measure of the richness of this year’s episodes that by this one we have mostly forgotten the effective grief-striken opening and Dockery’s expressionistic performance. She does well here too, for the scenes of polite male suitors at table, by a car, walking alongside, are often saved by a witty remark by Lady Mary herself (“hasn’t I disappointed enough men?”). The thread was not distasteful, there were some dream-like palatial cathedral restaurant moments

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and the two prominent male actors maintained their dignity, their deference to this princess’s coolness and supposed hard-working strength — though she has but one tenant, Drew (Andrew Scarborough) who agrees to take on the pigs too, be steward if Tom should suddenly decamp (though that seems less and less likely) and act out another cynosure of deference and gratitude.

Drew

The quick-witted old hand at soap opera techniques will notice that Lady Edith, now pregnant (Laura Carmichael) is looking on, and observes how loyal is this family man. A solution to her difficulties? her desire to keep her baby if not in the castle with her, nearby. Edith’s story became more subdued as she was re-marginalized into second sister, took less space in the tapestry, and seen within a triangle of her own and the perspectives of her aunt, Lady Rosemary Painswick (Samantha Bond) and grandmother (it doesn’t take Violet too long to gather the trip to Switzerland to learn French where the hospitals are so good is for Edith to have her baby in secret).

Some of the hour’s best lines come in this thread, wry, sarcastic, irritated, pressingly persuasive (both aunt and grandmother are against the baby coming back with Edith as then the secret will visibly out itself). “Don’t bully me, granny.” “Are you afraid I’ll lose the baby?” And they have the best hats:

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Facing her mother who says her way of coping with French is to speak English much louder

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This thread has one withheld character, Michael Gregson whose return we await — expect. The other of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) himself, taken to New York to defend Cora’s brother’s part in the teapot dome scandal, has been accounted for from outside the series. Bonneville went to London to act on stage. His return and congratulations to his wife, on her success as mistress of the bazaar carried off persuasively and sweetly:

coraRobert

The success and whole management of the bazaar which provides the fun background of the hour’s last 20 minutes is however due to Trollope, and especially Barchester Towers from whom some of the games and the whole sense of a community of different orders of people engaged in ritual play were drawn.

I’ve tried to emphasize the art of this hour, the tapestry formations, the four-year felt fictive system (so to speak) because this is the source of its satisfying unfolding. For myself I’ve told on my Sylvia blog what pulls me into this world: “the characters are presented all together in such real feelingful ways”

For official recaps across the four seasons

Next week the coda.

Ellen

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AWayForward
Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) and Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael): “I’m sure there’s a way forward … “

Anna (Joanne Froggatt): ‘How was dinner?’
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery): ‘Uphill … you don’t think I’m aloof …’
Anna: ‘Do you want me to answer truthfully or like a lady’s maid … [ -- Anna thanks Lady Mary for intervening to keep Bates with her and Lady Mary tries to probe and Anna says she just can't talk about it -- ].
Mary: ‘If you described him and ought you to see Dr Clarkson just to make sure?’
Anna: ‘I’m glad there’s honesty between us again but I can’t talk about it’
Mary: ‘Even to me … because you’ve helped me God knows …in the past and now I want to help you.’
Anna: ‘I can’t talk about it, milady. not even to you … ‘

Dear friends and readers,

I call Part 7 of this fourth season strangely moving because it is. I know its weaknesses, the worst being the refusal to focus on Anna’s inner life, to show us what she has felt when she would no more go to bed with Bates than any other man. The intimate relationship between these two women is not dramatized before us. As in Part 5, it’s Bates’s inner life — seething — Mary probes for a moment:

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I’ve watched it 3 times now though, each time feeling the building tension slowly increase as the four more openly-felt stories are woven into the design of the tapestry. I like the sense of deeply felt relationships between the pairs of characters and they so move me because it’s what I’ve not got now and so yearn for. The Downton characters keep faith with one another and are kind to one another. This emotional attitude may be epitomized briefly and sharply by fleeting scenes of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Molseley’s (Bernard Gallagher) growing sense of alliance and support; he notices Thomas’s (Rob James-Collier) trying to pump her and wants to know why, sits near her, acting as a short of shield.

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First of all the one we begin with, the story of the assault-rape of Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in this part needs to be told to now this person, and now to that, as the Bates’s lives have changed: they are unwilling to endure the relative lack of safety when their other is not nearby.

AnnaWeeping

Bates: ‘I won’t go’
Anna Bates: ‘I see so you’ll leave his lordship in the lurch and probably lose your job and all this to help me. Go home and pack.’ [Still shows her cracking up alone in the hall; she is afraid to be alone, be without him now]

This story threads in and out, and although disturbing because it’s all about how the family first want Bates near to Anna to protect her from another assault (so as beyond Mr Green only Anna and Mrs Hughes know who did it); and then how those who know work to deflect Bates’s desire to murder the rapist: Mrs Hughes in particular, wouldn’t mind if he did. The last shot of the episode is sharply on Bates’s face as he realizes it had to have been Mr Green (Nigel Harman) since Green has just been stupidly boastful at the kitchen’s dinner table, sneering at the memory of the opera singer, saying to avoid the screeching he “came downstairs” for a “bit of peace and quiet.”

Similarly Edith’s realization, confrontation with her pregnancy, her telling her London Aunt and their avowed mutual determination “to do away with” as a baby whatever is there. Their visit to and flight from an abortion clinic. For all its drawbacks, the depiction of Lady Edith’s choice not to have an abortion in the face of knowing how she will be driven to give up her child because unless she consents to be ostracized she and her child will be continually humiliated in public gets to the crux of life’s difficulties. Lady Rosamund’s veering back and forth between horror at the abortion and acceptance, and then intense dismay at the idea Edith will keep the baby and deep sympathy allows us to experience the real risks, costs, pains. The continual parallel shooting of them is emotionally arresting.

RosamundandEdithatAbortionClinic

These are interwoven with scenes in the library between Edith and Lord and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) where we are expected to believe they never thought of what makes Edith nauseous and just plain ill, debilitated. I cannot believe her parents would not see the obvious, dumb though Lord and Lady Grantham often are:

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Alas, a weakness here is it’s improbable that Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) would not guess what’s the matter.

The third is the courtship of Mary: fairy tale-three suitors: two are childhood sweethearts, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), and Evelyn Nadier (Brendon Parks); a third, Charles Blake (Julian Overden) a new-comer among them, empowered to study clever and money-making business practices in an effort to keep Downton viable as an over-grown farm business. If you watch the scene where Lord Gillingham returns to Downton unexpectedly and he and Mary walk down the stairs, you see their skin blench, how much their bodies move in akimbo rhythms. Their love come out of their open faces. Mary is beginning pig farmer, and the night she and Blake visit the pen after dinner finds the pigs almost dead from lack of water. They are a muddy fire brigade, bonding over the pails and then again after cleaning up a bit scrambled eggs and wine in the kitchen:

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If you watch the film with care, and slow down the scenes between Mary and Gillingham, you see they are in love — and quite naturally, far more than Mary and Matthew ever were in a gut way. (Dan Steevens was being groomed for an estrangement eventually — if you watch parts of Christmas Season 3 carefully you see this). The sparring of Blake and Mary is fun and also the pig incident (showing she can be earthy) but he is no egalitarian – his thoughts are all about aristocrats and his annoyance with them for losing their estates. It’s The Portrait of a Lady stuff before Jane Campion pointed out the fallacies of the heroine chased by endless super-acceptable heroes

To conclude, this thread, Blake is led to respect Mary and she to trust to his integrity. But this romance means more as it is part of the larger (across the whole series) question of what is to become of places and landscapes like Downton. The probably untenable idealism of this story is Downton ends up supported by supporting others. We are to believe the money works out, just.

The last of the four serious stories, however brief and continually cut and recombined, Tom’s embedding into the family to the point he is no socialist and drives with Lady Isobel Crawley as a pair, brings us back to class, ethnicity (Irish versus English):

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and then is invited to go to a political rally for a Lloyd-George type, which never takes places — since Mrs Crawley had to go to France for her son’s proud-wisdom, and her romantic walk about the balconies. He meets Daisy Lewis (Sarah Bunting) young woman schoolteacher while at the political meeting, and is just the type who would fit into Tom’s world and he needs company.

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We begin to see the solution to Tom’s difficulty: here is a wife he would feel right to marry and whom he could bring home to the family, just, and take his daughter to live with.

The serious themes directly engaged in here are lacking utterly in the way the other two stories are developed. Yes Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) going out with an African-English man, Jack Ross (Gary Carr) would seem to be about the racial divide, but it’s done sheerly for picturesque romance, her hat and the frisson of seeing (racialist really) the interracial kiss is the point. The dialogue is cliched and worse, he doubts he is acceptable and asks where is this going (he does not need a duenna):

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And the four-way grave (Alfred [Matt Milne] and Daisy [Sophia McShea]) and gay (Jimmy [Ed Speleers] and Ivy [Cara Theobold]) couple, with their musical dance something out of Restoration comedy is truncated as if lest Fellowes would have to go into the characters’ having serious feelings, which he avoids. Fellowes just cannot get up enough absorption in his material to bring forth new varied erotic material in the kitchen: Daisy carries on berating Ivy (Cara Theobold) who knows Jimmy (Ed Speleers) couldn’t care tuppence for her. Alfred (Matt Milner) comes for a visit from his hotel in Manhattan, to see his parents and has time to spend a day at Downton.

The excuse is Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) cannot bear the dissension between the hurt Daisy and apparently easy-going comfortable Ivy. She is okay in her skin at the same time as she just pushes Jimmy and his advances off without a qualm: he: “I only asked what a million men would ask,” to which she: “I only answered what a million women would answer.” Alfred is not allowed to stay the night by putting him off with a lie that Mrs Hughes Phyllis Logan) and Mrs Patmore both have the flu, and Mr Carson (Jim Carter) must foot the bill for Alfred’s stay at an inn and dinner with him.

Violet Lady Grantham’s illness, bronchitis which could turn into a dead pneumonia seems almost out of place, not part of the whole, especially as after one brief scene where Mary and Cora Lady Grantham stop by to ask if there is anything they could do, the thread spins out without reference to anything occurring in the rest of the episode. Mrs Crawley’s complete self-sacrifice for the sake of her old “enemy” who, ill as she is, carries on insulting and dismissive of her is not attached to moving Mrs Crawley out of herself and her mourning. Maybe Fellowes felt Maggie Smith’s obvious sudden greater aging these past two seasons

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were there to be used as a “slice of life.”

I wouldn’t want to give it up as it humanizes the dowager and I so enjoyed their concluding moment: Violet wants Dr Clarkson (David Robb) to throw Isobel out forthwith once she is better, and when he gently reproaches her, telling her how Isobel saved her life, she does obey her better self and asks Isobel for some help and says yes she’d like company. Cut to a couple of other scenes and second from the last we see the two of them playing gin rummy late at night all warm chums. Violet: “I had forgotten how much fun this is.” They’d like it to go on. Isobel: “We can play again.” Violet: “Oh goodie …-”

This makes a sharp contrast to the previous scene of Mrs Hughes warning Green:

She: “I know who you are and I know what you did and while you’re here if you value your life you should stop offering jokes and keep to the shadow … “

He tries to say both drunk but she’s not having any of that, then he tries thanks for her not telling Bates, which implication she rebuts by saying she didn’t stay silent for him, and the final scene of Bates’s stare at Green’s face unaware that he has given himself away.

Ellen

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Trio
Our trio of widow/ers: Tom Bransom (Allen Leech), Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery)

pregnancy
Diagnosis for Edith (Laura Carmichael): pregnancy

Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt): ‘I want to make some new memories, good memories so it’s not as if all our happiness was before’ John Bates (Brendon Coyle): ‘I’m happy when ever I look at you.’ Anna: ‘But you’re not are you? everything is shadowed every moment is shadowed ….

Dear friends and readers,

This part made an attempt to return the viewer and characters to the mixed moods of the first season where ordinary life continually presented the non-trivial as trivial (such as a telegram to Matthew Crawley which requests that he change his life) and the trivial as very non-trivial (a flower show). We had more cheerfulness than we’ve had since the MacClare (lord of Flintshire) and Crawley households danced in Scotland in December. Too much real grief, loss, ravigin has been experienced to return to the quietude of the first season, but except where the experience has had irretrievable results (Edith’s pregnancy) or cannot be forgot (the rape of Anna), we are invited to dwell on what has been gained.

And as in the first season, the high moments that matter do not at all forward the story (a recap) or provide a framing plot-design. Example: the time in the nursery before the children are brought to them, Lady Mary, Tom and Mrs Isobel Crawley spend remembering: Upon being told by Lady Mary that Lord Gillingham’s (Tom Cullen) engagement has occurred, Mrs Crawley hopes that Lady Mary is not unhappy:

Lady Mary: ‘I’m not unhappy, I’m just not quite ready to be happy …’
Isobel: ‘When I got engaged, I was so in love with Reginald, I felt sick, I was sick with love, literally … [chuckle] it seems so odd to think about it now, it really does … ‘
Tom: ‘It was the same with me — as if I’d gone mad or been hypnotized — for days, weeks all I could think about was her … ‘
Lady M: ‘and me I was standing outside in the snow, and I didn’t have a coat, but I wasn’t cold because all I kept thinking was he’s going to propose … he’s going to propose [the music that was played in the last episode of the first season reprised and they all smile]
Isobel: ‘Well, aren’t we the lucky ones?’

Brooding darker moments are supplied by the threading in of Edith’s waiting for news, getting none, producing an explanation that Michael Gregson (Charles Edward) got into a violent encounter with Nazi thugs in Munich, crying after her pregnancy is confirmed and when her father comes into and says, “What is the matter,” how he “loves his children equally,” when, as Edith says, “this is never true.”

Edith

Anna, coming out of the servants’ hall, says to Bates standing under the stairwell: “A penny for your thoughts,” says his are so dark [double the worth] she’d have ‘to pay twice.’

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We witness Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy)’s fear that Thomas will reveal her past as she feels an increasing real friendship for Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), a congeniality and we witness the first signs that from Molseley (Kevin Doyle), of all people (not surprising if you think about his experiences), she begins to gather strength from her very ethical distaste for what Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is forcing her to betray.

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This is not just tell him all secrets, lest there be something afoot to downsize the staff. And seeing as in this and other parts of this season even though he balks at being asked to do anything which threatens his great (I meant that ironically) status as under butler, Thomas does have nothing to do, one can see why he worries. There is light comedy when he cannot pump Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan central again) who concedes she is a “regular woman of mystery.” But he also wants to know things like what has happened to Anna Bates: he will use whatever information he gets against others as he uses his knowledge of Miss Baxter’s past against her (but the worm will turn as we are beginning to see her dislike and discomfort with this man).

Still a comic and upbeat note begins to predominate, quietly brought on through the continuing thread of Lady Mary’s recovery. As she recovers, she becomes aware that all is not well with Anna and Mr Bates (and tactfully avoids intervention),

Anna

is active on behalf of the estate with Tom, surveying the land, the houses, offering to give him references if he determined to go to the US,

withTom

keeping records and is pro-active to get Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), yet another childhood or previous sweetheart (they keep turning up — she is pretty, rich still, intelligent) and his fellow colleague studying estates in desuetude, Charles Blake (Julian Overdon) to stay in the house with the Crawleys (not at some inn). And before we can turn around to watch the whole house dancing to a the music of a jazz band, which Lady Rose MacClare hired as a surprise for Robert, Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) birthday, she haa become the traditional heroine once again, beseiged by too many suitors.

The too overt tiredness of such a plot-design is given a certain sting and originality by keeping Lady Mary cold, distant, and (very much against the grain of today’s supposed egalitarian tendencies) feeling herself very much entitled to consideration as an aristocrat dutifully working hard to keep up her estate (and the livelihoods of everyone on it and in the house). Her witty set-tos with Charles Blake provide a needed astringency as he says he is not there to save the upper classes, but find out whether estates have any usefulness (food supply?) first.

Foursome

On the other hand, what might seem the real social light comedy of the hour, when Lady Rose’s invites an African-English man, Jack Ross (Gary Carr), to hide downstairs, with the staff before playing for the whole house over the evening, is made just that queasy by Mr Carson (Jim Carter)’s discomfort – and that of the other lily-white types unaccustomed to anyone not English, let alone of a different racial gene pool.

Lady Rose’s gay cries of “surprise! surprise!” as if that kind of thing is what all trusting people long for, please Robert and everyone is glad to join in on what the occasion lends itself to: dancing. Nonetheless, Fellowes’s script feels and the visuals are racialist here:

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Jack Ross explaining to Carson that he knows nor more of Africa than Carson and that his ancestors came over in the 1790s (a topic they agree not to discuss)

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even if by part’s end Lady Mary comes upon Jack and Ross kissing and courting – much as she once did Tom when a chauffeur and her sister, Sybil.

We are back to the uneasy comedy of the first season. Bates and Anna decide try to put the past behind them by going out to dinner in a restaurant as they have not done since before they were married. They find themselves ostentatiously snubbed by a maitre-d’hote who is about to insist they had no reservation and therefore can have no table, until Lady Grantham (who is doing time as a Lady Bountiful in a luncheon for charity organizing) comes over and asks the waiter, what is his problem? They are seated as graciously as the man can muster,

apressnubbing,

but left alone to enjoy themselves in a lovely quiet place over a good dinner, they find they cannot forget or get on. She feels he is blaming her, seeing her as a victim (as we know as the public media wants to insist today there are no victims); he says no, he blames himself for not protecting her. They cannot enjoy themselves, hedged in by searing memory (on her part) and a desire (he says) to murder on his (to protect her? to revenge himself? to punish the man who has done this to their relationship and Anna)

This dwelling on class and sex injuries is (as it has been all season) paralleled by kitchen happenings: after it seems to lovelorn Daisy (Sophia McShera) that Afred (Matt Milne) will stay at Downton where she really is fast becoming the superb cook, a letter arrives to say someone has dropped out of the program, and Alfred is on his way to London to become a famous chef (they all piously hope). He is profuse in his thanks to all in the drawing room for all that has been done for him, embarrassing Lord Grantham, a contrast to Molseley whose proper pride is rewarded by having to crawl to Mr Carson and then Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore before he can lower himself to a job as a footman.

Ivy

Behaving aggressively, indeed aggrieved, because he has a sense that he is entitled to sex (paralleling what Blake thinks of Lady Mary), Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) tries to coerce Ivy (Cara Theobald) into petting as a return he feels due to him for taking her out. She’s having none of this game, but when Ivy gets home instead of unqualified sympathy from the other women servants, Ivy is told she got her just deserts for having led Alfred on, who left because his heart was broken. This according to Daisy who has the hurt heart.

Mixed moods, ordinary feeling explored, we would be back in season 1 but that so much has occurred of real depth of feeling, with life experiences that matter. Fellowes does not really know what to do with Mr Barrow now that his homosexuality has no outlet and he’s lost his sidekick in sneers and disillusion (Miss Obrien). There is much too much deference for my taste in the way the young farmer Pegg (unlisted) accepts and really seems naively grateful, when Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) admits she was wrong in thinking he was stealing her valuable ornaments. At the hour’s eend, Jack Ross is also too grateful to Lady Mary and Rose. I could wish Tom were learning to open his heart to English workers instead of the English aristocracy — who in reality would not have wanted or paid any attention to him or Mrs Crawley or Pegg or Jack Ross.

Dancing

but I like the fairy tale of Downton Abbey because it’s not American, not violent, class is not denied, the makers and actors behave in thoughtful ways with the effect of enlarging our “sympathies.” We are to move away from shallowness, flippancy, rigid reactions. I loved how Mr Carson congratulated Alfred on his intelligence and said of Jimmy who scoffed at Alfred’s anxiety as to how to cope with his coming future in the grand hotel, “intelligent people” are afraid, do worry, it’s only those “wadded with stupidity” who feel no trepidation before what life can and does throw at them.

And on the general mise-en-scene art across the mini-series this year: costume drama is supposed to and when it’s rightly done does tell a lot through costume. You should be able to study aspects of dress and learn about the era and characters as anibundel does once again on “the Hats of Downton Abbey

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Headbands, small cloches and the occasional tiara (even when dancing to a jazz band) for most of the women

Exceptions are made for the older aristocratic women, as Lady Shackleton (her mind in shackles from her status so she cannot respond to Molseley in the way the Dowager wants), giving us a chance to feel (as anibunel remarks) that Harriet Vane (oops! Walter) has come to visit some more (understandably) distant friends of Lord Wimsey:

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If only there was not this prejudice against costume drama as such: we could have overt self-reflexivity as characters move from house to house.

Ellen

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Bates emerging from the cottage where he now lives alone: second shot

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Bates walking the walk, last shot, having just said ‘Nothing is over and done with, Mrs Hughes … Be aware nothing is over. Nothing is done with.”

Mrs Hughes: ‘Why must you be so hard on Mr Bates? … Don’t you want to be honest?’
Anna: But I know him. I know what he’d do. I can’t risk his future … ‘

Hamlet: ‘What would he do/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have? …’

Dear friends and readers,

In Part 5 of this season, there is a remarkable departure from just about all the parts we’ve had in four seasons: the multi-plot structure where at least 3 stories and 3 sets of characters (sometimes more) seen throughout Downton Abbey gives way to an almost Hamlet-like structure: the story of the Bates’s (Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart) dominates in way we’ve not seen before: I counted 11 separate scenes where he is either on-screen, or the center of a strained discussion, several of them long, cut up (segmented or interwoven with others), with Bates himself opening and closing the hour.

We have the usual parallel themes, here of of suspicion: Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) convinced young Pegg (not credited on IMBD) is a thief and acting on it:

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Lady Grantham asserts it does matter that something was stolen;

pride: Molesley (Bernard Gallagher) painfully holding firm to his sense of himself no matter how self-destructive this is

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Molesley cannot forget this sense of himself, of what’s due him from him;

the farmer’s son, Tim Drew (Andrew Scarborough) holding on to his place in the order of things

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Does not the past mean something?;

stories which spins further away: the new lady’s maid, Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) with her sewing machine has a past she must hide and can be blackmailed on

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No problem sewing Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nichol) apron;

or belong to another order of feeling: Alfred’s (Matt Milne’s) competing to become a chef at world-city French restaurant; part of attenuated conventional love stories: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) again half-courted by someone from her past, Evelyn, Lord Napier(Brendon Patricks) and Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) emerging pregnancy; with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward), the father vanished, she bravely prosaically takes a cab to a gynecologist

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(Again for a recap see I should have been a blogger.)

But what grips and holds the attention is Mr Bates’s increasing seething wrath and his perception (Bates is no fool) that the man who violently raped Anna was Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr Green (Nigel Harman), and Anna’s way of silencing, countering, repressing him. They have five extraordinary scenes, from which I pick just this still of Anna:

Anna

She refuses to be touched by him, to allow him to have sex with her. As played by Froggart, she feels more than shamed, dirtied, to blamed, the very act of sex has become distasteful to her, bringing back memories; and we do get this sense that she has become aware that marriage is a kind of forced sex too.

The slightest gesture electrified with wild feeling:

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he covers her hand with his when he begins to compel her to admit to the assault

I say he is no Hamlet because do not think for a moment he doubts who did it: to Mrs Hughes: ‘Was it the last night of the house party? … Then I know who it really was … I don’t believe you, I do not believe you, I think it was Lord Gillingham’s valet … The way his teeth are seen reminded me of a fox’s teeth, pointed, jagged:

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Talking to Mrs Hughes

Yes implicitly we are let into Anna’s changed understanding of her husband since he was let out of jail: she now knows what he’d do. Mrs Hughes tells him no use pulling his knife on her; she will not tell. More interestingly is A moment later though, Bates is seen crying, and then seeks Anna out. While he knows the way to win Anna back is to assert she is not ‘found out’ or ‘spoiled’ or less loved by him: “I have never been prouder nor loved you more than I love you at this moment now. She: ‘Truly?’ He: ‘Truly’

comingtogether;

Like Molseley, he knows ‘it’s too late’ to turn away, pretend to ignore or forget the crashing awakening trauma that has changed things. The man must not get away with it; some retaliation is from him a burning need: ‘if it was the valet, he is a dead man.’

Beyond the importance of structure, this part reveals how central is the script of a film. It provides not just what is uttered (and words matter, movies have words in them) but the tool of how everything is put together, what elides, what blends, what shifts from one angle and shot (a movie’s unit of meaning) to another.

Formulas and manuals of screenplay writing insist they must propel forward somehow or other at all times, stay within a tight pattern ever on the move; Fellowes’s scripts are not like this: they meander, they spend time filling in from memory, the past, filling characters out; this one is makes for a poetry of gouged feeling all round — even Jimmy cannot resist the spiteful suggestion that Alfred did not just miss winning a place. The characters are not given the variety nor verbal subtlety or density they’d have in a novel, but as ensemble art, this one’s sudden compression of all the others stories into slots interrupting Anna and John Bates’s agon is worth observing for anyone seeking to understand and defend soap opera and costume drama aesthetics and ways of commenting on its viewers’ worlds.

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The first shot of Anna shows her in her room, a book on her table, nearing a window and mirror; this is the second

It strikes me I should have asked why is Bates made the center of the agon and not Anna, after all he was not raped. This is strong evidence of the masculinist discourse and emphasis everywhere we go; there is justice done Anna, and the actress, Froggart manages to convey an enormous amount of what she endures, suffers, is silent over. Since she has refused to tell, refused to act, will not confide in anyone, however, probable this may seem, she cannot be the center of a popularly appealing drama — we see here why it’s necessary to leave realism to put the woman’s point of view across.

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Mrs Hughes as conduit

Ellen

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When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand. “My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, ‘I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected’ — Doyle and Hawkesworth’s Empty House

I have heard you say that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way that a trained observer might read it — Doyle and Hawkesworth’s Sign of Four, briefly paraphrased by Moffatt, Gatiss, Thompson

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John Thaw as Jonathan Small being taken away to prison at close of Sign of Four

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It is now Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) who walks off alone from the wedding gaiety (Sign of Three)

Dear friends and readers,

Well something like two years have gone by since the latest Sherlock mini-series was last aired, and as Episode 2 (Sign of Three, a total reconfiguration of the original story (see recap in I Should Have been a Blogger), Sign of Four) shows, there is something genuinely new attempted here; we have moved from sceptical and at times exhilarating camp to melancholy sentiment.

Nothing wrong in that. The real greatness of the 1987 filmic adaptation of Doyle’s Sign of Four was to have made the story turn on the perception that Jonathan Small has thrown away his life in his search for treasure and to have framed the inward story of this man (a kind of redoing of Marcus Clark’s For the Term of His Natural Life where the hero’s life is spent either in slavery or prison) with the grief on the one hand of Mary Morstan (played by the stunningly almost unreal beauty, Jenny Seagrove) for her father and on the other a coming perception of romance between her and Watson (Edward Hardwicke, as ever subtly plangent): inbetween half-mad melancholy bizarre twinned Scholto sons (played by Robin Hunter). Doyle’s story by comparison is a thin if exciting adventure chase, colonialist-drenched, also caught in the 87′ filming:

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Jeremy Brett at the helm, on a dark river, passing under steel bridges, keeping the prey stealthily in sight

Pursued
Jonathan Small, the pursued — scenes reminiscent or anticipating of Dickens’s text as seen in recent film adaptations (e.g., Sandy Welch’s Our Mutual Friend)

What’s awry is the melancholy sentimental figure is now Holmes himself and it’s not earned, there is no suffering, it’s egoistic. At the close of Sign of Four Small is the solitary figure, genuinely outcast; at the close of Sign of Three, Holmes walks away looking uncomfortable as everyone else gets on with the conventional wedding, but he is not exactly off to prison; at home will be Mrs Hudson and if he doesn’t keep his door firmly shut, his parents (Cumberbatch’s own parents have been secured) watching over him.

I thought it an intelligent idea to transform the original “Empty Room,” where Doyle brought Sherlock back and had to explain to Watson how he survived jumping over the falls so that the characters really emotionally involved in coping with Sherlock’s emotional manipulation of Watson’s depression:

Sherlock: Holmes and Watson go underground
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson, together again in Empty Hearse

but when Empty Hearse (see recap) was done in such a way that Watson’s neuroticism has become wounded friendship (I had hoped the new title signaled an allusion to Orson Welles’s Third Man, where we have an empty coffin, but no such thing); and as opposed to the original story (and the Brett-Hardwicke enactment) a huge rigarmole put forward to explain how it was done (filler not camp), I became restless. As Freeman as Watson says, who cares how it was done? I reread the original story and found the explanation had been kept to a minimum.

Worse yet, our two buddies have obtained two emotionally attached female sidekicks, one whom I am not supposed to forget is in real life Martin’s partner (Amanda Abbington) and looks just too ordinary clunky to be lifted into another realm. I really couldn’t help feeling the crew had decided they might as well give another of their set off-screen a job.

SignofThree

The other is a girl so hopelessly smitten with Sherlock, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), that’s she’s willing to marry an inadequate simulacrum, rather like a doll; I’m told this character was in the original stories; if so who her open worship in the original stories was kept decently in the margins.

MollyHopper

I admit the most touching scene in Empty Hearse was a quiet dialogue between Cumberbatch and Brealey, slightly sweet, which I wished had not been lost in the overblast of all the computer tricks both episodes are determined to cover the TV screen with.

As will be seen, any whiff of unconventional sex is erased this season. When Mrs Hudson’s (Una Stubbs growing so old) failed marriage is made to carry subversion we are in trouble — not that it couldn’t as she was an abused woman, but it’s made a sort of uncomfortable joke of. One can no longer complain there are no women in this series, though when they function in the way of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary (Sherlock Johnny Lee Miller attempting to remain alienated by keeping to ragged clothing), I find myself wishing there were less of them. I don’t claim there was any feminism in the 1980s-90s Brett series, but there were strong lone women, and what was at stake often were versions of their integrity (as is seen in Jenny Seagrove’s performance as a daughter who in the end rejects how her father spent, wasted really, his life and hers).

Again to give the new series its due: The Sign of Three does eliminate the egregious (embarrassing) racism of The Sign of Four, both story and 1987 film. Doyle and Hawkesworth (screenplay writer in 1987) give Small a small (very) black man as a fierce (animal-like) servant with teeth that look like something from an early caricature of Darwin’s intermediate apes: his great quality is a dog-like loyalty to Small: he saves Small repeatedly by poisoned arrows. Of course Holmes has no problem simply casting these off with his hand, and shots the servant point-blank dead. By contrast, Gatiss, Moffatt and Thompson (three screenplay writers now needed) interpolate a new story about a black guardsman, more English, gentleman-like, courteous in his behavior than the guardsman in Winnie-the-Pooh (remember Alice bemused at him?):

guardsman

This Anglo-, very well mannered, self-controlled guardsman is stalked by a white half-crazed man who looks very poor (hence suspicious); this stalker attempts to murder the guardsman by stabbing him in the shower (shades of Psycho?). This man turns up as the photographer at the Watson wedding and is easily unmasked. As will be seen though the writers turn to a new stigmatized group for ready blaming (the poverty-stricken). And they elevate an elite norm of the gentleman. I remembered how in Gaskell’s North and South (adapted as a mini-series), the manufacturer Mr Thornton tells Margaret, our heroine, that what matters in a man is not his manners, his gentlemanly surface, but his character within. In the new Sherlocks we are in Nancy Drew land where the English gentleman is the figure all men long to be, and all women to marry.

The New Sherlocks have succumbed to a pattern I’ve noticed in many of the large number of mystery series that now are found everywhere on PBS; often the detective figure is no longer to the side listening, intervening, with each week a new perspective on whatever the theme is, but develops a little family and friend group who become a central nexus, rather like a situation comedy (which is what Doc Martin feels like). The central figure is normalized, attached to a group of conventional or unexamined ideals. The effect today is to rob these series of whatever serious emotions each of the weekly deaths or anguished characters who walk off the screen provide. The ensemble camp art, the nihilism of the second season is gone.

The inversion of the early and mid-century mystery-crime stories reinforces the complacency of having detectives who go about solving who did what, meting out poetic justice, tidying up the world — Margaret Allingham knew she was doing that with her Campion series; this is not what was projected by the Holmes stories, so we end up with the Empty Hearse supposed rationale of mad chases a terrorist threat laughably unrealized — but laughably won’t do as inspired silliness when one or both of our two men are in an unguarded emotional stews.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock re-appearing in Empty Hearse

When Sherlock rescues Watson out of a bonfire for the Guy Fawkes’s night we are in a Perils of Pauline scene. (Again the female victims of old have turned male in the new Sherlock.) When the characters we are made to care about each time come back next week, and we are made to feel they will always be rescued in the nick of time, what’s to worry. Again we are in Nancy Drew land.

I am interested in this re-composing of the original materials: it represents a newly aggressive dislike of film adaptation that respects the source text’s terms and power. The justification is this will be more popular: it’s an elite group who knows the original books. Moffatt, Gatiss, Thompson may congratulate themselves that they’ve eliminated obsolete grating costumes and norms; but as we have seen, they end up substituting later 20th century ones.

Further, in the case of the Sherlock stories I think not. These are easy reading and still read. Hence the cult: you can pour into their relatively thin formats what you want. It seems to me no coincidence the last two PBS seasons other hit, when not sneered at because it’s a soap, Downton Abbey, gains more acceptability by not being based on an original novel. Gentle reader, have you noticed there are hardly any film adaptations of great books coming out of public TV in the US at least.

Here (like Austen’s Emma defending what she has hitherto seen no need to defend or herself questioned) I move somewhat in the opposite direction I usually take: I think there is something especially delightful and enrichening when you have a film adaptation that is faithful to the book. What makes people uncomfortable is the film in part does not live alone: you can watch it without reading the book if it’s long and subtle and well done enough, but reading the book enriches the experience immeasurably.

There’s a real prejudice against this — as there is against the art of translation. Since the development of copyright law which enables people to make money and perhaps lots of it dependent on the idea that the text as an idea even not made concrete in concrete books is a property there has been a strong development of the idea that secondary texts which are allowed but not private property in the same way are inferior. That does not go so much for films that make money and are copyrighted in their own right but the feeling does rub off. My feeling is the analogous adaptation, the appropriation is lauded on the wrong basis simply that they are different and so give us something new to talk about more easily — rather than the difference makes for a good film. It may; it may not.

The problem with the New Sherlocks is the material is resistant. They haven’t gotten rid of enough of it. In the originals typically a person who has been a victim comes to see Mr Holmes and sits down to tell Holmes and Dr Watson (standing by) his or her story. The narrator is this victim or another victim as the adventure gets going (in the Sign of Four, Jonathan Small). Colorful characters emerge with their stories (the Schioltos). In the first and second season although not explicit the narrating presence was Watson, blogger, man who visits his psychiatrist and spills his soul out. Now it’s Holmes himself, giving a long account of how he managed to fool Watson, and producing a tedious — and the writers know so try to deflect it by half-making run — wedding speech. The action such as it is is in flashbacks in the form of Holmes’s story. But Holmes does not bare his soul; that is part of the original material the writers haven’t dropped. Holmes listens, say in Sign of Four to Sholto:

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Holmes listening

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He and Sholto in a far shot of the house haunted by the treasure box kept within

HauntedHouse (2)
Sholto

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Inside the house, brother Bartholomew

The new Sholto (Alistair Petrie) is by comparison the man who listens; his face is horribly scared and he is so stricken by life that Holmes tells the story. Unlike Small and the half-mad Sholtos of the original story, this man has obeyed all traditional moral norms and been blasted; he comes to Watson’s wedding out of the same kind of sentimental friendship we see Holmes and Watson share:

Sholto

The man broods, the present disappears and we are in some other time with everyone watching Mr Holmes explains how he’s doing this, what he’s thinking. Since we don’t have a chase as plot-design, we are left with a curious stillness in both episodes 1 and 2 of this new season. Superfluous torture scenes thrown in — where again we are watching and nothing happens — the joke (bad taste I think) is that going to Les Mis is worse — Mycroft (Gatiss) is forced to take the parents to Les Mis (of course he would) so he is forgiven for letting Holmes be tortured in Empty Hearse. Yet Holmes will not bear his soul: it would not be the masculine thing to do. So whatever inward life such a scene could have is gone; its new context of domestic sentiment precludes taking it as an imitation of Tarentino.

Watching a German film adaptation of Marlen Haushofen’s The Wall last night, meant to be the faithful type and meant for cinema, I knew it was richer for me having read the book and the real interaction and intertexuality between text and film. I know the older Poldark series, the 1967 Forsyte, many of the most praised type of the 13 episode transposition (the technical term for faithfulness) do need us to read the book. That’s true for Fortunes of War — then the experience is remarkable.

Next blog I’m going to argue that part of the richness of Downton Abbey is its original scripts are not written to the formula of Syd Field — moving ever forward in a simple pattern — but rather meander, work up a full world, have much that remains inexplicable rather like a novel. By contrast, the new Sherlocks stay with the assumptions, aesthetic and moral of the latest year. They are interesting, but (I think) fail because they too closely mirror the currents of 2013 in TV, on the Net, in recent unexamined norms in actual life too. Neither looks at the conservative political ideas both programs embody.

Ellen

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Anna (Joanne Froggart) showing herself to Mrs Hughes minutes after the rape (Downton Abbey, Part 3)

Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan): ‘If you are with child?’ Anna: ‘I will kill myself.’ Mrs Hughes: ‘I won’t listen to that. We must go to the police.’

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery): Matthew fills my mind still and I don’t want to be without him, not yet. I will never love again as I loved … I must have something to remember …

Mr Carson (Jim Carter): All we have are our memories

Dear friends and readers,

Does everyone know that a weekend in the country, a house party where a group of people sleep for several nights nearby one another and no one is policing the dark, can be dangerous? if you didn’t, if you watched these two remarkable episodes, you do now. In case we didn’t get it (or you haven’t seen Gosford Park or just as telling the 1974 Pallisers, Brideshead Revisited or any number of country house mysteries), this is underlined towards the end of the 4th part when Edith (Laura Carmichael) tells Michael Gregson (Charles Edward), her newspaper man with a past she does not know enough about that on one of these risky weekends long ago her parents were at least in the right bed or the legally allowed one at midnight.

While the treatment of grief and mourning in parts 1 & 2 left much to be desired, the overall perspective, details and (as it will evolve) fall-out and aftermath that results from an aggravated rape (sexual assault) and relentless sexual stalking; an attempt to outwit a man who lives by cheating at gambling; and the ignorantly snobbish behavior of many of the Crawleys (and key servants) — are thought through or intuitively presented with sufficient believable ramifications as to be worth watching and thinking about carefully. I wish I had the scripts for these two parts and hope that eventually Fellowes does publish them as he has those for Season 1 and 2. Fellowes weaves several love-and-sex stories together in a thematized mix amid his on-going exploration of how widowed or lone people deal with the loss of a beloved person. Again I refer to other recaps for details, and instead move onto evaluation and commentary

Multi-plotting of this type across a couple of hours makes for so many parallels and ironic undercutting one can go through only the central ones. The one that has garnered most attention — the aggravated rape of Anna by Lord Gillingham’s (Tom Cullen) brutal valet, Mr Green (Nigel Harman)– is paralleled in several ways. First the most painful thing to understand (which Mrs Hughes’s acquiescence in Anna’s silence acknowledges) is that Anna would not win in a court of law even if she could prove this aggravated assault. To do that would have taken at least seeing Dr Clarkson immediately and making plain before all what had happened, showing her wounds and the private ones too. This would shame Anna and even if she were believed, carefully planted over the course of the first hour are several incidents where Anna favors Mr Green, the most striking being the wild card game where Mr Bates’s (Brendon Coyle) real jealousy and resentment leads him to scold Anna for making merry while Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) is coming near to a heart attack as she tries to marshall her meager staff (for such a party) to produce the same kind of exquisite gourmet food as was de rigueur 20 years before the war. And we are not very far away from this kind of blaming and refusal to acknowledge a woman’s right to say no: a couple of summers ago now, a young woman who phoned the police for help was found drunk on the floor and they proceeded to rape her, and through the use of videos and their prestige, the case ravaged the young woman’s reputation.

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Card game captures Miss Braithwaite next to Mr Green

Equally interestingly still today is the assumption that Mr Bates would try to murder Mr Green if he knew a rape had occurred, and Mr Green had gone off scot-free. This not because the fear leads us to suspect that after all perhaps Bates did murder his first wife, was complicit in a robbery that sent him to prison for 2 years at one point and can be a dangerous man himself when aroused: among the scenes we see of him apart from others include a menacing threat of Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), in the prison he terrifies a fellow-prisoner into leaving him alone. These suspicious realities about potentials in the man’s character (I fear) just make him an eligible manly male (attractive) in today’s violent rape culture.

It’s rather the reactionary stance taking the law into your own hands that returns us to 18th and 19th century male duelling over perceived insults to one’s honor (especially in the case of women). It fits a world view which says that law cannot deal with all things because it won’t — and since Anna would not tell, would not go to the police and now it’s too late, the rapist is really all set to get away with it. Again the 1920s costumes and modes of talking may disguise a world where honor-killing is still infrequently punished. In reality were this rape to have happened at the abbey in the 1920s, and it’s not improbable maids were raped not infrequently by the upper class males or whoever thought he could get away with it — the rapist would go unpunished. And as we shall see this perceived possible result and the reaction of others to it will be part of the important aftermath.

As yet in these two episodes only Anna’s understandable revulsion is operative as she moves out of her home with Bates to return to a kind of virgin existence up in the attic — because he is as yet only grieving with hurt and has not as yet grasped what happened. I feel for her here, and have experienced the distaste a woman can have when she is forced to have sex with two men say within one week.

Part 4 brings out the importance of Miss Braithwaite’s (MyAnna Burling) stalking of Tom Branson (Allen Leech). She quickly observes his discomfort among these upper class people and depression, his lack of self-esteem and takes advantage of it, putting herself in his way at every opportunity, there to feed him liquor. Since the blog I referred to for a recap has suggested this was rape I feel I need to say a bit more in order to distinguish what is so repellent about Braithwaite’s manipulations. What happens in the bedroom (which we don’t witness any more than we witness Anna’s rape or the early partly coerced sex Lady Mary Has with Kemal Pamuk [Theo James]) lacks the crucial element of compulsion. Stalking as only recently been recognized as a crime and then you can only go to law if you are threatened with physical hurt in some way. Courts are (alas) notoriously unwilling to convict someone for bullying someone else, and in effect Braithwaite bullies Tom. Braithwaite is morally injuring Tom deeply, but much as we may deplore this, like Anna he is right to want to hide what happened from the family, and this gives her her weapon (again shame, he is shamed). They will regard him as having lowered himself by having sex with a servant. Drunkenness only makes the act worse.

In both cases Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is our person trying to act justly; Tom is also to blame she says, Anna was not. Anna should have called the police because Mr Green is “an evil violent man” (Mrs Hughes also uses the word “vile”). Miss Braithwaite is merely despicable in her claim she is pregnant and Tom must therefore marry her, pernicious in her ability to work on Tom’s anxieties (he fears his new relatives will reject him) but herself open to spying (as she is a servant in a household Mrs Hughes controls) and thus her silly book about how to prevent and control pregnancy is found by Mrs Hughes who counts on Miss Braithwaite’s fear that in a “he said, she said” scene before the family, Tom will be believed. The weakness of Miss Braithwaite’s real social position enables Mrs Hughes to eject her with ease.

As with the assumption by all that Bates’s violence is understandable and to be somehow manipulated (not regarded with abhorrence) so I ask everyone to take note of the violence of Mrs Hughes’s threats: she assumes she has the right to “tear [Braithwaite’s clothes off” to examine her body. A long history of society thinking its members have the right to accost womens’ bodies especially if they are claiming illegitimate pregnancy lies behind this and is found today again in the vicious legislation passed by several Republican state houses that a doctor can in effect violate a young woman who is pregnant to discover what trimester she is in. Some may sympathize (really) with Miss Braithwaite’s desire to go up in the world (though this is condemned by Fellowes) but the issue here is that her private space is not considerable inviolable also precisely because she’s lower class.

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There are two other sexual relationships that parallel and partly undercut these. Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) is trying to persuade Ivy (Cara Theobold) sufficiently of his affection to take her out alone with him to a play or movie. We are shown enough of his character to see he cares only for himself, but the mean motivations only slowly emerge as the counter story of the Alfred Nugent’s (Matt Milne) real affection for Ivy and genuine career aspirations to be a cook, which Jimmy mocks as beneath a man. Alfred: “We don’t all have to live off battered fish and meat pies.” Daisy’s Sophie McShea) yearning after the good man captures our attention too. This thread is part of the problem of decent employment that is a major theme of this series.

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Daisy cooking, Alfred studying

We will see Jimmy take Ivy out, get her drunk at one point and at another attempt to take advantage of her. But unlike Tom, her sense of selfhood has not been damaged and while succumbing to drunken sickness, she will throw him physically (if not emotionally) off.

The second is Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) love affair with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward). Let me state unequivocally the series shows her as right to trust him and give of herself to him — this is a parallel to Anna’s trust of Bates whose chequered past is not a measure of his full character. As Bates used his ability to forge signatures in the second part of this series to help Molesley (Kevin Doyle) so Gregson’s past where he apparently knows how to win at cards through skilful cheating is used by him to rescue Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) from another crushing debt and expose the petty criminal type, Sampson (Terence Alexander). All we have our are memories says Mr Carter of his loss of Alice and Edith is making beautiful memories for herself. Her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) is once again wrong (and her sarcasms unkind as Edith tells her) to heap scorn on her niece from the argument that the double standard has merit, but what is interesting about this is again an ambiguity and generosity of approach, for Rosamund will befriend Edith later on when Edith makes the difficult and strongly unconventional decision to have her baby.

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On the set (one of these promotional jolly shots) when they have become strained allies

Rosamund will not have heart enough to understand that Edith wants to mother her baby but she does go much further in the direction of emotional decency than we have seen so far. And Violet the Dowager’s (Maggie Smith) silence when she intelligently guesses what’s afoot speaks well for her too.

I grant that Edith is again used as a scapegoat, and continue to be puzzled at mean-minded comments (on facebook the other day) about her (jeering at her naivete), but then she’s in good company, her good nature making her vulnerable: this is true of Tom, Anna, Molseley whose efforts to keep his status are suddenly held against him — as he says a reverse of the values he was led to suppose the other characters really believe in.

I’ll go out on a limb and make a speculative guess: in an effort to get a divorce, Michael goes to Germany and then disappears from his flat, and thus cannot be told of Edith’s coming baby nor his responsibilities towards her. I am going to predict we find that Sampson got back at Gregson through his contacts. Lord Grantham declares Gregson’s behavior that of a gentleman and one moral last and this week’s part is the bleak (impossible) one that only by knowing ahead, and being on guard and as ruthless as the evil of the world can you protect yourself. Like Bates, like Grantham, like Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), Michael has too much idealism in him. After all he paid Edith to write feminist columns; a far cry from Sir Richard Carlyle (Iain Clarke), unscrupulous newspaper magnate.

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It will be said I’ve left out a couple, or two couples: Lady Mary’s touching reunion with Lord Gillingham (if he is a pirate, he is a sweet one), as a childhood sweetheart she is probably more congenial with than she ever was with Matthew. Rose (Lily James) begins a (totally forbidden in the time) relationship with a black jazz singer, Jack Ross (Gary Carr.) Given their untouchable status, Lady Mary’s lack of vulnerability and resurgence of a strong self-esteem, coolness, and Rose’s childlike perception of the world, partly from the constant chaperoning, they are at no risk of rape, stalking, or exploitation. Lady Mary’s slowly growing love for Lord Gillingham is part of the development of how her real grief for Matthew continues to control her conduct and perceptions. She finds herself unable to revert to what she was before she met Matthew, unable to act as selfishly as she once did; his presence, her memories of him continue to fill her mind and heart — even though she can recognize a second good partner for life when she sees one.

Her genuine behavior when she is relieved to experience cheerfulness, enjoy dancing, riding, talk again occasions some of the most moving moments about sorrow. These emerge from Mrs Reginald (suddenly we are asked to “remember” how Isobel’s marriage was a happy one) Crawley’s watches Lady Mary and (as Violet remarks) acts nobly and admirably. When at dinner and sitting next to Tom (a widower himself) she says: “you’re all alive and my son’s dead,” but she knows that she ought not to want Mary not to spend all her life grieving and goes over to meet and shake hands with Lord Gillingham, knowing he may replace Matthew.

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Rose still wants nothing more than to go dancing in London and when Lady Mary comes up to London with Tom, to deal with tax authorities, they go to a nightclub with Aunt Rosamund. She accepts a dancing invitation from Sir John Bullock (Andrew Alexander) who in his drunken state proceeds to (a lout) to grope her, another version of sexual transgression though in the area of acute embarrassment for a girl with sensitivities as who has not?). At the house party Bullock proved himself a fool when he is taken in by Sampson; Rose had taken the high ground and showed herself all courtesy to him. His reaction: take advantage. She finds a handsome jazz singer, very African in look, cuts in on the half-drunken lord and whirls her away. The disgust the horrified Lady Rosamund immediately manifests is a piece with her hard reaction to the joy Edith knows in her relationship with Michael. It is to Fellowes’s credit that he has twice used the character of Rose to stigmatize and critique the way the upper class males assume they can do as they like with women and show decency among the white working class and now black entertainers. I am not sure it goes further than that with him.

Have I omitted anything valuable further? I’d like to mention the kindliness of the Duchess of Yeovil (beautifully played by Joanna David) to Tom; she is unfairly distrusted by Lord Grantham, as obtuse (or transparent as Lady Mary calls it) as his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) except for her moment of recognizing the stature of Nellie Melba, the opera singer. Lady Raven (role uncredited), one of the growing number of upper class single aging women who we are told lives in a small flat “north of the park” (in London). Mrs Hughes tells Mr Carson that is no reason to think himself superior; the real pity of their lives is that of widowhood. Dr Clarkson (David Robb) gradually drawing Isobel out to become his aid and nurse; we have a quiet scene where she is helping one Mrs Pegg and her fatherless child.

Kiri Te Kanawa as Dame Nellie. Not invited to eat with the family! A hireling who knows better than to complain (as she does take the salary). It is during her performance that Anna is raped, Michael Gregson exposes Sampson, Mrs Crawley tells Lady Violet that she prefers Bartok to Puccini (not really commensurate but this is naturalism).

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Nellie Melba was a Victorian opera singer

Ellen

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Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) as series begins

Dear friends and readers,

Most of the time when I watch a TV drama especially I never imagine it was made with me in mind. Due to the proliferation of sites on-line with the whole of the fourth season of Downton Abbey wholly available for watching, yesterday I found shoverdosing on Downton Abbey irresistible. In rhythm it’s more like the first: relatively quiet episodes insofar as action is concerned, but unlike the first there are several developed overarching stories and one (once poor Anna is horribly, violently raped) considerable suspense (will Mr Bates find out who did it and murder the man?). I quickly came across overviews which were critical and dismissive — the series is meandering, getting nowhere — certainly no one is jumping a shark. No humiliating desertions at the altar built up to for our delectation. And there is much introduction of new characters.

But it’s very good in a new way: realistic about life’s tragedies, disappointments, real losses (Albert works hard to become a cook, takes a test and at first seems to have failed against others in a competition). Downton Abbey this time is especially about being widowed — not just our central three, Lady Mary, Tom Bransome and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton brilliant as a woman who has lost both a beloved husband and only son), but others passing by: Joanne David as a kindly Duchess who tries (but the class barrier too strong) to connect to Tom. You need not marry to be deeply affected by the death of someone: Mr Carter’s erstwhile buddy Mr Grigg (Nicky Henson), ends up in a workhouse, and is rescued by Mrs Hughes (many characters are in this series) to meet with Carson again and tell Carson of one Alice who chose Grig, died young.

The rape of Anna is in uterly keeping with the mood of devastating loss you are seemingly helpless to counteract. For a while she cannot bear to have Mr Bates touch her and comes near to breaking the man by moving back into the house. She acts in character and what many women would still do today: she will not go to the police tells only Mrs Hughes because she must have help, and the man who rapes her is a member of the household and there able to do it again. She becomes a devastated version of the strained Lady Mary the series opens with: ghosts. A repeating image now part of the opening credits is a long shot of Lady Mary at first in black and then in non-mourning clothes walking alone up to the house.

It is not all gravity: Edith falls in love fully with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward) who plans a divorce and turns out to have skills in playing cards with cheating thief (another of these louch lords) and wins back money Lord Grantham can ill spare. I remember other films which show the good person exposing the cheat, dowsing him in a barrel, accusing him, but this was much realer. The cheat left in a hurry knowing he could be exposed — but is not. Elegant entertainment in the form of Kiri Te Kanawa as a visiting opera singer, and Gary Carr as an African-Britsh jazz singer who Rose (Lily James) is attracted to, as well as a kindly working class young man she meets at a dance she gets Anna to take her too.

I found myself utterly connecting again and again.

The dowager (need I cite Maggie’s name?) continues with her wry comments, but they are (as before for those paying attention) as much on behalf of individuals in need as against any structural changes — contests ensue between her and Isobel as Mrs Crawley slowly comes back into activity on behalf of the living. There is still the use of the character motivated by malevolent or asocial and disruptive or class resentment impulses: Rob James-Collier carries on his thankless role (without benefit of Miss O’Brien) this time planting a lady’s maid who seems to be under his control and from whom he forces secrets.

But its reactionary stance is considerably softened as Lord Grantham’s paternal Toryism coincides with Tom’s socialist approach in dealing with tenants. Once Lady Mary emerges from her grief she returns to the old somewhat relentless harder self who would turn tenants out after decades of non-payment. When you get to make up the evidence you can argue anything, and this series is an argument against death duties breaking up the estates of these good well-meaning rich people even if one gov’t employee is quite right when he says of Lady Mary she thinks she’s entitled to this life of a princess. Or maybe in our increasingly fascist environment the program’s continual person-to-person humanity is a relief.

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Guess who will provide the third baby for Downton Abbey?

We are no longer in an Edwardian world, but the world of the early 1920s where sex does occur outside marriage more easily. (See Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs). The depression may be what the fifth season will bring.

I say give each episode time; lend yourself to rather like one of the older later 1970s and eary 1980s mini-series with a Chekhovian feel now and again. There has been a change in producer which might help account for the new direction, but it may be Julian Fellowes made a new choice in keeping with a new direction.

I am going away for a week of watching ice-skating in Boston and living in a hotel not too far off and among the books I’m taking is one filled the 8 scripts for the second season and much commentary (and good stills) which I hope to read slowly.

Ellen

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