Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Winston Graham, Warleggan, Book 4 of Poldark series, ch 4, p 55)
Dear friends and readers,
As in the other three seasons, when it comes to discussing an episode in detail and seriously, there are major problems when wanting to praise the new and brave kinds and here sombre materials the film-makers have brought (for a fourth time) to Fellowes’s story and characters. What distinguishes these first two episodes (however conventionally harped at by all the other characters in the usual familiar mode of “you must get over it”) is the real respect and time paid to grief. MIchelle Dockery delivers an expressionist performance (not realistic) and Penelope Wilton a subtly calibrated bleakness at the emptiness of her world (not just only son, but beloved husband gone).
This is though undermined by the assumption that there is such a thing as living in “the land of the dead” as opposed “to the land of the living.” This is nonsense, even for such a privileged person as Lady Mary who need not work for money, need not cope with her inheritance, need not even take care of her baby. What grates and scours the soul of the grief-striken is life not only goes on for you, but you are asked to do many things without the beloved where the now dead person was the competent one or at least the sympathetic support. So a childish notion simplifying what is happening made plausible by the super-rich nature of these privileged people’s lives makes any serious consideration of Lady Mary’s obstacles or Mrs Crawley’s future life precluded. In the early phases of Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) there was attention to the immediate problem of what he must do now, where go, how cope, decisions he had to make (like his daughter’s religion and where to bring her up), and as he continues not to want to find any substitute but has at the same time to cope with Lord Grantham’s Hugh Bonneville) desire to revert the estate back to a backward management he becomes a quietly pivotal figure.
A second problem is the sheer snobbish emphasis of the circulating stills and shots: repeatedly we see only the upper class characters or the servants in carefully chosen moments. So an important subplot in episode one, concerning the loss of all livelihood and consequent self-respect, and need for emotional support in Mr Grigg (Nicky Henson) gets no shots, and Jonathan Howard as Sam Thawley is credited in only one listing of the cast (for Episode 4.2) and of course few stills, and hardly any mention except as it concerns the upper class girl supposedly “slumming.” So I lack adequate stills to present the visible in these two hours. Among the finer moments in Episode 4.1 occurs when Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) seeks out Mr Grigg in the workhouse and determines to act to help him (as the first duty):
another occurs when after dancing together turns into a brawl (because of course lower class males must be “toughs”), Sam visits Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and she has the decency to see him, and dressed as a maid, takes care not to hurt his feelings and do justice to these (far more sincere, with more depth than we’ve seen Lady Rose show thus far, except when it comes to disliking her mother).
There are plenty of photos available online of Lady Rose looking superficial (unfair to her as a character probably) — funny that the producers have not seemed to realize few viewers are taken with this aspect of this character; what they like is her attraction to kindly affectionate — males from a class or race other than her own.
I do want to emphasize how much I like this as well as previous seasons, and that I am paying this phenomenally successful serial drama the compliment of rational opposition.
So, what makes a specific series of programs rise to the level of an important sociological event (which the numbers of people watching confirms)? The one Jane Austen movie to make it has been the 1995 P&P famously featuring Colin Firth. According to Dudley Andrews, such films take on a manic life of their own, their filmic qualities “challenge reality with their own intensities:” their content allows “us to relish, cherish, revel in public what we enjoy in secret, and take over the values and experiences we had dreamed as we read the eponymous texts.”
Which are the ones that matter in Downton Abbey? I’m not going to do recaps (see I Should have been a blogger for one of the first two episodes) but rather try to discuss a little some details which may help account for its general emotional appeal — as usual unacknowledged or in some popularly-conceived blogs downright contradicted. The point for me is to bring out into the discussably open what is made visible in this season.
Episode 1 opens differently (alas this is not kept up in the later episodes). We are in a dark house, we see two notes put on a mantelpiece and a woman’s shoes, dark colored, practical, hurry away. A child is crying, then we are in a narrow corridor watching a nanny hurry by; the first face we see is the pale still one of Lady Mary laying silently on her pillow on her side of her bed. The day is dawning as a winter mist.
The first dialogue is all about Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) leaving without so much as a by-your-leave; not only is there no voice raised on her behalf (not that she has earned anyone’s friendship) but those she was attached to are blamed: suspicion falls on her nephew Alfred (Matt Milne) knowning and it emerges that Lady Rose did suspect her mother was plotting to invite Miss Obrien to India, luring her there as an adventure. Another servant is removed too, but not voluntarily: in the dark light of his small room, behind his desk, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) informs Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) that Downton has no use for Mr Molesley’s services: now that Matthew Crawley is dead, his job as valet is over; Mrs Crawley tells him as a widow she just takes her meals off a tray. More than half way through episode 2 Molesley has sunk to working in the streets in a laboring crew as his debts have mounted.
As the story evolves, we will find Molseley is not failing as a loser (to give credit to DA not a word Fellowes uses), but in a period of typical unemployment: we will see him show pride and by the end of the season become the support of an unexpected decent lady’s maid, Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) but I get ahead of myself in my efforts to bring forward what is valuable and reinforcing a “rhetorical scheme of motifs and symbols [filmic codes and archetypes]” which includes the rescue of Mr Charles or Charlie Grigg (Nicky Henson) from the workhouse by Mrs Crawley (for once commended for her liberal impulses). I cannot find a still of him working in the streets or I’d provide it. Other hires inauspicious for very different reasons include Miss Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring): Rose’s naive use of a card in a window is shown not to work to produce a good person: Fellowes’s text moves on behalf of the coterie exclusions of character letters and control over people’s behavior these occasion (as well as a way of seeing if they are social enough to acquire these); these only fail to work (we are to see) when from mistaken sympathy Mrs Hughes gave Braithwaite a character: here is Buring from Season 1 looking avid:
The first Nanny West (D Botcher) turns out to be malevolent as (through Thomas Barrow’s intervention which was not the result of knowing this) Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) happens upon her insulting Tom’s daughter as a “half-breed” (if I’m not mistaken the child’s mouth is taped shut) and exulting the baby George as “heir.” Fired on the spot. No shroving time allowed. Well such women did have enormous power over children and caregivers still do.
Downstairs in these two episodes is treated like a comic-poignant subplot in a restoration or eighteenth century comedy. Daisy (Sophie McShea) is now presented as longing for Alfred’s love while he longs for Ivy’s (Cara Theobold) and she hankers after Jimmy (Ed Speleers) who cares nothing for anyone but himself. (Mr Mason, the father-in-law, is another actor who has basically fled — he comes in for a late cameo appearance when Daisy is in need of older wiser male advice.) The plot-line will provide a quiet parallel for the rape to come but here the value is in the relationship of Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichols) and Daisy: it’s Mrs Patmore who buys Daisy a valentine lest she feel left out when Ivy gets one (not as she thinks from Jimmy but rather Alfred). The two friends with Daisy emerging as superb cook provide some good moments.
Mrs Patmore is also made nervous because she cannot keep up technologically with Daisy or Ivy, and at one point breaks a plate that is part of a device, and Mrs Hughes gets down the floor to help her clean all up. As in the close of last year’s season, MrsHufhes emerges as an equivalent figure to what I’d usually given male characters — only instead of giving orders from on high she works quietly to reconcile and compassionate except when the person has done some unforgivable deed — and there are going to be several this season. She remains one of my favorite characters and I’ve become quite fond of her Scottish accent.
I assume everyone has read the unemployment statistics and harsh rhetoric that condemns the unemployed for whatever reason, not to omit punitive policies engendering further poverty. Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs does justice to the servant who decides simply to leave rather than be questioned, however this may damage further chances at further jobs (you don’t come away with the precious letter); to the servant who defies and exposes the mistress or master.
Of course the major interest is, Lady Mary, the story’s reigning princess. (She who is left standing after several departures of favored upper class characters.) Lugubrious comments abound: “a great love” pays for itself sometimes with “great misery.” But she is at least no longer materialistically performative. I liked her better in these two episodes than I have before. Fellowes is not always up to kind of utterance needed here: Carson is enlisted by Tom and he enunciates some of the most cliched utterances of the hours. Then Carson is fine with firing people too, and wants them to beg forj job, nothing standoffish allowed as we shall see. The World’s Employer. Over the course of these two episodes (one reason to regret that the two are run together is we don’t get the sense of time passing slowly which Fellowes did mean us to), Mary emerges as the central heir to the estate (due to a will Matthew did think to leave, however hurriedly done) and despite her father’s attempts to bully her into passivity, she begins to take over her husband’s previous role as manager, with the significant difference she is in feel so cold, and we know will not be a compassionate landlord. We must hope Tom stays on.
For romantic love interest, we are really turned over to Edith (Carol Carmichael), still presented in the light of someone or a type a person whose existence is to be regretted, so her appearances in super-sexy gowns, in chic restaurants, seems to me a curious anomaly which doesn’t come off. She will come into her own later in the season upon getting pregnant, but I admit finding the shots of her with Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards’s) irresistible dream images from afar.
People have seemed to resent the as yet happy couple Mr and Mrs Bates; for myself I don’t resent them as I find the images of them most of the time smiling at a distance as they obediently go about their jobs uneviable.
There is a thread going on about distrustful disloyal employers: thus Barrow finds it easy to poison Cora’s mind against Anna as envious of Miss Braithwaite; Cora tells Robert who with his usual obtuseness warns Bates that Anna must behave. In this episode Violet Lady Grantham tries to help an old-time employee (Molseley) but that ignites the fears of her present butler, but in later ones she joins the chorus of punitive employers on the look-out for thievery (a stance endorsed by Fellowes in an encounter with Mrs Crawley after Mrs Crawley seems to have become emotionally stronger).
Anna does urge Mr Bates to help her find money for Molesley and help him out of his debt, and we are privy to some of his curious talents from his past: after securing a sum from the Dowager he forges an IOU where he appears to owe money to Molseley in order to give him some needed help. This will be matched by Edith’s newspaper man suitor’s ability to manipulate the cards as well as any card sharp and thus rescue Lord Grantham (just spectcularly bad with money) from a huge debt after gambling with one Samspon (Patrick Alexander), a hanger-on in the train of the aristocratic suitor-gentleman, old friends of Mary who will be arriving next week.
I don’t have a still of the touching close when after all Mr Carson going over his photos and pictures and seeing a long-lost loved girl, Alice, decides to come to the train station to bid Mr Grigg adieu (as Mrs Crawley has found him a job as a stage hand in another county) and we see these two friends walk off to talk. The motif of long grief brooding and twisting and finding some surcease in ending a quarrel though is felt with humanity in this still: