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800px-PaleyFest_2010_-_Breaking_Badcast
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.

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:

REalizing

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.”

MrCarterBates

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.”

LadymaryBlake

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.

MrMasonDaisy

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

Edith (1)

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

Set
The evocative set

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Richard and Stanley right behind him

Dear friends and readers,

This is to add to a chorus of praise for the production of Richard III playing this month through early March of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Folger. Izzy and I saw it tonight and by the time we were into the second half, enjoyed it enormously, were thoroughly absorbed.

As might be seen by my comparative qualification, I don’t quite agree with the estatic insights some reviewers have been attributing to the play. I’ve seen it so many times, and Izzy almost as many, and we agreed we’ve seen many a superior one: to name just a few, Ian McKellen as Richard III as a Hitler type in the film (and Jim and I also saw it on stage); Laurence Oliver’s film (where Ralph Richardson as Buckingham managed to steal the show); the Washington Shakespeare’s great version (a parable about politicians) a few years ago now at the Arlington theater; one I saw years ago with Stacey Keach as Richard III. The play is popular — it is just deliciously over-the-top for an ensemble cast and rich for a great actor) and frequently done in part or as a whole. This production was disappointing during the first half. The declaiming style used throughout could not accommodate the black and nervy humor of the first half: many jokes just thrown away and lost. Richard’s “We are not safe” to Clarence as Clarence is taken off to be murdered at Richard’s instigation fell flat.

There is something effeminate (a fine thing to be by the way) in Richard III (as there is Richard II) and this was erased utterly — can’t have that in this macho male world of long leather coats, and heavy armor and weapons. In fact the costumes recalled the way we see police dressed in the US when they attack crowds (say Occupy groups) or shut down and swarm all over a city (say Boston). Cortese was superb

DrewCorteseRIII
Drew Cortese as Richard III,

but he also seemed unwilling to unbend and the worst scene of the play (though it was effective as Shakespeare’s scene is striking) was the one where Richard wooes Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) in front of her husband’s bleeding corpse.

RichardAnn

Cortese kept his distance and his dignity; what he should have done is sidled up to her, and engaged physically with her, alluring and luring. They didn’t even obey the stage directions which include a comment about how she had thrown the sword he gave her to push through his heart on the ground: they kept the line, but she didn’t throw the sword until well after he uttered the line.

The nervousness of the usual scenes in the first half often leads to cutting the second half where the mood become direct and hard-hitting and this is where this production came into its own. What it had to add to the all the productions I’ve seen before was it was utterly traditional — as we might imagine it. In fact they risked slight parody (a la Beyond the Fringe) as they marched on and off the stage, declaiming at one another at the top of their voices with their bodies just writhing and just standing in place. No lines were left out, no scenes cut.

Cast

The reviews I’ve read have strangely left out two important themes of the production: the way characters were killed was in imitation of Sweeney Todd, that modern neurotic nightmare of slaughter. There were squares and triangles in the floor which would open up and the assassin would come along and slit the person’s throat, or pull them down and we’d hear some sort of thump, clang; the repetition of this was effective. These holes in the ground allowed for continual allusions to the finding of the much decayed corpse of Richard III in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester, England. The program notes were all about this, and this corpse & parking lot were continually evoked on stage. The lights underground were parking lot lights. The corpse of Anne’s husband was wrapped like a mummy one finds in a excavation of a site where savage rituals were performed.

UK - King Richard III Discovery

A contemporary gothic all right.

This evocation may have been meant (the program notes suggest this) to remind the audience that although this version of Richard III as malign and deformed may be a Tudor myth, based on More’s biography intended to please Henry VIII; nonetheless, a terrible reality gave rise to this fascinating dramatization of the criminal and desperate behavior of the aristocrats of the UK in the 15th century. The women were the desperate mourners (Nanna Ingvarsson came through as a great actress once again as the Duchess of York in her set-tos with her vile son, Richard) or worked upon to give in in order to salvage something or appear too. Richard’s seducing of Queen Elizabeth (Jula Motyka) paralleled his seducing of Anne:

Elizabeth

He is offering her a replacement of a possible future and safety if she will allow him to marry her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk). I liked especially that the production conveyed by costumes and gestures that when Henry VII took over and the Princess is brought by her mother to stand by his side, that we not having any improvement. This man is such another perhaps as Richard was — whose death has a certain desperate pathos – throat slit just as he goes down the hole and cries “a horse, my horse … my kingdom for a horse … “. A parable for our time, and depiction of how the real corpse that was found got there.

I could see the audience was not gone on the production until the second half either. The actors brought the audience in as if they were London citizens and the audience at one point obliged by clapping. People like to be amused and there was laughter at the some obvious stage business like jokes during Richard’s hypocritical refusal of the crown. Some of the best secondary male performances came out here. Richard Sheridan Willis as Stanley in dark-colored glasses with his sheaf of papers and fear for his son but determined betrayal of Richard III evoked a modern day powerful minister backing up whoever is in power by whatever means necessary.

Stanley

So don’t miss it; it’s another winner for this new Shakespeare all the time group at the Folger. As to our personal experience, see Under the Sign of Sylvia.

Ellen

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:

BatesMary (1)

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:

motherdaughter
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:

EatingScrambledEggs

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):

vlcsnap-2014-02-09-20h38m20s166

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.

schoolteacher (1)

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):

schoolteacher (2)

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

LadyViolet

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

What potions have I drunk of Sirens’ tears
distilled from limbecks foul as hell within (Shakespeare Sonnet 119)

rusalka-flemingsittingdreamy
Renee Fleming as water nymph, Rusalka, sitting dreamily

Dear friends and readers,

When I look at the stills on-line of Fleming looking so beautiful and acting so ably, simply, with a natural feel, whatever the scene, from the HD met opera Dvorak’s Rusalka (written 1901) Izzy and I sat through yesterday afternoon (4 hours long, with 2 intermissions of 20 minutes each), contemplate the wild fantastical outfits, say of John Relyea as Rusalka’s father, the Wood Gnome:

WoodGnome;

am reminded of the wry liveliness of Dolora Zajick as the very ugly witch, Jezibaba:

Rusalkaandwitch;

and in particular remember the closing scene where Rusalka has become a death-dealing sort of mermaid who comes up only to lure men into oblivion and Fleming was just so haunting looking:

met-rusalkadeathscene;

and while not a great actor, Piotre Beczala sang so ably and was so poignant that the subtitles began to move me as I remembered Jim’s slow death:

Becsala

and how I lay near and watched him die, and told Izzy that the scene was worth sitting through the whole opera very much as 6 years ago when we had seen Bellini’s I Capuletti i Montecchi and I thought how absurd the final scene was going to be when the two wake up before they die, and instead the whole value of the opera was in those moments of waking and dying together;

when I think of all this; and also of how the story is ripe with deep archetypes: it’s about the archetypal Lamia combined with a Hans Christian Anderson masochism (she has to give up either voice or walk on knives in return for becoming human or having feet); and how at times the music was a cross between Wagner and Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande (1902 so written a year later), I wonder why the opera wasn’t better, why it seemed at times tedious, full of languors.

For one thing it could use a new production. The costumes which especially in the second act looked like warmed-over versions of Sir Walter Scott illustrations,

Act2

and the stage, however reminiscent of Pelleas, was just too fussy, too overdone in the way stage productions from the pre-computer age seem to be:

rusalkaCorot.

The Corot-like feel is an artefact of the camera; in the concrete theater it looked kitsche, pastiche. This opera calls out for the simplification and uses of symbols large and archetypal that we have seen in some of the best recent productions at the Met (e.g., Traviata).

For another the action was too reticent. If the prince in the middle act is supposed to have had sex with Rusalka and then dumped her because she bores him with her silence, and then had a regular debauch with the foreign princess, nowadays they would be more than half-naked and really get down with it. Here the gestures are so artificial and the actors reduced to grimaces and the kind of behavior one sees in silent films.

I thought of silent films because, as Izzy says in her blog, the worst thing about the opera is the star whose voice you’ve come to hear falls silent during one third of it. What could Dvorak been thinking of when he made his soprana’s punishment muteness. During her interview with Susan Graham (not getting any younger as either as Zajick told Graham when for lack of anything to say she kept harping on how loong Zajick had been with the Met), Fleming told Graham the hardest part of the opera for her was when she was not allowed to make any sound and yet expected to hold the audience’s attention.

The whole second act also moved too slow until near the end when the Wood Gnome returned and Fleming’s voice magically came back and they sang a strongly emotional duet. The producer (or maybe it was the conductor) who spoke talked of an “upstairs” “downstairs” effect “like in Downton Abbey” (occasioning titters in our movie-house) because there is a gamekeepr (Vladimor Chmelo) and his niece or kitchen boy (Julie Boulianne) who provide comedy, but it’s not very funny. What was charming were the real children: the Met had dressed up young adolescents in costume of frogs, butterflies, bees, sprites and a couple of the children managed to cavort in pointed ways — who they belonged to hard to say as while they appeared with the witch the first time, she was supposed malevolent.

I’m not sure the revival was the success it’s being made out to be. Zachary Woolfe in the NY Times was more candid and truthful: the point of view bland (like their Verdi Falstaff), scenery “drearily picturesque,” with the music carrying strong passion, but no perspective offered. I noticed really strong applause was lacking after the famous “Song to the moon:”

rusalkatreesingig
When Fleming said in the interview singing in a tree was not comfortable, it suggested she has sung the aria perhaps too many times …

Applause came on strong only in the last part of act two and then again the final scene. When the singers came out before the curtain, again applause lukewarm or just cheerful until Fleming came out. Everyone was there to see and hear her. They need a new conception, one which makes what is happening on the stage and its myths more immediate, more relevant, not politically, but emotionally. Someone needs to read Lampedusa’s Lighea

They also need to admit openly they are conveying films to us; that the staging they produce is being seen as film. They are using broad effective stage tactics in the new productions, now they have to use the illusive means of computer enhancement and take more advantage of what the camera can do.

For even a diva who is looking upon this as her signature piece cannot carry a work of art like this for 4 hours.

Ellen

Dear friends and readers,

And now for something unusual coming from me and on this blog. A parodic mode YouTube. I need some cheering up, so pray excuse this sudden departure.

I missed my beloved Renee Fleming (yes I’m a devoted fan) singing the National Anthem at the Superbowl; well, I heard her from Yvette’s room just overwhelming the whole place. She managed it. Yvette and I are now looking forward to on Saturday hearing and seeing her sing in Dvorak’s Rusalka at the HD opera theater not far from us, which I do hope to write about here, and in anticipation of this event I offer her in comic mode on Sesame Street (the YouTube is mislabeled) more years ago than I or she like to remember:

And singing 10 top opera lyrical tunes with new lines substituted for the familiar ones:

Ellen

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.’

BatesBrooding

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.

ThomasMissBaxter

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:

JackRoss
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)

MrsHughes

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

Cora
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:

Untitled-1.jpg

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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