Violet, Dowager Grantham (Maggie Smith) to Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija): ‘Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us from accepting reality.’
Mrs Crawford (Penelope Wilton, the cant corrective): ‘You only say that to sound clever.’
Dowager: ‘I know, you should try it …’
Dear friends and readers,
I was beginning to lose hope. And from the release this week online of a YouTube three scenes designed to advertise what is thought to be the most appealing, the most wry, and the most strident (one criteria for trailers is the aggressive punch) scenes in Episode 4, it seems the film-makers were beginning to realize they were anything but compelling their audience to watch:
Neame thought to lure us by the sincerely touching proposal scene between Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) and Mrs Crawley, with that unbeatable silhouette still of her standing there as he leaves, showing the series can still do it right; another of the series rather daring representations of sexuality as experienced by older people, that between Mr Bricker Richard E. Grant) and the still underdeveloped character of Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern); less originally Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) also challenging the power of the bull in this china shop, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to command his servants’ presence, expecting to hear how Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicols) has had her burdens as a cook increased by Miss Bunting’s tutoring of Daisy, only to be told “No, sir” (however timidly) and receive the full eloquence of an increasingly articulate (and letter writing) Daisy on behalf of aspiration, self-fulfillment that has nothing to do with her practical status.
Daisy (Sophie McShera) ‘But I must say this, m’lord.
Miss Bunting here has opened my eyes to a world of knowledge I knew nothing of.
Maybe I’ll stay a cook all my life, but I have choices now, interests, facts at my fingertips.
And I’d never have had any of that if she hadn’t come here to teach me.’
These two moments do not begin to cover the chock-full hour, which it’s not my purpose to summarize, only remarking that we can date the episode by the occurrence of a significant Nazi eruption into violence in March 1924, which in the episode foreshadows the expected news of Michael Grigson’s death.
In this scene (as in several others, Robert retrieves himself and comforts his daughter with the stability of reality (Violet Lady Grantham’s utterance resonates through this hour).
Otherwise blows continue to rain down on Edith. Mrs Drew (Emma Lowndes) begins to see in her a neurotically distressed woman in effect stalking herself and her adopted child, and slams the door in Edith’s face; told by the ever compassionate Mr Drew (Andrew Scarborough) she must stay away for a while, she is repeated derided and jeered at by the family high (I had almost said bitch) princess, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) who knows just what words needle and corrode the heart most (even the Dowager tells Mary this is getting to be in vulgar bad taste of her). These moments of torment fleet through the hour, well-prepared for and believable after 4 years of bad luck in the context of an utterly repressive and sheltered environment where nonetheless everyone is oblivious to her gifts (as a writer) and needs (as an adult).
But in this hour, the context and flow of emotion sustains itself from thread to thread. The contrast to Daisy in the character of Thomas Barrow (James Rob-Collier), for in this hour the alert Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) who holds no grudges, one of the many kind souls in the Abbey, begins to understand that Thomas is attempting to medicate (torture) himself into heterosexuality.
In an excellent essay on “Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs, Downstairs (1975-79) and Downton Abbey” (in Taddeo and Leggott’s Upstairs and Downstairs), Lucy Brown points out how in his sexual and emotional life Thomas is continually sympathized with in the Abbey: from the Duke of Crowborough’s exploitation and threats (Season 1), to the suicide of a solder Thomas as a nurse has cared for (Season 2), to his genuine loving friendship for the flirtatious (we have Mrs Hughes’s [Phyllis Logan)’s word for it, Jimmy (Ed Speleers), whenever it’s a question of harsh punishment for his sexuality, Thomas is saved (by both Lord Grantham against the police, and Mr Bates of all people blackmailing Miss Obrien [Siobhan Finneran], Season 3). Daisy is taking the right way, but we cannot say that Thomas is taking the wrong, for it is not easy for Thomas to accept (enact) reality as he has told various characters over the years.
The strength of this show all along has been in the quiet rhythms first seen in the first season (and never lost from view) where Fellowes’s gift for suggestive daring character creation through story and dialogue asserts itself in the context of many aptly juxtaposed threads which comment on, reinforce, contrast, ironically undercut one another. I say daring because he repeatedly breaks social and even artistic taboos in the emotions and behavior of his characters. I mean to suggest of how a few of these play out in this brim full episode.
I’ve demonstrated how Fellowes’s alter ago, and our dark hero Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), beloved of our most exemplary heroine, Anna (Joanne Froggart), seems to have gotten away with two murders (which she is determined to cover up). In this episode Anna is protecting her man again: she brings herself to tell the police she liked Mr Green (who as she says it, we all know raped her brutally), but in a telling psychologically true impulse she relives what she believes her husband did by when with Lady Mary in London revisiting Piccadilly Square where Mr Green is said to have unfortunately stepped off, tripped himself into a bus. That master of human psychology (whom Fellowes has said much influenced Downton Abbey at first), Trollope has Phineas Finn relive a murder he did not commit when he is acquitted in Phineas Redux, a powerful sequence Simon Raven elaborated further upon in the 1974 Pallisers, complete with the sort of depression that goes along with such behavior and we see in Anna’s suffering face.
What Anna does not know is she is being stalked or if you will observed by a plain clothes detective:
Anna is not the only one having a hard time in London. She had been sent to deliver a note to Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) to meet Lady Mary at noon in Kensington Gardens, for after having tried a four-day tryst with the said Lord, Mary has decided she does not want to spend her life with this man. His response is indignant rage:
How dare she reject him after they have gone to bed together. She tries to break the news gently (unusual for her) that she’s tried him out and found him wanting. While she’s not breaking the “virginity taboo,” according to Freud, the inculcated feeling taught girls that they must marry the first man they fuck with is a way of tying them to sexual fidelity because not only has she been married and given birth, but way back in Season 1, she went to bed on the first night of meeting a very handsome Turkish gentleman, Mr Pamuk (who died of the orgasm). We can now qualify Freud: men want women to believe this to protect their male pride.
She is though being utterly unconventional and knows it as she did not quite have the nerve to herself buy a dutch cap from the druggist and sent Anna (who in a later episode will have to deal with Mr Bates finding it in her drawer).
Lady Mary’s experience here functions as the prompter of Anna’s walk and is also a parallel linchpin tying in the set of threads the film-makers advertised as their strongest: unconventional scenes of love, to wit, the extraordinary nerve it takes to show old people in love (Lord Merton and Mrs Crawley), wanting sex, one pair of them in the show as old as well past 70, others not satisfied, one young man punishing himself for his sexuality. This is rarely done. Again I have to instance Trollope who has an aging woman writer and aging newspaper man fall in love in his The Way We Live Now, he propose on his knees, and then hug and kiss the lady from there, a sequence of scenes Andrew Davies was not quite up to dramatizing — he has them decorously stand to kiss. Well it’s also just not done (according to Lord Gillingham) to try a man out. This rude confrontation (ironically Lady Mary does not like rudeness) suggests she is doing right not to marry Lord Gillingham: he would be such another husband as her father, Robert, stand on conventional norms — or as we see, lie down.
After the scene over Mr Brickman’s “appreciation,” Cora’s flirtation with him at dinner right before Miss Bunting’s own deep uncomfortableness drives her to ignite Lord Grantham’s frustration, we see the husband and wife discuss how they will not discuss what has happened; he turns away and she closes the light. Not a satisfying marriage it seems, or sexually not going well by this time, but a very conventional one as we’ve been shown repeatedly. He married her for her money and she him for his rank; they have stayed together and apparently never strayed for the same reason they appear to be blind to Edith’s having gotten pregnant, given birth, and brought her baby home to live with a nearby compliant tenant-farmer. It’s just unthinkable.
And apparently that is what happened to Violet, Lady Grantham when she fell in love half a century ago with Prince Kuragin. The largest framing of this episode is the one the film-makers did not quite dare put into their advertisement: a very old man telling a very old woman he loves and wants her, and surge of painful memory and desire. Yes desire. Her wit as ever a cover-up, but this time of herself. Lady Rose (Lily James) who I must admit is emerging as the series’ sweetheart (and far far luckier than her equally charitable alter ego, Miss Baxter) is intent on doing her charity and we see she does it right. She holds luncheons in an ancient church in London (it seems), book sales, does what she can to give the emigres some comfort, and the Dowager, having glimpsed Kuragin in the last episode, now takes Mrs Crawford as buffer, and travels down by train, walking slowly there to see this man.
In this season, first with Lady Shackleton, then Lord Merton and Mrs Crawford and now herself, Maggie Smith stretches this character in a new direction: contradictorily subtly human, she is ambivalent, for he has recalled to her memories of real unhappiness, of the price she paid when she made a choice (inexorable to her still) to stay with her husband which she does not regret (who would want to end up in that church soup kitchen) while staring down at the loss of what she could have known.
Lady Mary has not shown that she has it in her even to be attracted to such a man; she is her father’s daughter: she is seen walking with him considering a plan made by tom (the ever subordinate Allen Leech — who does like his beautiful office) to build and rent houses at three different points in the hour and we should not forget that he has the last word in the hour: he decides to build much better houses than Tom dared. But she has the strength to reject Lord Gillingham who would have been to her such a husband as her grandmother had.
Not for the first time I was very much moved by Maggie Smith. This is the woman who was Alice answering the heart’s desperate needs in Alan Bennet’s Bed Among Lentils. But after all Fellowes imagined the characters, slowly developed them over several years now, by writing their lines, developing their scenes, woving these into a tapestry — with Gareth Neame, the producers (who have changed over the years), the production and costume design people (mostly the same), and the wonderful actors and actresses, not to omit the cinematographer