Dear friends and readers,
This blog covers episodes 2 (with a forecast of 3) as I will not be here next week; there is retrospective, crystal ball work on what’s to come, and like last week’s, I take into account the whole arc of this season, which now includes the Christmas episode filmed partly at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.
No one more involved with some of the characters in Downton Abbey than I. After rewatching Episodes 2 & 3 on Sunday night, last night I watched the Christmas Episode as it played on British TV (a region 2 DVD purchased from Amazon.uk): I became that distressed as I watched Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) go through grim gate after grim gate to reach Anna behind bars in a rough cotton, knee length smock I could hardly bear the distress. I am filled with perplexities. Why does Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) not come forward and say Anna was raped? is it that then there would be all the more reason to accuse Ann? is the rape nothing? Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) visits her and we learn that her background will be held against her: it seems she picked up a knife (how was this recorded and remembered) when as a child her mother’s second husband, her stepfather did attempt sexual coercions of all sorts.
When at the Golden Globe, Joanne Froggart accepted (at last) the well-earned statue and said how gratifying it had been to her to receive a letter from a woman (which she read aloud) who said the depiction of the rape had helped her endure, cope with a rape she had had inflicted on her and the aftermath of that, I felt good for Froggart. Poor Anna, she’s never had a decent dress in the series for 5 years, the best they’ve done for her is a couple of snazzy hats with feathers along the brim.
Nonetheless, the word aftermath is unfortunately the state of things this season. Now that the initial flurry of the whipped-up first episode is done, we are rightly I should say back to the quiet diurnal patterns of the first season. Life’s like that and the original appeal of the series first five episodes of the first season is gestured towards.
Trouble is, this is not the first season, and a mini-series is art, not life, and these quiet diurnal events are too many of them mopping up operations of the previous three seasons or some off-stage pre-history (Raquel Cassidy as Miss Baxter’s excruciating ordeal as the reluctant thief and her need keep Kevin Doyle as Mr Molesley on her side). How can Laura Carmichael as Edith play mother to Marigold (indeed how does she endure being Edith) for yet another year? what is Mrs Crawley to do about Lord Merton’s lonely frustrated existence in that room with his mean sons? who will Lady Mary fuck and will Anna manage to buy a set of condoms for her?
Where does Allen Leech as Tom belong? But we’ve heard it all before. Then life’s little troubles. Since the new turns are so resolutely pro-establishment, they fail to grip: Lady Rose (Lily James) is doing charity work among Russian aristocratic “refugees,” helping them back into “ordinary life: dancing and shopping and seeing one’s friends” (says Charles Blake, Julian Overden). Lady Rose is not permitted to be other than “a sweet young thing;” she is a sheltered virgin whose lost her way to her 19th century novel. Her anguish is for a wireless. The dowager (Maggie Smith) meets her old love, Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija, embarrassing, the scene absurd). For more comedy we have: Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) and Jeremy Swift as Spratt vye for pre-eminence in the household of the dowager.
Where to place the memorial provides conflict with Lord Grantham refusing to give up his meadow devoted to Cricket for a memorial, and preferring the middle of the village where we do have a moving moment with yet another (this time lower middle class) widow and her student son walking past in the middle of the village, but then the moment is over and we are not involved with the potentially interesting story of widow and son. Our great climax is Robert agreeing to rent a wireless for a day so everyone can hear the King’s first speech to the nation over it, and however possible we get this stiff re-enactment of court behavior.
As it was not creditable that Cora, Lady Grantham would not pick up that her second daughter was pregnant and had a baby so Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) is another mindless woman who does not begin to guess that Lady Edith is Marigold’s mother. She does not even come up with the theory that Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is the father. What are we to make of this? Well in the Xmas episode Lady Sinderby (Rachel Aldritch) joins the group of wholly undeductive women: Cora, Lady Grantham who never wondered where Lady Edith went for 10 months. A woman in her thirties (not too young) turns up at the castle with a young boy in hand and Lord Sinderby (Daniel Aldritch, in real life Lady Sinderby’s husband too) becomes mortified and runs away in shame to sit in a chair far from all; everyone seems to “get” who this person is (his long-term and now supported mistress? and son?), except Lady Sinderby who is characterized as not understanding who the inexplicable woman is. In context Barrow’s (Rob James-Collier) purpose is to expose Sinderby so Sinderby will stop castigating his daughter-in-law’s parents for their divorce and also to revenge himself for the way the same snobbish insulting butler (Alun Armstrong) has been treating Thomas: Lord Sinderby will blame the butler for having his (ex-?) mistress and son (?) come to the castle.
It seems to me that Fellowes saw as a boy growing up many of these privileged women turn a blind eye to the doings of their husbands — just as down south white women pretended not to know about their husband’s concubinage (and whatever cruelties went on). They knew, of course they knew, but they pretended not to to save face — as they could not do anything about it and keep their position. He has deliberately made a pretense into a reality in order to avoid showing us the anguish beneath. We could say the women are enigmatic and know more than they admit — Lady Sinderby does suddenly threaten to divorce Lord Sinderby if he will not allow Lady Rose to marry their son in Episode 7, but her awareness is not in the script, not a hint.
Curiously Fellowes is willing to show upper class young women’s anguish (Edith’s) over babies and of course women who don’t count like Ethel. He is also willing in this season to show us Anna’s anguish once again – -this time from a stepfather’s advances however muted. And last year spectacularly over the rape — though again Lady Grantham is not permitted to notice. Anna is — really strongly dramatized — is our real heroine and there he slams hard. As he did over Sybil who died of childbirth young.
I suggest there’s a twin thing going on: 1) if Fellowes were to show the anguish that would rip open the power and cruelty of males in charge and the compromises women supposedly with power (and they do have some Lady Grantham showed it in episode 1 and over when she learns Edith’s baby is her grandchild). 2) that he does see this and it’s a continual bemused undertow of the series (with hints that Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) had a child out of wedlock and gave it up, that Lady Grantham in this season had no happy marriage and made many compromises) shows that in fact he does look at these stories form the woman’s point of view (no matter how conservatively) and thus can write soap opera so appealingly for women. The number of widows mounts up season by season.
The distastefulness of blaming butlers for snobbishness, lady’s maids as semi-crooks and the like with their masters vindicated as amused egalitarians needs no comment beyond observing this I hope.
So what can we fall back on? I wish there was something interesting filmically innovative, musically, some apt filmic thought embodied in a techique, voice-overs (nothing of this, nothing at all in any of the seasons): all stage playlets, mostly faux theater. The actors carry it all in their faces. The audience watches the costumes and decor and fetishized objects and places (however rich, beautiful or picturesque). What there are this season are lovely pictures: many of the scenes are conceived as old-master paintings, glimmering with soft lights, and subtextually that’s a self-reflexive theme.
Note Elizabeth McGovern’s painfully thin shoulder and arms … (I keep it small so as not to dwell on the anorexic diet she’s been following all these years to keep herself a viable “beautiful woman ‘of a certain age’)
Perhaps the visit of the art historian, Mr Bricker (Richard E. Grant) to see a genuine old master painting Della Francesca (a bit of self-reflexivity here) and his flirtation with Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville, Robert’s jealousy holds some new line of development but Robert’s pathetic complaint the man is flirting with his dog, is not exactly Othello.
I am happy Daisy (Sophie McShera) is continuing her studies in arithmetic now with Miss Bunting’s help (Daisy Lewis) and has become such a splendid cook (and anticipate her trip to the Wallace collection where she will see old-master paintings). Were this life it’d be touching and in the first season it might have worked well. It is pleasing development in the spirit of the 1st season, which of course is that a big fuss is made; deliberations carried on by Mr Carson (Jim Carson), Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichols) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan): shall they permit it? is it good for her to improve herself? get aspirations. Would you believe it? And we are given modernized old master pictures.
The series’s central action was laid before us towards the end of the third year after the death of Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), with the death of Matthew (Dan Stevens) tacked on and thus providing grief, sorrow, and mourning for season 4. Season 5 we are watching them play on with no new material since Fellowes is not going to dramatize the new social change, but stick with Britain as a tourist attraction, and a commodified fetishized past. Now they have been inexorably tempted to keep salaries coming and revenue by selling products and advertisers/sponsors to a sixth season. So shall we predict how all will end up?
I have bought the scripts for the third season, which come with far more annotated notes by Fellowes than the previous two and more cut scenes fully written out. In effect a dense encyclopedia. And I restudied Season 4 – which I liked very much.
I discovered what Fellowes had intended for Dan Stevens had he stayed: in the 3rd season it’s clear that not long after Matthew and Lady Mary’s marriage he begins to become alienated: most strikingly by his discomfort over the way she continually denigrates and hurts Lady Edith, but the way she prefers her father, the older Downton way of life. Fellowes writes (elsewhere too), he intended them to separate slowly and Matthew go to the US. By the 4th season in place are the coming marriage of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes (remember them holding hands at the close), Mr Mason’s farm for Daisy, Miss Baxter has arrived for Mr Molesley (Miss Obrien flees to the appropriate upper class witch, the Marchioness of Flintshire – play allegorical name — at the Christmas episode of the 3rd season she has taken over the Marchioness from the present lady’s maid), Mr and Mrs Bates have his house from his mother in London, their undoubted abilities to carry on. Perhaps Grigson would have returned, and Tom off to America.
At the end of the fourth season Lady Mary, Tom and Grantham together with their one tenant farmer, Mr Drew (also the fireman of the place, are making the place thrive; 5:3 they begin to plan to build houses on the estate. 5:3 also showed me I may have been wrong to assert so unqualifiedly that Mr Bates killed Mr Green, as now we see Fellowes left himself wiggle room for yet more denial as after all Mr Bates’s ticket to London on the train was uncut! Therefore he stayed in York all day. The only way he could have gone to London was to have bought 2 tickets. This is beginning to stretch it. But as they say, from the 2nd season on, Fellowes began to jump the shark regularly.
Anna’s trip to the pharmacy will provide a new turn in Episodes 3-4: she has Mary Stoke’s book and this and a version of Lady Mary’s cervical cap (?) is found by Mr Bates. Anna is utterly unfree. If she goes to the pharmacy, she is confronted by a demand on the part of the clerk that she prove she is not immoral. She has to state she’s married. In the 1950s when women went to doctor’s for contraceptives, they would be similarly condescended to. When Mr Bates finds this stuff in her drawers, he accuses her of preventing conception. Is it her body? Mrs Hughes did not seem to think Edna Braithwaite’s body (she who seduced the hapless Tom, MyAnna Buring) was hers when Edna said she was pregnant and in effect threatened to attack her, felt she had the right to intrude into her body. It’s such moments one can watch Downton Abbey for now.
So how will the life of the country house itself be brought to an end or turned into a tourist place with offers to the BBC to do radio shows from (TV shows will come later)? It’s being prepared for, and the death of Isis is the foreshadowing. Christmas time Robert is short of breath; can’t hold his liquor and is told he has angina pectoris. Robert will die. Yet another widow. Then the house will fall apart; it will no longer be needed. Silly as we never saw it properly used as the political linchpin it should have been, but Cora will go into a smaller place, maybe travel (why not? — she is still attractive, the false stereotype of the rich widow on cruises will do here). Lady Edith at last rid herself of her nemesis Mary by taking Marigold to London where she runs Grigson’s press. A new suitor appears for Lady Mary in the Christmas episode and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot really does fit into a character who seems insouciantly up to Lady Mary; Fellowes must have said to himself, Why didn’t I see this before? the actor once you see him just is “it” for Lady Mary. Perfect for little George’s cool new father — another generation of heartlessness in the offing.
Violet, Lady Grantham and Mrs Crawley’s marriages do not come off – too much baggage and life does not always have happy ending; so they settle down to doing lunch with Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter). Miss Denker will improve her culinery skills.
We are never sure who killed Mr Green — I doubt Anna so back to Mr Bates even if sleuthing by Mr Molesley and Mr Baxter turns up an alibi for him — once again: