Dear friends and readers,
So here we are, another season. What you notice the first time watching is how the film-makers hit the ground running. Speed: most scenes far less than a minute long. This costs. They were concerned people would say ho-hum, this is getting tiring, are we going to have this again? They do have to keep the characters in character. So a couple of strong star types were brought in: Anna Chancellor as the lecherous widow (she’s even eager for a drink before dinner) Lady Anstruther after the handsome young — harried anxious — Jimmy, 2nd footman (Ed Speleers)
And Harriet Walter as the widowed Lady Shackleton who steals every scene she’s in, adding a grace note of real melancholy as she conveys something of the conditions of her widowhood to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith): relegated to a cottage she didn’t want to go into, she bears up:
They returned to the old wittiness and sense of quiet routine of the first 5 episodes of the first season (where they were not worried about further seasons or setting up arching stories of melodrama). There are numerous funny dialogues, arresting quips, and not all are Maggie Smith’s (though some are). At the same time there is strong melodrama, ending in a climactic fire.
That’s Thomas (Rob James-Collier) rescuing Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) in fetching nightgown: she fell asleep after throwing a book of poems left her by her beloved Grigson over towards the fire (a death-wish it seems)
For a suggestive recap of the plot, see I should have been a blogger (Ani Bundel).
Watch a second time, though, and you see something else, something many have noticed before: The mini-series goes on to develop some of the same patterns and in a realistic enough way that three minutes thought ought to bring to mind the troubles and miseries of the servants and women. Each story line that matters and is melodramatic treats of some real cruelty in the lives of servants and women at the same time as it obscures the real motives for it and why the treatment of the person is so unfair.
Is there any more painful depiction of abjection than Miss Baxter confessing her theft to Cora, Lady Grantham? As with Mr Bates in the first season (where he is discovered), there was a prison sentence; also like Mr Bates the story of explanation, she is anguished, can make no excuse but something evil in her (in Episode 2 we find it was a seductive male servant who “drove her to it” and was “no good”), not that servants were paid so abysmally, exploited so harshly with long hours and severe disciplined patterns, and expected to live among these luxurious super-rich. Who would not steal these fabulously wealthy people’s things? Far from being driven by others, you’d be almost superhuman not to want the comfortable warm beautiful things around you. Today too those who commit crimes are depicted with savage lack of empathy (I don’t know sheer statistics of petty robbery, whether it has gone up with the on going depression in the US with terrible or no jobs for vast numbers of people).
Downton Abbey repeatedly touches on these real subjects but always from the employers’ point of view — the question is how Cora, Lady Grantham, feels is the issue; and if she will see if she can endure to have such a low “felon” in her intimate room. Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) it was who counseled Miss Baxter to confess in order to stop the fierce bullying of Thomas (once aqain playing his part of the spiteful gay) so it’s patriarchy which may save poor Miss Baxter, if Cora condescends to keep her. One almost longs for Miss Obrien’s strong sarcasms (Siobhan Finneran): we later hear she lost her place when the Marchioness of Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls) got her comeuppance (not enough money to keep a lady’s maid). Not that Thomas is immune from the power-lady of this hour: when he goes to snitch on Miss Baxter, he finds he is too late: Cora, Lady Grantham tells him, she knows, and uses the opportunity to threaten to sack him too, for what what she doing recommending such a person to her? She so dim over Lady Edith has guessed Thomas was using his power over Miss Baxter to find things out.
Well, yes there is another, a second an equally painful depiction of abjection. As the series begins again, wesee that privileged ice-princess who makes it a hobby to throw corrosive darts at Edith, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) riding on her bike away from Downton:
who turns into Lady Edith careening near an old deserted church(where she will meet Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), that super-loyal and therefore impeccable tenant-farmer. There they plan and plot how they will find a way for her to live as if she is child’s mother without telling, all the while using Mrs Drewe as their front. Before it was Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), a servant, driven to prostitution, driven to give up her child, whom we watched pacing everywhere with her baby clutched to her bosom; now (as a third watch-through proves) it will be Lady Edith, similarly holding tight to her child and near hysterical tears.
As Anibundel pointed out, Mrs Drewe is our latest dimwit not to pick up the obvious: Edith is the baby’s mother (well, duh): it must be Mr Drewe Lady Edith is drawn to, or she is very sick indeed (well something somewhere is sick). Wouldn’t the natural inference be this child is Edith’s by Mr Drewe? This pattern of a mother giving birth out of wedlock is seen in later 19th & early to mid-20th century novels (Bronte’s Shirley to East Lynn to Poor Cow); here it is presented in such as a way as to make exceptional a pattern of deprivation and grief.
Anibundel also feels for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): on the second time round, he certainly seems to be the figure everyone else can ignore or look askance at. He is “donk” to his grandchildren because he once played “pin the tail on the donkey” and apparently was the donkey. He is not wanted to head the installation of a memorial on his own land (!), and is given a position as patron only because his butler, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) makes it a condition of Mr Carter’s accepting as chair. Lord Grantham is told off by the village schoolteacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis), and knows he looks bad for bullying her in his indignation that she should have the temerity to disagree with him — most strongly on the issue of the WW1 memorial
Let us stop at the memorial. Some of the loyal older viewers of Downton Abbey may remember the 1970s To Serve Them all My Days (scripted Andrew Davies, with that salt of the earth good man-teacher, David Powlett-Jones), based on the arch Tory Delderfield’s 1950s novel of the same title, a nostalgic look at the upper class schoolboy hood of the 1930s. The terms in which this memorial is debated in 2014 is precisely that of the 1950s novel. Miss Bunting is against spending money for a memorial to a war that uselessly killed millions and left the establishment in power; says she we can do something but not waste money on that. Lord Grantham’s allies around the table (Lord Gillingham, Tom Cullen) has produced the usual pieties about comfort for those who died and a symbol of gratitude. Even in the 1970s Andrew Davies did more justice to the Miss Bunting point of view as creditable and even right. Of course people have to be rude to voice it. But Miss Bunting does not have Tom’s approval; she is not exactly welcomed by the kitchen staff whom she hen wants to thank (ostentatiously) — though her coming downstairs does lead to Daisy, now a cook-kitchen maid (Sophia McShera), finding a teacher to help her with her self-improvement studies.
And note Lord Grantham’s misinterpretation of what is happening between Jimmy and Lady Anstruther is the one that decides what happens to Jimmy: having seen Jimmy in bed with the lady, Grantham sacks Jimmy because he cannot accommodate Jimmy’s ambitions. There is no guarantee whatsoever that Lady Anstruther will do anything for Jimmy but use him. If Jimmy could find it in himself (he can’t) Thomas would be the better partner (as he recognizes). Lord Grantham, like Cora, gets to decide who will be sacked; in discussions over the land, it is Lord Grantham Lady Mary and Tom must convince to build houses on the land for more rent. And it is Lord Grantham who leads everyone to put out the fire, who congratulates Thomas (who thus wins back Cora, Lady Grantham’s favor — too easily), and Tom Bransom (Allen Leech): back again as this deeply remorseful muddled liberal Irishman who seems to believe that leftism is a movement based on hatred, and has to ask permission to have his friends stay. He does still see to the cars (Lady Anstruther); maybe he does need to get out more.
So paradigms of abjection and looking askance at those who are powerful still.
Watch a third time (preferrably after having watched all 8 episodes) and you see: several overarching storylines are set up: the first, whose emphasis is not lost from sight throughout: Edith’s need to build a life for herself: the study of Edith: yes just such an environment would foster her kind of dependence and love and despair when the one attempt for liberty she grasped at was destroyed. Parallel is Tom’s need to separate himself from these people, find himself.
Daisy striking out to become personally emotionally by knowledge gained independent. She has become an artist of a cook, and now she wants to ready herself for a life outside the house, perhaps in charge of Mr Mason’s farm. (And ho-hum who will Lady Mary marry in the end. Does it matter? as she might herself say ever so coolly. Later her grandmother will tell her she’s overdoing it.)
The sub-stories attached which are used to create feeling states, the communitarian ideal that is projected is that of Mr Molesley who emerges as a reader: we did see signs of this when long ago he gave Anna Smith, now Mrs Bates (Joanne Froggart), a copy of Von Armin’s Elizabeth and her German Garden (which true to her anti-intellectual practical spirit she never found time to read). Mr M is champion of good feeling. Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nichols) concern for Daisy’s self-esteem — like Edith’s character, this makes sense given Mrs Patmore’s background, where you learn you will be hurt more by the failure because the trying may get you nowhere.
As yet we only see Mr (Brendan Coyle) Bates and Anna marginally (they live in another house), enough to see the aftermath and results of the rape are not at all gotten past. They remain wary, she aware how vulnerable they both are, he on the alert for anyone suspicious of them who can hurt either. Why haven’t they had a child he asks; she doesn’t know. They fear Miss Baxter as a weak informer.
Secrets, many of the characters have secrets to keep to themselves (for some stills of them much later in the series at home [from Episode 7]).
A new note: we do see Barrow’s real loneliness and lack of life — a rare case where we see what happens from the exploited and marginalized person’s point of view — he cannot make a life for himself that he wants to live he tells Jimmy. And Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) is considerably softened: she is as pessimistic and wry as ever, but more willing to admit her need of others, e.g., Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton’s) friendship
Characters are cast aside to make room for the new feeling states and developments of over-arching stories across the seasons: Dr Clarkson (David Robb) who will not now marry Mrs Crawley; and characters are brought to the front, the supposed amusement of the snobbery of Violet, Lady Grantham’s butler, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) who Violet, Lady Grantham is supposedly ruled by — not very.
And in each episode we’ll have self-contained stories of characters not seen again (as here, Anstruther and Jimmy, Lady Shackleton), or stories which last 2-3 episodes and conclude (TBA). Even Isis, the dog, is being readied to play her role when the time comes.
There is a darker palette this time: I have enlarged several stills because unless I do that you won’t be able to make out the guarded people.
Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the last shot of someone in the opening: she knows Lady Edith has a painful secret she has shared with Mr Drewe (now fireman he makes an appt with Lady Edith to discuss matters)