Downton Abbey

A weekly dissection of “Downton Abbey” (8 p.m. CT, Sundays/PBS) by editors Karen Hawkins and Claire Bushey. If they weren’t doing it here, they’d be doing it on the phone.



Season 3, Episode 1


Finally, finally, finally “Downton Abbey” is back, and for the first time I’m watching it as it unfolds, rather than binging on illegal downloads ripped from the Internet. That slow unspooling in real time is an appalling notion when I think about the cliffhangers no doubt to come, but last night, parked in front of a friend-of-a-friend’s TV with a glass of red wine, it felt just fine.

So, can I say how relieved I am that Lady Mary and Matthew are finally married? The writers have been keeping those two apart for no good reason since the end of season one, with such plot contrivances as “Lavinia” and “Matthew’s weird conscience.” This latest wrinkle, with Matthew poised to inherit money from a relation of his dead fiancée, at least felt more honest – honest enough that I worried Mary would call off the wedding, and we’d never get to see that ethereal, drop-dead gorgeous gown. I’m with Mary on this one. The money Matthew receives from the will could save Downton Abbey for the Crawleys, but he doesn’t want to use it because it would be “stealing,” since he was written into the will only because he was Lavinia’s true love. Um, hello? The dead do not get a say in how you spend their money. Mary’s concern that her husband-to-be would place his vaporous ethical “dilemma” over her family’s very concrete problems seemed the best reason so far for throwing him over. But thank God she didn’t, or we would have missed the adorable scene of them in bed together. Kind of makes you wish this wasn’t PBS.

 
And they weren’t the only lovebirds. Looks like Edith is going to get her man too, which I know you’re thrilled about, Karen.

Delightedly,
Claire



 A "glass of red wine," Claire? That was Hour Two. Are we not mentioning the Hour One flask of....oh, nevermind.

I'm also over the moon that "Downton Abbey" is back, and its return was the perfect antidote to a prolonged holiday hangover. Goodbye, family drama. Hello, scripted British drama. If you've never watched the show with gay men, I highly recommend it as a uniquely anachronistic experience that yields gems like, "That's right, Matthew, darling, you tell her. Now take your shirt off."

In hindsight I can appreciate the 11th-hour uncertainty over Matthew and Mary's wedding, but during the show I was losing my itshay, something along the lines of, "OMG, if they don't get married, I'm turning to 'Sister Wives.'" I personally find Matthew's moral dilemma over his inherited money appalling, and it's situations like this that make me realize how badly "DA" needs a Sassy Black Woman and/or Stoic Old Black Man character (I'm thinking Wanda Sykes or Morgan Freeman) to give these stuffy Brits the what fo'. "You're doing *what* with that money? Boy, gimme that checkbook."

Competing with Matthew and Mary for Star-Crossed Lovers of the Century, of course, are Bates and Anna. While I adore them as a couple, I'm finding the whole 1920s version of "Oz" thing a bit tedious. I'm confident that we'll eventually learn something salacious about Vera's death that makes this all worth it and frees Bates, but I kinda wish they'd get on with it, already.

If Edith and that all-but-snowy owl of a man are lovebirds, I'm a countess, Claire.

Ta,
Karen


If a girl can’t enjoy a whiskey or three with her Masterpiece Theatre, then I’m with the Dowager Countess: I want no part of this new world. Come to think of it, I am always with the Dowager Countess, now and forever. I’ll bet that woman has a flask.

You are so far from the only person tired of the Bates-in-jail plot that if you put all of us together in a scullery we could cook and clean for another mansion the size of Downton. I remember in season one when Anna was sick and Bates brought a dinner tray to the female servants’ quarters. Their smiles were so transparent and luminous and precious that I ached on their behalf. The murder plot feels artificial, ginned up to keep the happy couple from being happy. The writers seem to be adhering to the axiom, admittedly often justified, that a happy TV couple is a boring TV couple. But what I like about Downton is its subtlety, the way it portrays the intimate, often surprising favors and slights dealt out by crews of personalities from two distinct classes all living on top of each other. Bates and Anna could get on with their married life and still be enmeshed in the household’s joys, pain, business and intrigues.

You and I are just going to have to disagree about Edith, preferably at length. Yes, Sir Anthony Strallan is old. Yes, he’s got a wound from the Great War that leaves his arm useless in a sling. So what? He and Edith seem to like each other. Moreover, as her outburst to her father shows, Edith doesn’t want to be alone. And her options are not unlimited. As we’re reminded repeatedly, Edith trails her sisters in charm and beauty. (That must have been a fun casting phone call to Laura Carmichael. “We want you! As the ugly sister.”) So why shouldn’t she take what she can get, when she wants what she can get? Sounds like a happy ending to me.

Team Edith,
Claire



Well put, I mean, who isn't with the Dowager Countess? I defy you to find me a single viewer who didn't guffaw when she asked the embarassingly underdressed Lord Grantham (that's underdressed?) to bring her a drink because she mistook him for a waiter. And I could spend an entire hour watching her interact with her delightfully unpleasant parental counterpart (Shirley MacLaine as Cora's American mother). Though their disagreements, at times, felt a bit one-dimensional, like an old couple having the same argument over and over and over again: Americans are crude barbarians with no appreciation for tradition; Brits are uptight curmudgeons with no appreciation for a changing world. Yeah, we get it.

 

I'm not hating on Sir Anthony Strallan because he's old or a wounded war veteran. I'm hating on Lord Strallan because he's about as interesting as a Carr's Table Water Cracker. Bland, pasty, crumbly: Yum. Edith isn't anyone's favorite sister, it's true, but I refuse to believe that she can't do better that Sir Milquetoast. I appreciate her role as the Bitchy, Conniving, Overlooked Sister, and surely there's an equally bitchy bachelor somewhere in the countryside she can settle down with instead of just settling. As for being alone, she just isn't trying hard enough. She lives in a house with enough servants to field a Cricket team -- it's time to get creative. Sybil certainly did. (Words to the wise: Do NOT under any circumstances do a Google search for the words "Sybil" "Downton Abbey." You won't be happy. The internet is a maddening place.)

Couples count: We agree on Matthew and Mary (yay!), disagree on Edith and Milquetoast (one yay, one nay) -- where do we stand on Sybil and Branson? I'll let you start.

Team Bitchy Bachelor,

Karen



Episode 2: Sir Anthony pulls a runner


Oh, Edith.

I did not see that one coming. Did you, Karen? I was all like, yay, two weddings in two weeks, because I secretly like weddings, since whether on television or in life they're a colossal source of pageantry and drama, and the real ones have the added benefit of real groomsman. (I have a weakness for men in formal wear. Perhaps the underlying source of my "Downton" obsession?) I was happy to see Edith get her man, because as much as I love Lady Mary, I don’t imagine it’s easy living under the same roof as her, and goddamnit, the woman is owed a little happiness.

And then she's jilted at the altar.

It was clearer to me in this week’s episode that Edith was settling for Sir Anthony, that she didn't feel the same passion for him that moves our other sets of lovers. The night before their wedding she told him he would be "the project of her life" – not exactly the stuff of modern day romance. It's clearer still in the aftermath when she banishes her sisters from her bedroom because she can’t stand how they’re married and pregnant, and she's not. Edith was searching for a role. She wanted to be a wife, a mother and a lady, and Sir Anthony was a path to that life, a path that was by no means guaranteed considering that almost a third of British men between 20 and 24 were killed during World War I.

To me, that's a perfectly legitimate love story. Settling is underrated. To run a household, raise a family, keep each other from loneliness – is this not a worthy life? Not every coupling has to be Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy; I rather think Charlotte and Mr. Collins found their way to happiness too. Why can't it be enough to make someone your project, or to have them make you theirs?

Sadly,

Claire

P.S. That letter from Lavinia’s dead relative? A MacGuffin wrapped in a plot device stuffed inside a cliché.

P.P.S. Anna and Bates? Still, nobody cares.


 

Thanks to the fact that I'm woefully behind in watching the show and had to read your post about Episode 2 in order to edit, yes, I did see that coming. But that didn't make it any less delicious. 

Who knew Lord Milquetoast could move that fast? Run, Lord, run!

You and I do (finally) agree on one thing: Edith's reasons for marrying him were miles away from romantic. She loves him because she gets to take care of him? Sounds like somebody has Mommy issues, I'm just saying. (The bedroom scene after the wedding-that-wasn't, by the way, is the first time I can remember Cora actually having a sweet, meaningful interaction with Edith in ages, if at all. "Being tested makes you stronger." You said it, sister.)

Where we disagree is on the merits of settling. No, not every couple has to have a swoon-worthy story. But a little swoon goes a long way. Edith would've spent her whole life not only taking care of him but trying to convince him that she doesn't mind, and he would've spent his (hopefully few) remaining days whining about how guilty he feels for being old. If you feel so guilty, run away. Oh, good, you did.

I'm also considering having the phrase "Spinsters get up for breakfast" put on T-shirts.

The letter from Lavinia's father is the perfect example of how the show sometimes wraps up troubling plot points a little too sweetly to be swallowed. At times, it's endearing (when Anna and Bates outsmarted O'Brien and Thomas in Season 1), but now it feels forced. Daisy mailed a letter penned by Lavinia's dying hand and never mentioned it, and we're all only finding out about it now. Uh huh. Riiiight.

Speaking of O'Brien and Thomas, why in the Dowager Countess' corset would the two of them ever take each other on? They both know what they're capable of. 

The happiest non-wedding watcher ever,
Karen



Episode 3: Perhaps the most tiresome 57 minutes of 'Downton' ever


Running time: Approx. 57 minutes

Number of times I said/thought, "Branson, you jackass!": Too many to count.

Flying figs I give about pretty much anything that happened in this episode: Zero.

Highlights: Just 3.
1) Edith got a letter to the editor published in the paper supporting women's voting rights. Go Edith.
2) William's father is such a sweetheart, and watching him interact with Daisy makes me go "Awwwww" a lot.
3) The Dowager Countess fired off one of my favorite lines to date: "You're a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do."

But the rest of it? I could give. Bates being punished in prison? Yawn. Ethel giving her ridiculously adorable son away to his grandparents? Shrug. (By the way, what toddler willingly waves goodbye to his mother like that instead of screaming bloody murder? A TV one.) The hiring of new staff? Sigh. Matthew's discovery that Downton is being woefully mismanaged, in his not-so-humble opinion? Please, just make it stop.

I hate to say it, but this one made me want to watch with the sound off so I could just admire their amazing clothes and hairstyles in peace.

zzzzzzzzz,
Karen




Episode 4: In which awfulness occurs



Obligatory extra big huge spoiler alert. Seriously, people, if you haven’t seen episode four of “Downton Abbey” and you keep reading, don’t come whining to me.

Are you still with me? OK, then, fine. Sybil dies in childbirth. Repeat: SYBIL DIES IN CHILDBIRTH. The show’s soap operatic unfairness that used to be leveled squarely at star-crossed Bates and Anna came crashing down on the head of one of its most likable characters Sunday night, and by extension, the audience. Even Thomas wept for her. Thomas!

Lord Grantham hires a hoity-toity doctor from out of town to attend his daughter as she gives birth to his first grandchild. Cora, loyal to Dr. Clarkson from the village, brings him in because she doesn’t trust the outsider. She’s right not to. He missed the symptoms of eclampsia, and after giving birth to a daughter, she has a seizure and dies from lack of oxygen. The scene is excruciating, with Cora and Tom clutching at her body, as her sisters and father look on in horror, and worst of all, the two doctors do nothing. More than anything else I’ve seen on “Downton” that moment illustrated for me how long ago 1920 was, that two doctors should watch a woman die and have nothing at all to do. (Of course, as The Daily Beast makes clear, the doctors did have at least one medical option, and eclampsia still kills women today.)

This is the thing I hate about British TV. They’re so willing to kill off their main characters. In an American show, unless it’s “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men,” you can rest assured a character will stick around as long as the actor is willing to sign the contract. Whereas with many British shows, and I say this as a longtime “MI-5” fan, the unstated tagline might as well be, don’t get too attached.

This sucks,
Claire



A few weeks ago I made the grave mistake of googling "Lady Sybil" "Downton Abbey," and the headlines from our fellow fans across the pond yelled at me of her death. So I wasn't surprised. (I really, really hate spoilers.)

But knowing Sybil was going to die didn't make this episode any less excruciating, that's the only word for it, to watch. In fact, it made it a billion times worse, knowing how viewers' emotions were being toyed with when the baby was born healthy and everyone went to bed.

Even your vivid description of that scene didn't prepare me for the stomach-churning godawfulness of it, and the stricken looks on the staffs' faces perfectly mirrored what all of us probably looked like in the aftermath.

And watching everyone say goodbye to Sybil's body? Way to kick us while we're down.

Preparing to watch Episode 5 with one eye closed and a hanky handy,
Karen

 


Episode 5: #EarlofGranthamProblems

Poor Lord Grantham.

Sh*t is just not going his way.

His beloved youngest daughter died in childbirth, and her husband –his chauffeur-turned-son-in-law – intends for the child to be, gasp, Catholic. His wife blames him for their daughter’s death and won’t even share a bed with him, let alone civil conversation. His other son-in-law thinks he’s mismanaging their sprawling estate, and his oldest daughter is inclined to agree. His middle daughter has brought scandal to their good name by sending, good heavens, a letter to a newspaper about women’s rights. And all of the women in his life have shrugged their beautifully clothed shoulders at good sense and propriety by having a luncheon prepared by a former housemaid-turned-prostitute-turned fledgling cook.

What’s gotten into women these days?

These story lines and others involving strides taken by the female members of the downstairs staff – can you imagine adorable Daisy running a farm?–  are enough to make a feminist viewer downright giddy. Though I draw the line at caring that Bates is finally coming home. I'm proud of Anna for securing the evidence that will free him, at last, but YAWN.

Best Dowager Countess line of this episode: “’Lie’ is such an unmusical word.  

Girl Power,
Karen

***

You’re into the girl power in this week’s episode, but I’m liking the continued development of the friendship between Matthew and Branson. (Like various members of the Crawley family, I can’t seem to think of him as Tom.) In the season’s first episode, Matthew told the beleaguered former chauffeur they’d need to stick together, since they were married to those spitfire Crawley women. Now, with that initial bond undone by Sybil’s death, they’re still together, walking the estate, discussing the future. So Branson was raised a country boy. Makes sense – he’s got an awful wholesome face for a revolutionary.

But I do like how the women, servants and ladies alike, are more capable of embracing change, while Lord Grantham upstairs and Carson downstairs are fighting, in not terribly attractive fashion, the shifting in the world they knew and the (fractional) slippage of their power. White men were ever thus. What was it Gandhi said about how the world changes? “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Do svidaniya,

Claire