Blogging the Abbey: Season premiere
Russell: There are so many reasons to be glad Downton Abbey is back on PBS. Tuxedos! Attractive characters with strikingly perfect teeth for early 20th-century England! Mrs. Patmore!
But the reason I am happiest to have Carson and Co. back on American television is that it gives me a chance to write something with you, Rose. And so when you suggested that we blog this season of Downton Abbey, I couldn’t agree to it fast enough. The only thing better would be having you in the same room to watch together in person. But until the fates bring the universe back into order and have us living close to each other again, this will have to do.
So let’s get to it! (Needless to say, this series of posts will comprise discussions of the most recent episodes, and will be rife with spoilers. Fairly warned be ye, readers!) What did you think? I really liked it, except for the parts that I hated. What about you?
I’ll start off with two things I liked, and a confession. Even though I found the lead-up to it contrived (a sadly recurrent flaw in the show’s writing), I enjoyed the moment when Cora gave Nanny McSatan the sack. Lady Grantham has always appealed to me most when she’s allowed to do something more than smile a wanly loving smile, and Elizabeth McGovern was wonderfully steely in that scene.
I’m also delighted that Lady Edith has morphed from her sad-sack jilted bride/least winsome sister persona into a glamorous, sophisticated and confident woman about town, and that she has a gentleman admirer who actually seems to love her. I will warn you now that if the show rehashes the “older man dumps Edith” plotline from last season, I will fly into a frothing rage. Let Edith stay happy, Julian Fellowes!
And my confession? I didn’t really miss Matthew. Have you forgiven the show for killing him off, especially since the writers apparently didn’t want to?
Rose: I am thrilled to do this, too! Some of the greatest moments of my life have been watching TV with you and making snarky comments. That fact is probably an indication of…something about the quality of both my life and our relationship. But let us set all such questions aside, shall we, and get down to managing the estate.
I confess: I missed Matthew Crawley. I am now in that phase of life when I glance at gossip magazines and recognize approximately 2.47% of the stars. It is, then, the relatively rare male star with whom I fall in love. In the past few years, it has only been Matthew, Jon Hamm, the guy from The Americans, Martin Freeman, Kyle Chandler, and Idris Elba. (I had to break up with Damian Lewis, my first and only ginger love, over his shaved head and complete lack of character coherence this season in Homeland.)
Matthew’s eyes. That voice. His deep integrity and concern for the poor. His eventual realization that everyone benefits if fabulously wealthy people employ servants to ensure they never venture forth from their bedrooms each morning unfortified by tea. And that wearing fabulous evening clothes if you are to be an earl is simply nothing to be ashamed of.
Was it his fault that the writers of the show have apparently never heard that one should avoid dei ex machinis? And that these writers resorted to, shall we say, rather tried-and-true melodramatic flourishes, such as miraculous recovery from paralysis? The awfully convenient death of the woman who stood between the impeccably honorable Matthew and the otherwise brittle Lady Mary, who had awakened sexually and morally under his mesmerizing blue gaze? The sudden inheritance that saved the estate?
Speaking of which, what terrors do the producers of this show wreak on their actors? It’s a successful show, but the talent can’t seem to get away fast enough – Lady Sybil, Matthew, Mrs. O’Brien. Do the showrunners get actors in the period mindset by denying them their smartphones and antibiotics?
I agree completely about Nanny McSatan and Cora’s cool strength and American practicality, an underused asset on the show. I also am glad we have left behind Edith-as-plotting-evil-sister, Edith-as-driver, Edith-as-budding-writer-who-has-demonstrated-no-previous-interest-in-the-written-word, and settled down with, as you say, likable urban sophisticate Edith who wants to marry the guy who clearly adores her. Although a devastated Germany in the wake of the Versailles Treaty and experiencing hyperinflation may not turn out to be the best choice for the honeymooning couple? Just a thought. Although it might be fun to see them ogling gender-bending avant-garde artists at decadent Berlin nightclubs.
Getting back to Cora, however, what on earth happened to that cool American practicality when it came time to hire a lady’s maid who all but cackles and tents her fingers? I wish I could have a job interview like this. Miss Braithwaite: “My aunt? What aunt? Oh, my aunt, yes, yes.” Cora: “You’re hired!” Never mind about double-checking with your reference whom I will see before the day is out. Please, do come work for me in a job that involves seeing me naked and vulnerable and handling my most expensive jewelry and clothing.
So plausibility and nuanced characters are still not Downton Abbey‘s thing. But I do look forward to Lady Mary having some thoughts on reforming the estate and tussling with the Earl. How about you?
Russell: Well, thus far Mary’s managerial skills seem limited to looking intently at a farmer while he talks about sheep, and looking intently at Branson while he talks about tracts of land. While I hardly begrudge anyone the chance to look intently at Branson (whose myriad irritating qualities as a character do not cancel out his merits as an object of intented looking)…
[OK, now I have to digress and gripe a little bit about Branson. If Matthew’s transition from “who needs a man to help him put on a jacket?” to “where is the man who is supposed to be here helping me put on my jacket?” was a wee bit convenient for the arc of the story, Branson’s transformation from revolutionary proletarian firebrand to mannered denizen of the drawing room drives me bananas. Not that I particularly liked the old Branson, but maybe the writers could sneak in a passing acknowledgement of his previous character traits? No?]
Where was I? Oh, yes. Mary, the Earl, and the management of Downton. Yes, I am curious to see how the conflicts between the Earl and Mary pan out. However, since his befuddled hidebound incompetence and her brittle chilliness are my two least favorite things to watch on the show, I fear there will be ample supply of both as they story unfolds. We’ll see.
Cora’s response to the Scandal of the Ruined Mystery Garment (What the hell was that, anyway? And maliciously-destroyed clothing is another plot point that need not be recycled again.) cancelled out a lot of the pleasure of watching her sack Nanny McSatan. It beggars credulity that she would really believe Anna would behave the way Thomas implied, or that she would have had the Earl speak to Bates about it instead of going to Mrs. Hughes or Carson first. I didn’t buy it, and also wish it weren’t the preamble to yet another “Thomas Schemes with the Lady’s Maid” plotline.
However, speaking of Thomas, the thing I’d like most to see is him getting a love interest for real, neither a caddish lord nor unrequited passion but an actual on-the-q.t. boyfriend. Not only would I not mind seeing a same-sex romance for its own sake, but the only times we see Thomas as anything other than a malevolent sociopath are when his gayness is in play, and I’d prefer to see more nuance to his character. What would you like to see?
Rose: Part of the reason historical fiction is so interesting is that we want to see how people lived then. However, it’s not quite so much fun when it feels as if the showrunner is holding your hand saying, “See? Look at that! Pregnant women smoked back then! And no one knew how to use those new-fangled victrolas!” So a certain subtlety is required; a subtlety which has, alas, occasionally eluded the grasp of the makers of Downton Abbey.
Glimpsing the past through fiction works especially nicely when continuities are stressed, rather than differences. I just finished Deadwood, which I loved loved loved. One of the many awesome awesomenesses of that show was watching the doctor. He isn’t a figure of fun, someone the audience can cluck at while musing about how horrid medicine was back in the bad old days. He had some limitations specific to his time, but he is a surprisingly knowledgeable character.
So, in that vein, in addition to ogling the dropwaist dresses, I would like to see Downton Abbey‘s perhaps surprising continuities with the present. I agree that it would be nice to see Thomas semi-human again, and yes, in a gay relationship. I would like to know how gay downstairs couples managed. Or a gay downstairs/upstairs liaison. Similarly, part of me wished Matthew had remained in the wheelchair (that is, alive in the wheelchair) to see how disability played out in that era. And to see his blue eyes smolder intensely as he wheeled himself around the estate.
Maggie Smith in this episode was a bit too dull and sincere. She actually said “I love you”?!?! Her one-liners are often genuinely funny. Although I did like when she told Mary there was more than one kind of good mother. Indeed, I’d like to see Mary feeling her way into discovering a motherhood that works for her.
Other hopes: that the evil lady’s maid and the vacuous dancing cousin are soon dispatched to that great estate of former Downton denizens in the sky; that Anna gets unjustifiably irritable with someone.
Until next week….