Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Takes Its Season 3 Bow

I haven’t updated this blog in a bit due to a lingering illness. But I am back this evening with some thoughts on the close on Season 3 of Downton Abbey. I won’t talk about the “shocking” ending when [SPOILER] ran off the road and [SPOILER]. Rather, I want to talk about the evolution of Tom Branson. Our Irish republican chauffeur now found himself in the uncomfortable position of being the only grandee left in the house while everyone else was up in Scotland getting serenaded by bagpipes while munching on haggis. A maid made goo-goo eyes at him. They flirted. He dined below stairs just as he had done before he married Lady Sybil. She walked in on him while he was changing. There was a promise of lunch. And then Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes asked her to leave. No, she had not done wrong, according to Mrs. Hughes; but there are rules to a life in service. And she had violated those rules.

Now, the maid, Edna, was clearly manipulating both Tom’s grief and guilt for her own purposes. But they were there for the manipulating. Nothing puzzling about the grief. The guilt, however, I find interesting. And I wonder how that is constructed. Here it is, given how the show has progressed, the Summer of 1921 (probably). The war for independence in Ireland is winding down. The war over the “Irish Free State” is about to erupt. Tom is a member of the family — Anglican, wealthy, noble — that is the very epitome of English rule in Ireland. Added to that Tom helps Matthew in his plan to rescue Downton through modernization. Now people are complicated, and so should fictional characters be too. Tom has daughter Sybil to care for. That is a responsibility he does not take lightly.

But I think Fellowes missed an opportunity here. Given how much in the crucible of history we are at this point in the series — particularly a history that is of paramount importance to Tom — I think he would have acted differently than in the almost saintly and bourgeoise way he did. (I think there is a reason for this tied to the spoiler-y thing I didn’t mention above). He has lost his wife. He is in a strange house with strange people with strange ways. He has been sidelined from a cause to which he is passionately committed. From where I sit, I think the more interesting choice — the one with the higher stakes for the character — would be to not be so “English” in responding to Edna’s advances. I think it would have served the character — and the show — better if Tom had an affair (a fully physical sexual affair) with Edna. It would have been a way to escape his grief, if only momentarily. It would be a way of satisfying a longing. It would have been an attempt to rekindle some of his more proletariat beliefs, to do something rebellious, something not proper. He would, of course, have been wrong to do so. But people do stupid things all the time, especially when emotionally distraught. There would have been, of course, scandal. But a very interesting scandal that would have cut across class lines and provided much fodder for future plot lines.

But instead of D. H. Lawrence we got a dose of good old fashioned Victorian repression. Fellowes has his characters in these tight little boxes. He needs to let them out of their cages and see what chaos and carnage will follow. It will make for stronger plotting.

Papists, Prostitutes, and Publicans — Or Another Day at Downton Abbey

My thoughts on Downton Abbey’s Season 3 Episode 6 (or, for those of us Stateside, Episode 5). And it was yet another round of everyone’s favorite game: guessing what bad decision will Robert (Lord Crawley, 7th Lord of Grantham) make next? There was no end of them, especially following (SPOILERS AHEAD) after the expiration of his youngest daughter, Sybil, who died so she could pursue film roles with less ensemble-y casts. As the rather forced alliteration of the title indicates, Robert was getting it on all fronts. First, Tom, the chauffeur/Irish republican/son-in-law had the temerity to insist that his now motherless daughter be baptized a Catholic (a “left-footer”). Next, Cousin Isobel hired a former prostitute as a housekeeper/cook, and then invited all the Crawley women for a light lunch of salad and salmon mousse. Robert stormed over and insisted that they all leave immediately because they were all in danger, perhaps, of catching prostitute cooties from the salmon mousse??? A bit unclear what he hoped to gain. And, finally, Matthew continued his campaign to bring modern business methods — like balancing the books — to keep Downton from being in danger of going down a third time.

There was an excellent conversation toward the end of the episode between Mary and Robert that really crystallized where we are in Season 3. As I watched, I thought, “Wow, these two have really changed since The Titanic sank and the Turkish diplomat’s son died in Mary’s bed.” Change is built into this series. It’s its DNA. And, I think this is what gets people’s knickers into a twist. On the surface, it does look like it’s all about the dresses, the hats, the tea services, and the fancy-schmancy dinners. And in a sense it is. But it is about the loss of those things. The change. And Fellowes builds that into every aspect of the show, into the sometimes into the too-on-point lines. And it causes some unfortunate missteps. The less said about the con man/burn victim or Matthew’s miracle cure the better.

But I come back to that scene between Robert and Mary. Mary, who started this program as a spoiled willful and often cruel young woman. And Robert, the wise and benevolent paterfamilias who was the font of virtue and compassion. It was Mary in the first season who frequently directed her spite at sad sake Edith. It was Robert who hired poor injured Bates as his personal valet. How a little world war, a little Spanish flu, and a little Irish revolution change things around.

Now Mary has taken on many of his better qualities: the compassion, the benevolence. She supports the Catholic baptism and the prostitute in the kitchen. She is starting to serve as a peacemaker between Robert and Matthew. And time and time again Robert (along with uptight Carson) is on the wrong side of history. And that is an interesting evolution.

One of the more interesting lines from The Dark Knight (hey, I’m nothing if not eclectic) is, “You either die the hero or live long enough to become the villain.” Basically, it picks up on a plot line from Coriolanus. By standing still, he is moving away from what the world, Britain, his estate, and his family need. And, indeed, isn’t this the arc the British upper classes as a whole took? Once, they were the very foundation of empire. The heroes. The good guys. And then there was a pivot. And suddenly, at best they were useless. Or they were an impediment to progress, change, modernization. The bad guys.

Fellowes is taking a chance here, but as the world of the series changes so must the internal mechanics of the series as well. He gives a Robert an out, at least in Cora’s eyes, when Dr. Clarkson “confesses” that there was no way to save Sybil. But I wonder what we in the audience are to make of that. Can we ever go back to respecting Lord Crawley as someone higher on the divine chain being — as somehow closer to Grace — and thus as someone worthy of our admiration and devotion? Or is the title “lord” just as much an antique as the others cluttering his office, nothing more than a cudgel to maintain his position over property gained during the Reformation? Or, how else do we think the Crawleys took possession of magnificent house that was once an abbey?

Bourgeois Virtue and Downton Abbey

I just finished watching Episode #5 (Episode #4 for those of us watching in the States) of Downton Abbey. I have to admit it — this show is my guilty pleasure. Usually my tastes run more to the works where the force of the narrative is in rejecting rather than accepting rigid social hierarchies, more Tolstoy and less Waugh. Yes, sure, we have Branson and his good old-fashioned Irish republicanism, but the character often comes across as simply churlish rather than truly revolutionary; as if the worst thing a freedom fighter can do is cause discord at high tea rather than sow dissent in the public square. I have too often thought that the critics of the show have gotten it wrong. It is not simply a museum celebrating the glories of a now-faded imperium. And I think tonight the program showed its true colors. Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD. Julian Fellowes, an aristo himself, has shown where his true loyalties lie. In the contest between barbarians, philistines, and populace, it is the philistines (the middle class) that wins out. Tonight’s episode had three particularly striking moments where view this.

First, there is Isobel’s determination to “save” ex-prostitute Ethel, even to the extent of offering her a position in her house. As a result, Mrs. Byrd, the cook/housekeeper, resigns. The senior staff at the big house, especially the men, are shocked. Here, the middle-class virtue of Isobel is seen as demonstrably superior to the narrow and traditional morality of several working class characters.

Second, Matthew, Isobel’s son, has been investigating Downton’s books. He finds that the estate has been mismanaged for decades, and he is determined to put it back on the right course. He says to Mary that one of the most important middle-class values is husbandry (as in the controlled and judicious use of resources). The bourgeois methods will prove far more effective in saving Downton than those of the aristocracy. Murray, the middle class family solicitor, agrees with Matthew. And thus again we have that idea of saving, of providing salvation.

Third, and most importantly, we have the conflict between the two doctors over the proper treatment for Lady Sybil for the last days of her pregnancy. Dr. Clarkson, the middle-class family doctor, diagnoses her with eclampsia and wants to take her to hospital. Lord Grantham’s chosen physician, the aristocratic Sir Phillip, thinks that she is doing just fine and that they do not need to rely on institutions like hospitals! to bring a child into this world. Guess who is proven right? And so we bid farewell to Lady Sybil. Clarkson’s hard work and experience trumps Sir Phillip’s pedigree.

Matthew Arnold wrote, “Our guides who are chosen by the Philistines and who have to look to their favour, tell the Philistines how ‘all the world knows that the great middle-class of this country supplies the mind, the will, and the power requisite for all the great and good things that have to be done,’ and congratulate them on their ‘earnest good sense, which penetrates through sophisms, ignores commonplaces, and gives to conventional illusions their true value’.” Arnold would have found tonight’s episode especially fascinating.