Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Abbey Analyzed

Death at Downton Abbey

For those who've completed the third season 
(otherwise, spoilers ahead)

Aye, the skies are dark upon Downton Abbey (aka Highclere Castle)

The now departed Dan Stevens and Jessica Findley-Brown.

….. and that's not just Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley. This third season marked the demise of consistency.

Downstairs at Gosford Park
Upstairs at Gosford Park 

There was something lovely, elegant and compelling about "Downton Abbey's" first season (Episodes One to Three, specifically, or pre-Pamuk). That was the Julian Fellowes of "Gosford Park," a beautifully crafted film with subtle, but no less dramatic intrigue. That was the Julian Fellowes of "Snobs," a novel in which he carefully chronicled social nuances.  It's not likely there'll be another storyline with sweetly era-appropriate annual flower show "controversy," or the second season's Mrs. Bird's Soup Kitchen.
The unfortunate (and apparently unhealthy) Mr. Pamuk and Mary

As the second season evolved, the heavy-handed soap opera aspect firmly set in, and set in to stay. The fact that lowly Vera holds the parted Pamuk story over Bates is beyond far-fetched.

One element -- that, granted, fuels the narrative for DA -- was, and is, oddly out-of-touch for Fellowes: the overly collegial (and moreover, emotional) relationships between the Granthams and their staff. While Mrs. Hughes seems to operate most realistically for the time, Carson's overt devotion to Lady Mary is, simply, too familial.  Think Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day;" he behaved as a butler.

Carson and Mary

A contemporary way of speaking flitters its way into the DA dialog and stands out because it is incongruous. In the season finale, Mary refers to herself as "pregnant," and Anna also refers to Mary as "pregnant," which is very unlikely terminology to be used by either, in such a euphemistic time.

Nearly all the DA servants speak-before-thinking and act emotionally. Fellowes must know -- as he's shown in plenty of previous endeavors -- that the foundation of a good staff is discretion and an unflappable understanding of boundaries.

Branson and Sybil

The "romance" between Lady Sybil and Branson just never seemed believable. Credible, yes, but not believable; a chauffeur/peer romance can happen, but whether a weakness in the writing, or lack of chemistry between actors, the union always felt like engineered.  For his part, Branson has thrived in his widower-hood, he's much more likable than the pedantic, self-centered, cowardly, irresponsible "activist" he once was.

Thomas sneaks into Jimmy's room (and hopes, into Jimmy).

But it's not only the dialogue that's incongruous and the romances contrived.  Carson's reaction (and Alfred's, for that matter) to Thomas' sexual harassment of Jimmy is likely dead on -- it is something that would never be discussed or even be imagined, in this universe at this time. This is an isolated, Christian country family, with servants from the local town.

The Sybil-is-dead-but-we-have- a- cricket- match, and now Alfred's narc'd on Thomas for being a gay. Carson and Lord Grantham

"We all knew," attaching current sensibilities to this bygone era.

When the stalwart Mrs. Hughes comments, "we all knew," about Thomas' proclivities, that seemed bloody unlikely, but nothing, absolutely nothing was more implausible than Lord Grantham telling Alfred that Thomas "can't help the way he way is." Really? Really? This is the man who allowed a pompous posh doctor to take precedence over the better informed, but less status-y Dr. Clarkson, ultimately allowing Sybil to die (whatever silliness the Countess Dowager makes Clarkson later tell the Granthams).  Lord Grantham suddenly becomes tolerant towards gays, more open-minded than even today's Christian right?  Did Fellowes realize he'd made DA's only gay character a despicable person and wanted to be sure he meant one had nothing to do with the other? Is Fellowes so desperate to infuse modern-day enlightenment, at the risk of betraying both his established characters and DA's era?

Other leaps of faith include the dramatic personality changes extended to Mary and Edith (compare First Season Mary and Edith, with Third Season). In fact, when Mary does have moments of snobbery (as she did while on the family trip to Scotland), it is wholly refreshing, because that is who Mary is.

The favored and the not: Lady Mary and Lady Edith

Adorable Anna and Bates

Also completely out of character was the released-from-prison Bates, exerting Herculean efforts to "save" Thomas. From the cozy sit-down tea with the odious O'Brien (when did all three, critical staffers, have time for this?) at the freshly renovated cottage he shares with the lovely Anna, to the chummy chats with Lord Gratham, it was utterly expositional.


Fellowes appears to have forgotten the Thomas he created. Consider Season One: Bates  physically threatens the no-goodnik troublemaker Thomas, who subsequently tries to frame Bates for both the snuff boxes AND the wine bottle. Thomas -- who set up Mr. Pamuk, who stole cash from Carson's wallet, who callously taunted a grieving William, purposefully incurred a cowardly injury to leave the war -- Thomas, who has been nothing but snarky, sneaky and unpleasant -- is saved by Bates. Seriously, when Thomas gets promoted over Bates, it utterly served the otherwise sympathetic and likable Bates right.

Lady Edith, the unlucky, the Jan Brady of Downton
Laura Carmichael, the super-hot actress who plays Edith

Poor Edith. If she only could have some self-esteem counseling.  Edith began as the nasty, least-favored daughter (who Cora thinks will be the one to take care of them in dotage), and evolved into…something more sympathetic. By the end of Season Three, she's basically agreed to be her editor Michael Gregson's mistress -- beyond pathetic, or as they might have (actually) said, beyond the pale. At least establish Gregson as engaging enough, enticing enough, appealing enough or charming enough. However, he's not. Edith only "feels" for him because he's attracted to her.

Since the final episode of Season Three jumped forward a year, it would make sense that Gregson's and Edith's relationship would have developed -- but from the manner in which they behave (alone, even) in Season Three's last episode, and, conceivably, they'd been working as columnist and editor, it's impossible -- based on the way they behave together --  to imagine a year had passed.

For heaven's sake, Edith clearly has no issue with age, why can't she just be involved with the single-ready-to-marry-not-mingle Dr. Richard Clarkson? He's handsome and healthy. At the very least, he's about the same age as Gregson, and younger than Sir Anthony. And since this is DA, and contrivances abound, why not just have her marry widower Branson? Enough time has passed and she'd be keeping it in the family, just like Mary did with the now-departed Matthew.

Regarding the way DA handles death -- it's always dramatic and directly correlates to what has just happened moments before.  As William dies (unbearably slowly), he marries Daisy. When Lavina dies, it is surprisingly quick and extremely convenient (more notably, later, when the status of her fortune is reveals).

Just when it seemed Sybil and Branson were happiest....

DA toys with the audience as Sybil goes into labor-- clearly something is wrong; she
has pre-eclampsia -- then, momentary sigh of relief, she delivers a healthy baby
 girl.  Everyone goes home (the Countess Dowager) or to bed (the family) and 
then, lots of shouting, drama, crying, Sybil succumbs. Very filmic death moment.

Jesus! Watch the road!!!

Meanwhile, Matthew, who has survived the Granthams' snobby judgement,  Mary's capriciousness, being paralyzed and wheelchair bound, the death of his fiancé, and possible infertility, is at the very happiest moment in life, when he dies (thus, as DA had, with beautiful Jessica Brown-Findlay, allows Dan Stevens a permanent exit from DA).

Fellowes says he doesn't want to deal with funerals, etc., so Season Four
will begin seven months later,and they've already lined up a handsome 
beau for Mary. Fellowes doesn't dwell on mourning. Remember? For 
heaven's sake, Lady Sybil just died, but there's a very, very important
cricket game!

Sybil is dead, but we have an important cricket game. And, damnit, Alfred narc'd on Thomas for being a gay. Carson and Lord Grantham

What Downton does well -- crisp, biting dialogue from the Dowager Countess, showcasing both 
Highclere Castle (which doubles as Downton Abbey) and gorgeous era-appropriate fashion (courtesy 
of London's well-stocked costumers) -- is in direct opposition to the melodrama that pervades the show.


To wit: Lord Grantham loses his (Lady Cora's) fortune (which he worked so judiciously to 
acquire) and, like Walter, Elizabeth and Anne Elliott (of Jane Austen's Persuasion, for the 
ill-informed) they must retrench. Through some cumbersome and incredulous bit of 
improbability, dead Lavina's  now also- dead father appears to have left their fortune to her 
former fiancé, Matthew.

Just in time! Lavina, then her father dies -- Downton is saved!

Guilt-ridden, and, despite badgering from Mary, Matthew vows to not accept the inheritance. Suddenly, it is revealed: as she was dying, Lavinia wrote her father a secret letter -- despite what happened between them (the inconvenient falling-in-love with cousin Mary aspect), Lavina knows Matthew's a good man.  Lavinia's father (really?) adamantly leaves all his coin to Matthew (really?), who he sees as terribly noble. Matthew finally accepts the money and puts it into Downton, which, with Matthew's mad admin skills, soon works like the proverbial well-oiled clock, or, in this case, castle. It doesn't get much more pat than that.

It becomes increasingly easy to find fault with DA, as it tests credulity with each episode. The fault, alas, must be laid at Fellowes' posh feet. From the subtle (the going-nowhere faux illness of Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Pattmore's paramour) to the over-the-top (the awkwardly campy Martha Levinson aka Cora's mum; Gregson's lunatic wife), the Downton "hits" just keep coming. From the highly unlikely (contrived personality and inexplicable character changes; i.e. Thomas'  sudden redemption) to tedious afterthoughts (how the Bates-in-Prison storyline felt all season), DA is both infuriating and inevitable. Like it or not, it's like any project in which time has been invested: hard to let go.

More Real Life Pics

Check out O'Brien, far right (Siobhan Finneran, looking very Connie Britton-ish)

Look how cute Ethel is, arm around Lady Grantham

Lady Grantham and Bates make a cute couple here (Elizabeth McGovern and Brendan Coyle, right)

Here, Anna and Thomas are cutest couple (right, Joanne Froggatt and Rob James Collier, who's revealed that Thomas was slated to die in the first season).

Check out hottie Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, second from left)

Anna and Thomas, again, are very cute here -- if nerdy.

Mrs. Patmore is adorably tiny (Leslie Nichol, second from right)

It might be just me, but doesn't it seem like Anna and Thomas are always next to each other in "real life" pics? (Joanne Froggartt and Rob James Collier)

So, do you think Lady Grantham and Lady Mary (aka Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery) liked that they wore such similarly shaded gowns?

We've established that everyone is way hotter as themselves. But check out Ethel (Amy Nuttall, second left) and Lady Lavinia (Zoe Boyle, fourth from right). Sizzle!

Mrs. Patmore, O'Brien (!!!), Edith and Thomas (aka Lesley Nicol,  Siobhan Finneran, Laura Carmichael and Rob James Collier)

And, there's Anna again, next to Thomas (just joshin' Collier is married and has a baby).