Thursday, February 14, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E6: Where 1920 Is 2013, Only With More Jazz

For whatever reason, Masterpiece Theatre has again merged two episodes of Downton Abbey to create one super-sized episode.  Maybe it was because they were damn determined to make sure there were only seven episodes per series, or maybe they were worried about competing with Oscar night.  Regardless, we are looking at the Series Three finale -- or what UK viewers know as the Christmas Special -- next week.

Plot Synopsis

Count on Downton to deliver generous doses of WTF? each year, as well as completely unbelievable resolutions to problems.  In the first half of the episode, we see Bates emerge from prison looking quite dapper in a three-piece suit.  Anna has been waiting for him in a car, but when she sees him, she bursts out and they share a tender moment.  If there is any sense that their relationship has changed, we don't see it in this episode.  I'm so happy that the prison storyline is over with, I'll squelch any impulse to complain about the unrealistic speed with which Bates was released.

With Bates returning to Downton, there is a dilemma about what to do with Thomas.  Lord Grantham dithers over whether to keep him or fire him while on a walk with Cora.  She's back to clinging to his arm, as if she's not capable of walking on her own.  What bitterness?  What understandable resentment?  It's as if the last two episodes never happened.  She must have taken some strong opiates this time.  The ones she keeps on hand for those occasions where she feels like throwing herself out a window.  Oh good, they're kicking in... I can no longer feel human emotion.

The Thomas plot line will be addressed later.  In the meantime, Lord Grantham's world is in upheaval again as Branson prepares for baby Sybil's baptism as a Catholic.  He invites his brother Kieran, who works in Liverpool, to be Sybil's godparent.  One look at Kieran, and it's clear that he would be at home in one of those xenophobic nineteenth century illustrations of the Irish.  He is scornful of the Crawleys and thinks that their servants are good enough company, so clearly he must be thwarted.  Branson tells him in a terse manner that the Crawleys were very good to invite his worthless drunken self to Downton Abbey, and that Kieran should show his gratitude by dining with them.  So at the dinner table, he horrifies them with his manners and his description of his life in Liverpool -- where Branson and baby Sybil are destined.  After dinner, Kieran requests a beer, though manages to refrain from any loud burping.

Lord Grantham's world is also in upheaval as Matthew goes over plans for modernizing the estate.  The estate manager -- yes, there is one -- is even more appalled.  Apparently part of Matthew's plans involves merging all of the farmland together to create a superfarm, which I imagine will cause tension with tenants like Mr. Mason in Series Four.  Finally, the estate manager quits in a huff, and Violet comes up with the brilliant plan of hiring Branson in his place, on the basis that Branson's grandfather was a sheep farmer.  Branson quickly accepts the new position, and hooray!  He and little Sybil are saved from being too Irish!  Yet it's strange how the Crawleys base their decision on it being "what Sybil wanted."  Yes, Sybil did not want Branson to go backward by becoming an auto mechanic with Kieran, but somehow I don't think her idea of "forward" was him becoming wedded to the Downton estate.  The very estate that she wanted so badly to leave.  I suspect what Sybil really wanted was for Branson to fight the good fight and free the Irish, not "settle," whether in Liverpool or at Downton.  But I guess we'll never know now.

Branson is now so cool with Downton that Lord Grantham has to remind him that he is a Marxist.  Nevertheless, Lord Grantham agrees to be present for little Sybil's christening, and in one hilarious scene, is even trapped in a photograph with the priest.

Meanwhile, Edith has gone to London to discuss the newspaper writing position, which she ultimately accepts.  Her editor is clearly entranced by more than just her writing skills.  Don't mess this up, Downton Abbey!  He and Edith have hair that is exactly the same color!  How could they be any more compatible?

Downstairs -- or should I say, downstairs at Isobel's house -- all is not well with Ethel.  Violet visits Isobel's house and tells her that by employing Ethel, she has made herself the object of scandal and gossip in the village.  Isobel is like, Pfft, so?  But Violet clearly thinks it would be better not for the villagers to learn tolerance and treat Ethel like a human being, but for Ethel to go far away.  What happened to her attitude last week?  And since when is she so aware of village gossip?  She didn't even know that Ethel was Isobel's maid last week.  Even though Isobel remains determined to keep Ethel, Violet goes behind her back and has Edith place an advertisement in the newspaper.

Downstairs at Downton, the tiresome love quadrilateral finally starts to be relevant.  Alfred gets tickets to the "pictures" and invites Ivy to come along.  Exasperated, Daisy asks him why he's taking her when he knows that she doesn't like him.  At this point, I hope Daisy asks herself why she's so hung up on Alfred -- she's too good for him.  On the way back from the movie, Alfred asks Ivy whether she would give him a chance if he could prove that Jimmy doesn't care about her.  Ivy is hesitant, but Alfred decides to go up to Jimmy's (their?) room and ask him.  That's when the shit hits the fan because --

Despite his own doubts, Thomas gives in to O'Brien's insistence that Jimmy likes him.  So rather than, say, talk to him about it when they're alone, Thomas decides to sneak into Jimmy's room and kiss him while he is asleep.  He does this just as Alfred comes in, and when Jimmy wakes up, he immediately freaks out.  Ruh-roh.

The next morning, the three men try to pretend that nothing happened, but there is plenty of tension.  O'Brien learns what happened from Alfred and convinces him to tell Carson what he saw.  Even though she obviously has an ill motive, objectively, her instructions aren't unreasonable.  Thomas's behavior was hardly exemplary, which I'll discuss more later.  Carson brings Thomas in and tells him that he must resign, pretending that it is due to Bates's return, and Carson will write him a good reference.  Carson tells Thomas that his tendencies are not his fault; "nature" twisted him into something foul.  Thomas stalwartly tells him that although he is "not like you," he is not foul.

O'Brien should have left things there, but of course she can't help herself.  She pushes Jimmy to demand that Thomas receive a bad reference, or he will go to the police (as he could have done in those days).  A bad reference means that Thomas would never be able to find work in service again.  Yet as the better of two bad options, Carson has no choice but to take it.  Bates catches wind of what is going on, and knows that O'Brien is behind everything.  No doubt bitter over O'Brien's testimony against him, Bates tells Thomas that he needs to strike back at her, but a depressed Thomas tells him that he knows when he has been defeated.  Bates asks Thomas to give him a "weapon" to use against O'Brien, and Thomas gives him a coded message.  When O'Brien comes to visit Bates and Anna at their new married person cottage, Bates whispers in her ear "her Ladyship's soap," a veiled reference to O'Brien's actions in Series One.  O'Brien immediately agrees to set things right.  Of course the message is so coded, even Bates doesn't know what it means.  The question is how Thomas found out.  I doubt O'Brien told him.

Honestly, I can't recall which of the above Thomas events happened in the first half and which happened in the second half of the episode.  Moving on, in the second half of the episode, for whatever reason, Violet decides to be the temporary guardian of her very annoying 18-year old great niece, Rose.  The storyline is just an excuse to get Edith and Matthew down to London, and to show us that the Roaring Twenties is, indeed, taking place.  The climax of this storyline is set in a club where there are (gasp!) black musicians playing jazz music.

Also in London, Edith confronts the editor of her newspaper.  After he flirted with her, she did some research and learned that he was married.  Outraged (and disappointed), she says that she will need to resign from her newspaper column.  The editor explains that although he is married, his wife is out of her mind in an institution.  He can't divorce her because in the world of fault-based divorce, she is neither the one to blame or the innocent victim.  Edith is both relieved and devastated by his explanation.  At least he didn't wait until their wedding ceremony.

Mary has some goings-on in London, too, in the form of mysterious doctor visits.  One day Matthew catches her, and she confesses that she, not he, was not the one with the fertility problems.  But it's all fixed and now they can have babies.  Yay!  Yawn.

Back on the Downton estate, Violet's advertisement of Ethel's services has led to some response letters. Ethel is gratified, but thinks that only one situation is suitable.  The problem is, that situation is located too close to her son Charlie and his grandparents, whom Ethel assumes want no connection with her.  Violet decides to find out, and invites them (or at least the grandmother) over.  The grandmother assures  Ethel that she wants her to maintain some connection with Charlie (duh -- weren't they initially willing to give her money in exchange for regular visits?), and Ethel agrees to pretend to be Charlie's old nurse.  Ethel is happy!  She gets to stop being Hester Prynne and visit her son!

Finally, the most important event ever is happening at Downton: the annual cricket match between the members of the "house" team and members of the "village" team.  Lord Grantham is obsessed with winning, even though the house team always loses.  To that end, he wants to keep Thomas around, as he is apparently the only decent cricket player in the house.  He also ropes Branson into playing, even though Branson has never played cricket before.

Carson tells Lord Grantham about Thomas's "situation" in the previous episode, but Lord Grantham is dismissive.  If he screamed every time a boy at Eton tried to kiss him, he would be hoarse after one month.  Would Lord Grantham be this blase if Thomas were a terrible cricket player?  Somehow, his desire to keep Thomas leads to him getting a promotion over Bates, even though I'm fairly certain Bates served as a valet for much longer than Thomas did.  How does that make sense?  I don't recall the promotion being Lord Grantham's idea, so why couldn't Carson have given Thomas a position below valet, but above footman?  Or Bates the under-butler position while Thomas remained as a valet?  Now Thomas will not only stay on, but be Bates's boss.  And being Thomas, he will no doubt try to worm his way into Carson's position, with Lord Grantham being just daft enough to give it to him.

Even though O'Brien talked Jimmy out of calling the police, one person at Downton is still noticeably bothered by Thomas's behavior.  During the cricket match, police arrive after Alfred summoned them, forcing Lord Grantham to take Alfred aside and tell him that Thomas was just "born this way."  After his speech, I half expect Lord Grantham to finance the first talkie, "It Gets Better."  I don't think attitudes were this open even in the 90s.  The 1990s.

Alfred tells the police that it was all a misunderstanding and they leave.  Then Branson catches a cricket ball, and the men of Downton share a group hug.  Blech -- reminds me too much of the Gwen-Sybil-Branson squeefest from Series One.

Other Observations

More On Thomas.  It's nice of Julian Fellowes to pretend that 2013 attitudes toward sexuality existed in 1920, and no doubt there was plenty of fluidity where homo/heterosexuality was concerned.  However, by making the Thomas plot line about him defending his sexuality and others coming to terms with it, a few things got lost -- most notably, Thomas's actual behavior.  Even if Jimmy were gay, even if Jimmy did like Thomas, Thomas had no cause to sneak into Jimmy's bedroom and kiss him when he was asleep.  If Jimmy had not awakened immediately after, who knows what more Thomas would have tried.  If Jimmy were female, even a female who liked Thomas, no way would anyone think that this was okay.  Yet because Jimmy is a guy, his feelings of anger and humiliation were just brushed aside.  Don't take it too hard, he was essentially told.  All Thomas did was kiss you (after repeatedly touching you for weeks, during which you were afraid to speak up) while you lay defenseless.  It's not like he had sex with you or anything.  It's just part of Thomas's "nature."  Not only is that attitude a disservice to Jimmy, but it is also a disservice to Thomas.

Thomas had feelings for Jimmy, but he also had a choice about how he could have acted on them.  Specifically, he could have asked Jimmy how he felt when they had a moment alone.  Yes, that came with inherent risks in an age where gay men could be locked up for their sexual activity, but no less than forcing himself onto Jimmy when he was asleep.  Thomas made a choice, and it was a bad one.  One that, even today, could probably get him fired.  Yet Julian Fellowes would have you believe that his actions were really not that bad because they were all a part of Thomas's "nature."  In other words, he couldn't help being predatory because he's gay.  To me, that hearkens back to such a damaging stereotype about who gay people are and how they behave -- a stereotype just as hideous as the ones that Fellowes is trying to shatter.  Thomas didn't force himself on Jimmy because he was gay.  He forced himself on Jimmy because he was Thomas.  Could you see Bates or Carson acting this way if they were gay?  Or are we to presume that being gay would cause them to undergo a fundamental personality change?

Yet More On Thomas.  I have tried to like Thomas.  He has the potential to be one of the most interesting servants, either because of his struggles for acceptance or because of the way Rob James-Collier plays him.  Yet there is something about him that remains so flat and two-dimensional.  In Series One, he wanted to be a valet, yet in Series Two, there was the sense that he had grander ambitions.  Yet in Series Three, it seems like he is happy to remain in service as a valet.  What does he want?  What are his ultimate goals?  Does he care about anything other than self preservation?

No one has received more undeserved chances than Thomas.  He is involved in the Pamuk scandal and never gets caught.  He steals wine from Lord Grantham's cellar and gets to stay.  He survives World War I after purposely getting his finger shot off, while noble William perishes.  He sells goods on the black market, yet gets to return to his footman position.  He is treated as a hero for finding Lord Grantham's dog, which he hid in the first place.  He gets promoted to valet after Bates is wrongfully convicted of murder.  And now this.

Aside from his struggles with sexuality, what makes Thomas sympathetic?  Why should I be pleased that he gets chance after chance, while kinder characters suffer?  I would find him more interesting if he were covertly trying to upend the aristocratic system, but instead, he doesn't seem to have any ambition at all other than to reach the apex of service.  He is just... meh.

If anything, the servant I find to be the most interesting is Daisy.  I am interested to see where she will fit into the Series Four modernization schemes.  Will she give up her position and go work on the farm?  Will she be on the front lines protesting against turning Downton into a superfarm, or will she be working with Branson to come up with something both sides can live with?

Lord Grantham Is Always Wrong.  Did Fellowes have to make Lord Grantham seem like he just fell off the turnip truck?  Was I supposed to feel that satisfied when Matthew yelled at him and reminded him that Cora's money was hiding Downton's woeful mismanagement?  "Hey, I have a better idea: let's invest Matthew's money with that Charles Ponzi fellow!"  *slaps forehead*    

Whereas Violet Is Never Wrong.  At one point, Lord Grantham tells Violet and Cora that he would like them to admit when they are wrong.  To which Violet replies that this is no problem as "I am never wrong."  No, she never is, is she?  And it's getting a little tiresome.  I love Maggie Smith, but not the feeling that I must side with her character on issues where she's not necessarily correct.  Whether it's that Martha Levinson is a classless rube, or that Ethel must leave Isobel's home for the sake of humanity.  At one point, I think Violet was supposed to express a specific social point of view ("What is a week-end?"), but now she's practically the conscience of the show.  When you need her to be progressive, she's progressive, and when you need her to be reactionary, she's reactionary.  She can even make sensible estate management decisions!  I like Violet's acidic comments as much as anyone, but let her have real failings like the other characters.

Next Time: Rose is back and the Crawleys go to Scotland in the U.S. Series Three finale.

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