Sunday, February 24, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E7: Farewell, Matthew, As You Go Gently Into That Good Night

Maybe "gently" was not the best choice of words, but you know what I mean.

Damn the gap between airings in the UK and the rest of the world.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have been spoiled about Matthew's death since practically the beginning.  The spoiler that told me about Sybil also tipped me off to Matthew's demise.  Matthew's was less of a surprise because I knew that Dan Stevens would be leaving the show, although initially I thought he would be getting some remote civil servant post that forced him to be away most of the year.  Also, to my chagrin, I realize that I had a hand in leaking the spoiler when I linked to an article about Dan Stevens in one of my earlier posts.  I'm so sorry -- I hope that I didn't spoil Series Three for anyone.

In any event, now everyone knows, and I'm sure there will be much to talk about before Series Four.  Hopefully the U.S. airings will not lag behind the UK next time.

Plot Synopsis

Matthew's death is about five seconds of horror in an otherwise uneventful 90-minute episode.  Before then, the biggest shock is that this episode takes place one year after the previous one, in September 1921.  If you expect to see how certain plot lines resolved themselves, don't hold your breath.  You won't see any sign that Thomas took revenge on O'Brien, or that there is any lingering tension between them; that there is any change in the relationship between Thomas and Bates; that Daisy agreed to be Mr. Mason's heir to his tenancy, or how either of them feel about Downton's modernization; that Daisy no longer cares about Alfred, or Ivy about Jimmy.  You will just have to wonder -- or, more likely, wonder if all of Downton Abbey was locked in a cryogenic chamber for the past year.  Practically the only sign of movement is that Daisy now walks around with her arm linked with Ivy's, a sign that their enmity is over.  The more significant Thomas-Jimmy gets resolved near the end of the episode.  Oh, and Mary's pregnant.

Yes, she's eight months pregnant, yet goes off with the upstairs half of Downton on a trip to Scotland as if early birth or complications weren't a concern.  After what happened with Sybil, you would think the Crawleys would be extremely anxious about Mary's health, but no -- throughout the episode, Mary will dance and ride down bumpy roads to a picnic spot with scarcely a word of doubt from her parents or her husband.    

The Crawleys go to Duneagle Castle in the Scottish Highlands to visit Rose and her parents, Hugh "Shrimpie" MacClare, Marquess of Flintshire, and his wife, Susan.  The only ones excluded are Isobel and honorary Crawley, Branson.  Duneagle is the type of castle that is surrounded by endless acres of glorious Highlands, where men play bagpipes at eight o'clock in the morning and throughout dinner.  Yet all is not well within the castle walls.  Shrimpie and Susan are nearing the end of a decades-long marital cold war.  Shrimpie also admits to Lord Grantham that over the years, he drove his fortune into the ground and now stands to lose Duneagle.  He wishes that he had thought to modernize his estate the way Lord Grantham has with Downton, though I hardly think that the benefits would be apparent so quickly.  Shrimpie will have to sell the ancestral castle and take a civil service post in India.  Meanwhile, Susan is a dishrag who constantly criticizes Rose, driving the latter to despair.  She and Shrimpie both end up begging the Crawleys to take in Rose while they are out of the country, and the Crawleys agree readily, because someone needed to fill the youthful exuberant hole left by Sybil's death.  Especially after the final moments of the episode.      

Edith's editor, Michael Gregson, is also in Scotland with the intent of sketching the Highlands -- an excuse that Mary sees through in less time than it took for you to read this sentence.  He is really there to meet Edith's family, of course, with the hope that they will become so fond of him, they won't mind that he essentially wants Edith to be his mistress.  He still can't divorce his crazy wife, but can't deny that he is in love with Edith.  Matthew, the only other person besides Edith who knows Gregson's secret, tells him sternly to stop his pursuit.  But since Matthew is so cruelly taken out of the equation in the final moments, who will stop him now?  Not Edith, who is so moved by Gregson's profession of love that she decides she will continue to see him.  Where it all leads, we can only guess.

Four of the downstairs crew have accompanied the Crawleys to Scotland -- the two ladies maids, O'Brien and Anna, and the two valets, Bates and Molesley.  Susan takes immediately to O'Brien while dismissing her own maid, Wilkins.  Jealous, Wilkins spikes O'Brien's drink with whisky at a ghillie ball, but O'Brien quickly finds out and pushes the drink aside, only for Molesley to find it and chug it down... with hilarious results.  There is a question of whether O'Brien will be hired by the MacClares to serve as Susan's maid while they are in India, as O'Brien expressed an interest in going abroad.  It would probably be a good move for her, as there is really nothing for her at Downton except continued hostility downstairs, as long as she can put up with Susan.  Meanwhile, Anna tells Bates that she has a big surprise for him, and it turns out to be... Anna learned how to dance.  It is as uninspiring as it sounds, even if Bates's look of adoration as he watches is quite touching.

The rest of the downstairs is back at Downton, and many are under the misguided belief that they can relax a little.  But no!  Carson has a list filled with chores that they can accomplish while the Crawleys are away.  Yet even he can't be a complete killjoy, and thus permits the rest of the downstairs crew to attend a nearby fair.  One of the fair-goers is interested in Mrs. Patmore, which thrills her to no end.  However, when she realizes that he is a flirt who is only interested in his cooking, she is relieved to be rid of him, rather than disappointed.  Even if she doesn't have everything she wants, it does seem as though Mrs. Patmore leads a good life downstairs.

Meanwhile, Branson is alone and very awkward upstairs.  One of the new maids, Edna, takes advantage of this vulnerability to get closer to him.  She reminds him of his downstairs roots and asks him if he is ever "ashamed" of abandoning them to go live upstairs.  Branson says that he is not ashamed, but the expression on his face clearly says otherwise.  Yet after a visit with Isobel, who tells him that as the estate agent, he has the right to socialize with whomever he likes, he becomes a little bolder about spending time with the people downstairs.  He even agrees to go to the fair with them!  Finally Edna finds Branson alone in his room (and shirtless!) one day and kisses him.  Mrs. Hughes quickly finds out and gives Edna her walking papers.  She then has a touching scene with Branson where he admits that he is struggling to live without Sybil, and she tells him that Sybil would be proud of him, and that he would learn to be with someone else someday.

In other news, Dr. Clarkson takes Isobel to the fair and tries to propose to her.  She pretends to misunderstand him, and he realizes that she is not interested and would turn him down.  At least this way, they can still be friends... until Isobel's grief makes them something more, but that's for the next series.

Also at the fair, Jimmy wins some money in a tug-of-war and uses it to become very drunk.  Some of the thugs on the losing end of the tug-of-war decide to attack him under a bridge, but lo and behold, Thomas appears just in time!  He yells at Jimmy to run, before both men tackle him and start beating the stuffing out of him.  Jimmy runs to get Dr. Clarkson, who either breaks the fight up, or finds whatever is left of Thomas afterward.  It turns out that the only real damage Thomas received was some nasty cuts on his face.  Later that night, as he recovers upstairs, Jimmy visits him and finds out that Thomas knew about the fight because his unrequited lust compelled him to follow Jimmy.  Jimmy tells Thomas that he can't give Thomas what he wants, and Thomas acknowledges it.  They agree to be friends.

Finally the heavy drama starts.  At the ghillie ball, Mary experiences signs of labor and takes a train back to Downton, with just Anna to keep her company.  Not even Cora was willing to breach social etiquette to come along?  But I guess it doesn't matter, because Mary makes it safely and has a healthy baby boy.  Only when the rest of the family arrives home does tragedy strike.

Matthew visits Mary and the baby first.  Almost crying with joy, he tells Mary that he loves her and that he knows the "real" Mary is a good person, not the cold, hateful shrew others (like Edith) see, and that she secretly believes herself to be.  The scene is so touching that even if I were not spoiled, I would know that Matthew couldn't possibly survive.  He rushes home in his car, just as Lord Grantham is proclaiming to the rest of the house how happy he is and how right Matthew was about modernizing.  Just then, Matthew sees a car coming in the opposite direction and swerves to avoid it.  That must have caused him to roll over, because the next thing we see, the car is overturned in a ditch and Matthew has been ejected.  As blood rolls down his face, his lifeless eyes gaze at nothing.  Meanwhile, Mary is still basking in the glow of maternity, with no idea how her life has changed.  

Other Observations

Two Shows in One.  These last several episodes, I sometimes felt as though I were watching two different shows combined.  The first show was Downstairs, starring Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Thomas, and Daisy.  Downstairs was a low-key dramedy where significant things might happen (such as Thomas's outing), but characters talked and fought and laughed and worked things out, becoming deeper in the process.  Then there was the second show, Upstairs, starring Lord Grantham, Mary, and Matthew.  Upstairs was a full-blown soap opera, where characters were killed at random, huge fortunes were lost, and men had crazy wives stashed away in mental institutions.  Okay, the seperartion isn't absolute -- the Bates prison plot was pretty Upstairs, as was O'Brien's scheming, while Branson's anguish would have fit right into Downstairs.  Still, it struck me that certain characters were just too good for this show.  How do Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore even exist in the same universe as dead Matthew lying on the ground with blood rolling down his face?  They need their own spinoff, "The Ladies of Downton," or something, where quiet character-driven dramedy happens every week, and no one dies unexpectedly.    

Still More on Thomas.  I seem to be in the minority -- among viewers and the show's characters -- who thinks that Thomas should have been held more accountable for his behavior last week.  I understand the feeble reasons the characters gave ("We need a good cricket player!"); after all, there needed to be a way to keep Thomas on Downton, and even having him leave with a good reference would not accomplish this.  However, I would have expected a little more fairness from the audience.

People got up in arms after Edna dared to pursue Branson aggressively, and were glad when she was sent on her way.  Yet at least when Edna kissed Branson, he was awake!  But Thomas was so tortured and lovelorn before and after he sneaked into Jimmy's room, that somehow made it okay.  Maybe because tortured and lovelorn characters tend to be forgiven more easily than the ordinary insensitive kind.  The most typical version of this character is a troubled man pining over a woman.  Even though there are plenty of signs that he would not be an easy person to live with, audience members (especially women) too often think: "He just needs the right woman to love him, and then he'll be good!"  Despite the woman never giving him any reason to believe she is interested (in fact, quite the opposite), he sacrifices herself for her again and again.  Ungrateful bitch!  Finally the woman relents and magically falls in love with the "hero."  Audience members are left griping that "she will never be good enough for him."      

In this case, of course, the "woman" is Jimmy.  Last week, Thomas received forgiveness for being so tortured.  This week, Jimmy received scorn for, I don't know, not being grateful enough to Thomas for sacrificing his admittedly fine body for Jimmy's safety.  Thomas told Jimmy to run and Jimmy ran -- though whether straight to Dr. Clarkson or to someone else who could help Thomas, we don't know.  Jimmy could have stayed and tried to fight the bullies, but that wasn't what Thomas wanted and, given that Jimmy was drunk, might not have been the best idea.  Jimmy running to Dr. Clarkson was probably the best thing he could have done.  But I've read comments that gripe about how cowardly Jimmy was, and that he only learned to "respect" Thomas after his sacrifice.  Which is B.S., because until Thomas broke into Jimmy's room, Jimmy did respect him.  O'Brien made him believe that "Mr. Barrow" had Lord Grantham's ear, and so if Jimmy wanted to stay on Lord Grantham's good side, he needed to do whatever Thomas told him.  But since Jimmy is attractive and maybe a little silly and vain, he isn't entitled to receive the benefit of the doubt.  And since he is so attractive, he is also gay and trying to repress it, because all attractive men are gay, or all gay men are attractive, or some such nonsense.  By mid-Series Four, Fellowes will probably have him making out with Thomas in the wine cellar.

What I'm trying to say is that these tired tropes are harmful whether they concern straight men or gay men, or straight/lesbian women.  It's not cool to invade someone's personal space against their will or knowledge, whether you are gay or straight, male or female.  It is exploitative.  It says that you disrespect the other person and the choices he/she has made.  No amount of "sacrificing" yourself for the other person will change that.  And no, just because you did something against the other person's will, then later sacrificed your body or position for him/her does not make you "even."  Because in the second case, you chose to sacrifice yourself, while in the first case, the other person had no choice.

When the offender is a gay man or a straight/lesbian woman, the effect may be to harm the perception of everyone who belongs in that group.  I'm reminded of an episode of Roseanne from the fifth or sixth season, where Roseanne visited a lesbian bar.  Mid-way through, one of the women came up to Roseanne and, after a little chat, kissed her.  After Roseanne expressed concern about the kiss to her friend Nancy, a lesbian, Nancy said nonchalantly that the woman just thought Roseanne looked cute and decided to kiss her, and that it meant nothing.  Because, you know, that's what lesbians do.  All lesbians randomly kiss strangers whenever they feel like it, and Roseanne shouldn't be concerned or offended because it's "their way."  Really, "their way"?  Every lesbian ever thinks that it's okay to come up to strangers and kiss them?  Somehow I doubt that.  Yet here was a case where in trying to be progressive (this episode was considered to be very cutting edge at the time), Roseanne might have harmed the perception of lesbians.

Likewise, many so-called progressive programs that show women treating men in ways that we would never want to see women treated risk harming the general perception of women and feminists.  It's about behavior, and respect for one another.  No one should get off of the hook because it's "their way," whether it's a popular character like Thomas or anyone else.  No one should get a free pass for behavior that takes advantage of a power imbalance.      
Next Time: What can we expect (or hope) from Downton Abbey Series Four?

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