Friday, February 28, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E8: The Abdication Caper

It's the Christmas Special, which means a super-sized Downton episode!  This one was both less tedious and less morbid than the previous one.  While there was threat of a scandal, at least no one died this time.

Plot Synopsis

So we jump ahead an entire year to the summer of 1923, and as expected, virtually nothing has changed.  Nothing except Edith going to Switzerland for eight months, having a baby girl, breastfeeding her herself, then giving her away to a Swiss family before heading home.  Nope, nothing other than that.

Since apparently even Rose's brother and sister in England hate her, the Crawleys will be overseeing her presentation at court and the subsequent festivities.  The entire family heads down to London, save Branson, Isobel, and Violet, to the never-before-seen Grantham House.  The servants are all flustered, and Mrs. Hughes and Daisy make a late trip down because the housekeeper at Grantham House is ill and there will be a lot of guests for dinner.  That leaves essentially Thomas and Ivy behind to look after Branson, and Thomas is none too pleased about it.

Sooo let's get some frivolous plot lines out of the way.  Despite not being officially "out" in society, Rose rushes off to a jazz club on her first night, where she meets David, the Prince of Wales and his current mistress, Freda Dudley Ward.  Hmm, I guess if you squint hard enough, he kind of, sort of, maybe looks a bit like the real Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.  Anyway, the Prince of Wales takes an unusual interest in Rose, somehow remembering her father, "Shrimpie Flintshire," above all the other aristocrats he must mingle with on a daily basis.  Freda practically becomes Rose's new best friend.  Then after Rose's presentation -- more on that later -- Rose joins Freda at one of countless parties and who should be there but the shady card shark from Episode 2?  But he's not just a shady card shark -- it turns out that he's just all-around bad news!  Rose somehow lets it slip that Freda has a love letter to the Prince of Wales on her person, and Shade Card Shark Man steals it from her purse when Rose and Freda are off dancing.

Rose tells Lord Grantham the next day, and Lord Grantham has a massive freakout about how he supports the monarchy and doesn't want a scandal to bring it down, especially if it can be traced back to the Crawleys.  So he concocts a plot worthy of Oceans 11 to get the letter back.  The plot involves a forged letter by Bates, and Mary and Rose visiting his hotel room pretending to retrieve something.  Stupidly, Shady Card Shark Man left the letter in his coat pocket, where all important, incriminating evidence is left, I guess.  So Mary and Rose retrieve the letter, Shady Card Shark Man is foiled, and the future Edward VIII's reputation is saved... or not.  But at least no one will blame the Crawleys now.

Let's see, what other frivolous plots are there?  Well half of the episode... but if I had to go for truly frivolous, I would say Thomas's boiling animosity towards Branson for being the servant that "made good."  The entire plot just underscores how badly Thomas needs something to do.  Last year he had a meaty plot line; this year, he's reduced to sulking about and demanding news from Baxter.  No, we never do find out what he has over her -- I might as well say it now.  Thomas resents having to wait on Branson and tries to take advantage at every turn, such as by trying to sit in the back of the car rather than the front, as servants should.  Thomas takes particular malevolent glee in Branson's situation with Sarah Bunting.  After running into her yet again, Branson is somehow persuaded to take Bunting on a tour of Downton Abbey.  He intends to restrict it to the downstairs, but she rushes upstairs, with Branson in pursuit, to see the view from the gallery.  She notes the coat of arms for each of the Countesses, and wonders where Cora's is with the dollar sign.  Just then, Thomas interrupts them like the ghoul he is.  Nyah-nyah, Thomas is gonna tell on you, Branson!  You took a ladyperson upstairs

Seriously, I hope Series Five finds Thomas getting fired and Molesley taking his place as under-butler.  Not only would it make sense, but it would also give Thomas a new storyline.  He doesn't have to be at Downton every second to be interesting.  In any event, when he finally joins the rest of the servants, Molesley convinces Baxter to stand up to him, and she later praises Molesley's strength for making her strong.  Molesley's like "my what?"  The Molesley and Baxter storyline has been the best surprise of Series Four.

Finally, Mary's men continue their very, very boring pursuit of her.  Mary likes Blake, but he's oh so common, you see, and heaven forbid Mary wed someone who isn't wealthy.  Then Mary learns from Lord Gillingham that Blake is set to inherit a massive estate in Ulster from a distant relative.  Shades of Matthew.  Which probably means Blake will be the one sticking around, and it will be a way for us to keep up with what's happening in Ireland even though Branson has been exiled.  I should mention that Mary is finally out of her mourning period, so it's now open season on winning her hand!  Though no matter which man she chooses, Mary's first love will always be Downton Abbey.

I think that gets all of the light, frivolous plot lines out of the way, though there is at least one frivolous plot that tries to be weighty.  For example, Anna collects an old coat of Bates's for a clothing drive, and Mrs. Hughes finds a ticket to London in the pocket marked on the same day that Green died.  Never mind that it makes no sense that Bates's winter coat would be at the Crawleys' summer house.  Never mind that it's insane that Bates, a crafty ex-con who could forge a letter, would keep potentially incriminating evidence on his person.  Never mind that Bates was not wearing that coat on the day he left for "York."  And never mind that Mrs. Hughes has handled worse things than this on her own.  In some bizarre fit of trust, she runs to Mary and shows her the ticket, and both conclude that it's irrefutable proof that Bates murdered Green.  Urm, yeah.  Mary is all morally conflicted, concerned about harming Anna, but not wanting to harbor a murderer.  But after Bates helps the family retrieve the Prince of Wales's letter, she's like "Oh well!" and tosses the ticket into the fire.  So have we seen the last of this storyline?

The meat of the episode is Rose's presentation at court, the "American contingent's" arrival, and Edith's dilemma over her daughter.  So Cora's mother Martha arrives with Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow.  Neither Martha nor Harold act thrilled to be there, even though Martha specifically wanted to come to England to see the season.  Harold has never been to England, at least not since Cora was married, and treats Edith like the person assigned to carry his coat.  Thanks, Uncle Harold.  I actually liked Paul Giamatti in this role and wouldn't mind seeing more of him.  However, I find it strange how... un-family-like the Crawleys and Levinsons behave.  No affection between Cora and Harold, or between Cora and Martha.  Mary treats her America relatives with disdain.  Cora just lets the Crawleys make snide remarks about the Levinsons with scarcely a harsh word.

Though Reed from Series Three is gone, the Levinsons have brought their "golly gosh!" valet, Slade.  Slade reminds me of the characters from The Book of Mormon, and also of a blonder Alfred.  In a reversal of that plot line, he takes an immediate shine to Daisy -- maybe because Ivy is not there initially to be competition?  Daisy cannot help being flattered, but Slade works the other servants' last nerve, especially Carson's, with his Americanness.  At one point he reminds Carson that his last name is Slade, not Levinson (as visiting servants are typically called by their employer's name) and Carson practically rips his throat out.  None of your silly independence here, boy!     

Presentation Day arrives, and Rose and all of the other debutantes ride down a glorious procession route to Buckingham Palace, where they ascend the stairs and wait their turn to be called.  Again, you would think that if Rose's mother couldn't make it from India, Rose's older sister would be there to sponsor her.  Instead it's Cora, who makes the appropriate deep bow along with Rose in front of King George V and Queen Mary look-alikes.  "David" is there as well, and makes sure to tell his papa that Rose is Shrimpie Flintshire's daughter.  George V is like "Oh, you're Shrimpie's daughter?  WOW!"  Something that I suspect the real George V would have never, ever done.  He seemed like the type who just wanted to get through this presentation nonsense as fast as he could.

Then later at Rose's ball, the Prince of Wales offers to lead her in the first dance.  Now she'll be the most popular girl in school!

During this time, Harold becomes friendly with Rose's friend, Madeleine, daughter of Lord Aysgarth (who, consequently, does look like Edward VIII -- at least an older version).  Harold quickly determines that Madeleine is after his money, if only because her father is sniffing Martha up and down like a police drug dog.  Madeleine is sincerely hurt -- apparently she really does like this portly, balding, sarcastic American for himself!  Harold softens, realizing that too often he puts up defenses to avoid being hurt.  Meanwhile, Martha dispenses of Lord Aysgarth, offering to take him to Newport, where he can meet bunches of rich widows who want a title much more than she.

Slade informs Daisy that Harold likes her cooking and wants her to come work as his personal cook in America.  Daisy considers it, but finally turns down the offer for whatever reason.  Actually, her reasons are decent: she has a widow's pension, is in line to inherit a tenancy, and all of her friends are at Downton.  Upon Daisy's rejection, Ivy (who is now in London) immediately asks if she can fill the role.  Daisy's like: "Yes, please, anything to prevent a new love quadrangle," and Slade agrees to let Ivy take Daisy's place.  Mrs. Patmore asks Daisy if she feels bad for turning Slade down, and Daisy responds that she just liked feeling desired for a change, but didn't need it to go any further.  So Ivy is off to America, and hopefully the actress will find another role that will, er, stretch her talents a bit more.  It shouldn't be too hard to find something that requires you be more than wallpaper.

Edith, meanwhile, has the one adult plot line of the episode.  Though she left her baby with the Swiss family, she is already having regrets.  She wants to take her baby back and have her raised by one of the Downton tenant farmers where Edith can keep an eye on her.  During the time lapse between episodes, Edith has learned that Gregson was attacked by German brownshirts in Munich on his first night, and now fears that he could be dead.  If so, the baby is the only piece of him she still has; since Gregson gave her power of attorney, that means she could inherit his estate and wants to leave part of it to the baby.  That doesn't make sense: wouldn't Gregson's wife inherit the estate, since she's still alive?  Since when is granting power of attorney the same as signing a new will?

Whatever.  Rosamund cautions Edith against her plan, and Edith responds that Rosamund can't understand what Edith is going through since Rosamund was never a mother.  Rosamund gives her a look, most likely remembering the two children Julian Fellowes gave her at the beginning of the series, only to strip them away later.  They must be swirling around in the same vortex that claimed Rose's siblings.

Edith decides to follow through with her plan, with the aid of Drewe, the tenant farmer whom Lord Grantham helped in an earlier episode.  They decide to pretend that Drewe's friend died unexpectedly and asked Drewe and his wife to raise her child.  Edith claims that it is a favor for a friend of hers, but Drewe appears to know the truth.  He agrees to keep things a secret, and seems kind hearted and sincere enough (I hope?) to do so.  This plan will likely blow up in Edith's face in Series Five, but for now, it's all she has.

Finally, the servants get the day off from their back-breaking labor for the past week or so.  Carson wants to take them someplace dull and educational, but Mrs. Hughes tricks him into agreeing to take them all to the beach.  I don't see why they all must go to the same place, but oh well.  Everyone has a good time, and Carson and Mrs. Hughes wade into the ocean together.

Other Observations

Martha Is Still Not Funny.  I will give the character credit for quickly recognizing and cutting down a gold-digging suitor, but otherwise, I feel like her appearances add nothing.  Except for more opportunities for Violet to be mean-witty -- like she doesn't have enough with Isobel?  And so Martha can say lines like: "You're part of the old.  I'm part of the new!"  Even if that's true in a broad sense, it just seems absurd coming from her crumbling visage.  In Series Three, Martha seemed kind of daffy, as if she were sampling her daughter's opiates, whereas here she just seems grouchy.  Maybe she remembered that she hates these people.

Yes, Isobel Was in This.  I didn't quite see where to fit her plot line in, as it was so slight.  Lord Merton is still pursuing her kind of, and she kind of likes him and kind of... doesn't?  Is that right?  This marks the second Christmas Episode in a row where Isobel existed outside of the main plot, though at least she got to be part of the main family gathering this time.  And she had a hilarious exchange with Violet, promising to guide her through the "jungle" of London without the use of a lady's maid.

Whither Jack Ross?  It might have been a nice character moment if Rose, instead of going to one party after another, had stopped to visit Ross to get some closure.  For her to just up and forget him makes her seem like every bit the spoiled party girl she's accused of being, rather than the person he believed her to be.

Goodbye, Matthew.  It seems odd that despite Matthew's death hovering over much of Series Four, there was so little reference to him in this episode.  The most heartfelt moment came when Branson and Edith quietly remembered him.  Yes, he was a good friend and ally to both of them, wasn't he?  Meanwhile, Mary seemed to care more about preserving Downton, and really, that's always been her major goal, even when Matthew was alive.  It might have been nice if she or Isobel had opened or closed the episode by paying him a silent tribute, maybe by the side of his grave.  

Next Time: I'll take a look at my Series Four predictions and see what came true and what really didn't, then make some more predictions for Series Five.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E7: There's Just Something About Mary

I had to use that once.  Now I shall never speak of it again.

This was the final episode of Series Four, before the Christmas Special that officially closes things out.  It was one of the better Series Four episodes, and one of the better Series finale episodes, at least since Series Two.  Nothing earth-shattering happened, but some plot lines wrapped up nicely and there were a few pleasant surprises.

Plot Synopsis

Lord Grantham is still away in America with Thomas, so Cora has the challenge of actually exerting herself for the upcoming village charity bazaar, which seems pointless because half of the people in the village hate the other half.

Even with Thomas gone, Baxter dutifully collects gossip around the house to share with him.  She tries to get Molesley to spill what he knows about the Anna-Bates situation, but he doesn't bite.  Instead, he later asks Baxter if she would like to join him for coffee.  When she refuses, Molesley tells her pointedly that most of the downstairs doesn't like Thomas, but that doesn't mean they automatically painted her with the same brush.  Baxter changes her mind and agrees to coffee.

Meanwhile, the Love Quadrangle Without End finally has the sense to end -- for now.  It begins with Ivy receiving a letter that makes her gasp and flee the kitchen.  Daisy snarks that Ivy just wants people to think that her life is interesting.  Weren't they friendly at one point?  I have this hazy memory of Daisy and Ivy locking arms during last year's Christmas special.  Did I dream it?  Moreover, I don't quite understand the depth of Daisy's hate.  What has Ivy done besides stir her jealousy?  I can't recall Ivy purposely leading Alfred on; rather, he kept pursuing her while she clearly liked Jimmy.  To this point, Ivy's been awfully tolerant of Daisy, but I wouldn't be surprised if she popped off one day.      

Anyway, Mrs. Patmore confronts Ivy later and learns that Alfred wrote a letter proposing to her and offering to get her a job.  Ivy does not intend to accept, not loving Alfred and realizing that she has her whole life ahead.  Though she gives Alfred her answer, he won't take her word and instead comes to Downton to get her to change her mind.  Mrs. Patmore and Ivy try to hide the dilemma from Daisy, but Daisy quickly suspects that something is up, so they confess.  Daisy agrees to go spend the day with her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (yay!), to avoid the pain of seeing Alfred again.  However, Mr. Mason urges her to see Alfred so they can part on a good note... again.  So Daisy returns while Alfred is still at Downton, armed with a basket filled with goods for him to take on his journey.  Alfred tells Daisy that he's been blind to what a good person she is, but rather than fall for him, Daisy simply tells him that she is over her infatuation (that was fast) and just wants to be friends.  Alfred is disappointed, but accepting.  Mrs. Patmore tells Daisy that she couldn't be prouder of her than if Daisy were her own daughter.  Aww.  Though it would be nice if Daisy's personal growth included making peace with Ivy.  

In other news, Isobel encourages Branson to run for local political office, and for that reason they head to a local town, where Branson sees Rose having lunch out in the open with Jack Ross.  They're again being quite affectionate, and strangely no one around them seems to take any issue.  Except for Branson, who is quite shaken by what he witnessed.  He later tells Mary and leaves the room right after, as if to say "you deal with it."  Mary confronts Rose gently, and Rose says a lot of admirable things about being in love with Ross and not buying into the notion of imperial "racial purity."  But then she says she's going to marry Ross, and will be overjoyed to see her controlling mother's face crumble at the news.  So we're supposed to just assume that dating Ross was just another way for Rose to rebel against her parents?  It's not surprising, but it does seemingly invalidate any real feelings she had for him, and any bravery those feelings spurred.

Mary decides to travel to London to visit Ross herself.  While Ross acknowledges that he and Rose are engaged, he states that he never intends to follow through, because he cares too much about Rose to subject her to the social blackballing and ridicule.  Not that she won't receive it anyway eventually.  Sympathetic, Mary tells Ross that if they lived in a more enlightened world, she would never want Ross to give Rose up.  She just won't bother to make that sacrifice now, when there could be scandal and all.  So Mary goes home and breaks the news to Rose, who gets angry and tells Mary she's just like the rest of them and, well yeah.  That plot line fizzled out a bit in my opinion.

If only Mary showed half as much concern for her sister as she showed for her second cousin.  At one point, she snickers at the dinner table about Gregson being missing, and oh my God, fuck you.  Your sister's beloved and possibly future husband has gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and you treat it like a joke?  It's times like this that I miss Matthew, who would have taken her to task for her insensitivity.  Fortunately, Edith has Rosamund in her corner.  Rosamund concocts a scheme to have her and Edith disappear to Switzerland for four months so that they can "practice their French."  Surprisingly not only does Cora buy it, but so does everyone else.  Everyone except Violet that is.  Violet gets Rosamund and Edith to confess the true reason behind the trip, and ends up being supportive of her granddaughter.  However, like Rosamund, Violet thinks that Edith ought to give the baby up for adoption to a Swiss family, rather than give it to one of the tenant farmers, as Edith would prefer.  The less scandal, the better.

As for the Mary plot line that inspired the header, all I can say is boys, boys, boys!  Boys are into Mary!  No matter how many times she says no, they want a yes!  Lord Gillingham returns once again because he has broken his engagement with Mabel Lane Fox, since his heart lies with Mary!  Only now he has competition because Blake is totally into Mary, too!  So is Evelyn Napier, not that he ever stood a chance.  Really, he should have set his sights on Edith long ago, who would have actually noticed him and treated him well.

Lord Gillingham's return actually has a darker story purpose, in that it also marks the return of the loathsome Green.  Finally Anna works up the courage to tell Mary the truth: it was Green who raped her, not a random stranger.  Mary is properly horrified and quickly calls Lord Gillingham to tell him not to bring Green.  Unfortunately it's too late, and Green arrives with his master.  He again pretends perfect innocence while Bates glares at him darkly.  Sometime after Lord Gillingham and Green leave for London, Bates asks Carson if he can take a day off to go to York.  Carson says that he couldn't refuse him a trip to York, since he should have been in New York.  So Bates leaves to go... sight seeing?

Meanwhile, let's get the minor plots out of the way.  Mary's godfather, Lord Merton, comes to visit for some reason or other, and becomes enchanted with Isobel.  During a stroll, he asks her what her son does, and Isobel has to remind him that Matthew is dead.  Yes, I'm that person's mother.  Lord Merton is deeply mortified and later expresses his apology with a nice bouquet of flowers.  Hmmm.

Branson runs into the woman at the political speech -- a teacher named Sarah Bunting -- not once, but twice under random circumstances.  Or so it appears.  The first time, he sees her in Thirsk, where he had also spotted Rose.  The next time, he finds her on the side of the road and fixes her stalled car, while she vents about the Crawleys and their stuffy toffish ways.  Then finally Branson sees her again at the village bazaar with all the other locals.  When Cora passes her by lugging a box, Bunting realizes the Crawleys aren't as bad as she thinks.

Yes, despite Cora's abject terror at having to be proactive, she and many others manage to pull off the charity bazaar without a hitch.  The bazaar is one of those fun affairs that this show seems to have at least once every year, with booths and carnival games.  And lo and behold, who should appear but Lord Grantham!  He wanted to surprise the family by coming back early, since it turned out he wasn't much needed in America after all.  The camera gets all swoopy as Lord Grantham and Cora share a romantic kiss, as if he'd just returned from a war or something.

Of course that also means that Thomas is back, and he wastes no time slithering Baxter's way.  He comes just as Jimmy has tried and failed to hit a bell in a carnival game.  At Baxter's encouragement, Molesley gives it a try, and all of that street paving work must have paid off, because he hits it.  Both he and Baxter are thrilled, but Thomas puts a damper on things when he demands to know what business went on while he was gone.  Baxter is reluctant, and Molesley gives her his arm, telling Thomas that they don't need any bullying brought back from America.  Baxter smiles, and they leave.

Lord Gillingham appears, visibly shaken, and heads over to Mary.  When she was in London, she also managed to visit him and let him know her concerns about Green.  Now Lord Gillingham has come to tell her that Green was killed -- stumbled into the street and hit by a bus.  He seems, perhaps, vaguely suspicious of the close timing between Mary's request and the accident.  Mary is stunned and quickly goes to tell Anna the news.  Anna is desperate to know the details, and appears relieved that there was a crowd of people around.  Later, Anna finds Bates and articulates her fear: you wouldn't do anything foolish to risk our lives together?  Bates denies doing anything, but his satisfied air makes Anna, and the viewer, pause.    

Other Observations

The Moving Camera of Doom.  The Cora and Lord Grantham kiss reminded me a little too much of the Sybil-Tom 360-degree angle romantic kiss from Series Three, just one episode before Sybil's death.  It makes me wonder if Hollywood-style romantic kisses on this show are some sort of harbinger of doom.  Many viewers have pointed out that Cora seemed spacier and on-her-meds more than usual this episode.  It would be pretty amusing if Fellowes were setting up a "Cora has an addiction" plot line, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Baxter and Molesley.  Now that Anna and Bates has worn out its welcome, this downstairs romance holds much more romantic potential, especially since it makes sense for two people worn down by life to be drawn to each other.  Now all that remains is to learn what secret Thomas has over Baxter.

She's Back.  So Martha Levinson will be returning in the next episode because, supposedly, she wants to see one more Season before she dies.  Given her lack of respect for social conventions, that seems like an odd sentiment -- especially when the person coming out (Rose) is someone she has never met and likely has no interest in.

Next Time: The story jumps ahead one year to the summer of 1923.  And yet nothing has likely changed.         

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E6: Edith's Choice

I was going to call this "Gone to the Pigs" or something of the like, but that was too silly.  Besides, while the pigs subplot was memorable, it was not the meat of the episode.  Pun intended.

Plot Synopsis

First, Downton Abbey is in a tizzy because Lord Grantham received a telegram from Cora's family in America, stating that they want him there right now.  For some reason, they think that having him testify before a Senate committee is a good idea, him being an upstanding English earl and all.  However, Bates does not want to leave Anna and begs for Thomas to take his place.  This simple request unleashes so much turmoil that one would think the nation had declared war again.  Before everything settles, Mary knows that Anna was violated, but not that Lord Gillingham's valet was responsible.  Anna refuses to disclose any more details to her.

Before Lord Grantham leaves, Violet comes to wish him off.  If it's not clear by the way she coughs every other word, she's feeling under the weather.  Isobel decides to visit her a few hours later and finds her in bed, sick as a dog.  Dr. Clarkson diagnoses her with bronchitis, which can turn into pneumonia if not treated.  Isobel therefore volunteers to be her nurse.  She somehow manages to nurse Violet exclusively for two days straight without collapsing.  Apart from Cora and Mary offering to help early on, no one in the big house seems very concerned about Granny.  It's a little disconcerting on the one hand, but on the other hand, I'm just so relieved that Violet's coughing wasn't the harbinger of an OMIGOD, GRANNY'S GONNA DIE! episode.  Of course Violet lives (like they'd kill her) and she is shocked to learn that her nemesis was the one nursing her the whole time.  They wind things up with a grand ol' game of cards.

While the Isobel-Violet plot line is rather sweet, despite being light on plot, the love quadrangle needs to DIE NOW.  I thought it was finally over last episode, but no, Alfred's father is sick, so he's coming to visit and will stop by Downton!  And instead of giving Daisy and Ivy a good talking-to about their rivalry, Carson decides to pretend that everyone has the flu and puts Alfred in a pub for the night.  But Alfred decides to come by anyway!  And Daisy snots at Ivy some more.  And Ivy says something nice to Alfred, who gets way too excited about it.  Please just make them all go away now.

Since Isobel was nursing Violet, she couldn't attend a political rally with Branson, who is trying to reclaim his mojo as the Brash Rebellious Socialist.  He finds a seat next to a young woman with bobbed hair and an independent air.  Though they don't talk for long, there is the sense that they'll meet again.

During this time, Edith has covertly booked an appointment in London.  She lies to her mother that it's to have her hair done, and figures that Cora believes it.  For some reason, Cora lets Rose tag along, even though Edith doesn't seem to like her all that well.  Something about Lord Grantham putting her in charge of "fun" -- I think he meant at Downton Abbey, dear.  But anyway, Rose and Edith both go to stay at Rosamund's.  Rose is only there, of course, to continue the plot line with Jack Ross, whom she goes to see on her first day out.  Even though Rose and Ross's dalliance has a basis in real life, I'm not sure how wise it is for them to be so public about it.  At one point Ross paddles Rose in a boat as they whisper sweet nothings into each other's ear, and no one around them seems even mildly shocked.  1923 meets the 21st Century.

Rosamund, meanwhile, discovers the true nature of Edith's visit: Edith intends to get an abortion.  Tearfully, Edith tells Rosamund that she wants a baby with Gregson, but society would conspire to make both her and the baby outcasts.  Rosamund opposes Edith's decision, then decides it's better to support Edith and go with her to the clinic.

Back at Downton, Mary and Cora are the only two Crawleys in residence, so they alone are forced -- in Mary's terms -- to entertain Blake, Evelyn Napier's egalitarian-minded boss.  Blake blithely ignores Mary's snide remarks about him, instead taking an interest in Downton's new delivery of pigs (Tamworths), for the purpose of diversifying.  He and Mary go to visit them after dinner, only to discover with horror that the pigs have kicked over their trough and are dying of dehydration.  Both Mary and Blake -- in fancy evening wear -- rush to collect buckets of water and give them to the pigs slowly throughout the night.  Things get muddy.  Mary slips and falls at least once.  By the end, both Mary and Blake are so covered with mud that they see no harm in flinging it at each other in fun.  But at least the pigs are saved!  For now.

Carson and Mrs. Hughes have retired for the night, but left a key in the lock for Mary to turn when they come in.  Because they're not worried about burglars, despite someone allegedly breaking into Downton to rape Anna mere weeks ago.  But anyway, Mary and Blake return in the wee hours of the morning, and Mary shows off her limited cooking prowess by whipping up some scrambled eggs and wine.  Did she also build the fire to enable cooking?  Or were cook stoves gas or electric by then?  And when would Mary have been in the kitchen long enough to learn how to make eggs, when --?

Just don't question it, Wild Blogger.

The point is that Blake is smitten with Mary and no longer believes she is a useless, lazy aristocrat like the rest.  Then Ivy comes in to start the day, and Mary leaves all of their dirty dishes for her to clean up.  Thanks, Mary.  Though at least she gives Ivy some good gossip to talk about, a nice change of pace from who likes Alfred better.

The next day, Edith and Rosamund go to the clinic, which really doesn't look all that bad, though Rosamund inquires suspiciously whether an actual doctor will be doing the procedure.  Edith tries to look brave, but at the first scream, she changes her mind.  She will have the baby -- she just doesn't know how or where.  Rosamund asserts that she will continue to support Edith.  It's nice that Edith has someone with brains in her corner.  Normally I hate the last-minute "I changed my mind" abortion stories where the woman decides to have the baby because "I may have no money and absolutely no desire to be a mother, but it will all work out somehow!"  But in this case, it's different because (1) Edith really does want to have a baby with Gregson and (2) abortion clinics were almost certainly much more dangerous back then.  It will be interesting to see what becomes of this storyline.

Just as Blake has become smitten with Mary, joining Napier, Lord frickin' Gillingham reenters the picture.  He's just there for the night, because he's in town or whatever, and probably because he wants to take one last shot at winning Mary.  More significantly, he has brought Green with him, who oils his way downstairs as if nothing ever happened.  However, Mrs. Hughes tells him that she knows everything, and Green -- in a fit of stupidity or smugness -- reveals during dinner that he went downstairs during Nellie Melba's performance.  Bates gives him a menacing glare.  Nice knowing you, Green.

Other Observations

The Real Life Jack Ross.  As my link above showed, Jack Ross is based on Leslie Hutchinson, a cabaret singer who was the toast of upper-class London in the 1920s and into the 1930s, until an affair with Edwina Mountbatten made him a persona non grata.  Looking at Hutchinson performing, it's clear that with one look, he has gallons more charisma than the fellow playing Ross.  Though in the actor's defense, while plenty of people have mocked his singing voice, it still sounds better to my modern ears than Hutchinson's.  In this YouTube short, Hutchinson's voice has an odd accent and an extremely fast vibrato.  It may have been the style at the time, but bleh.  That said, Hutchinson's story seems tailor-made for a feature film, yet the last film made about him was in the 1940s.  Overdue for a new spin?

More on Ross.  Someone more clever than I realized that when Ross talked about his family coming over in the 1790s, he was referring to the United States... as slaves.  Since Carson made a comment about Britain banning the slave trade in the 1760s, it all makes sense now.

Oh and...  Jack and Rose.  Coincidence, or did Fellowes intend to channel the *cough* timeless romance in Titanic?

Lord Grantham's Vital Importance.  Since Martha Levinson didn't do anything to help the Crawleys with their financial situation last year, I'm surprised she would be so insistent about Lord Grantham coming to her son's rescue.  Leaving her daughter behind.  Does even Martha think that Cora is useless?

Next Time:  It's the last episode of Series Four proper, with just the Christmas Special left before we say goodbye to Series Four.

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E5: It's a Secret

Most of this episode was fairly quiet, like the last one.  However, this one had several good moments, and that's before the "secret" was revealed at the end.

Plot Synopsis

First, I'll get the never-ending love quadrangle out of the way.  Thankfully, this is the end and now Daisy can get a good plot line.  She begins this episode thrilled that Alfred is staying at Downton, only for her happiness to be dashed when Alfred receives a letter informing him that one of the accepted candidates dropped out, so he gets to fill the position.  When it's time for him to leave, he tells Daisy that he's sorry he hurt her, and that she will make a man very happy, just not him.  His honesty is refreshing, but couldn't he have said that a few months earlier?  How many months -- no, years -- has this plot line dragged on?  Daisy manages to wish him luck, and they end on a good note.

Later, Jimmy tries to take advantage of Ivy after they see a Valentino movie, and Ivy realizes that Jimmy only wanted her for "one thing."  She tells the other kitchen staff and Mrs. Hughes what happened, and waxes nostalgic for Alfred's gentlemanly ways.  Daisy's like: "Oh now you like Alfred?!"  She unloads that it's because Ivy ignored him that Alfred left to be a chef, causing Daisy grief in the process.  I'm not sure that's quite accurate.  Daisy runs off, and Ivy asks what that reaction was about.  Mrs. Hughes replies: "It's about the fact you had it coming."  That was a bit out of left field.  It never seemed like Mrs. Hughes paid much attention to the love quadrangle.  But then, when it's dragged on for at least two years, I guess it's hard to ignore.

Meanwhile, the Isobel-Violet subplot that I thought was over last week is still going on.  This time, more small items have gone missing from Violet's house.  Violet suspects the gardener and fires him, stirring Isobel's outrage.  Isobel engineers a scheme to get into Violet's house while she is away and search for one of the missing items, which she finds under a seat cushion on one of the chairs.  Isobel comes back again after Violet has returned, ready to rake her over the coals for firing someone due to her carelessness.  Instead, Violet triumphantly explains that she already rehired the gardener and asked his forgiveness.  Okay, and the point of that was...?  Perhaps it was all part of Violet's scheme to give Isobel back her mojo, for as she explains to Lord Grantham: "Some people run on greed, lust, even love.  She runs on indignation."

The plot line that is not over, nor will it be soon, is the one with Anna and Bates.  Despite being the one to suffer trauma, Anna is worried most about Bates's feelings.  She still feels impure and unworthy of him.  Bates thinks that their relationship will improve if he takes Anna to a fancy restaurant in a nearby hotel.  The highlight of the plot is the snooty maitre d', who refuses to seat such low people until Cora (there with a charity group) intervenes, at which point he bends over backwards.  Yet even that good laugh isn't enough to lighten things between Anna and Bates.  Anna tells Bates that he sees her as a victim, but she doesn't see herself as one.  Bates tells her that what upsets him most was that he couldn't protect her.

Cora -- unusually perceptive in this episode -- can tell that something is wrong, but does not disclose until she is up in her room with Mary and Baxter.  Cora tells Mary that it sounded as though Anna was hurt and Bates could not protect her, then swears everyone in the room to secrecy.  Baxter goes downstairs and tells Thomas, but to her credit, shows signs of being a good egg by stating that she doesn't feel right about it.  Cora has treated her kindly and Baxter believes that she does not deserve her deceit.  Thomas loses his temper, reminding her of the conditions of her coming to work at Downton.  Whatever -- all she needs to do is tell Cora about Thomas's threats and he would be fired.  Surely he knows this?  Or does he think Lord Grantham is that desperate for a good cricket player?

Yet the show never considers this.  Shit-stirrer Thomas is somehow preferable as under-butler to Molesley, who actually was a butler.  So instead of considering Molesley for Thomas's position and demoting Thomas, Carson fixates on whether to offer Molesley the vacated footman position.  Carson is miffed that Molesley wasn't more grateful when he offered it the first time, and does not want to do so again, even though Molesley has had a change of heart.  Finally he gives in after Molesley shows a willingness to do even the humblest servant job.  So does that make Molesley the first or second footman?  I thought footmen were supposed to be the "peacocks" of the house?

Meanwhile, Edith's world is starting to crumble.  First she receives word from Gregson's office that he has vanished in Germany, then a letter telling her what most of the audience suspected: her symptoms are consistent with someone in her first trimester.  Edith does not tell anyone about the letter.  However, her grief about Gregson's absence is so pronounced that even her parents notice.  Lord Grantham provokes the biggest laughs of the evening when he calls Edith "my most darling girl," then says that he loves his children equally.  Edith is not fooled.  But she does tell him that Gregson's office has been working with the German police to no avail.  Not knowing what happened to him is "killing her," and she can't plan in this "fog."  Lord Grantham doesn't do much more than hold her hand.  Couldn't he hire an investigator?

Lord Grantham's birthday is drawing near, and plans are in effect.  It was supposed to be a surprise, but a few people couldn't keep their mouths shut, so he knows all about it.  However, he doesn't know about the one big surprise that Rose has planned: to invite Jack Ross and his band to play after dinner.  When Jack Ross appears downstairs, the servants gawk at him, while he smiles awkwardly.  

Upstairs, one of the party guests is Charles Blake, Evelyn Napier's boss on their Yorkshire land surveying trip.  Blake quickly lets Mary know that he is not surveying estates in order to save them -- he just wants to see if the nation's food supply will be affected.  In fact, he doesn't really give a fig about entitled aristocrats who never worked for their money.  Mary quickly lets Blake know that she thinks he's a bigot and a snob.  Looks like love!

After the dinner, Rose intervenes before the genders can separate into different rooms.  She ushers the Crawleys and guests into the ball room, where Jack Ross and his band await.  Unexpectedly, no one has a problem with his color except for Edith, with even Violet telling her that they needed to be less provincial.  Clearly she was not around two episodes ago, when her own daughter and Branson acted as if Rose were courting scandal by dancing with Ross for two seconds.

Then again, having a black musician entertain them was one thing; having one for a lover is another.  After the party, Mary comes downstairs and catches Ross and Rose kissing.  She quickly backs up the stairs and pretends she saw nothing, calling out: "Is anyone still downstairs?"  Rose and Ross both emerge from the shadows pretending nothing happened, but all three know that Mary knows that something did.    

Other Observations

An Aww Moment.  I've been critical of the show for having no Isobel-Mary interaction, so I wanted to comment on one scene that was among the best of Series Four, if not the entire series.  Isobel comes into the nursery while Mary and Branson are waiting for the children to appear with their nanny.  She remarks that Lord Gillingham is engaged, and Mary responds with just faint regret.  Perhaps to assure Mary that a union with Lord Gillingham never would have worked, Isobel recalls that she was almost "sick" with love before she married her own husband.  That leads Branson and Mary to remember their dearly departed spouses.  Mary recalls Matthew's proposal at the end of Series Two: how she was cold in the snow, but she didn't care because all she could think was: "He's going to propose!  He's going to propose!"  Isobel then notes what lucky people they are.  Even though they've all lost someone, at least they got to feel what true love was, which not everyone does.

Aww.  Now I need to go watch my DVDs from Series Two.  

Where Is Jack Ross From?  The actor is British, but his accent sounds sort of American.  But he said that his "people" came over in the 1790s, so unless he meant another branch of his family (a la Colin Powell's), then he must be British... I guess?

American Pie.  Or tea, rather.  It sounds as though Cora's brother is embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, where petroleum reserves were leased to private oil companies without competitive bidding.  The worst thing about this is that it gives Lord Grantham an opportunity to act superior.  Like you wouldn't have done the same thing in his place, bud.

Next Time:  I can't remember.  Let's all be surprised together!

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Monster: Everything You Ever Thought Is Wrong

Sometime after writing my review for Serial Experiments Lain, I visited an IMDB message board.  One of the threads was "Which anime series are like Lain?", and one suggestion was Monster.  I will sometimes watch the opening episode of an anime series out of curiosity.  But Monster was the first time I did it and was hooked.

That is saying something, considering that getting hooked meant committing to a 74-episode series, far longer than any other anime I had watched.  But one episode led to another, which led to another, and before I knew it, I had finished the entire series in less than a week.

The anime is closely based on Naoki Urasawa's manga series of the same name, which ran between 1994 and 2001 in 18 volumes.  The anime series aired in Japan in 2004 and 2005, then in the United States in 2009 and 2010 on the SyFy Channel.

Plot Synopsis

Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a Japanese man living in Dusseldorf, West Germany in 1986, at a time when Germany still exists in two halves.  Though a brilliant neurosurgeon, he is frequently ordered around and overshadowed by Dr. Heinemann, the director of his hospital and father of Tenma's fiance, Eva.  After Tenma is condemned by a Turkish widow for operating on an opera singer who came to the hospital after her husband (thus leaving her husband to die), Tenma starts to question the hospital's priorities.

Deciding that every life is of equal value, Tenma ignores Dr. Heinemann's next order to operate on the city's mayor and instead chooses to save the life of a 10 year old boy who arrived at the hospital first.  The boy, Johann Liebert, is the son of refugees from East Germany who were later murdered.  Johann himself was shot in the head, and only his twin sister, Anna, was unharmed.  Tenma saves the boy's life, while the mayor ends up dying.  In retaliation for Tenma's disobedience, Dr. Heinemann demotes him and Eva unceremoniously dumps him.  Tenma visits Johann while the boy is still seemingly unconscious and, in a fit of anger, declares that he wishes Dr. Heinemann were dead.  The next day, the boy and his sister have vanished without a trace.  Soon after that, Dr. Heinemann and two other doctors are dead.

Flash forward nine years, and Tenma is now Chief of Neurosurgery at the hospital.  After
Dr. Tenma hunts for Johann while he himself is pursued.
treating a critically wounded thief, he encounters Johann once more and learns the chilling truth: the boy he saved in 1986 was a serial killer.

That is just the first three or four episodes of the series, set up for Tenma's years-long quest to find Johann and atone for his "mistake" by killing him.  The quest takes Tenma all over Germany and into the Czech Republic.  Along the way, we meet several characters, including a grown up Anna; psychiatrists Dr. Gillen and Dr. Reichwein; Dieter, an abused boy; Wolfgang Grimmer, a freelance journalist; and, most notably, Inspector Lunge.  The almost robotic Lunge pursues Tenma from place to place, certain that he is the one who murdered the three doctors at his hospital.

Nothing is what it seems, and just as one mystery about Johann is solved, more questions emerge.  Yet throughout the series, the overriding question is whether taking even one life is worth it to save countless others.  Also, what happens when people are stripped of their identities, right down to their names?

Non-Spoiler Discussion

The only way I can really discuss this series is to break it into "Non-Spoiler" and "Spoiler" sections.  So those who have never seen Monster, be warned that in the final section, I will be discussing major reveals about the story and characters.

If I were to give Monster a score, it would be 8/10 or 9/10.  It is so close to perfect, but falls just short.  Yet even as some things will leave you dissatisfied, you will be enthralled by the mystery as it slowly unfolds.  I watched the dubbed version of Monster online, and the ending of each episode set up such a perfect cliffhanger, I immediately clicked on the next episode.  I hadn't done that since watching Breaking Bad on Netflix.

Characters.  One reason the story is so gripping is that it introduces several great characters, such as Wolfgang Grimmer, whose beaming face conceals a tortured past.  Or Anna, whose attempts at a normal life keep getting destroyed by her brother.  They become co-main characters with Tenma, and during several episodes when Tenma is not on screen, you don't miss him because the other characters are great as well.  Even characters you dislike initially undergo changes throughout the series and become different people afterward.

Wolfgang Grimmer, concealing a dark past.
In fact, it takes a special series to make you care about characters who appear in just one episode, like Tenma's ammunitions instructor with the adopted daughter, or the Vietnamese teenager running a medical clinic by herself (technically she appears in two episodes, but her second appearance is brief).  That is one reason why many consider Monster to be Urasawa's best work.

Character Animation.  The character animation is not the best ever, but it is still pretty good, and noteworthy mainly for its design.  Many animes will draw all of the characters a certain way and just give them blond or red hair to denote that they are Caucasian.  Monster is the first anime that I've seen that makes an effort to distinguish the European character designs from the non-European ones.  Sure, you have characters like Anna and Johann, whose large eyes and button noses would be at home in any anime, but they are the exception.  Many of the Europeans in Monster have broad faces and large noses, or long boney faces like Lunge or Grimmer.

Otherwise, while it can get annoying seeing the characters speak without their faces moving, the animation effectively showcases emotion.  Hairs suddenly flickering, bodies contorting, eyes widening.  The camera angles make scenes appear dynamic even when very little movement occurs.

Setting.  One thing that also distinguishes Monster is that it is set in a very specific time and place.  As Tenma learns more about Johann's past, he learns about Germany's past as well -- specifically the brutal oppression tactics used by the East Germans.  Tenma's quest through Germany and into Prague means lots of gorgeous shots of German countryside, as well as landmarks like Heidelberg Castle and the Charles Bridge.  

Music.  Apart from the haunting intro, the music is not hugely memorable, except for being rather overwrought at times.  Yet you realize, as you go further into the series, that such music sets the mood for the often outrageous acts about to occur.

Inspector Lunge, an example of Monster's distinctive character
Themes.  The importance of each individual is the major theme, and from that comes others, such
as the importance of maintaining your identity, and what happens when that is taken away from you.  Character names are of the utmost importance, as well as individual memories.  While the series can hit these themes a little too hard at times, it is gratifying to see characters take solace in their name and their self worth during times of crisis.

So those are my non-spoilery impressions of the series.  I would encourage anyone to check it out, especially if they have a few days off.

Spoiler Discussion

With each episode, Monster promises two things: (1) to reveal what happened to Johann to turn him into a serial killer, and (2) to reveal what his end goal is, and why.

Unfortunately, the series does not fulfill either promise.  Instead, I went away thinking how remarkable it was that Anna Liebert remained sane.

In a series filled with memorable characters, Johann Liebert ends up being the least interesting.  For many episodes, we are led to believe that Johann became a "monster" after being tortured for months in the Red Rose Mansion near Prague, and that his tendencies were perfected at 511 Kinderheim.  Instead, the major series twist is that Anna was the twin dragged off and experimented on by Franz Bonaparta.

While Anna has periodic mental breakdowns, she manages to remain remarkably stable, despite having more reason to go batshit than anyone.  After all, she was given over to Bonaparta and his followers, tortured, and witnessed the deaths of 46 people.  Then her brother started killing their adult caregivers and she shot him in the head.  Then her brother killed her adopted parents, the Fortners.  Then he nearly burned her alive in a university library.  Yet somehow she comes through just as strong and determined as ever.

For that matter, so do many of the characters.  Dieter manages to overcome his recent past with an abusive former operator of 511 Kinderheim, becoming an ally and friend to the other main characters.  As for Grimmer, despite his confessions that 511 Kinderheim left him unable to process normal human emotion, we frequently saw a man who cared about other people and knew how to appreciate life.

The real mystery is how Anna maintained her sanity.
Yet somehow Johann remains perpetually scarred by his experiences... despite the fact that his actual suffering was far less than the others'.  Moreover, the reveals about Johann do not answer the question of when he became the "monster."  Based on flashbacks, he may have been born bad -- note the squinty eyes and smirky lips when he welcomed his sister home.

Another viewer put forth the theory that Johann's actions were motivated by guilt.  In the flashback, his mother initially offered him to Bonaparta, before changing her mind and offering Anna.  Maybe Johann internalized Anna's experiences due to the misguided belief that he should have been the one to face the torture, not his beloved sister.

Or maybe it was a twisted sense of envy?  Anna got to be the "special" one, experimented on and admired by Bonaparta and his followers, while Johann had to sit back and wait.  Maybe that was why Johann went around Prague dressed as Anna, so he could feel what it was like to be her.  For a long time, I was convinced we would learn that Johann had once been female, but Bonaparta's "experiments" turned him into a male.  That would mess anyone up.

The theory that makes the least sense is the one suggested by Johann himself: that he resented his mother for loving him less than Anna.  That he always wondered whether she meant to offer him up, but got confused over which twin he was.  I could see how that would be upsetting, but still... he wasn't the one who went.  Murdering dozens of people seems like an awfully big temper tantrum for so small a reason.

So I've just spent paragraphs talking about a character I said was the least interesting.  Yet it's really because so little is explained in the series that we must speculate about Johann's motives.

The second-least interesting character is, believe it or not, Tenma.  Tenma's moral dilemma is interesting, but the character does not spend a lot of time really exploring it.  Instead, he reluctantly searches for Johann, knowing he must kill him, while saving the life of anyone else he finds.  After a while, you know that Tenma will never pull the trigger.  He does shoot Roberto in the library, but only when he is about to be killed himself.  It would have been interesting if Roberto died, and Tenma had to deal with the guilt despite shooting in self defense.

It is never clear what Johann wants for Tenma.  He lets him live early on because Tenma saved his life, yet engineers an elaborate massacre so Tenma would know what it felt like to be completely alone.  Was this Johann's plan all along, or something he came up with once he realized that Tenma would never stop pursuing him?  

Non-Spoilery Conclusion

Again, Monster is a great series as a whole, and deserves to be considered one of the best anime series of all time.  Once you start watching, you won't be able to stop, and its themes and characters will continue to resonate long afterward.

The above images and video are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.