Monday, January 16, 2012

The Televangelist: 'Downton Abbey,' Season 2, Ep. 2

Posted By on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 12:09 PM

Besties. Total Besties. Totally. not!
  • PBS
  • Besties. Total Besties. Totally. not!

If you think about it, a lot of the dramatic tension that makes TV shows and films and novels thrive comes from misunderstandings or lack of communication. I was struck last night by how calm, competent and communicative the residents of Downton are, and unfortunately, because of that, there is very little drama or discomfort in need of resolution down the road. For instance, early in the episode Irish chauffeur Branson makes some cryptic and worrying remarks about his (rightful) dislike of the British army. He offers to serve dinner and, in a series of escalating close ups and a tremoring orchestral soundtrack, we were all made to clutch our pearls as disaster was ready to strike. However, just upstairs, the maid Anna spots a note on Lady Sybil's bed that reads "I'm sorry." Does she ignore it? Of course not! She reads it, then rushes to give it to her superior (Mrs. Hughes), who reads it and passes it along to Branson's superior, Carson. There are multi-billion dollar businesses that could learn from the efficiency of the household staff at Downton. Carson puts an end to "the murder plot" before a glove is raised, and the worst thing to come of it was Mrs. Hughes' deep dissatisfaction at having to serve a cold soup. "To hell with it!" she cries, as the rest of us breathe easy that Branson did not in fact plan to murder the British General, but instead just hoped to pour a black slop upon him. Later, Carson (over tea, naturally) reasons to Mrs. Hughes that it would be more work to get rid of Branson than to keep him, which seems to be the philosophy behind Thomas' endless promotions elsewhere on the estate.

The worrying bit about all of this is the whirlwind nature of the season so far. We have already spanned three years since the end of last season, and almost everything besides Mary and Matthew's "will they / won't they?" plot seems to get sewn up in a single episode. Anna sees Bates, and within a few TV moments we see Mary has communicated with Sir Richard to find out Bates' exact address. Anna sees him, they have a quiet exchange (as if he didn't tell her last time we saw him to forget him forever? Meanwhile he lurks in the village to see her and continues planning his divorce? And then he so easily tells her Vera's plans which he could have done ages ago and saved her some grief). Lavinia's conversation with Sir Richard in the bushes from last week was put away quite easily (even though, "my dear I don't know any people who threaten me behind the laurels," as the Lady Violet pointed out). It played for some light tension before Lavinia flatly said to Mary the fragment statement about him, "we were lovers?" which put any question of them being lovers out of the realm of possibility. No, in fact, despite the desire of her aunt and granny that Mary spill the beans to Matthew and get Lavinia out of the picture for good ("if only we could gobble her up..." Lady Violet muses), The New Mary (as opposed to Season One Spoiled Brat Mary) remained calm and dignified, and confronted Lavinia instantly on the subject. In return, she was treated to a frank and honest discussion in return. All is as it was, and Matthew continues to know nothing. Tea, anyone?

The problem, again, with narratives being dealt with so rationally, is that the payoff is diminished to a whisper of emotion. Edith, who has fought to find her place since the first episode of the series, finally found a way to be useful. And, again, in the course of a single episode she goes from standing around whining about feeling useless (and pining after her farming tryst) to becoming Florence Nightingale, heroine of convalescing officers. Near the end of the episode, there was some satisfaction in seeing Isobel and Cora both get passed over by the General in favor of his toast to Edith's work, but you also know that Isobel and Cora are genuinely delighted to see her get her due (as are we). But would it not have been a sweeter moment all around if Edith had continued to toil unnoticed, with perhaps only Mary and Sybil receiving family praise, only later to be singled out and noticed for her tireless contributions?

There are a few themes that will likely continue to play out in the background of the series, though. On a macro scale, the crumbling world of the aristocracy, and of the horrors of a World War coming home. On the micro scale, the power struggles within Downton, within the family, and among the residents both upstairs and down. There was a fantastic long tracking shot of members of the household flitting around as the soldiers were being moved into the house, with furniture being whisked around and a beautiful controlled chaos emerging. Later, we see the Earl of Grantham standing in his drawing room watching the dividers being put up to separate his "home" from the convalescent quarters, looking quite lost. "The world was in a dream before the war," he later tells his wife Cora. "It has now been forced to wake up."

So far "Downton" has done an admirable job at showing some of the impact of the war. Even though Matthew has not been in any real danger as he tours the Yorkshire countryside on a holiday of morale boosting, we have met a few returning soldiers (such as Lt Courtney and of course Mr. Lang) who embody the horror of that which we, and the household, do not see. Lang saved Carson the uncomfortable position of letting him go because of his many PTSD-like episodes, but as Carson so wisely said, "no, Mr. Lang, we let you down. You were not ready to work, and I should have seen that." Still, as Carson exited his room his closed his eyes and exhaled, and my friend Martha commented, "but what will Mr. Lang do now?" likely vocalizing Carson's exact thoughts. Unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Lang's story has, for us, come to an end. Another member of "the walking wounded," as Mrs. Hughes call them, has been sent back out into an unforgiving world.

In some ways, "Downton" reminds me of "Friday Night Lights" or even "Mad Men," shows that immerse you in a culture and a feeling about a place and the people in it. In "Friday Night Lights," you fall in love with Coach and Tami Taylor, you cry when Matt Saracen wonders if he can still care for his ailing grandmother - the only family he has left - and you know every time the quarterback throws a 60-yard pass on 4th-and-something when the team is down by one touchdown that, damnit, there will be a touchdown caught and made so that they prevail. Despite a few missteps here and again, the show always felt very real - the conversations, the relationships - with everything set to a lush backdrop of rolling grass and big Texas sky, tied together with a haunting soundtrack. Sure, "Downton" lacks certain dramatic force that could probably be fixed by drawing out some of the stories a little further, but the show's greatest strength is how it immerses the viewer into the microcosm of a buzzing household that is trying to hold itself together while war and a very progressive century challenging everything it has heretofore known. There is drama in that, and in the subtle looks that shoot back and forth among members of the house every time there is a pause in conversation. After all, is there anything more frightening than being on Rosamund and Lady Violet's bad side? I would pit their scheming and machinations - along with O'Brien and Thomas' - against the more hardcore characters from my other shows. "To hell with the soup!"

Next Week: Isobel continues to be lose control and be upset, Branson suddenly wants to run away with Sybil, Matthew and William go on an unfortunate hike, and someone is seen having an illicit romp!

Musings and Miscellanea:

— I do not care for William tempting fate with his bravado talk about the war. And Daisy, bullied into a relationship with William because of
Mrs. Patmore's interference ... this surely cannot end well for anyone!

— "Rosamund is never more righteous than when she is in the wrong" - Lady Violet.

— Was anyone else surprised at how callous Thomas was towards Lang to "put a sock in it," knowing what he does about the horrors of war?

— Thomas' hair did look really good all mused up, though ...

— Isobel on why Violet is happy that Thomas is managing Downton: “Why? Are you planning on dividing his loyalties?” Violet: “I wouldn’t say I was planning it.”

— Matthew and Mary's chemistry is the best it's ever been. But what of poor, sweet Lavinia? Who single-handedly brought on the Marconi scandal?

— I was surprised to see electric curling irons around in 1917. From the looks of it, very little about them has changed in almost 100 years!

— "We can't leave all of the moral high ground to Sybil. She might get lonely" - Mary.

— According to Lady Violet, mixing ranks is fine ... as long as you are at your best. Otherwise, it really shouldn't be forced or tolerated.

— In Season One I really liked Isobel - I thought she was feisty and a good foil for Violet. I don't care for how she's been portrayed in this season, and her war with Cora holds no interest for me. Even Matthew looks tired of her. She deserves better!

— So Anna even says she'll be Bates' mistress, but of course he's too honorable for that. Blah.

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