TV Talk: DOWNTON ABBEY 2.02
Well, PBS claimed it was just going to air the first episode of DOWNTON ABBEY this past Sunday and aired the first two episodes instead. You just can't get good public broadcasting that no one wants to pay for these days. So you're stuck with me for another round as we delve deeper into the effects of the Great War on Downton's family members and staff.
What strikes me most about the second episode of the series is the extremes most of the characters face with little to no build up for the emotional payoff. Ironically, if asked, most people* tout British television as superior in the ways of television pacing - their shortened seasons remove filler and tedious, character-driven episodes in favor of just telling the story. But this is maybe where Downton suffers - I want to see the threads spun out a bit more. Everything in this episode is rushed and sudden: Carson suddenly collapses from overwork; Mary suddenly brings home the loathsome Sir Richard Carlisle (a newspaper man, of all things. And Scottish. Heaven forfend.); Thomas's heart suddenly grows three sizes and Lady Edith jumps straight to second base** with a married man. But perhaps the rushed plotlines and impestuous decisions are the real story - there is a war on, after all, and needs must.
My grandfather, who it sometimes shocks me to realize was expelled screaming into this world during the decade in which this season is set, always struck me as a bit impulsive. He married young; he married a second time having only known the woman (my grandmother) a few short weeks. He hauled his family around wherever the Air Force would send him, and as a naturally cautious and timid child, this confused me. "Erin," he once said, wearing a silly wig my cousins and I had unearthed from a box in the barn, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, "I was born in one war, served in two others, and saw my children off to fight another. Life is short; take what you can get."
It is perhaps giving credit where it isn't entirely due, but I'd like to think Julian Fellowes and the rest of the creative team are living by that principle. This is a time of great uncertainty for our characters; why not let them experience the full range of emotions in as volatile a manner as possible?
The injured Lt Courtney being rehabilitated by Lady/Nurse Sybil.
As a television viewer, however, these explosive emotional awakenings feel rushed and forced. Let's begin with Thomas, who has a moment of absolute vulnerability in this episode, marking the first time that Thomas has been vulnerable to anything. A blinded (and handsome, it must be pointed out. This is still Thomas, after all.) officer makes his way to Grantham's village hospital and is naturally a bit depressed to think of the life his future holds . Thomas, assigned to the Grantham hospital via the machinations of Mrs O'Brien and Lady Cora, seems to really connect to the man. He reads him letters from home, discusses how a rehabilition might allow him to serve out his destiny as owner of his father's estate (a dream both Thomas and the officer know to be untrue, even as they say it) and, along with Sybil, teaches the man to live life in a new way. When the officious Dr Clarkson tells the officer that the hospital is full and he must rehabilitate elsewhere, the young officer kills himself in grief. And Thomas? Thomas is shattered. I've watched now roughtly 18 episodes of this television show, and I can say to you that I have not before nor since witnessed such an outpouring of genuine emotion from Thomas as in the scene in which he cries the bitter tears of someone who feels he didn't quite do enough. I'm not so easily forgiving of Thomas, though. I think he, like any budding sociopath, needs to feel as if he can manipulate any situation to his liking. He loses this round, and it's that feeling of inadequacy which affects him almost as much as, or maybe more than, the death of that young officer.
The officer's suicide spurs Sybil and Isobel to offer up Downton Abbey as a rehabilitation facility for those leaving Grantham village's hospital. The Crawleys aren't exactly pleased by the news - Lady Cora and Violet are amongst the most strident objectors - but the plan is settled that the manor, its family and its staff, will host the wounded soldiers who limp through the North on their way home. This is a huge undertaking for a house like Downton; it has money and room, but it is not built for sheltering the walking wounded. As the house and grounds are converted over the next several episodes, I expect we'll see the full scope of Downton's residents' character, for better or for worse.
Carson, now lacking both footmen (William finally being called up, an opportunity he uses to cajole a reluctant Daisy into being his girl), overworks himself in an effort to keep Downton exactly as it was before the war started. For Carson, a man too old to fight and too poor to hold even an honorary position in the military, all that is keeping his world from being turned over to the scurge of the Austrio-Hungarian forces is propriety. He must have a proper dinner serving; he must be able to host houseguests at a moment's notice. His obsession blinds him to the obvious signs of PTSD in new valet Lang (in a nice touch, it is only the oft-hated O'Brien who really witnesses and understands Lang's illness, and it is also only she who truly has patience for it; for, as she says, she lost a brother to "shell shock." Lang's illness does little to advance the viewer's understanding of Lang's character, I'm sorry to say, but it goes quite a way towards redeeming the good standing of O'Brien The Fetus Killer). When Lang's illness prevents his serving dinner correctly, Carson feels the stress all too keenly, keeling over in an apparent heart attack. Though by the next act he is thankfully recovered enough to give Lady Mary courting advice. Jesus, Carson, can't you take one fucking nap without this family falling apart?
New valet Lang is not fit for active duty of any kind.
Lang's enduring PTSD provides a foil for another character's emotional journey as well - Head Cook Mrs Pattmoore's nephew has gone missing from his regiment. After asking Lord Grantham to look into the matter, she learns the grave truth: her nephew was shot for cowardice by his own unit. Pattmoore is crushed; the strain of what she sees as her nephew's disgrace nearly breaks her. Lord Grantham is kind in telling her that he shall see to it that the official word is that the boy was killed in active duty, but that in itself is its own brand of shame. Sure, we can send these young men to war; we can welcome them home - blind, diseased, limbless, near-death - but we must never discuss the uncertaintly, the fear, the conscienctious objector, the young man who decides his life is worth more than a general ordering him to a battle in which he will surely die.
This war has already spread its dark shadow over the people of Downton and it seems all of the male characters, at least, are now crippled by something: cowardice, trauma, shame, impotence, pride, hopelessness. As the men begin spiraling from the effects of the war, will the women become the characters who muster all the strength?
Perhaps so. Lady Edith, a truly middle-child if e're I laid eyes on one, has volunteered to help out at John Drake's farm, as their last farmhand has just been called up to service. (John Drake, you may remember, is the man who nearly died of dropsy in Series One, before Isobel convinced Doctor Clarkson to purge the fluid from his pericardium. P.S.? I've had the pansy-ass version of dropsy, aka pleuritis, before. It pretty well sucks, so I can imagine the full thing is pretty damn shitty.) Edith spends her days pulling heavy loads in the tractor, which I promise is not a euphemism, and her evenings chatting to John Drake about the day's work. Because John actually pays attention to her, Edith falls in love with him. They kiss, an act which his wife witnesses, and Edith quickly finds herself out of a job.
Being a man of work gives Edith the chance to work on a man.
Amongst my friends, I am famous for defending Edith her every action, even as everyone else I know roots against her. But Edith, to me, is one of the most relatable characters in this entire show. At the core of it all, she only ever wants to be loved, to feel valued to someone else. She wants to be good at something; she wants to be paid attention to; she wants someone, someday, to turn to her and say, "Why, Edith, that was very clever of you." She clammors for attention which she never receives - Mary is impestuous and high-spirited and trail-blazing and Sybil is kind and beautiful and fervently good. There is no place for Edith, the daughter who just does what she should, and hopes someday it will all work out for her. The simple truth is that no one looks out for Edith, inasmuch as a woman of fairly well means needs looking after, and therefore it's all she ever wants. All Edith desires is to be needed and wanted. She is neither, and so the first time that anyone shows her any genuine interest, affection, or common need, she will fall in love with them. If there is any character at all in this series who I never find to become a bit of a farce, it is Lady Edith. She is only gaping need, an open wound in search of just the slightest amount of salve.
And so with Edith and Sybil doing an honest day's work, what of Lady Mary? Mary's job is not as physically strenuous as Sybil's or Edith's; instead she must live a constant lie. She must pretend - no, not pretend; she must believe - that she is not still in love with Matthew, that she did not ruin her chances for happiness by gambling on the potential of a better match and losing. In this episode, she invites the awful Sir Richard home for a weekend excursion, desperate to claim his business-like approach to love as real affection. Mary knows she does not love Richard; she knows he does not love her. But Mary is the type of person who will only ever do exactly what she feels is necessary, not out of a sense of loyalty or honor, but out of a sense of pride. Mary knows by now that she is somewhat damaged goods (as a feminist, I hate to even utter that line, though Lord knows that if my sexual conquests had the habit of keeling over dead soon after, I'd probably find my romantic choices limited, too), and so she courts Sir Richard. She knows that the only thing he can do for her is keep her in the lifestyle to which she has been raised to know, but I think she feels a genuine challenge in refining him, in making him over to be a respected member of the peerage. She must, or why else would she listen to his horrible proposal*** without responding with a swift punch in the throat?
A few more threads are laid down in this episode which will presumably be woven into a later tapestry: Sir Richard and Lavinia have some sort of previous connection, as awful Aunt Rosamond witnesses them arguing stridently; Daisy is being counseled to fake an affection for William in order to "give him something to fight for," and Isobel seems to be growing very used to making unilateral decisions for a family that is only tangentially her own. Hulk and Meredith with pick up those threads next week while I busy myself rewatching the second season and screaming drunken vitriol at half the cast.
* This past weekend, Badass Managing Editor Meredith and I were day-drunk and discussing the relative merits of the character of Britta on Community. Being day-drunk, I didn't articulate very well, but mainly she exists so that people like me know when to shut their fucking mouths.
** Well, 1916-version of second base. And, considering it's England, I should probably use cricket terms. Uh, Edith gave John Drake a sticky wicket?
*** Honestly, the marriage proposals on this show are The Very Worst. I'm not the kind of person to greet those overly-structured, flash mob, Jumbotron, cutesy proposals with anything other than thinly veiled disgust and vague nausea, but I guess I'm just romantic enough to presume that if one person asks another to get married, they should inject at least a little more emotional resonance into the inquiry than they do when asking them the status of the weather. That said, after watching this show for now a little over a year, I respond with a prim, "my goodness, is this a proposal?!" anytime my boyfriend asks me where we should eat or to pass the salt. It's pretty hilarious to us; my mother, on the other hand, doesn't see what's so funny about it. Go figure.