TV Talk: DOWNTON ABBEY 2.04

Meredith dives into the DOWNTON ABBEY TV Talk with an episode that reverses nearly all previous plot advancements with a quickness. 

Welcome back to the Downton Abbey TV Talk. Week one of the second season featured a two-hour double episode: you can read Erin's post on 2.01 here and 2.02 here. Last week Film Crit Hulk covered Episode 2.03, and you can read that here

Sunday's episode continued the trend, observed by both Erin and Hulk, of rash pacing uncharacteristic of the first season of Downton Abbey. Bates proposed to Anna, then nobly abandoned his station and love to keep his wife from besmirching the Crawley name, then worked in a pub and spied on Anna, then was welcomed back to Downton within three episodes. I'm happy enough to have him back, but honestly, the plot line of his leaving seems rather pointless, carried out so quickly. And of course we know the peace can't last; Vera Bates will continue her mostly unclear campaign to be insupportably querulous and destroy Bates' chance at happiness because she is a VILLAIN. What does she want? Is it money? No, because Bates offers her that and it's not enough to free him. Is it love? No, because she's cheated on him and treats him with whole-hearted disdain. She wants nothing but to be villainous, simply because she is a villain. While I agree with Hulk's statement of last week that Downton Abbey is a show about how people are both bad and good, thus far (and as next week's previews indicate, in the future) we have seen nothing but the bad in Vera. 

I think the problem lies within Bates himself. Here is a character so noble, so principled, so poignant, that all characters with whom he interacts have no substance other than how they relate to Bates. Anna--kind, lovely Anna, played with legitimate profundity by Joanne Froggatt--never gets a single storyline not centered around Bates. Vera is nothing but the old-timey, cartoon blackguard, twirling her mustache and plotting to chain Anna and/or Bates to the railroad track. Handsome, useless Earl of Grantham merely revolves between trusting Bates, mistrusting Bates, apologizing for mistrusting Bates and then trusting Bates again. Now that Thomas and O'Brien have exhausted their lifelong allotment of caring about other people, with one episode each, they're back to scheming Bates' ruin. (Actually, and this was interesting, that's mostly O'Brien now. Thomas maintains that he has other things to care about, to which O'Brien replies with surprise, "Obviously, I hold a grudge longer than you do." No shit, O'Brien. You are Sovereign of the Grudge-Holding Universe. You forcibly miscarried your own employer with a bar of soap because you misheard her. Nobody touches you in that arena.)

The point being, much as I adore Bates and the stoic, elegant performance by Brendan Coyle, I can't say I'd mind if the character bit the bullet. I understand this will be an unpopular opinion, and I'm a bit shocked at myself, actually. But with his tireless nobility and unflappable penchant for self-sacrifice--and most especially the impact this has on those surrounding him, turning potentially interesting characters into nothing but foils or celebrants of Bates--he's developed into a bit of a Mary Sue. Bates' only flaw is being too noble, too self-sacrificing, and that's like telling a prospective employer that your biggest weakness is that you work too hard. It's boring.

And besides, if Bates were to self-sacrifice himself to death, poor old Molesley might have a chance at some happiness. Here's another character who has nothing to live for other than what he covets in Bates; he's always yearning after the two who love Bates the most, Anna and Grantham, and receiving very little attention in return. When Bates smugly takes the new shoehorn that poor old Molesley purchased for Grantham, it was the first spark of anything less than lofty we've seen of Bates. So even though I feel bad for sweet sad-sack Molesley, I at least appreciate the slight diversion from Bates' perpetual high-mindedness.

So what for those few outside The Venerated Circle Of Bates this week? Cora, Countess of Grantham, grows into her own in this episode, finally leaving behind an entire season of marble-mouthed lethargy to run the Downton hospital. She sensibly reschedules Cousin Isobel's daily timetable so the Downton staff can eat lunch at a reasonable hour; this coupled with Dr. Clarkson's going on rounds without Isobel when she's running late, and that tripled with Edith's organizing the concert without Isobel's help, results in a staggering temper tantrum from Isobel. Isobel threatens six, seven times that she will leave to run an establishment in France where she is needed, and Cora replies six, seven times that she is perfectly fine with that. You can watch their conflict here. 

As you can see, Cora handles the scene with composure but not grace. While she is absolutely in the right--this is her home, and Isobel has bossed her around far too often in it, and Cora is running things with surprising efficiency and practicality--she should have risen above Isobel's tantrum and treated her with kindness. Isobel's husband is dead; her son is at war; she has very little to distract her and very little in which she takes pride. Cora co-opted Isobel's only passion and did her best to make Isobel feel ineffectual. That said, when loathsome O'Brien tries to get Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Bird in trouble for feeding hungry soldiers, Cora simply pitches in with their service and orders O'Brien to do the same. Languid speech impediment and permanent air of disinterested surprise aside, Cora is turning out to be pretty cool. 

Isobel eventually does leave for France ("I'm gone!") and therefore, thankfully, misses some dreadful war news that soon reaches Downton. Upstairs and downstairs are equally affected by the news that Cousin Matthew and sweet little William have gone missing. Daisy at least doesn't want William dead, so there's that. Maybe Mrs. Patmore's nuptial meddling won't result in tragedy after all. (Unlikely!) Lady Edith had a very good week, remaining sweet, competent and confident the entire hour, and Erin's urgent and ceaseless defense of her may be wearing on me, or possibly Edith is just growing into a likable character. She kindly gives the news of Matthew to Lady Mary, who keeps that stiff upper lip until Matthew's surprise return, at which point her desperate l-o-v-e of him is written all over that marvelously composed (and groomed) brow.

Glad as I am at Matthew's return, the fact that this conflict is resolved within one episode is another illustration of the hurried pacing of Downton Abbey Season Two. I'd have liked to see Mary and Daisy sweat it out a bit longer over the well-being of their would-be beaux. Leave them missing for one whole episode; allow Mary to feel the gloom of having informed Matthew of her engagement before he disappeared. Allow us to miss Matthew and William and to fear for their return. And I know that a year passes in between each episode (we're now to 1918--the Americans have joined the war effort and the Russians have left it, Armistice Day is nearing and the end of the war looms), but really, how much leave does Matthew get? He is always at Downton.

Lady Sybil loses some feminist points this week by very nearly allowing Branson to convince her she's in love with him. He tells her about fifteen times that she is, and she seems mildly convinced, to my intense disapproval. The Dowager Countess, deliciously dry as always, is concerned with Sybil's virtue: "War breaks down barriers, and when peace-time re-erects them, it's very easy to find oneself on the wrong side." Naturally, her snobbery goes almost as far to convince Sybil that she's in love with Branson as his bullying does. Mary overhears Sybil and Branson (obviously; as grand as Downton's grounds may be, they exist in a sound bubble wherein everyone hears everything); Mary promises not to get Branson sacked if Sybil will swear not to do anything stupid. I second that. I don't care that Branson's only a chauffeur; what I do mind is that he demands that he knows the contents of Sybil's heart better than she does and he shows no respect for her work at the hospital. You can do better, girl--and I don't mean richer.

And lastly, we have Ethel, who is of course boning the mustachioed officer (who does magic tricks!), and who of course was caught by Mrs. Hughes, who of course sacked her, and then of course we find out Ethel is pregnant because unvirtuous sex must have consequences (for women), no matter how dashing, magical and mustachioed the officer.

Erin will be back next week to bring us Episode 2.05; Hulk will deliver 2.06 the following week, and then I'm back with 2.07! If you need to catch up, you can watch the first few episodes at the PBS website. And you can watch the preview for next week's episode here:

Now help me out in the comments--I honestly searched for a theme this week, because I don't like tackling TV Talk episodes without some idea of theme, but this episode--which I quite enjoyed--seemed bereft of a thesis. There were a couple of power struggles and a bit of romance, but if there was an overlying motif, I missed it. What do you guys think?

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