Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wordy Old Men on Downton Abbey: Series Two, Episode One

You know the drill. We're doing the versions that aired in the U.K. DVD's available here, and Blu-rays available here.

Series (that's British for "season") Two kicks off with Matthew in the trenches. It is November of 1916. Over two years have passed since last we saw the Crawleys and their staff. Matthew (and later we find out Thomas is also there) is in The Somme, where 58,000 British troops were lost. Bates is away in London, attending his mother's funeral. Edith is learning to drive / being a bitch at every turn. Sybil, affected by the death of a peer, decides that she must do something more. With the help of Isobel, she takes up a nursing course in York. When she is dropped off at the nursing school, Branson professes his love for her, which she ultimately dismisses but promises she won't tell anyone what he's done. Matthew returns to Downton from the front with a fiancee in tow, much to everyone's (especially Mary's) surprise. Dipshits who will never have to fight seem to have a lot to say about the men who aren't on the front. Lord Grantham misinterprets a letter from the military as a call to service and gets excited, only to find that they simply wanted him to parade around in his uniform. Bates returns from London with news that he believes his wife will now grant him divorce meaning he and Anna can marry. William feels the pull to take up arms but continues to pay heed to his father's wishes to not fight. Mary and Matthew put the awkwardness behind them and move on as friends. Bates's wife, Vera, shows up at Downton Abbey, is horrifyingly evil, steals every last shred of happiness from Bates, demands that he leave his post lest she ruin both Anna and the Crawley family with the information she divined from conversations with Mrs. O'Brien, the unwitting gossip. Bates leaves Downton, Anna, doing the honorable thing as always, putting is own happiness last. Thomas, having seen the horrors of trench warfare first-hand, intentionally takes a bullet in the hand to get away from the front. 

WG: World War I as a bracing intro to Season Two. I'll lean on you or TSLF for the history lesson, but I assume the advent of the first great war was the fulcrum on which the culture in England began to tip from Lords and Ladies to something more democratic?

OMD: My knowledge of European history is somewhat limited, but this is my understanding of the situation. Apparently the massive amount of debt that the United Kingdom took on in wartime led to post-war inflation which saw the Pound's worth decrease by 61.2%. Unemployment skyrocketed. The rich wanted to continue on as if nothing had changed, which fomented discontent and the according rise of the labour-liberalist movement and socialism. I'm sure I butchered that, so any British historians feel free to jump in here.

I really loved when the Dowager Countess dropped that line in reference to Mary and Matthew not running into each other on the train: "Oh, that's a relief. I hate Greek drama, you know, when everything happens off stage." I suppose that statement holds true to Fellowes and how he treats the audience. You'll get to see everything important. It may not be spelled out for you, but you best believe that shit will not slip by off-screen.

WG: Did the Grantham's change the paintings around in the dining room or library to something more suitable for war time? How quaint. A nice theme throughout the first episode was the juxtaposition of the horrors of the real war in the trenches, and the disconnect from that hellish reality among the wealthy class. Lord Grantham seems like such a decent character; it was painful watching him ponce about in a military uniform. Might as well have been wearing a set of Groucho Marx nose-moustache-glasses.

Since Hogarth is no longer en vogue at Downton
OMD: Honestly, I have no idea if they changed the paintings, as I have no idea what they were in the first place. I'm assuming the dining room had been adorned by the works of William Hogarth and J.M.W. Turner and the switch was made to something more contemporary--maybe some Walter Sickert or Wyndham Lewis. As far as the contrast of what is going on on the front versus the happenings at Downton, the most glaring example of the disconnect is in form of that country singer Lady Edith. Where Mary had typically been the callous one, it looks as though the tables have been turned, and Edith is full-on bitch now. Her brash admonishment of any man not serving the war cause is clearly emblematic of someone who has never had one iota of responsibility. As far as Robert in uniform is concerned, it was definitely rough to watch a once-proud man have his legs taken out from under him. Coming on the heels of losing his heir, it seems as though Lord Grantham is getting emasculated bit by bit by Fellowes and Company, and really just Fellowes, as he is the sole credited screenwriter for the whole second series.

WG: Watching this episode on Memorial Day, for some reason the false service of the wealthy made me think of a galling sub-genre of our contemporary culture: the fake war veteran. Do you recall former Blue Jay manager Tim Johnson? Fired up his team with stories about his exploits in the marines? None of which were true. Google "embellished military record," and you'll get hundreds of hits ranging from President Bush and several candidates for the House and Senate, all the way down to skeevy rubes in small towns across the country. How one performs in war is a powerful cultural measuring stick of character, virtue, and for lack of a better term, manhood. It seems fitting that Fellowes would play with this theme, perception versus reality, what is real versus what is not, what has value versus what is a social facade, et cetera... At one point the Dowager says something along the lines of "War has away of distinguishing between things that matter and things that don't." Examining the line between what matters and what doesn't is at the heart of the series. Can you be sympathetic to Grantham in his red military dining wear, sitting around the table enjoying brandy and cigar's while guys like Matthew are humping it in the trenches?

OMD: I have no recollection of Tim Johnson. I think this happened in the roughly four years in which I paid no attention whatsoever to baseball. Sometimes I regret coming back (about 90% of the time that I watch the Royals play "baseball"). So given that service is a means by which we measure the masculine ideal, why do I have no problem with what Molesley essentially ducking the draft? This episode is definitely centrally concerned with getting down to what matters and what doesn't, and it's not just on the war front. It happens with Bates, too. As far as Sympathy for Lord Grantham is concerned, it seems as though the circumstances are a little different. The way I see it at least is that Lord Grantham wants to go to battle. Maybe I've misinterpreted what his tour of duty consisted of in the Second Boer War, but I see his situation as more of a metaphor for his virility. All of the women in his life assume that he is not going to war, but he still hopes upon hope that they'll call upon him so that he can go forth once more into the fray. His misreading of the situation at dinner is the moment at which, for all intents and purposes, his manhood is taken away from him, leaving him metaphorically impotent. He wants to go to the trenches (although he surely knows nothing of the brutal brand of warfare for which The Great War is known) but is told he's not wanted but that people will love to see him in his uniform. I can't blame him for buying into being patronized before becoming hip to the game.

Oh, and screw those white feather broads. Accusing William of being anything other than awesome is horseshit. I really loved Branson's response as they were leaving. "I am in a uniform." Shit-eating grin from ear to ear. Priceless. Branson cannot be fazed. (I liked Branson's declaration of love to Lady Sybil. Why not go for broke? He loves her, consequences be damned.)

WG: So Matthew has found another. Lavinia Swire? Has to be an anagram for something? (Save Lira I Win)

OMD: Anal View Iris. Given the show's affinity for F2FA, one has to figure this is the key to breaking the code. Anal. View Iris.

WG: I liked how Mary hit her knees to pray, not to God above, but to Matthew it seems. Perhaps all is not ended on that score as well?

OMD: At the very least, it seems as though the time that has passed has led the eldest Crawley daughter grow enough to start being able to put others before herself. Even in the interruption of the prayer, it's clear that Edith is the countriest of country singers.

WG: So much for O'Brien being taken down a peg by sabotaging Cora's pregnancy. She's back to her old shenanigans by mercilessly pranking the new help. She's like Ashton Kutcher with a better sense of humor. And Thomas, still conniving. Taking a bullet to the hand as a one-way ticket off the front. That kind of stuff had to be fairly common. About the only thing I recall from history class is that WWI was unspeakably brutal, with astronomical death tolls and ghastly warfare.

OMD: Fucking O'Brien... I will grant her the fact that I was actually taking pleasure in her hazing of that shitbird, Ethel. Someone does need to take that filthy ginger down a peg or two. Given that Ethel is essentially replacing Gwen--more than two years have passed since the last episode of the first series--do you find it at all odd that Fellowes has gone back to the ginger farm and found himself another redhead housemaid? Is there a quotient that must be strictly adhered to in British period drama that I am not aware of? As for Thomas, that shit had no idea what he was getting into when he snaked his way into the medical corps. Losing a chunk of hand doesn't seem like punishment enough for him, does it? After having seen my fellow medic take won in the dome, I can't say that I wouldn't have also been shitting bricks to be totally fair to Thomas. That said, I'd still like to see him mushroom stamped to death.

WG: I don't think its a stretch to assume that Thomas has fantasies of slipping the mortal coil via a merciless mushrooms stamping. And no, it's not nearly punishment enough. Nice to see Thomas engage in activities other than scheming, plotting, and generally being the shits. I found myself enjoying his fear. Enjoyed it too much maybe. Ethel, Gwen, tomatoe, tamato. Perhaps you are correct. The minimum ginger quotient could be a normal part of the entertainment production process in the British Isles. Affirmative action of a sort. Why isn't Carson killing this game?

OMD: As for Sybil, who'd have thunk that Isobel and the Dowager Countess would have come together over Sybil taking up nursing? They sure as hell didn't. It's funny that they just bulldozed right over Cora there.

WG: Bates. Poor fucking Bates. How did a sweetheart like him end up with a woman like Vera? What a monster. Quite a contrast betwixt Vera and Anna. I suspect Vera is quite comfortable shitting in the woods and hunting and killing her own food. Bates can handle the abuse. Anna is the one who gets shanked. I thought Bates was little too cavalier about up and leaving, especially the brusque brush off with Anna. But I suspect, in his infinite wisdom, Bates realizes a clean, cold and firm break heals the most. I'm hoping the Carson/Lordship convo at the end of the episode leaves the door open for a Bates return.

OMD: Vera would eat her own young just for fucking kicks. Man, Fellowes doesn't let Bates enjoy anything. Ever. Talk about the most honor-bound and sympathetic character getting his fucking heart ripped out at every turn. Whenever it seems like Bates is going to get to enjoy something just a little bit, a joy-seeking missile comes out of the clear blue sky and obliterates any shred of glee. It's hell on the viewer, too. You're all teary-eyed and happy for Bates and Anna, and then that banshee rolls in off the moors and takes away our happiness derived from our hero finding bliss. As for Anna, she says he's doing something galant, but it's not just to save her. I think he knows exactly how fucking evil Vera is. Don't forget, she promises to take down the entire Crawley household with the information she gleaned from an unwitting O'Brien in London if Bates doesn't go with her. Bates clearly loves Anna with a pure heart, which is why he must let her go, and the only way to do so is to leave her with no hope of it working out so that she can hopefully move on. He would much rather be the one suffering alone and allow Anna to be happy with someone else.

WG: The scenes at the train depot struck a discordant note for me. I completely expected Thomas the Tank engine to come tooting up to the platform, or for Alec Baldwin to step out of the station. Sir Topham Hat was shooting buddies with Lord Grantham. Have you ever seen the Thomas and the Magic Railroad movie? Trippy. Could use an editor. But if you've read the stories, you know there isn't much to work with. But Jesus, you've got some star power there. Alec Baldwin. Peter Fonda. Russel Means. What could have been.

OMD: The weird thing to me is that it seems as though between the first and second series they switched from film or a lower stock of digital video to a digital format that is way too clear. On my TV, the clarity is jarring. Am I alone on this front? Wordy? Readers? I've never seen Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Can't imagine this will ever make its way into my player, either.

WG: I noticed the same thing. Perhaps it is leftover stock from Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Because we live in an unpredictable world, and you might see this movie, let us laugh together now over on of the better lines from the movie: "My shell phone is not working properly."

OMD: The war scenes actually looked pretty damn good, especially for British television. Obviously production values aren't what they are with US series like The Pacific or Band of Brothers, but Downton Abbey doesn't exactly have Spielberg money backing it. I guess the trick is to keep it dark and muddled.


Craig Scholes said...

Death by Mushroom Stamp is going to be the name of my Nihilist Punk Band.

Josh Duggan said...

I approve entirely of this band name.

Sarah said...

LOL at the following: "Someone does need to take that filthy ginger down a peg or two. Given that Ethel is essentially replacing Gwen--more than two years have passed since the last episode of the first series--do you find it at all odd that Fellowes has gone back to the ginger farm and found himself another redhead housemaid? Is there a quotient that must be strictly adhered to in British period drama that I am not aware of?"

I so agree, and wondered the same thing. Given that a small percentage of the population is ginger, what are the chances they pick another one to replace sweet Gwen! I suppose they needed some snark so they picked a mean one. Not all gingers are sweet, I guess. ;)

LOL about the train scene. The only thing I was left wondering was why Matthew's fiance wasn't there to see him off?

The Bates thing just makes me angry; you can tell his character is the most noble of anyone on the show (thus far).

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