Monday, January 7, 2013

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

As we have already covered the first two episodes as they aired in England, I'll attempt to piece together the appropriate content for re-edited-for-America first episode. The Crawleys prepare for Matthew and Mary's wedding. The future of Downton is in dire financial straits. 

With this smirk, I thee wed
OMD: Despite the fact that Matthew and Lady Mary are to wed, the meat and potatoes of the conflict in the episode lie elsewhere. On one front--the decidedly more dire situation--it would appear as though Robert has squandered the bulk of the Crawley fortune by investing nearly all of it on surefire Canadian railway stocks. Given the circumstances surrounding his marrying Cora in the first place, I can hardly say this came as a surprise. Frankly, I was expecting this to happen. For the most part, Lord Grantham is a good man, but not all good men are good businessmen. It would seem as though that applies here. It is at times puzzling as to why Fellowes tears down so many of the stand-up gents while letting the snakes advance, but I suppose c'est la vie.

WG: In the end, I respect Fellowes more the morning after precisely because of these kinds of moves. When you are playing within the confines of a traditional melodrama, it's a refreshing twist to see the heels get over, and the hero's heaped with woe.

OMD: As a corollary to this central point of conflict in the episode, Matthew gets news that good ol' Reggie Swire put Matthew in his will as the third in line of succession for his massive fortune. Of course, the guilt-ridden, honor-bound Matthew will not accept the inheritance if good Mr. Pumpkin/Pillbox/Pulbrook did in fact bite the bullet, as he still believes himself to have broken Lavinia's heart and thusly her will to live. If only Anna would tell them about the message from the Gods of Ouija at the end of the Christmas Special, all might be good.

WG: I hope that Ouija Board makes it into an episode or two in Season Three. Matthew is almost too good to be true. Honest, caring, thoughtful, fair. I imagine he's a lot like Jeff Francoeur. And as the episode concluded, I'm still not certain the issue of the partially purloined inheritance is resolved between the two. And probably a leap to assume the death of the would-be heirs breaks the way it needs to land the money in Matthew's lap. If the tumblers fall into place, does his principled refusal to partake of said funds hold water? I'm not so sure. Seems a bit persnickety to me.

OMD: Of course, Matthew's steadfast opposition to accepting the money should it come his way drives a wedge between Mary and himself the night before their wedding, leading to the typical pre-wedding tiff that leaves the viewer reclined back in their seat never wondering as to whether or not the couple will marry but going through the motions of watching as the stressed-out couple wonder if they can be together when they have such a fundamental difference only to realize they love each other thanks in large part to the source of the other conflict in the show, Tom Branson. If there was a slightly tedious element to this episode, it was the construction of a false barrier between Matthew and Mary. Yes, you could construe his actions as careless when viewed in scope of how they affect the family and Downton Abbey as a whole, but she loves Matthew precisely because of who he is and wouldn't really want him to change on such a fundamental level.

WG: Slightly tedious is correct. Some eye rolling occurred when that little pre-nup squall erupted. Too fast. Too predictable. But the more I think about it, the more I'm with Mary. Matty is being a little selfish in his righteous grind to toe his own moral code. He should think about what good that money could do. How many people it could help. Apparently, the aristocracy are the job creators. Several of the Crawley's mentioned the importance of providing employment to the peeps suckling from the sumptuous Downton teats. Fellowes has to be working political doesn't he? Job creatorz!

OMD: And then there's the aforementioned Branson. Nevermind the horrendous hairdo that the showing Lady Sybil is sporting, the real tension comes from the Fenian son-in-law without *gasp* tails for dinner or a morning coat. What. A. Dick. Obviously there was going to be some awkwardness, and Branson does himself no favors, but Lord Grantham doesn't make things easy. Of course, neither does that privileged jerk-off (Larry Gray) who slips our strapping Irish lad a mickey. There's a subtext here, of course. Rich English pricks slip mickeys on a prank, but I think we all know what that arch-browed, ill-mannered twink wanted once he wore down young Branson's defenses. F2FA. And Larry doesn't care if his Fenian mark is conscious or not. He's basically the proto-frat boy. Still, Branson might have been better served biting his tongue. I agree with him in spirit, but why exacerbate things when unnecessary. Oh, and Sir Anthony Strallan! Fucking put that ponce in his place, brother-man. And after Anthony swoops in, fucking Matthew makes Branson his best man.

Chests be swellin'
WG: I've felt that surge of emotion one other time in my life. Matthew making Branson his best man took me back to 4th grade, and a young Sylvester Stallone, playing a pugilist by the name of "Rocky Balboa," in a sporting drama called Rocky. The same emotion that swelled within my 4th grade chest, which showed a preternaturally sexy amount of smooth width and marbled girth even then, as "Rocky" triumphantly ramped up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, swelled again at Matthews generous offer to Branson. My heart soared. My spirits were set aloft. Great moment. Larry Gray was a dick, a dunce, a thing to be mocked. Nice twist that one armed Strallan dropped a dime on him. With Matthew's guidance, Branson just might find some dignified balance to his firebrand politics. He's a kid though, what do you expect? He's still in his Rage Against the Machine phase.

OMD: I can tell you this: Irish gardens are blessed with far more variety than English ones.

WG: I envy your globe trotting exploits.

OMD: I loved the scene with Isobel and Violet summoning Tom to Crawley House. Oh, Molesley will fit you for that morning jacket, sir. And how great was it that it was Violet who sent the money to Tom and Sybil? Snarkiness aside, she is exceedingly unpredictable.

WG: Playing against the stereotype is typically a winner. She could. Not. Be. Stopped. I almost felt bad for Branson, his principled anti-tails, anti-costume rhetoric crumbled like an old scone in a cup of warm tea. Lady Grantham pushed him all over the mat with nothing more than a confident demeanor. Jedi mind tricks learned carnally from Alec Guiness.

OMD: Are there two lonelier, sadder Brits that Sir Anthony Strallan and Lady Edith? If she doesn't end up with him, she'll turn batshit crazy and start writing poetry from her bedroom while never leaving the house, some unholy amalgam of Emily Dickinson and Miss Havisham.

WG: I could totally see Lady Edith going Havisham. A broken heart leads to a gift for manipulation and a candle fetish. I'm all for it if she pimps around Ethan Hawke. Strallan certainly needs some more convincing. When Edith practically car jacked his ride early in the episode, the look on his face was fucking delightful. Half what the hell are you doing, half surprise, and another 1/3 disgusted. I don't know if he's keeping her at arm's length out of kindness, a true belief that they are too far apart in age, or from flat-out disgust.

OMD: "Hobbledehoys," eh, Mr. Carson? I think it's safe to say this is getting stored away in the old archaic nouns notebook I keep for myself when wanting unfurl insults at the dullards and ne'er-do-wells I cross paths with on a nearly daily basis. For those wondering at home but lacking in the desire to crack out the dictionary department, a hobbledehoy is a gawky, awkward youth. Can we assume Alfred Nugent is Ted's father? Does that make Ted less American in our eyes? So are we to assume that Miss O'Brien comes from a long line of lanky gingers? Oh, and another red-head? If ever there were any question, there is none now: The ginger quotient on Downton Abbey is higher than on any other program[me] in the history of television.

WG: Would it be too much to ask for Beat Happening's "Red Head Walking" as theme music? No, I don't think it would.

OMD: Since it's unlikely that'll happen, will embedding it work?
Fucking Bates's new cellmate. You just know that's a ticking time-bomb, set to go off exactly when Bates is free/about to be free/or happy for the first time since his wedding day. And the second time Anna visits Bates at prison, there's a pair of lines that I initially thought were throw-aways, but they caught my ear the third time I watched the episode. Bates asks Anna, "But how long will that take?" when she presents her plan to write to all the contacts in the book, to which she replies, "Why? Are you going somewhere?" He smiles back at her, and the line floats there for two solid beats. I'm surely not insinuating that I believe Bates is going to break out of prison if this all takes too long, but there are lots of places for this storyline to go, and the ominous presence of his doucher cellmate could certainly externally propel him down an ill-fated path.

WG: You know what I thought of the doucher cellmate? The doucher cellmate was a physical manifestation of Bates' conscious. Believe it. Also, I think the old school English jail house uniforms are pretty sweet compared to the old black and white stripey numbers that were en vogue in the US back in those days. Saville Row has always had an edge on the US when it comes to fashion. The shots that establish the prison are a little incongruous as well. That place gleams with white light and windows. Even more so than the church. The holiest of holy is the relationship betwixt Anna and Bates. It is not to be sullied or torn asunder.

OMD: You're actually the second person I know to say that they thought Bates's cellmate was a figment of his imagination. Time will tell, I suppose.

So newly tied together through matrimony means carrying your bride up and down the stairs naked while her dad looks on helplessly but with a smile on his face? The Brits are fucking weird.

WG: As a father of a daughter, I don't know if I would look forward to that very much, if at all.

OMD: Molesley the Essential. I loved O'Brien's initial scoffing at the thought only to see at the wedding that he actually was valued. Even when he's not trying, Matthew is our hero, putting O'Brien in her place. And is that a stirring of discontent between Thomas and O'Brien? Are the thieves not so thick anymore? Speaking of stirring, discontent, and Thomas, his prodding of Daisy causes a one-person strike in the kitchen. Mrs. Patmore's handling of the whole situation actually had me laughing.

WG: Patmore was all right in this episode. "Have you swallowed a dictionary?" O'Brien and "Mr. Barrow" are definitely on the outs. I was thinking O'Brien is one of the most powerful and aggressive players on the scene. She's a shitheel schemer, but she usually figures out a way to get what she wants. Like shoehorning in her nephew as the new footman when Lord Grantham was distracted. He's tall. And he worked at a hotel. He might as well have been a convicted child molester in Carson's eyes.

OMD: Six-foot-two? Egads! Get thee to the freak show, Nugent.

When Branson and Tom are walking off together, away from the pub in their suits, hats, and overcoats, resolved to form a unified front as brothers-in-law against their high-minded wives, I had a momentary flash of how much I wanted the two of them getting a spin-off in which they fight crime on the streets of Ripon. Holy shit would that be a great fucking show. I still want them to be Tom Branson and Matthew Crawley, but they need to beat back street toughs and ruffians while hitting the bottle hard and running from their familial duties while serving a greater good.

WG: I want to watch that show. Would they have uniforms? Superhero powers? Or are you thinking more of a straight up Sherlock Holmes kind of vibe? Maybe a bit of a Wild Wild West steam punk thing? It was another heart swelling moment. You'd have to be a cyncial ass cynic of a sonofabitch not to get a little caught up in that scene.

OMD: I was thinking darker. Maybe like Simon & Simon or Hardcastle & McCormick or Cagney & Lacey (Season Two on, of course, C&L sans Gless is not C&L) or England Dan & John Ford Coley with a heavy Luther tinge.

Is Lady Mary not the spitting image of Jackie Kennedy when modeling her "going away" outfit?

WG: For real. Had the same exact thought. When the JFK, Zombie Killer movie finally comes out, I think I know who has the inside track for Jackie O. That's a thing, right? Hollywood doing movies of all the former presidents as monster killers or monster enthusiasts of some sort? Martin Van Buren, Yeti Fetishist? Grover Cleveland, Fish Fucker?  Wilford Brimley, Moustache Haunter? Was Wilford Brimley ever elected President though?

OMD: Pretty sure he was. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the catty repartee between Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith. I know the ladies love this stuff almost as much as they love Cool James. That homing pigeon simile complete with the "dreadful" add-on was pretty goddamn funny.

WG: Shirley hung dong. Great scene. I hope Fellowes can keep it fresh between the two. It won't be easy

OMD: If the news of who paid Branson and Sybil's fare wasn't it, the nicest moment of the episode might have been when Lady Mary descended the staircase in her wedding gown with her glowing fathers, Carson and Lord Grantham, looking on proudly. Carson is at least as moved at the moment as her actual father. I loved Mrs. Hughes's gentle ribbing of Carson in the pews at the church. I don't know about you, but when Lord Grantham said he was "so happy [his] chest could explode," I had a terrible flashback to Roseanne, when Dan had a heart attack at Darlene's wedding. That is not how I want Lord Grantham to go down.

WG: (I'm just going to stand back and admire that one like everybody else.)

OMD: Oh, and Mary's brief glimpse at Matthew, eyes sealed shut, after they kissed and made up, was a great moment. And I really liked their little exchange before running through the rigmarole of the actual ceremony. Despite the fact that two full series and a Christmas episode built up to this moment, the actual wedding is an afterthought and therefore is not necessary. Fellowes is a crafty bastard who knows what moments actually matter.

OMD: This is where the first episode in England ended, but PBS kept things chugging, so along we go.

Matthew and Mary return from their honeymoon, Matthew's eyes opened to the splendor of Mary's man-eating nether regions. Matthew tells Robert that, despite the fact that he may likely receive a sizeable fortune in Reggie Swire's will, he is honor-bound to turn down the money with which he could save Downton. Ethel pops up at Isobel Crawley's Rehabilitation Center for Wayward Women. Mrs. Hughes finds a lump. Lord Grantham instructs Sir Anthony Strallan that it would be best if he pushed Lady Edith away, much to her chagrin, but Edith perseveres. A block in the flue of the stove forces a party to turn to a makeshift picnic on the premises. Martha rebuffs Mary and the Dowager Countess's advances.

OMD: Grantham: "How was the honeymoon?" Matthew: "My eyes have been opened." I see Fellowes is wasting no time in getting tawdry in this one. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the exchange between father- and son-in-law was Lord Grantham's response: "Don't I know it." I know it's not intended to be read the way I'm reading it, but it sure seems like Fellowes is playing fast and loose with that one, especially since one mention of a woman's nether regions sends Robert running for the hills with the first objects he can find that would serve as suitable earmuffs. Later on, whilst engaged in fully non-sexual pillow talk, Mary changes gears rapidly, instructing her new husband to "stop talking and kiss me before I get cross." Thankfully, Matthew does as he is told because we all know what happens when Mary gets cross: Turks die by way of Face-to-Face Anal.

CPS sufferers
WG: A discordant note hearing Lord Grantham get down in the mud and jostle about his daughter's sex life. Knowing his obvious affection for Matthew, he may have merely been relieved to see he survived the honeymoon. As we know now, the repetitive clenching and unclenching of F2FA can weaken tendons and damage blood vessels, leading to Carpal Penal Syndrome. How many episodes before we see Alfred tying the laces on Matthew's orthopedic penile brace? And you thought getting spots out of long dining jackets was a lost art.

OMD: Mrs. Martha Levinson's comment at the dinner table about Carson and Alfred "knowing more about life than [they] ever will" would certainly seem to ring true for Alfred, but it seems to me that Carson has likely lived just as sheltered a life as the nobles, if not more so. Carson was groomed to be a butler from the moment he dropped. Alfred, on the other hand, worked in a *gasp* hotel. The low things he must have encountered in such a public place of work would surely rattle both Lord Grantham, who despite his having seen combat has the most fragile sensibilities known to man, and his mother to their respective cores. I did like her joke about how they must keep the address of the Rehab Center from Alfred. Clearly his willingness to make out with the first lady to show him any interest (though her forward Americanness is appealing to me at the very least) shows that he should be kept away from the post-war prostitutes Isobel is counseling.

WG: I'm digging the brash stereotypical vibe that Mrs. Levinson brings to the show. I wonder how historically accurate those social tropes are? Brash American yahoos and the stodgy English. I can't imagine the swells on either side of the Atlantic being that different. Although Carson was nearly knocked off his pins by the idea of a buffet-styled meal. He'd be putty in a veteran Great War streetwalker's hands. Or vice-versa.

OMD: Cancer for the old stalwart Mrs. Hughes? Say it ain't so. If there's anyone I pull for, it's Hughes, who seems to have the firmest grip on the reality of each person in the house, upstairs and down. Hell, she takes the decidedly increased possibility of death in stride like no other. I loved her putting Patmore in her place. Hughes is a grown-ass woman; treat her as such, Mrs. Patmore. Let's just hope the spectre of cancer doesn't loom so large as to cause her to forget the glasses for the pudding wine again. The horror.

WG: She traversed the seven stages of grief over the course of one episode. Impressive. As someone who has seen loved ones wrestle the Big C, those scenes dredge up a hint of that black sky despair. Ultimately, as Hughes says to Patmore in the Hallway, we all die someday. It certainly grabs you by the scruff of your neck and forces you to recognize some cold realities that are much better left shimmering off in the periphery. Bless your heart Patmore, but shut your mincemeat hole.

OMD: Ethel. Goddammit. Seeing her face made me so fucking angry that I shat myself out of spite for her. Of course she's hooking, wayward as wayward can get. If it had been anyone other than Isobel seeing her, I'd have thought nothing of it, and it'd simply be a symbol of what happens when you roll in the hay with sons of pricks, but instead we'll surely be treated to yet another tiresome story arc for a wretched character.

WG: I hate spite-fueled pants-shitting. My sympathies. Ruined several slacks and a favorite pair of jeans from the same cause myself during the American League Divisional Series. Good point though, what the hell are they going to do here? Let's not be to quick to judge the victim. The dashing shit stain who got her preggers was wearing the black hat in my view. Still, the baby is gone with gramps and granny, right? Something is up Ethel's sleeve. Or maybe her woman's underpants.

OMD: Nah, Ethel foolishly elected to hold onto her child.

You just knew when Thomas gave Alfred a tip to fix Matthew's dinner jacket that it wouldn't end nicely. Burning a hole through the jacket was going to be the obvious outcome of Thomas's advice. And the look on Carson's face when he heard of the hole seared through the jacket. Indignation! So hot on the heels of the pudding wine faux pas, too. I keep waiting for Carson to have a heart attack, and the decorum lacking in Matthew not having a dinner jacket at the ready could just as well have been its cause. Back to Alfred, though, it's weird, but Fellowes actually has me siding with Thomas on this matter. I don't dislike the ginger beanpole, but he certainly doesn't deserve to be a valet with so little in the way of qualifications going for him. Of course, this only draws us nearer to a world in which O'Brien and Thomas have at it in metaphorical service fisticuffs. I will say I laughed heartily when the Dowager turned to Robert and asked for a drink, mistaking him for a waiter. Hi. Larious.

WG: With tradition and decorum exploding into irrelevancy all around Downton, I was hoping Lord Grantham and Matthew would hit the dinner sans shirts, with bow ties, setting the trend for the male stripper uniform popularized by The Chippendales. That Thomas was going to fuck with Alfred was telegraphed pretty hard. Off-screen he keeps taping "Thinks he's the Bee's Knee's but is really a moldy Rag-a-Muffin" signs to his back. Dips his pig tails in ink. Scares him with toads. I think the Thomas v. O'Brien fight is the big one we're all hoping for. The prelude with Alfred is training by proxy. Although the Dowager seems to befuddled by Mrs. Levinson's brass, it is funny to see her on her toes enough to get off on Grantham and his slovenly formal wear.

OMD: I liked that the Dowager Countess was unable to stick to the script and couldn't help but slam America before being corrected. The pandering to Martha was a bit tiresome, if you ask me. Honestly, her presence on the whole has sort of been a drag if you ask me. How feel you?

WG: She brings some grit to the proceedings. An interesting foil and/or ally. I don't mind her at all. I kind of enjoy her pecking and picking at the England's bloated traditions. She's like Toby Keith with a cinnamon wave.

President Cerrano
OMD: Lord Grantham's evolution is an interesting one. Ultimately he tries to hold fast to an honorable code of conduct, but as life throws him curveballs he whiffs mightly, a la [later President] Cerrano in Major League. He is a vexed man, emasculated over the course of The Great War. His worth vis-a-vis the family is mitigated by time and in the greater world by his utter lack of aptitude in business. Then he meddles with Edith's happiness, and to what end? To simply make her cry at his obvious tampering only to renege? Perhaps he should look to Jobu for help. He best load up with hats for bats. And asking Thomas, "Are you not popular downstairs?" That was the icing on the cake. Of course, he isn't. Get with the program, Lord Grantham. Hell, he can't even surmise what happens when the stove flue is clogged. The fact that he couldn't tell what Mary and his mother were up to was also absurd. How oblivious is he? That he believes himself to be unadaptable, that adaptability is some innate trait present in some but apparently not in himself is the biggest affront to my sensibilities.

WG: Spot on. An interesting recent angle in the show is the trip to flaccid town taken by two of the primary male leads, Lord Grantham and Bates. They used to righteously roar like lions. Not so much anymore. The women who prop them up provide the steel in the backbone. Downton Abbey is not so covertly running some pro-feminist game. Especially recently, the women characters are the prime movers. They have the money. They get what they want. Fellowes may be a nom de plume for Judith Butler.

OMD: Lady Edith and Sir Anthony Strallan tying the knot. I can gladly say I'm happy for the pair of them.

WG: Most definitely. But I don't want to see them cuddling post-carnal. That rictus grin/sneer/snarl that Strallan breaks out would have a hideous impact in that context.

OMD: While Lady Mary and the Dowager's advance is getting shot down, it seems like Martha Levinson gets to the heart of everything that I anticipate will happen going forward. She says, "The world has changed. These houses were built for another age." Given Robert's history of financial bungling, the dire straits Downton finds itself in, and the coming economic ruin into which the world is about to descend, the prospects of Downton Abbey are not exactly glowing.

Needles or Bust!
WG: I look forward to the episode when the Grantham clan piles all the belongings onto the old Grapes of Wrath truck, with the Dowager perched on a wooden rocking chair balanced precariously on top of everything, Mary and Matthew hanging off the back, and head for the citrus farms for honest work and honest pay.

OMD: Dark Bates is back with a vengeance. "Don't ever threaten me." Hand firmly across his dirty cellmate's throat. It is those moments right there that have me doubting Bates's actual innocence, not that my affection for the character hinges upon whether or not he killed the vile Vera Bates. Hell, I'd probably like him more. All right, I'm officially in the I-hope-Bates-did-it-and-skates camp.

WG: I've always liked a good heel. I could see Bates as the perp. He may have been kicking up a bit of bluster to keep that oaf off his ass with his big words, or to stall that simple knuckle-dragger's plotting. That face/neck hammer-lock Bates slapped on his cellmate was an advanced move. They've been watching WWE up in that piece. All in all though, for a relatively average episode, the show still shines. Downton Abbey, you are a goddamn treat to behold.

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