Sunday, January 27, 2013

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

Once again, we wordiest of old men (Wordy Ginters and Old Man Duggan) weigh in on this week's installment of your favorite soapy British melodrama, Downton Abbey. For those who watched these episodes as they aired in the U.K., I'll remind you that this was the fifth episode that aired there, as PBS aired the first two episodes in one jumbo premiere.

Old Man Duggan: So this was a big one. We'll save the bigness for the end, though.

Wordy Ginters: Should have known trouble was afoot when the opening scenes occurred at night. Downton After Dark is a bad omen.

OMD: It's obvious from Jump Street that something is amiss as Sybil goes into labor. Frankly she looks like hell.

WG: They telegraphed OB/GYN trouble many times, setting up the Dr. Clarkson/Sir Phillip conflict. To listen to Lord Grantham, you'd think Clarkson was the basis for Dr. Nick on The Simpsons. I didn't know if the Dr. versus Dr. set-up was a drumming up drama head fake, or if Fellowes had the balls to do something drastic.

OMD: It would seem evident that Fellowes had the balls to do something drastic.

It appears as though we now have evidence (circumstantial as it may be) that Vera did, in fact, kill herself to spite Bates and Anna. Death by pastry. If only we were all that lucky. I'd probably choose an apple fritter for my last baked good were it the delivery system for deadly poison. Either that or a Maple-Bacon Long John.

WG: Given the choice, I'd launch into eternal blackness with a cruller.

OMD: With all that pastry talk, it occurs to me that I jumped straight past the insane logical leap that one has to take to buy Vera going so far as to kill herself just to exact her revenge. I've let Fellowes slide on these things for quite a while, but this construction of an obstruction to the Anna and Bates's happiness is a little ridiculous, especially when it has taken so long to resolve itself. If the story line had been a little more compelling, then I'd surely be more forgiving. Unfortunately, the Bates in prison arc has resulted in little more than dead space in the show's narrative structure with the presumed payoff of a nice reunion moment between Anna and Bates when he gets to the other side.

WG: Have you've forgotten what a unrepentant Grade-A bitch the former Mrs. Bates was? She definitely struck me as the type who would kill herself to exact revenge. Crazy. Cutting off nose to spite face. That being said, the Anna/Bates jailhouse scenes have been prime eye-rolling territory for several episodes. You should see me eye roll. It's hilarious. The presumed payoff seems paltry by set-up comparison. Maybe. I look forward to seeing Bates shirtless again. Curious if that jailhouse exercise regimen has firmed him up a little.

OMD: I sure hope a more sinewy Bates makes an appearance in Anna's bed forthwith.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again: This whole guard and cellmate out to get Bates thing just makes no sense. There was no groundwork lain for their animosity toward him that I can remember. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I highly doubt that. What, they resent that he thinks he's innocent? It's just so nonsensical to me.

WG: That would be interesting. Some back story. I'm guessing it all started with Bates walking out of the shitter. The curmudgeonly cellmate theatrically waving away fumes and scowling at Bates, eventually entering the stall, sliding his surprisingly fashionable jailhouse jumpsuit around his ankles, and realizing to his horror Bates had used the last scrap of toilet paper. The cellmate then had to yell and scream to get the guard to bring him a fresh roll. This is the only plausible scenario I can think of that would give birth to such a bitter feud.

OMD: I think that's how the Hatfields and McCoys started feuding in the first place.

Ethel's officially back. The only thing I have to say about that is: Fuck you, Isobel.

WG: Will Isobel be enough of a hard ass to put the run on her because she can't bake kidney soufflé or properly season tea?

OMD: If there is one thing that is clear, Matthew's vision is the only way for Downton Abbey to be able to survive going forth, especially since we know what is coming in less than a decade.

WG: Matthew is starting to sound like a Romney campaign speech. Being a businessman doesn't mean you are being mean.

OMD: Sir Philip Tapsel, The Knight Doctor, was quite the prat, eh? Can't you just smell the spin-off? This asshat doctor swoops in, boldly tells the entrenched family doctor that only Knights can properly diagnose eclampsia, and then the mother dies in childbirth. The Dr. Kevorkian of obstetrics. It would appear in his case that status superseded competence amongst the aristocracy. Heathcliff Huxtable he is not, though it is entirely possible he was just as into hoagies.

WG: Hoagies and Phylicia Rashad.

OMD: I suppose the Crawleys' trust in the aristocratic Dr. Tapsel does serve its purpose in illustrating the point that they were still beholden to the ways of old to a fault. This incident serves as a microcosmic statement to the obstacles Downton has and will continue to face as the aristocratic class tries to adjust to the ways of the rapidly changing world that will ultimately leave them behind as they sink their estates into ruin over time.

WG: I think you've found the heart of the episode. Tapsel vs. Clarkson. Jimmy vs. Thomas. Ivy vs. Daisy. Ethel vs. Mrs. Bird. Matthew vs. Lord Grantham. The variety of the conflicts set up had to do, in part, with how capable characters were at adapting to a new way of looking at things.

OMD: It's strange, and I'll give credit to Fellowes for changing the tide here, but I'm really liking Edith now. I want her to write. I feel bad for her after being jilted. He's gone and made a completely unsympathetic brat into a completely interesting and sympathetic woman. More so than perhaps any character on the show, I'm most interested to see where she ends up.

WG: Still a little too much self-pity, but understandably so by the way she's been relegated to near foster child existence at Downton. The show could use a little Molly Ivins vibe.

OMD: What sort of baffles me is how Robert can be so clueless when it comes to dealing with Edith. There are certainly times where he has disapproved of Sybil's decisions, but those instances all made sense, at least to a degree. Behind the closed door of the bedroom, he has all but etched her future as an old maid in stone. Why would he take such umbrage at her wanting to write?

WG: When you consider his contribution to his own daughter's death and losing the family fortune, it's been a rough year for Grantham. I'm assuming it was unseemly for the aristocrats to have family involved in the grubby work of journalism. That Edith is a woman (allegedly) probably makes it even more distasteful from his archaic point of view.

OMD: Has there ever been a more stodgy Protestant woman than Mrs. Bird? If you were conjuring an image of that stereotype without having seen her or Downton Abbey, it would be impossible to come up with anything other than an eerie facsimile of her. Don't you think if she just changed her protestations against the hiring on of Ethel to an assassination of character not related to her history as a prostitute, it would have saved us the pain of more Ethel? Now I'll include Mrs. Bird in my statement directed at Cousin Isobel. Fuck you.

WG: The horrible kitchen disasters that could have been averted. First, it makes me sad. And then I get mad.

OMD: Ethel's kidney soufflé looked like charred shit, didn't it? I bet it tasted worse.

WG: No one tasted that sad excuse of a soufflé. Isobel had Molesley bury it on one of the under-utilized farm fields. Like Jethro used to bury Ellie May's baked goods on The Beverly Hillbillies.

OMD: I've waited months to talk about this, but it was pretty obvious from the episode's onset that Sybil was going to die. It made too much sense for the overall narrative. The character of Sybil had nowhere to go from here, and her death actually served to better the overall story. It's sad to see her go, as she was one of my favorite characters on the show, but the character as written had already affected as much change as she was likely capable of doing. TSLF and I were sitting there watching the episode, and we were both like, "Oh, she's dead." This happened the instant her face popped on screen. Of course, just like with Lavinia Swire, Fellowes tricks us into thinking we're out of the woods, only to put the woman back on her deathbed in short time.

WG: Is Fellowes trying to say something shitty about what happens when the aristocracy mixes with the riff-raff?

OMD: Sometimes I wonder.

Really, how shitty a doctor is Sir Philip Tapsel if he's getting shown up by the consistently wrong Dr. Clarkson?

WG: What a toad. Tapsel is played with delicious arrogance though, isn't he. Tim Piggot-Smith has a future as an action movie bad guy mastermind.

OMD: This is the moment where I wish I had the photo shop skills to paste his head on over a falling Hans Gruber's face. Sorry, world.

Seeing the family losing their shit as Sybil was dying was somewhat moving, especially as Branson and Cora were crying for her not to leave, but I was far more broken up by the scene between Thomas, Anna, and then Mrs. Hughes in the hallway. I guess the 180-degree turn on Thomas is complete because it was his reaction to Sybil's death that opened up the waterworks. Touché, Mr. Fellowes. Touché.

WG: Seeing the Dowager in black, carrying the weight of the world as she entered Downton, was the part that tugged at me.

OMD: When Mary and Edith are discussing getting along better, I suppose it makes sense that Mary would think that they can't/won't, but I can isolate that moment as the time in which Edith passes Mary in the "people I shouldn't feel sympathy for but do" category. I'm not saying Mary can go to hell or anything, but if we were designating which team we were on as all those tweenage girls are wont to do, I guess I'm Team Edith now. Furthermore, Mary's bristling at the fact that Matthew and Mr. Murray would talk of the estate's future without her father only further pushes her into the circle of the unsympathetic, especially less than twelve hours after her father's impudent treatment of Clarkson's medical acumen in favor of an unknown but aristocratic quantity more than likely led to her younger sister's death.

WG: I'm definitely down with Team Edith. Looks like she's being set up to defend the old school aristocracy customs and mores. Which way Mary swings is an angle I'm interested in seeing play out. Can she get behind hubby, or is she too beholden to Mom and Dad?

OMD: While I generally agree with the Dowager Countess's sentiments that no one is to blame in these situations, I'm going to go ahead a place the blame on the two-headed beast that is Pride in The Aristocratic Male that came in the form of Lord Grantham and Sir Philip Tapsel. Fuck those guys. Fuck them in their stodgy, fancy asses. The show's sex appeal is gone (well, aside from the occasionally well-framed in profile Branson and a possible return of the ghost of Pamuk), and it's all their fault.

WG: I'm holding out a slender thread of hope that Daisy's new punching bag, Ivy, may offer a spark of sexual heat at some point. Otherwise, you are right on the money. Grantham's sex life looks to be cooled drastically. Mary is barren. Jimmy is obviously not down with Thomas's gay advances. Edith retired her vagina from the sex trade racket. Downton maybe become the most sexless soap drama in history.

OMD: I, for one, hope Thomas wears Jimmy down.

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