Downton Abbey S1E4: In the Air

Posted on December 31, 2011

Somewhere along the way, when we announced we’d be blogging Downton Abbey from the beginning, some people expressed their extreme disappointment with the soon-to-be-aired-in-the-U.S. second season, dismissing it as having become a soap opera. This left us scratching our heads. “When was it ever NOT a soap opera?” From Mr. Pamuk checking out in flagrante, to the development -straight out of the Krystle & Alexis playbook – at the end of this season with O’Brien and Lady Grantham, this show has always been a well-directed, well-acted period soap opera. This has come up again in recent comments from readers who think we’re treating the show like great literature, which, we have to admit, is something we never expected to hear, considering we said the story wasn’t new, the show tends to use a lot of narrative cliches, and that the writing tends to stack the deck in favor or against certain characters. Make no mistake: we think the show is rich for discussion, beautiful to look at, and wonderfully cast, but we’d never accuse it of being groundbreaking. As entertaining as this show is, we wouldn’t put it at the level of say, Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire in terms of depth and artistic reach. It’s fun and well done.

We bring this up now because this is the point in the story where they jumped into the serialized drama pool with both feet, as storylines took off in all directions and the framing device for everything from kitchen politics to inheritance drama was the one thing a every soap opera must have: troubled romance. Thomas is romancing Daisy just to screw around with William, who silently pines for the sweet but addle-headed servant girl. Mrs. Hughes suddenly finds the prospect of rekindled romance, and the offer of a life she never thought she’d have, which causes her to question her life choices and to offer William some of her hard-earned wisdom. Bates and Anna continue their whispered, backstair courtship, with rules and locked doors standing between them, making it all the sweeter for the two of them. And finally, the Dowager Countess draws Matthew directly into the entail drama (even more than he already is), which not only sets him firmly on his way on the journey from middle class solicitor to lord of the manor, but also causes a growing sympathy toward Mary; a sympathy which looks for all the world like a burgeoning romance with the just the hint of reciprocation. This was Love, English Manor-Style because love wasn’t just in the air, it was driving all the major plot lines.

Downstairs, Daisy only has eyes for Thomas while William only has eyes for her. It’s as common a plotline with as likely an outcome as you’ll find in any soap opera. The one thing that made it interesting (other than William’s adorably heartbroken face) was the reveal that Mrs. Patmore is fully aware that Thomas is gay ( “He’s a lost soul.”), which means you can bet most of the rest of the staff is as well. We don’t find this to be all that plausible, especially in light of the inference last episode that even the family, or at least Lord Grantham, knows this about him, when Bates joked to him about Thomas’ eagerness to be Pamuk’s valet. It’s absurd to think that so many people in such an insular setting a century ago would not only know that one of the servants is gay, but at most shrug about it. It’s not worth getting too upset over because for one, Thomas is a fun character and for another, no one’s looking at this show like a docudrama.

Mary is riddled with guilt over her actions with Mr. Pamuk, as well as deeply fearful as to whether they will have any long-term effect on her life. In anguish, she echoes Mrs. Patmore’s view of Thomas by referring to herself as a “lost soul” to her mother. She’s not really in the best place for romance but the irony of it is, a true romance could be the one thing she needs the most right now. Cora and Violet both understand that without the estate behind her, Mary’s marrying prospects could dim quite quickly. As much as they both want to see her inherit the estate, their need to see her married off to anyone appropriate is gaining importance and becoming the focus of their efforts (although things aren’t quite so desperate that she needs to be shipped off to America). Of course, Cora has a more pressing need to see her eldest daughter paired off than even Violet realizes.

This is all causing Mary to become fairly anxious and depressed about her lot in life, going so far as to admit to Matthew that she hates her life. Although pointedly, she mentions that she doesn’t hate him, an admission that causes them both to pause. Whatever bond they might have was further strengthened through their efforts to address the entail situation with her father and grandmother. Matthew won’t – and more importantly, can’t – break the entail, but he’s deeply saddened by what that means for Mary and the rest of the family. Mary, for her part, finds herself respecting him for his sincerity on the matter, much like Carson does.

Back downstairs, Mrs. Hughes finds herself wondering what her life would be like if she left service. But really, what she’s wondering is what her life would have been like had she never entered service, and it’s to her great credit that she’s wise enough to understand the distinction. We found her story a little sad, but not really tragic in the end. She knows herself, she knows her life, and she’s content with both. “I’ve seen a bit of life and no mistake!” she tells her suitor, and the evidence of that is clear in her wisdom. We would detest even the hint of a romance with Mr. Carson, but we enjoy the unique nature of their relationship, which is spousal in a lot of ways, but without the intimacy and with an enormous wall of respect built up between the two of them.

As for Mr. Bates and Anna, well you could just eat them up with an ice cream spoon, they’re so sweet together.

In other, non-romantic house news, radical politics in the form of a new Irish chauffeur with a distinct lack of boundaries makes its arrival on Downton’s doorstep, to the delight of Sybil. His arrival not only awakens her political side, it spurs her to help Gwen in her pursuit to better herself. She tops off her week of radical behavior by showing up for dinner in an outfit that acknowledges she has legs. This was played for comedy, which means you can once again toss any idea of historical context. At the very least you should expect the Dowager Countess to hit the roof, but she just seemed befuddled as everyone else smiled indulgently. What really grated about that scene was the way it ended with the grinning chauffeur peering in from outside. That has to be some of the dumbest, clumsiest staging we’ve ever seen. Like something out of a cola commercial rather than a period drama.

And finally, Violet and Isobel locked horns once again, with poor old Mosely caught in the middle this time. We suppose it’s good they gave Isobel just a little bit of a comeuppance, otherwise she’d be a bit too saintly and perfect a character. Besides, watching Maggie Smith cut someone off at the knees is half the reason to watch, no?

[Screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com]

Tags:

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1380079551 Marie Dees

    The show may play loosely with historical accuracy, but I loved the cook trying to explain to Daisy that Thomas is gay when Daisy obviously doesn’t have enough worldly experience to have the slightest idea what she means. 

    I’m catching up on PBS reruns so I haven’t seen the whole of season 1, but I’m wondering if Mary is pregnant. Though I may be jumping to conclusions based on some corset loosening and high emotions. But it would add to the drama. 

    • Alisa Rivera

      “He’s not a ladies man.” lol

      • Anne Slovin

        “Isn’t that a good thing?”

        When I saw Sybil in those harem pants, I was like…hey, it’s like when Elizabeth Bellamy shed her corset and wore that enormous embroidered coat and Lady Marjorie was furious!

        • Anonymous

          And the first series of Original Masterpiece Theatre is now streaming on Netflix!  Production values are of that era–a fee episodes are in black & white.  Although Lady Bellamy’s frocks are quite beautiful.  

          However, the plot does clip along quite briskly.  Hoping they decide to stream the rest….

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, the episode that sent me running to Wikipedia. After several laughable attempts on my part at phonetic spelling, I finally figured out that the word the Countess was batting around was “erysipelas.” Which we now generally call “cellulitis.” Much easier to spell!

    Thanks for the alternate take on Bates’ joke to Lord Grantham about Thomas’ eagerness to be Pamuk’s valet. For some reason, I was reading that more as Bates’ joking about Thomas’ ambition and desire to attach himself to anyone of rank, rather than an allusion to Thomas’ sexuality.

    • Anonymous

      Agree with you, Moppet, re: the line about Thomas. I thought it was strictly in reference to his ambition to become a valet. Even though this IS a soap opera and not entirely historically accurate, I sort of find it hard to believe Thomas would be so careless to let any other member of the staff know about his homosexuality considering the criminal penalties for such behavior. But I am also not totally convinced he IS gay; I think he is just one of those people who will do anything to achieve a goal.

      • Anonymous

        It’s true there were criminal penalties , but all gay men weren’t arrested. There have always been “confirmed bachelors” and I image most of their more worldly acquaintances “knew” and if not exactly accepting , tolerated it as long as they were discreet.

        • Anonymous

          The thing is, it’s not just that there were the “confirmed bachelors” in this society.  There were also a fair number of at least upperclass heterosexual men who had had a homoerotic “interlude” in English boarding schools (also dubbed “hotbeds of pederasty”).  It’s such a curious thing about this society — homosexuality would remain punishable by law until 1967, yet there was such a cultivation of a classical Greek, um, “pedagogic” ideal, and even if you want to believe that it was purely Platonic, there is no question there was a strongly sexual charge to it all.  Writers like C.S. Lewis, Robert Graves — and, well, more recently even Christopher Hitchens — have all talked about their schoolboy “romances” (well, Hitchens is somewhat less romantic…) in a way that is certainly unimaginable on this side of the Pond, and not a very convincing description of simple male bonding.

          The Victorians were serious Hellenophiles, and, yes, that sometimes included embracing all aspects of the classical ideal.  Between Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Walter Pater, there were more than a few odes penned to man-boy love.  And no doubt those English aesthetes had a huge influence on gay culture and those “confirmed bachelors” for decades.

          So I don’t know, it’s kinda hard to say.  In America, I certainly can’t imagine a Bates and a Grantham joking about Thomas’ lusting after Parmuk.  But over there?  Well, maybe.  And the two had served in the Boer War together.  Now, if they had fancied themselves as dutiful sons of Sparta….

          • Anonymous

            Definitely for those that went to public schools. For someone working class it would be a different matter though. Far more vulnerable to the law and missing the protection of the old school tie. It might even suggest that Thomas as a working class man is being more true to himself than someone who has gone through that public school system.

          • Anonymous

            I agree:  homosexuality was an open secret of society at this time (and earlier).  Oscar Wilde’s trial was the exception that proves the rule.  The laws punishing homosexuality certainly existed and were very harsh, but because they were so harsh, they were very rarely prosecuted.  There were dozens, perhaps hundreds of capital offenses, almost none of which were prosecuted, and even fewer convicted, because juries and even judges nullified them to avoid capital punishment for anything less than murder.

            So I think Thomas’s sexual preferences being fairly commonly known–though not openly discussed, only through hints and innuendo–is perfectly plausible, even for a servant.  Clearly Bates’s statement to Lord Grantham is subject to interpretation (I thought that Bates, being fairly new to the house, meant ambition, while Lord Grantham may have understood it in both senses), and you would rarely find a more explicit statement than Mrs. Patmore’s, which if not quite as ambiguous, is hardly plain language. 

          • Anonymous

            Yeah, Oscar Wilde kind of did himself in by foolishly bringing a libel suit against his lover’s unpleasant father, who had publicly accused him of being a sodomite.  Since the defense against libel was to prove that the statements were accurate, it was Wilde and his lifestyle that was on the defense.  And he did have a weakness for visiting working class brothels with quite young male prostitutes.  Once that was all spread out for the public, it was all over.  Truthfully, he’d be in hot water today.  Yet he probably would have been fine if it weren’t for that libel suit.  It’s not as though prosecuting wealthy men for visiting working class, underage prostitutes, male or female, was exactly a high priority.  And like Corsetmaker says above, it was the working class who were much more vulnerable to the law, not usually men like Wilde.

          • Anonymous

            Oscar Wilde’s trial was no “exception”.   Wilde’s mistake was not taking off to the continent when he had the chance, as others of his class (like the Prince of Wales’ equerry!) did in similar circumstances.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3JSTXMWWVZN2QNP2UEKJMTWD7U Isabel

      Re: cellulitis
      What was the original diagnosis by Matthew’s mom? It sounded something like “syphilis”?

      • Anonymous

        As I mentioned in my post, the term is “erysipelas.”

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, TLo.  OF COURSE IT’S A SOAP OPERA, people, but it’s a really well put together soap opera with a largely excellent cast and beautiful period costuming.  Enjoy it for what it is.  (I loved the second season and will admit to tearing up during the Christmas special.)

    • Allison Drury

      I just described this show to a friend as a cross between Dynasty and
      Gossip Girl. That’s why it’s so great… fashion, romance, dishiness,
      and smudge of commentary about social issues. I don’t see how anyone
      could take it more seriously than that.

      My favorite character in the show is Mary. I went from thinking she was a
      spoiled brat and snob to feeling completely sympathetic not only for the
      huge burden she carries for the family but her deep sense of failure
      and misery. Makes you think twice about judging someone too quickly. I
      so want her to be happy and this hope for her is what has locked me into
      this show. Anna (and Bates) is the runner up for my affection, but I know she’s in control of her
      destiny and will find happiness wherever life takes her. I see
      myself in Mary and secretly admire/aspire to be more like Anna.

      Thanks TLo for your always insightful write ups. You always challenge my own interpretations which I appreciate.

      P.S. Is Mr. Crawley becoming more handsome/HOT as the season progresses? It’s almost like they are shooting him in a softer light that makes his eyes glow blue/green. Me likey.

  • Anonymous

    Seriously, as much of a soap opera it is in season 1, there are some jaw-droppingly ridiculous moments in season 2 – basically lazy get-out-of-jail-free writing. I still watch it of course but I definitely think standards dropped mightily on it’s second run. Still watchable of course but you’ll probably roll your eyes a fair bit.

    • Anonymous

      Yup. There are a few events I’m particularly looking forward to reading the reactions to!

  • Anonymous

    Mrs. Hughes’s storyline is very telling on the subject of service as a life.  She’s worked her way up the ladder, and she has something to show for it.  Housekeepers could be seen as sort of the career women of the day:  being one meant you gave up marriage and children, but you achieved power and respect.  She knows that if she had not gone into service, or if she left it now, she’d be just another farmer’s wife.  Instead, she has a unique position, not one of riches or privilege, but she’s far more her own woman than, say, Mary.

  • http://twitter.com/RobertSanchez36 Robert Sanchez

    And people act like so many beloved shows are better than soaps. Mad Men, The Sopranos, Grey’s Anatomy, Six Feet Under, etc., etc. All soaps. Any continuing drama with plotlines that continue over episodes with occasional melodramatic peaks IS A SOAP.

    • Alisa Rivera

      The “I’m pregnant and don’t know it” storyline on Mad Men was total soap.

  • Anonymous

    Just wanted to thank you guys for doing this, as it’s finally jumpstarted me into watching the damn thing, which I’ve been meaning to do for months. I’m only two episodes in, but I find your recaps are vague enough not to be terribly spoilery, while helping me make sure I understand what’s going on when I get to the episode. I just try not to read more than one or two ahead.

  • Anonymous

    THANK YOU!  I was fearful when I read some of the middling to bad British press on the second season, but to fault DA for becoming too much of a soap opera….oh please.   What else kept us coming back week after week?  Surely not the trenchant social commentary!  That aspect of the show has been a bit ham-handed when it’s not downright clumsy.  But we loves us some gorgeous sets, costumes, upstairs and downstairs intrigue, and lots of mixed and missed signal love affairs.  I expect it will seem a bit more silly when contrasted with the horrors of the Great War, but that probably won’t stop us from getting a great big kick out of all the homefront shenanigans.

    • http://twitter.com/vesperbeauty Vesper Beauty

      The criticism of the second season is well-warranted. Without spoiling it, the writers turned it into the most simplistic kind of soap opera, and left storylines open far too long to be plausible. Especially considering the length of “real time” seasons 1 and 2 cover – 1912 to the end of WWI, 7 years!

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_F3HKIK7MIJMBDAQBDWEAQDTXUM theneva

        Yes, this. I’d say the real complaint isn’t so much that it’s become a soap opera so much as it’s become a lazy soap opera. Instead of taking cliched plot points and doing them well, it just took cliched plot points and did them. It also took a certain character and turned them into an overbearing, self-aggrandizing boor whereas before they’d just been slightly meddlesome but with good intentions. I found that odd.

    • Anonymous

      The press reviews were fair. You know, we do all know what we’re watching. I don’t believe anyone watching it is under the illusion it’s great art, or historically perfect! So does that mean we shouldn’t criticise series 2 for going over the top compared to series 1? Saying S2 is too much of a soap, doesn’t mean we’re saying S1 wasn’t one at all!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for mentioning the incredibly awkward and unlikely scene of the chauffeur peering into the window on the family’s private life to catch a glimpse of a new dress. Ridiculous. It made me cringe.

    • Anonymous

      As though someone with his political leanings and nationality would give a hoop over a very expensive couture bloomers being worn by a member of the British aristocracy.

      • Cali Sherwood

        I don’t think he gives a hoop over couture bloomers, but who is in the couture bloomers. That scene has always been very obvious to me as setting up a romantic storyline between Sybil and Branson as there’s really no other reason to have a servant make googly eyes at his pretty mistress in these types of shows.

        • Anonymous

          I know he thinks she’s cute, but I also had the feeling that he was proud or something that she was taking a stand. Which is ludicrous .Real life Irishmen that were trying to change the way things were at that time , were willing to kill and die for political change in their country. I think he would have thought the party pants ridiculous and resented the hell out of her too.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree, TLo; I never took this show to be anything but a high class/high production values soap set within a certain historical framework. If I wanted to watch a strictly historically accurate show I’d stick to History Channel or Doc Channel.

    “I’ve seen a bit of life and no mistake!” she tells her suitor, and the evidence of that is clear in her wisdom.” I loved this little subplot with Mrs. Hughes. She is definitely one of my favorite characters and I have always enjoyed Phyllis Logan every time I’ve seen her esp in “Another Time, Another Place”

    “Besides, watching Maggie Smith cut someone off at the knees is half the reason to watch, no?” Always a pleasure, for sure. Lady Grantham gets in one of my favorite lines of the whole series when she is discussing what to do with Mary with Cora:
    Cora: “I won’t go behind Robert’s back.”
    Lady Grantham: “That is a scruple no successful wife can afford.”  LOL! Hope I got that correct.

    • Anonymous

      I also like that quote because it implicitly asserts that being a wife (or at least an aristocrat’s wife) is a JOB, one at which you can succeed or fail, and that it requires a great deal of work.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, which it was. Really still is, just of less vital importance now that women are not dependent on their men for financial support & social status. 

        • Anonymous

          now that women are not dependent on their men for financial support

          That’s a very broad statement which is not accurate. For many women still, there is no pension, very low social security, and low emergency savings. Dependence on a husband, or the state, or other family members is not totally uncommon. And it can occur for many different reasons. And most women in this position have worked very hard.

          • Anonymous

            Point taken. I should have said, women today have more choices than they did at this time, particularly more ways to (respectably) support themselves without a husband, especially women of the middle and upper classes. 

            I do not in any way mean to imply that women who are or who have been, dependent on their partners (whether the women work outside the home or do not) do not work hard.  Simply that women today have many more options for respectable work other than marriage.  That doesn’t change the fact that the social norms of how family responsibilities are divided and how they are rewarded, as well as the practices in some work places, put many women at a financial disadvantage, especially later in life.

            And lest we forget, many women AND men are working in jobs that don’t really pay a living wage.

          • Anonymous

            I do agree with your first paragraph, and that there are so many more options for women today than probably in any previous time. And you didn’t imply that women dependent on someone else don’t work hard. I just wanted to emphasize that. Particularly for women who take care of the home/children/parents and don’t get paid.

            Unfortunately the economy has curtailed many opportunities. When I was barely 20 I moved to a new city a thousand miles away with no job in sight, just a spare bed in the apartment of my best friend. I found a job rather quickly, and when I got bored with it, moved on to a couple more til I found something that challenged me. I was never out of work more than 3-4 weeks at most.

            Nowadays I’m all too familiar with women who are at a financial disadvantage, and men too, with family members barely making a living wage, having lost jobs more than once through no fault of their own. An experience most certainly held in common with others here.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, I just wrote a long post then the laptop died and I lost it, so if I sound tetchy that’s why.

    I hate to say it, but you’re sounding a teensy bit dismissive (as are some commenters) of the opinions of those who have seen the second series and can’t give more precise detail on what they were less happy with, which you rightly wouldn’t want us to do anyway. Have a little faith in our judgement until you can see for yourselves.

    It’s a cosy serialised drama, of course it categorises as ‘soap’. But there’s soap and there’s soap! Now I very much enjoyed series two, there’s some great moments and good plot directions however some storylines do veer into preposterous. There are pacing and time issues that are partly down to Julian Fellowes being forced into corners by history and partly down to plain old lazy writing. It doesn’t quite get to the point of Lady Mary waking up having dreamt it all Pam Ewing style, but it veers perilously close to becoming Dallas in corsets at times. If Branson at the window bothered you then I’d book opticians appointments now to sort you out after the amount of eye-rolling you’ll be doing.
    I repeat, I really enjoyed series two despite it’s flaws, but it does have issues compared to series one. However the Christmas episode felt on track and I’m very much looking forward to series three

    • Cali Sherwood

      I’ve seen the second series and did my fair share of eye rolling as well, but I’m also dismissive of anyone who complains of it being too “soapy” or “dramatic.” It comes with the territory and I can only fault myself for willingly subjecting myself to it.

      • Anonymous

        If it was a one-off series I’d agree. But when series one has hit the drama/soap mark pretty well then I see nothing wrong with criticising the second series for going over the top. Series one is soapy, series two is knee deep suds all over the kitchen floor.

        • http://www.tomandorenzo.com Tom and Lorenzo

          We have no issue with people who have criticisms of season 2, nor have we dismissed any of those reactions. Our point is only that the show has been a soap opera from the beginning and we’ve always understood that about it.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3JSTXMWWVZN2QNP2UEKJMTWD7U Isabel

            TLo – why are people being so serious?

          • Anonymous

            I think it’s worth being serious about good storytelling.  And especially when people inadvertently learn correct or incorrect history from it.

          • Anonymous

            That’s fair enough. As I said, it is soap, personally I haven’t really seen anyone deny that. But the criticism of series 2 was that it was in danger of becoming bad soap. I think when people make that accusation they mean something is representing the more over the top end of the soap opera scale. Soap Opera covers a wide range of programme styles, especially when you include US and UK variations. I’d say when the criticism is levelled here the meaning is it’s getting too close to the Dallas/Dynasty/Footballer’s Wives end of things.

          • Anonymous

            Agreed – DA has always been a soap opera, but there can still be good and bad soaps. I am looking forward to reading TLo’s thoughts on season 2! At a certain point I just wanted to make a list of ALL the crazy plot twists that happened within in one episode. On a related note, I liked that season 1 captured a bit of the “we won’t speak of it” vibe that the Brits are known for. In season 2, everyone tells each other everything! People who would NEVER speak to each other with such familiarity. It is definitely not a “period piece” in that sense, and that rubs me the wrong way a little.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Corsetmaker – you have summed up EXACTLY how I felt. I should have just left it to you in the first place heh.  Looking forward to the third series myself after the Christmas special – I think the writers may have realised the error of their ways and we may be getting back on track.

      • Anonymous

        Not at all, it was good to see your post and know I wasn’t on my own :)

        Yes, there’s been suggestions the second series was written hastily to ride on the momentum from the first series (or cash in to put it more bluntly) and I think that was probably the case. But yes, the Christmas special felt more like the first series. Well there was a couple of dopey moments, one outstanding one, but nothing that intruded too much. I think the third series will be just fine :)

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Corsetmaker – you have summed up EXACTLY how I felt. I should have just left it to you in the first place heh.  Looking forward to the third series myself after the Christmas special – I think the writers may have realised the error of their ways and we may be getting back on track.

    • Anonymous

      This is a US based board & these are recaps of Series I–as streaming on Netflix. Soon enough we’ll have a chance to get into Series II.  So there’s really no point in detailed discussion of the shows seen only in the UK.  

      I, too, have read critiques of that season.  And I’ll be glad to join in at the correct time.  Which is quite soon!

      • Anonymous

        I’m aware of that and there has been no detailed discussion. Merely a response to the point that some would say S2 was soap and S1 was not.

        • Anonymous

          I think the difference between the seasons might well be the pacing & time that you mentioned. Not so much the subject matter but the way it’s told.  We’ll see. 

          (But I’m willing to stoop to shady peeking for Sherlock!)

      • Anonymous

        I was going to post a reply but your other response vanished. Anyway, was just going to say I missed most of yesterdays Sherlock, so I couldn’t post a spoiler even if I wanted to :) Not that I would anyway.

      • Anonymous

        Per Maggie_Mae: This is a US based board & these are recaps of Series I–as streaming on Netflix. Soon enough we’ll have a chance to get into Series II. So there’s really no point in detailed discussion of the shows seen only in the UK.

        True enough!  We can all Bitch about Season II (Series II in the UK) as TLo blogs each episode of Season II.  I cannot wait for the coming bitchfest.  I love this blogging Board!  Thanks TLo.

  • Susan Crawford

    Before anyone ever dreamt up the term “soap opera”, we had the form in the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Willkie Collins, John Galsworthy and – yes – even the beloved Jane Austen. Soap opera is nothing more or less than the close, dramatic examination of the lives of the great and the would-be great, the striving middle classes, and the hard-scrabbling underclasses. In short: the very stuff and essence of human existence has always been a soap opera. And, each of us in our own way leads a little soap opera of a life. But seeing a grand soap opera with huge houses, grande passiones, titled folk and humble servants and schemes aplenty, all amid the glorious interiors and dressed in jewels and laces and silks? Well, that’s like a little bit of heaven, innit?

    • Anonymous

      While I wouldn’t disagree with your definition of *soap opera*, it’s not a term I throw around as loosely as others have here. Years ago I watched my share of soap operas, and had moments where I thought to myself that I was living in one, but there were always very specific criteria being met. Such as, the proliferation of coincidental events, obvious machinations of various persons, so-called serious moments veering into absurdist, slapstick humor, and most of all, people acting in overly-dramatic ways that would never happen in real life. And Downton Abbey has had bits and pieces of these. But overall, and overarching, are the production values and the excellent writing, which is almost always far, far above the mundane writing and plotting found in ordinary soaps.

      • Anonymous

        I think it’s too broad a term for people to argue over too much, or yes, throw around too generally. I mean Coronation street is a world away from Dynasty! Or are we using the term for all serialised drama now.

  • Anonymous

    Is it just me, or is William constantly making a strange duck face?  He’s a good looking guy, but he’s very often got the strangest look on his face.  

    And sign me up for an Irish chauffeur with no boundaries who looks like that!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Stone/100001328135240 Mary Stone

      Yes, he often makes a strange duck face but GADS is he handsome in the livery…:falls over and dies:  Daisy is indeed a foolish girl for preferring cold-fish, cynical Thomas to “sweet William.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-Stone/100001328135240 Mary Stone

     I am wondering about Thomas.  I think he is genuinely gay in the series, and also genuinely ambitious. But does anyone else notice that he gets totally played by the Duke?  Then there’s Pamuk.  He engages in just the sort of subtle flirting with Thomas over the tie “my man always does this…would you?”  that he can reasonably expect that Thomas would pick up on.  Then watch the over-the-top outraged young man act he puts on for Thomas when Thomas rises to the bait. “The lady doth protest too much” methinks.  He sets a trap for Thomas and Thomas walks right into it. Pamuk wants to get with Mary, and he needs the knowledge and complicity of a servant who knows who is where in the house, in order to do so, so he leads Thomas on, and when Thomas reciprocates, he blackmails Thomas into smuggling Pamuk to Mary’s room, in exchange for “saying nothing” of Thomas’ indiscretion with him.  When would Thomas have had the opportunity to Poison Pamuk, and how could have had done so and been certain that the poison would have had the desired effect when Pamuk was in Mary’s bedroom?  I don’t think he had anything to do with Pamuk’s death, but benefitted hugely from it.  It led to him gaining more knowledge, that something was not quite right about Pamuk’s death, and knowledge in that house is definitely power.

  • Anonymous

    The Edwardians were not quite as repressed as the Victorians, particularly among the upper class.  Remember that King Edward was a notorious skirt chaser and had a number of mistresses, including the grandmother of Violet Trefusis.  On PBS alone, he had Louisa Trotter of The Duchess of Duke Street and Lily Langtree.  
    Furthermore, the country house parties were supposed to be full of bed swapping according to Upstairs, Downstairs and this: http://www.pbs.org/manorhouse/edwardianlife/sex.html.  The cost to lower class or middle class women was rather higher.

    • Anonymous

      Sylvia Tietjens: “The affairs of her own set…were more tenuous. If they ever
      came to heads, their affairs, they had rather the nature of promiscuity and
      took place at the country houses where bells rang at five in the morning.  Sylvia had heard of such country houses, but
      she didn’t know of any.”  From Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End–a BBC/HBO 5-parter with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard that will show up later this year.  The story begins before the Great War & ends a few years after…  It’s more of a social commentary or character study than a War Story, although the Ford did serve.  There’s even a fair amount of sly wit!

      I’m seriously looking forward to this one–the book (actually 4 books, usually published as one) is fascinating.  And it stars Benedict Cumberbatch….

  • Anonymous

    On the topic of soap operas, I do agree with you TLo and the most of the commentors that Downton Abbey is soapy and high entertainment over high education, but at the same time, I don’t think that it means that it doesn’t deserve contemplation. When people make the complaint of “overthinking” a topic, well then why bother watching if you don’t intend to think about it? Half of the fun of watching soapy shows like Downton (or Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire or Friday Night Lights for that matter) is trying to decipher why characters do what they do, and I think its pretty safe to say that any show runner (outside of something that continually challenges its own continuity like Glee) would want that kind of thought from the audience. If you don’t want to engage fully with the material, if you don’t want to be challenged by it, then why tune in every week? 

    And having watched both seasons, season 2 does go a bit out there with the plot lines, even for this show. But so long as you accept that realism is not their goal, and that entertainment is the number one value here, then it is more palatable. The predictability is what’s annoying to me as Julian Fellowes does paint himself into corners in season 2 more so than he did in season 1, but the show never bores and there are as many lovely moments and episodes as there are clunkers, and I ended up loving season 2 as much as season 1 in the end. Cant wait for the S02E04 recap.

    To get on the topic of this particular episode though, count me among those who were very moved by Mrs. Hughes’s scene with Mr. Carson. Lovely work by all those involved in that scene, with particular notice to John Lunn for his score in that scene. Perfectly nostalgic and sad, with just the slightest lilt of Irish folk music to make it all the more personal to Mrs. Hughes. And Maggie Smith falling out of that swivel chair is a highlight of the season.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t get the criticism of calling DA a soap opera.  Isn’t life a soap opera when you look at it?  It’s just not as compressed into as short a period of time. Would we even want to watch something that was 100% historically accurate and happened in real time?  No, it would be boring.  To me, a soap opera is having a bunch of ridiculous situations arise that would never happen in real life.  DA doesn’t seem to have much of those, plus at least they say it takes place over several years.  Julian Fellowes took the Pamuk situation straight from a woman’s diary from that period so it actually is historically accurate for at least one Edwardian Englishwoman. 

    And again, I’m not as enthralled with Mary as some are.  She’d have something to be unhappy about no matter what her situation was.  That’s just her nature, the same way Sybil would be happy no matter what her situation was because that’s her nature.  Sybil is a better adapter than Mary, as is Edith.  

    I also wondered whether people would be so nonchalant about Thomas’s sexual orientation, but then I don’t know the period that well. Homosexuality was certainly present, and given how closely people were observed both upstairs and down, it was probably hard to have secrets.  I don’t know if Edwardian England was as homophobic as much of society is today especially if they weren’t directly confronted by it, the same way that other things were either swept under the rug.  Maybe others have chimed in with more knowledge so I’ll need to read their comments as well.    

    • Anonymous

       don’t know if Edwardian England was as homophobic as much of society is today especially if they weren’t directly confronted by it, 

      Worse. You could go to prison for it.  It wasn’t until 1967, ten years after the Wolfenden Report recommended it, that the laws against “indecency between men” (sex between women was never illegal) were repealed.  Even then, there were more restrictions (a higher age of consent than for heterosexuals, for instance – equalisation of age of consent did not happen until 2001), and it only applied to England and Wales, not other parts of the UK.

  • Anonymous

    I posted in the earlier synopsis thread that I didn’t like the Mary/Pamuk story line because I thought it was too “soapy.” I think I shouldn’t have used that term because it has led to comments along the lines of all of TV drama, and all of life, being a soap opera. Which, okay. Like one poster mentioned, there’s soap and then there’s soap, but  what I should have said is that I just personally found that story line silly and left it at that. I didn’t like it, didn’t like the guy, I thought he was kind of rapey, and so I found that plot line discordant (even though, yes, I get that it happened to some other woman of the time period, and has probably happened before in other manor houses, etc.)

    I didn’t HATE it. I do think that plot line led to some great acting, and I think TLo’s exploration of women’s roles in that time period and what Mary potentially had to lose by her dalliance was quite interesting.

    The only reason that the “soap opera” nature of this program really came up for me was because of the offhand comment from a producer (I think?) involved in the show who talked about not “dumbing down” Downton Abbey for American audiences. And then I read that stupid, (and completely inaccurate) story in the Daily Mail about how the show was being cut because Americans are just too baffled by nuance or whatever. When I heard/read those comments, it just made me think about that Pamuk story line, and another one in this season that is yet to be discussed. If we’re not too dumb to “get” All My Children and Grey’s Anatomy,  we’re not too dumb for Downton Abbey, producer dude.

    And of course, like most folks here, I’m enjoying it for what it is. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking about it, and looking forward to season 2!

    What I liked about this episode was the entirely natural thawing of the relationship between Mary and Matthew. They are fun to watch when they are snippy with each other, and fun to watch when they are starting to realize each other’s worth.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PWP6FWEBTHHV5IY644H7WDBYHQ Stacey

    @Mefein:disqus ………my roomate’s mother makes $70/hour on the computer. She has been fired from work for 5 months but last month her pay was $7232 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more on this site http://nutshellurl.com/22i5

  • http://asskickingadviser.com/ Ass Kicking Adviser

    Fun and well done indeed. Just like your posts darlings. Happy New Year and thank you for much for the DA posts this week.  A lot of work for you two but very much appreciated – and enjoyed – by this bitter kitten.

  • http://twitter.com/delysia_lafosse Delysia LaFosse

    I know that I read in one of my history books that some in the British aristocracy made a habit of hiring servants who were gay, because they were much less likely than straight servants to leave the house in order to get married. I’ve been trying to find the book so I could give a little more context for that, but so far no luck. I will come back and edit if I can find my citation. At any rate, it would appear that the sexual orientation of gay servants in households like Downton was more of an ‘open secret’ than we might imagine. Also, as some other people have mentioned, attitudes in the US and the UK toward homosexuality were (and are) different, for a lot of reasons, but largely due to the boarding school culture.

    As to the second season, I have seen it all and can agree with the other kittens who expressed disappointment. I would never argue that Season 1 wasn’t a soap opera, but the seams are much more apparent in Season 2. It remains a beautiful, enjoyable, well-acted show, but the silliness of some of the plotlines was groan-worthy and I thought that some of the characters were written inconsistently.

  • http://twitter.com/SparklyCasanova UglyCasanova

    As to TLo’s analytical reviews being treated “like great literature”, haven’t they’ve always done this with most of the shows they review?  Hell, even Glee gets the same overbearing treatment.  I’m bewildered by these snobbish “people” you pointed out.  A lot of “great literature” in the past can be seen as soap-ish.  How do you think “soaps” came into being?  This is TLo, this is how they think, it shows us more about their personality than the content itself, for the most part.  I’m not sure which of T-Lo writes the reviews but whichever one, I’m sure it’s safe to say that this person is analytical in nature.  And it seems they’ve been affected by these snobbish comments as this review seems to be less of them than their previous posts of DA.  How I loathe “these people” who feel they need to cut down other people, sorry their “people”, I know for damn sure you’re not part of the intellectual authority.  

    I still contend Boardwalk Empire having intellectual superiority over DA, particularly if we were to compare it to “great literature”.

    • Anonymous

      I sometimes think I must be reading another blog, because I haven’t seen anyone suggest Downton Abbey is in no way soap-sh. And I do read all or most of the comments. I must go back and re-read the other threads again because I’m sure I’m missing something or maybe just interpreting differently. 

      I haven’t seen Boardwalk Empire yet as I don’t have Sky. Frustratingly, as it has a lot of actors in it I like and I’m sure I would enjoy it.

  • Susan Crawford

    I agree that in many soaps (or sagas, or continuing dramas – or any other term we could aptly use) there are many levels of artistry and great craftsmanship. The average network TV soaps of the classic sort (“As the Guiding Edge of Night Turns”?) overacting, insane coincidences, evil twins and so on proliferated. But then, they also proliferated in Dickens, and in Trollope and so on. And in “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “The Forsyte Saga” and “The Way We Live Now” and so on. I agree 100% with Qitkat and others that ”Downton” is a magnificent production.

  • Anonymous

    Just had to nitpick and say it’s Molesley, not Mosely.

  • Anonymous

    Having watched it on Netflix last month, and then on PBS this month, I can confirm that many scenes, including whole subplots, we’re indeed cut. (snuffbox — gone. Plot about William’s sick mom — makes no sense anymore. ) disappointing to think that when S2 starts next week wr’ll be seeing the cut version– just incentive to watch it again as soon as its available elsewhere.

    • Anonymous

      I found the edits on Series I quite trivial; the full story is here 
      http://tellyspotting.org/2011/01/04/setting-the-downton-abbey-record-straight/  But I’ve heard there will be no deletions for the second series on PBS.  

      Concerning the “soap opera” question: Much of the world’s greatest literature has used love, hate & family secrets as important themes.  In the first series, a bar of soap even plays a role!  But soap operas don’t always flow well.  The viewers are assumed to have missed a few episodes, so we get certain themes played over & over–Will John & Marsha ever admit their love?  Tune in next week! And we’re treated to more scenes of John & Marsha eye-fucking….  In soap operas, dramatic events can seem more absurd than shocking.  We’ll see how the next season’s story flows.

      Oh, well.  I’ve finally got a new TV.  And the show is so very, very pretty…..

      • Anonymous

        I didn’t notice them til last night. I’ve seen S1 a couple of times but my husband was watching with me for the first time – there were some transitions that really confused him because of the cuts. (When Mary tells WIlliam to go home and see his mother, it seems as if she’s scheming in some way, because the scenes in which we learn how ill the mother is, when Mary discusses with Carson and Mrs. Hughes (I think), which show she’s doing this for purely compassionate reasons, have been cut. As were most of the other scenes where he expresses his grief (black armband, etc) – so the fistfight with THomas is coming out of the blue a little more. And I think the snuffbox scene, where Bates and Anna give a little come-uppance to O’Brien and Thomas, is a real loss – it shows that Bates is more than just a noble, self-sacrificing person – he has a little spark to him. Oh well. My husband still loved it and he rolls his eyes every time I watch a costume drama, usually.

    • Anonymous

      You can go online to http://WWW.pbs.com and buy the unedited UK version on DVD.  I bought Season I and have watch it all at least six times since last year.

  • Anonymous

    ANd why is “Being a Soap Opera” a bad thing???

    • http://www.tomandorenzo.com Tom and Lorenzo

      Who said it was?

  • Anonymous

    This and then that’s all from me;

    It is a ‘soap’, to varying levels throughout it’s run. Haven’t seen that really disputed by anyone, just the degree.The in depth posts are very welcome and very enjoyable. I’ve personally not seen much negative commenting at all regarding that, the very little I have I didn’t agree with.
    The commenters who have seen series two and the special are making fine efforts to not reveal anything. I’ve not seen any spoilers yet, only vague comments about the quality not the content. And I’ve had this site open in the background a lot, so I’ve seen much as it’s been posted.
    I’m very much looking forward to seeing Tom and Lorenzo’s posts on the rest of this series and the next.

    Now, back to work, corsets to sew etc so will be spending less time here. A guid new year to ane an’ a’!

  • http://twitter.com/TheRealSandraOh Sandra Oh

    Not really a spoiler but if you think Season 1 is melodramatic, just wait til Season 2.  Oh boy, that’s all I gotta say.  And Maggie Smith is a goddess.

  • Anonymous

    I think Sybil is as cute as a button… but her whole story line drives me to distraction… 

  • Anonymous

    Oh my god, the scene with Sibyl posing in her harem pants and the chauffeur grinning at the window was like an Edwardian Mentos ad!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818790248 Andrea Grenadier

    If people are calling this a soap opera, do they mean to be derogatory? Because in their own ways, “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” are also soap operas. They’re just airing in prime time. If people think this series lacks depth, they’re just not paying attention to the nuances. 
    I had the opportunity to watch season two this past weekend, and the intrusion of the war and its consequences are indeed heartbreaking. 

  • http://twitter.com/cornekopia Shawn EH

    Haters always be crazy, TLo, don’t listen to them. Anything popular gets a backlash, deserved or not. Everyone likes to sound smarter than the thing they actually love. Your coverage of DT is one of my favorite shows you’ve ever chosen, you’re incredibly insightful about it and fun to read!