Downton Abbey S2E3: The Only Boy

Posted on January 23, 2012

This was the hour of Series 2 where everything seemed to come together. Not that the first 2 hours were a mess or anything, but there was an awful lot of catching up and setting up to do before we could get to the meat of the story. With this hour, we felt like we could see the shape of the story coming into view; what the major plotlines were going to be; how the characters would interact under the stress of the war; and what that would all mean once the war was over.  In other words: Series 1: Inheritance drama with a soupcon of romance; Series 2: Wartime drama with a TON of romance. The thought made us a little giddy, because that was one of the great things about Series 1; that moment when you realized that the story was bigger than you thought and the possibilities for what might happen seemed deliciously endless.

But then THAT happened.

If you don’t know what we’re referring to, then you may stand with the legions of other people on twitter last night who said “So what? It’s romantic!” If you do know what we’re referring to, then come stand by us and let’s all roll our eyes together.

Look, the very second Robert told Mary and Cora to put aside their fears because they had a concert to put on, we knew Matthew and William were going to walk in in mid-song, saving us all from Mary’s trilling. It’s a bit of a cliche, but it was nicely set up because the episode opened with a discussion about the importance of the concert. Tight scripting allows you to get away with the occasional cliche. The buildup and pacing was (for once) well done and all in service to that one moment.

Except it wasn’t the moment we thought it was going to be.

We thought she was going to run into his arms. Of course we did. We all did. That was the whole point to that long setup. Instead, fresh from the battlefield, Matthew breaks into song.

We almost wish there were cameras on us, recording our reactions. Rapturous (if slightly amused) at the return of Matthew and the impending moment when the two cousins realize they’re right for each other, which then quickly turned to looks of horror and utterings of “OH MY GOD.” and “NO! Stop this right now! Both of you! Stop this!” And then we just laughed. We couldn’t help it. It was so godawful cheesy. Later, we marveled at the actors, who, given their talent and the level of writing up until this moment, must have been at least a little embarrassed by the whole thing but really gave it their all.

We struggled for a while, trying to find a way to put that silly moment in context. “English music hall culture…?” we offered. “Wartime makes people melodramatic…?” But no, it was a moment that could have come from any of a hundred MGM musicals. It really doesn’t bother us as much as we might be indicating, but our initial reactions were overwhelmingly (and vocally) negative. Credit where it’s due: we think a lot of people thought, like us, that Mary was going to run into his arms and at least they managed to avoid going that far with the scene, which might have tipped it over into ridiculous and besides, Mary and Matthew aren’t getting together. Not at the moment, anyway. In the light of morning, we think that MGM moment was funny and harmless, although we fear the coming episodes will be chock full of similarly cheesy cliches. And hey, who knew you could get an earworm from a century-old song? It’s been stuck in our heads for half a day now.

Ethel’s story was another one that didn’t take a Sherlock to figure out where it was going. Cliche? Maybe, but not as bad as breaking into song. Besides, like so many of the plotlines, characters, and settings, it’s not about showing us something we haven’t seen before. It’s very much about picking and choosing tropes from an array of stories in literature, plays, films, and TV shows with very similar settings and themes and then giving them only the slightest of twists. Really, when you get right down to it, Downton Abbey is about re-shooting Upstairs, Downstairs in Hi-Def. In fact, we always assumed the name of the estate (DOWNton) was a slight tip of the hat to the earlier show. We realize that’s a bit reductive, but that’s how we see it.  DA is a slickly produced period melodrama that rarely does anything approaching groundbreaking, but does what it does so smoothly and so well, that the viewer is willing to forgive a lot of it and allow themselves to get sucked into the story.

Anyway, yes. We all saw where Ethel’s story was going, but now we have no idea where it’s going to go. That officer didn’t seem like the type to marry a servant girl he knocked up and Mrs. Hughes’ willingness to help the girl is not at all a sure thing. That was some SERIOUS Housekeeper fury on display when she found them together – and with good reason. A housemaid sleeping with a houseguest is something that Mrs. Hughes would have seen as the very worst of taboos being shattered. And, given what we know about her life and the choices she made, we found Mrs. Hughes’ fury to be a bit revealing. “I may not be a woman of the world…” she says to the Major and there’s the heart of it. Mrs. Hughes gave up any chance of romance, family, or a life outside of service and she’s mostly okay with that, but seeing this young girl break every rule she’s spent her adult life upholding was an offense so grand that she kicked her out before breakfast. Knocked-up housemaids might be a cliche, but the show’s done its job in setting up the character relationships that led to this moment and now we’re fascinated because we want to see what Mrs. Hughes is going to do.

Meanwhile, Bates and Anna blahblahblah. Sorry, we loved these two last season, but they’re getting a bit tedious now. Bates is so ridiculously weighed down with baggage and Anna is getting to be a bit ridiculous with her constant attempts to wave it away. She always struck us as the most intelligent and sensible of the servants, but she’s acting like a silly schoolgirl here. Whenever the two of them start talking about how THIS time, everything’s okay and happiness is just around the corner, you just know someone’s going to lose an eye or something. If these two ever get married, they’re going to be covered in battle scars by the time they get to their wedding day. Like we said in an earlier recap, there comes a time when the problems they’re facing are so insurmountable as to be ridiculous. We know a lot of people love these two characters – and we do too – but we almost wish Anna would say “Look, you get your shit worked out and come to me when it’s all behind you.” Instead it’s all “Oh, we can finally be happy together” when anyone with a brain can see things aren’t settled for them. They’re always standing in quicksand and singing love songs to each other.

And how ridiculous was it that Robert asked Bates point blank about the scandal his wife threatened to reveal and Bates answered with “Just some silly nonsense, my lord?” Uh, no. If it was just silly nonsense, you wouldn’t have fled Downton practically in the middle of the night with no warning. Robert, perhaps  because of generations of cousin-marrying, doesn’t seem to have the mental capabilities to put this together and just accepts Bates’ answer. Come ON. Why on earth would he let that go? And how does he not know about Mary’s reputation by now, anyway? We’re supposed to believe it’s a rumor that’s bounced around the aristocracy for a couple of years now and yet somehow, Robert’s never heard a word of it? The entire Turkish government knows and Robert is still completely clueless?

Cora got a couple good moments this episode. She’s still a wildly inconsistent character who goes from shrewd to gullible depending upon the scene, but at least she sent a message to O’Brien this episode in the only way an upper-class lady would send a message: with great subtlety. When she pitched in at the soup kitchen, that was, in part, a way of saying to O’Brien, “You may have my ear, but I have the final say.” Her interactions with Isobel were a bit less positive, however. The thing is, Cora’s absolutely in the right to put her foot down and remind Isobel that this is her house. However, Isobel is on the board of the hospital and is supposed to share the authority with Cora. She’s not wrong to point out that Cora’s shutting her out. But the aristocrats must always come out on top in this story, so Isobel didn’t just say “Cora, you’re supposed to be sharing responsibilities and authority with me and you’re shutting me out.” No, she got wild-eyed and shouty, cutting Cora off and being totally unreasonable. So Cora gets to tell her off without looking imperious about it, even though Isobel actually had a right to be upset. We think it’s a shame what they’ve done to Isobel this season. Several readers have pointed out that she was always pushy and always trying to change things, and that’s true. But these activities, in S1, took place outside of Downton itself. Her pushiness was reserved for the hospital and the flower show for the most part. When we look at the Isobel of S1 we simply can’t picture her running around the house, barking orders at both the staff AND the family, and getting into shouting matches with Cora. It simply doesn’t ring true in any way to us. And now she’s off to France and we fear she might meet her end there. We hope not. And if people think we’re being hard on Julian Fellowes by always making the aristocrats look the most reasonable in every situation, we have only the script to fall back on to prove our point.  “Or are you like everyone else in thinking that, because she’s a countess, she has acquired universal knowledge by divine intervention?” Isobel asks Dr. Clarkson. What was classist in its subtext is now spoken of directly in the dialogue. This isn’t just about control of Downton. It’s about class warfare.

In other news, Edith is growing up. We thought her moments with Mary, especially when she told her about Matthew, were nicely written and well-acted. It’s nice to see a little growth that makes some sense.

Sybil, on the other hand, is getting hot for chauffeur and awfully defensive about it. Worse, she’s told Mary, who got the absolute best line of the episode: “Oh darling, darling. Don’t be such a baby. This isn’t fairy land. What did you think, you would marry the chauffeur and we’d all come for tea?”  That’s a line worthy of the Dowager Countess (who also got a couple good ones in this episode: “It’s like living in a second-rate hotel where the guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave,” and
“I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose”). With his promise to stay at Downton until Sybil is ready to run away with him, shit, as they say, just got real. This doesn’t look like lust or flirtation to us anymore and the real likelihood of Sybil running away seems imminent for the first time. It’s going to kill Robert – especially if he ever finds out about Mary’s story. Wouldn’t it be funny if, in the end, all the family’s hopes for a good marriage fall on Edith? How would she handle that kind of pressure?

And finally, poor old Molesly gets the shaft once again. We don’t really understand why he would want Bates’ job so bad. All he has to do is be patient and someday he’ll be the Earl of Grantham’s valet when Matthew inherits the title. Granted, Matthew might not make it through the war and besides, Robert will likely live at least another couple of decades, so we guess we just answered our own question. Poor Molesly. He’s like the Charlie Brown of servants, always destined to have that football yanked away and his kite caught in a tree.

So, a couple of weak – or just plain cheesy – moments, but overall, the story is getting more and more engrossing. And while time seems to move fairly rapidly in this world (we’re 6 years past the first episode), it allows for character growth that wouldn’t be possible if the timeline was less compressed. Granted, no one’s aged a day, and this is particularly noticeable with characters like Violet and Daisy, but it allows for moments like Lord Grantham admitting he loves Matthew like a son, which at first jumped out at us until we realized how long Matthew’s been the heir apparent.

As with all of these Downton Abbey posts, we ask that you refrain from any spoilers in the comments section if you’ve seen this season. That includes vague comments like “If you think things are bad for X and Y now, wait till you see what happens!” Just talk about this episode or any episodes that preceded it, thank you.

[Photo Credit: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE]

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