For the second week in a row a super-serious plot development was greeted with gales of laughter by us.
“Leaped up to save her from the threat of footstools! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!”
“Everyone starts dropping like flies and then gets better! Except –Oh, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!’
That was, without a doubt, two of the most hilariously ridiculous hours of television we’ve been treated to since the final two episodes of V. The only thing that could have made it any better is if the Dowager Countess had unhinged her jaws and ripped Lavinia’s face off in rage.
Julian Fellowes, you hack. Did you get drunk while writing this script? Oh, wait! Was it… A BLOW TO THE HEAD? Did you wake up with a Canadian accent and then bang this out on a typewriter?
But y’know… the problem with this episode wasn’t the insanely cliched plot developments, believe it or not; it was the pacing. We’re pretty sure the audience could have handled Matthew’s miraculous recovery if it hadn’t been presented in such a ludicrously rushed way; ditto to Lavinia’s inevitable exit from the story, not to mention Sybil’s bombshell, the kiss, the other kiss, and everyone in the household collapsing into their soup at the dinner table. Pacing, Julian. It’s a serial drama writer’s best friend. There was no need for all of this crap to be stuffed into roughly one hour ofstory time. We’re not saying everything would have been totally believable and not at all a crusty old cliche if he’d just spaced it out more, but he could have sprinkled the silliness throughout at a confident pace. Having Matthew healed and Lavinia dead within an hour of each other is a bit much for any audience to take, especially when you’ve got scenes in between of Lord Grantham getting a little action while Lady Grantham coughs up blood, or Sybil in a hotel room with the chauffeur. Had these things been doled out in intervals instead of thrown at us all at once, it might have seemed engrossing in a “What’s going to happen next?” sense instead of the, well, “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!!!!!” sense we got.
For all the silliness and eye-rolling, we actually enjoyed the hell out of this episode. It was like eating an entire box of Oreos in one sitting. Fun, but you regret that you enjoyed it so much. Part of what makes it so hilarious is that it’s strictly Days of our Lives material, but everyone involved is determined to treat it like Shakespeare. Still, it wasn’t without its merits and there was actually a theme running through this episode; one that was summed up in a line so well and so succinctly, that it could very well serve as the theme for the entire series to date:
“Lady Mary is an uppity minx who’s the author of her own misfortune.”
Okay, no; just kidding. Mrs. Hughes assessment of Mary may have been dead-on, but that’s not the theme for the series (although it could be). No, what we’re talking about is this:
“Aren’t all of us stuck with the choices we make?”
Incredibly bitchy thing for Mary to say? Absolutely; even in an episode where her bitch factor rose by several degrees. But it’s something you could apply to any of the characters and their plotlines. Mary is stuck with Sir Richard after a series of bad choices. Ethel is stuck with a baby and no social support. Anna is stuck with that pain-in-the ass Mr. Bates. Thomas is stuck penniless and homeless after his series of bad choices. And Robert is apparently stuck being a dick to everyone around him because he’s depressed and going through a mid-life crisis.
It’s that last one that’s so frustrating, because it seems to have come out of nowhere. Sure, he spent the entirety of the war moping around, but there wasn’t enough work done on this character to get us to believe or sympathize with his depression. He just complained and barked at everyone around him, which are, in fact, real-life signs of depression, but we tend to think an audience needs it spelled out a little better, especially when it’s in the midst of amnesia-causing blows to the head, miraculous cures, and convenient deaths. Subtlety was not called for here, when all those other explosions were going on.
One of the ways Fellowes chose to ensure that his saintly Lord of the Manor’s decidedly unsaintly actions were palatable to the audience was to foist a suddenly unhappy marriage on him. Cora was always a bit sharp-tongued, but the words coming out of her mouth this episode were so over-the-top cold and cruel that Robert’s even colder and crueler “Do you hear how silly and stupid you sound?” seemed almost just in response. This is a thing with Fellowes. He turns characters inexplicably dark when he needs other characters to look better in comparison. It’s one of the cheapest tricks in his writing and it almost ruined Isobel as a character. Not that we wish to see Cora depicted as saintly as her husband sometimes is, but the nastiness about Matthew was a bit much to take, no matter how much she needs to see Mary married off.
Granted, we think Robert’s reaction to Sybil’s announcement was pretty much dead-on and in that instance, his rage was earned and understandable. Doesn’t mean he didn’t act like a dick, but even the saintliest aristocrat and most loving father would have had a hard time with his daughter running off with a servant. Interesting to note that Violet was the calmest person in the room. At her age, she’s more than likely known one or two aristocratic girls who ran off with commoners, if not servants. This is bad for the family, in her eyes, but not nearly as bad as the Mr. Pamuk situation. This kind of thing has been known to happen and, in her words, “The aristocracy has not survived due to its intransigence.”
As for Sybil and Branson, that was a hell of a lot of buildup for such an unromantic coupling. These two have zero chemistry together and while we don’t think the writing supports it, the actors’ ambiguity toward each other is making their arc look ominous instead of romantic. In other words, since virtually no work was done on this relationship other than to depict the same chaste scene over and over again in the garage, now that they’re together we can’t believe that they’ll stay together over the long term. Say what you will about Matthew and Mary, when they come together, we won’t doubt that they’re meant to be together.
Anna and Bates suffer from a similar problem, but coming at it from an opposite direction. In their case, the buildup was so long and so well-established that the consummation was a huge letdown. The actors have great romantic chemistry but absolutely no physical chemistry, so that scene of them in bed was more than a little awkward. Besides, it’s such an obvious violation of the unrequited love rule in serial drama: once you put them together, all interest on the audience’s part dies. Fellowes seems to think he can pair them up romantically, but keep the audience interest up by putting an insane number of roadblocks in front of their happiness. The problem is, he’s made everything so problematic for the two of them that the audience is largely just annoyed by now; especially with Anna, who went from the sensible maid with her head on her shoulders to a simpering mess who accepts every damn red flag Mr. Bates flies. Their wedding scene was, we’re sure, meant to be seen as a happy moment, but all we could think was, “Oh, girl. No.”
As for Vera’s “suicide,” it’s looking more like she killed herself just to frame her husband, although that’s a level of soap opera evil that’s just a little hard to take. We still think O’Brien had something to do with it, although we don’t know how she got down to London without being noticed.
As for Lady Mary, she really is an uppity minx and we never hated her so much as when she badmouthed Carson to Sir Richard, knowing he would hear her. Sure, she made up for it later on, and we totally understand why she and Carson have such a close bond, but that was a real low moment for a character who’s had more than her share of them. We do feel bad for her, stuck with that horrible man, due to her lousy choices in life, but that’s no reason to take it out on Carson for failing to disregard his egregious character flaws. Incidentally, that whole “Anna, would you mind spying on Lady Mary for me and not telling anyone?” thing came out of left field. He’s devious and jealous, but we didn’t think he was stupid. Even someone as unaccustomed to country manor living as him would know not to try and get between a Lady and her (sometimes) Ladies Maid. Interesting that Anna went to her superiors in the staff rather than to Mary. Despite Mary’s anger with her, Anna acted impeccably. It would have been a huge breach of protocol for her to come directly to Mary about her fiance’s indiscretions.
In other housemaid news, Ethel’s story is boring. Nothing new about the plight of unmarried mothers during this period is being said, and there have been far too many scenes of Mrs. Hughes standing in her shack and wringing her hands over it. In typical Fellowes fashion, after several episodes of wheel-spinning on this front, he blows the entire storyline up in one big altercation. It was a pretty great scene, though, due entirely to the performance of the guy playing Major Bryant’s father. “He’s terrified of his own grief” made a sad and thought-provoking coda to the scene. Still, after all that, and one more scene with the Bryants where we finally get a villain with a mustache worth twirling, even if he does everything but twirl it to show how awful he is, the Ethel story pretty much went nowhere. She’s in exactly the same predicament she’s been in for the last couple of episodes and we suspect this is her exit from the story. Kind of a waste of time, if you ask us.
In even further housemaid news, Jane is creepy and we’re glad to see her go. They sure can’t hold on to second housemaids at Downton Abbey.
And finally, Matthew gets put through the wringer once more, emerging looking like a zombie after Lavinia’s death, wanting nothing to do with Mary and convincing himself Lavinia died of a broken heart. Oh, shut up, Matthew. Her last words were basically, “Go get her, tiger,” for Christ’s sake. In a way, the leaping out of the wheelchair was more believable than that stupid speech he gave at her grave. And could Lavinia have been any more ridiculously saintly? Who goes to their death happy in the knowledge that the man she loves loves someone else? “Isn’t this better?” NO IT ISN’T, you simpering fool. Still, it was sad, her line about being a “little person” in comparison to the grand Lady Mary. Her death would have been far more sad to watch had she had even the slightest hint of a normal human emotion. “Be happy” is one thing, but “I love you and I’m so glad you get to be with the girl you love more than me” is, like everything else in these two hours, a bit hard to take.
But we loved it; we have no shame in admitting. So silly as to be laughable, but we’re salivating for next week’s wrapup. We’re sure to be disappointed, but now we almost can’t wait to see what plot development is going to unintentionally make us laugh out loud next.
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]