DA S2E5: Nothing a Blow to the Head Won’t Fix

Posted on February 06, 2012

We suppose it would be a bit obnoxious to start this review off with a long, healthy round of belly laughter, wouldn’t it? Because there was quite a bit of sustained belly laughter last night when they tried to foist a blow-to-the-head-causing-amnesia plot on us. The singing was bad enough a couple episodes back, but now they’re diving confidently into a pool of 70-year-old soap opera tropes.

Or were they? We would like to say that the writing left things tantalizingly open on the question of P. Gordon’s identity, but come on. He was introduced, dropped a bomb, and then was dispensed with, all within 60 minutes’ time. We confess, we don’t understand the point of this character at all — and it left us QUITE annoyed that Julian Fellowes would try to return to the inheritance-drama well when that question consumed all of the first season and had been pretty much put to bed. But there was Matthew, bitterly informing the family that his faux-replacement was,  “not very pretty, of course. But he can walk around the estate on his own two legs and sire a string of sons to continue the line.”  And there was Mary, weepy at the thought of Matthew having to deal with this on top of everything else and viciously lashing out at Edith for wanting desperately to believe it. “What a stupid thing to say!” So what does the presence of P. Gordon and his curiously muppet-like affect do for the story? We already know Matthew is bitter about being a paralyzed, impotent Earl of Grantham. We already know that Robert is distressed that his heir will not have heirs of his own. We already know that Mary carries a torch for Matthew. And we already know that Edith is desperate for someone to love her and if she needs to imagine that an angry muppet might not only love her but can make her the future Countess of Grantham, she’ll happily throw all common sense overboard. At episode’s end, P.Gordon was gone, Edith was still hungry for love, Mary was still pining for Matthew, and Matthew was still miserable and stuck in his chair. P. Gordon’s entire existence changed the status quo not one bit and told us nothing we didn’t already know about all the people involved – except that many of them are disturbingly willing to consider a story as ridiculous as P. Gordon’s Canadian-causing blow to the head. A total narrative waste of time – and a very silly one, to boot.

But wait! Not content to throw merely one ancient soap opera cliche into the mix, Fellowes threw a second one at us as Matthew sprung a secret, surprise, Grantham-line-affirming woody. Or something. All we know is, Matthew felt a tingle somewhere down below and that means he’ll be sprinting across the grounds by the end of the next episode. We reserve the right to laugh even harder next week when that happens. Thank goodness Lavinia stumbled back into their lives. If Matthew starts getting erections and Lavinia’s not around to applaud them, the next thing you know, Mary’ll be falling into his arms and then an entire plotline will be happily wrapped up. But that’s not going to happen, of course. And to be honest, we probably wouldn’t want it to happen that way, anyway. Fulfilled, happy, requited love is narrative death in a serial drama and we should all get used to the idea that if Mary and Matthew ever get together, it’ll be after several more roadblocks and narrative right turns are put in front of them.

We didn’t actually think Cora would be one of the people putting those roadblocks up, though. Robert was livid with her for inviting Lavinia to dinner, calling her “curiously unfeeling” for it. Frankly, we thought he was being a jerk – and that seems to be his character arc this season, which can be summed up as “I’m an Earl, dammit!” He’s mopey and cranky most of the time, never seems to have anything to do except whine about social engagements his wife keeps canceling. We’re not sure where this is going either, but whatever the point of this arc, it’s making him look quite a bit less likable than he was last season. He wasn’t allowed a shot of glory on the battlefield, so he’s spent the entirety of the war sulking about it, even as everyone else in his family pitched in to help. And now he’s making eyes at a housemaid who, we suddenly realized last night, looks quite a bit like a younger version of his wife. Ooooh, you dirty dog – and we don’t mean that adorable lab.

Was Cora “curiously unfeeling” for inviting Lavinia? Maybe, but she clearly loves Matthew and he clearly loves her. If anything, we think Robert was the unfeeling one for thinking Matthew’s injury was a chance for Mary and him to reconcile, tossing his actual fiancee aside. Sure, Cora had ulterior motives, but “I want my daughter to have children and a normal life,” isn’t the worst thing in the world for a mother to feel and inviting a recuperating man’s fiancee to the house isn’t the worst thing in the world to do. The only reason her actions looked bad is because they were prodded by Sir Richard’s words. He’s made the leap from slightly threatening character to full-on villainy, coming awfully close to assaulting Mary right there in the hall. We all knew the second Mary told him about Pamuk that it would be the undoing of her. There’s no way of getting out of this engagement without a huge price to pay.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bates is, in his words, “a stupid, stupid, stupid man” and we find ourselves nodding our heads vigorously in agreement. This is ridiculous and it’s straining all credulity that:

A) A servant with as much baggage as Bates would continue to have a high-ranking position in a great house, since he constantly seems to be flirting with various forms of scandal, from jail time to a scheming wife willing to destroy the House of Grantham, and

B) That a woman with as much common sense as Anna would spend all her time and energy fussing over him.

We can’t say we’re a bit surprised by Vera Bates’ death. In retrospect, she was one of those characters created to come in, stir up the pot, and then die, leaving the pot permanently stirred in her wake. Of course we’re supposed to think Bates did it and of course the police will think the same thing, which means he gets to tell Anna about even more problems that will keep them apart. We’re kind of hoping she throws her hands in the air and says “You know what? I’m probably better off with Thomas. Or maybe I’ll just put some yarn on my head and become a bitter spinster ladies maid.”

And speaking of O’Brien, there’s something a bit odd about how she’s constantly interjecting herself into Bates’ and Anna’s conversations, listening in and asking questions about the state of their relationship. At first we thought she was going to start trouble – and maybe she still is, since she’s heard some things that could easily get Bates arrested – but we swear we’re detecting a sense of … concern? This could be totally off-base, but the second Vera’s death was announced by Anna, we checked O’Brien’s reaction because our first thought was that she’d done it. That doesn’t seem likely because how would she have gone down to London without anyone noticing? Still, we can’t shake the idea that she knows something about Vera’s death and that she’s had more contact with her than we know about.

In other news, Isobel has gone from being a somewhat likable character into something the two Countesses of Grantham have to “deal with.” “She’s such a martyr,” whines Cora. Maybe, but unlike Cora she doesn’t see the end of the war as the end of her responsibility to help out. And her line about “a life of changing clothes and shooting things” being out of fashion and useless was obnoxious, but it was also quite prophetic. That lifestyle will be largely extinct by the end of the following world war.

Carson looks to be leaving Downton, a prospect that chills us as if we lived there ourselves. It just wouldn’t seem like Downton without him. Granted, Haxby Park is an even more jaw-dropping home than Downton is, but that wouldn’t matter much to Carson, except in the sense that employment in an extravagant home gives him reason to be proud. But Downton more than gives him that and we wonder if he’ll be able to go through with it.

Come to think of it, “I wonder if he/she will go through with it” can pretty much apply to every single character and situation at this point. We’re enjoying the show – even the silly parts – but there’s a feeling of narrative wheel-spinning; the same questions being asked over and over again with little forward advancement.

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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