In this week’s exciting installment of “Hairstyles of the 1920s,” Edith gets treated like a child and Isobel gets treated like a leper. Meanwhile, Mary and her hair have romantic adventures up and down England and Rose gets jewgaged. Excuse us, Rose gets enjewed. Something like that. Also: Everyone needs a little Dickie Merton in their life (sans offspring, of course). But the most important development of all is that Isis has cancer and everyone pours their emotions into the dog’s suffering because they’re English and find emotional outbursts over non-animal concerns vulgar. Also, Tom is going to move to America because Miss Bunting embarrassed him so much he has to flee the country. We’ll believe this development when we see it.
We’re not even sure we can call this a soap opera anymore, considering how light and frothy the storylines have become. Oh, there’s conflict, of course. And classic soapy storylines like murder accusations, unwed mothers, women torn between two suitors and of course, kitchen maids who give speeches about the Labour party. Okay, maybe not so much on that last one, but our point is, show creator Julian Fellowes seems to have embraced the soap opera designation while at the same time doing his best to avoid any over-the-top melodrama. The result is niceness all around. Everyone looks pretty doing pretty things and dropping wit bombs on a scene before floating off to the next one. It’s been a season where the most quoted line is “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat,” which should tell you everything you need to know about the amount of conflict evident. All the drama seems to revolve around dinner party conversations that get a little heated. It’s fun, and very aristocratic in tone, but when it comes time to review an episode, we’re struck by how little actually happened onscreen. Other than costume changes, of course.
In fact, there’s this very strange tendency this season to avoid conflict as much as possible. We can’t even begin to imagine what the thinking was behind Cora finding out about Marigold off-screen, in an apparently very uncomfortable scene with poor Mrs. Drewe. We watched this storyline build all the way through this season only to have the most important development told to us in a few clipped lines rather than shown to us. We suppose, if we had to come up with a reason why Fellowes handled it this way, it could be because the scene between Cora and Mrs.Drewe would, by its very nature, have to be somewhat ugly and unpleasant – and it would have to make Edith look pretty bad for what she’s done to that family. “Mrs. Drewe felt you used her terribly and I have to say I didn’t disagree” is about as heavy as Fellowes was willing to go on this, and it robbed this entire storyline – one of the few with any real dramatic tension to it – of any sort of payoff. We wondered all along how this was going to blow up in Edith’s face and what was going to happen to her. Turns out? Nothing at all, really. Like so many of Fellowes’ storylines, it fizzled out. But the exclusion of that confrontation between Cora and Mrs. Drewe is unforgivable. Fellowes would have flunked a first-year screenwriting class for doing that. Although we do give him credit for writing that line for Atticus,; the one wondering why the family hasn’t even bothered to check Edith’s actual place of employment in order to find her. His befuddlement over why no one thought of this spoke volumes about how Edith is treated and deliberately made the family look pretty terrible.
In similar news, it was bracing to see Cora dress down both Violet and Rosamund, but frankly, we were hoping for some of the Dowager’s vinegar to bubble up with a “Well, my dear, if you ever paid any sort of attention to her, this might not have happened the way it has.” And we couldn’t help notice Cora’s firm resolve to ask Edith what she wants – which she then follows up by showing up in Edith’s place of business and threatening to humiliate her if she doesn’t do exactly what she’s told.
Lord Merton’s sons turn out to be even bigger assholes than they were the time the one poisoned Tom for fun. We hope Isobel politely, and with great flair, tells them both to go fuck themselves, but somehow we doubt the scene of our dreams is likely to be written. This marriage seems less and less likely to happen, which is a shame. We’d like to see Isobel have that last great adventure rather than sitting in the family spinster house, a perpetual widow and mother to the dead heir. Having said that, it was enormously touching to see Violet admit that she considers Isobel a dear friend and would miss her if she were to take up the responsibilities of being a lady of a great house. On the other hand – and of course this never occurred to the supremely self-absorbed Mary to say in response to her – Violet would be a formidable ally for Isobel to have in going to war with Dickie’s sons, or even in getting herself situated in her new position. We really hope Fellowes allows this story to play out rather than doing his usual schtick of dangling change in front of the audience before yanking back to the status quo. As an aside, all the Merton men pull of white tie astonishingly well.
Baxter, Molesley and Mr. Mason all team up to tell Daisy to continue to vote Labour. And also to remember to read now and then. Or something. We confess, this all feels culturally a little past us; as if there was some nuance to these scenes you’d have to be English to get. They just seemed really odd and left-field to us. It was all very charming, though; because Mr. Mason is essentially a Hobbit.
Downstairs, now that Thomas is no longer injecting motor oil into his ass (or whatever) he’s suddenly nice to Baxter. We’re not saying such a development is unwelcome, but it’s indicative of the somewhat childish way Fellowes writes people. “I’m angry so I will do bad things to other people!” “Someone was kind to me so I will now be a nice person!” It’s all very primary school in its morality and nuance.
And we can’t be the only people who are not only sick of the Bateses’ melodrama, but seriously annoyed with the snotty and exclusive way they treated Baxter in the kitchen. Get the hell over yourselves, you dour fun-suckers. You’re the ones who keep bringing your problems and murders into this house. You don’t get to be snotty when someone admits they can hear you once again talking about your problems in a room full of other people. Ugh. String them both up. We never thought Fellowes could get Anna to a point where we couldn’t stand her. We stopped caring about her po-faced husband years ago, but it takes some special kind of bad writing to turn a rape victim into an unlikeable character. Team Baxter/Molesley all the way.
And finally Rose and Jewish Prince William pledge their troth or something. We confess, we tune out a little during their scenes. Not because we don’t like them. On the contrary, Rose has turned into a real breath of fresh air on this show and she’s one of our favorite characters. No, we tune out because they’re both so adorable together, like kittens in bow ties or something. It’s too much. We hope those two kids can make it work, but Lord Sinderby’s kind of a pill and with Rose all but admitting that she expects her horrible mother to be a problem, the likelihood of their wedding coming off without a hitch is slim. But it will be a very civilized, well-appointed conflict, don’t you worry.
[Photo Credit: Courtesy of (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE]
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Keira Knightley in Burberry at the 2015 Writers Guild Awards