Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Downton Abbey, Part Two


Downton Abbey continued this past Sunday with Part Two of its four-week run on Masterpiece Classic, and my suspicions that this is one of "those" shows that keeps getting better and better as time goes on has been happily confirmed. I'm going to try my best to confine my review of Part Two to one post, but I'm not making any promises. :) If you're new to the blog, or want to revisit my thoughts on Part One of Downton, here are the links: The Crawleys, The Servants. Now that I've had about three hours to familiarize myself with the world of Downton Abbey and the many, many "upstairs" and "downstairs" residents that call the estate home, I feel like I have a much better grasp on the characters and multiple, interwoven plotlines. Here's the summary of Part Two from the PBS website:
As Matthew and Isobel, the newly-arrived Crawleys settle into life in the village, Isobel offers her experience with modern medical techniques at the hospital, to the considerable consternation of Violet. Both Matthew and Mary bristle at the prospect of being matched to one another; still, Matthew indulges Mary's clever barbs even as a suitor in the form of Evelyn Napier is invited for a foxhunt, accompanied by the handsome attaché at the Turkish Embassy, Kemal Pamuk.

Downstairs, secrets reflect the ambitions, shames and desperate hopes of the servants, as housemaid Gwen tries to hide the contents of a heavy box set atop the wardrobe in her room; Carson abandons his customary dignity as he skittishly raids the pantry; and Bates refuses to share the source of his debilitating pain to his co-workers. Their concern and camaraderie markedly contrast the festering discontent of Thomas and O'Brien.

A sinister stranger barges into the house, demanding to speak to Lord Grantham, and an attractive stranger captivates Mary before setting into motion a chain of events that put the fate of Downton Abbey on even less stable ground.
Lady Sybil
I was quite happy to see many of the characters who I felt were barely introduced in Part One given more fleshed out storylines and personalities in this installment of the series. We're introduced to the secret hopes of Gwen (Rose Leslie) the housemaid, when Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid discovers her secret. Gwen wants to be a secretary! It's fascinating to see just how radical of an idea this was in 1913 - virtually unheard of in many social circles, yet if a woman succeeded in training herself and secured a suitable position, she could achieve a level of independence unknown of scant years before. Time and technology has changed much. :) Not only do I a greatly admire Gwen's bravery in reaching for such a bold dream, but the support she receives from Anna further seals my good opinion of that housemaid's character. We are also finally treated to some insight into youngest Crawley daughter Sybil's (Jessica Brown-Findlay) character. When she discovers Gwen's aspirations she resolves to do all she can to help the housemaid realize her dream - clearly Sybil has the makings of a social and political activist.

Mentioning Anna brings me the opportunity to discuss what is fast becoming one of my favorite relationships on the show - the friendship (hopefully more? hopefully SOON? *g*) that develops between Anna and Bates (Brendan Coyle), the valet. When Bates and Anna find themselves alone in the servants quarters, and Bates teases her by saying "alone at last" - people, I kid you not, I melted. Brendan Coyle is just adorable. Of course, for every halting step forward in their relationship - such as "bonding" over the hilarious discovery that Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, had is secret life as a stage performer revealed in front of the Earl. While Carson was mortified at being embarrassed before lower staff members, the fact that Anna and Bates handled the news with discretion earns them, especially Bates, some much-needed grace from the butler's perspective. Bates's attempts to treat his limp on the sly with a painful-looking metal brace also reveal the sympathetic side of housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who I absolutely love now thanks to the kindness and understanding she shows him. The excrutiating brace reminded me of old-school scholiosis treatments - I have scholiosis and was treated with a brace for a time as a child, and believe you me as inconvenient and uncomfortable as my brace was, I am convinced it was nothing to the types of devices used to treat back curvatures even a mere fifty years ago. I desperately hope that Bates's reticence to share about his past (seriously, I'm dying to know the man's secrets!), and admit to vulnerability doesn't keep him and Anna apart forever...I would be crushed.

Matthew (Dan Stevens), the new heir, and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) have begun to settle into life at Downton in earnest. Since Isobel was married to a doctor and trained as a nurse, she very naturally takes an interest in the local hospital where Violet (Maggie Smith), the dowager countess, serves as patroness. Isobel has some rather progressive ideas - she advocates the latest medical treatments and wants equal care for all patients, no matter what their social standing. And while these ideas may not seem all that radical today, in a world like Downton Abbey's that thrives on tradition and male dominance in areas like the medical profession, Isobel's push for improvements sets her at odds with Violet. I practically cheered when Isobel's suggested treatment for dropsy (I had no idea how awful that affliction is!) succeeded in saving the life of a poor farmer. Watching Isobel "butt heads" with Violet is going to be a lot of fun as this show progresses, and I'm really growing to love her character - Wilton has infused her with just the right balance of "modern" sensibilities and old-fashioned class. And watching Violet fume at having to share management of the hospital with Isobel was hilarious - Part Two continued the grand tradition set forth in Part One of giving Maggie Smith some of the show's funniest lines and seeing her steal scenes whenever she appears on-screen.

Kemal Pamuk
Isobel's son, Matthew, has been obstinately determined that his new status as heir will not change his character, and much to the chagrin of the Crawley family he has retained his "working class" sensibilities. My absolute favorite scenes with Matthew so far occur in this episode. Robert (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl, begins to take on the role mentor and seeing the estate through Robert's eyes begins to slowly but surely change Matthew's perspective on his cousins' lifestyle. When Robert gently suggests that Matthew's contempt of needing a valet has personally wounded the servant, the implication that he's been guilty of exhibiting his own class prejudices is staggering. The scene that shortly follows when Matthew asks his valet, Molesely (Lionel Guyett) for help and input nearly brought tears to my eyes. That moment of kindness and understanding was so sweet! If Matthew can balance his middle-class upbringing with some grace and understanding of the traditions that have formed Downton Abbey, he could turn out to be an heir to be reckoned with, worthy of respect.

Lady Edith
Of course Matthew is still getting no where with Mary (Michelle Dockery), who bristles at the mere suggestion that she should marry such a commoner to secure her inheritance. In Part Two we begin to see that Matthew is attracted to Mary, but of course loathe to admit it (shades of Pride and Prejudice, anyone?). Since Mary makes no secret of her disapproval of the new heir, her overlooked middle sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) begins to look on him favorably as a marriage prospect for herself. I really felt so bad for her when their afternoon of church visiting backfires with Matthew's mentions of Mary and the suggestion they bring his mother along on a future outing. Edith is so tightly wound, so resentful of her position as an "overlooked" younger daughter that I half expect her to do something quite rash before this miniseries ends.

Mary is still a difficult character to like, but if there is one thing this episode drives home it's the fact that her proud manner is a mask for extraordinary amounts of childish pride, naivete, and uncertainty. She remains hopeful that her prospects will improve with the arrival of Viscount Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks) for a foxhunt (which was a lot of fun to watch come to life on-screen). Unfortunately for the handsome Napier, he brings along a friend - Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), an attache to the Turkish embassy (and the first hint of the worldwide political climate that will result in World War I). Pamuk makes quick work of acting on Mary's oh-so-obvious attraction to his dark good looks, and seduces her with the 1913 version of one of the oldest lines in the book ("You'll still be virtuous for your husband"). Mary, being a total ninny, falls for it, and her stupidity has an unexpected (and if I'm being honest here, I thought frankly hilarious) result - Pamuk has a heart attack and dies in her bed. In order to save her reputation, she has to get Anna and her mother Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) assistance in hauling him back to his room. I never, ever expected the show to have the man responsible for Mary's ruination drop dead in such a spectacular fashion, and I confess the sight of her long-suffering and PROPER mother hauling a corpse around Downton was so unexpected it cracked me up. Yes, I realize this probably says something awful, like I occasionally exhibit a disturbingly macabre sense of humor, but at least I'm owning to it.

Viscount Evelyn Napier
I feel so, so bad for poor Napier when he realizes that Mary has absolutely no romantic interest in him, even after Pamuk's death (I think trauma has something to do with the latter, though!). I really liked the painfully honest conversation he has with Cora, about his hopes for a marriage based on love. The man is a class act all the way and I really hope we get to see his character again. It will also be interesting to see the impact Mary's shocking indiscretion has on her relationship with her mother. I suspect that the full ramifications of her actions with Pamuk have yet to be felt.

Part Two of Downton Abbey succeeds on a grand scale, adding layers of rich characterization and raising the stakes for each member of the Crawley family and their servants. It is truly fascinating to witness how intricately entwined the lives and fortunes of the wealthy owners of Downton Abbey are with the servants who depend upon Downton for their livelihood. Unforunately for the Crawleys, Mary's dalliance with the Turk was not the secret she hoped - and like all hidden secrets and sins, the truth is sure to out and the impact will doubtless be felt by many more than just Mary (there's a lesson there, no?).

To anyone who may still be making their mind up about whether or not to watch Downton Abbey - I will say that this series pushes the envelope a bit more than many may be accustomed to in period drama. It definitely does not shy away from all aspects of life, the good and the bad. From my perspective, the show does not "cross the line" and become too explicit for my tastes (i.e., it cuts away from Mary's seduction scene), but I recognize that it may be too close to the line for others. I know that viewing tastes and preferences are varied among the readers of my lil' ol' blog, and I do try to recognize and be sensitive to that in my reviews.

What captivates me about Downton Abbey isn't just the smart script and gorgeous sets and costumes, but the raw authenticity of the characters. The characters' mistakes and actions - whether or not I agree with them, ultimately - have thus far, anyway, provided me with both entertainment to feed my period-drama loving heart and food for thought about the best and worse that humans are capable of. I'm looking forward to seeing where this wild ride takes the Crawleys and their servants next. :)

8 comments:

heidenkind said...

I definitely love this series. The scene with the Turkish diplomat was so unexpected and funny. That poor girl is never going to have sex again.

Joanne said...

Ruth, your summary and observations are spot on! I've adored this series so far; real humor infused throughout (Violet is oh-my-goodness hilarious!), although some very serious and poignant moments have really touched me. Was completely shocked with the turn of events involving Mary and her midnight escapade -- I did NOT see that coming! ;)

Ruth said...

@heidenkind - Seriously. Mary is gonna need SO MUCH THERAPY.

@Joanne - Thank you! I agree, this show is a superb balance of humor and poignancy. And I'm glad I wasn't the only one surprised by the turn of events for Mary - if anything I was expecting that perhaps she hit him on the head and *thought* she'd killed him or something.

Kristin said...

I've been waiting for this post! :)

I loved Carson's "former life." I was totally expecting something dark and sinister, but this was much better.

I agree with everyone else, I was definitely not expecting what became of the diplomat. I had to laugh at the women carrying him down the hall.

And I also loved the scene where Matthew asked for his servant's help. :)

I'm enjoying this series more and more. I can't wait for Sunday!

~Kristin

Renee Ann said...

Great post! I enjoy rehashing a series with so much to talk about. One of the things I really enjoy about DA is how Lord and Lady Crawley seem truly benevolent, somewhat innocent, and still in love with each other. I was so afraid they'd be cynical and blase. And I do love Brendan Coyle. He gets so much about his character across with just a crinkle of his eyes:) . . . I also loved that scene with Matthew and the valet. So subtle but meaningful . . . I may have to re-watch both episodes before Sunday night just to enjoy Maggie Smith's performance one more time!

Ruth said...

@Kristin - Aww, thanks. Sorry for the hold-up, busy week! :)

I was expecting Carson to have done a stint in jail or something, so the performer angle was a nice surprise, and oh so funny!

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who laughed at the diplomat being hauled down the hallway by three women after his most untimely end. ;)

I'm beginning to really like Matthew. :) Looking forward to where the 2nd half of this series takes his character. So happy you are enjoying this show too!

@Renee Ann - Thank you! I find that whenever I do a review post it really helps me get a better grasp on a show (especially one with a huge cast like this) or catch character or story nuances that I may have missed at first viewing.

I REALLY love Robert & Cora too! Their relationship and marriage seems very "real" and authentic - they don't agree 100% of the time, but they have a genuine respect and love for each other that you don't always see in TV marriages.

And Maggie Smith - oh goodness, she gets funnier every week!

Charity said...

I adore Bates and Anna; they are so sweet together.

You're not the only one who laughed at what happened to Pamuk. The sight of the girls toting his body down the hall gets me every time. (Wait until Grandmother eventually finds out -- her response will CRACK YOU UP!)

Such a good show -- a tad mature, yes, but not ungraciously so... other than Thomas and the Duke, everything has been quite nice and discreet.

Ruth said...

@Charity - My PBS station aired a brief clip that showed some of Maggie Smith's reaction to the news about Pamuk - I can't WAIT to see the scene in context. The clip cracked me up!

And I agree - definitely a mature show, but overall I've been very pleased how even potentially controversial scenes have been handled.