Downton Abbey: Week 3 in Review

NAVA BRAHE: A guinea for a bottle of scent? I was surprised to see the Dowager Countess in the least concerned about how much a bottle of fragrance from the venerable British perfume house Penhaligon’s would cost her (yes, I recognized the signature shopping bag). I wondered: which scent does she wear? Hammam Bouquet, which can come across as somewhat musty and “mature,” or, does she dare break with convention and anoint herself with Blenheim Bouquet, traditionally a bracing men’s scent, favored by many women. I’m guessing she wears Blenheim Bouquet, because it is better suited to her direct, no-nonsense nature. According to the Penhaligon’s Web site, Blenheim Bouquet, created in 1902 and named for the Blenheim bloodline, consists only of top and base notes, with no middle, or heart notes. In the world of perfume, this means the scent is linear, with no significant variation, much like the countess herself.

Lady Mary is becoming as annoying to me as someone flushing the toilet while I am taking a shower. Now that Matthew has “invested” in Downton, she seems to have become more uptight, rather than relieved by the fact that her ancestral home and lavish lifestyle are no longer in limbo. The scene in the newly commandeered sitting room was telling, when her dismissive attitude reared its ugly head at the thought of becoming pregnant. Now that Matthew has cemented his position as both heir and savior of Downton, of course he wants offspring of his own. Is Mary afraid there won’t be enough funds to hire the army of nannies she would require to rear her children?

The Branson/Sybil storyline, and the re-appearance of Ethel, the former maid, illustrate the convergence of a dying world of unrealistic, genteel values, and the harsh reality the servile caste must contend with. The Crawley family cannot stomach the impropriety of having an Irish revolutionary in the family, even though Lord Grantham grudgingly agrees to get him off the hook for participating in the torching of a home. Ethel must give up her son to his grandparents in order to provide him with a better life. She has shamed herself by working as a prostitute, and is refusing cousin Isobel’s altruistic overtures of assistance to help turn her life around. I’m guessing that the shunning she took from Mrs. Bird, Isobel’s cook, is what she’d be subjected to if she took another job in a wealthy home, and her dubious former occupation was discovered. Is that really enough to keep her from earning a living to support her son?

Ultimately, the gentry and the servile caste might end up closer than anyone thought, if Matthew is not able to persuade Lord Grantham to address the evidence of financial mismanagement he does not want to acknowledge. Since I started watching the series, I find myself wondering if the show will endure to include the Great Depression. Considering the latest financial crisis we’ve experienced, it would be interesting to parallel the modern “Great Recession,” and the fall from grace of so many nouveau riche, with an event that destroyed generations of privileged families who knew nothing of a life other than the one they believed their birthright entitled them to live.

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: One of the major criticisms that this show has received is its supposed glorification of the upper classes with a seemingly complacent attitude from the servants. Though I can see where these critics are coming from, I have always defended “Downton Abbey” saying that the commentary on the British class system is subtle and not overbearing, but ever present. Episode Three, however, seemed to address these issues of class head on. As Nava stated, the Branson/Sybil plotline meshing with the Ethel tragedy provided the loudest roar I have ever heard from “downstairs.” I sincerely hope episodes with intricacies like these continue this season, because I am growing very tired of Mary’s icy demeanor and incessant snobbishness.

To insist on having Sybil and Branson stay at Downton for their own safety seems as if it will pose many perfectly placed intersections of dramatic tension with the Crawley’s, with the staff, or even with England. Can we really trust that Branson is going to “behave” himself while huffing and puffing about being away from Ireland? Similarly, can we assume that everyone will be as kind to him as they were before he abandoned a pregnant Sybil in Ireland?

What did we think of Branson grabbing Mary’s hand in the foyer insisting that she not inform anyone of his being there? What do we read in her face? There seemed to be some shock and horror, as if Branson was once again her chauffeur breaching an imaginable barrier between them. But at the same time, there was a strange closeness there, a vulnerability on both sides in that one strange moment. I wonder where their plot line, if any, will go, especially given Mary’s reserved attitude towards her new husband. Matthew seems to be emerging as this beacon of goodness in his rescuing of Downton and brotherly affection for Branson. However, it all seems too good to be true on Matthew’s part. Somehow I’m not buying his all-encompassing gallantry.

Speaking of looks: Thomas’s reaction to Jimmy, the new footman? It has been so long since we have had a good Thomas love interest (anyone still sobbing over his suicidal soldier in Season 2?), but I’m seriously foreseeing that this will go horribly wrong at the hand of O’Brien. The two are at war, and the two have very little qualms about ruining other peoples’ lives. Drawing our attention to the brief scene where Thomas checks in on Jimmy while he is undressing, did we notice O’Brien lurking on the other side of the door frame when Thomas leaves the scene? This could get ugly, should O’Brien decide to out Thomas. But until then, I’m curious to see how Jimmy is going to shake up the downstairs plot.

As she does every week, the Dowager Countess has the absolute best lines of the episode. Her backhanded compliment/command to Edith: “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.” I so wish the Dowager Countess was there to give me some sassy motivation when I get lazy! It seemed to do Edith good, since it seems she is emerging as a published and prominent speaker for women’s rights! How about the Dowager Countess’s comic bubbling during the Crawleys’ interrogation of Branson about how tasteless the house was that the Irish revolutionaries destroyed? Priceless timing embellished with her earnestness. I really enjoyed this episode, I’m hoping we get some more of this snappy writing and twisty character development.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Agree with both Nava and Sonia that this is a dramatic improvement on last week; Julian Fellowes, at last, takes some time from racing through plot and allows the complicated characters in Downton time to breathe. Remembering Season 1, when luxuriating in their presence was the overriding pleasure of the show, would do Fellowes good as he plans future episodes.

Naturally, we do have some plot; Branson’s naivety over how awful it would be to see a family crying as its house burned to the ground was an interesting reminder of just how sheltered his life had been, too, with so much of it spent at Downton. Like Sonia, I wonder about Branson’s treatment to come from Sybil’s family. As long as he was loyal to her, much could be evidently overlooked about his background. Fellowes is playing with us, I think, making it harder to root for the liberal underdog. That kind of complexity will go a long way toward making this more drama and less melodrama.

On the other hand, we have the thinly-explained Bates storyline, where he appears to fall out of favor, then back into favor, primarily so we can see Bates and Anna reading many letters at once, instead of piecemeal. Also unclear: if Anna wishes to visit Bates, why doesn’t she go and visit him? It’s not like she has to worry he’ll be away on business…

Still, the finest moments this week belonged to Carson, who received the chance to weigh in on a variety of matters, from toaster to Lady Edith’s writing (his preference not to say said it all). The more Carson I get, the better, frankly. This isn’t just because of the character himself, though that is clearly a large part of it.

Time with Carson means we are at Downton, something is likely being served, and the extent to which Downton is less a soap in period attire, and more a comedy of manners, is very much to its overall benefit as a show. Those moments are what imbue the dramatic turns with such gravity; it is why Lady Mary’s tryst had so much more impact in Season 1 than Branson’s arson, or any other twist, has had in Season 3.

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