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Friday
Nov092012

« In Which We Visit the Barren Wasteland »

Foils

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Downton Abbey
creator Julian Fellowes

In the beginning, we only needed a rudimentary knowledge of geography to differentiate between Downton Abbey's characters: upstairs or downstairs? The social niceties separating the classes were easy, even pleasant, to memorize. Now, halfway through Season 3, those days of ease are just a fond memory.

Remember when you could tell a member of the family and a servant apart by the cut of their coat? No more, no more. Sons-in-law come disguised as revolutionaries, distant relatives as poor drunkards or promiscuous teenage flappers. You can tell their worth by comparing them to each other in a certain light, usually right around the time the bell rings for dinner.

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has suddenly become important to Downton, as if by being absolutely useless he has made himself into the most useful character. Everything can be blamed on him. The assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Why the eggs are overcooked in the morning. Dark days for Sybil. Why after Season 3 the show's ratings dipped dangerously low. Now, midway through, his most redeeming feature is his adorable dog.

Grantham has always been the secret point of the show; with Lady Mary, his shadow, he is the measure by which we see how quickly and drastically the world changed after the Great War. As the way of life at Downton proves more and more ridiculous, Lord Grantham and his eldest daughter begin to melt into the background like a pair of antique armchairs that you occasionally, and painfully stub your toe on. They’re a bit obtuse, but you could never bring yourself to get rid of them.

Granted, neither has had much of a chance to be exposed to the wider world — if they’ve seen anything of the struggles of the past decade, it has been within Downton’s walls, where it has undoubtedly been easier to control. While Matthew was off fighting in the trenches and miraculously jumping out of wheelchairs, Lord Grantham was busy... moaning that he couldn’t fight. And while her sisters were stitching up the wounded, Lady Mary spent her time trying to snag Sir Richard Carlisle. This is no longer just a matter of being out of touch with reality; Lord Grantham and Lady Mary live in an alternate universe.

Poor Matthew. He could not have known that by wedding Lady Mary he was jumping straight into bed with her father. Their lovers’ quarrels, tender at the beginning, have a sharper edge now that Matthew’s tensions with the Lord of Downton have increased regarding the management of the estate. He pleads with his wife to love her father but “believe in me!”, a phrase Mary cuts off by kissing him. Whenever they’re in bed together, it feels like it might be the last time.

They’ve been married for roughly five minutes, but the question of when they will produce an heir has already put a desperate damper on their relationship. Matthew nobly takes responsibility for their failed attempts, given his accident during the War, but we secretly suspect that Lady Mary’s uterus has been the barren wasteland all along.

When doctors in London confirm this fact and “fix” it, we’d expect an apology would be in the works — “Hey, honey, sorry I’ve let you feel awful about yourself for the last month or so, my parts were broken!” — but she’s already too focused on getting knocked up. Knowing, as we do, that Lady Mary isn’t given to gushes of maternal instinct, her rush to produce an heir points to ulterior, perhaps even subconscious, motives.

It is only a matter of time before the battle lines being drawn come into effect. Between those who have doggedly chosen a side and those who waffle between sides depending on how much it benefits them, the house is in considerable disarray. Sybil’s death cast a long shadow. Everybody looks at her and Branson’s baby as if they cannot imagine a being so pure, so free of intentions.

Downton Abbey is the social experiment par excellence, answering the pressing question, “What matters most to me?” Many viewers will admire the family upstairs — their hair, their games, their elegant ways and “flapper flair”. How can we help it, we’re shamelessly pinterested in such things! What we feel for those below might be an indulgent humor, perhaps pity; this we will find virtuous, as if pity had anything to do with compassion. Nevertheless, the social upheavals and injustices affected hired help the most. What the war had done to unite them only death can accomplish now, striking them all equally and without preference.

It ruins the cathartic effect if we demand too much of our entertainment, but Downton Abbey must provide a few things if it is to keep our attention through any more tense dinner gatherings.

First, Matthew must be soiled somehow, even if that would be more painful to watch than anything. I suspect being caught masturbating somewhere on the grounds would do the trick, which would also do us a favor by rendering Lady Mary mute forever. We should allow Lady Edith to be happy for the length of an entire episode. Mrs. Crawley should wear bloomers. The stock market should crash a few years early, or else Downton should burn to the ground, whichever smokes Lord Grantham out first.

Recent developments do beg the question, however: what will happen next? Fellowes had a good thing going when he threatened his characters with removal from Downton, a plot twist all too easily avoided by Matthew's money. Bates and Anna have been reunited, and Matthew and Mary are wed. At this point, it seems that most roadblocks have been sidestepped or overturned, which can only mean one thing: "winter is coming."

Bates is exonerated of his crimes once Anna finds proof that the late Mrs. Bates committed suicide in order to incriminate him. When he returns to the house, it means trouble for Thomas, whose position as the lord’s valet is immediately called into question. O'Brien's elaborate plan to rid Downton of Thomas nearly succeeds when Alfred catches him trying to kiss the new footman, Jimmy, and all hell breaks loose. It appears that nothing will be able to keep Thomas at Downton any longer. Threats of a bad reference make his future prospects grim, at which point Lord Grantham intervenes for no conceivable reason other than the House's big cricket game is coming up and Thomas is the best pitcher. Once again, the lord of the house has unknowingly assisted in either its ruin or salvation. We won't know for sure until next month.  

You can't help but feel for Thomas. He's a selfish opportunist, but he has shown more consistently than any other character that he will spare nothing, not even his reputation, in the quest for his own happiness. That gives me hope for Downton.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about living near Vasquez Rocks. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"You Believed" - Corrinne May (mp3)

"Just What I Was Looking For" - Corrinne May (mp3)

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