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Entries in downton abbey (8)


In Which Julian Fellowes Destroys The Victorian Period For All Time

Completely Gilded and Insufferably Victorian


Doctor Thorne
creator Julian Fellowes

Martha Dunstable (Alison Brie) is an heiress in her early thirties. She is distinguished among her relatives and associates because she does not have an English accent. A suitor needing to replenish his family's fortunes, Frank (Richard McCabe) does not find her overly attractive or interesting, and he can't bring himself to hide his evident disgust. Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) is sick of all this shit now and he is moving to America. 

By the end, Downton Abbey became something else than what was intended. Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne becomes something quite different from the original novel. In the grand tradition of the Robocop remake, the all female Ghostbusters and any current James Bond, the people involved with these projects seem to loathe the original inspiration for their existence.

Largely the contempt comes out of a dated view of women and minorities present in the original material. The insistence of the British television industry on greenlighting Victorian adaptation after Victorian adaptation means the only way to subvert these attitudes is from the inside. British audiences similarly seemed to grow bored by Doctor Thorne.

Doctor Thorne is actually one of Trollope's better novels, but you would not know it and this is maybe not saying very much. Fellowes has every single character except the titular one incriminate their very existence. Thorne's niece Mary (Stefanie Martini) alternately looks gorgeous or horrendous depending on how Fellowes was feeling on a given day. She is given even less agency as a character than any Austen heroine, and the plot mostly consists of her wandering into a bunch of money she does not deserve. 

In order to make the events of Doctor Thorne a great deal more exciting than they actually are, Fellowes employs Ian McShane as a roguish baron who drinks himself to death. This occupys a great deal of time in the earlygoing, but soon Fellowes is forced to focus on Alison Brie, because nothing else going on attracts a great deal of interest. You would be completely forgiven for thinking this was a parody of Downton Abbey, if Fellowes did not have all his rich fops hurling insults at each other at every opportunity.

Casting Alison Brie in this morass is basically a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, her scenes are basically the only entertaining moments of Doctor Thorne despite Rebecca Front's efforts (in vain) to turn her economically devastated snob into a comedic centerpiece. Brie makes no effort to fit into this milieu whatsover, like if you cast Selena Gomez as a long lost Crawley sister. 

Fellowes' next project is another period piece, for NBC. "I’m immersed in 1880s New York. What a wonderful city it must have been," he told Deadline recently. It seems a shame despite the success of his last project that he has been reduced to going even further back in time, now to the end of the 19th century in America. He has floated the idea of using a young Countess Dowager in this series, which ensures we will be seeing a white, upper class mien.

To truly represent New York City in 1880, you would have to focus on people of every class. Detailing the habits and attitudes of servants who reflect the poise (or lack thereof) of their masters quickly grows tiresome. We want to see how regular people live and lived, not the ones in mansions and estates.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.

"Death Grips" - Mason Jennings (mp3)

"Future King" - Mason Jennings (mp3)


In Which We Prepare For What Lies Beyond

Gloomy Mary


Downton Abbey
creator Julian Fellowes

The phrase "the land of the living" is uttered so often during the fourth season premiere of Downton Abbey that it is shocking not to find scenes of Matthew Crawley in hell, telling everyone in the pits of Mordor that he still does not require the services of a butler. It takes Lady Mary all of one episode to get over the tragic, sudden passing of her husband, the (probable) father of her son George Crawley.

She immediately starts seeing other guys, most of whom are unemployed and crashing on a couch or in an alley in Redondo Beach. She brings with her little pamphlets on abstinence and a myna bird named Madrigal. "Glycerine" by Bush tingles in the background.

I... peed in the servant's corridor. I don't know why.
But no, things remain rather gloomy in Mary's castle. The show was wisely stripped of its bravura opening, and it's obvious that Downton Abbey costs a great deal less than it did in the past. Most everyone else has already gotten over Matthew's passing, and we sense that he was not very well liked among his in-laws, Downton staff or the crew on the set of the show.

rescuing a hobo gives me half an erection, nothing more

His frustrated butler is reduced to wandering from manse to manse. Other butlers hate him. "I'm not a mother anymore," Matthew's mother announces. When someone reassures her that she is, in fact, a grandmother, she bristles. That's nothing.

no one except a german shepherd ever looked at lady edith in this fashion before
Usually you can keep a large cast of characters fresh by setting up new feuds, but that's already happened so many times here that a new rivalry between Lord Grantham and his mother feels like two hens pecking at each other.

the show's new villain eats pancakes every day without fail

Despite promises that they would live out the rest of their days raising a family, Anna and the wife murderer lurk around the premises like ghosts themselves, reporting gossip to whoever they see fit. They are a worrisome tandem of angels, and they don't seem very concerned about Lady Mary at all.

replacement sybil, you have won my heart forever. I barely think about the old Sybil

Replacement Sybil is staying with the family. She is more attractive than the original Sybil, and a lot less attracted to her servants overall, but otherwise exactly the same. Although there are two babies in the house now, no one gives much of a shit.

purple looks utterly fantastic on replacement sybil
Stories from the past are supposed to reflect on the present. Observing a golden era reminds us how far we have fallen, and how quickly. Observing the onset of the depression and the rise of Nazi Germany is more along the lines of "geez, things could be a lot worse." While this is a more accurate representation of the past, it's also a lot less fun to watch.

guess they didn't have that frock in teal

Among the gloom Mary lurks like a specter, her long, horsey, Carly-Simon-esque excuse for a visage drooping almost horizontal. Her father tells her to stay in bed until she gets well. She comes down from dinner to inform everyone that Matthew should have lived for an additional fifty years. All of the servants are poor at math and accept this at face value. "What's the fucking regular lifespan for this period?" a boom operator screams off set.

she married an axe murderer smh

There is a tendency to destroy something you create if it lingers too long. That's why they have to keep Frank Gehry far, far away from his buildings lest a Howard Roark type situation result, and it is also the reason why Demi Moore gynecologically prevented herself from ever having a son.

I have the finest replacement for Matthew Crawley right here. He is a great man and everyone knows this to be true.

Also, Bates is still guilty and nothing will change that.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in an undisclosed location and the former vice president of the United States of America. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Twin Peaks.

"Everything Will Change" - Near Paris (mp3)

"Believe Me" - Near Paris (mp3)



In Which We Visit the Barren Wasteland



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)