Monday, January 12, 2015

Downton Difficulties

I spent the last weekend of the Christmas season on retreat with the Paulist students and novices at a wonderful place in West Virginia. On Sunday afternoon, we drove back to Washington through Marlyand, passing right by the site of the Antietam battlefield, and were back in plenty of time to catch the 2nd episode of Downton Abbey's 5th season. Like so many others, I have been looking forward to season 5 ever since season 4 finished with Rose finally presented at Court and "Mary's men" fully engaged in competition for her hand. 

Unfortunately by the time season 5 began last week, it looked as if Lord Gillingham would likely be the winner. Tony's a charming guy and all that, of course, but I realized that I have been really rooting for Charles Blake. In a way, Charles resembles Matthew in challenging Mary to be more than just an icon of unmerited privilege. Tony talks about "the system we are trapped in" and wants to live "more simply."  In short, he challenges Mary in a self-referential, faddish, modern way. On the contrary, Charles challenges Mary to live a more meaningful, purposeful life. Anyway, in episode 2, Mary has, shockingly, gone off in secret with Tony - to try him out for a week. We'll see where that leads. And what effect all this has on poor Anna, who had to go to the store and brave her own embarrassment and the storekeeper's disapproval to buy Mary her contraceptive, so that Mary's trial marriage with Tony will be totally risk free. But in a society where proper behavior is the price of privilege can any adventure like that prove totally risk free? Let's hope the consequences don't just fall on poor Anna!

Mary's sister, Lady Edith, certainly learned the lesson that proper behavior is the requisite price of privilege - and has little Marigold to prove it. Unlike many of my acquaintances, I like Edith. The fact that she is the least favored daughter and has consistently been disappointed by life has given her a special claim on my sentiments. Part of me wants to see her get what she wants. On the other hand, we both know that, however, deprived she may feel and indeed be in comparison with her more favored sister, she is still an earl's daughter and lives a monumentally privileged existence - for which, once again, proper behavior is the price society rightly expects her to pay. It is hard to know how Edith could have better channeled her maternal feelings for her illegitimate daughter. What is obvious is that she is being very unrealistic in her approach. The story seems to be setting her up for yet another disappointing disaster. Poor Edith!

Life is unfair. Some people never get a break. But really why are the storywriters so sadistically determined to ruin Bates and Anna, who (all things considered) really seem to be among the nicest people in the household? In episode 2, Anna even reached out in kindness to Thomas Barrow, whom virtually everyone else despises - a sentiment he has to a considerable extent brought upon himself. Still, I feel for Barrow the way I feel for Edith. Knowing the source of Thomas's perpetual unhappiness, it's easy to feel sympathy for his deep-seated and deeply frustrated desire to be included and loved. Thomas's travails deserve being treated in greater depth. Maybe a few less scenes devoted to soap-opera-like matchmaking silliness (e.g., will Isobel become lady Merton or Mrs. Doctor, and how will Violet cope?) could leave some time to develop the Thomas story more.

Another young man who needs to be included and loved is, of course, the other Thomas - Tom Branson. Unfortunately, the story seems determined to hitch him to the obnoxious, arrogant, impolite Sarah Bunting, of whom the less said the better! 

Too many simultaneous romances may make any serious drama seem like a soap opera. That said, Carson's acknowledgment of his emotional dependence on Mrs. Hughes was actually one of this episode's more attractive moments.  As with Mr. Hudson and Mrs. Bridges in Downton's 1970s predecessor Upstairs, Downstairs, this is a coupling everyone should be rooting for.

Finally, the tiresome theme of modernity (good) vs. tradition (bad) was given a distinctive twist with the arrival of the wireless. The entire household (except for Mary, of course, who was happily in Liverpool finding out if Tony is as good as he looks) assembles in front of the wireless - the way people used to assemble in worship before an alter, the way contemporaries worship the TV - to hear the King address the nation on the occasion of the British Empire Exhibition. Propriety is observed, and everyone reverently rises in the presence (if only vocal) of the King. The discussion that follows - pitting the modernizers for whom the wireless makes the King more "human" and the traditionalists who appreciate the damage done when sacral symbols are manipulated perfectly encapsulates so much of the tragic story of the downgrading of everything noble and sacred and the exaltation of the common and vulgar that has characterized so much of the last century. In effect, it addresses the underlying issue being acted out in the show's ongoing conflicts over changing mores.

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