Monday, February 24, 2014

After the Ball

In the next to the last episode of season 4 of Downton Abbey, Dame Maggie Smith, the indefatigable Dowager Countess of Grantham, added to her seemingly endless supply of wise and witty bon mots with one of her best this one addressed. to the luckless Edith: All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one, then the next, and the next, until at last we die.. Why don't you get us an ice cream? Not a bad take on life in general - and not a bad summation of Downton Abbey's season 4, in which the characters coped with sundry problems of varying degrees of seriousness and managed to make do.

In the finale, the enigmatic Mr. Bates helps the Crawleys save Britain and the Empire from a royal scandal, thus preserving the Prince of Wales to self-destruct in a real scandal (and constitutional crisis) some 13 years later. As a result, HRH came to Rose's Coming Out Ball, thus elevating her to one of the star debutante's of the 1923 London season. Meanwhile, Mr. Bates' critical role in saving the Prince's reputation from the scurrilous foreign (i.e., American) press solidified the family's loyalty to him - just in time to avoid any unpleasantness about whether he did or didn't have a hand in the evil Mr. Green's demise. This unimaginative quasi-rerun of Bates' earlier false accusation of murder in season 2 was, to my mind, tedious at best. At worst  it took the attention away from Anna, whose personal reaction to and recovery from her trauma would have been a more interesting focus, as would have been a look at how the family and/or the Law would have addressed her situation. Instead the attention was shifted to her long-suffering but somewhat mysterious husband. And, really, no character should be accused of murder twice in the same series!

The other, less than imaginative, quasi-rerun is the leitmotif of whether Mary will marry and whom - her "desire of suitors" as they were called in an earlier episode, "Mary's men" as they were less elegantly termed in the season finale. The gentlemanly contest between Tony and Charles, each of whom as far as one can tell would make Mary a suitable consort, continues (presumably) into next season. The only interesting thing about that reprise of Mary before marriage to Matthew is how she relates to Charles as a presumptively middle class critic of her aristocratic way of life - only to learn in the season finale that he is heir to an Irish peerage and will probably end up better situated than Lord Gillingham.

Another somewhat tired theme that the series can't seem to shake is Tom's susceptibility to somewhat demanding, strong-willed women. Of course, such was Sybill, but she was an earl's daughter. These others (the latest being the tiresomely pushy Sarah Bunting) are, on the other hand, of his own class. They constantly cause him embarrassment and make him second-guess his changed relationship to the family, who are - as the Dowager Countess reminds him at the Ball - his people now.

Edith, on the other hand, continues to amaze. She seems determined to make her life work for her. And one cannot fail to be impressed. Let's hope she will continue to amaze in the fifth season!

The over-arching thematic of aristocratic family life in a time of (downward) transition is what the series is supposedly ultimately all about. The problem, of course, is that by itself that is not very interesting, since we all know that story already and who won in the end. It is only made interesting by inviting the audience to empathize with and identify with the aristocratic characters - thus forcing the audience to reconsider the politically correct narrative that sees "progress" in the decline of the old ways. The self-consciously "modern" Martha Levinson's constantly repeated contrast of herself as the future versus the Dowager Countess as the past only highlights how one wealthy, privileged elite immersed in traditional relationships has been replaced by another wealthy privileged elite unmoored from traditional relationships. The Levinsons (mother and son) are apparently meant to represent the triumph of capitalist calculation over traditional sentiment - the monetary demystification of what Marx's Communist Manifesto famously called "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations" and the family's "sentimental veil."

Those old ways of "feudal relations" and the family's "sentimental veil were, of course, conspicuously ritualized in the ceremony of the debutantes' being presented at Court, portrayed in all its charm (and absurdity) in the season finale. On the one hand, the ritualistic formality of the event is impressive and suggests an ordered stable world. On the other hand, however, that world is sadly giving way - what with titled aristocrats' pathetic efforts to marry new money and the heir to the throne's refusal to do as expected of him (i.e., marry properly). Frankly, watching the scene I found it hard not to feel some sympathy for King George and Queen Mary forced to sit there and be curtsied to by a long line of frivolous young women with no better purpose in their lives. It is no wonder that the present occupant of King George's throne, already over half a century ago, abolished debutantes' presentations in favor of other events with a more interesting and diverse guest-list!

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