Friday, June 29, 2012

Summer TV Rewind: Downton Abbey 1.02

“We all have different parts to play, Matthew. And we must all be allowed to play them.”
-Lord Grantham

The second episode of “Downton Abbey” focuses mostly on the arrival of new heir Matthew and his mother, Isobel, at Downton. The arrival of the “other” Crawleys causes upheaval throughout the estate, both upstairs and below. The most enjoyable thing about the big Crawley arrival was that we got to see the beginning of one of my favorite aspects of the show-the perpetual battle of wills between two British acting titans, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton (you know who she is as Harriet Jones during the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who). These two start verbally sparring right from the get-go, and it’s magnificent. We also get the first fateful meeting between Matthew and Mary, which is funnier than I remembered it. There are also a few other more minor downstairs stories to round things out. This episode has many of the show’s best qualities, and it really shows how everything came together rather quickly. I suppose it had to considering there aren’t many episodes in each season.

Matthew arrives right at the beginning of the episode, and he’s kind of an ass to everyone. Most significantly, he is rude to the servants who have been hired to manage Crawley House where he and Isobel will be living. He is most rude to his butler/valet, Mr. Mosely. Matthew seems bound and determined to prove he’s not blue blood by refusing most help from the servants, but he doesn’t realize that by refusing help, he’s not letting the servants do their job and he’s disrespecting them. He manages to disrespect his cousins, too. He makes a whiny comment about how they’re probably going to sic the daughters on him right away to get their inheritance back via marriage, and just as he’s saying this, Mary shows up to invite Matthew and Isobel to dinner at Downton. Matthew has to eat a lot of crow for that one, and it doesn’t appear that Mary has forgiven him. She tells her sisters that she has a different suitor in mind. Anyway, Lord Grantham has to explain to Matthew that the servants are just trying to do their job, and Matthew eventually feels bad and lets Mr. Mosely start picking out his cufflinks.

Another upstairs clash related to the Crawley arrival, which I already sort-of mentioned, is the massive clash between the Dowager Countess and Isobel. Isobel asks the Dowager Countess how they should address each other, and she simply replies, “We can start with Mrs. Crawley and Lady Grantham.” The Dowager Countess is also very confused when Matthew mentions that even though he’s still going to work as a solicitor, he can learn about running Downton on the weekends. The poor Dowager Countess didn’t even know what a weekend was! Maggie Smith, of course, delivers each line with acerbic perfection, and Penelope Wilton is a worthy foil. Their rivalry escalates when Isobel begins to show an interest in the village hospital. Her late husband was a doctor, and she trained as a nurse (her recitation of this is the Downton equivalent of “We know who you are!” from “Doctor Who”).

While touring the hospital, Isobel encounters a farmer with dropsy who is not expected to survive. Throughout the episode, she continually pressures the doctor to perform a new procedure which could save the farmer’s life. The Dowager Countess, of course, sensing her power at the hospital waning, tries to oppose this at every opportunity. The procedure, of course, saves the farmer’s life, and in an effort to perhaps force his mother (who is President of the hospital) to deal with Isobel head-on, Lord Grantham appoints Isobel Chairman of the Board for the hospital. The ceremony where this takes place is highly amusing, mostly because the Dowager Countess is constantly looking daggers at Isobel.

Matthew’s arrival has also caused some disruption downstairs. Some of the servants (mostly O’Brien and Thomas, of course…would you expect anything else?) resent being asked to serve a lowly solicitor from Manchester. I’d say O’Brien grumbles about it the most consistently, while Thomas is the loudest. O’Brien gets in more trouble for it, though, because Cora comes down to the kitchen to hand her a button she found while O’Brien is in the middle of a major gripe fest. Cora gives O’Brien an extremely well-deserved dressing down for insulting a member of Lord Grantham’s family. Once Cora leaves, however, O’Brien turns the nastiness on Cora herself, grumping to her colleagues that a “real” lady wouldn’t have come downstairs to give O’Brien the button. She would have rung for O’Brien to come get it. One thing that I don’t think is really sufficiently explained in “Downton Abbey” is why O’Brien is so insufferable and bitter. She just is. I’d like to know more about what happened to give her that attitude.

The William/Daisy/Thomas sort-of triangle is furthered a bit in this episode, starting when William gets in trouble for serving a meal with a seam in his jacket starting to come apart. Carson, of course, says this is contrary to the dignity he expects at Downton. Daisy offers to mend the jacket, which of course encourages William’s crush on her. Daisy, however, is still not reciprocating, because for some reason I really can’t fathom, she’s still hung up on Thomas. Thomas plays into this (maybe just to make trouble?) by dancing with Daisy one evening after work. Poor Daisy is just making a complete fool of herself, and it’s kind of sad to see. It would be nice if one of the other, more perceptive, characters would give her a heads-up that Thomas isn’t available. I think somebody does eventually, but they really should have already.

My favorite plot of this episode outside all of the Matthew’s arrival drama involves Carson. Anna notices Carson acting suspiciously one day, appearing to steal food from the kitchens, but she doesn’t say or do anything about it. When he is in town one day, Mr. Bates also notices Carson shadily slipping into a pub. Things come to a head one day when a strange man shows up at the front door of Downton. Carson is out, so Bates has to play butler and open the door. The visitor is extremely demanding and asks to wait in the parlor to talk to Lord Grantham when he returns. Bates agrees, grateful that the visitor will at least be confined to one room, and he sends Anna off in search of Carson. Sybil arrives home, and she offers to stay with Bates and the visitor to offer an explanation to her parents and keep Bates from getting in any trouble. It turns out that the ornery visitor, whose name is Charlie, once performed in a stage act with none other than Carson. They were “The Cheerful Charlies.” Charlie (the visitor, not the butler) has fallen on hard times, and he wants to make some money by blackmailing Carson. He was right that Carson was ashamed of his performer past (which doesn’t quite make sense to me), but he ends up fessing up to the Crawleys, and Lord Grantham succeeds in getting rid of Charlie. I liked the idea that Carson wasn’t always the stick in the mud we now know him to be, and I found his discomfort very entertaining.

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