Downton Abbey: The Holy and the Broken


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Don’t worry, Anna. You’ll feel better before the hour is up.

You guys, I can’t even with this Anna’s Rape storyline, so let’s get it out of the way up front, shall we? Bates wants to know what’s gone wrong between them, and Anna continues to shut him out. He overhears Mrs. Hughes telling Anna that she needs to be honest with him, so he goes to Mrs. Hughes and offers her an ultimatum: tell me what’s up or I’m peacing out. Mrs. Hughes knows this would devastate Anna, so she spills the details, but pretends not to know the identity of Anna’s assailant. Once he finds out, he tells Anna that she’s found out. “But I’m spoiled for you now,” Anna weeps. Quite to the contrary, says Bates, “you are made higher to me and holier for the suffering you have been put through.” Oh, sweet fancy Moses, are you kidding me with this? What actor in his right mind can utter these lines without decking the dope who wrote them? Over on Salon, Daniel D’Addario argues that Downton Abbey is, at its heart, a deeply conservative show in its portrayal of “benevolent rich people caring for servants.” This particular storyline reinforces that idea for me, in that Julian Fellowes chooses to portray the servants as so noble, so pure in their suffering; the peerage would be downright monsters not to make sure these poor rubes are taken care of. Gah. 

Moving on, Miss Baxter, Cora’s new lady’s maid, is ingratiating herself nicely with the family, serving Cora orange juice for breakfast and reporting that the staff speak highly of Sybil. She’s also making friends downstairs, wowing the youngsters with her newfangled sewing machine and repairing Mrs. Patmore’s torn apron in advance of a visit from Cora. She and Thomas clearly have a history, and we see that he’s using her as his ambassador of goodwill in the house in order to consolidate his power for an inevitable coup d’etat in which he challenges LG to a duel, wins, declares himself Thomas the Lord of Yorkshire, banishes everyone but Tom and Baby Sybbie to Siberia and begins a slow march of domination across the English countryside. Or something. 

Mary is getting on with the business of running Downton with Tom and LG and receives notice that Tony “Lord” Gillingham has, as he said he would, gotten engaged to Mabel Fox, the heiress of the season. She seems unruffled, but we see when she turns away that she is stricken by the news.  Mr. Evelyn Napier, whom you might remember as Mary’s suitor from the first season (he’s the one who brought the doomed Mr. Pamuk to Downton), pops by for a visit while in Yorkshire working on a government project regarding the rural, postwar economy. Mary is quite glad indeed to see him, and Crawleys invite him to stay a while so that Mary can have a another melodramatic love plot. 

Aflred takes his cooking test at the Ritz, much to Daisy’s chagrin. While he’s away, Carson offers Poor Molesley Alfred’s job, should it come open. Poor Molesley, in a fit of hubris, gets a bit puffed up in a “don’t do me any favors, bro” kind of way. Naturally, Alfred doesn’t get in to the newly formed Escoffier school, setting the stage for an awkward encounter in which Molesley accepts a job that is no longer available. Yawn. 

Edith goes to the doctor in London, probably to get a mole checked out. Rose will help Cora throw LG a birthday party in a few weeks. Zzzzzzzz.  

I’ve lost track of the Dowager Countess Zinger Count, because every scene she had with Isobel this week was a series of parries and ripostes, meant to signify that Isobel is emerging from her own vale of shadows, post-Matthew.

52 X 2014: A People’s History of the United States (Ch. 1-5)


Well, my plan to read Good Omens fell apart when it became apparent that my husband’s copy had walked off, and I didn’t get a chance to go pick it up from the library or the bookstore. Instead, I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, an undertaking that I will post here in installments because it is mammoth. 

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I’ve read the first 5 chapters and, while I appreciate the level of detail Zinn includes in the account of Europeans’ first contact in the Americas, plus the run-up to the Constitution, I find myself losing track of dates and significant events. I do really like the fact that he’s telling an alternative/radical history of the United States, one that departs from the “Columbus and the Founding Fathers are heroes” party line, and I look forward to seeing what he has to say about the Gilded Age, Vietnam, and the Reagan administration. 

For next week: Homeward Bound, by Emily Matchar. 

Notes on Film: August: Osage County and Nebraska


I frequently talk and think about cultural products in pairs. When I taught Women’s Popular Genres (a sophomore-level literature class) at UT-Austin, I taught Dracula alongside Twilight: New Moon (race, xenophobia, transgressive sexuality!), Jane Eyre alongside The Nanny Diaries (domesticity and women’s labor!), The House of Mirth alongside Shopaholic (conspicuous consumption!). Indeed, I am all about putting cultural products in conversation with one another. I think that people should watch Django Unchained as a double feature with 12 Years a Slave, and Dallas Buyers Club with How to Survive a Plague. When you experience texts along a common theme, they can illuminate each other in compelling, sometimes provocative ways.

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That’s why I was so excited to realize that Nebraska and August: Osage County are ripe for this treatment. They are both set in the Great Plains, both prominently feature parents with substance abuse issues, and explore parent-child relationships. Both films, when I think of them together, raise some questions about gender and parenting, gender and anger, and what it means to be loved. (Oh, that sounds so cheesy.)

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First off, I really loved both movies. Alexander Payne hasn’t made a movie yet that I didn’t like (Sideways, The Descendants, Election). When I walked out of Nebraska, I remember thinking, “well, that was a nice little portrait of midwestern masculinity” and feeling really good about the lengths that a son goes to in order to help his father make a little meaning out of his life. Along the way, we see that neither man fits the mold of what’s expected of the midwestern male: Woody (Bruce Dern) was a questionable provider, due in large part to his alcoholism. David (Will Forte) has a lame career as a stereo salesman, can’t sh*t or get off the pot when it comes to making a commitment to his girlfriend, and, according to his hulking, ex-con, bullying cousins, drives too slow. By contrast, David’s older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk), squares with what is expected of him as a man: he’s married, has kids, and is enjoying a comfortable career as a local news anchor. He’s mostly there as a foil for David and Woody, frequently as exasperated by them as the matriarch, Kate (June Squibb) is.

(I’ll admit: I wasn’t blown away by Squibb’s performance as Kate. I was expecting a scene-stealing performance, but I didn’t see much beyond rote line recitation. Some of those lines were funny, but I don’t get the fawning over her.)

There is a lot of repressed rage in this film, but it takes the form of the laconic male. Woody and his phalanx of brothers have perfected the art of silence, with only perfunctory answers given to queries both superficial and probing. (At least, I like to think of it as repressed rage — maybe they’re just a bunch of dummies with no inner life or subjectivity at all.) We see that David is a lot like Woody, but he struggles with wanting to be a little more in touch: he is genuinely ambivalent about marriage and children, but he’s not welcome to talk about it with his family, who belong to the “this is what you do because it’s always been done” generation. Meanwhile, he is too paralyzed by his ambivalence to talk about it with Noel (Missy Doty, who was also in Sideways), his estranged girlfriend. David is a New Man adrift in a school of traditionally masculine men. But it’s through this journey across the landscape of Nebraska with his father that helps him maybe, just maybe, negotiate a little of this ambivalence. I can’t help but smile when I think of David looking up at his dad in the cab of the truck at the end, smiling at how happy and proud his dad is in that moment. It’s an affirming portrait of a family that loves each other despite all the dysfunction.

Strangely enough, though, it was August: Osage County that made me want to be a better person.

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I had a very strong emotional reaction to this film, probably because I recognized some stuff in there that was ugly and messy and made me sad. But I also loved it because I love Margo Martindale and Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor and … well, just about everyone in the cast. (I saw this movie referred to not inaccurately as Acting: The Movie, and there is a fair amount of scenery chewing, but that doesn’t bother me except when it does.)

There’s lots of rage in this film, too, but it’s not suppressed. At all. These people loathe each other and it’s no secret. Where the men of Nebraska keep themselves to themselves, the women in August: Osage County are all acid tongues and sharpened claws, reducing each others’ psyches to rubble with just a sentence or two while the men look on, baffled. Just look at this poster:

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Look at this chaos! Here you see the two main female characters, played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, engaged in battle. Martindale and Julianne Nicholson attempting to intervene, while most of the men hang back, unsure of what to do. Compare this to the stark isolation of the Nebraska poster above and you’ll see my point: men are meant to stay bottled, while women are emotional to the point of destruction. (At the same time, women aren’t meant to rock the boat; when they do, they ruin dinner.)

I’m a little uncomfortable with the portrayal of every single woman in this movie as angry, bitter, conniving, grubbing, caustic, cruel, selfish, and/or pathetic. Except, of course, for Johnna (Misty Upham), the Cheyenne woman hired as a live-in cook and maid. She alone nurtures (we see this mostly through her cooking) and protects (“tuning up” a character with a shovel when he gets a little handsy with a young relative), and she is virtually silent throughout the film. Because of course she is, she’s a brown person — you can’t get much more subaltern than a Native American woman when it comes to Hollywood.

Which is why I am so intrigued by these two films set in the Great Plains. It’s hard for me to articulate at the moment because I’m pretty well removed from my Native Studies coursework, but this region of the United States is so fraught, in terms of its significance in 19th century American expansion/exceptionalism, the genocide and forced relocation of millions of native peoples, extreme poverty in the Dust Bowl years, and ecological devastation wrought by an industrialized agricultural system. (I don’t think it’s any accident that Marc Maron described Nebraska as a “Dorothea Lange photo brought to life.”) Ghost towns dot the midwestern landscape, and within the worlds of these two films, urban spaces are places that you must travel to, an “out there” that is both magical and inconvenient. The dramas on the screen are small, confined to individual families, but set against the broader context of a region universally dismissed as “flyover states” utterly devoid of culture. These films make an argument for a closer look at the culture of the plains and what they can tell us about ourselves.

There is more to say here, but I want to extend this conversation beyond my own head. I welcome your thoughts in the comments!

Downton Abbey: Let’s talk about sex, darling


This week’s Downton Abbey is interested in the women, both upstairs and downstairs. There is soapy deliciousness and infuriating capitulation to tired tropes — something for everyone?

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The angel in the house.

It’s the morning after the rape and tragic Anna goes up to the big house alone, freezing out Mr. Bates at every turn. Bates, who is not a dummy, knows that something is up, but can’t put his finger on it. Anna tells him she just needs space, that they’re in each other’s pockets, living and working together. To that end, Anna asks Mrs. Hughes if she can move up to the big house because she can’t even look at Bates — she thinks she’s soiled and damaged goods, and probably brought her rape upon herself (ugh). Mrs. Hughes asks what will happen if Anna winds up pregnant, and Anna says she’ll kill herself (double ugh). She refuses to consider telling the police because she knows Bates will surely murder Mr. Green and it’s better he have a broken heart than a broken neck (triple shot no-foam four pumps of give-me-a-break because way to believe in your husband, lady!). 

Meanwhile, Edna wants to make sure that Branson will marry her if she winds up in the family way after getting him drunk and seducing him. I don’t understand this approach. When I was in high school, there was a girl who faked a pregnancy in order to get her guy to marry him, which he was totally willing to do until he found out there was no baby. Then he hated her forever. And that’s the moral of the story: don’t fake pregnancies or even talk about maybe being pregnant if you want the object of your affections to reciprocate. I’m just not sure of Edna’s end game here, other than that she’s a garbage person who wants to elevate her station in life. Anyhoo, Mrs. Hughes, who is basically the hero of the dual-rape storylines, discovers Edna’s copy of Marie Stopes’ Married Love, which is an early birth-control text, in addition to a handbook for sexual pleasure within the marital context. (If you’re interested in how birth control changed the way women viewed their sexuality, you should totally read When Sex Changed.) Mrs. Hughes kicks Edna to the curb, and thank god we’re shot of this terrible, terrible character and story arc.

The juxtaposition of these two story lines is straight-up maddening. While I think it’s interesting that Julian Fellowes chose to portray the rape of a man alongside that of a woman, but the way he’s chosen to handle it is so cheap and one-dimensional. On the one hand, you have a woman who’s a victim of sexual assault but uses what limited agency she has as a way to intensify her own suffering and to make her husband suffer as well out of some misguided attempt to protect her him. On the other hand, you have a woman who perpetrates a sexual assault on a man and is totally brazen about it, using her agency in a wrongheaded attempt to elevate her social class. Because that’s what this is about — these are women of a certain class position who have limited access to the protective structures available to the women they loyally serve, and the difficult choices they have to make in their vulnerable positions. I thought that Fellowes explored the issue of women’s sexuality and socioeconomic class quite beautifully in the Ethel story line, but here he’s just gone for the tawdry, low-hanging fruit in the form of an angel and a viper. Like I said last week, this is straight-up laziness. 

Speaking of women and sex, Aunt Rosamund is not well pleased with Edith for her 6am walk of shame. Yep, she and Gregson did the deed — after he gave her power of attorney over his estate on the eve of his departure to Germany. So, at least she’ll have a safety net should she find herself knocked up. 

(Gee, I wonder which of these three women will find herself pregnant this season.)

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Seriously, how could you turn this guy down?

And then, the bombshell: TonyLord” Gillingham cuts to the chase and proposes to Mary after just a few days of being reacquainted. I suppose that back then, going out to “a night club” and dancing to “jazz” is tantamount to swearing an oath of undying love. I’ll admit: I loved this so much. It’s so outrageous and ridiculous and precisely what a soap opera should be.  Anyhoo, she turns him down, explaining that she simply isn’t free of Matthew yet and doesn’t want to be.  and Michelle Dockery plays Mary’s shock and confusion and longing for Matthew so beautifully, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this storyline. I really hope these two crazy kids can make it work — they have really beautiful chemistry. 

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Daisy makes a choice out of jealousy that pushes Alfred to pursue studying at the newly formed Escoffier school in London. Mrs. Patmore reckons it’ll be for the best because, “you can spend too long on a one-sided love.” Thomas enjoys his fly-on-the-wall activities, watching smugly as Edna goes down in flames. Apparently, he’s got a candidate in mind for Edna’s replacement. I’m sure nothing but good things will come of that. Mrs. Hughes gives Carson a frame for his picture of Alice because … well, that’s just weird. I wish these two would kiss already. 

Dowager Countess Zinger Count: 10ish (the zingers were a little light on the ground this week). To Isobel, “If we only had moral thoughts, what would the poor churchmen find to do?”; To LG, who is dressed somewhat down for dinner (black tie instead of white): “Why are you in your rompers?”

Meal Plan: Week of 1/19/14-1/25/14


I meant to get a meal plan up last week, but I got swept away in the frenzy of the first week of the semester, meetings, interviews, workouts, etc. Here’s a quick rundown: steak and potatoes, chicken apple sausage and cheesy broccoli rice, pork tenderloin and roasted cabbage, and lemony chicken soup with orzo.

This week finds me, as ever, negotiating the tension between kid-friendly and waistline-friendly meals. The kids like lots of carbs and cheese, while I try to adopt a more vegetable-forward stance. There are more noodles in this menu than I’d like, but at least some of them are whole wheat.

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Sunday: Chicken yakisoba (note that this recipe calls for a LOT of ginger; next time I make this, I’ll use half as much. Also, I used tomato paste instead of ketchup in the sauce).
Monday: Easy macaroni casserole (I’ll be using Whole Foods brand whole-wheat shells, which are less than $2/box; the brand she’s pimping in this post was $3+ per package), salad
Tuesday: Beef with broccoli, brown rice
Wednesday: Dinner out with friends at Xian
Thursday: This is a late night, as the BK has basketball practice from 6-7 (and I have Zumba until 7:30), so I got a bag of cheese tortellini from Whole Foods and will ask the husband to prepare them for us.
Friday: It’ll be cold and rainy, so I’m going to make a big pot of chili and some cornbread.
Saturday: I’m hoping to go to Torchy’s, but if I am outvoted, I think I might make some tomato, mozzarella, and pesto paninis.

52 X 2014: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened


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This week’s book is Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson (otherwise known as The Bloggess), and the book’s title pretty much sums up how I feel about having read it.

Look, Jenny Lawson can be pretty darn funny on her blog. But this book is Exhibit C in the argument for why successful bloggers don’t necessarily need book deals. (Exhibits A and B are Pioneer Woman and Dooce.) Blogs are meant to be consumed in bites (bytes?), which is partly what makes them fun to read. You take a little nibble, come back a few days later for a little more, and so on. It’s like parceling out the last sleeve of Thin Mints long past Girl Scout cookie season. But when you get all the HOOOOOLARIOUS ANECDOTES WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS in one long binge, you start to feel fatigued. Burnt out on the thing that used to bring so much pleasure.

So much of the writing in this book feels forced and desperate and ATTENTION ME that I felt embarrassed for Lawson at times. Unfortunately, when she does give her audience an authentic glimpse into her life (“There’s No Place Like Home” is genuinely lovely), she mucks it all up by turning around and grasping at comedy that just doesn’t work within the memoir context. It’s a genre problem, and I’m sorry that it just didn’t work here.

Next up: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Downton Abbey recap: Season 4, Episode 2


Welcome back to another episode of Downton Abbey, now with more DOG BUTT .

It’s a house party, y’all, which means all the storylines, old and new, converge on Downton along with a cadre of opera singers, card sharps, sexy young lords, and friendly rapists.

How the Granthams party.

How the Granthams party.

Mary: Antony Foyle, otherwise known as the young Lord Gillingham, has been invited. Despite the fact that he is engaged to “the greatest heiress of the season,” there is a palpable chemistry between them. He’s dark and dashing and is a giver of good advice to Mary regarding the tax bill, suggesting that she meet with the tax people and making the best deal she can in order to keep the estate intact. But then she gets a sad when she sees Matthew’s gramophone, which Rose has unearthed from the attic. Back up into her mourning cave she goes, if only for one night.

Edith: Promises that Michael Gregson will get to know LG better during the house party, but can only watch in dismay as LG gives Gregson the cold shoulder. It’s only when Gregson outsmarts Mr. Samson, a card sharp who has been gleefully separating the men of the party from their money, that LG warms to him. We get a whiff that Gregson is maybe not the most honorable man on the planet but, you know, he’s Edith’s boyfriend so I’m sure everything will work out just fine.

Poor Molesley: Jimmy hurts his wrist showing off for Ivy and is unable to serve at dinner, so Carson calls Poor Molesley, who has been working as a delivery boy for the grocer, to fill in as footman. “I’ve got me career backwards,” bemoans an aggrieved PM, while also acknowledging that he can’t be a choosy beggar.

Nothing good can come of this.

Nothing good can come of this.

Branson: Tom is also experiencing an intense identity crisis, from his discomfort with the white tie formal attire to committing a faux pas by accidentally addressing a duchess as “Your Grace” instead of “Duchess,” only to turn around and be scolded by Thomas for addressing him by his first name rather than as Barrow. He’s a fish out of water and feels like a fool. He’s low-hanging fruit indeed for Edna.

The Edna problem: Not only is she quite big for her britches, telling Mrs. Hughes she might not have time to tend to the maid-less Lady Raven, but she’s back to trying to get her claws into Branson. She does this primarily through preying on his impostor-syndrome anxieties and also through giant tumblers of whiskey that may or may not be roofied. It’s unclear exactly what’s going on when she enters an upstairs bedroom, whispering “are you still awake?” but it’s certainly nothing good, considering it’s Edna we’re talking about.

Anna: Our affable downstairs heroine strikes up a passing friendship with Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr. Green, which doesn’t sit well with Bates, who smells a rat, but maybe he’s just jealous because Mr. Green is quite flirtatious with Anna. But no, he’s pretty much a rat. While just about every still-living character from the show listens to Dame Nellie sing Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” — an ode to love — Anna repairs downstairs for some headache powder and encounters Mr. Green, who violently beats and rapes her. Afterwards, she hides in Mrs. Hughes’ room, explaining to the housekeeper that Bates mustn’t know because he’ll certainly murder the culprit. When it’s time to go home, she tells Bates she wants to walk alone. Oh, this doesn’t bode well for their fairytale relationship.

Quite frankly, Julian Fellowes’ use of this tired soap-opera trope is straight-up lazy. He’s proven he can elevate the genre, so why fall back on the same-old devices? Boo.

Odds and sods: We learn that the guest rooms in Downton have names like “the Portnoy,” “the Chinese,” “Princess Amelia,” and that despite his own rather low class status, Carson is as classist as his boss, tutting over the fact that Lady Raven has no maid and lives in an old house “north of the park.” He also gets in hot water with Cora and LG for arranging for Dame Nellie Melba (played by real-life world-famous opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa), the world-famous opera singer, to have dinner in her room as opposed to rightfully acknowledging her status as an honored guest and arranging for her to dine with the rest of the party. Meanwhile, Mrs Patmore, who apparently has never cooked for a large party during her long tenure at Downton Abbey, is freaking out and has an anxiety attack, allowing Alfred to step in and prepare the sauces for the meal. Alfred later confesses that cooking is what he wants to do, an interesting inversion of the gendered labor roles in this particular universe. Some of the fetishistic detail of upper-class life reappears, in the form of staff measuring the distance between the chairs and the dining-room table. More of this, please, and less rapey bullshit.

Dowager Countess Zinger Count: 8. To Branson: “If I were to search for logic, I should not search for it among the English upper class.” To Mary: “Don’t use me as an excuse. If you don’t want to dance, tell him.” “You can always rely on Puccini,” to Isobel, who replies that she prefers Bartók. “You would.”

 

52 X 2014: Failure and I Bury the Body


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The first book in my 52 X 2014 project is a collection of poems by Sasha West called Failure and I Bury the Body. I’ll be frank: starting out with contemporary poetry is my veggies. Eating the frog first, so to speak. Poetry has never been a particularly favorite genre of mine, although I do have my favorites: Keats, Ginsberg, Williams, Hughes. (All men! Sheesh!) Nothing any more challenging than a sophomore-level undergraduate survey, though. But I know (and like!) Sasha and her husband and always want to support lady writers, so I thought this would be a fitting way to kick off my crazy plan.

While I can’t speak to how West uses form and poetic designs (I can see that she’s doing things, I just don’t have the vocabulary for them), I was quite struck by the content. Unsettled. Disturbed, even. The collection follows a woman on a road trip with the personification of Failure through the American southwest via Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Kirkuk, the Arctic, and Dallas. Failure and the narrator are joined by Corpse along the way, keeping him alive(ish?) in order to torture and love him, before enacting a thousand different murders upon him. Thoreau, Pound, Dolly the sheep, and Sir Ernest Shackleton make appearances along the way as West articulates Failure as the embodiment of man’s devastating effects on the planet, from fracking and deforestation to war and atomic bombs. It goes without saying that West also engages with the trauma man heaps upon man, as well.

Despite the fact that about 90% of the collection is dystopian bleakness, there is beauty to be found, primarily in West’s language, which took my breath away on more than one occasion. This poem was particularly powerful:

I Tell Failure the True Story of the Corpse

For that half year I was so happy
I pulled down all the generators
all the telephone lines; long lanky summer
while we slowly became wire, I blew
out tires and candles, pushed drills
into derricks and fractured earth
to find the oil, ruined water and wells,
broke teeth and gears. And my happiness
like a bowling ball on a trampoline
pulled towards itself all
disaster– the great-aunts were
buried ten to a plot in the Independence
Cemetery, the uncles lit cigarettes outside
pulled smoke into tumors
while the snow stuck in their hair
and the spokes of their chairs, and
the junkyards filled with the wreck
of every car in town, and tap water
like lit torches gleamed with fire, and the wars
escalated and reaped bodies, cities, and
our love pulled into our bed the dissolution
of all marriages around us, so we
trailed behind our happiness (tin cans
tied with twine) all that
disappointment in our wake, broken ships
we towed between the icebergs
on our way down to the glaciers
of the pole.

Gorgeous, right?

So, that’s the first book complete. Now on to Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

Downton Abbey season premiere, part two


(Reblogged at the Austin Chronicle Screens blog)

The second half of Sunday’s Downton Abbey premiere was actually episode two for the season, but ties up and/or carries through many of the plot lines from the first episode. Picking up where the first half left off, seemingly the morning after Cora shit-canned Nanny West for abusing Sybbie. Cora praises Thomas in front of LG for alerting her to his concerns about the Nanny. (Which we all know was not coming from a place of good intentions because Thomas.) “I just had a hunch that she wasn’t quite all Sir Garnet,” he smirks smugly. We’ll come to realize that now that he’s got Cora’s ear, shenanigans will ensue.

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Lady Mary is masterful in mauve

The bulk of the episode centers on Mary’s post-Matthew life. Clad in an elegant mauve dress, she arrives at the tenants’ luncheon, where Branson gives up his seat so that she may take her rightful place at the table, which becomes a through-line for this episode’s plot. A box arrives from Matthew’s office, including a letter he had written before their holiday trip to Scotland. The letter states that he intends Mary to be his sole heiress and that he will have a will drawn up before the baby is born.

Now the question is to whether the letter is legally binding. In the meantime, Mary expresses an interest in taking on a more involved role in managing the estate and LG very obnoxiously smacks her down — at dinner, no less — attempting to put the ignorant little lady in her place. Violet correctly assumes, and says as much, that LG hopes that the letter isn’t valid because heaven forfend he have to share control of the estate with a woman.

Violet suggests to Branson and Mary that the former instruct Mary in the daily running of the estate, necessarily behind curmudgeonly LG’s back. This turns out to be a good plan, as word comes back that Matthew’s letter is legally binding and Mary owns half the estate. Let’s all brace ourselves for a protracted power struggle between Mary and LG, especially over how to pay the death duties. As Branson astutely puts it, “You won’t keep her quiet, not now that the bit’s between her teeth.” Ah, the woman-as-horse metaphor. Gotta love it.

Edith: Clad in a hideous red and black dress (she seems committed to deviating from the purple color palette of Downton Abbey when she’s in London), Edith reckons Mr. Gregson needs to meet the family, the rationale being that he’s “nearly German and nearly divorced.” Before catching the 3:00 train, she invites Mr. Gregson to an upcoming house party, and also finds it increasingly difficult to decline his invitations to “stay a little longer,” if you know what I mean. (She later arrives late for dinner, which makes me wonder whether she actually did stay for a little afternoon delight with Mr. Gregson.)

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Ugh. This lady.

The Edna Problem: Anna spies Edna and Thomas chatting in the hall and advises the former to keep her distance from Edna. Honey Badger Edna don’t give a dang. Edna ruins a blouse of Cora’s, and Thomas helps her out by cooking up a story that Anna was the culprit and was bullying Edna out of jealousy because she’d been hired into a more senior position. Ugh, why are they basically making Edna’s character into O’Brien 2.0? That’s not interesting.

The Charlies: Carson is still not interested in having anything to do with Charlie Grigg, who is still under Isobel’s care. Isobel manages to get Mr. Grigg a position as a stage door keeper at the opera house in Belfast. Turns out that Carson had been in love with a woman named Alice who broke his heart. Mrs. Hughes, who found out that Alice had left Carson for Mr. Grigg, reckons Carson should make his peace with Mr. Grigg so that he’s not walking around with an open wound. This must have hit home, because Carson arrives at the train station to see off Mr. Grigg, who informs Carson that Alice is five-years dead, but had professed her preference for Carson and had been a fool to leave him. The Charlies part as friends.

Poor Molesley: Anna spots Poor Molesley working as a blacktopper. He confesses that he owes money all over town, to the tune of 15 to 20 pounds. This upsets Anna deeply, and she says as much to Mr. Bates. Bates approaches Violet and asks her for money for Poor Molesley, then forges Poor Molesley’s signature onto a fake promissory note. At tea later that evening, Mr. Bates “repays” a befuddled Poor Molesley 30 pounds, which pleases Anna but also confuses her.

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Bored Lady Rose is bored.

Cousin Oliver Lady Rose: Lady Rose wants to go to a thé dansant in York and asks Anna to accompany her. They go, Rose pretends to be a housemaid and attracts the attention of Sam, an under-gardener from a nearby estate. Ugh. Boring. We get it, Rose is a rulebreaker, y’all.

Dowager Countess Zinger Count: 3. To LG: “When you talk like that, I’m tempted to ring for Nanny and have you put to bed with no supper!” To Bates, when he refers to Poor Molesley as Mr. Molesley the Younger: “You make him sound like a Greek philosopher.” To Mary and Branson, when she’s told that she still must refer to Branson as Tom: “I see I’m beaten, but oh how I sympathize with King Canute.”

Downton Abbey recap! Episode 1


(Programming note: If you want to see this with prettier pictures and having been edited a bit, please visit the Austin Chronicle‘s screens blog.)

When we left our beloved Downton, Matthew had just perished in a car accident, leaving behind Mary and newborn son George. As such, the opening moments of season 4 of Downton Abbey are cold, dark, and melancholy.

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Someone’s packing, leaving notes on a mantelpiece. Meanwhile, a baby cries as a nanny bustles down the night-darkened hall. Mary lies in bed, awake. The dark figure exits the Abbey quickly, suitcases in hand.

The title card appears over a shot of a misty morning at Downton Abbey. Where is my beloved DOG BUTT? That is a damn shame. I hope the traditional title sequence isn’t gone for good.

Mary is sitting on the edge of her bed, not doing anything. Anna goes to an empty room in the servants’ quarters, switches on the lights, and discovers the two notes on the mantlepiece. It appears O’Brien has exited stage left. The household staff does the 1922 version of #obrienpeacedout, gossiping in the foyer and halls.

Lady Grantham is shocked, but Lord Grantham isn’t. “Sneaking out like a thief in the night. Fits O’Brien to a T,” he grumps. [I grew up a church kid and it always makes me giggle when people are described this way, because it’s the way the bible describes Jesus’ return. So, in my feeble brain, O’Brien = Jesus in this scenario. Which I’m sure she’d appreciate.] Cora is pissed because Lady Flintshire ganked her lady’s maid. Edith thinks it’s disgraceful, too. Boo-hoo. Your servant is now someone else’s servant.

Mary stares glumly out the window, as Anna offers her a purple shawl to wear on a potentially chilly walk. Mary wants the black one, as she’s committed to her widow’s weeds. Nanny brings in baby George and wants to know whether Mary would like to join them for a walk. Mary says no, kisses her son and says, “poor little orphan.” Nanny leaves and Anna says, “he’s not an orphan, he’s got his mother.” (Technically.) “He’s not poor either, come to that,” Mary replies. Sheesh, lady. Emotional vampire much?

Violet approaches Poor Molesley’s father (who I believe is the groundskeeper) outside; they exposition that it’s been six months since Matthew’s death. Also, Poor Molesley, who was Matthew’s valet, has been unable to find new employment. Out front, Thomas greets Sybbie in her stroller, sparking a power struggle between himself and Nanny West, who doesn’t want him touching the children without her permission.

Branson and LG are walking the estate. Seems they owe taxes on Matthew’s death and LG wants to sell off land to pay it off. Because the way he ran the estate was going so well before Matthew took over. If nothing else, this episode reinforces what an arrogant boob LG is. Also, we are told through exposition that because Matthew died without a will, Mary has a one-sixth interest in the estate, while Baby George owns the rest of one half, making him majority co-owner with LG.

Carson tells Poor Molesley that the gravy train is up and he’s got to hit the bricks. Meanwhile, Edith is going up to London to see Michael Gregson, Cora is supportive and LG is not (shocker!). 

Lady Rose (Lady Flintshire’s daughter) wants to advertise in the town for a new lady’s maid for Cora because she has a guilty conscience. Edith visits Isobel, who is in the same fog of grief as Mary. “You see, when your only child dies, you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really. That’s what I’m trying to get used to.” Oy vey. Do you not have any books?

Carson gets a letter that makes him grumpy, which piques Mrs. Hughes’ curiosity. She plucks the letter out of the wastebasket after he leaves the room. (This storyline reinforces my notion that Mrs. Hughes loves Mr. Carson, but I’m too lazy to write any slash fiction about it.)

We see in the post office that Edna Braithwaite (the housemaid who tried to seduce a recently widowed Branson in the 2012 Christmas special) would like to respond to the advert for a lady’s maid (who needs to be good at doing hair, apparently). Nothing good will come of this.

It’s Valentine’s Day, which gives us an opportunity to revisit that ridiculous love rectangle of Jimmy-Ivy-Alfred-Daisy. Ivy and Daisy both receive anonymous cards — who sent one to whom?!? We may never know. (J/K we’ll totally know in a few minutes.)

Mary skulks down the stairs in black, as Edith ascends, reading her Valentine’s Day card (Edith’s card is like four times the size of the servants’ cards because rich people). The exchange between the two sisters is awkward, and Michelle Dockery’s version of playing grief is, basically, to be as wooden as possible and stare off into the middle distance always. No eye contact for widows, no sirree! She and Edward Cullen should hang out.

Mrs. Hughes visits a workhouse and finds Charlie Grigg (you’ll remember him from the first season as Carson’s former partner in the song-and-dance business who tried to shake Carson down for money). He’s in a bad way and has reached out to Carson, who is “very busy,” for help.

Edith arrives in London, where Michael tells her he can get a divorce in Germany. Does she want to come with? Because that’s a great idea, given Germany’s world reputation post-WWI.

Violet is visiting Isobel and they’re talking about Isobel’s lack of purpose in life. Poor Molesley arrives and asks for his old job back, but Isobel demurs, claiming that she doesn’t need a butler as, “these days, I’m just an old widow who eats off a tray.” “Just because you’re an old widow, I see no necessity to eat off a tray,” Violet retorts. (And there’s our Dowager Countess Zinger Count initiated: 1) Violet has now taken it as her project to help Poor Molesley out.

Mr. Carson is mad at Mrs. Hughes for reaching out to Mr. Griggs. An electric mixer has arrived in the kitchen downstairs. Daisy and Ivy are excited about it, but Mrs. Patmore worries that gadgets like these will soon make her redundant. More twittering about the Mystery of the Anonymous Valentines. NO ONE CARES, Y’ALL.

Another battle between Thomas and Nanny West. Exposition about interviewing Edna for the lady’s maid position — they’re interviewing her in Ripon because she can’t get away due to caring for an aunt. Branson wants Mary to take an interest in something, while LG thinks she should focus on feeling better. Yes, because marinating in your misery is just the ticket to recovery, you paternalistic boob.

Mrs. Hughes wants Isobel to take in Mr. Grigg. At first Isobel resists, saying that she’s not strong enough in her present state. Mrs. Hughes cuts her off, saying, “But you are. If you could just set aside your grief and use that strength for another’s good.” And that’s Isobel’s lightbulb moment.

Similarly, Branson approaches Carson to help bring Mary back into her life. Meanwhile, Daisy is making a mousse with the new mixer. Mrs. Patmore instructs her to make a soup to have on standby in case it doesn’t work out. More turf wars between Thomas and Nanny. Carson approaches Mary. Thomas, up to his old manipulative shenanigans, puts a bug in Cora’s ear about Nanny West, planting a seed of concern that she’s neglecting the children. Cut back to Mary’s room, Mary is going all ice queen on Carson, telling him he’s overstepped the mark in approaching her about working with Branson to run the estate.

At dinner, a discussion of whether Mary should attend the tenants’ luncheon becomes the linchpin for her to melt down over Matthew’s death and her reluctance to come out of her grief-cave. She leaves the table in a strop (and rightly so, really, because the family kind of did a group sticky-beak into her business, even if it was well-intentioned). Violet shuts down further conversation about private family matters in front of the servants by complimenting the mousse. “I suppose [Mrs. Patmore] hasn’t bought it in,” jokes Cora. Oh, irony! We haz it.

Poor Molesley is having an existential crisis. His dad gives him a pep talk. And because the upstairs folk are JUST LIKE the downstairs folk, Violet pops into Mary’s room to give her a pep talk. Mary worries that all the good that Matthew saw in her was only in his imagination. Violet says, “you have a straightforward choice in front of you. You must choose either death or life.” Violet thinks Mary should choose life, then gives her a gentry-style hug (which translates into an arm awkwardly draped across a shoulder).

Mrs. Hughes tells Mr. Carson that Isobel is taking in Mr. Grigg, because it’s the right thing to do and a tasty way to do it. Violet and LG talk in the foyer, LG crapping on paternalistically about how it is their job to keep her safe from the world. Violet disagrees, stating that it is their job to bring her back to the world. “While I will overlook Mary’s poor judgement, I find it hard to overlook yours. GOOD DAY SIR.”

Oh, and she wants Edith to come to luncheon on Friday to help make things a success. “We are selling Poor Molesley to Lady Shackleton,” she explains. “As a servant?” Cora asks [HERE’S THE SETUP, FOLKS!]. Violet pauses. “No … as a Chinese laundryman.” Zing! (Dowager Countess Zinger Count: 2)

Jimmy got Ivy drunk at the pub. Mr. Carson and Isobel talk about how she’s taking in Mr. Grigg — seems she’s a bit perkier to have gotten in touch with something beyond her grief. Lady’s got a purpose now! Hooray!

Cora interviews Edna, and offers her the job, particularly on the strength of a glowing recommendation from Mrs. Hughes from her days as a housemaid at Downton. “But what about your aunt?” Cora asks. “My aunt?” asks Edna, forgetting her lie. She didn’t want to do the interview at Downton because she knew Branson and Mrs. Hughes would kibosh the prospect. RED FLAG, CORA. Oh, never mind. Cora’s not the sharpest knife, is she?

Violet’s butler is threatened by Poor Molesley’s presence at luncheon, and is a hilariously genteel boor, menacing Poor Molesley through clenched teeth. He, of course, sabotages Molesley during the luncheon, providing some comic relief in an otherwise bleak episode.

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Edith is back in London and meets Mr. Gregson at the Criterion wearing a dress that is decidedly va-va-va-voom (and therefore un-Edith-like). The strapless bodice is beaded to suggest a peacock, while the flowing green chiffon skirt has a slit up to the knee. Her hair is folded into soft finger curls — the stylists are deftly communicating Edith’s evolution into a modern woman with this look. Please also note that this is a break from the purple color palette worn by the upstairs women at Downton Abbey. To hit this point home, she says, “It feels so wild, being out with a man, drinking and dining in a smart London restaurant. Can you imagine being allowed to do anything of the sort five years ago, never mind ten?” Apparently, it wasn’t done for ladies of a certain status to eat in public in the fin-de-siecle. Interesting.

Gregson can get a divorce in Germany. “You’d join the most hated race in Germany for me?” says <strike>Jan</strike> Edith. Gregson reckons he’d become an Eskimo in order to marry Edith. This calls for a kiss! In public! SCANDAL!

Mrs. Hughes is shocked to learn that Edna has been hired on as lady’s maid, but can’t be forthright with Cora about why it’s not a good idea. Cora isn’t impressed. Daisy dithers about the Valentine’s Day card to Mrs. Patmore (seriously, how long has it been since Valentine’s at this point?). Mrs. P makes Alfred confess to Daisy that he sent Ivy a card, and Daisy is confused about who sent her her card. Mrs. Patmore tells Daisy that she sent her the card because she didn’t want her to be left out. D’awwww. “I might not have a follower, but at least I’ve got a friend,” replies Daisy. D’AWWWWWWWW.

Branson, Mrs. Hughes, and Branson discuss The Edna Problem. They determine that there’s nothing they can do but keep an eye on her. Sure. We’ll go with that. Also, O’Brien’s departure has left Thomas without a foil, which deprives the plot of its soap opera machinations.

Cora takes the opportunity to lurk in the hall and watch Nanny West, observing her fawning over Baby George, who is fussing. “There, there, my precious boy. Don’t let that chauffeur’s daughter disturb you any more.” Then, hissing at Sybbie, who is cowering in her corner crib, “Go back to sleep, you wicked little cross-breed.” GAME OVER. Cora storms the castle, ringing for Mrs. Hughes, dropping some ice-cold real talk on Nanny West: “I want you to pack tonight and leave first thing in the morning. Please put Master George back in his crib. You are not to touch the children again.” Mrs. Hughes arrives, confused. Cora, the portrait of chilly patrician rage, explains that Nanny West is leaving in the morning and could you please find her a maid to sleep with the children and a bed for Nanny West? “Your values have no place in a civilized home,” she seethes to the nanny. Mrs. Hughes, god love her, is utterly gobsmacked.

Mary and LG talk a bit about Edith’s relationship with Mr. Gregson. “Is it serious?” LG asks. “He’s not bad looking, and he’s still alive, which puts him two points ahead of most men of our generation,” replies Mary. She asks if she’s wanted at the tenants’ luncheon, but LG doesn’t think it’s necessary, because he wants to manage things in his own way. Here’s where you can see a little crocus poking through the frost of Mary’s soul. She starts to head up to bed, but instead goes to see Carson and apologizes for shutting him down when he was trying to help. Mary says she’s spent too long in the land of the dead, then collapses in tears and has a good cry in Carson’s arms. Finally some real acting from Michelle Dockery. Carson says that Mary is strong enough to the task of what’s ahead, but Mary reckons LG doesn’t think so. Carson says Mary owes it to Matthew to see his vision through, and that he believes in her.

Mrs. Hughes hears a great crash from the kitchen. Mrs. Patmore is attempting to use the mixer, but has broken it in the process and is fretting mightily that her inability to use it means she’s stuck in the past. Mrs. Hughes dons an apron and helps her friend clean up the mess. “Who needs sleep?” We pan out on them gossiping about Nanny West, confessing that they never really liked her, and so on.

Okay, that’s it for episode one! Stay tuned for episode two!