Sunday, January 26, 2014

Downton Abbey Review: "Episode 4" - A Delightful Wandering

Bates and Anna finally lay most of the truth on the table

“Episode 4” is the midpoint of Downton Abbey’s fourth season and is far more subdued than its predecessor from the previous two seasons.  In the fifth hour of season two,* Matthew was paralyzed and footman William was mortally wounded while at war.  In the fifth hour last season, Lady Sybil died after giving birth to her daughter.  Nothing so dramatic happens this season with writer Julian Fellowes instead using the time to reflect on the season so far and set things in motion for the final four episodes of the season.  But despite its nature as largely a piece-moving episode, “Episode 4” pushed every storyline in a favorable direction, featured a pair of marvelous performances (and a third very subtle but wonderful piece of acting), and was easily my favorite hour of the season so far.

* This gets kind of complicated, but PBS has aired the first two episodes of each season as one two-hour long episode, so “Episode 4” in the United States aired as “Episode 5” on iTV in Britain.  To try to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this episode in each season as “Episode 4” or “the fifth hour.”

With so many different stories going on this week and no framing device to group any together (like last week’s trip to London) it would have been easy for every plot to get the short shrift.  But what this episode does so well is to use its plots to develop the characters, something it often fails to do.  Take Mary and Robert’s story for example.  Robert has long been portrayed as a terrible businessman and his decision here—to offer the son of a delinquent, deceased tenant a loan so that he can keep farming the land—is likely mistaken as well.  But it shows off Robert’s true nature and finally shows the paternal spirit that Julian Fellowes clearly believes the landed estates had.  It also informs a clearly chastened Mary that there is more to operating Downton than earning a profit.  The house has a moral responsibility to the people in the village as well.  Since taking active roles in the management of Downton, Branson and Mary have been shown to be right, and Robert wrong, on pretty much every subject, so it’s nice to see the Earl finally win an argument.

The Bateses’ story finally comes to a head with Bates badgering the truth, or most of it anyway, out of Mrs. Hughes and Anna.  I’ve made my feelings about this storyline known, but I really enjoyed the work done here by Brendan Croyle and Joanne Froggatt.  I think pretty much every viewer knows how this is all going to play out (Anna’s attacker, Mr. Green is going to die under mysterious circumstances and Bates will be implicated – no spoilers, I’m just assuming), but it helps that the characters seem to know that too.  The emotions here are raw and true.   It’s difficult to watch Anna lie to her husband with both characters knowing full well that it’s a lie and that he sees right through it.  But the fact is, she’s probably right.  Bates is likely going to try to kill Green.  Or, at the very least, he’s going be extremely tempted to do so and will be forced to exert a heretofore unseen amount of self control to keep himself from going through with it.  The scene between the two of them is just marvelously performed and actually makes me interested in where this is going for the first time.

There’s much, much more to this episode.  I’m interested to hear what Evelyn Napier has to say about the state of the English estates.  Edith visits a doctor and Michael hasn’t been heard from in some time.  Thomas finds a new playmate in Cora’s new Lady’s Maid, Mrs. Baxter.  But these stories are all inching forward so incrementally that it’s hard to get too worked up over any one.  Still, the execution was great and there were no suitors, lords, or parties, so I am definitely putting this one in the win column.

A couple of spare thoughts –

So Edith is pregnant right?  Because if twenty-some odd years of watching television have taught me, women don’t randomly go to the doctor unless they’re pregnant.

Lots of slight stories this week, but easily the worst is Mrs. Patmore resisting the introduction of a refrigerator.  This makes absolutely no sense.  I get her being scared of a mixer, or a sewing machine, or other technological marvels, but a refrigerator?  There is zero difference between a fridge and an icebox except that one requires a great deal of physical labor and the other does not.  Granted, she doesn’t do the physical labor to fill the icebox, but still, she doesn’t need to do anything different with a refrigerator, so resisting its installation just makes her seem like an extreme Luddite.

Why does this show keep crapping on Molesley?  I mentioned at the beginning of this season that I liked the idea of Molesley being fired because Matthew died because it could potentially show the difficulty of life as an early-twentieth century working class person while also revealing the shallowness of estate life and their claims to moral goodness.  But the way Downton has treated Molesley makes clear that Fellowes only views him as comic relief and has no desire to have any kind of broader discussion of what it’s like to be in the working class.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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