Monday, February 24, 2014

Downton Abbey Season Finale Review: "The London Season" - Moving On

Can Branson continue to dance with Duchesses or is it time for him to move on?

It’s taken me four seasons, but I think I’ve finally cracked the Downton Abbey code.  All season long, I’ve complained about series creator and writer Julian Fellowes’s seemingly contentious relationship with modernity.  I’ve wanted the show’s characters to progress, to really embrace the culture of the 1920s.  Following the end of World War I, women earned the right to run for Parliament and some women gained the right to vote, having proven themselves just as capable of running the country while the men were away at war.  Women were also staking their initial claims on sexual independence, having finally gained the upper hand in no small part due to the deaths of almost five percent of the British male population.  Finally, the age of the landed gentry was coming to a close.  As Mr. Blake makes clear throughout the fourth season, many of the old estates are struggling, burdened by the rising demands on their income.

The 1920s were a time of great change.  Women were gaining power, personally and politically.  Blacks and other racial minorities were gaining some semblance of freedom if not real equality.  Even gay rights were coming to the forefront, as Britain’s first gay pub opened in 1913 and several gay artists were living openly.  Obviously, 1920s Britain was not a bastion of equality, but it was moving in that direction.  And yet, Downton remains a stalwart against progress.  The world changes around it, but the estate and its occupants do their best to remain stagnant.

Stagnancy may just be what Fellowes is going for, though.  It’s very easy to see his version of Downton as a fixed point in time.*  To him, the British estates represent the peak of the British Empire, and it is this legacy that the Downton stakeholders are attempting to maintain.  While the most staid members of the estate (Robert and Carson) are willing to begrudge at least a little progress, they still stubbornly insist that Downton remain a cultural icon of the Golden Age of the British aristocracy.  Just consider the way that Carson treats the Levinsons’ American butler.  He’s willing to accept that, in America, “my employer is Mr. Levinson, not me.”  But the only logical response for Carson is to declare that “in this house you both are.”  The world may change, but Downton must remain set apart: a cultural icon and representation of the past unsullied by the muddy waters of progress.

* For those unfamiliar with Britain’s other main cultural export to the United States, Doctor Who, a fixed point in time is an event that cannot be changed without creating vast, cataclysmic consequences.

The key part of being a fixed point in time is that, when you violate it – when you try to change things – all hell breaks loose.  We’ve seen this time and again in Downton Abbey, dating back to when Lady Mary first invited Kemal Pamuk into her bed in the third episode of the series.  His subsequent death made clear very early on that any violations of the sanctity of the social mores at Downton will have devastating repercussions. 

The rest of the Crawley ladies have likewise been the recipients of Downton’s karmic chaos.  Edith is involved in a perfectly happy, if on-the-down-low liaison with her editor until she brings him and their unconventional relationship to Downton.  Within two episodes, Michael is missing in Germany and Edith is pregnant with their illegitimate child.  “Women shall not date married men,” declares Downton.

Sybil demonstrated the only real way to be socially progressive in Downton: she left.  She took her unconventional relationship to Ireland so that she could escape the unflinching world in which she grew up.  Of course, once she decides to return home to give birth to her “half-breed” child (the nanny’s words, not mine), all bets were off.  And the price she paid for breaking decorum was her life.  It seems like Branson should have suffered a similar fate, but he seems to have avoided any punishment by completely shedding his old life to don the outfit of the elite.  Gone are his socialist revolutionary politics.  In their place, he has substituted white tie dinners and dancing with Duchesses.  Sure, he seems to bristle at the prospect of a lifetime of aristocracy, but at this moment he acts like no less a Crawley than had he been born one.

The way, then, that Downton so effectively ruins those who would bring progress to it leaves three characters in particularly precarious positions as season four comes to a close.  Lady Mary seems to be the safest, for while she’s definitely pushing the limits of what women are allowed to do in the aristocracy, she is still a member of the landed class and her work at Downton is being done largely as the caretaker of the estate’s true heir, George, her son. 

Edith and Branson are not in so protected a position however.  Edith has made the questionable decision to have a local farmer raise her child, with only the two of them ostensibly knowing the truth.  But let’s be real, here.  The number of people who knew Edith was pregnant is at least a half dozen and there’s no way she’s going to be content to just let her baby grow up down the road without checking in every once and in a while.  At some point, she’s going to get caught and questions will be raised about why she’s visiting a stranger’s child.  The potential savior of the situation would be the return of Michael Gregson,* but that seems like an increasingly unlikely proposition at this point, especially given the reputation of the Brownshirts he allegedly encountered.

* Dowton Abbey is a soap opera, after all.  No body, no death.

Finally, Branson’s position lies somewhere in between those of Mary and Edith.  He’s obviously quite fond of the young socialist teacher.  But sneaking around Downton, even if it wasn’t really “sneaking,” is not a good way to get in the house’s good graces.  Who knows if this is going anywhere, but Branson’s unease about how quickly he has assimilated into aristocratic life has been palpable all season long.  It seems unlikely that he’s going to be able to withhold his true feelings for long, so it’s really more a question of whether he’ll leave Downton to pursue his progressive politics or if he’ll stay and tempt fate.

So four seasons and more than a decade in, this is where we stand.*  The world is moving on from feudal England, but the estates are making their final, valiant stand against progress.  What will define Downton Abbey in the seasons to come is whether it will invite that progress in or if it will force anybody seeking change to do it elsewhere and continue to punish those revolutionaries who stay home.

* It’s hard to believe that the series premiere came in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and it’s now 1923.

A couple of spare thoughts –

I feel a little bad about largely ignoring the downstairs staff this season but, really, aside from Bates and Anna, have they done anything of note?  Ivy’s been on the show all year, but now that she’s leaving for America, the only things I really know about her are that she was the subject of Alfred’s unrequited love and that she didn’t appreciate it when Jimmy got a little frisky.  Nothing much else happened with the staff apart from the continuing misadventures of Molesley.

Paul Giamatti was too self-deprecating by half for my tastes but he was quite good in this episode and I enjoyed his storyline of trying to fend off the broke Lord Aysgarth’s advances on his mother.  Also, it’s nice to have actual Americans playing Americans for once, because boy are some Brits doing awful American accents on this show.  I’m looking at you, Jack Ross and “Mr. Levinson.”

I also enjoyed how, unlike in Poe’s The Purloined Letter, in this episode, everybody but Bates wants to read the prince’s scandalous letter.  There are no boundaries in the aristocracy, apparently.

More Janet Montgomery (Freda Dudley Ward), please.  She’s just great.

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

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Downton Abbey Review: "Episode 6" - No Stick in the Mud

Mary and Mr. Blake get dirty in "Downton Abbey"

Any given episode of Downton Abbey contains about fifty percent joy and fifty percent eye-rolling for me.  Generally, my enjoyment of an episode comes down to whether the eye-rolling comes from the characters I like (Mary, Branson, Edith, and the Bateses) or from the characters I dislike or find uninteresting (Thomas and pretty much the entire kitchen crew).  I struggled with the first half of this season because my favorite characters were getting dreadful storylines: Mary was stuck in a malaise following Matthew’s death, Edith and Michael’s relationship was spinning in circles, and Anna suffered needlessly at the hands of Mr. Green.  But the last few episodes have seen a marked turnaround on all of those fronts. 

First off: pigs!  We were promised pigs last week and we got them this week.  Granted, the pigs are dying of dehydration because apparently they haven’t had anybody checking their water trough for several days (seems like a wee bit of an oversight), but still, pigs!  And I am aware that this is yet another man falling all over himself for the apparently irresistible Lady Mary, but if they’re going to make her desirable because of her business acumen and her willingness to get dirty, I could get behind that.  So long as Mr. Blake refuses to care about parties, dresses, and all that other crap, I’d like to see him stick around.

Branson, too, gets to make googly eyes with a new potential paramour as he sidles up to a pretty young socialist at a political rally.  Politics isn’t something the show has played well with, despite having an avowed socialist among its characters.  It’s been interesting but disappointing to see Branson integrate so fully into Downton life that he’s more or less abandoned completely his political ideas for a life of farming.  Perhaps he can be lured back into the world of politics, but it seems to be a theme of the show (one I’ll likely return to when I review the season finale) that the only way to really change who you are is to leave Downton.  Maybe that’s where Branson’s story is headed, but I hope not.  His farming knowledge and fish-out-of water attitude have made him one of my favorite characters this season.

Finally, Edith’s storyline seems to be progressing exactly how you would expect it to.  Once again, though, the show sort of takes the easy way out when discussing a potential progressive plot.  I know that abortion is a touchy subject in pretty much every sphere, but to have Edith get all the way to the clinic without much of anything in the way of introspection on her decision only to back out upon seeing and hearing the conditions of the place seems to me to be a bit of a copout, as though Fellowes was saying, “See, abortion was a thing that existed and I’m recognizing it without having any real, meaningful effect on my characters.”  I don’t mean to belittle the gravity or difficulty of Edith’s decision, I just don’t see how the way it was presented in this episode will have any lasting impact on Edith other than to, perhaps, bring her closer to Rosamund, who comes off as the strongest supporter of the Crawley family.

I wrote two weeks ago that the middle episode of this nine-hour season felt like a piece-moving episode, not really resolving anything, but just positioning everybody for the stretch run.  Unfortunately, the last two hours have felt much the same, with characters making only incremental progress and no real sense of purpose being felt.  With the UK “season finale” next week (followed by the Christmas Special the week after) I have absolutely no clue where anybody is going to finish the season.  On some shows (say Breaking Bad) that kind of uncertainty is a feature built into the plot.  Here, it’s more the result of a lack of direction.  I hope Downton Abbey can find its way quickly. 

A couple of spare thoughts –

Robert takes a slow boat to the states to help Cora’s brother and, honestly, would anybody be disappointed if he stayed there?

Now that Bates knows that it was Mr. Green in the kitchen with a Clue joke in very poor taste, we all know how this is going to go down, right?  Maybe Anna should have let him go with Robert after all.

“I’ve been married. I know everything.”

“I refuse to be shocked.”

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

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Banshee Review: "The Truth About Unicorns" - A Long Drive to New Places

Ivana Milicevic takes down an assassin in "Banshee"

Cinemax’s Banshee is a show I don’t normally write about because it’s a show that I generally don’t take very seriously.  That’s not meant as an extreme criticism of the show, since it doesn’t really take itself that seriously.  Banshee is an utterly gratuitous show, filled with gratuitous language, gratuitous violence, and gratuitous sex.  But last night’s episode “The Truth About Unicorns” flipped the show on its head, eschewing the brutal fights, lurid bedroom scenes, and extraneous plots for a tight, focused hour chronicling Lucas and Carrie’s trip back from prison and delving into the question of what might have been.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Banshee is the story of an unnamed jewel thief (Anthony Starr) who, upon being released from prison, heads to Banshee, Pennsylvania to find his former partner and lover, Carrie (Ivana Milicevic).  After assuming the identity of the new town sheriff, Lucas Hood (who conveniently had never been to Banshee and was killed in front of our still unnamed protagonist), he discovers that Carrie has moved on with her life and is now married with two children.  Not content to move on with his life, Lucas remains in town as the sheriff who has to navigate a pulpy, violent world populated by a former-Amish mobster, an Amish community, a Native American population and other colorful characters, including Carrie’s gangster father, Rabbit, who is intent on getting revenge on Lucas for stealing from him.  It’s an insane premise that works largely because the show embraces its insanity.  There isn’t another series on television quite like it and sometimes being competent and unique can work just as well as being good but familiar.

What makes “The Truth About Unicorns” stand out, then, is how much of a departure it is from a usual episode of Banshee.  It’s obvious almost instantly as the episode employs rapid cuts in several scenes to play with time or to show us alternate realities.  The second scene, for example, cuts back and forth between reality, where Carrie greets Lucas outside the prison gates with little more than a “Hey” before getting into his truck, and Lucas’s imagination, where Carrie runs into his waiting arms and they embrace like long-parted lovers.  Later, near the episode’s end, we get the same rapid cuts between Lucas and Carrie leaving his burning cabin (and the life he had hoped for them), and their return to Banshee and the life neither truly wants, but which provides just enough reason for them to stay.

Apart from its visual style, “The Truth About Unicorns” leaves the usual jumble of stories aside to tell the story of two people, the lives they lead, and the lives they could have had.  We see them strolling through an open-air market in a distant town, buying clothes and toys for the kids.  They case a jewelry store, as though the last fifteen years never happened.  And Lucas takes Carrie on a detour to the secluded rural home he bought prior to his incarceration that he believed would someday be theirs.  The long drive and night alone allows for these two characters to reflect on the horrible things they’ve experienced and witnessed (and done and said to each other).  I’ve never considered either Starr or Milicevic to be a particularly dynamic performer but they are phenomenal here, showing ranges of emotions I’d never have expected from either of them.  Starr, especially, manages a level of lovelorn here that kept me riveted throughout.

Banshee being Banshee, the episode couldn’t be all talking and sideways glances and so Zeljko Ivanek returns as our not-so-friendly, neighborhood FBI agent.  Apparently he’s known all along that Lucas wasn’t really Lucas, but he was willing to play along because he’s been on a twenty-year mission to bring down Rabbit.  He lays all this out right before taking a bullet to the back of the head from one of Rabbit’s assassins.  The battle that follows is, like the rest of the episode, seemingly out of place in an episode of Banshee.  The show’s violence is most often of the bloody, bone-crunching kind.  But here, after a brief initial firefight, the action stills, Lucas and Carrie stalk the assassin through a field of tallgrass.  It’s a tense, almost silent scene, punctuated only by the score and rustling of grass.  The camera work here is stunning as well, especially the overhead crane shots.

If there is one complaint to be made out “The Truth About Unicorns” it is the score.  Due to the paucity of dialogue (amazingly only five characters have speaking roles in this episode), the score tends to be a bit overwrought, trying a little too hard to create drama and forgetting that one of the themes of the episode is “less is more.” 

That small quibble aside, “The Truth About Unicorns” is an amazing episode of television and a fantastic display of what can happen when a show steps outside of its comfort zone.  I doubt we’ll see more episodes of Banshee like this and, really, that’s probably for the best since I’m not sure they could handle this slowed pace for long, nor would be in their interest to try.  But as an experiment I would say they succeeded in just about every way, for one week, at least, turning competent and unique into just plain great.

One spare thought - 

Lucas and Carrie never touch during the episode, despite spending most of its running time no more than an arm's length apart.  The show goes a bit far in pointing this out during the market scene, but it's such an effective idea: these two are so close together physically, but so far apart emotionally that they can't bear to even touch each other.

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

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sherlock Season Finale Review: "His Last Vow" - The Smartest Man in the Room

Lars Mikkelsen shows off Magnusson's "vault" in "Sherlock"

Sherlock Holmes is a man of legend.  He is usually portrayed as a veritable polymath, though Arthur Conan Doyle described him as a man who knows “nil” about quite a few subjects, at least those topics that were of little use to his work.  While his Sherlock believed the mind was a finite space,* it’s clear that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is the owner of an infinite mind palace, as he so ably demonstrated at John’s insistence in the season premiere.  The Sherlock Holmes of Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gattis’s Sherlock is invariably the smartest man in the room if only because of the company he keeps.  Or, as he said in last week’s best man speech, “Indeed any reputation I have for mental acuity and sharpness comes from the extraordinary contrast John so helpfully provides.”

* "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” – A Study in Scarlet

What Sherlock Holmes is also portrayed as, however, at least in this variation, is a sociopath: a man with no real connection to the world.  Sherlock Holmes is a man who is incapable of feeling even the slightest bit of guilt over leading a woman on and faking a marriage proposal just so that he can get access to her boss’s office.  Granted, he seems to have deduced that Janine, herself, wasn’t in the relationship for the most morally upstanding of reasons, but still, it takes an enormous amount “not-giving-a-crap” to willingly con a woman all the way to marriage just to solve a case.

What’s amazing, then, about Sherlock Holmes, is how his intelligence and surprising human connection with John are able to mostly mute his sociopathic tendencies.  While he is more than willing to say whatever crosses his mind, his actions belie at least some empathy and an understanding that other people are affected by his decisions.  He’s more than willing to put his own life in danger, but rarely does he risk the lives of others, unless it’s Watson, who has willingly come along for the ride.

It’s been interesting, then, watching the third season of Sherlock because these three episodes (and especially the finale) have played around a great deal with the question, “What happens when Sherlock Holmes is not the smartest man in the room”?  What happens when you take a man who always believes he can think his way out of any problem and put him up against a variety of opponents who are all his intellectual superior?  This was one thing the Sherlock Holmes movies got right about the Moriarity story.  Moriarty beat Holmes.  He outwitted and outfought the detective, leaving Sherlock with only option: murder-suicide.  Sherlock kind of botched that story by having Moriarity commit suicide and then have Holmes exonerated off-screen by the police.  But the three episodes of this season all paired Sherlock with an intellectual match.

In the season premiere, we get a brief but illuminating discussion between the Holmes brothers where it is revealed that Mycroft was always the smarter one and that the two thought Sherlock was an idiot until they met other children.  One would think this would instill a sense of humbleness in Sherlock, but instead it seems to have made him bitter and jealous to know that no matter how intelligent he seems, he’ll never best his brother in either smarts or social skills.

In last week’s episode, “The Sign of Three,” Holmes gets lucky.  He needs a child to help him connect the dots (“the invisible man did it”) and, as Sherlock himself admits, the villain might have gotten away with it if only he had driven a little faster, not to mention that it was only Mary’s perfect memory that allowed them to save Major Sharlto in time. 

This week, Sherlock spent the entire episode on his heels, consistently being fooled not only by newspaper magnate Charles Magnusson (ably played by Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Bond villain and “Hannibal” star Mads Mikkelsen) but by Mary Watson as well.  By all accounts, Sherlock should be dead or in prison by the end of this episode, so badly was he played.  The show would like us to believe that it was his observational and deduction abilities that saved him but, in truth, Sherlock was saved by Mary’s love for John.  And it was his arrogance that put him in that exact position.  Even as John gave him an alternate explanation for the Clair de Lune perfume whose scent was present in Magnusson’s office, Sherlock stormed forward, convinced that he knew all of the players who were involved and exactly how the situation was going to play out.  Even his luring of Mary into confessing to John would have resulted in his death were it not, again, for Mary actually, truly loving John and wanting to keep him from experiencing pain.  Among other things, this pretty clearly differentiates Mary from Sherlock and removes her from the realm of sociopathy, but we’ll get to that later.

Where things really go terribly for Sherlock is during his confrontation with Magnusson.  He is bested at every step of the way.  He fails to realize that Magnusson’s glasses are just glasses, that his “vault” isn’t really a vault, but his own mind palace, and that Magnusson couldn’t care less about Mycroft’s laptop, given the certainty of its recovery.  Holmes is outwitted and outmaneuvered at every step of the way.  If he felt like a “mental lightweight” in the company of his brother, I can’t imagine what he feels like when faced off against Magnusson.  There’s no competition.  Magnusson is miles ahead of Holmes.

So what happens to a sociopathic know-it-all when he discovers that he’s not the smartest man in the room?  He lashes out.  He improvises.  He attempts to erase all evidence of his failure, and puts a bullet in Charles Magnusson’s brainpan.  It’s a moment that is supposed to be shocking but really feels inevitable as soon as Magnusson reveals his empty “vault”.  What most disappoints, however, is how familiar the whole thing feels and how it reveals, as much as anything, the extent to which Sherlock botched the Moriarty storyline. 

It may seem odd to return to season two’s Big Bad at this point, two years later (though the allusion to his return may suggest otherwise), but the fact is that Charles Magnusson’s ignominious end really only duplicates Moriarity’s, except that the gun is in Holmes’s hand this time.  You see, James Moriarty is a largely undeveloped character in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon.  His role is mostly to be the criminal mastermind who “kills” Holmes.  As a character, Moriarty is largely a blank slate for writers to play with.  Elementary, surprisingly enough, realized this in its freshman season.  By combining the characters of Moriarity and Irene Adler, Elementary turned the story of Moriarty into a personal, emotional story for Sherlock Holmes.  The lover and the devil became one, forcing Holmes to turn introspective, even as he was facing the Big Bad.

On Sherlock, however, Moriarty became just another criminal mastermind, and introducing a smarter, more devilish Magnusson (even if his motives were different) only reinforced that idea.  Moriarty is no longer special.  He’s just another in a seemingly endless line of brilliant super-villains.  His brief appearance at the end of the season finale didn’t really get me excited since I don’t see what his presence will bring that Magnusson’s didn’t. 

I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I was ultimately disappointed by the third season of Sherlock.  The performances were great as usual but it felt like Moffat, Gattis, and Stephen Thompson were just trying way too hard.  I had the pleasure of watching the first two episodes of the series a couple of weeks ago and was startled by how relatively straightforward they were.  There were simple mysteries and clues and Sherlock followed them all to relatively banal conclusions.  Season three, on the other hand, had an attempted bombing of the British Parliament, multiple mysteries converging together, an unexpected character twist, and a surprising execution.  It seemed as though the writers weren’t content with just telling good stories but felt the need to keep turning the audience’s heads with twist after twist.  It’s a shame, too, because the characters are well-developed enough and the actors more than good enough to support basic investigative storytelling that the bells and whistles aren’t necessary to make an entertaining series.  This season, they only served to distract from everything the show was doing great.

A couple of spare thoughts –

I wasn’t opposed to the reveal of Mary as a former intelligence agent trying to hide from past.  What I did object to, however, was the idea that it was somehow John’s fault that she turned out to be more than she initially appeared.  I get that he’s attracted to a somewhat dangerous lifestyle, but there’s no evidence that he was in any way aware of Mary’s past or personality and, in fact, it would seem to completely destroy the idea of Mary is a super-secret agent if John were somehow able to intuit her true nature.  Again, it wasn’t a terrible plot twist; I just didn’t care for the “blame it on John” aspect.

Also, despite the episode’s attestations otherwise, Mary is not a sociopath.  Sociopaths are incapable of empathy and caring about others.  The fact that Mary is desperate to protect John not just from physical harm but from emotional damage as well pretty convincingly shows that she is not a sociopath.

The finale had another scant mystery that basically ended halfway through the episode.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the season’s best episode was its second, which largely told two straightforward stories (or as straightforward as Sherlock Holmes mysteries can be).  Sherlock doesn’t need tricks and twists to be compelling television.  The actors and characters are compelling enough.  They just need to tell interesting stories.

John: “But it’s Christmas!”
Sherlock: “I feel the same!  Oh, you mean it’s actually Christmas.”

John: “I don’t understand.”
Magnusson: “You should put that on a t-shirt.”
John: “I still don’t understand.”
Magnusson: “And there’s the back of the shirt.”

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