Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

The Bletchley Circle (season 2)

91cMb90PWAL._SL1500_The 2nd season (series) of The Bletchley Circle ended a few weeks ago on PBS (it aired in January in the UK).  I really like this show, though I’m never catapulted out of the ‘like’ category into the ‘love it/need it’ category. I think that is because the ‘season’ is so short (3 episodes in season 1, 4 episodes in season 2), that I never have a chance to get really into it. Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing any more episodes, as the show has not been renewed for a 3rd series.

I remember talking in my last review about the importance of seeing strong and smart women, working together in a world (1950s Britain) that at best, underestimates them and at worst, subjects them to violence and abuse. The second season didn’t shirk away from that.

The season begins with a new character.  Alice.

HattieMorahanB_1Alice (apparently) worked at Bletchley, though not all of the season 1 girls knew her.  She has been accused of murdering a man, and has not put forth any defense, ergo she will be hanged. Jean is convinced that she is innocent, and asks the other girls to help her prove it.

Susan, after the danger she and her family were in during their last escapade, is reluctant to help.  It quickly becomes apparent that Alice is innocent, and also becomes apparent that Susan will be leaving the show and Alice will be brought on as the resident slightly-rude code genius. It’s hamfisted, but what can you do with 4 episodes? Seems like they could have kept Susan around for 2 more episodes, before sending her off somewhere.  This is the part that bothered me the most about the second series.

During these first two episodes, we see that Lucy is now working at Scotland Yard, and Millie is working as a German translator.  How strange it must have been to stop fighting the Germans and then almost immediately begin doing business with them again.  And only a decade or so later, the beginnings of the EU. Strange to think of. The wars I’ve lived through, from the US, have only been with countries that were a-geographically distant, b-with vastly less powerful armies than ours,  and c-of almost zero importance to our economy. (Western) Europe is so small compared to the US that it might be easier for me if I imagined the end of the civil war, and returning to normal trade and travel among the different states. Millie finds it odd herself, making such an about face. Working with people who had probably been Nazis.  And they had no idea, but she was one of the women who helped break their codes and interrupt their plans.  *Insert vague idiom about strange bedfellows*

The first two episodes revolve around saving Alice from the gallows, and uncovering a government experiment with chemical weapons, used on soldiers. Lovely. I vastly preferred the second two episodes, but they also made me uncomfortable and angry.

In episode 3, Millie is abducted from outside her apartment. She wakes up in a strange room, held captive. Millie has been using her connections and her skills to sell ‘black market’ goods that were hard to get during and after the war. In England, unlike the US, the ’50s were not a time of prosperity and consumer freedom. War rationing continued for nearly a decade after the end of the war. Millie seems to mostly sell perfumes and cigarettes, nothing dangerous or damaging. She works with a partner, Jasper.

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Here’s the thing. Millie is my favorite character. She is the strongest, the bravest, and the most confident of all of them. She wears pants (get your pearls ready for clutching), she travels alone, she lives on her own, she holds her head up and walks with purpose. This in a time of our history and a place in the world where women were still very much expected to be quiet, modest, maternal, and submissive. If I had been alive at the time, I’m hoping I would have the strength to be like her. I’m saying this because I want to explain how a part of this episode really affected me.

Millie is taken in to see a woman, Marta, who was supplying Jasper (who was supplying Millie). Someone has stolen from Marta (spoiler, it was Jasper, because of course it was), and she’s going to take her proverbial pound of flesh from one of them.  Jasper claims he can repay the money, and is given a chance to do so. Millie manages to talk herself into freedom, proposing she works with Marta as she worked with Jasper. Essentially she wants to cut out the middleman.

Only Millie does not in any way want to work for Marta, because she has just discovered that in addition to cigarettes and perfume, Marta imports girls. Young girls from behind the iron curtain, who can be easily ‘sold’ to wealthy men in the UK. That’s so horrifying I can’t even comprehend it. It is literally beyond my ability to understand, much like the Higgs Boson. But I know it happens every day, even now. Probably much more so now, since people are easier to move in this century than the last.

So Millie manages to talk her way out of the bad situation, which is part of her gift.  Marta lets her go, and one of her goons drives Millie home. She asks him his name, and he shoves her against a wall and threatens to rape and hurt her.  This scene made me so angry; I took it almost personally.  It takes confidence to act like Millie does–that’s part of her protection from anyone who wants to hurt her. There’s a reason people tell women to project confidence, to keep from being mugged or attacked. If you walk through the world with confidence, in some ways you’re saying to potential predators that you have enough resources in this world that someone cannot hurt you without expecting retribution.  But this man is so sure that he can do whatever he wants, that he has no problem showing he can physically dominate her.  And she’s not a small woman–she’s 5’9″, she’s curvy (by Hollywood standards anyway!).

I’m writing this entry after a man, angry with women for rejecting him, went on a murder spree in California over the weekend. After posting videos and a manifesto about how much he hated women, and how much they deserved to die because they wouldn’t have sex with him. Women have responded on twitter, posting their own stories of misogyny, fear, assault, and general inhumane treatment. And everyone has stories.

I know I’m digressing wildly now, but just a brief (okay not so brief) word about the fact that very little has changed since the 1950s. Most women are in a position where they can be physically overpowered by men. That means most women have reasons to be afraid. No matter how confident you are, how strong or smart, your ability to walk around in the world could be shattered at any minute. You are able to be happy or sad or whatever you are, only until a man near you decides he wants to hurt you. I project confidence into the world, like Millie, and it keeps me free from most harassment.  But, just like Millie, it could all be taken away.  Which means I walk quickly, I stay aware, I keep my keys between my knuckles when I’m alone at night. I can only slightly comprehend how much worse it might be for women who don’t have the resources I do. I’m a white female, and am a pretty high-risk target because of that.  Women who are marginalized by society have even less power. Because they are women of color, or they are children, or they are intellectually or physically disabled, or in a country illegally, they are more likely to experience abuse (sexual or otherwise) than I am. And they are far less likely to receive help or justice from the police. That’s a universal, throughout the world.

The Bletchley Circle, for all the parts that seem unrealistic or hamfisted, is an important show because it does not pull away from these issues. When I compare it to Downton Abbey, and the way Anna’s rape was …fodder for dramatic tension and how Bates was more concerned with his own revenge than with his wife’s happiness… I know they are different shows, different time periods, and very different pathos. Downton Abbey used rape the way Coronation Street uses tragic and improbable deaths (and also probably rape, but I haven’t seen enough of it to know for sure). To titillate, to engage the empathy of the audience, without much reality thrown in.  The Bletchley Circle did not show rape.  But it showed the systematic, widespread, abuse of women. From the girls being smuggled in by Marta, to Millie’s abduction, to Jean’s being shot, to Lucy’s abusive husband. These are pretty lifelike portrayals of the treatment a lot of women get from men. And the women keep going, keep fighting and pushing for safety, for their rights. I don’t think The Bletchley Circle is a perfect show. But I think it’s important to continue to have shows like it–that focus on women, and that focus on the different types of women, and the problems they face that men may not understand. I’m not saying that if every show were like The Bletchley Circle, there would be no more rape or spousal abuse.  Obviously not a lot of rapists are probably watching it. But, I think if more shows acknowledge that these things happen (and how often they happen), then people who have been lucky enough not to see this firsthand, will at least not dismiss it as a non-issue. And maybe won’t see women speaking up about their own freedoms as an attack on men.

Obligatory 2nd anniversary post

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Yesterday was my 2nd anniversary of starting this blog. In the last two years, this blog has racked up over 40,000 views, which is approximately 38,000 more than I ever thought it would.  Last year, I confessed my addiction to the Stats page, watching my view count tick up, and especially my need to fill in all the countries on the map.  I made a lot of progress on that last goal this year. My number one goal last February was to get an elusive view from Mongolia.  I did not get a view from Mongolia; I got 17! Life = complete!  I also got a host of views from new countries this past year: Bolivia, Paraguay, Mali, Senegal, Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, Liberia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Yemen. Plus a host of small countries/territories/islands that happened to find my blog one or 2 times: Grenada, the Seychelles (love your flag, Seychelles!), Palestine, French Polynesia, Martinique, Syria, New Caledonia, the Maldives, Faroe Islands, St. Lucia, El Salvador, Macao, Haiti, Andorra, Guadeloupe, Malawi…the list goes on.

Of course, I’m still hoping for a real dictatorship/censorship state to get through.  Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Cuba…join the party! I promise to corrupt you with my western ways!

My most popular posts, by far, are the informative posts about British vs American stereotypes, education systems,

In this year’s edition of weirdest search terms that led to my blog,

images‘Martin Freeman Naked’ is still the overwhelming winner.

Followed by these strange and terrifying combinations of search terms:

‘van buren facial hair’

‘stove kettle’

‘truck drivers heavy breakfast’

‘kristin scott thomas ice queen’

‘alec guinness brown face’

‘men alone in the house images’ —this one scares me

‘thranduil erotic’ —also scary

‘i have a list of paraphrased quotes in my book, can i use a bibliography?’

That last one might be my favorite, b/c this person has no idea how to use a search engine.  But the most terrifying one I’ve seen in a while is this one:

‘harry potter feet fetish’

Nope, nope, nope. Not even going to think about it. Wait, I just found a worse one:

‘soldier vomit’

Words cannot adequately describe how much I am frowning right now. Moving on…

This blog is mostly just fun for me, and a way to organize my thoughts about British cultural exports. It will never be the sort of blog that rakes in sponsors, or makes anyone any money.  Which, I think, is preferable.  I plan to continue offering up my thoughts on movies, tv, and books from Blighty, throwing them out into a totally ambivalent world.  I will be here to comment on Lady Mary’s 37 suitors, Sherlock’s confusing plot twists, and (of course) everything Harry Potter, including the new movies and the play coming to London.  And books.  tons and tons of books. I will continue to make this face

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when new Doctor Who episodes air, and will respond to any additional comments

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about the authorship of Shakespeare plays as follows…in fact, consider this my official response to anyone who believes the Oxfordian theory:

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To another good year wasting my time on the interwebz!

2013 Christmas Specials

Christmas is a pretty special time in the UK, I think.  I theorize.  I’ve never been there at Christmas time, but one glance at the decorations on Oxford or Regent Street tells you what it’s like in London.

90_05_15---Christmas-Lights--Regent-Street--London--England-_webI also haven’t participated in that age-old tradition of the Queen’s Christmas address.  But one tradition I am always happy to indulge is the tradition of the Christmas special.  During busy weeks, particularly in the holidays, TV here tends to come to a screeching halt.  Repeats for weeks on end.  The only exception is (American) football, which is on constantly from Thanksgiving to …February.  Blech.  I’ll pass on that.  But the Christmas special! Something everyone can gather around the TV and enjoy, that (usually) doesn’t involve padding or jock straps.  I can support that tradition whole-heartedly.

This Christmas was a big one for Doctor Who, with Matt Smith’s last episode and Peter Capaldi’s first.  They like to do these transitions on big episodes, don’t they?  And this one was a particularly unusual story.  We saw the Doctor bald, we saw him naked,

matt-smith-nude-the-time-of-the-doctor-band even more strangely, we saw him old.  Doctor’s aren’t supposed to age, are they?  During that stretch of episodes in America, we see the Doctor some 200 years older in one episode than when we see him next, and there isn’t the slightest change.  So exactly how much time did he spend in a town called Christmas, on a planet called Trenzalore, to get to looking like this:

Doctor-Who-11-2959359He looks and acts very Dickensian, which I find rather amusing. He’s always been very Victorian, number 11, with his waistcoats and bow ties and pocket watches.  Being rather fond of that era myself, I am sad to see that go.  I am genuinely sad to see Matt Smith go, which is a big credit to him, since I was weeping over David Tennant’s exit.

This episode was very grand and (is often the case with very grand episodes of the show) it often seemed more concentrated on being big and important, rather than making much sense.  I try to remember what exactly was going on, but I found myself thoroughly confused by a lot of the plot for this one.

The way I understood it, the Time Lords were communicating through the crack in the wall, which reappeared in Christmas.  Their message was heard by everyone, and it scared everyone.  They were asking the Doctor’s name…and if he told them, they would come through.  And this would, for some reason, cause immediate and total war?  The Church of the Mainframe protects the planet from the hordes of Daleks, Cybermen, and every other type of villain that is trying to get in.

I have so many questions from this episode. How are the Time Lords of Gallifrey able to send messages, and then (Deux Ex Machina)  time energy, through the rift when they are stored safely away in a frozen moment of time? How did a burst of time energy reset the clock on the Doctor’s regeneration count? And simultaneously give him power to kill Daleks with a light beam? Why does the regeneration process seem to happen really quickly sometimes (John Hurt’s Doctor to Chris Eccleston’s, Eccleston to Tennant) and sometimes (Tennant to Smith, Smith to Capaldi), it takes quite a while. Most importantly, what’s the point of using the Silence as priests?  Why would you want to confess and then forget you’d done so?  Much better to have a priest who forgets everything you’ve just told him.  And was the episode implying that the Silence were created to be priests?  Or that they were recruited as priests after they were more-or-less killed off on Earth?

I think this episode attempted to do too much, too big, without enough time or weight given to some of the big issues.  And the most important thing, the actual regeneration, took place so late in the episode, that we barely saw Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  I like him already, I feel I can’t help but to like him.  But with a new Doctor, any new Doctor, he needs to win the audience over nearly immediately.  Now we’ve seen Peter Capaldi for approximately 40 seconds, and now we have to sit and wait until …whenever they decide to air the next series… before we get to really see him as the Doctor?  I don’t like it.  I wanted more, obviously, and I think it’s important to the audience to keep out any doubts over the new Doctor.  I was pretty disappointed to not see more of him, and that’s part of what makes me unhappy and unsettled about the episode as a whole.

And then there was Downton Abbey.

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Another Christmas special that has utterly nothing to do with Christmas?  This time it’s the London Season, where debutantes are launched into society and try to land the richest possible husband. Mary is entertaining multiple suitors as usual, we learn that Bates probably did murder whats-his-name, and the Grantham family has to engage in some clumsy skullduggery to save the Prince of Wales from embarrassment over his affair.  Most importantly, Carson is barefoot in the ocean.  Mr. Carson is the last person I imagine to ever be barefoot. The poor man, I would gladly have gone on his outings. I liked the Science Museum and all the other ‘educational’ outings he suggested.

Rose drove me less crazy during this episode by far.  She’s still silly and a bit dim, but she acted like an adult at least.  Edith and Mary, on the other hand, drove me crazy. Mary is just as spoiled and selfish as she has ever been, and Edith is tedious and dull at best.  I never like indecision, particularly in TV characters. In a story, there’s no point in indecision.  It’s a waste of the audience’s time.  Edith waffling back and forth and being rude to others about a situation she’s created for herself is…just as annoying as I’ve come to expect from her character.  I miss Sybil!

Finally, we got to see Paul Giamatti as Cora’s brother, and I thought he did splendidly.  He always seems to play the same character–the grumpy but charming man who wins over far more attractive ladies.

downton-abbey-2013-christmas-special-shirley-maclaineNo exception here.  I know the ‘Americanness’ of these characters is heightened to the point where they may as well be from another galaxy, but I quite like them.  They get almost all of the minute social niceties completely wrong in every situation–futile introductions to the Prince of Wales, never understanding that they’re supposed to get their own tea or breakfast, not comprehending the practice of downstairs servants being called by the name of the person upstairs that they serve, etc., etc.  But no matter how many times they get it wrong, it doesn’t phase them.  And as an American, I think that’s pretty accurate.  While the Brits are disdainful of our loud voices and lack of manners, we are blissfully apathetic to doing these things the ‘wrong’ way.  Undoubtedly, Harold will tell all his amused friends in Newport about his conversation with the Prince, whereas any Brit who had made the same mistake would probably be mortified.  I know Downton takes place nearly 100 years ago, but I think these are social mores that still exist in each culture.  Brits still have fear of causing offense or inconvenience; Americans generally don’t know or don’t care when we’ve accidentally committed a minor faux pas.  The American in me genuinely likes Cora, her mother, and her brother, for being too independent to care about titles or propriety, and for caring far more about the actual value of a person or an action.  I hope Paul Giamatti is in more than just this one episode, because I like him and I think the Grantham family needs more people to come and ruffle their feathers.  They’ll never survive the changes coming their way if they are allowed to believe the world is going to stay the same.

Bates’ story was the only real menace in the episode.  Mary and Mrs. Hughes know that he probably killed Mr. Green, and they’re not certain if they ought to keep it a secret.  The more I think about Bates, the more I think he’s a villain.  No one can really blame him for wanting to kill Mr. Green.  But to act on it…and I have never been entirely convinced he didn’t kill his first wife.  He seems to be surrounded by characters so evil that no one could really blame him for wanting them dead, but the amount of death that seems to follow him is pretty ridiculous.  Anna seems to be doing much better, but this will tear her apart again, so he is hurting her more than almost anyone.  I don’t trust him or like him anymore, and he’s shown he’s quite capable of lying to cover up his actions.  He’s gotten rid of a lot of problems in his life by acting like a criminal.  It may be safe to say, at this point, that he just is one.  I’m ready for him to be done.

It’s a long time until Downton Abbey starts again, and I’m not certain this episode provided me with a really compelling reason to keep watching.  I enjoyed the 4th season, but there was no particular cliffhanger or massive event at the end of this episode that would make me hungry for more.  But I did like the little moment with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, because they’re both lovable and they deserve more fun.  That being said, it seems an odd place to leave your Christmas episode–on a sunny beach.

Upcoming British TV

It’s that time of year again!  Time for Christmas specials, followed closely by new premieres in 2014!  We’ve got a lot to look forward to in the coming months.

First, there is the Christmas special for Doctor Who

Doctor Who, Christmas Special 2013 - Artwork: Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt SmithThe Time of the Doctor  (Christmas Day in the UK and US) will mark the end of Matt Smith’s run and the beginning of Peter Capaldi as our 12th incarnation of the eponymous Doctor.  As happens every time there is a regeneration, I am dreading it, but know that the new Doctor will win me over pretty quickly.  It happened with 10 and with 11, so I have faith that 12 will be just as good.  Okay, no one is actually as good as David Tennant, but they do try…

The Downton Abbey Christmas special will play on Christmas Day in the UK, but the US will have to wait a few months–we haven’t even aired season 4 yet.  Season 4 premieres on PBS January 5th. So the Christmas Special will air sometime in February or March.  Festive.  I am looking forward to it because we finally get to see Paul Giamatti as Cora’s rakish, financially-irresponsible brother

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I also notice Edith missing from this picture.  I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen season 4, but I’ve got a guess where she is…

One week after Christmas is (to me) the most important premiere of the last several years.  Sherlock (series 3) premieres on Jan 1st in the UK, January 19th in the US (again on PBS).

sherlock_series_3_fan_poster_2_by_crqsf-d52873pI’m almost done with my re-watch of the first two series.  I just have the heinously painful, ugly-cry-inducing Reichenbach Fall. And then there will finally be new episodes! There’s rumor of a mini-episode premiering on Christmas Day (on BBC 1) that acts as a sort of prequel to Series 3. (Here’s hoping I can find it online).  The proper episodes run January 1st, 5th, and 12th in the UK.

A boatload of new shows and season premieres are slated for Spring 2014 here in the US.

Fleming-The Man Who Would Be Bond is a BBC America look at Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.  It stars Dominic Cooper as Fleming, and looks like a combination between The Hours and Mad Men.

460x300_flemingThat’s Lara Pulver (aka Irene Adler) as the proto-Bond girl, Ann O’Neill.  I’ll withhold judgment on this one–I’m not a big fan of Bond, but I’ll give it a try. It premieres January 29th.

Despite being (rudely) cancelled after its second series/season in the UK, Ripper Street will get a full second season airing in the US.  I’ve already heard that the ‘finale’ wasn’t very rewarding, because the showrunners didn’t know (or didn’t know early enough) about the show’s fate.  Season 2 premieres on BBC America in February (no fixed date yet, that I’ve seen).

March 30th will be a big day for PBS viewing.  Call the Midwife AND Mr. Selfridge return for their 3rd and 2nd seasons, respectively. Here’s a trailer for Mr. Selfridge:

April 13th sees season 2 of The Bletchley Circle premiere on PBS.  It premieres much earlier (January 6th) in the UK.

Shortly after, on April 19th, Orphan Black finally returns on BBC America.

There are several other shows without announced premiere dates, but we know are coming soon.

The Musketeers–a BBC America show, taking place in 17th century Paris. The (four) Musketeers are all hot young men in this incarnation of the classic story. I’ll give it a try, though I’m not really one to go for men with feathers in their hats. The BBC America website says ‘Coming in 2014’, so this one could be a while.

Similarly, they’re very vague on the dates for a few other shows.  In the Flesh is definitely going to have a second season/series, but all the info they give is ‘Spring 2014’.  I would guess March or April.

Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan is already filming season 2, with special guest star and fellow hobbit, Billy Boyd.  No release date for that one either, but I’m guessing late Spring/early Summer, based on my zero expertise.

It’s going to be a busy season of TV watching this Spring!

The Paradise – season 1

Ladies-Paradise-TV-tie-inPBS just finished airing season one of this series, although season/series 2 has already started in the UK.  Given the subject matter (a Victorian era department store in England), comparisons between this show and Mr. Selfridge are inevitable. For the first two or three episodes, I found myself comparing them, and it gave me an unfavorable opinion of the Paradise.  Over the course of the 8-episode season, however, the show really grew on me. I forgot to compare it to Mr. Selfridge, and could enjoy it much more for that fact.

The Paradise centers around the eponymous department store in 1875 in Northeast England.  The show is a re-interpretation of an Emile Zola novel set in France during the same period. The store is owned and run by the handsome Mr. Moray (Emun Elliott), who started from humble roots and is slightly obsessed with expanding his empire.

paradise2Moray is loosely-tied to Katherine Glendenning, a spoiled rich girl who is pretty obviously trying to tie him down in marriage.  Moray is still grieving over the loss of his first wife, and dithers over decisions about this relationship.  Both Katherine and her father prove themselves, over the course of the season, willing to do anything to get what they want.  This includes manipulation of people and circumstances to their own favor.  They’re pretty terrible people.

The other main focus of the show is Denise (Joanna Vanderham), a girl from the country who has just arrived to work in her uncle’s draper shop.

denise_06_crop_648x327Unfortunately, the competition of the Paradise on his street has dried up her uncle’s business. He doesn’t have enough money to support Denise, nor enough work to keep her busy. Having few options, Denise seeks employment at the Paradise.  She proves, very quickly, that she is smart and creative, full of new ideas for how to improve the business in the store.  Mr. Moray takes a shine to her almost immediately.

This is an ensemble cast, with a lot of characters.  Besides Moray, there are other managerial figures with their own minor storylines (Dudley is Moray’s 2nd in command; Jonas is in charge of ‘security’ and is a pretty intimidating figure; Miss Audrey is Denise’s boss, the head of Ladieswear).  There are other sales associates in the store (Sam, the flirt, Clara, the mean girl, Pauline, the nice girl).  I think the show does a good job of balancing the main characters with these side stories.  I think everyone’s acting was very good, and that really helps you to care about characters that are not always in the forefront of the show.

My only complaint is that the relationship between Moray and Katherine isn’t always clear at the beginning of the season.  Part of that is his inability to make up his mind, but the show doesn’t always make it clear who or what stands between them, or what brings them together.  It’s very clear by the end of the series how they feel about each other, so that may be why I enjoyed the later episodes more.

As I said, the comparisons with Mr. Selfridge are inevitable. But this show really grew on me over the course of the season, and I quite enjoyed the last two or three episodes especially.  I hope PBS decides to show season 2 next year, but I fear it will be late next year if it comes to the US.  PBS has a pretty full schedule in Spring, with Downton Abbey and Sherlock coming soon.

Downton Abbey, season Four

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Before I even begin to talk about this season, which just ended in the UK and premieres on PBS this January, I have to say that if you have not seen this season, do not read any further.  To say there are spoilers would be an understatement.  I do not want to ruin all the pain you’re going to experience, particularly at mid-season.

You have been warned! Past here there be dragons spoilers!

There’s one even that is of premiere importance in this season, but I’m going to start with some other thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this season.

1-This season, and this season alone, changed my mind about some of the male characters.  For one thing, Lord Grantham is a big ole pain in the ass. He got on my bad list in the very first episode. In a callback to season 1, once again Mary’s place as an heir to Downton is in doubt.  And, despite all that she’s been through, and her undeniable abilities, Lord Grantham doesn’t think she’s capable–or just does not want to share power with anyone.  I know this is the 1920s, and women had just gained suffrage in the UK and in the US.  But Julian Fellowes has portrayed Lord Grantham, not as a sexist, but as someone who just doesn’t want other people interfering in what he views as his own responsibilities.  And he tries to do it once again, planning to skip Mary as a partner in the estate and only turn over his ‘powers’ to her son when he comes of age.  I think I find it all the more insulting and annoying that he either can’t see or doesn’t care that Mary a-needs this and b-is completely capable of excelling at it. I found my affection for Mary growing by just as much as my dislike for Lord Grantham.

And Bates?  I’ve heard chatter before that he and Anna don’t belong together, because she is young and wonderful, and he is old and a killjoy. I never understood it before, because I quite liked their story.  But now, I totally get it.  In mid-season, before the …event… Anna was having a good time, having some fun! What did Bates do?  Sulk and be angry and not join in.  And what did Julian Fellowes do?  Punish Anna, obviously.  More on that later. But after the event? I felt some sympathy for Bates–he doesn’t know what’s wrong, he’s done nothing but his wife is just gone from him.  But when he finds out? Instead of doing what Anna needs (supporting her, helping her to move on), he focuses on what he needs: revenge.  And he gets it.  I suppose there are people who think he didn’t do it, but I’m not one of them.  I was never entirely certain he didn’t kill his wife, and now this?  We know he’s violent, we know he’s single-minded.  Anna, you deserve better.

2-The one character I disliked for the entire season was Rose.

Lilly-James-as-Lady-Rose-in-Downton-Abbey-set-to-star-as-CinderellaI get that they needed to inject some youth and optimism into the cast, because they killed off lovely, wonderful Sybil, and turned Mary into a widow.  Edith never was cheerful.  But didn’t Julian Fellowes learn anything from Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch? No one likes the new kid.  Rose is no Sybil. Rose is vapid and willfully naive, with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old.  Sybil was kind and thoughtful, rebellious when she believed in something, but not rebellious for the sake of rebellion.  Rose only wants to shock; it’s a desperate cry for attention from her disinterested parents, and it is boring. Get rid of her.

To be fair, she didn’t annoy me too much at the beginning of the season.  But by the end I was rolling my eyes, and truly a bit disturbed by her desire to marry someone out of a combination of youthful infatuation and to anger her mother.

3-Can we talk about Mary’s suitors?  First, there’s Lord Gillingham

198200-lord-gillinghamHe didn’t seem too bad, at first.  I don’t think he’s a villain, at least.  But you can’t go from saying ‘Oh, Mary, I only want you’, then immediately become engaged to someone else, but still hang around frequently hoping Mary will change her mind.  That has me very suspicious. At best, he’s wishy-washy and lacks courage.  At worst, he cares very little for the feelings of either woman in question.

Then there’s Mr. Napier

-Evelyn_napierHis character is too bland and flimsy to ever have a remote chance with Mary, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to know that. His chief function in this season (despite boring me to death) is to introduce his friend, Mr. Blake, to Mary.  Mr. Blake is the obvious choice for Mary’s next beau.  Of course, they claim to dislike each other passionately at first. Mr. Blake is very cynical about the upper classes, and thinks they don’t deserve their wealth.  Mary is (understandably) offended by this, and dislikes having him around.  Remember season 1, when Matthew and Mary got off on the wrong fit along similar topics?  Matthew’s middle class background, his insistence upon working, his reluctance to have a valet…it’s all echoed in Mr. Blake.  downton-abbey-series-4-charles-blake

And, like clockwork, the two begin to feel differently about one another.  Mary earns Blake’s respect when she proves that she is willing to change and adapt in order to keep Downton financially successful.  Her active role in the estate, along with Tom’s guidance, bring Downton into the 20th century (against Lord Grantham’s wishes).  It’s easy to see reasons why Blake and Mary will continue to be thrown together, and that’s who I’ve got my money on.

4-Edith.  I didn’t mind her this season!  I am really confused about why her beau just went missing at random, apparently as soon as he arrived in Germany!  Germany wasn’t a particularly good place to go at this time, I think, but I find it hard to believe he disappeared without a trace.  Edith kept mentioning that private detectives and the police were searching for him, but we never seemed to see any proof of that–correspondence with them, or with his office in London.  It was just sort of an undercurrent to the latter half of the show, without ever being brought to the forefront.  I found that very strange, and am very curious.  One assumes that he’ll turn up at Christmas, but then I expected him to turn up at the last episode of the series, so that proves my instincts are generally wrong.  Either way, her story line made me extremely grateful to live in a time with birth control.

Well, there’s nothing else to discuss except the big thing this season.  No deaths, no war, no Spanish flu or miscarriages.  But what Julian Fellowes did to Anna seems worse than all of them.  I (and a lot of people who watch the show) felt that it was like a slap in the face. So, let’s talk about why it does and does not make sense for rape to be a feature of this show.

For one thing, it absolutely did happen, and it was covered up.  When you have a society that prizes secrecy as fervently as the Victorians & Edwardians did, you are never going to even be able to estimate how prevalent a problem it was.  And when you have girls in positions of submission, as maids in houses owned by powerful men, they don’t feel capable of speaking out.  Even if the crime wasn’t perpetrated by one of the family, a maid would probably lose her position if she admitted what had happened. The family wouldn’t want any shame brought on them.  So…we can be sure it happened, and we can be sure it happened far more than we could ever prove.  The majority of the time, the perpetrators probably faced no consequences.  Is that an important topic to cover in a history of the period? Sure.

On the other side of the coin, this is not a nonfiction.  This is a primetime soap opera. In the past, it has shown no remorse in exploiting tragedy and death to garner ratings and accolades. But it’s also an idealized version of past reality.  Shows and their show-runners have a pact with their audience.  An agreement among the two parties.  The show-runners provide titillation and excitement, depression and happiness.  They are allowed to play with our emotions, because we like it.  We enjoy a cathartic cry over the deaths, and we smile at our television sets when the hero and heroine finally get together.  We get enjoyment for watching, but we are giving a bit of ourselves to the show, being vulnerable to whatever happens next.  The same pact exists between writers and readers.  As I said, we expect to be tossed and turned a certain amount; that’s what we want.  But it’s a delicate balance, and when the powers-that-be go too far, we feel hard done by, used and abused. I can’t adequately describe how furious I was when I read Atonement.

Julian Fellowes has done a good job, up to this season, creating a safe but believable world. A world where bad things do happen, but usually because of huge ineffable forces like war or disease.

And has Julian Fellowes broken our contract this season?  I think he has.  I feel cheaply thrown about with no real purpose or reason.  Other times, he has stretched believability to create a safe and acceptable version of actual history. The most obvious examples are the ways the family dealt with Thomas’ homosexuality, or the black bandleader, Jack.  We like watching Downton Abbey because the 1920s seem more polite, more elegant, less harsh and grating.  Undoubtedly they were, if you were a rich, white man.  In truth, very few people would have been accepting of gay people in their homes, or black Jazz musicians performing for them. It’s the sad and terrible truth of it.  We overlook it when Julian Fellowes fibs to us, because it makes it easier to enjoy the world he’s created for us.  But, as is often the case, a lie that placates us is twice as acceptable as a truth that hurts us.

He punished Anna, the best of the lot of them, and destroyed all her happiness.  And there is something truly disturbing about a man, with his own share of power, writing a rape scene for a young girl.  And then a real woman has to act out that horrible scene.  It’s almost like a mirror of the attack itself. It reminds me of tales of Alfred Hitchcock, who tortured some of his actresses (notably Tippi Hedron) with horrible scenes and multiple takes in the Birds, who wanted to tear her down and used his scripts and his direction to do it. I’m not saying Julian Fellowes is a vile pervy old man, but when I think about the scene in this light it is even more difficult to accept.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt this was too much to deal with from what has been a safe space.  In reality, though, if you kept watching past that episode, you’ll keep watching the rest of the season.  And on to the Christmas special! I think it would have been a better season without the rape, but it was still good enough that I kept tuning in and wanting to watch.

The Lady Vanishes

the lady vanishesI quite liked this little TV movie. I think the key to my enjoyment of it was that I have never seen the 1939 Hitchcock version of this same story.  It’s best not to compare anything to a Hitchcock film. The film aired on PBS in August to little fanfare, but I thought it was fairly good.

The movie revolves around Iris Carr, a free-spirited independent young woman on holiday in Croatia. She’s played by Tuppence Middleton (no relation to Pippa & Kate). Iris leaves behind her lecherous friends and catches a train back toward home (England). A fellow Englishwoman, Miss. Froy befriends her at the beginning of the trip. Iris goes to sleep, and when she wakes up, Miss. Froy has vanished.  The others in her compartment insist that there never was an Englishwoman.

If this is sounding familiar, it might be because of the Jodie Foster movie, Flightplan. I never actually saw that movie, but from the trailers I surmised that though the plot is virtually identical, it’s her daughter that disappears and not a stranger.  Trying to convince a woman her own daughter doesn’t exist is a bit far-fetched.  But a stranger?

I once sat next to a man on an overnight bus from London to Edinburgh. He slept for the first few hours.  When the bus stopped at a gas station and we all got out to use the ‘loo’ or get some snacks, he didn’t come back to his seat.  I watched them close the doors, thinking maybe I should say something.  His hat was still there on the seat.  I’m glad I didn’t say something, because I spotted him later, sitting in a different seat.  But, the point is, I couldn’t really have picked him out of a lineup if anyone had needed me to.  Dark hair…male…white-ish?  Sleepy.  That would narrow things down for the police.

So to think of meeting a stranger for a few minutes only, and then being so assured of who and what she was, despite contradictions from impartial observers…anyone would doubt what they saw.

The frustrating thing about this story is that we, the audience, of course know that she is real.  We see her with Iris, of course, but we also know that several of the people claiming she didn’t exist are lying. And we see why they are lying.  They’re all English, and they’re all lying because they don’t want to be inconvenienced by telling the truth.  A couple on an illicit weekend (he’s married) don’t want it to get out that they were holidaying together.  Scandal.  A vicar and his wife need to get home to their son, who they’ve learned is sick with Spanish Flu (you’ll remember Spanish flu from its determination to kill everyone on Downton Abbey). Then there are two old biddies who are busy passing judgment on Iris for being (what they view as) a disreputable lady, rather than helping her look for the woman.  We see lots of English people, all of whom refuse to be inconvenienced.  They know someone may be missing, and they lie to Iris’s face about it.  Terrible.

There’s even a condescending Oxford professor who I could not hate more.  If he was a doctor, I could easily imagine him as the husband from The Yellow Wallpaper. He’s the first to suggest that Iris may need to be committed for ‘observation’.  A doctor on the train, closely allied with the Croatian family Iris believes is responsible for Miss Froy’s disappearance, whispers in everyone’s ear about how Iris might be taken care of.  Drugged and shipped off to an asylum.  This is the bad guy saying this–but it’s also the ‘good guys’ saying this.  The Oxford professor. The love interest!

Let’s talk about the love interest.  Tom Hughes (from Cemetery Junction and Silk) plays Max Hare, a young man who agrees to help Iris for the obvious reason that she’s quite beautiful.  She needs his help because she doesn’t speak the language(s) of the region. The professor is his professor.  Max has just met Iris, so he’s understandably unsure of whether to believe her.  She is sure of herself, but she acts very flighty, and everyone else contradicts her statements.  Max believes her because he’s young and she’s beautiful and he wants to help her. But…his belief wavers at critical points.  Talked into calming her by the professor and the doctor, he slips her a sedative.  Uses her trust in him to give her drugs, believes he’s acting in her best interest.  Not his best moment.

There are some really interesting themes in this story.  It definitely makes a fairly obvious comment about the English and their morality–though it is important to note that nearly all of the people who kept quiet in the beginning, tell the truth in time to help.  The story is also pretty xenophobic, with the Slavic Baroness as the villain of the piece, and some institutional corruption thrown in to make you really want to stay in England for the rest of your life and never venture onto that savage continent.  But the thing that bothered me most about it was the threat of committing Iris.  This was a really big problem for many upper-class women.  Read some 19th-century literature and you’ll see it everywhere.  Lady Audley’s Secret, The Woman in White.  Ladies who make trouble for their families, their husbands, or anyone in authority, are declared mentally unstable and shipped off to an asylum for the rest of their days.  Iris was particularly vulnerable, because she has no family and no advocates.

I really like Iris, actually. She’s independent to a fault, freely admits her own bad qualities (she’s selfish and impatient).  But at the moment when she can do something important, right a potential wrong, she doesn’t give up.  Of course, I am thoroughly irritated by the fact that she doesn’t see any need to speak other languages, and doesn’t understand why more foreigners don’t speak English.  Proves that it’s not just Americans who are known to think that way, however.

Problems exist with this TV movie, independent of any comparison to Hitchcock.  Some of the threads of the story are never picked up or explained. Red herrings are far more useful when they actually have an explanation in the end.  Iris hears shots fired when she’s walking around her hotel, at the very beginning of the story.  Her train ticket reservation is gone, and she has to bribe the attendant to get on the train. Someone hits her on the head when she’s waiting on the platform, and she nearly misses the train.  There are bodies near the track.  It’s all very eery, and works to give the audience many possible theories on whodunnit, but then those things are never explained later on.  I like a mystery that connects all of the dots, so that you don’t feel quite so much like you were manipulated.

That being said, I thought the acting was good and the set was really quite beautiful. The train gave a really claustrophobic feeling to the action, and the vague location in foreign lands made Iris seem more lonely and isolated from her own society and those likely to help and believe her.  Obviously the movie takes place in the first half of last century, but it still works.  Everyone who’s traveled somewhere they don’t speak the language has had moments of that same fear.  The difficulty of making oneself believed, and the feeling that this would never happen if you were home where you belong.  I have a personal story about getting lost with no money in Croatia in the middle of a rainstorm.  But that’s a story for a different blog.