Sunday, January 29, 2012


Memo to PBS: Kleenex should sponsor Downton Abbey. I went through an entire box watching this episode.

Before I begin this week's recap, a word on an obnoxious practice that is becoming far too pervasive among television reporters. For heaven's sake, why are outlets giving the entire episode away in their 'preview' pages? Why spoil it for the faithful who want to watch the story unfold on its own? The motives behind this are either stupid or mean, but either way, it's completely unacceptible. On Sunday morning, I happened on a paragraph that summarized the entire episode I'd waited seven days to see while perusing the TV pages of a paper that should know better. I was two sentences in before I realized it. The words 'spoiler alert' would have been nice.

So, if you've seen the episode, read on, if not, spoiler alert! Your choice. You're welcome.

It's the middle of 1918. Ever the dutiful servant even as a solider, William is readying Matthew, for battle. "Am I ready?" asks Captain Crawley. "Only you can answer that, sir," replies William before the two men join the regiment on the battlefield at Amiens. Matthew, having offered some words of encouragement and has them returned by his men, sounds the charge that sends his men over the barrier straight into the German's line of fire. The scene is positively cinematic and heartbreaking. One of the great accomplishments of this series has been its rendering of the absolutely terrifying conditions under which soliders have served during war. Even more impressive, Julian Fellowes has done it without the shock of over the top gore and violence. The short battle scenes have tremendous impact for the simple reason that they focus on the human scale showing soliders as men who, just a short time ago resided in a world so far removed from the reality they now face but who have no choice but to literally run headlong into danger expecting the worst but hoping somehow to be spared.

In this episode Julian Fellowes ventures into pretty soapy territory from the opening scenes, but it worked for me. At the moment Matthew and William are wounded in battle (the former footman throws himself in front of his commander in an effort to save him and both land unconscious in a ditch), Daisy freezes over a pot in the kitchen telling Mrs. Patmore, "Someone walked on me grave" while upstairs Mary drops her teacup telling her mother and grandmother, "I'm so sorry, I suddenly felt terribly cold." As someone who comes from a long line of Irish women who have what we call in our family 'Irish intuition' I've long heard stories of relatives who woke in the middle of the night only to find out a loved one across the continent had died at that precise moment so this bit of melodrama worked for me.

O'Brien wakes Lord and Lady Grantham in the middle of the night telling them to come downstairs where they are met by Mr. Mosley who has brought a telegram to Downton from the Crawley residence with word that Matthew has been gravely injured. Mary, looking appropriately ghostly reels at the news while just outside the parlor door the servants are gathered to hear the news. Lord Grantham tells them about Matthew and Daisy asks about William. Bates suggests if he's been injured his father must have received news as well. Edith (who has become one of my favorite characters since developing her newfound graciousness and compassion) volunteers to drive into the village in the morning to find out what's happened with him.

The next day, Anna tells Bates that Edith has returned with the news that William is severely injured as well. Thrown by the news, she asks Bates to go into the village with her so that they can pray for both men. I'm not sure, but based on their conversation I'm wondering if they went off and got married. Bates: "We should have had a church wedding." I think they got married at a justice of the peace. Anna replies: "I'd rather have the right man than the right wedding."

The news that William is at a hospital in Leeds prompts the Dowager Countess to go to Major Clarkson to request that her favorite servant be moved to Downton where he can be looked after properly and be close to his father. Edith volunteers to be his caretaker, but the major pulls ranks saying that he can't make an exception for the solider and bring him to a hospital for officers only. Granny is not happy. "When you give these little people power it goes to their heads like strong drink," she sputters after their unsuccessful meeting.

O'Brien, who is growing more evil with every episode despite her random moments of remorse for her hateful actions, tells Thomas she's sorry that she's written to Vera telling her that Bates has returned to the hosue "with everything going on." Thomas helpfully reminds her "It wasn't my idea." When these two turn on each other things are really going to get ugly.

Lord Grantham walks in on Mary as she prepares to go to the hospital so she can be there when Matthew is brought in. He tells her that Cora has written to Lavinia about what's happened. Mary quickly acknowledges that was precisely the thing to do and suggests that Matthew's fiancee stay at Downton while she's visiting so she won't be alone at the Crawley estate. Lord Grantham's face registers the full gamut of emotions for his daughter: sadness that she still loves a man she can't be with and pride over her selflessness to do the right thing despite the pain it's causing her.

Just as Mrs. Patmore is encouraging Daisy to let William believe she loves him while the kitchen maid admits she's "ashamed" that "she's led him up the garden path," Vera shows up. "What do you want?" asks Mrs. Patmore who smells trouble.

Nothing good, of course. Vera spews venom (her voice scares me) at Bates and Anna telling her ex (?) husband "Did you think I'd let you take up with your floozy?" and tells him that despite his payoff to her she still plans on selling her story about Lady Mary and the late Mr. Pamuk as well as implicating Anna in the cover up. "You're just angry because I'm happy," says Bates stating the obvious. "But you won't be happy for long," says Vera.

Sybil and Branson engage in their usual verbal foreplay when she goes to him in the garage asking the chaffeur to drive her to the hospital to be with Mary who is attending to Matthew. "Is she still in love with him?" asks Branson. "I don't want to talk about it," replies Sybil. Branson, always spoiling for fight baits her by asking her if she won't talk about it with him because he's just a chaffeur to which she replies, "Because she's my sister." Branson's astute comeback: "You people are good at hiding your feelings." Perhaps, says Sybil, but don't think we don't have any. As much as I love Bates and Anna, this couple has got a real heat that undoubtedly will give the romantic payoff we're waiting for.

Not to be denied, the Dowager Countess finds a way to bring the dying William back to Downton to live out his final days. While the doctor at the army hospital tells her nothing more can be done for him since he sustained a fatal injury to his lungs, out of earshot William's father tells the countess (and himself) that the care he will receive in familar surroundings will restore his health. Violet won't break the man's heart by telling him the truth, "Sometimes we must let the blow fall by degrees" she tells the doctor before departing for Downton. It turns our Granny really is just an old softie after all.

As Mary readies herself for Matthew's arrival, Major Clarkson tries to discourage her from helping out on the ward asking her to "hang back." Undeterred, Mary tells him, "I'm not good at hanging back ... I'm staying." The sight of a deathly pale and bloodied Matthew (is it me or did half the cast look like they were auditioning for Twilight during this episode?) clearly stuns Mary and Sybil, who has matured by leaps and bounds thanks to her role as an army nurse, steps in and tenderly asks the wounded man, "Cousin Matthew, can you hear me?" A soldier who has brought in him tells the women he has been "pumped with morphine and has been unconscious since being found.

Mary discovers a tag attached to Matthew's clothes which reads: 'probable spinal damage' while Sybil finds the little stuffed dog Mary had given him tucked inside the pile of clothes sitting atop his blanket. When Mary tells Sybil she'd given it to him for luck Sybil says, "If only it had worked." Stung by her words Mary tells her sister, "He's alive, isn't he?"

O'Brien is getting more worked up over Vera now that she's threatening to bring the house down on "my lady" since the vengeful maid had only planned to make trouble for Bates in bringing her to Downton. Thomas tells her it's her mistake because she didn't think it through ("It's all in the details," he scolds her). O'Brien calls him a "know it all." But Thomas has the last word: "Don't take it out on me -- you're the one who did it."

Anna tells Mary that Vera has returned with her threats to go public with the story of Pamuk's death in her bed and Mary decides she has no choice but to go to Sir Richard, come clean about the story and ask for his help in keeping her quiet. "Suppose he throws you over?" asks Anna. (I think Mary was secretly hoping for this to happen). Mary tells her maid-slash-BFF that she has no choice and will go to London right away to ask her slimy (my word, not hers) fiance for help.

But what about staying here and looking after Matthew, asks Anna? "I can take some time off to save my own neck," Mary tells her.

William has taken a turn for the worse and his father is afraid to leave him. Edith tells the heartbroken man that she will stay with his son. "He won't be alone. Not for a moment." I'm really starting to love her.

Lavina arrives and finds Mary and Lord Grantham at Matthew's bedside. She is told his spinal cord is permanently damaged. "Will he walk again?" she asks. "No," says Major Clarkson, "He won't." While Lavina cries, the doctor tries to reassure him by saying, "It's not the end of his life" with Mary adding, "Just the start of a different life."

In the hallway away from the women, Lord Grantham takes on the harsher aspects of what Matthew is facing asking Clarkson if Matthew can ever father children and is told no, not ever. Will there really be no love scenes in Mary and Matthew's future? This is really distressing news.

In what I found to be an unnecessary detour in the episode. Mrs. Hughes visits Ethel who has had her baby and, despite her best efforts, has not been able to get Major Mustache to write to her or to see the child. While Mrs. Hughes is sneaking food out of the house for the unwed mother and her infant son, she wholeheartedly disapproves of Ethel's behavior and tells her as much. So why is she helping her. Later, when the major visits Downton to see some of his old friends, Mrs. Hughes tries to convince the cad to have some contact with Ethel and "the wee lad" but is told in no uncertain terms to mind her own business. I don't care one iota about this storyline and it took valuable time away from everything else. I hope this doesn't gain any traction in the last three (!) episodes left.

Mrs. Patmore is still trying to convince Daisy to go to William, tell him she loves him giving him what little happiness she can before he dies. The poor girl is terrified and doesn't know what to say to her faux fiance. "You don't have to be Shakespeare," says the kindhearted cook. Reluctantly, Daisy goes to his room on an upper floor in the house where he has been squestered from the officers while Edith cares for him. William asks Daisy to marry him. She skitters back to the kitchen without giving him an answer.

Downstairs, Mrs. Hughes interviews a new maid, a war widow with a baby. The head housekeeper tells the young woman she will discuss hiring her with Mr. Carson. "I have to earn," says the pretty young woman.

Dreaming of Mary, Matthew wakes to her voice and asks her to tell him about his condition. "Why don't we wait for Lavinia," she tells him. But before long Mary tells Matthew his spinal cord has been damaged and when he asks how long will his injury last, her non-answer tells him all he needs to know. "I'd much rather know," he says while apologizing for "blubbering." Poor Dan Stevens looked positively vampiric in these scenes. It's a credit to his acting that it was only a slight (but unfortunate) distraction.

With her heart breaking, Mary tries to cheer him, "Blubber all you like then when Lavina is here you can make plans." When she gets up from his bed, her tears flow as well.

A word here about the great performances of Dan Stevens (Matthew) and Michelle Dockery (Mary). Both actors did their finest work of the series in this episode. Stevens' Matthew coming to terms with the end of the life he envisioned was heartbreaking and Dockery, who merely has to raise her brow slightly to register the appropriate emotion played devastated but determined Mary to perfection and had me rooting for this increasingly sympathetic heroine more than ever. Bravo to both of them.

The scene between Mary and Sir Richard when she goes to him to tell him the story of that fateful night with Pamuk was riveting. The positively reptilian Richard (is it me or does his voice make him sound like he could be related to Vera?) says upon hearing the tawdry tale: "Who'd have thought the cold and careful Lady Mary Crawley ... Do you still expect me to marry you?" I don't know about you, but he made my skin crawl.

Mary tells him they could dissolve their engagement since it hasn't even been announced but creepy Sir Richard has other plans. Before he tells Mary what he'll do, he reminds her that if they were to marry everyone would assume it is he who is marrying up into nobility, but they both know the real truth now. He'll set a trap for Vera to keep her quiet for his own unchivalrous reasons: "We come to marry on slightly more equal terms and that pleases me." What a guy.

Meanwhile, Lavina tries to convince Matthew that she doesn't care if he won't walk again. Matthew, who says he loves her for saying so, tells her there's "something else" that he can barely bring himself to tell her. "We can never be properly married." It takes a minute for this to sink in with Lavina but she recovers telling him, "That side of things is not important to me."

Matthew, clearly anguished at having to break the young woman's heart tells her: "I couldn't possibly be responsible for stealing away the life you ought to have. Go home. Think of me as dead. Remember me as I was." I pause the DVR to get a second box of tissues.

Branson and Sybil meet again in the garage and this time almost kiss. He tells her the rebels have killed the czar and his family. "I never thought they'd do it," he says. He starts to talk politics but Sybil reminds him they promised to put their politics aside until after the war. "Sometimes a hard sacrifice must be made for a future worth having." He touches her waist as she goes to leave, they almost kiss but she pulls away at the last moment. My money is on the next episode for the long awaited liplock.

I was happy for that brief passionate interlude because I cried my eyes out through rest of the episode. William tells Daisy he knows he's dying and he wants to marry her so he can leave her a widow's pension. "You'll be looked after. It's something to fall back on," he tells her as his breathing gets more shallow. "Let me do that for you." I knew from the moment this character enlisted he wouldn't make it through the season but Fellowes' depiction of his death has been more poignant than I could have imagined. I will really miss this sweet, earnest character. Remember how proud he was to serve that last dinner at Downton in his uniform? It's just so unbearably sad.

More tears as Mary finds Lavina weeping in her bed. She is stunned to learn that Matthew has told Lavina they "can't be lovers" and he won't marry her. "I'll die if I can't have him," Lavina sobs to Mary. That makes two of you.

At the breakfast table the following morning Lord Grantham is livid to read an announcement of Mary and Sir Richard's engagement. "Is that why you went to London yesterday?" he bellows at his equally surprised daughter. Now Mary knows her deal with the devil is etched in stone."Didn't he ask your permission?" he asks incredulous at the "high handed" behavior of his soon to be son-in-law. "I don't think asking permission is his strong suit."

The vicar has come to Downton to express his concern at marrying William on his deathbed to a maid who, he suspects, might be in it for her widow's pension. The Dowager Countess has had enough of men that are beneath her standing in the way of doing what she knows is right. After reminding the vicar that his house, church and its very flowers all come to him courtesy of Lord Grantham she fires her best shot of the episode: "I hope it's not vulgar of me to say I hope you find some way to overcome your scrupples."

Speaking of scrupples or lack thereof, Vera bursts into Sir Richard's office furious at being tricked into signing a contract with him which legally binds her to remain silent about Mary and Pamuk or suffer the consequences. "If I so much as read her name ... I will hound you and ruin you and have you locked up." Vera vows to get revenge on Bates which Sir Richard tells her he couldn't care less about.

Back at Downton, Lord Grantham, who seems to have a lot of freetime this episode is in the library when the new widowed maid bursts in. I detected some distressing chemistry between Lord Grantham and 'Jane' before Mrs. Hughes found the young woman and sent her off to clean the drawing room. I so want to be wrong about this, but I suspect that because Cora has become the busier of the two Grantham with her newfound sense of purpose running the convalescent hospital, the man of the house is feeling a bit neglected (note that she was sending her husband off on a social engagement alone in an earlier scene because she was too busy). I will be so not happy if he helps himself to the help but I get the feeling something is going to happen.

Daisy sits in the kitchen with freshly bobbed hair. Carson gives her a small bouquet from the gardens, offers her his arm and she leads the servants upstairs to William's room which has been poignantly decorated with the same flowers for his bedside nuputials. Fellowes somehow avoid veering into All My Children territory here because the scene is so still. It feels so real. With the servants, Edith and a tearful Dowager Countess ("I have a cold") looking on, the couple exchange vows along with their first -- and last -- kiss. There isn't a lot of dialogue. There doesn't have to be.

Mary is downstairs tending to Matthew who tearfully tells her, "No sane woman would want to be with me" and wretches into a bucket sickened by what he has become. He bitterly remembers how different things were just a few short years ago, when he broke off their engagement and strode out of that fateful graden party. Now, he's become "an impotent cripple stinking of sick." As she gets up to leave, Mary sees that Isobel has returned. Clearly moved to see how lovingly Mary is caring for her son, Isobel tries to put on a brave face as she approaches his bed. Matthew dissolves at the sight of his mother. I've only one tissue left.

Upstairs, Daisy sits at the foot of her new husband's bed. Mrs. Patmore comes in offering to take her place while the new bride gets some rest. "I won't leave him now that he needs me," she says. "He doesn't need none of us no more," says William's father from the head of bed.

And just like that, the last bit of innocence that remained at Downton Abbey is gone forever.

Photo credit: ITV for Masterpiece

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Monday, January 23, 2012


Any talk that Downton's second season isn't living up to its first should cease right now! Last night's episode had it all -- romance (Who is your favorite star crossed couple Bates and Anna or Mary and Matthew? Discuss -- and comment below for goodness sakes),clever wordplay, squabbling among the servants (O'Brien should watch for falling houses) and a musical number that had me reaching for the Kleenex and was, hands down, my favorite scene in a deliciously satisfying hour. I have but one request of Downton's producers: give Laura Linney her walking papers. I like her, but really ... Have you noticed the way she says Downtin Abbey in the intro. The Dowager Countess does not approve!

If you saw this episode, you know just how fabulous it was and if you didn't here's what you missed:

The upstairs-downstairs residents at Downton Abbey have settled into their new routine running a convalescent hospital while maintaining a stiff upper lip and a truncated schedule of formal dinners. Lady Edith and Mary have agreed to a temporary truce long enough to perform together at a concert held at Downton to entertain the recuperating soldiers. Both Lord and Lady Grantham have seemingly gotten over their befuddlement and discomfort over having the war come to their right up to their doorstep and completely upend their lives. And Edith, of all people, seems to have found her calling as Downton's comforter-in-chief.

The turf war between Cousin Isobel and Cora over just who is in charge at Downton was decided in the opening minutes of the episode when Isobel, positively apoplectic over Cora's decision to go on medical rounds with Major Clarkson without her and change the patients' lunch schedule, confronts the lady of house. "You might think you ordain the universe," snipes Isobel loaded for bear. Cora, who seems to have gained a great deal more self-confidence since the last episode, stays silent until Isobel calls her "unprofessional" then adds it's really no surprise since Cora "never had a profession in your life."

When Cora fires back, "Stop your bullying!" Isobel threatens to leave Downton. Bad move. Cora calls her bluff and just like that the show's most annoying character (even if she is Matthew's mother) is sent packing to France to work with the Red Cross. Thus, I hope, ending this storyline. Buh-bye.

Out in the gardens, Mary faces another grilling by Granny about her dubious choice of suitors. The Dowager Countess isn't thrilled (and that's putting it mildly) that Mary's suitor resorted to blackmail to get information from Lavinia on that boring minister scandal which was revealed to be at the heart of the threatening exchange overheard by Rosamund between Sir Richard and Lavinia (or at least that what's Matthew's meh fiancee said). "He lives in a tough world," said Mary in his defense. "And will you be joining him there?" asked Granny who is still holding out hope that Mary and Matthew will reunite. "Granny, it's time to move forward," says Mary who clearly hasn't, but is doing her best to pretend she has.

Undaunted, the Dowager Countess moves on to another topic -- Sybil's love life. She suspects the youngest Grantham may be involved with a man "she doesn't care to mention." How astute of you, Granny. Over by the garage, Sybil and Branson (Who have yet to even kiss) have a heated lover's quarrel. For all his grand talk of standing up for his political beliefs, Sybil is disappointed that Branson is still at Downton "tinkering" with "the motors" from the sidelines while the world changes. Silly girl. The lovelorn but highly egotistical Branson explains why he hasn't bolted: "I'll stay at Downton until you run away with me... You're too scared to admit it, but you're in love with me." I predict some tastefully steamy scenes between these two in the not too distant future.

The couple is interupted by Mary who sizes up the situation pretty quickly and later confronts her sister. "What did you think -- you'd marry the chauffeur and we'd all come to tea?" asks Mary who is appalled at the idea of Sybil's downward mobility in the romance department. "Promise me you won't do anything stupid or I'll tell Papa tonight." Sybil reassures Mary she won't run off with the help but later tells Branson her sister knows about them. Branson feels this is the validation he's been waiting for from his Lady Love since this is the first time she's acknowledged there is an "us." She's incensed that he'd ask her to give her life at Downton up for him. "Too high a price to pay?" he asks. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Speaking of Papa, I am completely crushing on Hugh Bonneville's Lord Grantham. He has imbued the character with such warmth that he has surpassed my other favorite lovable British dad (the real life Michael Middleton -- just think back to how lovely he was on Kate's wedding day and you'll see what I mean). The man is just so decent and kind. I know Julian Fellowes never met an aristocrat he didn't like but he broke the mold creating this fine fellow. Okay, that's it for the soap box.

Lord Grantham was very busy being a big softie during this episode. His first stop is with Mary to argue on the merits of love versus money. (When Mary reminds him he married Cora for her money he is chagrined and says, 'Your mother has made me very happy.") He is none to pleased to receive a letter from Sir Richard Carlisle asking for his permission to propose to Mary (although he's already asked her). Mary's romantic reply when her father asks if she's accepted. "I think I'll take him." Be still my heart. "What about Matthew?" asks Lord Grantham to which she replies: "Oh no not you too! What must he do to convince you he's in love with Lavina open his chest and carve her name on his heart?" Ouch. Lord Grantham tells Mary to write to Matthew to tell him of her plans to marry. "You owe him that," he says.

Mary does write to Matthew who, after, reading the letter picks up Mary's little stuffed dog -- his good luck charm -- and heads out with William (who I was sure was going to be dead by the end of episode) on patrol only to get shot at by the Germans. Uh oh.

Back in Yorkshire, Isobel's departure has left little for Mrs. Bird and Mr. Mosley to do. Mosely decides to kiss up to Carson and see if he can fill in (permanently) as Lord Grantham's valet. I don't like this character but it might be interesting to see him go up against O'Brien. Even though he's a bit wishy washy, something tells me he's wily enough to give her and maybe even Thomas a run for the money.

At the house, Daisy is concerned that something has happened to William and Matthew because they haven't shown up at Downton as William had written they would. She boldly asks Lady Edith (while denying when asked by Edith if William is "her beau") if Lord Grantham could look into it. The newly compassionate Edith says she'll ask her father to find out what he can. Lord Grantham is stricken to learn from the War Office that Matthew and William are both missing and asks Edith not to tell anyone the news until they learn more.

Thomas ("That's Sergeant Barrow!") is driving all the servants batty with his imperious manner and is back in cahoots with O'Brien. Major Clarkson tells him to back off. He receives a letter from his father telling him that Bates is working at a pub in the village. Daisy overhears the news and shares it with Carson who is aghast that a "trained valet" would slum it in a public house. He immediately takes the news to Lord Grantham and the two men confront Thomas about keeping the news from them. The former footman doesn't flinch reminding them that he was under no obligation to share this bit of information. "I'm not under Carson's command now, your Lordship."

Down in the kitchen, while O'Brien chides Thomas for letting Lord Grantham question him ("I won't put you down for a career in diplomacy"). Ethel applauds Thomas for escaping servant life and announces "I'm ready for a new adventure." O'Brien, who is obviously psychic in addition to being a witch says rather presciently, "Be careful what you wish for."

In carrying out his latest string of good deeds, Lord Grantham tells Anna about Bates possibly being in the village and the housemaid tells him she's already seen him. Why hasn't he come back? asked Lord Grantham clearly missing his old "comrade in arms." Two reasons, Anna explains, one he wants to settle "certain matters with Mrs. Bates" and two, because they "parted on bad terms" Bates fears it might be "embarrassing." To which Grantham replies: "It is for me to be embarrassed."

Hat in hand -- literally -- Lord Grantham goes to see Bates to convince him to return to Downton. This scene was among my favorite in the episode with both Bonneville and Brendan Coyle playing these two honorable men constrained by their social positions with such subtlety and meaning. Bates tells his former employer that he has proof Vera has been unfaithful pointing out that while he has "cheated in his heart," he has never done anything dishonorable and her indiscretion will allow him to divorce her. Lord Grantham, who now knows the real reason behind Bates' hasty departure was to protect the Granthams from some mysterious scandal, tries to get him to reveal the real story about the gossip his wicked wife was threatening to reveal, but Bates dismisses it as "nonsense."

Lord Grantham then tells Bates that Matthew is missing and he fears for the worst. "I don't think I could bear it," says Grantham about the idea that Matthew may have been killed. "I loved him like a son. No I love him like a son. We have to stay in the present as long as we still can." So, he asks his old friend, will you come back to help me get through this "veil of shadows? I misjudged you and abused you when you left. I'm sorry." And with that, Bates is back in the fold. And Mr. Mosely is out of a job before he even started.

When he returns to the house, Bates gets a warm "welcome home" from Mrs. Hughes but O'Brien and Thomas are there to remind him that he's still the enemy. Bates jokes that he and Thomas are "like a couple of bad pennies" that keep turning up, but O'Brien is quick to remind him that Thomas has returned under very different circumstances. "I take orders from Major Clarkson." Bates offers his best line of the night: "Yet another reason to pray for peace." Good one!

O'Brien is particularly hateful in this episode. After suspecting that good hearted Mrs. Patmore and guileless Daisy are stealing food and selling it at the Crawley house with Mrs. Bird for profit, she brings Lady Cora along to catch them in the act. When Cora discovers the women are actually feeding wounded men discharged from the war, she rolls up her sleeves and helps them -- and puts O'Brien in charge of slicing the bread.

Anna and Bates have another one of their signature moonlight lovers' rendezvous in the courtyard. Bates asks Anna to "be patient" (only Job has been more patient in my book) and reassures her "You're stuck with me now good and proper." Cue the music (which I love!) as the couple embrace.

Not everyone is having a good night. That same evening, Mrs. Hughes, on a tip from Mr. Mosley, finds Ethel and Major Mustache rolling around in a spare room and fires Ethel. An new adventure, indeed.

Upstairs, the family -- still trying to maintain what little decorum they can -- are getting ready for a formal dinner. On their way down to the dining room, Edith tells Mary that Matthew is missing not out of spite but because she truly believes her sister has a right to know. Reeling at the news, Mary finds comfort in Anna who, if you ask me, is Mary's BFF despite their class difference. Later, Lord Grantham finally tells Cora the bad news and the family heads downstairs to put on the concert for the men. "We have to keep going whatever happens," Lord Grantham tells his wife and daughter.

The best line of night comes once again courtesy of Maggie Smith when her Countess, having overheard the soldiers making a racket on the other side of the door, while trying to enjoy a quiet evening with the family makes this observation: "It's like living in a second rate hotel with guests constantly arriving and no one seems to leave."

The night of the concert finally arrives and everyone looking miserable at the prospect of having to accept the worst about Matthew and William's disappearance. Major Mustache, the warm-up act, performs magic tricks with a black hat and some mysterious scarves for his fellow soldiers. Then it's time for The Crawley Sisters' act. "Now I've seen everything," deadpans the Dowager Countess. Accompanies by Edith on the piano, Mary performs "If You Were the Only Girl in the World." (Fun fact: the song, published in 1916, has been performed by Doris Day and Barbra Streisand) It's an extremely poignant moment as the camera pans to various soldiers in various states of recovery, the staff and family members who are all listening intently to Mary's sweet, lilting voice. Mary then gets the room to join her in song only to be stunned into silence when Matthew and William walk in. Everything stops. I cry like a baby.

"Don't stop for me," says Matthew as he walks towards Mary. (Michelle Dockery was wonderfully expressive in this scene without saying a word. My heart broke for Mary) A clearly relieved Lord Grantham rises to embrace the son he never had as Matthew ("My dear boy, my dear, dear, boy") joins Mary for the big finish on stage. It's Downton Abbey, the musical! More, please. And for God sakes man, kiss her already and lose the mopey redhead.

Afterwards, the whole house is glowing with happiness. Bates and Anna, clearly caught up in the spirit of things, steal a few moments where he tells her: "Who knew an amateur concert could be the summit of happiness. I've been in such a fog of misery since I left you." Anna tells him: "We must get used to being happy and trust it." Bates: "God, I want to." Something tells me this isn't going to end well. Believe me, I so want to be wrong but I don't think I will be.

Thomas and O'Brien look on. Thomas, although still clearly a sworn enemy of Bates, tells O'Brien he's got bigger things to worry about. O'Brien isn't about to let it go. "I hold a grudge longer," she says. The thought of she and Vera working together against Anna and Bates sends a chill up my spine.

Downstairs, Mrs. Hughes is confronted by Ethel who has returned to the house with news that she is pregnant with Major Mustache's baby. Let's see what trick he has up his sleeve now.

Photo credit: ITV for Masterpiece

Monday, January 16, 2012


"You're not the only member of the walking wounded in this house" -- Mrs. Hughes to Mr. Lang

Last night's episode of Downton Abbey did indeed focus on the wounded residing at Downton and reminded us that it's those scars that we cannot see that often go the deepest. It's frayed nerves and broken hearts all around as the great house is turned into a convalescent home for those wounded in the war. The turn of events has given cousin Isobel her chance to try to take over Downton from the good hearted Granthams --- but not so fast!

It seems the other war that is brewing has Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern who continue to be entirely convincing as a long married couple whose love keeps them going through it all )trying to hold their ground while Isobel asserts her conveniently self-appointed authority. While Lord Grantham grapples with the idea of his beloved library being turned into a rec room (Who ordered the pool table?!?), Cora finds herself having to reassert her authority -- in front of the staff, no less -- as lady of the house. This horrifies the staff none of whom are keen to take orders from a distant Grantham cousin. Cora's greatest ally in this battle of wills is O'Brien, whose loyalty is now clearly fueled by the guilt she feels over causing the Lady's miscarriage over a mistaken belief that she was to be replaced. O'Brien shares none of this with Thomas, who is suspicious of his enabler's fierce protectiveness for the woman she had so disliked before, ("What's in it for you?")but, as usual, his own self-interests is enough for him to go along with whatever scheme O'Brien cooks up. When O'Brien convinces Lady Grantham that by assigning Thomas, a former staffer with medical training, to act as manager of the hospital, she'll retain the control of the house, Cora jumps at the idea.

With a few convenient strings pulled, Thomas arrives --and comes through the front door! -- much to Mr. Carson's dismay. But Thomas pulls ranks -- "It's Seargent Barrow!" and with just like that, he's back in the fold.

Much of the episode devoted to the turf war was amusing, but I hope it doesn't take over. This plotline has Isobel morphing into an increasingly annoying and unlikable character. As Matthew put it: "Dear Mother does love a bit of authority."

As for the Grantham's daughters, Lady Sybil, fully immersed in her new passion as a nurse looking very Florence Nightingale in her starched white apron, proves somewhat of an inspiration to Lady Edith. Find something you're good at and go do it, the suddenly sensible youngest Grantham tells Edith. "It's doing nothing that is the enemy" says Sybil. Tired of being the odd woman out, Edith finds bringing touches of kindness to the recovering men is rewarding and gets a surprising acknowledgment for her work -- a champagne toast from a general no less -- leaving everyone (but Isobel)suitably impressed.

Lady Mary has become a much nicer person since breaking up with Matthew. While it makes for an interesting storyline, it doesn't really connect with what we knew of her before, but it's kept the story moving along. In the last episode, Lady Rosamund overheard Richard Carlisle (a long lost Murdoch cousin?) threatening Livinia and smelled blood. Last night, the Dowager Countess and Lady Rosamund continue to plot to get rid of Livinia determined to find out what damaging bit of information they could unearth to banish her from Downton and replace Mary as the rightful heir to Matthew's affections.

"Livinia is an obstacle to your happiness and must be removed" Violet tells Mary but the suddenly sainted Mary will not hear of it. (My favorite line of the episode) Besides, Mary tells her grandmother, there is no guarantee that if Matthew and Livinia end their engagement he will once again propose to her. Violet, never one to take no for an answer, tells her she's taking care of one problem at a time.

The big secret about Livina turned out to be a bit of a snoozer. It turns out that Livinia's uncle, the government's liberal minister, was involved in a stock trading scandal (zzzzzzzzzzzz) and Livinia stole the evidence to and gave it to Richard Carlisle to protect her father who owed Carlisle a large sum of money. In learning that Livinia's pilfered government secrets (but not knowing why), Violet and Rosamund also decide that Lavinia and Richard must be lovers as well. That would make this subplot a lot more exciting but turns out, according to Livinia, not to be true.

Armed with the news of the theft of information, Mary does not tell Matthew but rather goes to Livinia and asks her about it. Big surprise: Livinia does her best delicate flower act (I don't buy it) and says, yes, she did it to protect her father. Mary understands all too well what it means to do whatever it takes to protect your family so she drops the whole thing wasting about ten minutes of valuable episode time that could have been devoted to the lush scenery of the grounds that we've been hankering for.

Matthew turns up on his way to the northern provinces and charms Mary once again with his wry observations about their mothers' turf war over Downton. Several looks across crowded rooms are exchanged. When he departs, he lovingly kisses his fiance good-bye and gives Mary a farewell akin to 'Cheerio, old chap.' Ouch.

The most interesting things happening in the episode took place among the servants who seem to have a much better grasp on the concept that the world is in fact changing and their lives changing with it.

Anna, on a trip to the village, thinks she sees Bates. When she tells Lady Mary of this, Mary tells her Richard can find out anything about anyone (how comforting) and she'll ask him to locate Bates. In short order, Mary tells Anna he is indeed working at the Red Lyon pub in the village. Anna can't understand why Bates, who has admitted to problems with drink in the past, would be working in a pub. Don't be dense! "It's what you do with the information," Mary tells her. So Anna goes off to see Bates. "I don't know if I dreaded this moment or longed for it," he tells her when she steps up to his bar amd orders a glass of cider. These are the moments that I love on this show!

Bates tells her he has evidence that Vera has been unfaithful and that's grounds for divorce. Anna is so in love with Bates she doesn't want to wait for the divorce to be final to be with him. "It's not against the law to take a mistress, Mr. Bates," she tells him. (Isn't it time to call him John?) To which he replies: "I know you, Anna Smith, and that's not the right path for you." Dear Lord, please give these people a few hours of happiness before this whole thing is over.

William, about to go off to war, asks Daisy to marry him. Mrs. Patmore had warned the girl this was coming and told her the only decent thing to do was to say yes even though the kitchen maid didn't share his feelings. I have a terrible feeling William is going to be Downton's first casualty. He's such a sweet, guileless soul so it's a pretty safe bet he won't make it through the entire series.

Lang's shell shock is getting worse and the sight of all those officers proudly wearing their red uniforms is giving him night terrors about being sent back to the front. One night, his nigtmares wake the entire staff. Surprisingly, it's O'Brien that shows him the most compassion. Everyone else just tries their best to steer clear of him.

Branson, an increasingly loose cannon whose political leanings make everyone nervous, tells Sybil he's enlisting so he can denounce the British military (who killed his Irish cousin with a bullet in the street because they thought he was a rebel). But you'll go to jail, says Sybil, clearly distressed by his decision. Yes, but I will have spoken my mind and I'll be alive. Branson's plans are thwarted when he fails the physical (it turns out he had a heart murmur). Then he finds another opportunity where he can make his political views known. When he learns there is to be a dinner at Downton for the general visiting with Matthew, he tells Carson he will stand in for Mr. Lang who clearly is no longer fit for service. Carson, who had fretted about serving the dinner without a footman, is relieved to have the help and tells Branson to find a livery.

In the episode's best sequence, Anna finds Branson's note to Sybil saying he's sorry for what he's about to do. Thinking the worst, the house maid races through the house setting off a relay while we see Branson standing with his back to the group gathered in the dining room about to be served -- what? -- by the disgruntled chauffeur. With seconds to spare, Mr. Carson bursts into the dining room and forcibly removes Branson. Once back downstairs, he accuses him of trying to assassinate the general. That wasn't exactly what he had it mind -- he was just going to pour some cow pies and slop on his head. That will show 'em. At the last minute, sweet William in his military uniform steps in and receives praise from everyone at the table. Dinner goes on unaffected.

But war lurks at every corner. When the general and his squadron are leaving, Lang joins the rest of staff at the front of the house as per Mr. Carson's instruction. Lang finally snaps and collapses into the arms of Lord Grantham begging not to be sent back to the front. Grantham uncomfortable with the emotional display ("Things can't be that bad, man!") hands the distraught Lang back to Carson who is finally forced to see that life at Downton will never be the same.

That night, while preparing for bed, Lord Grantham offers his take to Lady Grantham on the events that have transpired: "The world was in a dream before the war but now it's woken up and said good-bye to it." Indeed.

What did you think of the episode? Leave your comments here

Photo: Vanity Fair

Sunday, January 15, 2012


This year's Golden Globes was a suitably lighthearted affair that seemed infinitely more enjoyable than last year's broadcast namely because host Ricky Gervais struck just the right tone with the Hollywood crowd. For all his talk that he wasn't going to hold back, it was clear that this was going to be a kinder, gentler Ricky when he chose to take not one but two shots at a safe target -- Kim Kardashian -- within the first ten minutes of the broadcast. When Gervais introduced Johnny Depp, the evening's first presenter, he cleverly managed to signal all was forgiven(at least by Depp)for his full-frontal attacks like the one he deployed on The Tourist last year. If you happened to have forgotten, Gervais basically called out Depp for making one of the worst movies of last year with costar Angelina Jolie. Tonight, he told the audience that Depp had taken such a hit for making the film that he was now reduced to starring in a film with him. When Depp took the stage Gervais asked Depp if he had yet to see The Tourist to which Depp sheepishly admitted he hadn't. It was a funny bit and it worked to set the right tone for the night.

From there on in, the stars knew it was pretty much safe to come out on stage and those that did endured fairly benign ribbing which made for a relaxed evening that has always made the Globes the best of the award shows to watch. Full disclosure: I switched to PBS for my weekly fix of Downton Abbey from 9 to 10 pm (moments after it won its own Globe for Best Mini-Series. Hurray!) so I won't be doing my usual minute-by-minute recap. Instead, here's my fashion scorecard from the evening. Let's face it, that's what you want to read about anyway. (For those do who care, I will be doing my usual minute-by-minute recap of The Academy Awards next month)

Okay, let's talk fashion.

The evening's big winner? Zac Posen who dressed so many women I finally lost count including Reese Witherspoon, Kelly Osbourne (never looked better)and glamazon Elle Macpherson.

So who was Best Dressed? Hard to say, I have to give it to Angelina Jolie. While she contends she isn't particularly fond of doing the whole red carpet thing, no other actress is doing it better right now. Sure, she looked a little ice queen-ish but like my mother always said, it's not what you wear, it's how you wear it and Angelina owned that red carpet. No question. Her choice of the one shoulder ivory satin stunner accented with a touch of red by Versace Atelier is sure to be one of those images that we see over and over again forever. Everything was perfect: the understated hair swept into a chic chingnon, the scarlet lips and the red clutch were to die for. If we were scoring points for best dressed couple, however, we'd have to deduct some points. We like the clean, shaven classic Brad a lot better than the scraggly one.

There are several runners-up for the night's top fashion honors. My three favorites of the night: Charlize Theron in pale pink Dior couture (I have to say I really loved the black Azzedine Alaia she wore to the Critic's Choice Awards), Natalie Portman in a sumptuous crimson and fuchsia Lanvin (a glorious way to return from maternity leave!)and Kate Beckinsale (the best body in Hollywood) in a strapless beaded Cavalli gown in the evening's surprisingly popular shade of greige.

Stacy Keibler's looked beautiful in her red Valentino gown(loved the bow in the back!) She and beau George Clooney are my pick for the night's best looking couple. Big surprise, I know.

Other actresses who dressed and impressed: Sofia Vergara in a strapless navy Vera Wang fishtail gown that showed off her twice a day visits to the gym in preparation for tonight perfectly. An elegant Jessica Alba in a lavender beaded Gucci gown that reminded me of another dress in a similar hue that first got her notice on the carpet several years ago. Alba has taken a page from Halle Berry's playbook and began dressing like a movie star long before she became one.

And a round of applause for two of my favorite Hollywood vets: the ageless Michelle Pfeiffer looked absolutely flawless in her navy strapless Armani with its flowing tiered skirt. At 73, Jane Fonda showing off her still killer bod and beautiful face (so what if it's been helped along, she looks good) is my hero.

I bet Reese Witherspoon is having a lot of good sex. How else do you explain her temptress bedhead tresses and skintight red fishtail gown? Contrast this look, if you can, with that frumpy 1960's debutante ball gown she wore when she won her Oscar one husband ago. The transformation is striking. It's not that she didn't look good, but it was just a little too much. I much preferred her revenge dressing looks that she wore from Nina Ricci when she and Ryan Phillippe first spilt.

What a difference a few years make, Madonna. I was frankly shocked that she chose to wear a completely boring Reem Acra (really?) on the red carpet after such a long absence in the limelight. Meh. And the crucifix and gloves? Haven't we moved on from that?

Rooney Mara has one of the most gorgeous faces I've ever seen. I liked her black Nina Ricci dress but it felt it was a little too much of an expected choice given we've seen her in so much black of late. Time to let go of the goth girl.

What was with all those matronly dresses? I love Michelle Williams (who happened to give one of the evening's loveliest speeches) but her penchant for frumpy frocks is disappointing. Remember that dreadful burlap sack adorned with daisies she wore to last year's Globes? This year's panne velvet number by Jason Wu was an improvement but not by much. She is too lovely for these heavy dresses that overwhelm her petite frame.

Jessica Biel looked like she was wearing Sandra Bullock's wedding dress from The Proposal before Betty White altered it. Draping that gives you a third breast is never a good idea. I stood next to this beautiful creature on the red carpet this fall when she was wearing a gorgeous Giambattista Valli. When she gets it right, she's flawless. This was not one of those nights.

Another Jessica, The Help's Jessica Chastain, missed by a mile in a too tight, strangely styled Givenchy. I didn't get the turtleneck, all those pearls or the belt. And her fussy hair aged her. This beautiful young actress, who is really having a moment, needed a statement making dress to suit the stellar year she's had. This was not it.

And what was up with Mila Kunis? You get a contract with Dior and you show up looking like you've put on ten pounds and you've been up all night? I love this actress and anointed her as a new fashion star at last year's Oscars when she wore that dazzling lace dress in lavender by Elie Saab, but tonight she looked awful.

Memo to Lea Michelle: please stop trying so hard. She was literally the last person left on E!'s red carpet and was posing for anyone with a flash. And that lace Marchesa, which would have looked more at home on a professional ice rink, was as overwrought as the actress who wore it.

Now it's on to the SAG Awards!

Leave a comment and tell me who you thought was the night's best and worst dressed.
Photos: Getty

Monday, January 9, 2012


Well, it certainly was worth the wait.

Season two of Downton Abbey opened with very PBS-like fanfare -- a one minute interview by PBS president Neal Shapiro with Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) and a brief introduction to the episode by Laura Linney all dressed up in a suitably elegant black lace dress. We appreciate the gesture, but it wasn't really necessary to have the actress with a penchant for period pieces introduce the season as a way to class up the joint. As Lady Cora likes to say: "No need to gild the lily, dear."

With those distractions out of the way, it took all of a minute to be transported back in time -- to 1916 to be exact. The season's first scene which depicted Matthew (Dan Stevens)leading his men in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme told us this is going to be a very different season at Downton, indeed. Life back at the sprawling Edwardian estate seems "like another world" recalled Matthew to a fellow solider. And now, a greatly changed one for sure.

Cue music and with that, the show's familiar haunting soundtrack swept us back to that fantastical place where politeness and propriety still reigns in the face of war, but not without its challenges.(Last night, the use of music was particularly effective. The show should be sponsored by Kleenex!) Stoic and steadfast Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, never better) works himself sick because he believes "keeping up standards is the only way to let the Germans know they will not beat us in the end." Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) grapples with the realization his days on the battlefield are over and is a bit shamed and chagrined to learn his role as a colonel in this new war is largely ceremonial -- he is charged with 'keeping the spirits up at home.' Lady Grantham is left wistfully to watch her daughters grapple with finding out who they are in the face of the changes the winds of war have brought upon the family and the servants.

"War makes early risers of us all," announces the Dowager Countess as she arrives one morning as Lord and Lady Grantham are directing the staff to prepare for a fundraising concert to be held that evening at Downton to help the war effort. Maggie Smith is off and running when her countess helpfully volunteers to oversee the flower arrangements. She fires the first of many deliciously acerbic one liners with impeccable timing. Upon assessing Cora's efforts she surmises the bouquets "look like something from a first communion .... in southern Italy."

We're quickly brought up to speed on Crawley's three daughters. The perpetually overlooked Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael)has taken up driving having had lessons from Branson, the chauffeur (who, I predict, is going to attract quite a following this season)and announces one night at dinner that she's told some neighbors that she's be happy to drive a tractor to help them care for their farm. After all, she reasons, there will soon be no men left at home for such work so she might as well make the best of it. And she does, falling for the farmer which doesn't sit well with his wife. Something tells me she isn't going to just take the latest in a long line of rejections in stride.

Encouraged by Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Lady Sybill (Jessica Brown-Findlay), intent on making a contribution to the war effort ("I want to do real work") goes off to work at a nearby hospital in York. Before she leaves, she enlists the aid of the kitchen staff who teach her how to boil water (literally). She winds up in a hospital working with the former duplicitous butler Thomas, who managed to get himself sent home from battle by putting himself in harm's way. (More on him later)

While both her younger sisters are grappling with the changes at home, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has gone off to London. When she returns, she learns that Matthew is engaged (spitefully Edith couldn't wait to tell her) to Lavina Swire (Zoe Boyle)and that the man she still loves and his new fiancee are expected for to attend the concert and dinner at Downton that very night.

Julian Fellowes manages to pack more in the first half hour of this episode than most network producers unspool in an entire season. Yet nothing felt rushed or forced. It was simply brilliant storytelling and never more so when he gives viewers the kiss they've been waiting for between long suffering Bates and Anna. Having returned from London on the same train as Mary after his mother's death with news that he's inherited more money than he'd known about, he tells Anna that he can finally divorce his wife since she'll take the money and run. He tells her they can go off and buy a small hotel and start a family. "In my whole life, I never thought I could be this happy," a glowing Anna tells Bates. The actors (the equally wonderful Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)played the scene with such a palpable longing making what followed almost unbearable to watch.

A woman seen from the back wearing a large black hat (A coincidence? We think not) is heard telling Ethel, the new housemaid (who, not so subtly represents the many cultural changes afoot in the mansion with her outspokenness over her resolution to'better herself')about some salacious gossip about the family. She is none other than the long lost Mrs. Bates. I hated her on sight. Her voice dripping with venom, she introduces herself to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Anna. In short order, she's blackmailed Bates into leaving Downton with threats of going public with the ruinous story of Mary's ill fated night with Mr. Pamuk. Having no choice (in his mind) but to sacrifice happiness for the sake of the Crawleys, Bates, offering no explanation to Lord Grantham, resigns his post. Lord Grantham, who is becoming increasingly agitated about the torrent of changes he can't control happening all around him explodes "I've never been so disappointed" while Bates silently endures his tirade.

I was literally sobbing by the time Bates said good-bye to Anna telling her his wife reminded him he was a married man and he needed to go off an honor his vows. While Anna knew this couldn't possibly be the truth, Bates offered her no other explanation despite her pleas not to do anything if it was to save Anna from whatever his horrid wife had in store. But it was no use. It was over. But is it? Mrs. Hughes, who'd lent the estranged couple her office for their reunion chat, was listening at the grate outside heard the long sordid thing and knows the real story behind Bates' hasty departure. She later shared what she knew with Mr. Carson. We found the picture below on the PBS website today, so we're hoping there's a glimmer of happiness for our favorite Downton couple down the road.

Downton's other star crossed would-be lovers, Lady Mary and Matthew exchanged glances across the crowded parlour when he arrives with Lavina. "Well, looks aren't everything," sniped the Dowager Countess as everyone was on their best behavior pretending to be happy for everybody else. Matthew, upon receiving congratulations from Mary, asks her if she's happy. "I'm about to be, does that count?" We doubt it. For the rest of the episode, the former couple treat each other gingerly while juggling their new romances. I thought Fellowes did a particularly good job with making us care about the couple. Honestly, I didn't see that strong of a connection between Lady Mary and Matthew last season so one has to surmise that with them it's a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (Their good-bye scene at the train station was positively cinematic. We're sure the stuffed dog Mary offers her former love for good luck will figure prominently in future episodes. Will Matthew go missing in battle leaving the tiny trinket behind? Stay tuned) Now that they are involved with others, there seem more in love than ever which can only mean some terrific things for future episodes.

Of course, Mary wouldn't be Mary if she wasn't sabotaging her prospects for a happy life. On that score, she has asked her father to welcome her latest suitor, Richard Carlisle, to Downton which displeases just about everyone. He's a self-made man whose money comes from sensational tabloid newspapers with little regard for keeping up appearances among the aristocratic set but possesses a keen understanding of what a wife to the manor born could mean for his fortunes. "The hawker of newspaper scandal" as Lord Grantham calls him is clearly a harbinger of nasty things to come. Later, when Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) hears him arguing with none other than Lavinia in the gardens we know he's up to no good and that's bound to mean trouble for the entire lot.

With so much to do with these major storylines, Fellowes somehow managed to bring viewers up to date on what was happening with all of the servants and there were plenty of surprises on that front, too. I'm not crazy about the new servants or those formerly in the background that have been given more to do this season but that's because their screen time takes precious minutes away from the favorites of season one.

There is one actor whose work in last night's episode warrants a special mention because he was given so much more to do this go round and more than delivered the goods. Thomas' storyline is quite compelling and a well drawn bridge between the house's upstairs-downstairs worlds. Kudos to Rob James-Collier for giving viewers a glimpse into the former footman's tortured psyche. All of Thomas' scheming to secure a place in the medical core in hopes of saving himself from the worst of the war has clearly backfired. When we see him again he's positively terrified on the battlefield. His plans to get himself back to Downton are aided by his old ally O'Brien. He's successful (but not exactly welcomed with open arms). The move proves costly as it land him in unfamiliar emotional territory when he has to grapple with a tragic unexpected loss.

Who knew that a series about love and loss among the emotional ruins of one family and their servants alive during the waning years of British empire would prove to be the most addictive drama to come along in ages. "There is never a dull moment in this house," says the Dowager Countess as she assures a dinner guest when things go awry. We're counting on it.

See you next Sunday!

Photos: Courtesy of PBS

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Forgive me, loyal readers of The Royal Watch. Up until now, this blog has been devoted exclusively to chronicling the goings on of the British royal family. This week, I'm breaking with tradition to write about another equally fascinating family from across the pond.

I'm talking, of course about those embattled aristocrats of "Downton Abbey" -- and their loyal servants (with a few wicked exceptions).

"Downton Abbey," whose second season premieres Sunday night on PBS Masterpiece is as addictive as any soap opera I've ever seen (and trust me, that's saying something!) But it's not a guilty pleasure. I guarantee you'll feel smarter after watching one episode. For all its sublime plot twists and turns and star crossed romances, the period drama is also something of a history lesson on what life was like in Europe on the brink of World War I. For the uninitiated, the series chronicles the lives of the Crawley family and their servants during the reign of King George V. Season one opened with the news of the sinking of the Titanic, an event which sets the story in motion as the family is left without an heir.

Set against the backdrop of a lavish estate in the English countryside during the late Edwardian era, "Downton Abbey," has it all. Breathtaking scenery gorgeously shot, a lavish production (its been reported production costs run upwards of $1 million per episode) filled with beautiful period costumes offering enough inspiration for years of Ralph Lauren collections, perfectly calibrated performances from first rate actors who literally disappear into their characters and enough drama surrounding class conflict, ambition, sex and sibling rivalry to make network executives green with envy.

And then there's the extraordinary house. "Downton" is itself character in the series played by Highclere Castle located in Berkshire. Shooting a majority of the scenes in the huge, imposing structure and on its sprawling grounds lends a rare air of authenticity to the production.

None of this is surprising of course since its part of PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Downton's pedigree is simply impeccable. Written and produced by Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for his Gosford Park screenplay in 2001), the show is an original work produced by Britain's ITV by Carnival Film & Television with PBS Masterpiece as coproducer. Originally conceived as a mini-series, it won six Emmys last year and is nominated for four Golden Globes this year. It was recently been announced production will soon start on season three.

What is shocking is "Downton's" runaway ratings and surging popularity here in the states at a time where the tastes of the lowest common denominator dictate much of what makes it to the small screen. In season one which aired first in England, Brits and American Anglophiles alike were consumed with the 'upstairs and downstairs' lives of the inhabitants of a sprawling Edwardian mansion. Without the big media campaign and network hype that seems to come along with every 'prestigious' production these days, season one of the show drew an amazing 5 million viewers to each episode. (In contrast, "Mad Men's" wildly celebrated first season drew just under 1 million viewers.) In the U.K., season two -- which as already aired -- drew 9 million viewers. Starting this Sunday, record numbers of stateside viewers will likely flock to PBS to find out how the war has effected the social order of "Downton."

Perhaps some of the success of the period drama can be attributed to its timely resonance with modern life with its themes surrounding class conflict and a world struggling to adapt to new technology (a telephone! a typewriter! electricity!). While it appears the stories surrounding various classes and their issues are very specific to the period, there's an appealing timelessness to the stories as well. "The way of life of these servanted houses has always interested me," says Fellowes. "There is something intriguing about this group of people living in close proximity but with such different expectations. The family is living within a sphere and the servants are living in a different one. All with different hopes and dreams."

Thanks to the show's historical advisor, Alistair Bruce, everything about the era in which these people lived is spot on down to the smallest detail from the way in which a valet assisted the lord of the manor with his evening dress to how newspapers were ironed by a footman before they were sent up on the family's breakfast trays. "If the details are right, chance are people will enjoy it more and get more into the story," explains Bruce.

I have to admit, Downton wasn't on my radar when it premiered last year. Thanks to a nasty bug that kept me in bed for several days over the holidays, I was able to watch the entire first season in one marathon session. When I popped in the first DVD containing Downton's first two episodes I was literally transported to England circa 1914 in minutes. A few hours later, I'd watched of all seven episodes and was stunned by what I'd just seen.

I simply could not get the residents of Downton out of my mind (or the haunting soundtrack out of my head). There are 16 principal characters -- of them all with their own intriguing stories played by a mix of most British veterans and appealing newcomers. I adore Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and matriarch of Downton who presides over the family with her irrefutable opinions and delivers the most delicious one-liners of the series. Hugh Bonneville (who some viewers will recognize as Hugh Grant's best friend in "Notting Hill") is the heart and soul of the show as the stoic, sensible and soft-hearted Earl of Grantham who is married to Lady Cora played by Elizabeth McGovern (Best known for her role as Timothy Hutton's pretty high school friend in "Ordinary People"). Casting McGovern was a canny choice as she is one of very few American actors who live and work in the UK having moved their decades ago when she married British producer Simon Curtis. The Grantham's marriage which is cleverly depicted as having evolved from strategic union common within that class for the period (the Earl married Cora for her money) into a true love affair. The couple's affection for each other anchors the show with a timeless realism not often found in period pieces of this sort.

They have three daughters Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery ) whose love life presents untold complications for the family, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) who seems destined for spinsterhood and secretly resents the attention lavished on Mary and the rebellious Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) with a growing interest in politics.

As for the servants, I didn't recognize any of these actors, but I suspect I'll be seeing a lot more of many of them. Most notably Joanne Frogatt whose poignant portrayal of head housemaid Anna, whose love for Mr. Bates (the wonderful Brendan Coyle) has kept her gingerly trying to break down the walls the emotional and physically scarred valet has erected around himself. The actors playing the duplicitous Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) have taken what could have easily been one dimensional caricatures and turned them into compulsively watchable supporting players.

While season one ended with Lady Mary turning down Matthew Crawley's proposal just as World War I begins, season two opens two years later with all of Europe emersed in the war and life at Downton dramatically changed as a result. Undoubtedly, scenes of war will cast a darker tone on the show taking viewers out of the stately house (which now doubles as a convalescent home for the wounded) and on to the battlefield.

What will that mean? How will the family and staff adapt to a new world filled with uncertainties? I'm simply dying to know if Bates and Anna find love and if Mary's secret will finally be revealed and if so, what does it mean for her and her parents? All of the more trivial matter of season one (lost snuff boxes and stolen wine) will undoubtedly pale in comparison to what the residents of Downton will have to face thanks to the winds of war.

If you want to be surprised, here's a word to the wise: stay away from the PBS website and anything from ITV. Spoilers abound. Part of why I loved discovering the series on DVD was the newness of it all. I knew absolutely nothing about the series when I began watching it. There is something delicious about letting Downton unfold at its own pace. When the screen goes to black after the final scene in each episode, the viewer is always genuinely surprised at its denouement and left wanting more.

For those viewers who feel compelled keep up with the Kardashians every week, "Downton" may not be your cup of tea but I have to say, the show's existence has restored a bit of my faith in the medium that somehow managed to make that creature named Snooki a star.

So if you haven't seen it already, do yourself a favor and run out and buy the DVD of season one now or watch it on Netflix before Sunday night's season two premiere. It's simply jolly good intelligent television. Pour yourself some tea, wrap yourself in your favorite cashmere throw and tune in. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.


Photos: Courtesy of PBS