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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Downton Abbey, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Topsy Turvy Downton Abbey

0 Comments on Topsy Turvy Downton Abbey as of 4/26/2014 12:41:00 PM
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2. Painted with woad, and howling

Searches for this phrase (minus the comma) keep popping up in my stats. It’s a Downton Abbey quote, Violet mocking Isobel: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance ’round it, painted with woad and howling.” She didn’t pause for a comma, which has some folks confused. ‘Howling’ here is a verb.

Here is a person who is painted with woad, and is also howling.

woadandhowling Maaaaaaaaatthew!

Woad is a blue dye extracted from a the plant Isatis tinctoria or “dyer’s woad.” Its flowers are yellow but you can get blue from its leaves. I learned a lot about it while researching my Martha books—woad would have been one of Auld Mary’s staples. Indeed, it was a staple in European textiles through the Middle Ages, until it was gradually replaced in commercial use by indigo.

Image from Wikimedia Image source: Wikimedia

You chop the leaves into a paste, let them dry, crumble them into powder, then sprinkle them with water and allow them to ferment, a process known as “couching.” Then you add a mordant, something to help fix the color into the cloth. In days of yore this was most commonly stale urine. (The ammonia in the urine serves as the fixative, as you probably learned from The Mammoth Hunters.) Fun fact: according to this dyeing site, the urine of male beer drinkers was most effective. The collection and sale of urine from certain cities was big business, at one time.

Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase “taking the piss.”

Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.

“No – you’re taking the piss” was the usual rejoinder.

Who knew?

In ancient Scotland, so the story goes, the Picts liked to paint or tattoo themselves with woad, especially before going into battle. In fact, that’s how they came to be called Picts by the Romans, from the Latin word “pictus” or painted. Julius Caesar wrote in his The Conquest of Gaul, “All the British color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color.” Over time his word “vitro” (glass) came to be associated with woad, and the image of blue-painted Scottish warriors stuck. Some modern scholars dispute the association, saying Caesar meant something else entirely; it is widely accepted that the early Britons did engage in body art but the contemporary thinking, as far as I can tell, seems to be that the paint was probably not made from woad. However, other experts will point out that woad has antiseptic properties, which could well explain its use in painting the skin before or after armed conflicts. And so woad lives on in battles (of the scholarly sort) to this day.

Whatever the truth may be, the blue body paint is exactly what the Dowager Countess had in mind when she tossed her barb at Isobel. If I had any kind of Photoshop skills you would be looking at Maggie Smith’s face painted with woad (and howling) right now.

Here’s my recap of the Downton episode in question: Season 4, Episode 5 (UK/DVD 6)

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3. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 7: Ice Cream Should Sort It Out

bazaarreunion
Darling, I’m so glad you survived your time in the land of Prohibition.

(UK / DVD episode 8. Also, spoilers below.)

Proving it has its priorities firmly in place, this episode starts with the VIPs: the Very Important Pigs. Look at ’em, up and drinking, fat and sassy! Oh, what a relief. I’m only sorry we never got to meet that dastardly fellow, the Negligent Pigman. After the great trough catastrophe, Tom and Mary have decided to offer sturdy Mr. Drew, whose devotion to Yew Tree Farm has proven his mettle, the job of Keeper of the Pigs.

Let’s just take a moment to savor this: Downton Abbey is full of grown men and women who require another adult’s help to change clothes three times a day, but Mr. Drew can be trusted to tend these somewhat delicate Pigs and FARM AN ENTIRE FARM. In fact, he’s so reliable that Edith is eyeing him as a potential foster father for her child. (She’ll be talked out of that by Aunt Rosamund, but that comes later.) For once I’m not making fun of the show; I think this is a pretty realistic depiction. I have no doubt that Mr. Drew is fully capable of running his farm and tending the Pigs. And while Mary has shown that she can do a hard night’s work in an extraordinary circumstance (and even elegantly scramble an egg afterward), it’s amusing how different the family’s definition of “farming” is from Mr. Drew’s. When Mary and Robert speak of “farming Downton themselves,” they mean making plans and hiring people to carry them out. When Mr. Drew speaks of farming, he means getting up at 4:30 in the morning to check on the Grantham Pigs before milking his own cow.

A recurring theme throughout the four seasons of this show has been how much happier the upstairs crowd is when they have some real work to do. During the War, we saw Edith blossom as an aide to the recovering soldiers (and, later, as a newspaper columnist), and Sybil grew from a restless cause-seeker to a woman who found real satisfaction in her nursing duties. We began this season with Mary and Isobel in zombie states, six months after Matthew’s death. The spark came back into Mary when she was nudged into taking an interest in the management of the estate, and Violet basically applied a bellows to Isobel, dumping the problem of Carson’s down-and-out former friend in Isobel’s lap, fanning the embers of her do-gooder zeal back into the fire she runs on.

We’ve seen it with Cora, too, this season: so many scenes in which she looks absently up from a book, smiles benignly, and does nothing of consequence—she has seemed more like an amiable ghost than a person whose actions have any effect on the world. This week, Cora was zooming around in a whirl of bazaar preparations, and although her somewhat vapid remarks seemed designed to elicit eye-rolls from her family as well as the audience, the truth is that organizing an event on the scale of that one is a mammoth undertaking. If you tried to assign me that job, I’d run away with the Pigman. I appreciated Tom’s insightful “beast of burden” remark near the end of the episode, his recognition of how hard Cora had toiled over the bazaar. I still found myself wanting to roll my eyes at everything Cora said—I’m serious when I say I think the script wanted me to—but Tom’s right. We very seldom see Cora at work, but she does work. There are parts of her job she could do a great deal better; she’s been only superficially aware of Edith’s misery and Rose’s mischief all season. But she organized a mighty impressive bazaar, and I’m glad Tom gave her her props.

But I’m jumping ahead. This week saw the Dowager Countess back on her feet, poking Isobel with her customary relish. She drags Isobel in to help entertain Mary’s godfather and seems mildly surprised to see the distinguished widower taking an interest in our Mrs. Crawley. Lord Merton walks Isobel home, totally spaces that her son has died, and sends a gorgeous flower arrangement in apology. Did anyone catch his rank? I’m not sure I see Isobel remarrying (she’s too easily irritated), but it would be pretty funny if she married into a higher rank than Violet’s.

Through Violet, we learn that Uncle Harold is mixed up in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which I think a lot of us suspected, given the timing and the hints. So far, this plotline has had little effect on the Downton main players except to remove Robert and Thomas from the scene for a couple of episodes. Frankly, we needed a rest from both of them. Thomas’s absence has allowed a nice little relationship to flourish between Miss Baxter and Molesley, who is absolutely astonished to see himself through Miss Baxter’s eyes. She envies him his lifetime in a community that, in her words, respects him and likes him. Molesley, after sinking just about as low as he could go—reduced to digging roads and begging for a footman’s job—has finally encountered someone who doesn’t view him as the ultimate sad sack. It’s quite sweet.

Violet’s other occupation this week is to ferret out the truth about Edith, and to respond with deep understanding. Rosamund has tipped her mother off that Edith “needs cherishing,” and when, shortly afterward, Rosamund makes a sudden visit to Downton to announce she’s taking Edith to Switzerland for several months—to improve her French—Violet does the math. If she tsk-tsks Edith, we never see it. Instead, she offers to pay Edith’s travel expenses. Edith is not exactly happy about the plan—it kills her to think she won’t be any part of her baby’s life—but she’s relieved not to have to tell Cora she’s pregnant, at least.

Another round of Alfred Drama sets the kitchen crowd fluttering once again, but mostly only because no one wants Daisy know what’s going on. Since the tactic Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes apply to Hiding Things from Daisy is to make alarmed faces at her every time she walks into the kitchen, Daisy susses out the truth pretty quickly. Alfred has written to propose to Ivy; Ivy has turned him down; and now Alfred is going to swing by Downton to say goodbye forever. Mrs. Patmore sends Daisy off to visit her father-in-law, Mr. Mason, to spare her the pain of watching Ivy break Alfred’s heart one last time. But Mr. Mason persuades Daisy to go back and say a real goodbye to him, leaving “nothing jagged, nothing harsh” between them. This is probably the wisest advice anyone’s ever given Daisy, whose heart is full of jagged edges, and she carries it out so gracefully that for the first time we have hope she may not turn out a bitter, sharp-tongued shrew. Mrs. Patmore’s heartfelt praise afterward (“I couldn’t have been prouder if you were my own daughter”) clearly touches Daisy. Actually, Miss Baxter’s words to Molesley apply very much to Daisy as well—in her eleven years at Downton she has developed quite a supportive (if sometimes overzealous) network of friends, whether she realizes it or not. Including Mr. Mason, who is basically a more talkative Matthew Cuthbert. Daisy, like Molesley, is luckier than she realizes. Perhaps someday we’ll see her realize it.

Charles Blake and Evelyn Napier announce they’ll be ending their prolonged stay at Downton, both of them leaving their hearts at Mary’s feet. (Mary fails to notice Napier’s and accidentally kicks it under the sofa, where it will lie forgotten until 1941, when a young London evacuee will discover it and it to his collection of birds’ eggs and owl pellets.) Before Charles goes, however, he jumps another notch in Mary’s esteem by demonstrating his undaunted willingness to do that which most Downton upstairs folk quail from: he voluntarily holds Baby George, and even seems to like it. First Pigs, now babies. (At Downton we don’t uppercase babies; that might make them think we’ve remembered they exist.)

To make sure Mary is well stocked up on attention before her suitors depart, Tony Gillingham sends word that he’s going to stop by for the night. For Anna, this is terrible news: it means another encounter with Tony’s valet, Mr. Green—and another opportunity for Mr. Bates to put two and two together about the identity of her rapist (but he’s already done that math, hasn’t he). Anna, distraught by the prospect of Green’s return, finally reveals to Mary that he was her attacker. Mary is horrified and wants to notify the police, but Anna swears her to secrecy. If Bates learns the truth, he’ll kill Green and hang for it; of this everyone in the know seems quite certain. Because obviously, Anna’s rape is All About Bates. I’m sorry, I’m so disgusted with this entire narrative thread.

Including the way every major scene involving Bates (all season) seems to take place in the bootroom—the site of Anna’s attack. Green is the villain, but it’s Bates we see here, over and over, making his sinister, brooding faces. It’s here Bates badgers Anna about Green’s return: “And Mr. Green? He’ll be coming back? Have you gone off him? You liked him so much when he first came.” WE GET IT, BATES. Don’t be a monster. But Green will arrive, and Anna will go tharn at the servants’ table, sickened by his presence, and Bates will ask leading questions about where exactly in London Green lives, furthering Anna’s torment. I miss first-season Bates. Season 4 Bates is worse than Thomas. At least Thomas doesn’t pretend to be anything but self-serving.

Tom and Isobel go to Thirsk, the small town six miles from Downton, where Tom spies Rose caressing Jack Ross’s cheek in a restaurant. Back home in the village, Isobel and Tom (who spend a lot of time together this season; it’s quite sweet) bump into Sarah Bunting, village teacher, the young woman Tom met at the political meeting last week. This was my favorite scene of the week, because of the way Isobel rushes to speak up on Tom’s behalf when he won’t. He’s a keen political thinker, she informs Sarah, unafraid to question his own beliefs. Tom’s been in such existential turmoil lately, it was nice to see Isobel characterizing it in a way he might be able to make his own peace with. Isobel gives Sarah Bunting a stamp of approval too: “She knows her own mind”—a quality Isobel appreciates in everyone except Violet.

Back home, Tom takes his uncomfortable Rose secret to Mary. (Best moment of the week: his absolute panic when Mary asks why he isn’t in tails for dinner. After all, Granny’s coming. Poor Tom.) Mary takes the Rose news in stride—it wasn’t a total surprise to her, after all, since she caught them making out weeks ago. She’ll deal with it.

At dinner that night, the main course is We’re All in Love With Mary, with a side of Thinking Is a Dangerous Occupation. Tony’s been rambling around Scotland having epiphanies while Charles and Mary were being perfectly splendid at rescuing Pigs. In the morning, Tony confesses to Mary that he has broken his engagement with Mabel, not that Mabel knows it yet. Mary still can’t promise to marry Tony, however, she’s “not on the market.” Honey, this season you are the market. Next morning, her trio of admirers departs, leaving the ladies behind to debate the best collective noun for suitors, while Mary smiles serenely and pretends to be annoyed.

Regarding the matter of Rose’s suitor, Mary plays a more active role. Rose declares she’s going to marry Jack Ross, they’re totally in love and also it will really upset her mother. Mary immediately makes plans to go to London the next day, where she will pay a visit to Jack Ross and put the kibosh on the wedding plans. Now, this is a show that thrives on making high drama out of mild events (“Alfred’s coming for a visit? BATTLE STATIONS, EVERYBODY!!”), but then we’ll have a storyline that might conceivably be expected to generate some theatrics, and it’s defused in the most mellow fashion, over a cup of tea. Jack thinks Mary is underestimating Rose’s mettle, but no worries, he’ll call off the engagement anyway. He loves Rose and doesn’t want her to have to face the societal censure she’ll incur by marrying a black man. Sorry, Rose.

Anna is spending the night in London with Mary, freeing Bates to head off to York on mysterious errands of his own. Mary lunches with Tony Gillingham, swatting away a few more declarations of undying devotion, including the news that Tony has broken his engagement to Mabel, who by all accounts is as good a sport as Jack Ross. But Mary’s real purpose in meeting Tony is to ask him to fire Mr. Green, no questions asked. Naturally, Tony agrees. Mary says jump, you jump. (But would Charles Blake jump? I’m not so sure. I think he’s a better sparring partner for Mary. Sigh, I miss Matthew.)

Tom happens upon Sarah Bunting, stranded by the side of the road with car problems. She’s surprised to learn Lord Grantham’s son-in-law is actually out on estate business—she assumed it was a figurehead position—not to mention that he knows his way around a car engine. Tom fills her in on his past. This makes Sarah “take a kinder view of the family”—she doesn’t generally “warm to their type.” “I don’t believe in types,” says Tom. “I believe in people.” So now I want to run off to America with Tom.

Back at Downton, look who’s in the bootroom! It’s Bates, being secretive about what he did in York all day. “This and that.” He’s not even trying to put on a front for Anna anymore. He’s been a total Mr. Hyde this whole episode. Dear Julian Fellowes, this is why my husband won’t watch the show with me anymore.

The day of the bazaar arrives, sunny and beautiful. Look—a miracle! There’s Mary holding baby Geo—nope, wait, she’s handing him back to Nanny. Whew, I thought the earth was going to crack open there for a second. Rose pouts to Mary about her nixed engagement; Molesley, basking in Miss Baxter’s admiration, trounces Jimmy at a game of Ring the Bell; and menfolk converge upon the Downton women from all directions. Robert’s back! Tony Gillingham’s back! Charles Blake is back! Sorry, Edith, no one here for you. Have some ice cream.

maryandcharles

Robert’s return is wreathed in smiles. Actually, the way Edith lit up in genuine joy when she saw him was very touching. Even Mary smiled, like a real smile that showed teeth, and the sight was so startling I realize how seldom we’ve seen her that way. Cora and Robert have a reunion as loving an affectionate (and, yes, cornily written) as their parting last episode. The warmth between these two has been given a lot of screen time this year.

His mission was successful; Uncle Harold is saved. We’ll get to meet him next week in the final episode of the season. (And since he’s played by Paul Giamatti, I can’t wait.)

Lord Gillingham brings less cheerful news. I’m sure we were all shocked (shocked!) to learn that his valet, Mr. Green, is dead. Stumbled and fell into traffic the day before. Mary still won’t tell Tony why she wanted him to fire Green, and I’m sure he doesn’t suspect anything when she immediately walks over to Anna and tells her the news. That’s about when Charles Blake shows up, and Mary pulls him aside to ask his advice about turning in a man you suspect of committing a crime you personally believe was a very good crime to commit. Charles says he’d keep quiet, which is what Mary is hoping he’ll say but is a reaction that makes very little sense. Who can answer a hypothetical like that? What kind of crime, Mary? There’s a pretty big range of possibility there. Charles, I thought you had more gumption.

Anna murmurs to Bates that she wishes she knew what he’d been up to the day before. He says, “You know me, when I do a thing I like to have a very good reason for doing it”—which is TOTALLY NOT SUSPICIOUS AT ALL. You’d think his time in prison would have taught him how to cover his tracks better.

Of course Robert’s return means Thomas is back, too. He sidles up to Miss Baxter and starts picking for secrets—always with the everlasting secrets—but Molesley nips at him and escorts Miss Baxter away. Anticlimactic return for Thomas.

Now all that’s left is for Mary’s suitors to proclaim their determination to wait as long as necessary for her frozen heart to melt in one direction or the other, and let’s all raise our glasses to the best bazaar in Downton history, or least since Violet was in charge.

My previous Downton Abbey recaps are here.

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4. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 6: Heartbreak to Flavor Our Puddings for Weeks to Come

tomatmeeting
“You do realize even Alfred gets more screen time than you do?”

(UK / DVD  episode 7. Also, spoilers below.)

Telegram! Robert has been summoned to America by Cora’s Horrible American Mother to assist Cora’s Impossible American Brother. There’s a scandal involving oil and a Senate committee who may or may not be favorably impressed by a titled brother-in-law, because nothing says respectable like an impoverished English earl who snaps up an American heiress to save his estate, and then loses her fortune on bad investments.

Bit of a flurry over the notion that Bates must accompany Lord Grantham to America. (I love how it’s always “America.” Last season, when Shirley Maclaine arrived to out-shout the Dowager, she referred to her home as “America” 100% of the time. You have to wonder if Julian Fellowes has ever chatted with any Americans long enough to discover that if you ask us where we’re from, we don’t name our country; we name our state. Unless you’re a New Yorker, in which case you name your borough.)

Anna puts on a brave face for Bates, but sobs in the hall. Mrs. Hughes takes the case to Lady Mary, who puts on her best stone face and insists she would like to help, but she “must know the facts.” What is Mrs. Hughes to do? She reveals Anna’s secret, and Mary marches straight to her father and orders him to take Thomas to America instead of Bates, wearing that exact same stone face and saying, “I can’t explain it. If I could you’d agree with me.” I actually burst out laughing at this, despite the graveness of the subject matter. It’s so Mary. She expects her father to jump when she says jump and take her word that jumping is the gentlemanly thing to do in this circumstance. But by golly, nobody’d better expect her to take any request on faith.

All right, then, it’s settled, Bates stays, Thomas goes,  Mary has a moment with Bates (“It wasn’t your fault, Bates. It wasn’t Anna’s, but it wasn’t yours, either”), and—HOLD ON EVERYONE, THE PIGS ARE COMING!

I absolutely love how every time anyone in this episode says “Pigs,” it starts with a capital letter.

Pig interlude over, we can go back to bidding Robert farewell. My second shout of laughter came at Cora and Robert’s parting scene. This dialogue—

“Oh darling. I do think your going to rescue my hopeless brother is an act of real love, and I cherish you for it.”

“That’ll keep me warm as I cross the raging seas.”

“Good. Now kiss me.”

—are you kidding me? We’ve left Melrose Abbey and entered John-and-Marsha territory. I can’t decide if Fellowes is punking us or what.

Thomas is looking forward to his report from Miss Baxter when he returns. Only Thomas could make an abundance of verbal italics come off as sinister. Molesley, loading the suitcases into the car with humble, gloved hands, overhears the italics and furrows a brow in concern.

Robert has tender words for Poor Edith, leaves Rose in charge of “fun,” chides Mary for being preoccupied, is too preoccupied to notice his mother is about to keel over, and admits he’s going to miss his dog Isis most of all. The post-war years have not been kind to Robert.

As soon as he drives off, Violet admits to Isobel that she feels ill. Isobel offers to help her home, but “that is the very last thing I would want.” Which means, of course, that Isobel’s help is the very only thing she’s going to get for the rest of the episode. She comes down with a nasty case of bronchitis, Isobel gamely volunteers to nurse her round the clock, the doctor makes eyebrows, Cora and Mary stand three feet away from the bed on their one and only visit to Granny during the whole episode, and Violet is every bit as mean to Isobel in her fevered delirium as she is in her highest spirits. Last week, the volley of barbs between these two characters was the funniest part of the episode, even if their scenes did have COMIC FILLER written in Sharpie across the top of every page. But this week, ugh. We get it. They annoy each other, they need each other, they have each other’s backs as long as they can grumble about it. Now give me back my Lady Sleuths show, please?

(Violet’s arch “Oh, goody goody” at the end of the episode was almost worth the price of admission, though.)

Mary spars with Charles Blake: he’s frustrated by the stubborn helplessness of the owners of “these failing estates,” and she’s shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU, by his suggestion that God isn’t weeping to see aristocrats losing hold of their lands.

Wait, did someone say Pigs? Even better! PIGMAN! There’s a Pigman, and he’s been hired! For the Pigs!

Tragedy strikes the servants’ hall: Alfred wants to stop in for a visit. Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes are Highly Alarmed, because undoubtedly his presence will reignite the Daisy/Ivy feud—you know, the one that never actually ceased, because it would kill Daisy not to mutter darkly in Ivy’s direction every five minutes. To prevent the reignition, the senior servants whisper plans back and forth through several scenes. I don’t know why they’re whispering; Ivy and Daisy can’t hear them anyway over all their feuding.

Anyway, the grand plan is to tell Alfred there’s flu at Downton and he must stay at the inn, lest he jeopardize his cooking course. I mean, this is one elaborate lie. Carson has to waylay Alfred right off the train and divert him to the inn, and stay and have a drink with him, and foot the bill. Back in the kitchen, Daisy hears Alfred isn’t coming and rips right into Ivy, fueled with fresh ammunition because obviously Alfred doesn’t want to return to the place where his broken heart is buried. Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore, listening to the warfare, congratulate themselves on having prevented it.

Later, Alfred will pop in anyway, flu be damned. More sniping! The End.

Mary has a heart-to-heart with Evelyn Napier about why Charles Blake seems not to like her. Since Napier’s heart is a timid little rabbit thumping away in his genteel breast, the closest he can come to proposing to Mary (which we all know he’s been wanting to do since the year the Titanic went down) is to tell her Charles Blake thinks he, Evelyn, is blind where Mary’s concerned. Mary’s not listening anyway; she’s still puzzling over the news that Blake finds her “aloof.”

She pesters Anna on this point: Moi? Aloof? “Do you want me to answer truthfully, or like a lady’s  maid?” replies Anna, which is entirely too honest for Mary’s comfort. Mary immediately turns the subject to Anna’s secret, which she knows Anna knows she knows. Anna is not ready to talk about it, not to anyone, though she admits to being relieved there is “honesty between us again.”

Stop the presses, THE PIGS HAVE ARRIVED. Oh, but Mary missed it. It seems she was busy standing a safe distance from her grandmother’s bed at the time. Never mind, she can see them tomorrow.

Edith and Rose go up to London, each with her own secret plans. Rose wrangles permission to visit some Totally Respectable Friends, and is next seen floating down the river in a boat with Jack Ross, the jazz singer. He seems pretty level-headed about the future prospects of this relationship, but Rose is all, “Oh shut up and kiss me.” John! Marsha!

Edith’s secret is, of course, much graver. Aunt Rosamund ferrets the truth out of her: Edith has scheduled an abortion. This was a pretty touching scene: Edith’s anguished cry, “I’m killing the wanted child of a man I’m in love with and you ask me if I’ve thought about it” strikes home with Rosamund, who announces she’s going with her to the appointment. Once there, a heartbroken Edith confesses that she can’t bear the thought of being an outcast all her life, as will certainly be the case if she tries to raise a child born out of wedlock. She has always, always been the odd man, even (or especially) in her own home. She can’t let herself become some “funny old woman” living in isolation, endlessly gossiped about and received by no one. But then she hears another patient sobbing, and she changes her mind. Perhaps she can’t bear to be an outcast, but neither can she go through with the abortion. Rosamund takes her home, and we don’t yet know what Edith’s fate will be.

Rose pitches a dainty fit at the news she’s going back to Downton sooner than anticipated, and that’s about it for Rose this week.

But she gets more screen time than Tom, who is mostly busy around the fringes playing chauffeur, dog-watcher, and Greeter of the Pigs. But he does show up at the political meeting Isobel urged him to attend, and winds up sitting next to an amiable young woman—after both of them are singled out to embarrassing effect by the politician at the podium. I assume we’ll meet this new friend again? Here’s hoping.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PIGS?! I mean, the suspense has been something awful. Come on, Downton, you promised me Pigs.

Mary and Charles decide to wander out to visit the famous Pigs after dinner, still wearing their fancy dress. (Obviously. One mustn’t underdress for Pigs.) It’s a long walk, but no one gets chilly in a beaded dinner dress in England in the evening, and high heels are perfect for strolling across damp fields. At last we meet them, the marvelous Pigs. But oh no! Where is the Extremely Reliable Pigman? Off celebrating his lucky station in life, no doubt. And if you thought the Alfred situation was tragic, brace yourself: these Pigs are Not Doing Well At All. They’ve knocked over their water trough, and the brutal English sun has baked them to the brink of death.

Cue the special Pig Music! With no time to lose, Charles springs into action. Mary will not sit idly by and watch this loathed fellow save Her Pigs all by himself. It’s nice that there are four water pails so ready at hand. The two of them work tirelessly long into the night, saving the Pigs with carefully apportioned swallows of water. And it’s a well known truism of television that a rich woman never looks lovelier than when she is tastefully smeared with mud (preferably with a lock or two of hair wisping down), so down Mary must go, flop-bott. Charles looks upon her with new eyes, and when, having delivered salvation to her beasts, Mary laughs her throaty laugh, Charles is a goner.

Sorry, Tony Gillingham. Who by chance arrives the next day! But first Ivy has to stumble upon Mary and Charles in the kitchen at the crack of dawn, enjoying well-deserved scrambled eggs and glasses of Carson’s best wine. But no one’s at all suspicious of shenanigans, because Mary Wouldn’t Behave that Way. Well, except for that one time her foreign lover died in her bed and she had to drag his corpse down the hall, but come on. Bygones.

Mary does look genuinely delighted to see Tony. Her face softens and she’s very warm with him, and only jabs him once about Mabel. Seems Tony and Charles are old war buddies. Napier shuffles nervously: oh dear, more competition. It’s sweet the way he thinks he’s actually in the running.

But along with Tony Gillingham comes his valet, the rapist. Mrs. Hughes confronts him: I know who you are and what you’ve done. Green tries to pass it off as if Anna was drunk and willing, but of course Mrs. H. isn’t buying that. Now, here’s the part that confused me. He thanks her for not telling Bates he was the attacker—so he seems to have some inkling that Bates will kill him (probably literally) if he finds out. And yet a few minutes later, there Green is at dinner with the servants, spouting loudly and pointedly about how, on his previous visit, the opera singer was “screaming and screeching as if her finger was stuck in a door” and he escaped her performance by coming downstairs. He knows Bates knows that’s when and where Anna was raped. He’s just begging for revenge. He should have taken Mrs. Hughes’s advice to “stop playing joker, and keep to the shadows.” Because now Bates is looking murder at him, and the Melrose Abbey soundtrack tells us there is danger ahead.

But I very much fear I’m never going to find out what became of the Pigman.

My previous Downton Abbey recaps are here.

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5. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 5: Only the Foolish Are Foolhardy

batesdiningrestaurant
“Look, I’m as unhappy about this storyline as you are.”

SPOILERS BELOW.

So here we are at episode 5—that’s episode 6 by UK reckoning, or if you’re watching via Amazon—more than halfway through the season. And if I have realized anything during these past few weeks, it’s that I would pay good money to watch a show featuring Isobel Crawley as a village sleuth—a sort of “indigation-fueled ” Miss Marple (to borrow Violet’s excellent phrase) minus the knitting—solving local crimes in between rounds of barbed exchanges with her crotchety relation. The whole Young Peg plot was a predictable throwaway, really—he’s a thief! no wait, I’ve been sitting on the paper-knife this whole time—but it allowed for some of the most amusing dialogue and face-making of the season. (And some champion bell-ringing on Violet’s part.) Game, set, match to the Dowager, indeed. Did you catch the stink-eye Isobel shot the good doctor at that remark? Coming to take his staunch loyalty for granted, are we?

dowagerringssmall

As for the rest of them, there’s a lot of stasis going on. Edith keeps getting caught crying in corners, and Robert and Cora express much sympathy but then immediately turn their thoughts to other topics. The conversation between the two of them in the bedroom that one night was amazing. They each uttered one sentence about “poor Edith” and then swept immediately on to Cora’s brother Harold’s mysterious predicament.

Of course, if they knew what Edith was really crying about, they’d be talking of nothing else. Our predictions about last week’s doctor visit in London were confirmed: Edith is expecting. Now what? And still no news of Michael.

Speaking of Uncle Harold, Robert’s had bad news of him in a letter, some scandal he’s involved with; seems Harold is “in a fine fix” and has “backed a lame horse” and when Robert starts trotting out strings of clichés I always want to hug him. Life’s brisk changes are endlessly perplexing to him and he takes such comfort in well-worn phrases, poor dear.

And now the Downton aristocrat-farmers are going to try their hand at pigs! Oh, I do hope one of them breaks loose and wanders into Violet’s house, and Isobel has to solve the mystery of The Mud on the Carpets.

Thomas continues to badger Baxter for upstairs secrets. She picks up a whiff of Rose’s birthday plans for Robert, but not the specifics, only that a secret exists. This, of course, drives Thomas to immediately suspect all manner of diabolical deeds brewing in the minds of his employers. (The most diabolical of all, apparently, being possible layoffs. He’s so far off-base, so needlessly dramatic, that it would be comical if it didn’t seem a rather hamhanded attempt to inject some tension into a house that is actually running pretty smoothly at the moment.)

Having been tipped off that Mrs. Hughes is in on the secret, he tries to pry it out of her, and she has so much private entertainment in stringing him along (“I’m a woman of mystery if ever there was one”) that I’ve decided to cast her in my No. 1 Downton Ladies’ Detective Agency show. I’m thinking an 80s-style montage for the opening credits, what do you think?

Anyway. Big news in the kitchen: Alfred gets a letter of acceptance to the cooking school, after all. Daisy, whose glee at his having been rejected spurred her to break servants-hall protocol and (gasp) serve him the first scone, is once more downcast, and bitterly angry at Ivy (as usual). But it was nice to see Daisy rally, there at the end, and give Alfred a genuinely sweet goodbye. Also, that was a lovely pie crust she was rolling out.

Jimmy takes Ivy on another date—to see Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik—and then tries to get fresh with her afterward. Ivy’s having none of it. Back in the kitchen, Mrs. Patmore and Mrs Hughes console Ivy, and then Daisy bites her head off again, and Mrs. Hughes says Ivy had it coming. Rough night for Ivy.

Anna and Bates are each struggling, one tearful, one sinister and brooding, to cope with life after Anna’s rape. I’m fed up with Bates; he’s being just awful. If you must brood, do it where she can’t see you, for Pete’s sake. In an attempt to “make new memories,” they go out to dinner at a hotel, where they meet the maître d’ from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Snooty? Snotty.) Fortunately, Cora (the Sausage King of Downton Abbey) come to their rescue, effortlessly tying the mortified host in knots. That was enjoyable. It was nice to see Cora have something to do, for once.

(Tangent: I’m dying to know what books she’s been reading all season. She reads constantly. Are they books from the Downton library? Are they new and popular novels from town? It’s killing me.)

Of course, one fancy dinner can’t erase the pain Anna and Bates are in. Whisperings of their unknown troubles reach Baxter’s ears, who relates them to Thomas reluctantly and for no good reason. I mean, I know that Thomas is holding some kind of leverage over Baxter’s head, but that doesn’t mean she had to tell him that specific scrap of gossip if she didn’t want to. I assume the tension between them is going to boil over soon, and perhaps we’ll find out what dark secret Thomas is holding over Baxter’s head. But Baxter doesn’t seem terrified; really she just comes off as weary of the whole game. Which must be frustrating as all get-out for Thomas.

Lovely moment between Mary, Tom, and Isobel in the nursery, reminiscing about how they all fell crazy in love with their lost spouses. It was touching and sweet, and Isobel is so wonderful when she lets her soft side show: “Well, aren’t we the lucky ones.” Beautiful.

Though I did want to pinch Isobel a little when she declined the chance to hold baby George because he wouldn’t know who “this funny old lady was.” See, you have to actually interact with babies once in a while if you want them to know you are, Grandmama.

(I’m wondering how Cora will feel about being assigned “Granny.”)

Molesley, upon learning that Alfred is leaving after all, reappears with hope in his heart—that footman position may be beneath him, but it’s better than digging roads—and Carson smacks him down quite ruthlessly. Doesn’t matter if you’re scrubbing toilets at Downton, you’d jolly well better be excited about it. So off slumps poor old Mose once more, but Mrs. Hughes intercepts him and before you can say “One lump or two,” she’s got the whole matter sorted. (Proving again that the housekeeper holds the keys to everything at Downton, including Carson’s heart.) She hires Molesley to serve tea to the servants. Violet accepted the news that her grandaughter ran off with the chauffeur more calmly than Carson reacted to the sight of Molesley in a kitchen apron. OH FINE, you can be a footman.

Robert, upon realizing propriety says he should call Molesley “Joseph” now, suffers a minor heart attack at his birthday dinner. Fortunately his mother is there to breeze right over it. Molesley he is, and Molesley he shall remain. Which is a pity, because his name is surprisingly hard to type.

But before we get to the birthday dinner, we must meet Mary’s new sparring partner. Evelyn Napier has arrived with his boss, the handsome Charles Blake, who lands immediately on Mary’s bad side. (Which is generally where Mary prefers her love interests to be.) Charles, it seems, has been dispatched by Lloyd George’s government to survey failing estates—not with an eye toward assisting their struggling owners, as Mary had assumed, but in order to assess the likelihood of food shortages. So: Mary dislikes Charles, Charles dislikes Mary, Napier is seated way at the opposite end of the table, and I’m thinking it’s just as well Tony Gillingham went ahead and proposed to poor old Mabel.

Well, Rose’s big birthday surprise has the desired effect: the Downton crowd both upstairs and down are staggered by the jazz band, especially Mr. Ross. But they rally quickly, make a few earnestly patronizing statements about what a decent fellow Ross seems to be, and the upstairs crowd demonstrates some genuine enthusiasm during the dancing. Isobel, never one to miss an opportunity to moralize, points out to Tom (who has spent the episode continuing to ponder emigration to America) that if jazz can happen at Downton, why, anything can, and so he oughtn’t to give up on the family quite yet. Tom smiles at her with that sweet expression of his that says, “I’m way too polite to argue with you, but seriously, you don’t really think they’re going to let me date anyone here, do you?”

There’s one more surprise in store for Mary, who catches Rose making out with Jack Ross downstairs after the party. Mary, who abhors a scene, backs quietly up the stairs and calls out a warning to give the lovebirds a chance to jump apart, and then politely ignores the guilt written all over Rose’s face during the ensuing conversation about the band’s bill. Mary walks back up the stairs looking troubled, and there’s our Melrose Abbey exit music.

Well, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go set fire to the abbey and dance round it painted with woad and howling.

My previous Downton Abbey recaps are here.

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6. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 4: Nothing Is Over, and Nothing Is Done With

alfredcooks

After the high drama of last week, this episode proceeds at a more subdued pace—right up until the final scene, which comes off like a promo instead of a scene: Previously on Melrose Abbey. But truly, there wasn’t a whole lot of Melrose in the house this time around. The most shocking development was that Mary voluntarily spent ten minutes in the nursery with baby George.

We open in a somber mood: Bates walking alone and lonely from the cottage, Anna in silent misery in the maids’ room, covering her fading bruises with powder. When she finds Bates waiting for her in the passage downstairs, she’s short with him: “I don’t know why you always wait for me. There’s no need.” He tries to answer with the old warm smile, but when she rebuffs him again, he shifts into that forceful, almost angry tone that makes him seem more like the bully his first wife claimed he was rather than the gentle Bates we fell in love with along with Anna. Of course we’ve seen, more than Anna has, his tough side; we know how he was able to take care of himself in prison. I’m wondering, this season, if Julian Fellowes wants us to harbor doubts about whether or not Bates really was innocent in the matter of Vera’s death, after all. In response to Anna’s sudden and unexplained distancing, Bates slips quickly into a stern countenance. He doesn’t plead with her to explain so much as order her to.

The tense exchange is interrupted by the new lady’s maid, Miss Baxter. Time for this week’s Newfangled Gadget! What will Mrs. Patmore make of Baxter’s electric sewing machine? At least she needn’t worry that it will replace her in the kitchen. (Hold onto your corset-strings, Mrs. P.; before the evening’s over, Lady Cora will ambush you with a refrigerator.) A nice moment with Daisy: When Miss Baxter offers her a try at the machine, we get the first smile we’ve seen out of that girl all season.

And Mrs. Patmore may not be a futurist (loved that line) but she’s forward-thinking enough to encourage Alfred’s dream of attending the cooking school at the Ritz. “Hope I’m not inciting a revolution!” she sings out, sounding for all the world as if she wouldn’t mind if she did. Daisy is giving Albert cooking lessons—and demonstrating her own competence as she does, though she seems unaware of it. It’s nice to see how far she’s come in her profession, given how little she seems to have matured emotionally these past ten-odd years.

Miss Baxter seems off to a good start, wooing Cora with orange juice because she’s heard Americans like it. She is friendly and likable, and though we learn soon enough that Thomas has landed her this job because he wants a spy both above and below-stairs, Miss Baxter doesn’t seem like a schemer. I’m sure Thomas will put the squeeze on her soon, and we’ll see how she reacts under pressure, but for now, I’m rooting for her.

***

Isobel, at the good doctor’s prompting, takes a young villager under her wing, securing him a position as the Dowager Countess’s undergardener. This is a minor subplot, introducing a bit of tension between Isobel and Violet, which always makes for good dialogue. Violet lands some of her pointiest blows in recent weeks, seeming to revel in the open (but oh so genteel) warfare with her do-gooder relation. “I wonder your halo doesn’t grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara round the clock!” And now a letter opener’s gone missing, and my guess is it would positively make Violet’s day to see Isobel humbled by having put forward a thief. Isobel, despite having been pressured into recommending Peg by the doctor in the first place, climbs to the highest heights of her high horse at the very suggestion. It’s to these actresses’ credit that they can ratchet this rather banal storyline into some of the sharpest comedy of the episode.

***

Meanwhile, in Affairs of the Estate: an aged tenant has died and since he hasn’t paid rent in a long time, his heirs are to be evicted. But his son, Mr. Drew, an earnest man of middle age, pleads with Lord Grantham to let him take over the farm.

“Our family has farmed at Yew Tree since the Napoleonic Wars. Surely that’s got to mean something.”

“It means a great deal to me,” Robert replies, promising to see what he can do—meaning, see if he can talk Mary into letting the man renew the lease. Interesting to see how helpless Robert already feels when it comes to decisions regarding the estate. Just a few weeks ago he was tsk-tsking over the idea of Mary having any involvement at all, and now he’s all furrowbrowed over the prospect of approaching her for permission.

Later, Mr. Drew visits Robert in the house. He speaks frankly, with dignity: he can’t pay the arrears right away, but “we’ve worked this land in partnership with the Crawleys for centuries.” This resonates with Robert. He offers to lend Mr. Drew the back rent out of his own pocket, so that the estate books may be brought clear.

When Mary hears that her father wants to give the lease back to the Drews, she’s a bit peeved. Robert makes an earnest case for the partnership—that word again.

“If we don’t respect the past, we’ll find it harder to build our future,” he says at dinner, prompting a comic reaction from his mother, who finds it too fine a sentiment: “The one thing we don’t want is a poet in the family.” It’s become impossible to know when Violet is serious, and when she’s just trolling. A chauffeur she can adjust to, but a poet? Horrors. “The only poet peer I’m aware of is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.”

As for Mr. Drew, it seems even Cora is in his corner, pointing out the moral (not legal) obligation to work with him. I enjoyed Tom’s reaction to Mary’s prodding. He’s on the farmer’s side, of course! “I haven’t abandoned all my socialism.” Tom continues to struggle with questions of identity—bit of a Pygmalion thing going on—but for the most part the family whisks past his mental turmoil. They’ve welcomed him into their inner circle and it’s baffling to them that he might not feel at ease there in the long run.

By the end of the episode, Mary and Tom have discovered Robert’s secret loan to Mr. Drew. Mary is heartened by Robert’s confidence in the man, and by his kindness. Echoing her father’s expression, she remarks to Tom that the incident tells her they are “in partnership with a good man.” Mary doles out compliments sparingly (just ask Edith), so this was a nice little beat.

***

Meanwhile, Mr. Carson (mightily pleased with his cleverness) has decided to kill two birds with one stone by offering Alfred’s job to Molesley, should Alfred get into the cooking school. Woe to Molesley for not responding with groveling gratitude. His hesitation offends the dickens out of Carson, who seems to take relish in rescinding the offer when poor Alfred gets a rejection letter. Molesley’s reaction to the bad news is rather hilarious. “You’ve missed your chance.”—(shrugs) “As I generally do.”

But wait! Alfred’s in, after all! Will Molesley get another chance? Will he grovel to Carson’s satisfaction this time? Will the tide ever turn for this longsuffering Eeyore?

***

And back we come to Anna and Bates. I was bothered by the two bootroom scenes. Isn’t that where the rape occurred? It’s horrible to have Bates looming over Anna in such a disagreeable way, there in the very site of her attack, his tone never gentle, earnest, or imploring, but rather stern and grim. He’s reading her sudden coldness as an indication that she no longer loves him, and his reaction to that seems to be primarily anger (not anguish) because she won’t tell him what he did wrong.

When he eavesdrops on her conversation with Mrs. Hughes, he gets a glimmer of understanding that maybe he hasn’t trangressed after all. First chance he gets, he transfers his hostile interrogation to the housekeeper.  If she won’t spill Anna’s secret, he’ll have to leave Downton immediately. He’s playing hardball, and it works. Mrs. Hughes reluctantly explains. He guesses the culprit but Mrs. H. denies it, even (under his relentless inquisition) swearing on her mother’s grave. She’s a staunch and generous soul, that Mrs. Hughes.

Alone in the hall, Mr. Bates breaks down and sobs. But before long he’s back in the bootroom, confronting Anna—and again with the menacing edge, for the first part of the conversation. He confirms Anna’s worst fears: “If it was the valet, he’s a dead man”—forcing poor Anna into the terrible position of having to defend Green, lest Bates go hunt him down and wind up back in jail.

Because of all this menacing on Bates’s part, the tearful reconciliation didn’t move me the way I think it was meant to. Bates’s words were touching, and he sounded sincere— “Why do you talk of shame? You are made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you have been put through. You are my wife, and I have never been prouder or loved you more than this moment”—but I was too bothered by his prior behavior to be melted by this speech. I’m glad, at least, that he and Anna are reunited, if not recovered. Bates’s parting words to Mrs. Hughes at the episode’s close make it clear recovery is a long way away. And that scene, as I suggested above, struck me as completely superfluous to actual plot. There’s no reason Bates needs to glower at Mrs. Hughes and tell her the matter isn’t over and done with. If he’s harboring revenge plans, what point is there in troubling her with them, except to milk a bit of drama out of the ending? 

***

Odds and ends:

• No letters for Edith, who still hasn’t heard from Michael. All right, gang: do any of you have guesses about what’s become of him? Her doctor visit suggests tempests ahead.

• Tony Gillingham is engaged to Lucky Mabel, but I wouldn’t order their wedding gift just yet.

• Looks, it’s nice Mr. Napier, last seen shaking his head in regret over having lost Mary’s attention to his Turkish friend in season one. (I presume we all know how that ended.) He’s still carrying a torch for her, obviously. But, oh, poor Evelyn. “It’s lovely to see you looking so…lovely.” Mary requires a more witty bantering partner than that. He’s in Yorkshire on government business: he’s involved with an assessment of the estates in the area and manages to wrangle an invitation for himself and his boss to stay at Downton for the duration. Hasn’t he learned not to invite competition?

• “Mrs. Patmore, is there any aspect of the present day you can accept without resistance?” “Oh my lady…I wouldn’t mind getting rid of me corset.”

• Tom: “Made me face the fact that I’m living where I don’t belong.”
Edith: “Welcome to the club.”
Mary: “Oh, stop moaning.” Boy, when she told Edith (after Sybil’s death, was it?) that they were never going to be friends, she wasn’t kidding.

• Cousin Oliver Rose has an idea for Robert’s birthday party. Gee, I wonder what ::coughjazzbandcough:: that might be?

• Mostly I want to talk about that awesome moment when Violet says to Isobel, “Nobody cares as much about anything as you do” and then chortles to herself for the next ten minutes. That laugh was amazing. You could fill an entire episode with Maggie Smith chuckling over her own witticisms and I would watch it on repeat.

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7. My new Downton Abbey recap

…is up at GeekMom. Lots to talk about this week.

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8. New Downton Abbey Recap

Season 3, Episode 5 (U.S. reckoning) over at GeekMom.

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9. The SUFPC No. 5 Finalists! (As introduced by the Dowager Countess)


Goodness me!

It pains me to have been forced to judge an affair as middle class as a first paragraph contest. Are we now to share our inner thoughts with one another in public? Are we all artists, running naked in the streets? How horrid.

Lord Bransford told me that the caliber of entries was the best he'd ever seen in any of his contests, but I found them all perfectly dreadful. If I had to choose a winner it would none of them. I would hate for people to be left with something as pointless as ambition.

However, Lord Bransford informed me that I must choose a selection of finalists, though why he didn't write a will with these instructions and leave them in the care of an unreliable heir I shall never know. All instructions of import should be argued over at great length over the course of many years. What else shall we aristocrats do with our time? Learn to cook?

There were many common threads in these entries, perhaps the most common of which is death in far too many forms. I am all-too-familiar with death having frequented the halls Downton Abbey, where one must check one's pulse at regular intervals lest you realize you've been afflicted with a mysterious disease and perished before they could even put away the silverware. Luckily I shall outlive you all because you cannot kill the witty.

A weakness in many entries was an excess of chattiness, which I simply cannot abide. Save it for the gallows, where you shall doubtless end up with such excitable loose lips.

Another common trope was that if only the narrator had known what was about to happen then everything would have been quite different. Why yes, I do suppose that if one were a fortuneteller quite a bit about life would be rather different. But we don't walk around gazing into crystal balls, do we? Life is interesting enough as it is, one needn't be so surprised by it all.

Sighing, gasping, waking up, and looking into mirrors were all abundantly accounted for in these paragraphs. I began to wonder if I were reading descriptions of a typical morning for my granddaughter Lady Mary.

And dare I say there is much about England that is changing these days but I'm quite certain the definition of a "paragraph" has not changed. There were far too many revolutionaries who chose to ignore the strictures of the English language. I cannot abide revolutions, everyone winds up disappointed in the end.

Now, these are the honorable mentions, who will be allowed henceforce to bring me tea in the library, provided they are properly attired and have not engaged in any previous desultory behavior.

Matt Borgard
heatherkamins.com
T Aydelott
Liane
JDuncan
Kelly Johnson
Charlee Vale
Crafty Green Poet
Bryan Hilson
Cathrine Bock
harryipants
Joanna
Chad Sourbeer
Eva Natiello
Iliad fan
Irene Pozoukidis
Pamela

The instructions for voting is as follows. I argued with Lord Bransford that no women should be involved in something as sinister as voting, but he insisted that it be open to all. These are vulgar times indeed.

In order to vote for the winner, please leave a vote in the comments section of this post. You will have until Sunday, 7pm Eastern time to vote. Kindly do not e-mail Lord Bransford your vote (gracious me, what is "e-mail," is it some sort of ghastly dance?).

There shall be no campaigning in private or public for yourself or your favorites, and suspicious voting may result in disqualification. Participating in this entire exercise should well be grounds for disqualification, but I suppose it's far too late for that.

Anonymous commenting will be closed for the duration of the voting to ensure transparency. The winner shall be announced on Monday.

The eight finalists are...

Sue Curnow:

The Mazda hit ice. Carter cursed, fought for control, lost it in kaleidoscope swirls, and the vehicle hurtled down a steep bank, jamming Tori against seat and headrest. Terror strangled her heart, breath refused to come and let out her screams. Stillness as the car stopped, engine running, headlights shining on pristine snow. Relief caught laughter in Tori’s throat, until she realized where they’d ended up. The Coldwater River. Confirming her fears, ice cracked loud as a pistol shot. Carter undid his seatbelt. Tori depressed the button on hers. It refused to give despite her frantic efforts. Carter opened his door, got out the car, then bent to peer back in. “Goodbye, Tori,” he said.


Robert Wyatt:

One of the hoariest adages in booklore is that a tale should never commence with a description of the weather, but what is to be done if you wish to tell about a wraith found at your doorstep in the midst of an electrical snowstorm? Skip to the good, warm part in the middle? No. You must tell it as it was.


Crystal:

Peter had seen strangers in the road before, but there was something different about this man...something sinister. Most people passed on their way without a thought for what might lie on the opposite bank of the river that ran beside the road, but this man, in his tattered cloak that fluttered restlessly around him, stood bent and still. He seemed to be staring at a spot on the edge of the road, as if he knew that was where a bridge should begin.


Saille:

It was a good day until fire started falling out of the sky. The sun was just up, and the leading edge of the spring burn was behaving exactly as the kindlers had predicted, which was a relief, because this was Thus’s first year as an outrunner. Ahead, he could hear the high whistles of his herd of capas, and see their broad silver backs parting the grasses, leaving gleaming, vee-shaped wakes behind them. They moved toward the firebreak restively, but without panic. He supposed they must have grazed their way back across it in the night. It didn’t matter. This was the one day that Thus and the other stewards didn’t need to be responsible for their small allotments of the People’s larger herd. A capa could keep out of the way of fire more easily than the People, because capas weren’t responsible for putting it out. He still felt a wash of protectiveness, though. He’d delivered some of the young for the first time this year, turning their tapering heads and soft, wrinkled paws to lie correctly along the birth canal before drawing them, dark and shining, into the world, where the rhythm of their mothers’ hearts gave way to the susurration of the grasses.


elizabethmarianaranjo.com:

She was a striking girl, all shadow and stillness. Judith watched her carefully. Twenty years teaching middle school had taught her the subtler ways to approach them, the ones who wore solitude like a shell. If you look away, they disappear. But if you look too close, they withdraw. You have to learn to look sideways.


Todd Zuniga:

Delia walks over to the couch where I’m sitting, asks me, “Seriously, why’d you manslaughter your baby?” I tell her she already knows I don’t know. “Huh,” she considers as she crosses her arms. Her hair a tangle of grey curls. Maybe, maybe-not Delia has room to judge: she manslaughtered her mother, who was eighty-three.


Cheryl W.:

Time is a funny thing. People often discover this quite young. You can be in time, on time, buy time, waste time, but you can never trust time. Even though some folks will claim time’s on their side, or their ally is time, or they have time, time doesn’t know them from any other of the trillion souls that live and breathe upon the earth. Time is oblivious to us and likes it that way, thank you very much. “Time,” as most people know it, is purely a manmade manifestation of numbers on a watch or shadows on a sundial, even radioactive isotopes oscillating rain or shine, but Time itself is as elusive as the future to a dying man. We desperately seek to control it, manipulate it and force trains to run to it, but as we never understand from whence the universe came or where it’s going, we’re lost in contemplation of Time’s vagaries. For instance: the past can be as alive to a person as the present, seeming to exist as one within the eye of the observer, just as Einstein posited. To those who insist upon it, time - the present and the past - can be experienced simultaneously. Bartholomew Lewis was just such a man.


Chris Bailey:

I would have given Mom a good-bye hug, but StepThad’s arm rested across her shoulder. Like the two of them were glued together. Double hug or nothing.


Congratulations to everyone. God help the winners of this affair.

122 Comments on The SUFPC No. 5 Finalists! (As introduced by the Dowager Countess), last added: 2/11/2013
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10. My Downton Recap

Over at GeekMom.

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11. Sunday

So I was getting over the flu and then I got sick again, just a cold, I think? But wiping. Me. Out. Three weeks post-flu and I was still feeling draggy, and now I’m useless.

Or mostly useless. I just submitted my Downton recap (watched it earlier via DVD), which will go live at GeekMom tonight or tomorrow. I’d love it if you’d drop by tomorrow and join the conversation there. (Trying to keep Downton comments off this blog because Jane isn’t caught up yet.)

***

Yesterday, Rilla came to me (lolling in my bed, trying to read, mostly coughing) wanting to play a game. She had two small foam circles, each about the size of a silver dollar. It was a guessing game: what are they now? The child’s inventiveness was spectacular. She started me off easy: boy (one circle) with rainhat (the other circle folded into a tiny triangle). I mustered a ladybug. She countered with an eclipse. My efforts: a taco, some earrings. Child’s play compared to my six-year-old’s contributions.

Once, she rolled both circles into little tubes and held them side by side, bending them a bit with her fingers. I was stumped.

“They’re wavy smell lines!” she explained. “You know, like in comics? How they show you something’s giving off a smell?”

Safe to say I would not have guessed that, not it a million years.

At another point, she held both circles up to her face, pressing them haphazardly against her chin and a cheek.

Chicken pox.

***

We also spent a long time yesterday—Wonderboy, Rilla, and I—playing with Google Maps, visiting our favorite local park…Grandma’s house…the Eiffel Tower…Australia. The kids’ favorite part was “walking” up our street in street view, trying to figure out how long ago the Google car drove by. Daffodils in the neighbor’s yard and oranges on the tree across the street, which means it was about this time of year. Last year, because the new owner of the house over the way hadn’t taken down the little pomegranate tree yet. (Why’d she do it? We don’t know.) Sometime after Scott and I switched sides of the driveway, because the minivan’s on the right. There’s a smallish window of time there, and it’s a bit creepy to think of all this quiet surveillance. And yet fun to wonder what we were doing right then, just beyond the camera’s reach — reading a book? eating scones? messing around on Google Maps?

This reminded Scott of the day a few years back when he was on his way home from work and found himself driving behind the Google car for several blocks. We looked up the street, and sure enough, there he is—signing “I love you” to me.

silverado.jpg

Man, that guy knows how to play the long game.

 

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12. Some Downton Abbey Fun and Maybe Not So Fun

Where is Bette Davis when you need her...
As many know, I have been a huge Downton Abbey fan. So, of course, last night's episode was a disappointment. I fee like the writing since the first season has been uneven. There were many other ways to handle the "Matthew" situation:

-Matthew could have been kidnapped by aliens
-Sent to India
-Sent to the mad house
-Recast like Bewitched/Rosanne characters
-A Doctor Who solution... Cast David Tennant as Matthew!

Season Four Likely Scenarios:

-The grandkids, a little older, are given puppies and/or kittens as gifts from the Dowager. They are promptly killed off in a freak steamroller accident.

-Matthew will have an identical cousin; Edith will marry him. Mary will acquire more and more cats and live in a Grey Gardens situation. 

-Hercule Poirot shows up and more main characters start to die in strangely unlikely ways. Who is the murderer?

Back off Tennant!

2 Comments on Some Downton Abbey Fun and Maybe Not So Fun, last added: 2/20/2013
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13. The Invisible Writer

penandinkDownton Abbey (which I’m discussing elsewhere so as not to put spoilers in Jane’s path) got me thinking about the man behind the curtain (or the woman, as the case may be)—the writer. My frustrations with that show have to do mostly with the way the writing is sometimes so very visible. Much of the conversation I’ve seen around the web today, including in my own post, questions decisions made by Julian Fellowes. In a way, he’s as much a character in the series as anyone on camera. We’re always aware of his fingers on the keys—this well-turned quip, that infuriating plot twist, this theme stated baldly and repeatedly by numerous characters until we feel bludgeoned by it.

It’s unusual, and therefore interesting, to see a show of this calibre (clearly there is something above-the-pack about Downton that keeps us all panting for the next episode, and has so many of us talking talking talking week after week) fail on a suspension-of-disbelief level with such regularity. We’re constantly thinking about the writing, and therefore the writer. This is seldom the case with other fine shows I’ve been hooked on. Mad Men, for example—I hardly ever think about the writing while I’m watching it. Afterward, yes, generally with admiration, always with fascination.

The Wire: I don’t believe I ever once considered the people behind the curtain during the entire run of that show. I was pulled so thoroughly into the world that it became absolutely real. Sometimes I’ll see one of the actors in another role and get a jolt: but I thought you were still walking a beat in Baltimore!

LOST is an example of an excellent show which nevertheless featured The Writing as a supporting character. Indeed, there were entire seasons when I was pretty sure the writers had no idea where certain strands were going, and sometimes The Writing seemed to wander off into the jungle and be eaten by a polar bear. (I mean, that whole thing with ghostly Walt popping up now and then, after he’d been returned to the mainland—did they ever explain that? I have the feeling the young actor grew up too much over a hiatus and they had to just let the plotline fizzle away—which would be an event outside the story affecting the storyline.)

And yet I loved LOST (and still miss it), just as I have loved Downton, despite the enormous footprints The Writing leaves all over the house. (The poor housemaids, always having to clean up after it—and then it repays them by giving them the sack, or throwing their husbands in jail.)

The Downton incident that so many of us are bemoaning today is a particularly egregious case of The Writing leaping in front of the camera and announcing it’s ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. An off-camera, real-world decision by an actor seems to have annoyed The Writing, possibly outraged it, and it rummaged through the cupboard until it found a rusty old overused implement and flung it through the fourth wall.

As a writer myself, I like to ponder the people behind the curtain—after the fact. When the show’s over and I’ve emerged from its world, that’s when I like to imagine the discussions in the writers’ room or trace the artful seed-planting that bears delicious fruit somewhere down the line. Arrested Development is one of the best examples ever of a show whose writers are so perfectly invisible that I never think of them at all during an episode—and then afterwards, or four episodes later, or on the seventh viewing, I’ll find myself marveling at their skill, their cleverness, their patience (allowing a joke to bide its time and blossom half a season later). That’s a show in which the writers are never onstage, but upon recollection I’ll wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they came up with some of their bits. What I wouldn’t give for a YouTube clip of the day they came up with Bob Loblaw! Who thought up that name? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link; you have to hear it spoken aloud.) Did the rest of the team all fall out of their chairs laughing when one of them uttered it for the first time? Were they able to get any work done for the rest of the day or was it overthrown by helpless giggles?

The internet, of course, puts us all in closer contact with the creators of our books, television shows, films, and music. Many of you probably know me better than you know my books. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, it may be hard to approach my books without thinking of me, the writer, on the other side of the page. At least, that’s how it is for me when I open books written by people I know, either in person or online.

Sometimes this familiarity works in the writer’s favor, and sometimes it hinders full enjoyment of the work. Returning to LOST, for example: much as I loved that show, much as I hung on every next episode, I had an uneasiness in the back of my mind the whole time, because early on I’d seen a TED talk by J.J. Abrams, in which he told a story about buying a mystery box at a magic store as a kid—a box marked only with a question mark, so that you didn’t know what was inside until you took it home and opened it. He never opened his. He displayed it right there during his talk, still sealed up decades later. It held more meaning for him as a possibility, a mystery; he’d kept it as a talisman all those years, a symbol of the joy of the unknown. I listened to him describe this—it was early in Season 2, I think—and I thought, Ohhhh NO, he likes unanswered riddles. LOST had us up to our ears in unanswered riddles, and by golly I wanted answers; but knowing what I knew about one of the most powerful people behind that particular curtain, I no longer had confidence answers would be provided.

(And yet I dove eagerly into that quicksand pit of riddles week after week.)

With novels, it seems generally easier to tuck the writer back behind the curtain and forget about him or her. Not always, but usually, if the story is well told. This is probably because there are fewer variables; your novel’s characters can’t quit on you, or send unfortunate tweets, or be arrested for drunk driving. It’s only when a book has plot holes or something clunks that I’m back to thinking about the person behind the page. Sometimes it’ll even be the editor who draws my focus; I’m thinking: Why didn’t you catch that? This story didn’t start until chapter three, and it’s your job to break that news to the writer. 

(Perhaps I think this because I’ve had the good fortune of working with truly excellent editors who perceive all things visible and invisible.)

It’s a strange age we live in. What I want as a writer is to be invisible on the page; I don’t want the reader thinking about me at all. I believe that if I’m doing my job right, you’ll have forgotten about me within a few paragraphs—or perhaps a few pages, if you know me with some degree of familiarity. And yet, as an author (i.e. writer of published books), I’m aware that my publishers expect, and my books’ survival may in part depend on, various kinds of visibility. And then I’m also a blogger, eight years in love with the form—a medium which is all about person-to-person sharing, and which sometimes brings me more direct satisfaction than my books.

(Am I allowed to admit that? It’s true, though. Most writers I know go on being critical of their own work long after it’s been published. Not to mention the blunt reality of things sometimes going out of print.)

So our various selves are all intertwined, these days: the reader, the writer, the viewer, the performer. I’m reading your novel on one screen and chatting about your hellish commute on another. I’m watching your movie and thinking about that perplexing remark you made in a blog post. I’m head over heels in love with your television show—and desperately wishing you’d written yourself out of this particular script.

Which I suppose is where my point is. I don’t mind the intertwined identities; in fact, I rather enjoy them, as long as they don’t affect the work. The more I respect your talent and skill, the less I want to think about you while I’m enjoying your art. I’ll eagerly go and hear you speak about it later—that’s a joy, hearing creative people discuss their work. But I don’t want to be in a writing workshop with every single creator I encounter. I don’t want to think about your writerly choices, and what drives them, not in the moment, not while I’m immersed in your work. Give me invisible craft. Let me believe, just for this hour, that there are no puppet strings, no hands pulling them. Let me believe there’s no one there behind that curtain—let me forget the curtain exists at all.

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14. Video Sunday: I’m only gonna break break your, break break your heart

Our good buddy James Kennedy alerted me to the fact that after his magnificent 90-Second Newbery show left New York City for other library systems in other states he received additional, incredibly funny and insane submissions that are worth seeing.  What we have here is a Tacoma-based Frog and Toad Together take on the story “The List”.  As James describes it it’s “done in the style of a French ye-ye music video or Wes Anderson movie.”

If you’d like to see the story that was based on you can see five stories from this book animated in five different ways.  I’m particularly fond of the one with the seeds.  There’s also a wholly fascinating take on The Story of Mankind that sort of has to be seen to be believed.

All right.  We’re gonna present this day by cheering you up, breaking your heart, and then piecing it back together a bit at a time.  That’s the kind of Sunday I’m dealing with here.  Now I don’t know if you read the recent SLJ article Kid Lit Authors, Illustrators Visit Sandy Hook Elementary School but you should.  And as it happens our roving reporter in the field Rocco Staino took some videos of the aforementioned authors and illustrators.  This one is of Bob Shea.  The very normality of it destroys me.  Utterly.

Now let’s do something nice.  In lieu of Kid President (which, correct me if I’m wrong, a whole great big swath of us have already seen) here’s “Obvious to you. Amazing to others,” coming at you via The Styling Librarian.

I’m not going to read too much into the fact that I live in Harlem and yet, until I heard from a Ms. Nicole Roohi this week, I had totally missed this whole “Harlem Shake” craze, as it were.  Fun Fact: Not from Harlem.  In any case, turns out there are a BUNCH of videos of this thing filmed in libraries across our fair nation.  You can find some here and here and here and here and here.  The one I will feature today, however, is from Goldenview Middle School in Anchorage, Alaska.

As Ms. Roohi told me, “The video production class filmed it, and the security guards starred in it (well, along with my assistant and myself).  The principal, teachers, students and even a bus driver joined in.”  Thanks for the link, Nicole!

In keeping with the peppy music today, if I lived in a world where every person had their own theme song that followed them around throughout the day, the tune that is featured in this trailer for Jesse Klausmeier & Suzy Lee’s Open This Little Book would be mine.  Granted, it would bug people, but I’d only turn it on when I was marching down the street.  Marching, I say.

Thanks to Mr. Schu for the link!

And finally, since we seem to be all trendy trendy today, let’s just end with something Downton Abbey-ish.  The fact no one else has done this yet is amazing to me.

Though I would take issue with that Lady Crawley line near the end.  Doesn’t he mean she loves ‘em?

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15. Downton Abbey Tea Party

My new 'favorite' show is Downton Abbey. I've met someone who has the same obsession and hosted a tea party using the show as her theme. I love it! http://pinterest.com/pin/223209725253911377/

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16. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 1: Don’t Mess with Thomas. But Please, Please, Do Mess with Mary.

Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 1

This two-hour episode took me a few nights to get through. All the time I was watching it, I was thinking, am I going to recap it this year? I’ve recently stepped away from GeekMom to take a new position as editor at DamnInteresting.com (a site that more than lives up to its name, and one Scott and I have enjoyed for years), so I won’t be recapping over there this year. I loved writing those posts last season, but I admit it’s a bit of relief to let go of the self-imposed pressure to get a recap up the night an episode airs. Those were some late nights I was pulling, for a while there!

But I’ll miss the conversation, and since I’ve been getting a lot of email inquiries about the recaps, I thought I’d open the topic for discussion over here. As always, this is an open thread, not a sequential play-by-play of plot points. So I’ll throw out a few things, and you can all chime in as you wish.

OBLIGATORY SPOILER LINE IN THE SAND

Once again PBS is conflating two one-hour British episodes into one long one for the American audience. Honestly, I don’t think this serves the show very well, nor will, I’d hazard, binge-viewing it on DVD. We have too many repetitive conversations in these two hours. A week’s space between them would have rendered the repetition less obvious. How many times must we listen to Lord Grantham orate that Mary must be kept wrapped in cotton-wool? How many times must Mrs. Hughes harangue poor Carson in one night of television viewing? It’s rather amazing, actually, that with the quantities of plotlines being unfurled here (I’ll attempt a tally in a moment) we wound up with so many repeated conversations. By the end, my head was smarting from all the hammer-blows.

Now, plotlines: let’s see.

1) Mary is very sad, and not terribly interested in her baby.

2) Lord Grantham wants to sell land to pay the death duties on the estate, and while he’s at it unravel most of the work Matthew did to save said estate’s bacon.

3) Tom and the Dowager Countess are united (among others) in wanting Mary to play a more active role in estate decision-making, and they’re annoyed with Lord Grantham’s reluctance. (See above, cotton-wooling.)

3b) Matthew left a will of sorts after all! Should we let Mary read it?

3b.1) Also, the stuffed doggy. ::sniffle::

3c) Mary owns half of Downton. Stay tuned for epic showdowns. Will there be anything left for wee George but rubble?

4) Carson’s shady old theater chum wants to see Carson to set things right, and also wants help climbing out of the pit he’s in. From the moment Mrs. Hughes digs through Carson’s trash, this becomes her mission in life.

4a) Said mission dovetails nicely with a push to snap Isobel out of her own grief-induced apathy. (I enjoyed that bit very much.)

5) Everyone’s got a Valentine! Who gave whose?

5a) Belowstairs love triangle continues from last season with no apparent progress. Daisy likes Alfred likes Ivy likes Jimmy likes messing with people.

6) This week’s special guest: new-fangled electric mixer, aka the worst thing to happen to Mrs. Patmore since presbyopia.

7) Nanny DARES to tell Thomas not to touch the baby? Beware his diabolical machinations.

7a) Oh but wait! Turns out Nanny’s a horrible person. Hooray, Thomas!

8) Boo, Thomas. Saucy former-housemaid-turned-lady’s-maid Edna fills all vacancies left by O’Brien’s departure, especially Co-Conspirator of Thomas. Watch your back, Anna. That’ll learn you to be nice.

8a) Really? REALLY? Lady Grantham is that ready to believe Anna would vandalize a garment out of spite? Has she MET Anna? Not buying it. Nor the dispatching of Lord G. to have Mr. Bates bring his unkind wife in line. I MEAN COME ON. (Sorry, that was the one that really got to me.)

9) Young Rose wants adventure, and what’s more adventurous than posing as a housemaid and half-falling for a winsome young under-gardener or whatever he was. Sorry, it was noisy in that dance hall.

10) Oh, Molesley. Poor Molesley. Chucked out of Downton, no new prospects. Pounding tar. Racking up debt. Pitied by all.

10a) Just because the Dowager Countess thinks highly of her butler doesn’t mean he is above petty jealousies and sabotage. Sorry, Mose.

10b) But if your plight makes Anna sad, you’ll be okay, because Mr. Bates won’t stand for that. In prison they teach you how to sneakily give money to people.

11) You didn’t think I’d forgotten Edith, did you? What am I, her mother? I adore Edith. She’s blooming with love, wearing fabulous garments, and gearing up to shock the bluebloods with her impending nuptials to a divorceé and (even worse) voluntary German national.

Plotlines I’m really invested in: 3c. I’m sorry Lord Grantham has become so insufferable, but in a way I think his character arc is the most realistic. A decade-long series of tragedies, shocks, and disappointments has left him insecure, vulnerable, and obstinate. He has felt powerless ever since losing his wife’s fortune and imperiling the estate, and his WWI chapter (here, be a jolly good figurehead, old sport) didn’t help. The more the women and former chauffers in his life berate him for his bad behavior (and it IS bad), the more stubbornly he digs in. He’s the 85-year-old who refuses to give up his driver’s license even after the fourth time he’s backed into the mailbox.

So I may not like his character, but I buy it, and I buy Mary’s too. She prophesied her position at the end of last season and reiterates it here: Matthew brought out a side of her (I smiled at “soft”—not a word that describes even happy-bride Mary) that was buried deep before, and has gone more deeply dormant now. What she needs is a good fight, and who better to clobber than Papa? Much better him than poor old Carson. The scene between Mary and Carson when she chided him for his familiarity broke my heart—and that’s how I know it was a good scene. It was one of the few where I had a genuine emotional reaction instead of a distanced, analytical one. And the thing is? I’m a viewer who wants to be drawn in and emotionally manipulated. Really. If I’m outside the story, picking, then your story hasn’t swallowed me. And I’m sorry to say that very little in this two hours truly swallowed me up. But it’s early days yet. We’ll see where things go.

Mrs-Hughes-Downton-AbbeyWhat did you think? Favorite & least favorite bits? For once I’m not giving Best Line to the Dowager. It’s Mrs. Hughes, in response to Isobel’s “It’s none of my business”: “I never thought I’d hear you say that!”

Related: my Season 3 recaps at GeekMom

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17. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 2: I don’t even know any more, you guys

anna

Spoilers below.

I don’t have the heart to do a full recap right now. That was a horrible turn of events, wrenchingly depicted, and I’m upset on about fifty different levels, not least of which is a fear that this plotline is being played for drama only and won’t succeed (even if it wants to) at taking a really meaningful look at that issue, which ought never never never to be played for drama only.

I will say this: even before we arrived at that terrible point, I was frustrated as all get-out by the way Anna and Bates were being made to behave. I say “being made to” because their interactions felt absolutely contrived, not organic. His cantankerous jealousy, her obliviousness to the villain’s obvious flirting. (And what are we to make of THAT? The price of friendly banter? Infuriating, and treads perilously close to suggesting her behavior played a role in what happened next.)

I set too much stock in TV relationships; this is a running joke between Scott and me. For a couple of seasons of The Office, I took it very hard if there was any whiff of trouble of a certain kind between Jim and Pam (after they were together). I welcomed organic challenges to their relationship—smooth sailing does not gripping viewing make—but I wanted believable challenges, not manufactured ones. And for many seasons, that show was remarkably successful in placing organic obstacles in their path. It was fun and refreshing to see them as allies and co-conspirators. So often, television seems to feel that as soon as the long-yearned-for romance is realized, it must Get Rocky and Face Threats. The Office accomplished something unusual in presenting us a strong Jim-and-Pam team that endured many years before a writerly wedge was thrust between them. (And for the record, during that final season, I kept hollering at Jim to SHOW PAM THE FOOTAGE. It was all there, his dogged devotion. My satisfaction when he finally listened knew no bounds.)

In Downton, I’ve taken a similar pleasure in the Anna and Bates relationship. They’ve weathered trials together, united. And now, even before the rape (it pains me to write that word so casually, as a plot point, which is my much larger problem with this episode than the subject of this paragraph), we’re shown little tendrils of doubt and discord coiling between them, and I don’t buy that for a second. Not to go all Kathy-Bates-in-Misery on Julian Fellowes, but, well, Annie Wilkes, whatever else her failings, did have a sound understanding of story.

Kathy Bates in MiseryMr. Bates would never embarrass his wife in public!

But even that, the hamhandedly portrayed strife between Anna and Bates, seems almost inappropriate to complain about after what happened next. As for everything else that happened in this episode, I hardly know how to feel about any of it. I mean, how can there be a rest of the episode after what happened to Anna? I’m supposed to care about Jimmy’s sprained wrist and his oddly ambiguous behavior toward Ivy? About Robert’s deep discomfort over dining with a (gasp) world-famous opera singer?

I liked Lord Gillingham but am, like Isobel, not quite ready to watch Mary edge toward a new romance. Two episodes on, perhaps. I did enjoy their conversations and was happy to hear the tartness return to Mary’s voice. Much better than Zombie Mary.

Boy, the good doctor hovers mighty close to Isobel’s side these days, doesn’t he?

Does anyone who talks to Tom remember that he, too, has lost a cherished spouse?

Molesley. I just. He’d be much less pathetic if he’d stop talking about how pathetic he is. But it rings true to character, at least. Molesley never has done himself many favors. Grumping aloud to the Dowager while serving dinner was a bit of a stretch, however.

I cared a lot about the Edith and Mr. Gregson storyline, until I didn’t. Trouncing the card sharp might have been an entertaining thread in another episode, but the show’s final moments retconned the rest of it for me, rendering all the mini-dramas frivolous.

Someone who’s seen the rest of the season, tell me it’s worth hanging in there for.

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18. Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 3: Negotiating Thin Ice

downton43dukemary

I once read a scathing review of my book Little House by Boston Bay in which the reviewer lambasted me for utterly mischaracterizing events in a small Massachusetts village during the Revolutionary War. The reviewer was something of an expert on the Revolution and was openly disgusted with my apparent ignorance. Such-and-such would not have happened during the War for Independence, he declared, did not happen. And he was right: because, you see, Boston Bay does not take place during the War for Independence. The novel is set in 1814, some thirty years after the end of the Revolution, during the War of 1812. The reviewer, it turned out, disliked my book because he thought he was reading an entirely different book.

It struck me this week that I’ve been doing the same thing with Downton Abbey. I’ve been mentally classifying it as the same kind of smart, probing period drama as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, when really what it is is a beautifully dressed Melrose Place. It is, I think I can confidently say, the most gripping and linguistically clever Melrose Place I’ve ever seen. But it’s never going to be Pride and Prejudice, in which every tiny morsel of plot supports the primary narrative and themes. Here we will have characters stride in, devastate a life or two, and stride back out into the credits, serving purposes more dramatic than transformative.

I’m trying to make my peace with this, trying to stop expecting a bite of orange when I sink my teeth into an apple.

And so we say goodbye to Braithwaite, that “manipulative little witch,” as Thomas called her, and to Lord Gillingham as well. Ah, Tony, we hardly knew ye. Mrs. Hughes dispatched Edna as effortlessly as she would have swatted a fly. (And just as viciously. “I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down”—good heavens! Since that’s exactly what happened to Anna last week, this remark is in rather bad taste.) It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Hughes is the real mover and shaker of this season so far, the catalyst of events in the lives of Isobel, Carson, and now Tom. I’m fully expecting her to be the eventual force of reconnection for Anna and Bates. Perhaps not; Anna is generally her own catalyst, but I can’t imagine Mrs. Hughes will be able to watch this painful distancing go on for long without interfering in some small way.

But I’m not quite ready to talk about Anna yet.

I liked Lord Gillingham quite a lot and I thought Mary’s scenes with him were her finest of the season so far—the layers of her emotions each distinct and apparent. Affection, wistfulness, regret, ache. But it was too soon, too soon, for us to root for that romance, and in the end, her gentle refusal felt entirely familiar. We’ve seen Mary in this moment before. The only fresh note was when her calm mask cracked, her eyes filled with tears, and she spoke of how Matthew fills her brain and she isn’t ready for that to change, isn’t ready to mentally leave him. That was a raw, honest moment, but still the whole story arc left me feeling like I’d been strong-armed back onto a roller coaster before I’d caught my breath from the last looping ride. Also, now I have to think about Tony being sad and stoic out in the world somewhere, making the best of a life with poor Mabel.

Will everyone please stop bumping into Isobel in the graveyard? We get it, she’s there a lot. One tombstony encounter would have been sufficient to make the point (and I’m certain we’re going to see another proposal before the season’s out—I only hope we don’t have to watch another regretful ‘I’m terribly sorry but no’).

At the Lotus Club—why on earth didn’t Tom or Tony go rescue Rose sooner instead of sitting there watching that drunken Bullock slobber all over her? Oh that’s right, it was to contrive a moment—and a very sweet moment it was—between Rose and the singer. Well, it could have been much less clumsily contrived. Now the question is, will Mr. Ross be dispatched brokenhearted in the next episode a la that nice young farmer, or is he the next Tom Branson/Michael Gregson?

Speaking of Michael, it’s remarkable how the bold, modern Edith shrinks back into her chastened, pre-war self the moment Rosamund raises an eyebrow in her direction. But then I think Edith has a lot of uncertainty about this very unorthodox path she’s walking. At least her aunt doesn’t underestimate her, the way everyone else persists in doing, year in, decade out. “Edith’s as mysterious as a bucket”—oh, come on. (I forget who said it—Mary? Cora?)

I’ll leave the tortured Kitchen Love Rectangle to the rest of you. Still wondering why Daisy chooses to stay at Downton in misery rather than go be mistress of her very own farm. If ever a woman needed a change of scenery, it’s that one.

As for Anna and Bates…I don’t know. I’m so unhappy about this story arc that I find myself just hoping it’ll all be resolved quickly, and then I feel sick, because of course that’s the point. What happened to Anna can’t be ‘resolved quickly,’ can’t be neatly wrapped up in a three-episode arc. It’s 2014, and rape should not be Melrosed.

I did watch an interview with Joanna Froggatt, who plays Anna, discussing her confidence in Fellowes and her feeling that the storyline is not gratuitous (i.e. not being played for drama only). I appreciate her thoughtful comments (here’s the link if you can’t see the video below), and I want to say I think Froggatt is doing a beautiful job of conveying Anna’s pain and trauma. But. But. Something still isn’t sitting right with me, and it’s what I talked about last week: the decision to create a rift between Anna and Bates before her trauma. His sharpness and jealousy, the suggestion that Anna was being a bit flirty with Mr. Green. Those two writerly decisions (and always, always with this show, we come back to the very visible hand of The Writer, who is meant to be invisible) are so wrongheaded they undermine whatever sensitive or unflinching exploration of a very real trauma they are striving to create.

I’m also bothered that Anna’s trauma is becoming Bates’s trauma as well—or no, it’s not that exactly, it’s the way he did kind of bully her with his “I will find out.” Bates is being written all wrong this season, period.

Well, Carson’s being written rather wonderfully, I’ll give Melrose Abbey that much. He wins best line this week: “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.” Oh, the layers of disdain he piles into the word ‘foreign’!

So who’s your pick for the next lady’s maid? A return of Miss O’Brien? She’s not that old. I’m trying to remember what ‘older’ women Thomas knows…

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19. In Which I Profess My Love for Downton Abbey

Tomorrow night is the season two finale of Downton Abbey, the PBS Masterpiece Classic series that has women (and many men) swooning over Edwardian dresses and upstairs/downstairs intrigue. The basic story is that the titular grand house belongs to Lord Grantham, who has the misfortune to have three daughters instead of a son who can inherit Downton Abbey (see Pride and Prejudice for a further

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20. Dishing Downton

At GeekMom again. Going to be a looooonnnng wait until Season 3…

At least there’s always Mad Men.

An aside: Last night on Twitter, Amy Kraft joked that she’d like to see early readers based on Downton. I spent the rest of the night entertaining myself (if no one else) with Downton Abbey: The Nursery Years.

We hid in the garden from the nasty governess.
Carson found us in the shrubbery.
Granny was quite put out.

Hee.

What’s funny is that in its first incarnation, way back in 2006, my book that is now called The Prairie Thief was going to be set in an Upstairs/Downstairs-esque Edwardian household. We’d been watching U/D and I was captivated by the dynamics, especially the downstairs crowd; the main character was going to be the daughter of a servant. But about two chapters in, the whole story up and transplanted itself to a landscape I knew inside and out: the Colorado prairie. Eventually the story itself transformed into an entirely different tale. So I guess that original story is still lurking in my brain somewhere, awaiting its turn. :)

Won’t be soon, though; I’m neck-deep in a Whole Nother Book.

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21. Downton Abbey.

My wife, a friend and I have been watching Downton Abbey. Aside from all of the annoying pompous characters it's a uh.... um...

Here are some sketches I do while watching the show (it's terribly hard for me to sit still for more than fifteen minutes without drawing).























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22. Free eBooks for Your New iPad, Kindle or Nook

Readers around the globe have unwrapped new tablets and eReaders this holiday season. Below, we’ve included a long, long, long list of free and legal eBooks you can download right now for any device.

Explore our Project Gutenberg lists and click “read this eBook online” to sample the book without downloading anything.

If you have an iPad, iPad Mini, iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download the ePub edition. If you have a Kindle or a Kindle Fire, you need to download the Kindle edition. If you have a Nook, Sony eReader or a Kobo, you should download the ePub edition.

continued…

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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23. Cracking good cheese *

In the last two posts I was talking about all the work I have / want to do with cat art and architectural renderings. And then what do I do? Draw cheese.


(please click this to see it full size)


These are Parmigiano Reggiano rinds. Aren't they lovely? The cheese itself is probably my favorite. I grew up on that powdery stuff in the green can that most Americans eat because they don't know any better. It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco and was exposed to all good things that I discovered this food of the gods.




You should have seen me at Whole Foods when I found these in a little tub. You can buy the cheese shaved, or grated, or in whole chunks of various weights and sizes. But this was the first time I'd ever seen rinds for sale. Most (normal) people use these to flavor stews or soups or sauces, but of course I immediately thought of a drawing! (And then I stood there and looked at all the little tubs, picking each one up and turning it around, trying to get a good look at exactly what was inside, to see which one had the best pieces. I do this with the produce too, and always wonder what the people on the security cameras are thinking as they watch me.)




This drawing is 8 x 10 inches (20.32 x 25.4 cm) on Stonehenge paper. I used Polychromo and Coloursoft colored pencils. Mostly Coloursofts, because the soft leads helped me build up the slightly grainy texture I was going for. A nice Caput Mortuum Polychromo did most of the work for the lettering. All in all I used a dozen different colored pencils to render this.

I'll have the original and prints available in my etsy shop soon.

I found this interesting article about the rinds and all the info that's stamped on the cheese.

* what is cracking good cheese ?

* * * * * *

Downton Abbey is back!! (here in the US, anyway) I'm reading The Real Life Downton Abbey right now, which is all about how people really lived back in Downton times, both above and below stairs. It goes into detail about rules, duties, salaries and lots of other nitty gritty details. I'm loving it.


3 Comments on Cracking good cheese *, last added: 1/16/2013
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24. We’re Discussing Last Night’s Downton Abbey

Over at GeekMom. Care to join us? I have many theories. ABOUT EVERYTHING.

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25. New Downton Recap

Season 3, Episode 3, over at GeekMom now.

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