February 16, 2013
The Mysteries of Downton Abbey: Part Two

My prediction:  Jimmy and Thomas will fall in love, though Thomas will tire of him because all those cute little things that were once so endearing—monkeying with the lobster spoons, threatening to call the police—will soon become quite tiresome.  But I will leave that for another season.

In the meantime, I’d like to sort out the upstairs mysteries of Downton Abbey.

Money & the Lord

For me, Lord Grantham has been a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a dinner jacket, then wrapped in his old military uniform when he believed he was being called into service during the Great War, only be embarrassed back into the real world, and so returned to being rewrapped in a dinner jacket.  But I now think I may know what Lord Grantham is about:  He is lazy.  Not just lazy, but full-on, lard-ass move-it-mister lazy.  

He thinks his financial advisor/lawyer/whatever is some sort of pest and tells Matthew not to let this man “bother him,” as if he’s someone’s funny uncle that must be tolerated.  He spends like someone on a bender, What?  An investment in railroads?  Oh, because of the war and the destruction and the reality they will need to rebuild?  And, let me see if I understand, you want ALL my cash?  Canada?  Well, what can I say except put me down for one hundred percent of everything I own, in a country without a single battleground!  No, no.  All of it!  Baby needs new shoes!

Did he go into the study that he never leaves, inside the house that he never leaves, spin the globe near his desk and invest in the place where his finger landed? Lord Grantham didn’t even need to mention Charles Ponzi in the last episode for us to know that he is eighty years and one Internet friending from sending funds to a Nigerian prince.

Is it possible to be too lazy to even pick up a newspaper?  Just how indolent is indolent? 

Case in point:  Lord Grantham’s quasi-affair with the new housemaid last season.  He lives in a castle the size of a castle yet insists that she come to his room, the one separated from his wife’s by one of those connecting motel doors, because it would be asking too much that they meet in one of the other 425 chambers of Downton.  He would rather risk his marriage than walk down the hall or a flight of stairs.  One can only imagine who would be doing all the heavy lifting had that relationship ever progressed; I’m guessing it would be a lot more take and very little give, if you get my drift.

The servants of Downton are really like Lord Grantham’s sloth beard.  Bates dresses him, listens to him prattle on until he’s incarcerated (hey, maybe that’s why Bates was such a hair trigger in the gaol?), then Thomas takes over. Everyone else brings him food and information (unless it’s financial information and then even listening becomes too much work). There’s nothing like a phalanx of servants treating you like a veal to mask your lazy ass self.

He even has beard friends—Dr. Clarkson, the vicar, Tom Branson’s brother who, unfortunately, recalls nothing so much as a pedophile with anger issues—but no real friends because the effort required just to pick up the phone is simply too much.  In short, Lord Grantham is that guy who comes  to spend a weekend on your couch in San Francisco with no plans and an open plane ticket. 

His utter lack of ambition does explain his entire 3-point financial strategy of:

1.  Be born into wealth.

2.  Marry wealth.

3.  Accept gifts of wealth.

A program, I should say, I am totally down with.

The Trials of Lady Edith

The narrative of Lady Edith in Downton Abbey is eerily reminiscent of Zero Dark Thirty: the torture scenes.  My confusion here is, when they finally break her, what is it they want her to say?  Hey, thanks for making me the plain, resentful sister when being the plain sister would’ve been sufficient?  Are you not familiar with the term “overkill?”

That Downton never stops torturing Poor Lady Edith is impressive. It’s like she’s a heroine in one of those Victorian novels that involves a kidnapping and a snuggery. First, she rats out her own sister (evidence of her bitterness, which is an admission of her lack of desirability and popularity, you know, in case we missed the point).  Then she’s helping out on some farm where she ends up kissing a farmer who, I’m pretty sure, has never been into anything dentally related.  Then she tells her ancient fiancé that not only does she want to take care of him, but that he will be her “life’s work” as if she’s suddenly Vincent Price, while he smiles wanly, his eyes darting around for a door as he happens to mention some recently widowed duchess that he dated back in the 19th century.

Let’s see, Lady Edith…the plain one (check); overlooked daughter (check); left at the altar (check); spinsterhood (check); no meals in bed (check)—What fresh hell is left?  What can possibly continue her pattern of humiliation, rejection and heartbreak? What profession (a word that makes her father retire to his study and imitate the vocalizations of a howler monkey) would provide all that and more?  Could it be…a writer?

A Final Musing

What is with that pathetic Grapes of Wrath farm Matthew and company keep visiting?  And why is it every time the conversation turns to the vast holdings of Downton and how to make them work efficiently enough to preserve the estate for future generations, all roads lead back to that sad little Dorothea Lange farm?  We’ve never seen a single person living there yet all Matthew talks about is raising the rent, which, if I’m not mistaken, requires renters to put into effect.  And why is it that when the Crawley’s are considering a place for Tom Branson and Baby Sybil to live the only thing they can come up with is that same sad little farm instead of, say, the swanky manse that the Crawleys keep empty in case they lose everything (again)?  Why can’t Tom and Baby Sybil live there?  Why are Tom’s choices the sad little Dust Bowl farm or his pedophile-with-anger-issues brother’s garage apartment?  And, if Tom does move into the sad little farm wouldn’t they be raising his rent?  As part of the family, wouldn’t they be paying him to pay them, thus creating the sort of lazy ass financial scheme that only Lord Grantham could love?

Till the Christmas special, Downton!

February 9, 2013
The Mysteries of Downton Abbey: Part One

I recently came across one of those popular article inserts asking Who are you in Downton Abbey?   I’m sure everyone rushed to their local water cooler to declare themselves “a Mrs. Patmore” or that sweaty looking wanna-be valet with the bad comb over last seen working at Mrs. Crawley’s.  I’m having a t-shirt made right at this moment that reads “I’m an O’Brien,”  as I  pull back my hair, leaving only two tiny cocktail weenie curls, symmetrically located on my sour little face (Question:  Is it by accident or design that O’Brien and Jan Brady have the exact same forehead hair and sense of social injustice?  Discuss.)  Before I leave this paragraph entirely, I have no idea what the wanna-be valet actually does at Downton.  He isn’t a footman.  He isn’t a valet (as we know).  I’ve never seen him cooking or polishing silver…come to think of it, I only see him at mealtime, seated somewhere between Anna and Alfred, reminiscent of the groupies “eating all the steak” backstage in Almost Famous.

The Almost Famous valet is only one of the many characters that I no longer understand in this season’s Downton Abbey.  Let’s begin downstairs, shall we?

Daisy and The Footmen

While Daisy and the Footmen, sounds like a cross between a Victorian novel by Anonymous and an independent film produced in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1978, it’s really more of an historical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.  To recap:  Daisy likes Alfred who is the first footman.  He likes the new rouge-wearing kitchen maid, who in turn has eyes for the second footman, Jimmy, who is appears to like Daisy, who likes Alfred, and so on.  But wait!  Is that the pizza delivery guy at the door, natty in his valet’s uniform, all roving eyes and hands, directing innuendos at the uncomfortable Jimmy?  Hullooo Thomas!

Hot Tramp, I Love You So, or Ethel

I realize that the comical value of any given name often depends upon one’s generation.  It doesn’t help that almost every single one hundred year old girl’s name has come back into style—except Ethel.  Ethel is pretty much the exact mathematical opposite of erotic (the other opposite of erotic at Downton is Lady Edith).  Or that the only Ethel many of us ever knew was Ethel Mertz, Lucy and Desi’s homebound tenant who had clearly married a man old enough to be her grandfather, thus establishing the accepted generational span for most Los Angeles marriages.  That Ethel Mertz traded her youth for a one bedroom apartment and a pair of landlords who were home often enough to constantly be on you to “turn the music down” is almost as sad as the story of Downton’s Ethel, a young women with what can only be described as a spectacular case of cooties.


Aurally, the Bate’s narrative is comparable to the difficulty of the accents in Trainspotting.  Though I couldn’t always catch what was being said in that film, I could at least hear them.  I am so taxed trying to understand Bates and his roommate and the prison guard and the friendly inmate that I now have a deep furrow between my eyebrows from squinting with effort.  Why?  Since my ears didn’t seem to be adequate to the task, I had to enlist the help of my eyes, as if all my senses are just some kind of massive power source of comprehension.  Worse, I’m filling in so much of the storyline that I am one professional contract and two postage stamps away from charging Julian Fellowes with my writing services.

Why is Bates being framed? Why, since he’s already convicted of murder, does anyone want to plant that large cigar in his bunk, the one that he hid between the bricks of his cell before transferring it to his cellmate’s bunk?  Who stands to gain from Bates remaining in prison? When did Bates become such an Important Person in the English prison system?  

All I know is that Bates has a cellmate who is in cahoots with a guard, and both of them are working overtime to make sure that Bates never gets out.   They remind me of the boy on the grade school playground who keeps harassing his female classmate because he “likes her.”  Downton, am I close?

Additionally, Bates keeps periodically grabbing his cellmate by the shirt and ramming him up against a wall:  In their shared cell, and in the prison passage way.  Last week Bates yanked him from their queue in the exercise yard, forcing him up against yet another wall in a secluded niche, this time with a small knife to the throat.  Let me see if I’m using the term correctly:  Is this what is meant by rough trade?

January 29, 2013
ER: Downton Abbey

Just when I had comfortably settled into Dr. Clarkson’s portrayal as a country doctor who is really a serial killer, along comes some celebrity MD from London to make Dr. Clarkson look like he knows what he’s doing.  The tragedy is that even though this time Dr. Clarkson was one hundred percent correct in his medical diagnosis, the patient still died.  Well done, Downton!  Frankly, if the Crawleys aren’t careful no one is going to want to visit for a fortnight of shooting and cocktails.

I will say that I that I was impressed by Dr. Clarkson calmly hanging back from Lady Sybil when she was having seizures, since, as he said, “There is nothing to be done,” instead of racing over and pretending to “do something” in the same manner that certain mechanically-challenged motorists check under the hood when the car breaks down.

A high point of the episode was the London MD’s response to Dr. Clarkson’s observation of the very pregnant Lady Sybil that she seemed a “little off and her ankles were swollen.”  The London MD replies, as any concerned physician would when faced with a not-unusual pregnancy complication, “Maybe Lady Sybil just has fat ankles.”  Yes.  The assessment of cankles now passes as a second opinion. 

At which point I’m thinking, Did they even have medical schools in England, or just a grand tradition of surgeon-barbers?

I’m now loving this show more than ever.

January 13, 2013
A Very Special Agatha Christie Downton Abbey


Several months ago I read about this horrible, horrible disease.  So horrible that I dare not speak its impossible to pronounce name.  It features the emergence of small threads from under one’s skin, resembling the fibers of a cheap, plaid polyester sofa that someone’s rarely washed dog claimed ten years ago with no plans to surrender any time soon.  A theory has been advanced that this disease comes from outer space.  Is this possible?  I have to say Yes, because ‘possibility’ is pretty much the cornerstone of hypochondria; and while I’m not a world class hypochondriac but more of a talented amateur, I should know.  (This personal state of affairs is not helped by access to the Internet and possessing a novelist’s imagination.) 

Which brings me to Dr. Clarkson, M.D., the preferred physician of the family and staff of Downton Abbey, at which point I’d like to refer you to the photograph.  Take a good look, linger if you like, because when they eventually fall into the care of the esteemed Dr. Clarkson, you won’t be seeing their likes again.  Dr. Clarkson is the exact locus where Downton Abbey and Ten Little Indians (the 1960s film adaption of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) meet.

In Ten Little Indians, ten people are invited to a mountain retreat by a mysterious host calling himself Mr. Owen, who never seems to arrive, exactly.  Unless he is the person picking off all the guests, one by one, their deaths punishment for having literally gotten away with murder themselves.  The whole thing is a basically a kind of low-budget, 1970s, New York City vigilante affair, if Charles Bronson were some sort of scold, greeting his guests with a taped voice that gets the accusatory tones of someone’s mother just right.  

Predictably, the actors playing the ten guests react to the information that they are all killers by acting as if they had just enrolled in a beginning Method class and were told to “access the time in sixth grade when you were caught red-handed pulling a classmate’s chair out from under him as he went to sit down after saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school assembly, landing hard on the floor.   And even though your little hand still gripped the back of the folding chair, you still vehemently denied your guilt, which no one believed.”  It may help, too, to know that three of the actors were Shirley Eaton, notable for her willingness to be naked in Goldfinger; Fabian, an American Idol contestant before American Idol existed  (such is the sadness of peaking before the wave, creatively speaking), and Hugh O’Brien, one of those handsome-ish TV actors who starred in a series about Wyatt Earp during the Golden Age of Television and who, I discovered on Wikipedia, married for the first time at age eighty-one to a women not much older than I, with Debbie Reynolds singing at their Crystal Cathedral wedding—all of which sounds like a Disneyland attraction located in the New Orleans section between Frontierland and Adventureland.  Spoiler Alert (if my memory serves):  Shirley “Goldfinger” Eaton survives; Fabian “I’ll Never Achieve Cinematic Legitimacy” does not.

Mr. Owen Dr. Clarkson began the first season of “Downton Abbey” with a seriously ill young farmer in his care.  Isobel Crawley, new to Downton and someone who knows her way around a surgery by virtue of her husband (a London doctor) and her position as a physician’s assistant, tells Dr. Clarkson that the young man needn’t necessarily die due to the amazing success with a revolutionary treatment now being used in London.

Dr. Clarkson rejects her suggestion (and the medical wisdom of the MDs in London), explaining that, no, this young man is going to die and they should simply allow him to die.  The young man says, weakly, Uh, if I’m dying anyway, what’s the harm is giving it a go?  This is met with the doctor’s patented condescension due to the man’s social status and, an admonishment that death is death and that’s your final destination, pal.  Then his young wife, who is not at all taken with the prospect of being a destitute widow with children and the very real possibility that she’ll be selling herself on the street in no time thus shortening her own life span by about sixty years, also timidly asks if they might try it?

No, says Dr. Clarkson, sighing and vexed, as if to say, What part of I’m going to let this young fellow die are you not understanding?   Do you not know the meaning of the word “expendable?”  If you had gone to Oxford, you would, but instead you were born to a life of decided to muck stalls.  And now I must go dress for cocktails with Lord Grantham.

When Isobel Crawley cures the young farmer with the procedure she suggested is Dr. Clarkson relieved?  Is he grateful?  Does he say, I’ll be damned?  No.  He complains to Lord Grantham that “this sort of thing will not be tolerated in his surgery,” as if she had broken out the laudanum, then went for a joy ride in his brougham.

Next up in the Ten Little Downton Abbey:  Matthew Crawley.  Son of Isobel, hero of the first World War where he sustained a spine injury that left him unable to walk, and unable to “truly be a man.”  Unfortunately, Matthew is engaged to Miss Swire, a delicate girl with whom he has no discernible sexual chemistry so it could be argued that she may not take the bad “man” news as hard as the doctor thinks.

Months of Matthew in a wheelchair pass, until the day in drawing room when Miss Swire trips on a corner of carpet and Matthew leaps from his chair to catch her.  I’m no Doctor Clarkson but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some physical stage between paraplegic and leaping?  Wouldn’t there be some small increments of change, some inkling of improvement that one would notice?

Is Dr. Clarkson relieved?  Is he grateful?  Does he say, I’ll be damned? No.  He tells Lord Grantham and the rest of clan who are questioning him in the drawing room that upon reading the x-ray it was his educated opinion that the spine was severed.  Severed, he explains, to the point where one will  no longer truly be a man.  However, a doctor in London (again with the London medical community) also read the x-ray at the same time as Dr. Clarkson and diagnosed a “bruised spine” meaning that recovery was possible.  Yet Dr. Clarkson felt it would be cruel to offer Matthew any shred of hope.  And, as you see, Dr. Clarkson finishes, It was, and it is, and what about those cocktails?  Carry on being a man, Matthew.

Unfortunately, the Spanish Flu is laying everyone to waste.  Lady Grantham gets sick.  Very sick and who do they call?  Dr. Clarkson tells the family that  She’ll probably expire in the night.  Unless, of course, she doesn’t.  But I really think she will.  Yes, look at her bent over the bed, sick and sweating and delirious.  Gather round, Granthams, because it isn’t like she should be quarantined or anything because it isn’t like this flu is contagious and killing a third of the planet’s population and—oh, by the way—could you get a couple of the servants in here, too?  If only because they eat in the kitchen, near the food.

Miss Swire takes ill at the same time but the doctor says she has just a touch, not even a cough and I’ll see you in the morning…when rigor mortis has set in.  

As he stands with Matthew and other family members, looking at Miss Swire’s sweet, lifeless form while the doomed Lady Grantham is recovering nicely down the hall, is Dr. Clarkson relieved?  Is he grateful?  Does he say, I’ll be damned?  No.  He says Ah, yes.  Tricky business flu.  Hard to predict.  Cocktails?

(At this point, one wonders why Bates didn’t refer his inconvenient and vindictive ex-wife to Dr. Clarkson for a check-up.) 

In the Season Three opener, when Mrs. Hughes discovers a lump in her breast and it’s off to the man who cannot tell the difference between a bruised spine and a severed spine.   As Mrs. Hughes sits in Dr. Clarkson’s office, Mrs. Patmore by her side getting increasingly agitated, Mrs. Hughes says, “Mrs. Patmore, please allow me to be the hysterical one.”  Now I believe that Mrs. Patmore was attempting the verbal equivalent of kicking a spouse under the table when dining with friends that you really don’t like because of their pretentious utterances, and backhanded compliments yet you can’t avoid them because, you keep claiming to be too busy for dinner, they finally say, Okay, then when can we have dinner? and replying Never is never an option.  There is Mrs. Patmore in Dr. Clarkson office, figuratively kicking Mrs. Hughes under the table, speaking with her foot, “Listen, Mrs. Hughes, remember when I was going blind in the first season and was trying to keep it a secret even though I was working all day with knives and  boiling water and open flames and no one really noticed I was going blind and making culinary mistakes because I was cooking English cuisine?  And when I was found out I said that I hid my condition because I was afraid I would lose my lucrative Downton Abbey kitchen job?  Well, really it was because I’m friends with the young farmer’s wife and she told me what happened in the surgery, her fears of destitution and descent into that kind of really unsanitary Edwardian Era prostitution.  Then there was the confab of overexposure in the sick room of someone with Spanish Flu.  And maybe I didn’t go to Oxford but even I know a severed spine when I see one.  After all, I work with joints of venison and butchered lambs and pheasant and it isn’t rocket science to see when something is severed.  And, by the way, you’ll notice that Lord Grantham sent me to LONDON, where I was treated by doctors in LONDON and now I don’t even need contacts.”

But Mrs. Hughes, not unlike a spouse who turns to you and says, “Why are you kicking me?” causing you to smile nervously at your hosts while secretly feeling astonished as such cluelessness, says to Dr. Clarkson, “When can we do the biopsy?”

He tells her now, and Mrs. Patmore exclaims, “Will it hurt?”—trying desperately to get her friend on board here.  Instead Mrs. Hughes replies, “It doesn’t matter.  Whether it hurts or not, it must be done,”  effectively releasing Dr. Clarkson from any pretense of medical competency.

Post-biopsy, Dr. Clarkson tells Mrs. Hughes that—big surprise—he can’t tell what’s what.    He uses the word “inconclusive” the way other people say, “who the fuck knows?”  He’s decided to send it on to London for a second opinion, which would be heartening except this is the same doctor who had a second opinion (from London) on the condition of Matthew’s spine.   So, it doesn’t matter what the other doctor says since Dr. Clarkson Owen will be drawing his own conclusions anyway.

It will be over two months before he hears anything—long enough for Mrs. Hughes to be untreated and well on her way to becoming part of the cast of Ten Little Indians.  His advice?  Take it easy and don’t work too hard, clearly ignoring the fact that all those cocktails don’t pour themselves, something he may want to consider once he’s done “treating” everyone.

(Downton Update:  As of last week Mrs Hughes has been given a death warrant clean bill of health by Dr. Clarkson.  Nice knowin’ ya, Mrs. H.)