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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Top Twelve Best Scenes in Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has aired its Grand Finale in America, which means the show now feels as though it's truly come to an end. In the lead-up to the big event, I've been playing all the show's previous seasons as background noise while going about my daily tasks, just to get a big-picture sense of what the show was and where it ended up going.
Back when it first started, I recall Michelle Dockery saying in an interview that the show's appeal lay in the popularity of literary period dramas (such as those based on Jane Austen and Charles Dickens) but with the significant bonus of nobody knowing where the storylines would go. Everyone knows the plot of Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, but Downton Abbey's originality lent the show a genuine sense of suspense in the progression of its relationships, scandals and character arcs.  
It's as good a reason as any to explain its popularity, though having watched through all six seasons (and the Christmas Specials) it's obvious Julian Fellowes was flying from the seat of his pants much of the time. Let's say, from season two onwards. 


Naturally some developments were set in stone right from the beginning (such as Mary and Matthew's romance) but there are also a lot of Aborted Arcs and Character Derailments that can be chalked down to lazy writing.

Remember when Patrick Crawley came back from the dead with a disfigured face and no one but Edith recognized him and then he just disappeared forever? Or when Baxter's dark past reared its ugly head and she was called to testify against her ex-boyfriend in court, only for her to get there and learn the prosecution didn't need her after all? There was the occasional character who was initially portrayed as perfectly nice and reasonable, only to undergo shrewification in record time (believe it or not, the likes of Edna Braithwaite and Sarah Bunting were pleasant enough people when they first appeared) and others that Fellowes clearly had no idea what to do with – Jimmy, Alfred, Ivy, Baxter, Charles Blake...
Then there're the creative decisions that were just plain weird. Like how Matthew's very last episode devotes most of his screen-time to him vetting Gregson, a character who dies off-screen halfway through the next season. Or how Edith's subsequent pregnancy and job as an editor are squeezed to the edges of the storyline so that we barely see either development. Or how the beautiful singing voice of guest star Kiri Te Kanawa is intercut with the horrific rape of Anna downstairs (seriously, was Kiri aware of this editing choice before she signed on?)

Oh, and never forget the time Matthew's dead fiancee came back from the dead to manipulate a ouija board and wish him happiness with another woman, even though her message only got through to two servants who didn't care either way.

Sorry, I'm getting a little carried away there. I actually mean this to be a positive post. As I did with The Legend of Korra, I've created a "Top Twelve Best Moments from Downton Abbey" list, though given the sheer length of the show, to say "moments" might be a misnomer. These are the plots, scenes and relationships I felt were the most effective, the most heartfelt, the most memorable – all the assorted bits and pieces that made Downton Abbey what it was.
12. 
Scene: Rose and Sam Thawley
Episode: S04E02
I'll admit I never fully warmed to Rose, as she seemed too much like an attempt to fill the gap left by Jessica Brown Findlay (which makes each actress's post-Downton career all the more ironic). With Rose's youthful frivolity replacing Sybil's free spirit and social conscience, it fell to Rose to lighten things up in the wake of Matthew's death.
For the most part her scenes were as light as skim milk, but there's one Rose-centric subplot that remains one of my favourite sequences. In it in she begs Anna to take her to a tea dance happening in Yorkshire, where she immediately turns heads and strikes up a rapport with a local under-gardener called Sam Thawley. Because she's incognito at the time, Rose spins a story about how she's a housemaid at the Abbey, but their conversation is interrupted after a fight breaks out and Anna whisks her back home again.
That might have been the end of it, were it not that Sam comes knocking at the Abbey's kitchen door in search of her. In a bid to let him down gently, Rose hurriedly changes into a housemaid's uniform and meets him outside, telling him she's engaged to a farmer before dashing into dinner with the rest of her family, them none the wiser as to what she's been up to.
From Rose's motivation being nothing more than a desire to practice the one-step, to the implication that Sam was an important stepping stone in the way she perceived future suitors and their worthiness, the whole thing was a sweet and charming sequence that ended up being one of the last self-contained single-episode vignettes the show ever did.
11. 
Scene: The Wedding of Mary and Matthew
Episode: S03E01
I'm sure many breathed a sigh of relief when Mary joined Matthew at the altar – love them or hate them, at least their fraught courtship and engagement was finally over.
I was never a huge shipper, but I did like the effect their relationship had on Mary, at least when it came to her characterization. I've been a long-time defender of the show's resident Alpha Bitch, and despite her profound self-centredness (first demonstrated when her immediate concern on hearing about her fiancé/cousin's death is whether or not she has to wear full mourning) I was also impressed by her unexpected sense of self.  
With lines like "I'm stubborn – I wish I wasn't, but I am," and her ability to grasp that she's a very different person when seen through her sister's eyes, Mary had the rare ability to step outside herself and scrutinize her place in the world. I found this quite fascinating, especially when this trait gets hopelessly muddled with the arrival of the new heir of Downton.
As he gradually gets to know her, Matthew becomes aware of the cracks in her precarious position: that she's not (as she believed) the valued heir to an estate, but a pawn to be married off and shuffled out of the way – that or to marry someone whose station is so decidedly below her own. In that, she's very much like a female Mr Darcy, though with the inversion of everyone else wanting her to marry the lowly newcomer with fine eyes.
Cold to hide her frustration, but also because she's not naturally forthcoming, Mary gradually lets down her walls in the face of Matthew's boundless patience. From their bad first impressions, to their agonizing courtship period, to their Romantic False Leads, to their little tiff the night before the wedding – by the time they finally make it to the altar, the cathartic relief at having gotten that far spills out into the family, the congregation, and the villagers lining the streets.
It wasn't a happy ending, but it was a happy day, and sometimes that's the best you can hope for.
10. 
Scene: Sybil's death
Episode: S03E05
Don’t kill me for this entry, but you can't deny it: Sybil's death made for powerful television.
The dread is built up excruciatingly well over the course of the episode, from the cold trickle that runs down the back of your neck at Sybil's muddled talking, to your horrified numbness as she dies in front of her helpless family.
The frantic conversations in the hallway, the mounting panic in the bedroom, that cruel Hope Spot when all seems well – Fellowes played us like a violin, though something also needs to be said for his pointed criticism of the patriarchal "know-it-all" attitude. It's inherent in Lord Grantham's pish-poshing of Doctor Clarkson's attempts to convey the seriousness of his diagnosis, siding instead with the infuriatingly snotty Sir Philip (played by Tim Pigott-Smith, who surely has the world's most punchable face).
The women are all in favour of taking Sybil to the hospital, but of course the men have the final say, and it kills her.
The downstairs minutia that goes on across the episode feels infuriatingly (but purposefully) distracting as the servants obliviously go about their daily tasks, contrasted sharply with their devastated faces once the news is delivered.  
Sybil's prolonged and painful death is difficult to watch, though the rest of the family respond just as you'd expect: Robert searching for the doctor's reassurance, Mary attempting to provide practical help, Tom and Cora begging and crying – perhaps the only false note is the vaguely ridiculous sight of Matthew clutching the bedpost.
The stricken aftermath is just as effective: Thomas's unlikely tears, Violet's stumble as she walks across the room, Cora's cold fury at Robert, that striking image of Tom holding his newborn daughter at the window – it was enough to get the tears flowing all over again.
But perhaps the most poignant moment is Mary's quiet observation to Edith that: "this is the last time the three of us will all be together." In many ways the trinity of the Crawley sisters was one of the fundamental components of the show – and once Sybil died, that unity was shattered forever, never to be recaptured.
Altogether, it's a hugely powerful portrayal of a family's loss: a terrible but riveting depiction of the sudden and devastating nature of death.
9. 
Scene: Violet is serenaded by Martha
Episode: S03E02
Over six years there was plenty of hilarity to enjoy on Downton Abbey, and it was the Dowager Countess Violet's understanding of social mores that usually took the brunt of the ridicule – especially when Martha Levinson was in town.
After a dinner party goes terrible wrong and the guests are forced to eat their meals in the drawing room, Martha decides to add to the atmosphere with an impromptu sing-a-song – and on spotting Violet dozing in her chair, makes sure she's awake to appreciate it.
Violet duly wakes up to the uncomfortable sight of an American woman serenading her, but because she's currently hoping to squeeze money from Martha to protect the estate, there's nothing she can do but play along. She knows it, Martha knows it, but Violet Crawley will be damned if anyone else in that rom believes she's uncomfortable even for a moment.
It's one of the funniest sequences in the entire show, and it was only recently that I discovered the entire thing was adlibbed by the actresses themselves.
He also recalled a moment on set when Shirley MacLaine (Cora’s mother, Martha) spotted a piano in a corner and said, “Perhaps it would be nice if I could sing.” You could see the cogs spinning in Smith’s mind, he said. “So Maggie decided, ‘Of course, I’m going to fall asleep.’ So Maggie falls asleep. So Shirley spots that and thinks, ‘I’m gonna go sing to Maggie.’ So Maggie wakes up and does the funniest triple take you’ve ever seen. It was an act-off between two great Dames.”
This is what happens when you put two acting greats into a room together.
8. 
Scene: Harold Levinson and Madeline Allsop
Episode: The London Season
Man, seasons four and five were a slog. We had to deal with Mary's identical suitors, Edith's off-screen pregnancy, Anna's rape and its consequences – it was tough going. But that year's Christmas Special: A London Season gave Fellowes the chance to bring in some fresh blood and alleviate his (apparent) boredom with the regular cast.
For the first time we meet the oft-mentioned but never before seen Harold Levinson, Cora's brother played by the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti. Also introduced is Madeline Allsop (Poppy Drayton), another young woman making her debut alongside Rose, whose father is facing a financial crisis. As Harold soon finds out, Lord Allsop doesn't have much discretion or shame when it comes to pimping out his daughter to any profitable prospect.
It makes for an awkward first impression, but across the course of the episode they manage to gain an understanding and respect for one another that remains entirely platonic throughout; sharing advice and encouragement with no romantic subtext whatsoever.
It's a Beauty and the Beast story in which the unlikely couple don’t fall in love – don't even expect to fall in love – and yet touch each other's lives regardless. Between Poppy Drayton's winsomeness and Paul Giamatti's wry performance, the two manage a charming little subplot that brought two very different people together for a single London season.
We never see them again, and they'll likely never see each other again, but for the duration of this episode, they were like a breath of fresh air among the increasingly stale storylines of the regular cast.  
7. 
Scenes: The Little Touches
Episode: All of them
This is not a singular moment so much as a series of them, strewn consistently across all six seasons. They are the little touches of humanity that brought the show to life, doing so much to elevate it from a historical soap opera to something that clearly resonated deeply with viewers.
No matter where or when you set your story, an audience must be able to recognize themselves in its characters, and Fellowes has always been very good at adding just the right amount of humour, warmth, kindness and humility to his cast. It was in Mary foregoing her usual pride and praying for Matthew's safety, even if she isn't sure God is listening. It was in the tiny smile Mrs O'Brien gives Thomas when he returns home from the war. It was in Lord Grantham being surprised at just how happy he is at Tom's return to Downton: "isn't it funny?" It was the Dowager Countess leaving behind a puppy before she left for France. It was in something as simple as Mrs Baxter offering Anna congratulations on her pregnancy.

But my favourite example of this would have to be Mrs Bird's reaction to Daisy sabotaging the meal on Mrs Patmore's behalf (she being afraid that Mrs Bird's culinary skill would exceed her own). Mrs Bird manages to outwit the saboteur by switching the upstairs meal with that of the servants, but once Daisy starts sobbing in fear, the otherwise sour old woman is unexpectedly gracious. "Dry your tears; there are worse crimes on earth than loyalty."  
For a writer, it's helpful to keep in mind that every person on earth is capable of great cruelty and great kindness, and that when it comes to characters, a story's best moments can be drawn from the unexpected: when the usually gentle are merciless and the generally nasty are kind. Fellowes favoured the latter over the former.
6. 
Scene: Violet speaks to Mary after Matthew's death
Episode: S04E01
Matthew's death was a turning point in the show, and although he was never my favourite character, his absence undeniably led to a slip in quality. Not because he was the glue that held the storylines together, but because he was an original cast member whose relationships with the other characters were fairly integral to the ongoing dynamic. Without him... well, we got a pointless Mary-centric love triangle.
But there was one scene poignant enough to (almost) justify Matthew's death and the end of a significant Downton storyline, and that was the moment between Violet and Mary, in which a grandmother brings her granddaughter back from the brink with four simple and unexpected words: "because I love you."
Believe it or not, I'm about to get personal. My grandmother died in England, many years after I had seen her last during a holiday to New Zealand, but she lived here throughout my childhood and we were very close – especially since she was probably the family member I'm most like in personality and temperament.
But because she had been absent from my life for so long, I felt oddly detached at the news of her death. After all, you can't miss something that isn't a part of your day-to-day existence, and since she suffered from Alzheimer's in the final years of her life, it's doubtful she would have even remembered me if I'd managed to be with her.
And so there was a fair amount of projection at work when I watched this scene; not because I'd lost my non-existent husband in a freak car accident, but because my grandmother was also a rather reticent woman who didn't say "I love you" easily. So watching Violet convince Mary that life was worth living even after her terrible loss meant more to me than just a scene between two fictional characters: it was a quiet declaration of love between grandmother and granddaughter that I missed out on in the real world.
5. 
Scene: Mr Pamuk's death
Episode: S01E03
The death of Mr Pamuk in Mary's bed after he crept into her room after dark to seduce her is by far the soapiest scene of this entire glorified soap opera. It was unexpected, it was ludicrous, it went completely unexplained, and yet somehow it lifted the show to a height it never quite hit again (not even Lord Grantham coughing blood all over his wife came close).
From Mary's hysterics to Cora's whispered outrage, the episode not only provided a much-needed dent in Mary's haughtiness, but treated us to the sight of three women lugging the naked dead body of a Turkish Ambassador through the corridors of the house in the early hours of the morning. Now there's a sentence you don't get to type often.
The cherry on top is Lord Grantham's solemn spiel to Carson the following morning on how women are the weaker sex, oblivious as to how his wife, daughter and maidservant truly handled the situation. Say what else you will about Julian Fellowes, but Downton Abbey was always full of capable female characters and a sly commentary on the absurdity of patriarchal assumptions.
"We must have a care for feminine sensibilities, 
they are finer and more fragile than our own."
4. 
Scene: The Dowager Countess and Daisy
Episode: S02E08
Daisy was pretty insufferable in the final few seasons, but at the show's inception she was an adorable portrayal of a simple scullery maid coping with a surprisingly complex moral crisis.
Her biggest challenge was the one she faced on realizing William was in love with her – more pertinently, that she didn't love him back. Knowing he's about to head off to battle, and later to die from his injuries, she plays along with his courtship, only to be wracked with guilt after she marries him on his deathbed. In her mind, she's committed a great sin by lying to him in the final few days of his life.
It's a unique storyline, and one that's eventually resolved when she and her father-in-law come to an understanding of the situation and agree to be each other's family from then on. But before that, while she's still in the midst of her internal conflict, an unexpected person offers her advice.
It’s the Dowager Countess herself who finds Daisy weeping by the fireplace, and in the role of the most improbable fairy godmother ever, she manages to coax the story out of her. The words that are exchanged between them are less important than the fact they're interacting at all: the great matriarch and the lowliest scullery maid, in serious discussion together.
As it happens, this is the first and last time they'll ever interact, but it's a moment of shared humanity in very dark times, and in a subtle way, it heralds the great chances in society that World War I would bring.
3. 
Scenes: Tom and Mary
Episodes: Seasons 3 to 6
During the second half of the sixth season, I was astonished to find myself shipping Mary/Tom. Seriously astonished. It had never occurred to me to do so in any of the preceding seasons (in fact, I would have been staunchly against it) but all of a sudden I saw something in the way they interacted with each other – running the estate, communicating without words, spending every waking moment together – that made me feel they were perfect for each other.

Even the scenes that suggested they weren't going to end up together could be interpreted through a shippy lens.  Tom's continual efforts to make Mary/Henry get together reminded me of an old Sweet Valley High book in which Elizabeth's dogged determination in hooking up her best friend with the new boy at school ends up being a deflective mechanism for the fact that she had a crush on him.
Wait, did I just cite Sweet Valley High? It's really late over here.
In hindsight, I'm glad Fellowes didn't go there with Tom and Mary. Despite how well they got on with each other, they were still diametrically opposed when it came to personality, politics, interests, child-rearing and general outlook on life. And it was refreshing to have a very deep but platonic bond between a man and woman that didn't end in the inevitable peal of wedding bells.
(In that, my feelings about Mary/Tom are pretty much the same as the ones I have for Harry/Luna in the Harry Potter books – on the one hand I really wanted them to end up together, on the other I was annoyed at myself for shipping something despite my constant demands for more male/female friendships).
Instead we were left with one of the most unlikely partnerships imaginable. It wasn't just that Mary and Tom were opposed back when the show started (as Violet and Isabel were) it was that they had nothing to do with each other. Their individual story arcs were utterly unconnected, and it wasn't until Sybil's attempted elopement at the end of season two that Mary even realized Tom existed.
But in the wake of Sybil's death – and again, after Matthew's accident – these two characters were inevitably drawn together. How could they not be? It was a relationship that only came about due to the absence of their spouses, and Fellowes seemingly had no choice but to push them towards each other. But a bond that was initially built on shared grief gradually turned into something more life-affirmative: a partnership.
And as it happened, the two worked well together. They respected each other's opinions of issues they were unfamiliar with (Tom's background in farming, Mary's inside knowledge of the estate), and Tom had the rare ability to stand up to Mary whenever she got a little too high-handed (which was often). They became each other's confidant and ally and equal.
It was an entirely unexpected and yet deeply unsurprising development, an ongoing character arc for the characters which unfolded at an organic pace and culminated in two key lines: one from Mary: "you're my brother," and one from Tom: "I love you and I want you to be happy."
2. 
Scenes: Violet and Isobel's Friendship
Episodes: Seasons 1 to 6
I'll go ahead and say it: more than the trinity of Crawley sisters, more than the romance between Matthew and Mary, more than the stabilizing forces of Robert/Cora upstairs and Carson/Mrs Hughes downstairs, it was the fraught rivalry and unlikely friendship between Violet and Isabel that made up the emotional heart of Downton Abbey – perhaps not in the screen-time it was afforded, but in its abiding, constant quality.
Violet's faults as a woman are clear: she's snobbish, autocratic and high-handed. Isobel's flaws are less entertaining but more interesting, as hers are virtuousness taken too far. Her "reforming zeal" (as Violet describes it) can be anything from annoying to invasive, and occasionally causes more problems than it solves. Put these two together, and naturally sparks will fly.
Woven throughout all six seasons, their tendency to butt heads was a constant source of humour for Fellowes to draw upon, but he showed a surprising amount of even-handedness when it came to which of the two ladies ended up with egg on her face. It would be easy to make Isabel the victor in all her run-ins with the haughty Violet, but oftentimes she too needed to be taken down a peg.
As such, one episode will have Isabel override Violet's commands and deliver life-saving medicine to a farmer; the next will depict Violet coming out better off when she correctly identifies Moseley's skin allergy after Isobel's misdiagnoses.
And yet as time went by their enmity gradually became a friendship. After Matthew's death, Violet is the one to draw Isobel back to life. When Violet becomes gravely ill, it is Isobel who patiently nurses her back to health. When Isobel's dreams of finding happiness with Lord Merton are dashed, it's Violet who extends her hand (and will) to make things right for her. Though they have opposing opinions on nearly every subject under the sun, both are intelligent and observant women, and by the end of the show they've found common ground when it comes to the wellbeing of their extended family.
So it was fitting that Violet and Isobel were given the final words of the very last episode, sitting together in a quiet corner as they so often did, looking out at the future generations. As I said at the time, it was the perfect way to close the series.
If however, I was called upon to choose a definitive scene between the two of them, it would have to be way back in season one, when Isobel voices a criticism at the local flower show: that Violet always wins for her roses even though there are other gardeners more worthy of the prize.
Despite her pride and initial protestations, Violet recognizes the truth in Isobel's observation and so during the prize-giving ceremony she decides to present the award to Mr Moseley Senior for his superior blooms. This is the first time Violet recognizes Isobel as something other than an upstart busy-body, leading to her statement so many years later that: "She is a good woman. And while the phrase is enough to set one's teeth on edge, there are moments when her virtue demands admiration."
1. 
Scenes: Sybil helps Gwen find a secretarial job
Episodes: Season 1
This entry should come as a surprise to no one, especially after so many years of me talking about how much I loved this subplot. Out of the goodness of her heart (and her social conscience) Sybil decides to support housemaid Gwen in her endeavour to better herself and become a secretary. She answers advertisements, arranges transport, organizes outfits, and provides endless encouragement in the face of rejection: "no one hits the bullseye with the first arrow."
It is a storyline that is exclusively and entirely about one woman helping another, but Gwen is also the show's only lower-class character who is allowed to be ambitious without getting punished by the narrative, and when she returns in season six, it's clear the fruits of her labour have paid off.
When Gwen disappeared at the end of the first season I doubted we would ever see the character again, and was delighted to hear news of her reappearance, hoping that there would be some mention of her history with Sybil. Even if it was just a brief aside with Tom, I would have been content.


What we ended up seeing surpassed all my expectations, for at the dinner table Gwen ends up revealing her past interactions with Sybil, filling in the gaps of their time together (such as Sybil keeping Lord Grantham out of the library while Gwen's interview was going on) and stunning the Crawleys with a hitherto unknown chapter of Sybil's life.
It's a tale of female solidarity that stretches across the class divide, and has far-reaching ramifications for one of the participants. It also contains two of Fellowes's best lines of dialogue; sentiments so powerful that they're words to live your life by. To my mind, "your dream is my dream now, and I'll make it come true" is the finest promise you can make to another person, and "her kindness changed my life" the highest accolade you could ever receive.
***
Love it or hate it, Downton Abbey was an important cultural milestone, paving the way for more original costume dramas, an increased interest in the post-Edwardian era, and busloads of tourists to Highclere Castle. It gave its younger cast a leg-up into the acting world, and its older cast a steady pay-check at a point when acting roles usually start to dry up. It paid close attention to historical accuracy, from its costumes, vehicles and locations, to little details such as ironing newspapers to dry the ink.
There will always be some mysteries. I never fathomed what Mrs Hughes's job actually entailed: all she ever seemed to do was march in and out of rooms. I could never buy Cora as the mother of Mary, Edith and Sybil – a benign stepmother perhaps, but there was hardly any meaningful interaction between the woman and her children. Nothing I saw between Tom and Sybil convinced me they had (or could have had) a happy marriage. And Isobel never interacts with her only grandson. Not once.
But the show was at its best when capturing two separate worlds that existed in close proximity: the languor of upstairs and the bustle of downstairs, each with its own set of joys, heartbreaks, challenges and triumphs. This is a lifestyle that died out so quickly and so profoundly (it's safe to say no one has uttered the phrase "I'm going upstairs to take off my hat" in the last hundred years) but Downton Abbey's other strength was in finding the similarities between that world and ours, in things as universal as love and loss, hope and regret, pain and joy.
In short, it may have been a glorified soap opera, but damn it had style.
And I feel we haven't seen the last of it. A Robert/Cora prequel could one day see the light, or perhaps a show that revolves around an older George, Sybbie and Marigold. Either one could be interesting, even as a ninety-minute movie.
But it's farewell for now. Goodbye to Violet's witticisms, the costume porn, the evil footman, Isis's butt, the thespian guest stars, Edith's misery, Mary's eyebrows, the secret plotting, the hushed-up scandals, the tinkling piano in the theme music...

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