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Archive for the ‘Masterpiece Classic’ Category

The anticipation is over for American fans. PBS has aired the first two-hour installment of Downton Abbey Season 3 and we have had 6 days to digest the goings on of the Crawleys, their friends, relatives and spouses. All week people have been asking me: What are your thoughts?

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Let me confess, I saw the entire series before Christmas and have since dithered. How to review a program that contains a minefield of plot spoilers? I decided to share my thoughts one week at a time. So, without further ado, I’ll break down the first 120 minutes.

Shirley Maclaine as Martha Levinson

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

I salivated, I yearned, I couldn’t wait for Shirley’s appearance KNOWING that she would be Maggie Smith’s equal in retorts and sarcasm. Boy, was I wrong. My dreams of epic verbal sparring between two battle axes were dashed, leaving me feeling as flat as a bottle of Champagne left open for too long. The best line was Martha’s opening salvo when she first sees Violet:

Martha: “Oh dear, I’m afraid the war has made old women of us both.”
Violet: “Oh, I wouldn’t say that – but then, I always keep out of the sun.

I expected more zingers between these two characters, but alas they were few and far between. Martha is a brash American who wears her fortune on her person and looks a bit too newly-minted. She also apes her youngers in dress and fashion, a species whom Violet refuses to acknowledge as her sartorial betters.

Martha lacks proper manners, and here is where the Brit writers got her wrong, for Martha lives in Newport, Rhode Island, one of the snobbiest enclaves for the rich in early 20th century America. As Edith Wharton so brilliantly attested in her novels, there is nothing snobbier than a New York/New England socialite. A nouveau riche American trying to make a dent in that upper strata would have to learn to behave. Martha might be gauche and her money might be fresher than yesterday’s salmon, but she would have known about proper etiquette and manners, make no mistake about that.

My biggest surprise was Shirley’s physical presence. Maggie looms large in every scene, whereas Shirley’s hunched figure seemed diminished in contrast to Maggie’s stiff upper lip and upright posture. Worse, there was no connection between Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Martha (Shirley). The viewer was left to wonder about the back story between mother and daughter. A short but marvelously written scene could have given us insight as to what makes Cora tick, but this never happened. An opportunity lost? You betcha.

Sad violin music for Bates and Anna

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

As a member of Team Bates I’ve had enough! Will someone please break Bates out of prison before I start rooting for Thomas? I’m sick of watching Anna and Bates making moon eyes at each other across a prison table. Anna does show some moxie in that she’s determined to sleuth in order to free her man. And who knew that Bates could be so ruthless with his cell mate? No patsy he! Still … I yearn to see Bates and his Anna in a more uplifting story line and it isn’t happening anytime soon.

The dissolution of the finest villanous couple in PBS history

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

I’m at a loss for words. Who’d have thunk that the writers would mess with Thomas and O’Brien? I never thought of them as separate entities but as ThomasanObrien. They were always plotting in back corridors as we watched in glee. The reason for their estrangement is so piddly it’s barely worth a mention. Thomas is worried about keeping his job at Downton Abbey and O’Brien’s wants to promote her too tall nephew to footman. THAT’s the conflict. It’s llike asking circus lions to perform a kitten’s trick, or akin to morphing The Clash of the Titans into a bitch fight at a “Real Housewives” party.

The truncated wedding of Mary and Matthew

If you blinked at the wrong time you might have thought that you time travelled. One moment Matthew is making goo goo eyes at his bride at the altar and in the next they are dashing around the countryside in an automobile. No I do’s. No kisses. No tossing of rice, and no cavorting under the sheets in wedded bliss. When the wedding scene was cut short, a gasp went around the room (7 of us viewed the first episode together) and then we shouted – “We wuz robbed!” Anna and the viewers do get a glimpse of Mary and Matthew in bed — much much later. All I could think was: “What if Anna had walked into the room while they were doing IT?” To paraphrase Cher Horowitz in Clueless – “Ewwww.”

Lady Edith, shameless hussy

World War One and influenza did more to reduce Europe’s male population than untold centuries of starvation, hunting accidents, duels, or bar brawls ever did. After 1918, there were a gazillion fertile young women for every man. No wonder Lady Edith set her sight, hooks, and clamps upon Sir Anthony Strallan. While considerably older than the nubile Edith, he’s not all that decrepit a specimen of British aristocratic manhood. He still has his teeth and hair, and can offer her a fine house. While one of his hands can no longer do the job for which it was intended, the other can still unhook Lady Edith’s underthings if Sir Anthony so desired. What else would a young lady of breeding age want? With her biological clock ticking and her eggs shriveling by the minute (and with nothing much else to do), Edith hones in on Sir Anthony like a heat seeking missile, which makes Papa Crawley’s innards crawl The viewer is asked to wonder why, since historically young aristocratic British maidens were SACRIFICED on the altar of land and wealth with nary a blink of an eye by their doting papas.

Tom Branson and his Sybil

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Our former chauffeur turned newspaperman wears ill-fitting suits and cannot let go of his political fervor even at the dinner table. The servants sniff and snort within his vicinity, unable to withhold their disdain for a man who married his BETTER. The servants resort to the tools they know best to put him in his place. When serving him at table, the footmen hold platters of food too high or low for comfort, or for too short a time. Others sling sideway looks and lift their noses as if smelling a putrid excrescence. Violet shows much more tolerance towards Branson, for in her book he has become FAMILY.

As for Saint Sybil, she’s turned into the invisible woman. Branson leaves her in danger in Ireland to save his own hide, and when she finally shows up at the Abbey, she’s pregnant, dowdy, and all but mute. What’s happened to our feisty miss? I’m not feeling her this season and apparently she’s not feeling it either..

Violet, the Inviolate

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Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

In this instance the writers have not messed with perfection. Either that or Maggie Smith is able to rise above hasty script writing. She’s given fewer zingers this go-round, but every utterance is platinum in my book. Do not criticize my Maggie or you will be banished from my blog forever.

In Conclusion

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Let’s face it, the first episode is off to a slow start. The writers are juggling too many story lines, but the main problem with season three is the lack of real conflict. Season One featured the sinking of the Titanic, which killed off Downton’s heir, and Season Two played against the backdrop of World War One. The only thing Season Three has going for it thus far is that the earl has lost Cora’s money out of sheer stupidity by investing all of it in one railway, and that Matthew refuses to save the day with Lavinia’s dead daddy’s money because of his tiresome high-mindedness about having let Lavinia down. Mary’s still willing to marry him and not pull a Clytemnestra, which boggles the mind. Meanwhile, as Daddy Crawley is forced to contemplate selling his books and his beloved dog Isis, and firing all the servants in order to make ends meet, his daughter Mary is spending money on her trousseau like no tomorrow.

Credit: Courtesy of © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

Credit: Courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

With tepid fare like this, the 120 minutes seemed to drag on. At the end of the first episode, I sang in my best Peggy Lee voice, “Is that all there is?” Well, no. There is more to come and the season does gain momentum. There will be plot twists and turns that will leave viewers stupefied, howling with grief and laughter, or wanting more. Too bad that the first episode barely hinted at the drama to come.

I did a quick survey among friends and colleagues this week and tallied up the scores. Half the people I talked to loved the first episode, the others felt like me. All were let down by Shirley MacLain’s performance, except for one. The best line regarding saving Downton Abbey from bankruptcy came from Market Watch, which asked: “Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you were Earl and Countess of Grantham, what would you do?” One person answered, “I say buy life insurance on Mary and knock her off. Ghastly woman.”

Hah!

Please, in your comments, NO plot spoilers.

The New York Times has an interesting take on the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey

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From the moment the new adaptation of Great Expectations opened, viewers knew that this was not going to be their grand daddy’s sentimental interpretation of Charles Dickens’ classic. I struggled with how to review this PBS special, which aired last night, and realized that I could only do it through visuals. In the first 15 minutes, with very little dialogue, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister captures the essence of Pip’s bleak life and visually sets up the rest of the plot. (Problems with the coloration of the screen captures must be blamed on my poor photo editing skills, not the cinematographer’s!) If you missed the first episode, you can watch it online until May 1.

Like some preternatural creature, Magwitch rises from the marsh waters. One of the ships in the background is the prison ship from which he escaped.

It is said that Ray Winstone has always wanted to play Magwitch

These scenes were shot in Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex, known for its wildlife. The fog adds to the sense of isolation.

Sketch of the church on the marsh. David Roger, production designer. Image @PBS Masterpiece Great Expectations. How much of these scenes were due to CG design?

Our first view of Pip (Oscar Kennedy) is at his parent's graveside. The smaller stones represent his dead siblings. "There were five of us," he told Miss Havisham sadly. So far, other than the booming of the ship's cannon, not a word has been said.

Pip should have been mortally scared of Magwitch and never come near him again. There is nothing pretty about their first encounter.

Pip's run to the Forge, where he lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, shows how isolated this section of the country is - flat, with few landmarks on the horizon. It would be nearly impossible for Magwitch to find a hiding place.

Orlick (Jack Roth)is Joe Gargery's assistant and no friend of Pip's. In this scene he almost looked like a zombie appearing through the mists. His encounter with the boy as he runs home to find a file for Magwitch is filled with hate and jealousy on Orlick's side, and dread on Pip's. It sets a malevolent tone to an already edgy opening.

The Forge is little more than a hovel.

This scene is quiet and pivotal. For many precious moments, Magwitch does not speak or move when he understands what Pip is offering him. Knowing how harsh Pip's life is, I too was moved by the boy's generosity.

The marsh lands through Florian Hoffmeister's lens are harsh and unforgiving. Magwitch can only cling under the platforms in the muck, but he will have no place to go when the tide rises.

This fight in the muck was elemental. I flinched as I watched this. At this point we are only 10 or 12 minutes into the film and I could not pull my eyes away.

Magwitch is caught, covered with mud and blood, yet still defiant. It is obvious that he has the grit, determination, and ingenuity to escape again.

In all these early scenes, only Joe Gargery (Shaun Dooley) shows Pip genuine love, concern, and kindness. His steady support of Pip provides the only real stability in the young boy's life.

The travelers journey through what seems to be a flat, bleak land. As observers of wildlife know, marshes teem with life, offering food for scores of creatures, both transient and permanent.

The two travelers are mere specks in this vast landscape. It would seem to be a perfect dystopian setting for The Hunger Games.

My next visual review will take us into Miss Havisham’s house. Great Expectations, 2011 was directed by Brian Kirk and adapted for the screen by writer Sarah Phelps. The cinematographer was Florian Hoffmeister and the production designer was David Roger. I commend them all for setting the stage so well for Pip’s story. Young Oscar Kennedy plays a compelling young Pip who stirred my heart strings.

Read the fabulous interview with production designer David Roger at this link.

The following links describe the Tollesbury Wick Marshes in Essex.

Google map of Tollesbury marshes

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Only two days remain to watch Downton Abbey Season 2 on PBS’s website. The online feature ends on March 6th. If you have a Netflix membership, you can watch Season 1 on streaming video.

Netflix page for Downton Abbey Season 1

Season 3 is being filmed as I type. Once again we have to wait 10 anxious months before seeing the results.

Several questions were sent in by readers about Lady Mary and Pamuk. Perhaps readers can help answer these particulars.

Reader #1:

1) The whole plot revolves around Lady Mary not defending herself so it’s a mystery. WHY does she not defend herself? Pamuk said he would expose her if she didn’t let him have his way with her, and she never tells anyone that. So, she couldn’t even scream him off.

2) How did Pamuk learn where Lady Marys room was? No one asks her and that’s strange. We know that rat Thomas told him after threat of exposure from his peccadillo, but the plot should have someone asking.

Reader #2:

I still have two questions:

1) How did Pamuk convince Mary she would “still be a virgin”?

2) Why was Mary so hesitant to accept Matthew even prior to the news of her Mother’s pregnancy if she loved him? Was it that she couldn’t find the way to explain Pamuk’s death?

Do you have other questions that still remain unanswered?

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Gentle Readers: Amanda Millay on New Noblewoman has found modern fashions inspired by Downton Abbey. She has graciously allowed me to reproduce her article for this blog. It will lead you to her blog, The New Noblewoman, which features all things fashion.

Downton Abbey is not just successful as good entertainment. Women everywhere are clamoring for clothing inspired by the show, and finding that modern-day retail wear is not even as pretty as the show’s most simple dresses.

The longing for Downton Abbey-inspired fashions, and the very few options available at the retail level, indicate that a change is needed in women’s fashion. Most women can’t afford a $1,000 dress, and designers and manufacturers will continue to make cheap, ugly, throwaway clothing until people stop buying it. But there is one option remaining for turning the fashion tide: Making or buying only top-quality, beautiful clothes, and making do with a limited wardrobe . . . like most people did for centuries. We should bring the emphasis in fashion back to having a few quality items, rather than amassing a huge quantity of synthetic items that we grow weary of or that go out of style after a few months. Women are already realizing this, and have started searching out homemade clothing (and making their own) in the quest to bring some true style back into fashion.

So can women today find anything that’s comparable to Downton Abbey fashion (without making it, or wearing an evening gown during the day)? I’ve scoured online women’s boutiques and department stores, and after looking through thousands of dresses, here are the best options I’ve found for Downton Abbey-inspired style. There are some great dresses at exorbitant prices, but in this list, everything is less than $200.

(If you’re looking for authentic vintage style, check out the Ladies Emporium,Recollections, Etsy, or this list of retailers from Sense & Sensibility Patterns.)

Long Dresses for a Look That’s Casual or Elegant

The ladies of Downton Abbey are usually dressed to impress. But it’s possible to find empire-waist dresses and long dresses in a variety of styles that have a bit of pre-World War I British flair. Click here for the rest of the article on New Noblewoman.

Other links:

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Twists and turns keep the plot of Downton Abbey rolling. One twist was unsurprising – the arrival of Spanish flu just as the war was winding down. The flu pandemic that swept around the world and killed an estimated 40 million people (some scientists estimate that as many as 100 million died globally) in three waves in 1918,  1919, and 1920 spread quickly via troop movements and global transportation. One major problem in containing the pandemic was that in 1918 governments were primarily concerned with the war and were caught flat-footed in containing the pandemic when it struck. The first wave of the pandemic was the most deadly.

Flu pandemic image @Wikipedia

Flu pandemic image @Wikipedia

The Spanish flu resulted in a particularly virulent and lethal pandemic. At the time people did not yet understand how flu was spread or how to take precautions against it. All they could do was stay indoors and wear masks when venturing outside. Two age groups that were especially susceptible were babies less than a year old and healthy young adults between the ages of 15 and 35. The flu usually killed the very young and the very old, but this virus strain attacked teens and young adults with robust immune systems. Immune cells were activated by the virus, increasing the number of immune cells circulating in the blood and overwhelming the lungs with fluids.

Healthy young adults essentially drowned from within. Some patients died only a few hours after their first symptoms appeared; others died in a matter of days. Patients would turn blue, suffocating from a lack of oxygen as lungs filled with a frothy, bloody substance.

In the US, twenty five percent of the population was afflicted by the flu. More remarkably, in only one year the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 12%.

As happened in real life, a number of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants contracted the flu. Some survived and others did not. Edwardian Promenade has written a more detailed account on this topic.

Please note: Advertisements on this blog are placed here by WordPress. I make no money from this blog.

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A good reviewer is not supposed to give the game away early, but I can’t help but gush: If you haven’t seen Any Human Heart when it aired on PBS, you will have an opportunity to watch the episodes online the Monday after its initial showing, from Feb 14 to March 22, and two more weeks to catch the last two episodes on screen (February 20 & February 27).

Some critics have dismissed this mini-series as another Forrest Gump story, wherein the fictional hero moves through the 20th century and rubs shoulders with famous people. I can assure you that this is the only trait that these two movies have in common, for one is filmed from the perspective of magic realism and the other is a gritty view of a man’s life and his failures and successes. I began to watch the first episode of Any Human Heart when I had the time to view the DVD from start to end. I was glad that I had five free hours, for I could not stop watching it. The opening credits had a similar feel to the opening of Mad Men, which clued me in that this mini-series would not offer a one-note plot (I have not read William Boyd’s book, but intend to), and that cigarettes would be used as a prop. I was right.

We meet Logan Mountstuart almost immediately in all of his personifications (in misty watercolor memories) – from childhood,

Conor Nealon as Logan Mountstuart, youth

to young man,

Sam Claflin as Logan Mounstuart, young man

to mature man,

Matthew MacFadyen as Logan, mature man

to an old man reminiscing about his life.

Jim Broadbent as an old Logan

“I’m all these different people,” he thinks as the camera pans to a misty scene of a river bank. “Which life is truly mine?”

The three Logans on the river bank

Logan rummages through the detritus of his life, burning memories (much as Cassandra Austen burned her sister Jane’s letters) and looking over his journals. “Your past never leaves you,” he says early on.

Burning memories

There are many reasons to watch Any Human Heart, not the least of which are the performances.

Matthew MacFadyen


Logan is a flawed, egotistical man whose ambition to write his great novel eludes him. Too often he is ruled by his heart, not his head, and he is easily influenced by external events and his own and other peoples’ desires. Matthew captures this man perfectly. We see him happy and content only with Freya.

Freya (Haley Atwell) and Logan

For the rest of his life he compromises, and it becomes a struggle. Not that his love story with Freya is without fault, for Logan leaves his wife and son to be with her. I am a child of divorce whose father never bothered to come and visit, and so I thought myself incapable of feeling much empathy for a man who abandons his son and sleeps with his friend’s girlfriend and wife, but Matthew MacFadyen’s performance had me riveted.

End of Logan's first marriage with wife #1, Lottie (Emerald Fennell)

Logan’s character is complex, and Matthew portrays all his shades in such a way that, although I found Logan’s actions often repellent, I also felt sorry for the choices he made and how the plans of his youth unraveled. “Life has to be encountered with an ignorance of sheer faith.” Ah, Logan.

Jim Broadbent

During the first two episodes, Broadbent’s role as Logan in old age is largely silent, but in this actor’s skilled hands, the viewer knows exactly what is happening and why.

Mature Logan (Jim Broadbent) in France

When Broadbent finally takes center stage in the third episode, the final chapter of Logan’s life is told. Now old and bent and poor again (for his assignments as a reporter have dried up), he has taken to eating dog food to stay alive and selling newspapers for a radical group.

Logan selling radical newspapers

The older Logan reviews his life through the lens of knowledge and experience, and what he sees and remembers makes him wince. “We never stay the same person. We change as we grow older. It’s part of the story of our life.”

Gillian Anderson

With The King’s Speech up for a gazillion awards, this is a propitious time to portray Wallis Simpson, and Gillian has taken on the part with gusto.

Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

Gillian Anderson as Wallis Simpson

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard

At any moment I expected her to morph into Gloria Swanson and say “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” or perhaps Morticia, I can’t decide. Not a single person in my social group admires Wallis Simpson, for her reputation as a sexual predator and icy fashionista, and knowledge of her dominatrix control over David have preceded her. Neither the Duchess nor Duke of Windsor come off well in this production.

Wallis spies Logan at a gathering and spews venom

The viewer can think of their story line as Chapter 2, after David abdicated as king in The King’s Speech. As for Gillian, she is carving out quite a career for herself in these spectacular BBC and PBS dramas, and I can’t wait to see more from her. Her performance in this series is over-the-top dramatic, but then wasn’t Wallis herself?

Kim Cattrall

The same goes for Kim, who has recently been flexing her acting muscles onstage in London and in substantial parts such as My Boy Jack and as Gloria Scabalius in this production. She (and Gillian for that matter) show no vanity, allowing themselves to be filmed with makeup that is too white and heavy, as middle aged women who were once beautiful are often wont to do, and play the parts of cougars.

Kim Cattrall as Gloria Scabius, predatory female

In Kim’s case this is literal, as her character, Gloria, has the habit of leaving her mark on her men. She cheats on her husband (Peter Scabius, Logan’s friend), and goes after Logan like a heat-seeking missile.

Kim as Gloria in full cougar regalia

Her final scenes with Logan are full of pathos. (I could not help but think of an ailing Liz Taylor or Zsa Zsa Gabor.) Perhaps Kim will shrug off the bad after effects of that excruciatingly awful film, Sex in the City 2, and accept only meatier roles from now on.

Tom Hollander

Gillian Anderson as Wallis and Tom Hollander as the Duke of Windsor, who needs reminding that he has met Logan before.

You just have to love an actor who is willing to play a weak, self-indulgent, and dangerous man, and capture that personality to a tee. Tom Hollander’s performance as The Duke of Windsor personifies what I think of the former king. As a teenager I read several biographies about the Windsors, thinking like so many others that the king’s willingness to abdicate his throne for the woman he loved was romantic. Well, it was not.

The odd, self-important couple in Nassau.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor toadying up to Adolph Hitler

In this series we see the Windsors for what they are: willing to ruin other peoples’ lives and to use others in order to maintain their self-important but insignificant status. They were stupid and dangerous snobs who hobnobbed with carpet baggers, the nouveau riche and dangerous factions. Tom Hollander portrays the duke as a mighty mite, and he does it perfectly.

Haley Atwell

Haley Atwell as Freya Deverell, Logan's wife #2

One can believe that a man can lose his head, senses, and heart to a woman as beautiful as Freya (Haley). She’s smart, totally in love with her man, and too good to be true. Plus, she smokes as much as Logan. (Some of the scenes were so Bette-Davis-1930’s, where the man offers to light the woman’s cigarette, and so much can be said cinematically through the gestures of a cupped hand touching the other and looks of longing behind curtains of smoke.)

Logan meets Freya, a smoking hot newspaper woman

I don’t think I have ever seen an actress look lovelier in 1940’s dresses than Haley, and in this role she is the personification of Logan’s idea of a perfect woman. As he said,  “Time away from Freya is time lost forever.”

Charity Wakefield as Land Fothergill (Logan's first love) and Sam Claflin as young Logan

The cast of Any Human Heart is so strong that I could continue gushing for another hour. I suppose this mini-series might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly will be watching it again. Simply put, I found it outstanding.

Tess (Holliday Grainger), Logan's first lover

Emerald Fennell as Lottie, Logan's first wife

Natasha Little as Allanah Mountstuart, Logan's 3rd wife

Logan, Gloria, and Lionel, Logan's son (Hugh Skinner)

Tobias Menzies as Ian Fleming

Julian Ovenden as Ernest Hemingway

Samuel West as Peter Scabius, Logan's successful friend

More on the topic:

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Highclere Castle as Downton Abbey was a beautiful setting

Now that the last episode of Downton Abbey has aired, I can reflect back on the series and revisit some of the most surprising scenes. Indeed, the unexpected plot developments, which kept the viewers on their toes,  helped to make this series so unforgettable. Throw luscious costumes into the mix, stunning locations, a wealth of detail about Edwardian life, and great acting and you get one of the best costume dramas in recent years. Oh, the series had its faults with one or two too many stereotypical characters, but overall I give it a grade of A.

Reader alert: Spoilers!!

Surprise #1: Thomas kisses the Duke

Thomas (Rob James-Colier) and the Duke of Crowborough (Charley Cox)

This scene, which upset parents watching with their children, helped to seal the character of Thomas, the first footman, and clued the viewer into the the Duke’s motives for hightailing it to Downton Abbey when he thinks Mary will come into a boatload of money.

The duke learns the true situation of Lady Mary's finances from Lord Grantham.

The Duke finds and burns Thomas’s letters, which were the footman’s only means of blackmailing him, and then he scurries away the moment he discovers that Lord Grantham’s estate is entailed to the closest male heir, making his chance to marry into the Grantham fortune less than zero. Thomas goes on to demonstrate his sleazy character in many more ways, but his move on the Duke packed a real punch.

Surprise #2: Lady Mary is not just another cookie cutter heroine

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley

From the moment we meet her, Lady Mary comes off as a cold, calculating, and complex woman, whose vulnerability does not come into full view until the third episode. When the viewer meets her, she worries about having to wear black after the death of her fiance on the Titanic and only mourns the fact that she cannot mourn him. Haughty and immodestly aware of her attraction to men, her pursuit of a wealthy and titled husband begins to take on a hint of desperation, which is why her fall from grace with Evelyn Napier’s attractive Turkish friend, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), is even more shocking.

Surprise #3: Lady Mary, Lady Cora, and Anna share a terrible secret that cannot be contained

Lady Mary is in deep trouble after Pamuk dies in her bed.

The scene in which Pamuk dies in Lady Mary’s bed and the women secretly carry him back to his bedroom could have descended into slapstick comedy, but it did not due to great directing and acting. As I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or whoop it up. All I knew was that in no way did I anticipate this plot development, which would affect Mary’s story arc and uneasy relationship with her mother for the rest of the mini-series.

Consequences of Lady Mary's fall from grace. Anna and Cora carry Pamuk back to the bedroom.

Handsome Pamuk is reduced to a limp corpse. And Mary? What on earth was she thinking? When Matthew finally proposes, Cora reveals to Violet that Mary wants to confess about the circumstances of Pamuk’s death, prompting the dowager to exclaim:  “She reads too many novels. One way or the other, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden!”

Surprise #4: The Enjoyable Saga of One Upmanship Between Two Well-Matched Battle Axes

Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Matthew's mama

Violet and Isobel: Two strong-willed women, both firm in their belief that they are right, one with modern notions, the other clinging to old-fashioned ways, provide a colorful but minor story line. Isobel Crawley, despite her comparative lack of social status (when matched against the Dowager Countess), manages to make her will known and felt. Violet can only sputter and rage at Isobel’s interference, and she finds scant satisfaction in proving Isobel’s diagnosis and treatment of Molesley’s skin condition wrong. But Isobel was not born yesterday, and at the Flowershow Death Match she shames Violet into giving the trophy for best roses to Molesley’s papa, instead of appropriating it as her own for the umpteenth time.

Violet graciously gives this year's prize to old Mr. Molesley.

In their scenes together,  Penelope Wilton  gave the incomparable Maggie Smith a run for her money. The enjoyable interplay between these two marvelous actresses was as surprising as it was worth watching.

Surprise #5: Cora’s Pregnancy

Lord Grantham's surprise at learning of Cora's pregnancy. (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

Did you see this scene coming? I did not, although it made sense, for this unexpected pregnancy explains much about the entail and why Matthew Crawley was only the presumptive heir and therefore essentially helpless in changing his situation. As long as the earl could possibly sire a son, Matthew’s claim to the inheritance would remain tenuous. The entail could not be broken for the Grantham was still  a healthy and virile man, as this scene shows. The pregnancy led us to discover…

Surprise #6:  O’Brien’s True Malevolent Impulses

Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) holds the fatal bar of soap

O'Brien shoves the bar of soap in harm's way.

Cora’s fatal flaw was in thinking that she and O’Brien had developed a mutual friendship and trust. While Cora receives glimpses of O’Brien’s true character, she never fully understood the anger and insecurity that her ladies maid harbored. O’Brien’s pang of conscience about shoving the broken half of the bar of soap from under the bath tub came too late, and Cora slipped and fell, losing the male heir that she and Lord Grantham so desperately wanted.  O’Brien’s dark impulse was for naught. Cora wasn’t actively looking to replace her, but only helping her mother-in-law in hiring a new ladies maid. This surprising news hit the viewer at the same time as it did O’Brien.

O’Brien’s momentary second thought comes too late. (Siobhan Finneran)

Surprise #8: The Spiteful Tug of War Between Two Sisters

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) realizes that her sister Mary was behind Lord Strallan's cool departure.

At first the viewer felt a great deal of sympathy towards plain Lady Edith, who was only to happy to go after Lady Mary’s leavings. But as the mini-series progressed, the viewer came to understand just how much animosity the two women felt towards one another and how far they would go to extract their revenge, Lady Edith writing the Turkish embassy about Mary’s part in Pamuk’s death, and Lady Mary sabotaging Lady Edith’s happiness with Sir Anthony Strallan, who was about to propose.

Lady Mary salutes her triumph over Lady Edith.

In the end, neither sister came up smelling like a rose. The surprise was that their story line was written so well that many viewers came away feeling sympathy towards both women.

Surprise #9: Lady Sybil’s Firm Stance Behind Women’s Rights

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) urges Gwen (Rose Leslie) to keep trying to find a job as a secretary

Lady Sybil’s story arc did not truly begin until the second episode and reached its full glory in episode four, when she is struck during an election rally and is carried from the scene bleeding.

Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil at the election rally

A smart, independent, and kind woman, one can only hope that Lady Sybil’s character gains traction in the second series that is currently being filmed. The surprise here is that quiet, sweet Lady Sybil is truly the most daring and courageous of the three sisters. Jessica Brown-Findlay has true star status, and any time she came on the small screen, she lit it up.

Lady Sybil's daring new harem pants.

 

The family reacts to Lady Sybil's harem pants. Priceless.

Surprise #10: The ending

 

Lord Grantham, "I regret to announce we are at war with Germany."

Obviously a second series is in the works, for the story line is left hanging. World War I has broken out, causing consternation among the group.

Matthew refuses Lady Mary's acceptance of his proposal after her baby brother's death, and vows to leave Downton Abbey to make his own way.

Lady Mary accepts Matthew’s proposal, but he refuses her, unsure of whether the baby’s death had anything to do with her acceptance, and he declares his intention to leave Downton Abbey and make his own way in the world. Lady Mary, in a Scarlet O’Hara moment, realizes too late that she waited too long to accept Matthew.

Lady Mary understands she has made a mistake in waiting so long to accept Matthew's proposal.

Bates,  who cares for Anna as much as she cares for him, refuses to discuss his wife’s whereabouts with her.

Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggat) find themselves in the throes of bittersweet love.

And so, the viewer must wait an entire year to see what will happen to the characters in Downton Abbey, testing our patience sorely.

None too soon, Thomas announces his resignation to Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes

In addition to my ten choices, there were other surprises and great story arcs in Downton Abbey: Cook’s failing eyesight and the operation that saved it, Daisy’s blindness towards Thomas’s true character, which leads her to lie,

Daisy is haunted by what she saw in the corridor and her lies about Bates.

Mrs. Hughes’s longing for her own family, which made her momentarily receptive to an old flame’s advances, and Mr. Carson’s past as a performer, of which he is ashamed.

Mrs. Hughes says no to Joe, an old flame (Bill Fellows).

For those of you who missed certain episodes or who would like to watch the series again, PBS has made it available for online viewing until February 22. DVD’s are also available for sale.

My question to you is this: Of all the characters and story lines, which was your favorite? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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