E: So, I kind of liked this episode better, mostly because of a fantastic new character, Rachel, a Jewish refugee working as a maid.
C: Except – spoiler alert! – this show apparently has no interest in letting us get attached to anybody, because Rachel kicks the bucket before this fifty-minute episode is even done!
E: Yeah, that pretty much bit.
C: What a lame death, too. Off-screen, unexplained, she dies of what–asthma? Being scared? Not liking to work for a spoiled little fascist brat? A pathetic fate for a character whose introduction brought new interest to the show and life to several of the other characters (she bonds with bratty housemaid, who apparently has a nicer side, and turns the Indian manservant who barely said a word in Part I into quite the charming gentleman).
E: Oh, I know. She made everyone else more interesting. Bah. I loved the relationship between her and Mr. Amanjit. I loved the quick way she saw division and inequality and maturely but steadfastly defied it. I loved that she was a professor driven out of Germany by the Nazis (so Eva Ibbotson!) and had a secret family.
E: She was so brave and true. I don’t know, maybe she was just too good a character/person to live. But why couldn’t they make any of the others so bold and involving?
C: I am beginning to see why people considered Keeley Hawes wrong for the part of Lady Agnes. When you first said that, E, my thought was: “How could she be wrong for a part? She could do anything!” But it’s really more that she’s wasted here. It took me a while to notice, because Hawes brings layers to any part, but Lady Agnes isn’t being written with any layers. She’s just self-absorbed and dippy. It’s really too bad, because the possibility for depth is there in her situation. Instead we get ditzy, destructive shallowness.
E: It makes me feel old and crotchety and unnatural when I start siding with the interfering mother-in-law over the wife, but I have to say, I do. How can she not notice when Hallam gets upset? Heck, how can she buy a pram at two months pregnant after her previous, loosely described loss?
C: Yes, that was where the writing of her character just popped like a balloon. One minute she’s this anxious mother-to-be who can barely stand to hope, and the next minute she’s a gloating brooding hen, with all the human realness sucked right out of her. “Pregnant women are smug” doesn’t begin to cover it.
E: There’s her whole “but we drink champagne every night!” let them eat cake moment, when she just doesn’t understand that the champagne ought to be going downstairs, so the whole household can celebrate. And don’t even get me started on her heartless treatment of Rachel’s little daughter. Ugh.
C: Indeed. And speaking of heartless — considering how much I liked Claire Foy in Little Dorrit, too, it’s almost impressive how unrelatable she is here.
E: I’m not sure, if I hadn’t seen her before, that I would think Foy could act. She’s such an unbelievable brat and idiot, so thoroughly unlikable, that I’d be inclined to include the actress in my dislike for the role.
C: Quite. Lady Persie wasn’t appealing last week while slapping the maid, and she isn’t any more likable now that she’d started a steamy affair with the chauffeur. You’d think that would be romantic, but it’s amazing what a gloomy pall Fascist zealotry casts over a love story!
E: Funny how being a Blackshirt can take the glow off romance, yes. When Spargo comes to dinner in uniform! And the moment where Persie tells Hallam that she likes Rachel, of course, without seeing that she’s condemning Rachel’s entire race to genocide… I’m not sure it’s possible for us to see someone freely embrace Fascism and still like them.
C: It’s isn’t, but if you wanted try anyhow, this one-dimensional portrayal wouldn’t be the way. And isn’t it funny that if you’re going to have a cross-class romance – and obviously you must have at least one, in this kind of story – the chauffeur is apparently the upper-class woman’s catnip? But when the sweet youngest daughter in Downton Abbey bonds with the family’s driver over Socialism, it’s somehow much more winning!
E: Yep. Socialism is more conducive to romance. And really I think that the chauffeur in Downton Abbey is such a fresh-faced, thoughtful, well-intended chap, that it made me initially sympathetic toward Spargo. I think I transferred my affection from one to the other as if they were the same character. They’re both politically active! Unafraid of the upstairs folk! But no. The Blackshirt thing is just too much. I don’t understand why Hallam didn’t fire him in the first place. I mean, clearly Spargo tried to do the right thing about Persie “stealing” the car, but that ideology is just beyond our ability to sympathize with. I know it was popular in Britain at the time, even amongst some of the intelligentsia, but good Lord.
C: Yeah, it would help if they actually let us hear snatches of these talks they keep going to, to understand what ideology and goals they’re connecting with. From this end of WWII, my only association with the word Fascism is “totalitarian rule,” and without some help I can’t make the mental leap to why a bunch of British working men would think that sounded appealing.
E: Yeah, you’d really need more time to make any kind of case for why someone would go there.
C: Time is a problem. The series, which is really more like a long film in length (at under three hours), has been oddly structured; it doesn’t build enough from episode to episode to work as one piece, yet the individual sections don’t pack as much wallop on their own as they should.
E: It’s true. Even more than the casting or writing, the problem with this series is the lack of time. Time to develop stories, to develop characters, to make us care. And blast them, I really wanted to!
C: You know, I want to give them that much credit, but I can’t. You can watch a two-hour film and care passionately about the characters. I’ve seen one-hour TV pilots that have me – if not deeply invested, at least ready to be. It wouldn’t matter if Upstairs Downstairs had twelve hours; the writing just isn’t here.