Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Favorite Moment from "Downton Abbey"

I definitely became a fan of Masterpiece Theater's broadcasts of Downton Abbey over the past four Sundays. While the beginning of the first episode drew me in with its amazing tracking shot through the rooms of Downton, the moment that really hooked me was a scene early in the second episode, after the characters and their relationships had been set up. As a writer, I must say that once you've gotten the exposition out of the way, everything becomes so much more fun!

This isn't one of the big, dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) moments of Downton Abbey, but it is a great example of one of my favorite things about period dramas: people finding clever ways to insult one another in polite company.

So, the set-up: Matthew Crawley, a young lawyer from Manchester, has recently learned that (for reasons too complicated to get into here), he will inherit the estate of Downton Abbey and the title of Earl of Grantham from a distant relative. The present Earl, a middle-aged man with three daughters, welcomes Matthew to Downton. However, other members of the family wish to alter the law so that the Earl's eldest daughter, Lady Mary, can inherit the estate.

If Mary cannot inherit, some people think that the next best thing would be for her to marry Matthew. But Mary is an aristocratic snob who has taken an instant dislike to this middle-class interloper. At a family dinner, she strikes up the following conversation:
MARY: I've been studying the story of Andromeda; do you know it?

MATTHEW: (suspiciously) Why?

MARY: Her father was King Cepheus, whose country was being ravaged by storms. And, in the end, he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock--

DOWAGER COUNTESS: (nervously laughs) Really! Mary! We'll all need our smelling salts in a minute!

MATTHEW: But the sea monster didn't get her, did he?

MARY: No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father's problems, she was rescued.

MATTHEW: By Perseus.

MARY: That's right. Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn't you say?

MATTHEW: That depends. I'd have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.
As the scene ended and I laughed with delight, I knew I'd be telling several of my friends about it. All right, so I hang out with people who are inordinately fond of British period pieces, people being bitchy to each other in polite company, and allusions to Greek mythology. This kind of thing is catnip to us. (As a bonus, the Dowager Countess is played by Maggie Smith, and she is awesome.)

You can watch Downton Abbey for free on the Masterpiece Theatre website until February 22, which is how I re-watched and transcribed the above scene. If you're like me and my friends, and this excerpt has piqued your interest, go check it out.

Image: Publicity shot of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery).


Dr.J said...

It seems one of the nationwide channels has just got the rights for Spain and will air it soon.
In a web page announcing that they say that the plot and dialogues were "simplified" for the USA market as they were too complicated for you to follow.
Of course all we european know from birth that you American folk are half-witted and illiterate (put on smiley here please) but is this about true?

Marissa said...

What I heard is that the show was indeed trimmed/edited when it was aired in America, but mostly so that it would fit the time slot, not because we wouldn't understand the original! In Britain the show was, I think, 7 episodes of 60 minutes each, with commercials. In America it was 4 episodes, 90 minutes each, no commercials. So perhaps in Spain they will also have to cut it to fit the time slot.

Or this could just be a ploy to get Americans to buy the DVD version, which is not edited!

(I do think it is hilarious, though, that the Spanish TV web site see fit to point out that it was simplified for us stupid Americans...)

Terry said...

The Dowager Countess Violet made fun of the story of Andromeda and Perseus. Was this a reference to Maggie Smith's role in the movie "Clash of the Titans" where she played the goddess Thetis?

George in Chestnut Hill said...

Also Fellowes might have intended Lady Mary to take on numerous characters in the Andromeda and Perseus myth. Lady Mary resembles Medusa in Season 1 (the Gorgon who was "once a woman, vain of her beautiful hair who had lain with Poseidon in the Temple of Athena" and whose punishment was to have her hair turned into snakes and whose gaze would turn men to stone. The numerous scenes of Mary's hair being braided before the reflected images in multiple mirrors reminds us that before Perseus could save the princess from the sea monster he first had to cut off Medusa's head by avoiding her gaze and by seeing only her reflected image in the polished shield of Athena. It should also be noted (perhaps in Season 3?) that at Andromeda and Perseus's wedding a quarrel took place and a rival (Sir Richard?) was turned to stone.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Thanks for visiting, Terry and George! I ought to write about "Downton Abbey" more often! It's fun to think that they may be slipping these in-jokes ("Clash of the Titans" reference, continued allusions to the Andromeda/Perseus myth) into the script. I like the idea that Lady Mary thinks she is Andromeda but is actually Medusa (illicit sex and all)!

George in Chestnut Hill said...

After all Lady Mary (Medusa) did turn the Turkish diplomat to stone :-)

This weekend's articles in both the WSJ and the NYTimes Book Review seemed off the mark as to the source of the appeal of "Downton Abbey." Yes, Marissa, as a dramatic artist and writer (and probably all-around late 19th, early 20th type century person :-) we've like to hear more of your views on "Downton Abbey"! Great blog!