The Great Upstairs Downstairs Series 1 Rewatch: “The Cuckoo”

Our whirlwind trip through the first series of Upstairs Downstairs concludes with the finale, The Cuckoo. (I’m really not sure to make of the show's obession with bird-related episode titles – especially this one, where no one is actually the victim of infidelity, though I suppose Hallam is the victim of a devastating lie of a different sort? Seem exceptionally odd, particularly considering that it’s not a pattern I think they continue in Series 2.) Anyway, having sped through these three episodes, it seems best to say that this first series is a mixed bag. On the plus side, there are strong performances and some charming storylines, but the series does sufffer from disjointed pacing and an uneven tone. Series 2 – which begins October 7 on Masterpiece Classic – is six episodes and I wonder if a bit more length might have helped smooth over some of the bumps in the road for this series. As it is, the show seems so determined to pack as much as possible into each episode that the story doesn’t get a tremendous amount of room to breathe. It will certainly be interesting to compare the two, and see how Series 2 turns out with the benefit of more room to run, as it were.

Anyway, onward! Click through for a rewatch of the Series 1 finale, The Cuckoo and join me for a chat in the comments, as well as some speculation about where Series 2 might be headed.

Well, I don’t think this episode will be unseating The Ladybird as my pick for Best of Series 1. This finale installment is tremendously uneven and a lot of the things that make the second episode work better than the pilot are abandoned or completely ignored here.  Plus, some of the more interesting subplots (Harry’s shift in perspective toward both Persie and fascism, for example) are given not quite enough attention to really flesh them out. Consequently, there’s a lot of telling instead of showing. The best moments are still the most non-sweeping – the cook’s obsession with a famous photographer, the struggle of Hallam to plan out the menu for a formal dinner – but, quite frankly, we don’t get enough of them.

The Harry and Persie Saga Continues, or, Lady Persie: Hot Mess. Harry the Driver and Persie seem to be not doing so well in the aftermath of their fascist protest adventure. Persie now seems most interested in getting Harry to sneak into the bedroom in the main house so that they can get caught together by one of her family members and Harry seems to be struggling with a lot of guilt about what happened to Rachel. (The small moment where Harry’s clearly being kind to Lotte on purpose is very sweet.) Harry says he’s tired of breaking the rules, and then he and Persie have an awkward break-up scene where she accuses him of not having “beliefs” like she does anymore and he says that he’s seen the results of them. It’s the first time I’ve maybe ever actually liked Harry! Aww.

Sadly, despite the fact that I like Harry a bit more now, this plot is a bit all over the place. We don’t see the immediate fallout from Rachel’s death and the protest mess on either Harry or Persie, and though Harry claims he’s “changed,” we haven’t actually seen that happen very much. We haven’t even seen the two of them drift apart – they looked perfectly cuddly a mere five minutes prior and aside from Persie’s creepy “let’s get found out by one of my relatives, won’t that be fun” comment, their relationship seemed otherwise business as usual for them. It would have been nice to see some of its deterioration and some of this change that Harry talks about actually play out onscreen rather than just be told that it already happened.

Further, how the audience is supposed to feel about Persie seems completely unclear after this episode. In both The Fledgling and The Ladybird, the script tried very hard to give Persie a distinct point of view, as crazy and unsympathetic and occasionally nonsensical as it might have been. We didn’t have to agree with Persie’s decisions or even like her particularly much, but you could at least draw a straight line between her statements and her actions. In The Cuckoo, it’s basically as though she’s become a pod person, who suddenly wants her romantic trysts with Harry, but also wants to be found out by her sister and who want to be much more than a regular fascist sympathizer-protester, she apparently wants to be a Nazi so badly she’ll rush off to Germany with the creepy diplomat from her sister’s party. And how are we supposed to feel about how relationship with Harry? Are we supposed to be rooting for them to get back together? Worried about Persie? Relieved Harry dodged a bullet? I have no idea.

Awesome Historical Interlude is Awesome.  The small moment – which is both well done and a convenient cover for why Agnes has to deliver a baby in the upstairs bathroom – when both Teams Upstairs and Downstairs listen to the speech in which King Edward abdicates his throne for love of Wallis Simpson. (Seeing as I’ve seen The King’s Speech recently, I don’t find this a particularly romantic or swoon-worthy gesture, but it’s fascinating watching how this news really affects every single person in the house, in the country really. It’s all over the papers, it’s all anything can talk about. People are crying. (The cook’s I put canapés in that woman’s mouth” was certainly a contender for lined of the episode.)

Apparently Stabbing Someone in the Neck Doesn’t Mean You Have to Be Unemployed. Johnny the footman with anger management issues pops up in this episode again, and is welcomed back to Team Downstairs with open arms, despite him, oh, having stabbed someone in the neck in a drunken rage. Okay, fine, whatever. On your head so be it, Mr. Pritchard, the next time a guest makes him angry and the good china ends up stuck in their hand.

Oh, What the – Seriously, Someone Comes Back From the Dead. I gave poor Downton Abbey so much grief about having a “maybe someone is back from the dead plot maybe not!” plot in the show’s second season, but at least Downton managed to wait until somewhere around it's twelfth episode to pull out this hoariest of dramatic “twists.” Upstairs Downstairs manages to do it in less than three! To be fair, this situation is quite a bit different, and if you listen to Maud’s logic for why she told Hallam that his sister was dead instead of in what I assume is a sanitarium because she has Down’s Syndrome, it does elicit a certain amount of sympathy. But then, on the other hand not, because she told her son that his sister was dead.  Of course, Pamela is not dead and Hallam mistakenly stumbles upon her while trying to find Rachel's daugher Lotte – whom Maud has sent away to the same facility (why??) without her son’s knowledge to try and get her to talk again.

Though, really, you could probably have guessed something was up with the Pamela plot when they included the wool-winding scene and Hallam’s comment about that being his sister’s favorite activities in the previouslies. That does not excuse the terribly overdramatic use of slow-mo over a similar ball of white wool on the stairs of the sanitarium as the cue that Something Important is Happening, though.

We Practically Might as Well Just Fast Forward to the Last Fifteen Minutes. If I have to name one thing that I hope Upstairs Downstairs improves upon in Series 2, it’s the pacing. There’s a tremendous sense of imbalance within these episodes – some are more guilty of this than others – and there’s a tendency to wait till the last ten or fifteen minutes to suddenly kick every storyline into high gear. I know this season’s only three episodes long, but by this point this trick is already starting to become predictable and by cramming so much into the last few scenes of each installment we don’t get time to really appreciate any of them, because we’ve got to go right on to the next thing. This time around its: Hallam has a sister who’s not really dead, Agnes delivers her baby on the bathroom floor, Persie trots off to Germany and the King abdicates his throne. It’s a lot to fit in a tiny time from, which means we mostly just bounce from one important moment to the next without getting a lot of time for character development.

Apparently, Mr. Pritchard is Good at Everything. One of my favorite oddball bits about this series is that butler Mr. Pritchard responds to basically ANY possible situation with a story about how he had experience in or used to do something just like that when he was “on the lines.” (Prior to working at Eaton Place, Pritchard worked on fancy passenger ships, apparently.) So, I guess it should not surprise me at all that when Agnes goes into labor in her bathroom, it’s Pritchard to the rescue because OF COURSE while he was “on the lines” he got quite experienced in helping deliver children. Alllrighty then. He actually has the best line of the episode: “Blood panics most people; when I see it I calm down.” He’s like the Chuck Norris of Eaton Place.

So, What’s Up with Series 2? I’m not sure what to expect out of Upstairs Downstairs’ second series. There are a few loose ends, storyline-wise, that can be dealt with, mostly revolving around what is going on with Lady Persie. With the happy Christmas family moment at the end, we have to assume that Hallam’s forgiven Maud for lying to him his entire life and everything is fine among all members of the Holland crew (except, again, for Persie and her marathon of poor life choices.)

This is almost enough to give me reason to hope that Series 2 will dial down the epic! dramatic! situations! just a touch in Series 2, but then I remember that they’ve got six episodes to fill this time around, so the odds of someone getting stabbed in the neck or returning from the dead again are higher than you’d think. My favorite moment of this season was still the first half of the second episode, when everything was just the small little dramas that pepper domestic life and it was so entertaining. I guess we’ll see! Doctor Who’s Alex Kingston is joining the cast and I’m quite fond of her, so she should at least make things interesting. And I’m still holding out hope that with more time to work with – episode wise – maybe the plot can be spread out a bit more.