The second series of Upstairs Downstairs continues along its jampacked way with its fourth episode, which includes all manner of eminently watchable strangeness, including servant boxing, illicit romance, marital woes, racial tension and Hallam being a huge jerk. It’s another entertaining episode even if it occasionally seems only tangentially connected to what we’ve seen before. Personally, I’ve decided to accept that I just can’t get too emotionally invested in this show – Alex Kingston’s fantastic Lady Blanche aside – and am committed to just enjoying the ride for what it is And it’s super fun to watch, even if for about fifty percent of the time, the fun comes from hoping certain characters get punched in the face.
Click through and let’s dish everything important that happened this week, such as Harry the Driver’s sudden development of a meaningful past and Hallam’s new status as one of my most hated characters on TV. Leave your thoughts in the comments – should be fun to discuss!
This Series is Often So Disjointed. My issue with this season of Upstairs Downstairs isn’t that it’s too busy – I am definitely in favor of the fact that the episodes move quickly and are entertaining to watch. However, the problem with this second series is that while each episode is stuffed with plot activity, there are few threads that hold the episodes together into a cohesive whole. While particular plot points are huge in the specific episodes within which they occur, they have very little impact on the episodes that come after them. The lone exception to this seems to be the gross Hallam/Persie storyline – but only in the sense that they continue to interact with each other in that icky flirtatious way; even in that particular plotline, bombshells like Persie’s abortion don’t seem to have much of an effect on either character in any real way. Blanche undergoes all sorts of emotional upheaval last week, but other than lingering concerns over what her personal “scandal” has meant for the Holland family reputation, we don’t see very much fallout in terms of what such a painful experience must mean for her character. Even Harry and Beryl, who’ve been flirting for most of this season, seem to interact in completely new ways from episode to episode.
I appreciate that this is a show that’s willing to take risks with its storytelling, I like that it’s a show that’s willing to tackle potentially scandalous or unpopular plotlines and really tries to go for it in terms of making every episode count. Yet, on the other hand, I also need to feel like I’m watching a series with an interconnected storyline, that all this intense twistiness is building to something other than my increasingly strong wish for Hallam’s untimely death.
Here Comes the Hallam and Persie Romance Absolutely No One Has Been Waiting For. Despite the fact that absolutely no one mentions the fact that Persie clearly went through a harrowing ordeal last week during her whole secret abortion storyline, it’s clear that she and Hallam have bonded about something. I know this because any time the two of them are near each other it’s 17 flavors of awkward, full of hidden glances and awkward conversational pauses.
Hallam grows increasingly rude to Agnes. He won’t talk about all the things going on with work and the increasing threat of war and is repeatedly dismissive of her attempts to get him to open up and talk to her. Of course, he seems more than happy to open up to Persie and chat about these things, because we’re still going with this weird theme where Persie “understands” Hallam more than his wife does for some reason that I can’t understand. Hallam and Persie have multiple convenient run ins - oh, look Persie forgot her book in his study; oh, look, Hallam happened to wander down to these stables they have in the middle of London for some reason - and it's increasingly obvious that something's going on between them. Clearly, we're meant to assume that the traumatic incidents they've shared (Persie in Germany, her abortion) have bound the two of them together in some deep and meaningful way, but honestly, I just can't see it.
Suddenly: Racial Issues! Mr. Amanjit goes out to lunch with Lotte and her schoolteacher and there’s an incredibly horrible scene where no one in the restaurant wants to serve them, presumably because Mr. Amanjit is Indian or perhaps because they are an interracial couple, I’m not sure exactly which. (Anyone got a better read on that scene?) There’s so much else going on in this episode I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to make of this moment and given everything else that’s happened this season I don’t necessarily expected to see this picked up again in the next episode though it would be quite nice if that happened, because it seems such an odd moment to drop into this story for no reason. (Obviously, they need to give Mr. Amanjit something to do now that Lady Maud is gone, but can't it be something simple?)
Servants' Boxing and Things. Harry the Driver is a former boxer apparently and signs up to represent 165 Eaton Place in the local servants boxing competition/championships/thing. (Why this is even happening, I just have no idea, but let’s roll with it.) This is apparently an emotional moment for him and we’re supposed to care about his character here or something ridiculous and I know this because the music suddenly becomes straight out of Band of Brothers as Harry the Driver looks wistfully at some boxing medal he won at some point in his past. Unfortunately, it turns out that what with the chauffeuring and all these Harry the Driver is out of practice or something and is now a terrible boxer. He loses his first match and it’s not even really close. Then follows a lot of awkward commentary about how Harry the Driver is apparently geriatric now and of courswe he shouldn't be fighting at his age anyway. (Harry cannot be more than 35, so I don’t know why everyone is basically calling for him to get a walker, but okay.)
The only really fantastic bit about this extremely random storyline is that Blanche is – for some totally inexplicable reason – completely enthralled by boxing and gives Harry the Driver advice about how he should be fighting based on her study of ancient Egyptian culture and stickfighting or something. I don’t even know. Harry the Driver decides then to couch Footman Johnny on how to be a boxer in the competition because obviously Harry is terrible at it. Whatever, this storyline.
Blanche’s Story Continues, Sort of: Because they apparently cannot think of anything at all to do with Blanche – I seriously do not know why, what with her only having had an entire episode about her scandalous past and the emotional upheaval it caused just last week – but she becomes a boxing enthusiast and goes to watch matches during the servants tournament. The only upside here is that it gets Blanche and the Duke of Kent to hang out and go to a match together and I think I’d really like to see the two of them become best friends because they are terribly entertaining together.
Unfortunately – and I feared last week that this would happen – other than some snarky comments’ about how Blanche’s public shame is impacting attendance at Holland family social events, there’s little mention of her aborted romance with Portia. Blanche’s character is still really awesome – I like that she’s the only one that seems willing to stand up to Hallam and not put up with his bullying – because really, that’s what Hallam is, a bully in all directions, but they seriously don’t seem to know what to do with her at this point and that’s depressing to me.
Beryl and Harry the Driver Continue to Have the Most Boring Relationship EVER. Harry asks Beryl to the movies and she shoots him down because she “wants more out of life than what [she’s] got.” And also because we’ve seen this scene in some form like three times now. Harry apparently cannot take no for an answer and Beryl is endlessly hung up on…I am not sure what. She doesn’t want to date a chauffeur? Given that this show is so stringent about class lines, it’s also unclear where or how Beryl thinks she’s going to snag a more “respectable” date, either.
There’s a strange scene where Beryl looks sort of interestedly at one of the guys who signs up for the boxing competition and she says it’s because she likes a man with ambition. I have no idea what we’re supposed to take away from this with regard to her character – 1.) because it makes no sense at all and 2.) because of course she is going to backtrack on this statement by the end of the episode and agree to go out with Harry the Driver, because he’s volunteered to help Johnny the Footman learn how to box. I am unclear on how this translates to him having ambition or being something other than the chauffeur she just dissed to his face, but okay.
Lady Agnes Becomes a Model. That random American who is friends with the Kennedys and flirted with Lady Agnes a couple of episodes ago is back and now has apparently created a new kind of extra durable stockings. Because, that’s what guys who generally make medicine do, but whatever. They flirt for a bit, and eventually Landry the American asks Agnes to be the new model for his hosiery brand. Agnes says yes, even though you so know that this is in no way appropriate for a woman of her social status. But she does it, and she and the American are all sort of adorably flirty and dance together in an alleyway after her photoshoot (what is it with Agnes and alleyways anyway?) I would probably be much more creeped out by this storyline if Hallam weren’t being such a huge jerk to her and completely shutting Agnes out – and if we weren’t being beaten over the head recently with how much more Persie is able to relate Hallam these days than his wife is. At this point, I’m rooting for Agnes to take the self esteem boost from the nice American when she can get it, flirt to her heart’s content and roll on her merry little way. The set-up of this plot – and the disintegration of the Hollands’ marriage – is incredibly hamfisted, but apparently I’m quite Team Agnes, even though I’ve never been very supportive of her character until recently. But, seriously, no one deserves Hallam. (Well, maybe Persie, who is also horrible.)
It’s so lovely to see Agnes happy and confident that it‘s almost enough to root for the American to stick around. She's so much more likeable in this episode than she's been in ages.
A Dramatic Dinner Party. Agnes is late coming back from a trip to the coast with American Landry about the whole stocking modeling thing and Persie volunteers to fill in for her sister as hostess at dinner when Hallam expresses concern that she’s not going to show up. Persie also completely lies to Agnes when she calls to ask Hallam to push dinner back, telling her sister that her presence isn’t needed after all. Ooooh, SHADY. I seriously can’t even with this storyline. Given Persie’s earlier comments about how her sister is always perfect, perfect and got everything in life handed to her with no effort, I assume this is some sort of acting out wherein she is trying to pretend that this sort of perfect life is actually hers, instead of the trainwreck that her existence has actually become, but ugh. There was no reason for her to lie to Agnes at all, unless she’s actively setting her cap for Hallam and trying to take over her sister’s life, but that’s not made terribly clear. But this moment certainly sets Persie up as a manipulative and bad person; I can't see how we're supposed to feel otherwise when she's deliberating sabotaging her sister's marriage for her own gain.
How are we ever supposed to sympathize and root for this character? Persie learns nothing, no matter what happens to her, and is the most selfish creature on the planet. I wonder if anyone besides Hallam is ever going to find out about her abortion? I’d love to see that conversation between Persie and Blanche or Agnes, as well as what the household reaction would be. Everyone clearly had opinions on Blanche’s scandal; it seems only fair after all.
Hallam is THE WORST. Hallam gets all mad about Agnes missing the dinner with his government colleagues and behaves horribly when she gets home, picking a fight with her and openly forbidding her from seeing Landry the American again. Seriously, why does Hallam have two women who want to be with him right now? Why does anyone want to be with him? At this point he’s starting to make Harry the Driver look like a total prize. (Also, for some reason, no one mentions or is annoyed with Persie for lying to Agnes about not having to be involved with Hallam’s swanky dinner. Why??) Both Blanche and the Duke of Kent drop some knowledge on Hallam, informing him that his marriage is in trouble because he’s basically been ignoring his wife. Hallam is all "Whatever, I do what I want," because Hallam is horrible.
Because this cannot get any more ridiculous, Hallam gets in an actual fistfight with Landry in the audience at Johnny’s boxing match, because the American had the gall to, oh, show up at a public event that the Hollands are also attending. Hallam then accuses Agnes of encouraging them to fight each other, because, as previously mentioned, Hallam is a waste of space. Agnes leaves in tears and tells Hallam not to follow her. She later refuses to speak to her husband, but they keep the whole fistfighting story out of the papers and Agnes is forced to tell Landry she can never see him again. Whilst this is going on Hallam gets in an argument with Blanche, blames his aunt for Agnes' recent behavior (according to him, Blanche “encourages” her, whatever that means???) and tells her that he’d like it if she moved out. Blanche stalks off with a truly epic eyeroll and I am now basically a fan of hers forever. Then – because, why not - Persie suddenly appears to ask where Agnes is and (EWWWW) ends up kissing Hallam for some reason that I’m not quite sure why. He doesn’t exactly push her away and then end up on top of a table together before one of them pushes a door closed.
Seriously, this storyline. Both Hallam and Persie are so awful and unsympathetic; I’m rather hoping the roof collapses on them while they’re still making out on that table. Agnes at least has become somewhat more sympathetic here, as no one deserves to be treated like this by anyone that claims to love them. The two of them are despicable, and I can’t imagine that there’s anyone watching this show that’s rooting for them. I am not averse to a good love triangle, and I can generally be convinced to enjoy a good forbidden love story as well. Persie and Hallam are none of these things and instead are just two gross people using each other and treating people they claim to love horribly. Watching them together is like watching a car accident in slow motion, and it’s just awful all around. I can’t root for them, and all I want to do is see them both be publically humiliated and abandoned by everyone that they’ve hurt.
Johnny Practically Gets Sexually Assaulted in the Loo and Also There is Boxing. Johnny’s all set to take on the servants boxing championship until he gets an indecent proposal from someone sketchy gentleman in the tournament dressing room. (Really???) Johnny freaks out, runs off and Harry ends up going in the ring to fight in his place. I suppose it’s some weird “preserve the honor of Eaton Place” kind of situation? (Why does anyone care about this? It’s not like Agnes and Hallam are suddenly going to be so depressed if they are not city champions at servant boxing?) The weird Band of Brothers style music starts again because…I have no idea. Obviously, something meaningful is happening. They fight for a while, and Harry is losing quite soundly until – of course – he sees Beryl in the crowd looking scared and concerned and suddenly he becomes the Incredible Hulk and fights his way to victory. Right. Of course he does. And – totally unexpectedly – Beryl shows up to visit Now Champion Harry the Driver in the garage back at Eaton Place and they make out. Because I guess black eyes are suddenly attractive and Beryl doesn’t care anymore about her insistence about dating up status-wise these days?
Well, now that the show has apparently committed to this Harry/Persie affair in earnest, I have to say I can’t wait to see what happens next week. Will Agnes catch on htat somehting's wrong? Will Persie and Hallam develop enough personal awareness to realize their behavior is deplorable? Will Blanche destroy both of them with her cutting wit?