Upstairs Downstairs Dish: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

Season 2 of Upstairs Downstairs (and actually this incarnation of the drama, period) wraps itself up with one of the craziest, most dramatic finales in quite some time – war is imminent, affairs are discovered, relationships are tested, spies are exposed, oh, and someone dies, among lots of other things. This episode is hard to like, but certainly fun to watch – and, in that, is really sort of a microcosm for this season as a whole in a lot of ways.

No introduction is really going to do this justice, so let’s just jump right ahead to dishing everything that went down as we say goodbye to this particular incarnation of 165 Eaton Place. Leave your thoughts on things in the comments - am very curious to hear how people felt about this season.

Blanche is Back! Hurrah, Blanche is back! Boo, they completely waste her in this episode! Dr. Mottershead returns to Eaton Place from her sojourn in Scotland at some remote outpost of her orphan refugee organization after receiving a call from Agnes in which Lady Holland insists that she wants the whole family back home because of the growing danger of war, and resolutely insists that her definition of “family” includes Blanche. 

The Blanche/Agnes friendship is one of the more unexpected highlights of a season that doesn’t give enough screentime to platonic relationships (Hallam and the Duke of Kent’s epic bromance aside, of course.) It’s lovely to see Blanche be the sympathetic ear that Agnes needs, particularly when the rest of her nearest and dearest are basically the worst people on earth.  (Though, honestly, considering Blanche’s low opinion of both Hallam and Persie, having her be the one to insist to Agnes that surely nothing happened between them seems a bit off.)

Sadly, after all the promise of her storyline earlier in the season, the writers apparently have thought of nothing at all really for Blanche to do, and other than one solid conversation with Agnes, she’s basically wasted here. Seriously, her one big plot point in this episode is that she’s got head lice. Seriously. Head lice. That’s it. What a less than ideal use for Alex Kingston’s talents. Siiiiiigh.

Hallam and Persie Break Up and the Household is a Mess. Agnes suddenly returns to Eaton Place from her random trip to the country last episode, to find Pritchard passed out in the stairwell and the house in general disarray.  Persie hisses at Hallam that Agnes has come home (whether she was already in his bedroom or snuck in there is anyone’s guess, I suppose, but it sure looks like she was there already) and upon waking up fully, Hallam proceeds to dump Persie, claiming that things between them really ended the night before. Obviously, Hallam did not come immediately home and confront Persie with his suspicions about her traitorous behavior (WHY??), but add in the fact that it really looks like they ended up in bed together anyway it is just all a bit extra disgusting. Seriously, Hallam? Look at your life, look at your choices!

Anyway, having summarily dumped Persie, Hallam goes downstairs to see Agnes, where they hug and have a laugh over her finding Pritchard drunk on their stoop as though nothing bad at all has happened between them and they promise to face the dangers of the inevitably looming war together or something. Ugh, whatever. Agnes heads downstairs to find Hallam some breakfast because he’s clearly incapable of doing anything more than breathing on his own. No one is in the kitchen because Mrs. Thackary’s hungover and Beryl’s still asleep and apparently you really do have to stab someone in the neck to get fired in this household (and even then that doesn’t take.) It is seriously difficult to understand how on earth this house functions with this few servants.  Moving right on, Beryl and Harry the Driver come in and Agnes basically lectures Beryl for sleeping around under her roof. Beryl shoots back that she and Harry are getting married and that Agnes has no idea half of what goes on under her roof. Point to Beryl, there.

For Some Reason, This Mr. Pritchard Storyline is Still Happening. Mr. Pritchard is still drunk when our episode begins and Agnes gets Johnny and Eunice to drag him off to bed. He wakes up with a monster hangover and basically asks Johnny what’s going to happen to him now. Johnny doesn’t know, since he’s been kind of busy as  he’s somehow the only servant in the house actually working. Johnny does take the time to yell at Pritchard though, telling him that he’d looked up to him and just generally acting disgusted with the older man. Pritchard locks himself in the bathroom to have some sort of existential crisis and Johnny wanders off.

Sometime later, Pritchard arrives downstairs, drops off some mail and announces that he’s going out to “get some air.” Mrs. Thackary asks if he’d pick her up some marmite while he’s out and he says that’s fine.  To the surprise of no one, Pritchard’s not going out for some air, he’s going on another bender, one which proceeds to last for two thirds of the episode for no apparent reason. He sleeps rough, drinks a bunch apparently and who even knows what else, only returning to the house and getting his act together when he is faced with the family tragedy at the end of the episode. And for some reason he is not immediately fired for going off on like a three day bender, but whatever. This is a really pointless storyline. We’re not really given any real reason for Pritchard’s total collapse except for his getting dumped by his lady friend last episode, though it is revealed that apparently Pritchard’s problem with drink goes back a long way. At least he remembered to bring back Mrs. Thackary’s marmite, I guess.

Harry and Beryl Have to Get Married. With war imminent, both Harry and Johnny get letters from the armed forces medical office, telling them to report in for physicals and all that sort of thing. Beryl freaks out and Harry calms her down, saying that it’s no big deal because they’ll just go to America earlier than planned. Beryl cries that they can’t do that, their visa is for a married couple, what will they do? Harry sensibly points out they’ll just get married right now and it’ll all be cool. He says he’ll handle all the paperwork and take care of everything.  

Harry then spends the rest of the episode, well, right up till the end, waiting in line for a marriage license. Poor guy.

Persie is Totally a Traitor; This Storyline is Ridiculous.  During their break-up conversation, Hallam asks Persie who she’s been talking to and what’s she’s been telling them. Persie plays dumb (very poorly) and claims she’s talked to no one about anything. Hallam, who has decided to participate in reality today, takes the initiative and asks some guys at the office to look into who it is that’s leaking info to the Germans. He even suggests Persie’s name as the first person they should look into.  Of course, this investigation proves Hallam right and Persie is guilty as sin. The co-worker says that there’s no indication of wrongdoing on Hallam’s part and he won’t have to deal with this sister-in-law much longer because, hey, she’s a traitor and going to get hauled off to jail.

While, I am totally, absolutely supportive of Persie going to prison, it really would have been nice to have any sort of insight at all into why she was a Nazi spy. Was it because she hates England? Hates her family? Loves Germany? Really just wanted any excuse to talk to her German ex? There’s no motivation for this behavior on her part, and it seems like it’s a plot twist that’s just present to be shocking, rather than something that’s really character motivated. Do I believe Persie would do that? Sure, because Persie’s become so horrible I’d pretty much believe she kicks puppies in her spare time – but at no point in the storyline did anyone bother to tell viewers why she engaged in this particular horrible act versus a hundred others. Persie’s too far gone to save, really, but viewers deserve a clearer picture of why she acts as she does.

Hello Again, Random American. Landry, the American business tycoon who quite fancies Agnes, pops by Eaton Place for a visit and to tell Agnes that he’s headed back to the States before the war gets under way. He also has brought her a present, a huge package of nylons that are about to be worth their weight in gold once no one in England can get them anymore. Agnes pets them and Landry grabs her hand through the fabric, and tells her to write him if she runs out. Or you know, for whatever reason, he doesn’t really care what. Seriously, I am so into the American now, y’all. He’s so much more respectful and nice to Agnes than her stupid husband! But, of course, Agnes has to be the better person and she tells Landry that she can’t write to him at all ever. She tells him she needs to be the best person she can be at least for a while. Considering no one else in that household is bothering with this, it’s unclear why Agnes needs to either, but okay. Break the poor American’s heart. (This is what this show has done to me. I am actively rooting for a main character to have an affair, because her husband is irredeemable. Good job, show.) Landry drives off in his sporty car and Agnes watches sadly from the window.

Someone Finally Clues Agnes In. Agnes is making herself useful by helping Johnny put the laundry from the cleaner’s away when she stumbles upon a note attached to one of Hallam’s shirts that says the cleaner is very sorry but they just couldn’t get that supertough lipstick stain out. Agnes has a small breakdown, but recovers nicely. A bit later, the ladies in the drawing room are discussing cosmetics when Persie starts complaining that she can’t stand American lipsticks because they stain everything and she’s ruined ever so many handkerchiefs. Agnes takes off upstairs to test out a theory and checks out the lipstick in Persie’s room (dun dunn), as well as sniffs her pillows, which apparently smell like Hallam’s cologne.

Agnes’s pillow-motivated despair immediately cuts to the best scene in the history of this show, which is Agnes literally on top of Persie on the couch, beating the crap out of her. (I rewound this three times. It is not nearly long enough.)  Go, Agnes, go! Agnes demands to know when this affair started and Persie says Munich, though she admits that Hallam may have a different view. Blanche has to pull Agnes off her sister again and drags her from the room, but not before Persie gets in one more zinger and tells Agnes to ask Hallam about the abortion. Wow.  Again, this scene needed to be longer because after so many weeks of watching Persie be terrible – and watching her be at her utter worst just then – viewers really deserve to see her initial comeuppance last a bit longer. Also, seriously, why does Persie hate her sister so much? Agnes has done nothing but take care of her her whole life and there has not been nearly enough focus on why Persie acts the way she does. At this point she seems to be horrible for the sake of being horrible, which means I just want to watch Agnes beat her up some more. I suspect that is not how I’m supposed to be feeling or how the writers want me to feel at this moment, but there you have it.

The Ending Begins. So, here we are in the aftermath. None of the servants will take Persie her tea, because she is vile and Team Downstairs is awesome. Hallam comes home and tells Agnes he’s quit his job because he’s pretty much been harboring a spy for months and that Persie is going to be arrested for passing secrets to the Germans. Agnes says that’s good and then tells Hallam she knows everything. Dun dunnnn.

Next we cut to a shot of Persie crumpled on the ground outside her sister’s door crying and begging forgiveness. It’s likely that laughing with glee here is not the reaction I’m supposed to be having, but I can’t help it because Persie’s character is so terrible that I take actual pleasure in watching all the bad things pile on for her.  Agnes stays in bed and ignores her, though she starts crying when Persie tries playing on her sister’s memories of their shared childhood. Hallam – waste of space that he is – sits there and listens to all of this and continues to be a black hole of horribleness. He finally goes out in to the hallway and breaks it to Persie that things can’t be changed. He has to leave his job, his marriage is a wreck and she has to go to jail. Persie – seriously this happened, and at her sister’s door, no less – perks up and gasps that that means the two of them can run away together for real now. (Hate!)

The next day, Persie keeps trying to phone someone – first in Berlin and then presumably at the German embassy – but everyone’s stopped taking her calls. She looks like hell. Harry the Driver (who has finally been let out of the endless marriage license line) finds her in the drawing room while looking for pinking shears to help out Mrs. Thackary, who is altering Beryl’s wedding dress downstairs. He offers her some matches to replace her empty lighter and Persie – who has clearly been crying – says that sitting there alone is unendurable and asks Harry if she ever meant anything to him.  This is about the point where we notice that Persie’s got hold of Hallam’s gun – fulfilling our Chekov requirement for the evening – and is looking increasingly unstable. Harry tries to calm her down and take the gun from her hand, but Persie is startled by the sudden arrival of Beryl – who’s looking for Harry – and the gun goes off. Beryl gets shot in the shoulder/upper chest area somewhere and Harry rushes to her side to try and stop the bleeding. Persie gets up, walks past them and throws herself over the second floor railing.

Yeah, that was just Persie killing herself. Shocking? Yes. (Though, will throwing yourself off a second floor balcony really kill you? As much as I’m not at all sorry to see Persie gone, there would have been something almost poetic about her having to face up to her crimes and betrayals in spite of her best effort to avoid them.) Honestly, what really are we meant to make of Persie and this storyline? How are viewers supposed to be feeling right now? She has been such an unsympathetic character it’s quite hard to muster any real feelings about her death and just because she killed herself it certainly doesn’t make the character tragic instead of hateful.  There were so many missed opportunities with Persie throughout this series – this scene ought to have had so much emotional heft behind it, but all I feel is relieved.

A Brief Bit of History. I actually got a phone call from a Telly Visions reader this past week who told me that she thought Persie was going to die in this episode because Persie and Agnes are loosely based on the Mittford family, which include two sisters of noble birth who grew up with very sheltered lives and one of whom became an ardent Fascist supporter in the 1930s, was a known friend of Hitler and tried to kill herself when Britain declared war on Germany. (Learn more about this family at Wikipedia.) This was totally news to me, but it’s an absolutely fascinating parallel. Keep an eye out for a blog post on this in future, because I am intrigued. I don’t know that the Holland ladies work fully as a parallel in this instance, but it’s close enough that I’d like to think more about it. Though, I’m already of the mind that it doesn’t make Persie any more sympathetic in my eyes, but we’ll see how we go. Maybe historical context will change my mind?

Goodbye Eaton Place: Happy-ish Endings for Everyone? The season wraps up most of its storylines, as war officially comes to Britain.

No one apparently comes to Persie’s funeral besides the family – I suppose going to mourn a total hot mess/possible traitor is not really the done thing? There’s a weird line from Agnes here about how everything Persie had, she’d come by it second-hand or snatched and really, is that supposed to make this character (who is terrible) or her actions (which are hateful) more sympathetic? Surely, it’s a tragic thing always when you watch someone who is given so much throw it away with both hands, but Persie was hardly a passive party to her own destruction and certainly chose her fate, over and over and over again.

Beryl recovers from her gunshot wound and marries Harry the Driver with her arm in a sling. Unfortunately, the newlyweds missed their ship to America whilst Beryl was incapacitated and now Harry’s orders have officially come through, so they aren’t sure what they’ll do. (More lives Persie has ruined!) Johnny and Eunice have a random flirty moment on the staircase where she promises to write to him while he’s at war, and it’s obvious this is because they are like the last people on this show not in a romantic pairing, but okay. It’s cute.

Agnes and Hallam have a discussion about their marriage. He asks if she wants a divorce, she says no because the family has been through enough sordid events lately. Agnes says she’s taking the children back to the country and will be returning to London to be of service to the war effort. Hallam says he’ll spend forever making it all up to her and Agnes wants to know if they can go back to the beginning. This sounds hopeful until Hallam notices that Agnes still isn’t wearing her wedding ring. She tells him she’ll put it back on if he likes, but it will just be for show. Ha, I guess we’re not so much going back to the beginning, huh? It’s nice to see Agnes assert herself in this relationship finally, though it’s somewhat disappointing that Hallam was never really called to task about why he took up with Persie in the first place and/or made to explain his behavior. It would be nice to think that had a third season existed, Agnes would have let herself have some fun with that nice American and ditched Hallam for a while, but alas, it is not to be.

Ultimately, it’s hard to be very upset at seeing this version Upstairs Downstairs go gently into that good night. While the series should be applauded for its willingness to take risks – certainly any costume drama that faces thorny topics such as abortion, homosexual relationships, workers rights, women’s rights and other hot-button issues head-on and on a regular basis is worthy of commendation.  However, the series never really managed to gel in many ways – there was little in the way of a cohesive storyline for the season, characters’ actions one episode didn’t necessarily impact them in the next, and some plots (Blanche’s romance with Portia, Mrs. Thackary and Pritchard’s animosity) seemed crafted to drive drama during one episode and be conveniently dropped by the next week.  Also, the series wasted far, far too much time on Hallam and Persie, who were both completely unlikeable and unsympathetic – and gave us no real justification that made sense for either the behavior of either of them.  

What say you, Telly Visions readers? Did you enjoy the Upstairs Downstairs finale? Would you have watched a third season or are you happy that this is the end of it? How do you think it ultimately stacks up to other recent costume dramas, most notably Downton Abbey?