Upstairs Downstairs Dish: "The Love That Pays The Price"

Upstairs Downstairs Series 2 rolled right along over the weekend with some domestic drama, international intrigue, creepy flirting and a surprise appearance by the Kennedy family. (No, I’m not making that last bit up.) While most of the episode was just fine, most of it didn’t really move the plot along to any particularly large degree, and I found myself curious more about the things that are sure to go down next week (the Hallam/Persie mess and Blanche’s mysterious letter particularly) than the things that actually happened this time out. So, while The Love That Pays the Price (guess we’re done with bird episode titles now?) was still more entertaining than the bulk of Series 1, this episode felt like a placeholder in a lot of ways.

What say you, Telly Visions readers? How’d you feel about Episode 2? Come dish the twists and turns of this latest installment of life at Eaton Place, including Hallam’s poor life choices, Blanche’s general awesomeness and why Harry the Driver even continues to exist – and then let’s discuss in the comments!

Weird Pacing Strikes Again. While watching the episode, it felt as though it dragged in spots and, yet, after it ended, it was still kind of difficult to remember a lot that happened. I’m not sure what that means – possibly just that there are some storylines I liked more than others. At any rate, the domestic drama on Team Downstairs was enjoyable and the episode had some nice character moments, particularly for Blanche and Mr. Amanjit.  There’s some interesting set up going on, but mostly this installment was just okay. However, on the plus side, there’s still a good balance between multiple characters and storylines, which is something Series 1 just wasn't very good at.

Agnes Gets Something to Do! Our episode begins with Agnes at the doctor for a check-up. In super awkward style, the doctor tells her that it’s probably best if she doesn’t have any more children (he actually says “it’s time to close up shop”) and that she should just break that news to Hallam and he’ll take care of everything. Whatever that means. On her way home Agnes spots nursemaid Beryl (whose name I just managed to learn this week) out with the kids and has a small freakout in their general direction. She also totally embarrasses Beryl with the other nursemaids at the park by pushing the pram herself (gasp!).  Obviously, she’s having a lot of emotional upset at being told she can’t have more children and I wonder if we’re not meant to read some of her behavior later in the episode – the sudden hardcore support for her husband’s career, getting drunk, flirting with an American and being extra sappy with Hallam – as a continued manifestation of these feelings. (Either that or Agnes has been so poorly treated by prior episodes that her suddenly getting a personality seems out of character. You be the judge.)

The Kennedys Are Here. Okaaaay. The Holland household throws a big fancy dinner party for the Duke and Duchess of Kent and some of their friends, including the American ambassador and his wife, who happen to be Joseph and Rose Kennedy, and of course they’ve got their son Jack in tow. Okaaaay. Ostensibly, this is all so that the elder Kennedy can offer Hallam a job in America and that the Hollands can go out to a pseudo speakeasy style place and tie one on with Jack, the Duke of Kent and their random friend who seems to have invented something that sounds a lot like Tylenol.  And also possibly to give someone an excuse to put on a very over-the-top John F. Kennedy accent.  (Eeeesh.)

Despite the fact that watching Hallam and the Duke of Kent throw back martinis like they are shots of cheap tequila is upsetting to anyone who appreciates a well made drink, the scene at the party was the most fun bit of the episode. Hallam and the Duke of Kent (who must have a first name, but I’ve no idea what it is) get another one of their BFFs forever-style scenes and, yet again, Hallam is at his most likeable when he’s around him. But, surprise, surprise, Agnes actually looks human for once here too – she lights up while flirting with Landry (the Kennedys’ random American friend) and tells him about her hopes that Hallam will decide to go to America where he can be appreciated for his talents. Of course, thanks to this and the later scene when Agnes visits Landry to ask for a charitable donation, I’m now half convinced that the two of them might be on the road to some sort of illicit relationship in future themselves. This is what watching so much television has done to me: suspicion everywhere.

It was actually nice to see  our lead characters actually having fun –the fancy dinner parties always seem to come off like such a chore for them as much as anything – and the fact that these scenes were really well shot was a nice bonus. I watch costume drama because I want to indulge in a bit of swanky escapism, and it was nice to have Upstairs Downstairs decide for once that it wouldn’t kill us all to watch a bunch of attractive young people have a good time at a party rather than a political protest march.  

Hallam and Persie: This is a Huge Mistake. Hallam rings Persie in Germany – clearly not for the first time – to try and convince her to return to England. They have an awkwardly stilted conversation where Persie refuses to come home, but wants to know if Hallam’s told Agnes that the two of them kissed yet. Since Hallam doesn’t have an obvious deathwish, he hasn’t exactly shared that tidbit of info.  I honestly can’t imagine the point of this storyline – no one can possibly be rooting for Persie and Hallam to be together right? Their scenes together are so strange.  Are we supposed to be rooting hard for them to do the right thing and not have a fling?

Later in the episode, Persie calls Hallam and Agnes in the middle of the night, from a phone booth in Germany that’s set in a street that appears to be on fire. There’s some sort of riot going on, and many Jewish shops are being destroyed and their owners arrested. Persie’s in terror and begs her brother-in-law to get her out of Germany. Which, of course, he does, and now the full on awkward drama of all three of them living in the same house together can begin. I’m curious to see whether or not this storyline will move into full-fledged affair territory – I rather hope not, but I sort of expect it will. The scenes between Hallam and Persie are too weirdly charged all of a sudden, even if I’d never gotten an inkling of attraction from either of them before last week’s episode.

Hallam and Agnes: This is Awkward. For some reason, other than Persie mentioning her kiss with Hallam during their phone conversation, we don’t get any other fallout from – or even reference to – their indiscretion.  (Does Hallam feel guilty? Does he even feel awkward about it? You’d never know.) In fact, this episode makes a point of going out of the way to make Hallam and Agnes even more sappy with each other than usual – including an extended romantic sequence following their night out with the Kennedys that seriously involves them making out in multiple alleyways and semi-drunkenly running around a park playground. I think this is supposed to reinforce the idea that Agnes and Hallam are madly in love, which I probably would have an easier time believing if he hadn’t just kissed her sister last week. Instead of the two of them being sweet together, the whole thing just seemed vaguely gross.

Blanche Gets a New Project and a Mysterious Past.  Frankly, Blanche is the most entertaining part of the show for me at the moment. Alex Kingston certainly gets all the best lines – not quite on the level of her predecessor Eileen Atkins, of course but her character is at least a decent substitute. Anyway, Blanche has another row with Mr. Amanjit about going through the late Lady Maud’s personal papers, messing up her organizational systems and just generally not respecting the way that her sister wanted things done. Poor Mr. Amanjit. Even with the plot they found for him in this episode, he feels a bit superfluous to the show now, as much as I like the actor.

Anyway, Blanche’s organizational zeal comes in handy later in the episode after Mr. Amanjit is approached by one of Lotte’s schoolteachers who wants to help more Jewish children escape the brutal conditions in Germany. Mr. Amanjit goes to Blanche for assistance and the two form a tentative truce when they learn how many letters arrive in England each day from Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis. Blanche is horrified by the disorder and lack of progress with this whole immigration issue and Amanjit tells her he had hoped that she might be able to whip the situation into ship.  Apparently saving kids is enough to make them best friends? Okay.

Blanche, being a classic overachiever, immediately sets to work, leaning on Hallam about visa policies and trying to convince him to at least speak to his superiors about letting the children into England, arguing that they will all be killed by the Germans if no one acts. She also manages to recruit Agnes into fundraising for these refugee children, since they must at least have some amount of money to their names so they aren’t seen as a drain on the government. Blanche is super effective, and she and  Mr. Amanjit appear to become something like friends while organizing all the letters and working to find foster parents for all the children. It’s very sweet and the scene in which the first trainload of children arrives at the station is beautifully shot. I like the grudging respect the two of them seem to develop for one another, and, as I said, it’s about time they gave Amanjit something to do. 

Blanche also receives a mysterious letter – we can only see that it’s addressed to “Dearest love” before she chucks it into the fire. So, apparently there’s more to her than a love of alphabetizing and social crusading. Dun dun dun.

Downstairs Drama: Pritchard vs. Cook. The cook’s name, by the way, is Mrs. Thackary, and I only know this at all because I looked it up on Wikipedia, since no one seems to ever say her name on the show hardly at all, ever. Anyway, Mrs. Thackary is all jazzed because she’s going to get to see her nephew who has come home to London to sell insurance.  There’s a lot of small entertaining moments in this storyline, such as Mrs. Thackary buying her nephew a scooter, baking her family cookies, getting in increasingly territorial arguments with Mr. Pritchard about who’s really running Team Downstairs while Rose is in the hospital (he makes her pay for the ingredients for the cookies!) and helping a sickly twentysomething JFK with an upset stomach. None of these are plot points worth discussing at any length, but they still seem worth mentioning because these are exactly the types of moments this show does best; yet, for some incomprehensible reason, shies away from doing that often.  (Not everything has to be about war or the threat of imminent death for someone, you know. Sometimes a silly plot about Mrs. Thackery fighting with Pritchard can be just as interesting for viewers!)

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that Mrs. Thackary gets so fed up with Mr. Pritchard that she quits in a rage and stomps off to go live with Nephew and his wife in another part of town. They are not excited about this. Everyone ends up unhappy, because Mrs. Thackary’s family thinks her tastes are too swanky to live with them (she’s making full roast turkeys for weeknight meals and spending all their money) and the Eaton Place crew is miserable because they’re being forced to eat soup from cans and made-to-order pies from shops. (Oh, no!)  Just like we all knew would happen, Mrs. Thackary ends up back at Eaton Place and she and Mr. Pritchard appear to reach some sort of détente, or at least the realization that they need each other. Again, this storyline was complete fluff, but it’s the sort of costume drama fluff I enjoy, and wish this show would do more of.

Harry the Driver: Everyone Loves Guys That Fix Cars, Apparently. Beryl the nursemaid is doing a favor for one of the other kitchen maids whose name I’ve completely blocked out and is shucking oysters downstairs. Harry the Driver comes in covered in grease and wearing nothing but an undershirt because I guess we’re back to the whole “girls just love guys from the garage” motif that apparently is all the rage in Edwardian drama. They get flirty (ew), Beryl offers him an oyster and he makes an awkward joke about her passing him aphrodisiacs. I want to know how Harry the Driver gets women, ever. Who goes for a line like that? Not Beryl, who gives him a verbal smackdown for rude comments and huffs off.

This storyline is so pointless. Does anyone legitimately care whether or not they get together? I’m not saying I was hugely pro the whole Harry the Driver/Lady Persie subplot, but that was at least more interesting to watch than this and legitimately tried to give the characters a point of view. It’s also vaguely upsetting that we seem to have lost some of the, well, niceness that was in Harry after the Persie thing. There was a sense that he’d learned something from his whole flirtation with fascism after Rachel died, but now he just seems to be being a jerk again for no real reason. (Though I did like his scene when visiting Mrs. Thackary, it was actually sweet. But, kind of too little to late by that point.) Given the terse greeting Harry and Lady Persie exchanged when she arrived back from Germany, I imagine that storyline’s good and dead in the water. Who knew I’d ever end up missing that!

What did you think, folks? Am I being too hard on this show?

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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