Upstairs Downstairs Dish: “A Perfect Specimen of Womanhood”

The second series of Upstairs Downstairs continues with its third episode, which is quite action packed and exciting to watch, though it does manage to cram virtually every sort of scandal possible into a sixty minute timeframe. We’ve got an unwanted pregnancy, a scandalous secret relationship, an abortion, loads of downstairs drama once two servants have their jobs switched, a really weird women’s equality group, and the return of Jean Marsh as Rose.  Despite the fact that it’s occasionally (often?) ridiculously over the top, it’s also easily the most watchable hour the show’s produced to date. There’s not a lot of tremendously in-character behavior here (save for probably Blanche), but if you can ignore that, this episode sure is entertaining.

Click through and let’s dish the many, many ridiculous things that happened this week – including Hallam’s poor life decisions, Blanche’s general awesomeness, the hot mess that is Persie’s life, Agnes actually being fantastic for once and lots more.

Seriously, Persie is a Hot Mess.  So… are we’re supposed to feel bad for Persie for her break-up with the creepy Nazi diplomat? Her sadness about the end of things with Friedrich seems so disingenuous given her previous relationship with Harry the Driver, her flirting with Hallam and the general indication that she was only ever using her connection to him for a way to get herself out of England at the end of last season. The introduction of genuine feelings now just seems so bizarre and unnecessary. They could have still done every other bit of this plot without doing further gymnastics with Persie’s character.

Anyway, Persie and Hallam have a heart-to-heart in the parlor about her depression over Friedrich, he invites her to come horseback riding with him, but she takes a big gulp of gin and drops the bombshell that she’s pregnant. (Facepalm. Really, show?). She wants to borrow money from Hallam for an abortion; however, Hallam isn’t into this plan because abortion isn’t legal and he thinks the only moral thing to do is ship Persie off to the seaside to have her baby in secret.

Sidebar: The Hollands live in Belgravia. Where exactly are they going riding every morning? Anyone want to help me out with that?

Blanche’s Mysterious Past Revealed. A strange woman named Portia shows up to visit Blanche at the museum and they have a really awkward conversation that’s clearly designed to show us that they have A History together. (It gets even more awkward when Portia’s pair of children show up. I don’t even know.) Portia breaks the news to Blanche that a story called The Golden Blaze is going to be published and Blanche is taken aback considerably, insisting that it’s the one story Portia apparently promised never to share with anyone. Portia declares that it’s the only thing she ever wrote that was any good, and it becomes apparent that this novel is the story of the relationship between the two of them. Blanche gets really, awkwardly upset and heads home to look through a file of old letters and photos and whatever else one keeps after a break-up.  Bright side, there’s an exceptionally sweet little scene between Blanche and Mr. Amanjit who can obviously see that she’s upset and asks if there’s anything he can do for her. She says no, saying something cryptic about there being something she thought she’d filed away but apparently hadn’t, after all. (Blanche needs to work on her metaphors.) Mr. Amanjit is totally Team Blanche now, which is nice because she obviously needs someone on her side here and his opinion of her having changed so completely is actually a nice bit of continuity through the first three episodes.  

Sidebar: High five to Blanche for her open and scathing dislike of Persie. It’s totally refreshing.

The Golden Blaze: Apparently Terrible Book, Great Drama. Blanche goes to a shop and buys a copy of Portia’s book and spends some time reading it. Random observation: Portia is a terrible writer.  But, Blanche doesn’t seem to care that Portia is a terrible writer and she shows up at her house to tell her that she’s read the novel and then kiss the daylights out of her. Apparently Blanche thinks that writing overly florid prose is courageous and romantic and, well, I don’t even know. The two of them make plans to see each other again, when they can and it seems that whatever particular issue they had that separated them in the first place (wild guess: it’s probably that Portia is married to some viscount) is swept under the rug. 

Weirdly, the Duke of Kent happens to be at Portia’s house while this is all going on, and he runs into Blanche while there and immediately figures out that the book is about Blanche and Portia because he’s psychic or something. He immediately tells his BFF Hallam alllll about the novel, its salacious subject matter and the fact that the book is really about his aunt. Welp, this is awkward.  Hallam immediately heads home and confronts Blanche about her secret romantic history and the family sort of has a bit of a row about it, only Blanche refuses to apologize or be ashamed about her past or her feelings for another woman, which is tremendously refreshing and gives Alex Kingston the chance to just be incredibly awesome for a bit. At breakfast the next morning, the family discovers that The Golden Blaze has not only made the papers, but the identities of the book’s author and its subjects have already been determined. Well, I guess Portia didn’t do a very good job of writing her story so that it wasn’t completely obvious who was who, huh?

Team Downstairs is in Disarray. Drama abounds for Team Downstairs when Lady Agnes decides that nursemaid Beryl is better suited to be a parlor/part-time lady’s maid than to work in the nursery and makes her switch jobs with Eunice, the other random maid whose name I only learned this week. (Seriously, show you have got to do better at this whole identifying characters thing. Not kidding.) I thought Eunice was a kitchen maid as she has only been seen thus far stuck in the nondescript drudgery of Mrs. Thackary’s kitchen but, okay, whatever, apparently now she’s a nursery maid. We’re just going to ignore the fact that this household is large enough that they should really have about four more servants than they do, but whatever show, if you’re not into accuracy, neither am I. Agnes also basically commands both girls to come along with her to this really bizarre women’s calisthenics class that is sort of about promoting equality for the ladies, but also freaks everyone out because they have to wear shorts. It’s really weird.

Anyway, Beryl doesn’t like having her afternoon off commandeered by this madness and she also doesn’t like the fact that Eunice can’t seem to manage keeping up with either the housework or the weird women’s equality calisthenics league.  (I also assume that Beryl probably also doesn’t like having to work what is basically three jobs with no raise, but I guess that might be a bit too much equality for this episode.) Beryl trots off to visit someplace called the Girls’ Friendly Society where a nosey lady asks a bunch of questions about her employment conditions and what’s changed about it lately and Beryl gets all panicky because even though this woman swears up and down this is a confidential interview, you can totally tell it’s not.

Because This Storyline Can’t Be More Ridiculous: Persie Gets an Abortion. Because Lady Persie has basically become a complete caricature, we are treated to several scenes where she and Hallam have the same conversation over and over – Hallam wants her to figure out what to do about having the baby, and Persie insists that she is adamant about the fact that she’s not going to have a baby at all. Persie even goes riding – cliché alert – clearly hoping to get thrown from her horse and have a convenient miscarriage like in the olden days, but when that doesn’t work she gets some old newspapers from Harry the Drivers room, with the clear intention of looking up an abortionist.

Meanwhile, Hallam goes to Germany to talk to Persie’s ex – what he tells Agnes about this trip is unclear, though I suppose there are probably diplomatic reasons he could cite. He has a tremendously uncomfortable conversation with Friedrich, who is, predictably, a huge jerk that implies Persie basically slept her way through Germany and therefore the child is not his problem. Sometime later, Persie gets Harry the Driver to take her to an office in what appears to be a shady part of town where she disappears into a building for a bit and is clearly in a lot of pain and emotional distress when she comes back. She demands Harry the Driver take her to a hotel for a brandy but, not being a complete idiot, he catches on that Something Is Very Wrong and wants to go fetch Lady Agnes. Persie says no, but lets him take a message to Hallam instead.

Then we get to the really disturbing bit. Hallam arrives at the hotel where Persie is staying to find her collapsed on the bed in a lot of pain. There’s a really horrible conversation about the woman who performed Persie’s abortion, how horrible she feels and how much Hallam wants to call a doctor, but can’t, because technically she’s broken the law. Hallam takes her mind off things by telling a very long story about his time in prep school and the only thing you need to know is that he won a box of biscuits when he was named Most Helpful Boy at school but had to split the prize and didn’t actually get any of the actual biscuits. He kept the box for years though until Agnes threw it out because she is incredibly insensitive almost all the time. Obviously the point here is that that box will come up later and we’re laying the groundwork for how Agnes just doesn’t understand her husband at all, no matter if they were making out in alleyways last week. Hallam has to help Persie to the bathroom and then sits and there is another horrible awkward abortion reference that I don’t want to remember, but the upshot is that he holds her while she cries and now they’ve bonded over this terrible experience. They also spend the whole night together in the hotel; I am sure this fact will come up again at some point because no one, including his wife, has bothered to ask Hallam about where he was and he’s encouraging Harry the Driver to help him with his cover story. 

During the episode’s final montage Persie delivers a tin of those same biscuits to Hallam, presumably as a thank-you for him being there for her during such a dark situation. Yet I can’t even find the gesture sweet, because we’re so clearly heading for something horrible like a Hallam/Persie affair very soon and I just cannot even think about it.

It Was Totally Not a Confidential Interview. Nosey Parker from the Girls’ Friendly Society shows up at Eaton Place to investigate the working conditions of the servants the household employs. She also basically rats out Beryl as being the source of her information, just like you knew she would. Pritchard gets all offended and Mrs. Thackary gets all excited at the prospect of new furniture. Girls Friendly Society woman totally takes Agnes to task for the fact that she makes the servants share beds, work multiple jobs and give up their afternoon off to join her women’s league. It’s pretty awesome, but since Agnes has actually been way more tolerable in this episode than in any previous installment, it’s not quite as satisfying as you’d expect.

Poor Eunice gets dragged off to see the dentist, as it’s obvious that she’s got a tooth that needs to be removed, and she’s not happy about it. After she and the Society lady depart, a huge argument breaks out between Beryl, Pritchard and Mr. Amanjit. Amanjit gets really aggressive about Beryl being disloyal to the Holland family – one can only imagine that he’s overacting here because he’s’ still upset about Maud’s death – and Pritchard basically says that he hates to break it to Beryl, but being a servant means that Team Upstairs can treat them like they are soulless robots, because that’s what service is. Beryl admirably sticks to her guns and says that the live in Belgravia, not Leningrad. That is also legitimately the first time I have ever liked her, so this episode really is full of surprises.

Rose is Back! Due to her illness, original Upstairs Downstairs cast member Jean Marsh has only been able to appear in this one scene so far in this season, but it was a pretty fantastic moment. Agnes goes to visit Rose – who is ostensibly in the sanatorium due to tuberculosis – and she tells her all about her problems with the staff and the visit from the Girls Friendly Society lady. Rose tells her she’s spent her whole life in service and was perfectly happy and that the girls were wrong to complain. (I’m not entirely sure how we’re supposed to react to this though – I mean, surely, we should have some sympathy for Beryl and Eunice?) Rose also tries to give the key to Eaton Place back to Agnes, but Lady Holland’s not having it and they hug and cry and it’s really sweet and adorable. It’s clear that Marsh is still quite ill, but seeing her again really does drive home the fact that one of the big issues with the Team Downstairs storylines this season is that Rose isn’t there.

Blanche Gets a Cottage and a Breakup. Blanche and Portia go to spend the weekend at Portia’s country estate and it’s all romantic reading to one another on sofas, lighting candles in the dark and taking idyllic walks in the woods. (Apparently Portia’s politician husband just doesn’t care about this whole “my wife secretly has a female lover” scandal situation, huh? I don’t even know. Whatever.) Anyway, whilst the two of them are out and about in the woods, Portia shows Blanche a run-down heap that she says is a cottage and declares that it will be perfect for her to live in, and then they can all be together, living near each other or whatever. Here’s hoping she is planning to get some renovations done.

Afterward, Blanche and Portia are lying in bed together when Portia reveals the rest of her Grand Plan: she wants Blanche to live in the run-down cottage, so that way she’ll be on the same estate with her, and then Portia can just swing by whenever she feels like it, allowing her to keep both Blanche and her husband and kids (since she loves both of them and doesn’t think she’d get custody, anyway). Blanch is rightfully angry about this, since basically Portia is the only one getting everything she wants out of this deal and that she and Portia’s husband have to settle for scraps. Portia makes things worse by totally not getting why Blanche is upset and has apparently been very good about hiding the fact that she’s incredibly self centered until just now. It isn’t explicitly stated here, but this feels very much like a break-up, if you ask me.

Blanche goes home, starts crying and throws some things around her room. Pamela, who is home on a break, sees her and gets kind of upset. Luckily Agnes steps in to save the situation and send Pamela off to her room and ask Blanche if she wants to be alone right now. Blanche very sadly replies that she already is. In what is probably the best moment for Agnes ever, she immediately goes to Blanche, hugs her and tells her that, no, actually, she’s not in any way alone. Blanche starts just sobbing and I actually have a small emotional reaction to this, because Alex Kingston is an amazing actress. (Stupid Portia, don’t make Blanche cry!) Emotional loyalties aside, I really just don’t know what to make of this storyline. I’d read that something like this was in the cards for Kingston’s character, but then I’d been also been operating under the assumption this Portia plot would be a season long arc for her. What a waste if it’s all just been thrown out and dealt with in one episode – there was no need for it to be this rushed! I don’t like Portia at all, but I hope we see her again, just because this was an interesting - if somewhat hamfisted – plot and I liked the effect it had on Blanche, Agnes and the Holland family and I think that the whole thing deserves better than a one-episode ratings-stunt style treatment. I suppose we’ll have to see how it goes, but I was not reassured by the previews which didn’t seem to feature Blanche at all.

That said, for all its flaws, this is probably the best single episode the show’s managed to put together, even if I’m not entirely sure how this particular installment hangs together with the rest of the others. This incarnation of Upstairs Downstairs seems capable of doing initial episodes or small sub-plots well, but the main storylines don’t seem to gel in any real cohesive way. The Persie subplot is not the only offender in this area but it’s probably the best example, because it’s the worst – the speed with which we’ve gone from Persie’s relationship with Harry the Driver to her obsessive feelings about fascism to her uncomfortable flirtation with Hallam to her feelings for Friedrich the Nazi to abortion to whatever’s coming next week is enough to give you whiplash. One week Mrs. Thackary is angry enough to quit, the next week it’s all fine, even without any apology or behavior change from Pritchard.  One week the servants are unhappy with their duties and wages, even though we’ve never heard any of them complain before. One week Harry the Driver is a creeper, the next week he’s an upstanding guy who will sleep in cars to help out the family he works for. It can be hard to keep up.

Am I overthinking this? Should I stop expecting so much and just enjoy the ride? I don’t know. What did you all think of this Upstairs Downstairs episode?

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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