“MAD MEN” Season Three Quibbles

Recently, I finished watching my DVD copy of the entire third season of the award winning AMC series, “MAD MEN”.   And although I consider the previous season slightly better, I still ended up enjoying Season Three very much. It also brought about some drastic changes into the lives of the characters. But I am not here to discuss what I had liked about Season Three. I am here to discuss the quibbles I had with this latest season. Some of the problems I had with Season Three had to do with creator Matthew Weiner’s story. And some of the problems I had were with the fans. Perhaps I will start with the fans. 

”MAD MEN” Season Three Quibbles

Fan Reactions

Betty Draper – I get the feeling that many fans of ”MAD MEN” have this great desire to brand certain characters as the villain or villainess of the season. Both Herman “Duck” Phillips and Bobbie Barrett were castigated by many fans as the “bad guys” of Season Two, despite the fact that they were no better or worse than the rest of the major characters. This season, it became Betty Draper’s turn to attract the fans’ ire. For an entire season, I came across comments and articles that branded Betty as a cold wife and an even colder and abusive mother. The fans dumped their shit on poor Betty’s head so much that they managed to ignore the fallible of other characters – especially Don’s lack of parental skills. Every time Betty scolded her children, the fans labeled her as abusive, cold or the worst mother in television history. I do not believe that Betty is a wonderful mother. Then again, she is not a terrible mother. She is not very demonstrative or warm. But compare to Don, she is usually there for her children.

The only two times she was not available happened when her father, Gene Hofstadt died in (3.04) “The Arrangement”. Dealing with her father’s death and a grieving daughter screaming in her face that she did not care caused Betty to order said daughter to her room. Fans dumped a lot of shit on Betty for that act. Yet, at the same time, many of them failed to notice that Don seemed more concerned about Betty than Sally. In the season finale, (3.13) “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”, she left New York with baby Eugene and new beau, Henry Francis, to get a quickie divorce in Reno, Nevada. Fans castigated her for leaving Sally and Bobby behind in New York with the Drapers’ maid, Carla. And yet . . . no one speculated on why Don was not keeping an eye on the kids, during her absence. So much shit has been dished out about Betty that I found myself coming to her defense in two essays. Two. And Betty is not even my favorite character.

Peggy Olson’s Romance With Duck Phillips – I never understood the reaction to this romance. Then again, I never understood the fans’ aversion to Duck Phillips. In (3.05) “The Fog, Duck Phillips had approached Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell in an attempt to recruit them for the agency he worked for – Grey’s. Pete, who had not forgiven Peggy for her revelations about their son, left before Duck could begin his recruitment speech. Peggy heard the speech, but rejected Duck’s offer out of some misplaced (in my opinion) loyalty toward Don and Sterling Cooper. When Don had chewed her out for asking him to work on the Hilton account, Peggy arrived at the hotel suite that Duck was working at to return a gift . . . and began an affair with him. The reaction to this affair was unbelievable. Critics like Matt Maul began spouting this view of Peggy as this naïve woman being sexually and emotionally exploited by Duck. All because most of the fans disapproved of Duck abandoning his lousy dog into the streets of Manhattan in last year’s (2.06) “Maidenform”. The ironic thing is that Peggy and Duck’s relationship did not bring about any personal catastrophe for Peggy. She simply had a healthy, sexual relationship with an older man with no strings attached. And for some reason, many fans could not deal with this. Especially when the man in question was Duck Phillips.

I can only wonder if Weiner plans to explore Peggy and Duck’s affair in Season Four. He certainly failed to do so in Season Three. Fans had been prophesying disaster for Peggy ever since it started in ”Seven Twenty-Three”. Instead, nothing really came of it. Since the new offices of Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce are now located in one of the suites at the Pierre Hotel, the scene of Duck’s working location, perhaps some kind of drama will unfold between Peggy and Duck. I hope so for Weiner’s sake . . . and for the sake of the fans.

 

The Adulation of Joan Harris née Holloway – By the end of Season Three, I found myself wondering if I had developed a dislike or even hatred of former Office Manager, Joan Harris. Why? I have noticed that in the eyes of many fans, Joan cannot do any wrong. And I found this attitude annoying. It was bad enough when fans defended or excused her racist remark to Paul Kinsey’s ex-girlfriend, Sheila White, last season. Sometime between Greg Harris’ rape of her in (2.12) “The Mountain King” and the Season Three premiere, (3.01) “Out of Town”, Joan married him. She married the fiancé who had raped her. On a certain level, I understood why Joan did it. She internalized this belief that being married to a successful professional with kids and a house in the suburbs was an ideal life. She had internalized this belief to the point that she upped and married her rapist, instead of dumping his ass and search for another potential husband. And instead of criticizing Joan for this incredibly stupid act, many fans came to her rescue and created all sorts of excuses for her action. One of the Lipp sisters on the ”Basket of Kisses” site even accused this woman of stating that it was Joan’s fault that Greg had raped her. That was one of the most stupid accusations I have ever come across. In (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo”, Greg whined about his failed job interview for a position as a psychiatrist. In a fit of anger, Joan took a vase and slammed it against his head. And many fans cheered. That is correct. Fans cheered over an act of domestic violence. Why? Because they disliked Greg for raping Joan, last season. Which is understandable. I also disliked Greg. But these same fans believed that because Greg had raped Joan last season, she had every time to bash him over the head in a fit of temper. What can I say? I would have cheered if Joan had been defending herself. But self-defense did not seemed to be Joan’s aim. Instead, she committed an act of mindless violence to express her anger and frustration at her loser husband. Yet, her act garnered cheers, much to my disgust. Every time Joan’s name was mentioned, a slew of complimentary adjectives followed. By the time the season ended, the woman seemed to be on a damn pedestal. Yep, I do believe I am in danger of developing a deep dislike toward Joan. And it is not even her fault.

Don Draper . . . Father of the Year – Pardon me, while I take some time out to control my laughter over this. I am going to make this short. I agree that Don is a warmer parent than Betty. He knows how to be friends with their kids. And I had applauded his decision to take that dead German soldier’s helmet away from his son, who had received it from Grandpa Gene Hofstadt. But that is the best I can say about Don as a father. Being a warm parent only tells me that he knows how to be a pal to his kids. But I still believe that he is a lousy parent. Why? He is hardly there for Betty and his kids. A heavily drugged Betty had complained about Don’s unreliability, as she was about to give birth in ”The Fog”. And in the season finale, Sally pointed out that Don was rarely at home with his family. This was certainly the case during his affair with Sally’s teacher, Suzanne Farrell. Following Gene Hofstadt’s death, Don consoled a grieving Betty and failed to show any concern for a grieving Sally, until the last moment – while she was asleep. And when Carla had confronted both Betty and Don about Sally’s infraction against Bobby in (3.08) “The Souvenir”, Don sneaked away in an effort to avoid responsibility in dealing with his daughter. I believe that Betty Draper is a mediocre parent. As for her warm and friendly husband, he is a lousy one.

Season Three Story

Suzanne Farrell – I understand that Matt Weiner wanted the fans to believe that Don had fallen in love with Sally’s schoolteacher. And although I managed to accept this by (3.10) “The Color Blue”, I thought the storyline surrounding the Don/Suzanne romance was one of the worst to be featured on the show. I had a problem with it on two major counts:

a) Actress Abigail Spencer (who portrayed Miss Farrell) had NO chemistry with Jon Hamm. Many fans have claimed that Hamm is one of those actors who can create chemistry with just about anyone. I think that his interactions with Ms. Spencer had disproved this theory.

b) The Don/Abigail romance ended with a whimper in ”The Gypsy and the Hobo”. Don and Abigail had plans for a trip to Connecticut, while Betty and the kids were out of town. But when his family returned unexpectedly and Betty confronted Don about his false identity and the items found in his study, Don left Abigail sitting in his car and waiting for hours. She eventually slinked away back to her little home. The following morning, Don informed her that their affair was over . . . for the moment. A rather lame ending to a rather disappointing affair.

The British Invasion – Nothing really came from Putnam, Powell, and Lowe’s purchase of Sterling Cooper. Well . . . Lane Pryce, the parent company’s financial officer for Sterling Cooper, was responsible for the dismissal of several staff members by the time”Out of Town” aired. In that particular episode, he fired someone named Burt Peterson, who had succeeded Duck Phillips as Head of Accounts. At PP&L’s orders, he set Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove against each other for the position of Head of Accounts. Sterling Cooper nearly ended up with Guy Kendricks, a PP&L executive, to helm Sterling Cooper in (3.06) “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”. But Kendricks’ encounter with Lois Sadler at the wheel of a John Deere lawnmower severed his foot and his budding career as an ad man. In ”The Color Blue”, Lane Pryce learned that PP&L planned to sell Sterling Cooper and revealed the news in ”Shut the Door. Have a Seat”. This led to Pryce, Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling and Don Draper raiding some of Sterling Cooper’s talent to form their own agency. And that is it. Weiner failed to develop a steady storyline regarding PP&L’s ownership of Sterling Cooper and the so-called British Invasion ended without any real drama between the season premiere and the finale.

 

Gene Hofstad and Sally Draper – I understand that Sally had been devastated by the death of her maternal grandfather, Gene Hofstadt. But I found myself unable to empathize wholeheartedly with her. Perhaps that was due to my belief that Weiner and his writers had failed to engage in any prolonged exploration of their relationship (which was only covered in two episodes) before the old man’s death.

Betty Draper’s Pregnancy and Gene Draper’s Birth – According to Matt Weiner, he had decided to set Season Three nearly six months after the end of Season Two because he wanted to depict the effect of Betty’s pregnancy and young Eugene’s birth upon the Draper family. I hate to say this, but he failed. Baby Eugene was barely focused upon, following his birth.

Carla – I am certain that many fans of the show are relieved that Matt Weiner has allowed the role of Carla, the Drapers’ maid to have a bigger role, this season. And so am I. But . . . once again, Weiner proved himself incapable of creating an interesting and complex African-American character. What is my beef? Many fans have praised Carla for being “dignified and sympathetic”. Unfortunately, these traits simply made her another Hollywood stereotype – the dignified black servant. In other words, Carla was boring.

There were no imperfections in Carla’s character at all. In fact, there seemed to be nothing wrong with Carla. I realize that as a servant, she has to maintain a facade in front of her employers, but . . . good grief! If the secretaries and minor employees can show their warts when their bosses are not around, why not Carla? Why not allow her to interact in a more interesting way with other servants in the Drapers’ Ossing neighborhood? Why dump her with a stereotype that has been around since the 1950s?

 

“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

 

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“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

Many people would usually consider the topic of Self Awareness when discussing New Age religions or Eastern mysticism. Characters from a TV Western miniseries seems like the last thing anyone would think of when discussing the meaning of Self. Yet, a major character led me to consider this very topic, while re-watching Steven Spielberg’s 2005 miniseries about two families – Lakota and western Virginia – called “INTO THE WEST”

“Self” has been described as the essential self or the core of an individual. A person who has learned to live one’s life with a strong sense of Self is considered as someone who has achieved or come close to a level of self-actualization – namely, achieving personal growth through accepting the true core of oneself. If there is one character in “INTO THE WEST” who seemed to personify self-actualization, it was Thunder Heart Woman (Tonazin Carmelo and later Sheila Tousey), the Lakota woman who had married into the Wheeler family. I am not saying that Thunder Heart Woman was a person with no insecurities, personal demons or anything of the sort. But of all the major characters, she seemed to be more in tune of what and more importantly, who she was.

In the miniseries’ second episode titled, “Manifest Destiny”, Thunder Heart Woman had seemed impervious to her white in-laws’ attitude toward her, during her immediate family’s short stay with her in-laws in Virginia. Even when faced with the disapproval of a German minister and fellow wagon immigrant called Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), she remained impervious to his bigotry. At least according to her husband’s narrative. But this essay is not about Thunder Heart Woman. It is about one of the men in her life – the one love in her life, who managed to catch my attention. Namely one Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle and later John Terry).

The third of four brothers from a Virginia wheelwright family, Jacob Wheeler seemed very similar to his Lakota wife – the type of person that seemed to know his own mind. The miniseries’ first episode, ”Wheel to the Stars” revealed that Jacob’s Virginia family seemed to view him as a non-conformist . . . or oddball. He, in turn, regarded his hometown of Wheelerton, Virginia; his family and its profession with mild contempt. In short, this young Virginian was a fish out of water in 1825 America and he knew it. This would explain Jacob’s longing to see the world beyond his hometown and the eastern United States. He did not hesitate to express his enthusiasm for the West. After meeting mountain man James Fletcher (Will Patton), he immediately set out to achieve his desire to leave Wheelerton.

Possessing a talent for persuasion, Jacob managed to convince two of his brothers – Nathan (Alan Tudyk) and Jethro (Skeet Ulrich) – into joining his trek to the West. Jethro turned back at the last minute and Nathan ended up accompanying him. After Jacob and Nathan parted ways in St. Louis, the former caught up with Fletcher and famed mountain man, Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin) and convinced the latter to allow him to accompany Smith’s expedition to California. I could probably list a number of examples of Jacob’s talent for persuasion, along with his exuberant and non-conformist nature. What I had failed to mention was that he possessed a strong and stubborn will to achieve what he desired. A perfect example of this was his determination to return to California after he, Smith and their fellow mountain men had been kicked out of the province by Mexican authorities. Not only did Jacob manage to achieve this goal, he did so at a great price. And yet . . . one of the interesting aspects of the Jacob Wheeler character is that despite possessing a strong will and extroverted nature, he also had certain vulnerable characteristics and insecurities. Especially insecurities. In both ”Wheel to the Stars” and ”Manifest Destiny”, Jacob’s relationships with his Wheelerton family and Thunder Heart Woman revealed just how insecure he could be.

Jacob seemed to have a rather peculiar relationship with his Virginia family. Despite regarding them with contempt for their provincial attitudes, he had also allowed their attitudes to bring out his own insecurities. His grandfather Abraham (Ken Pogue), his father Enoch (Serge Houde) and his three brothers – Nathan, Ezra (Joshua Kalef) and Jethro – either derided or teased him about his lack of interest in the family’s wheelwright business. And all of them viewed Jacob as a daydreamer with no sense of family duty or any common sense. The Wheelers have never hesitated to express their low opinion of Jacob’s desire to experience life beyond Wheelerton. I cannot help but wonder if the Wheelers’ contempt toward Jacob’s non-conformist ways had bred a sense of insecurity within him. Or if this insecurity was one of the reasons behind his desire to escape Wheelerton for the west.

It is possible that I may have stumbled across one result from Jacob’s less-than-ideal relationship with his Virginia family. I do not know if anyone else had noticed, but it seemed to me that whenever any of the other Wheelers teased, ranted or expressed contempt toward Jacob or his views on the West, he rarely bothered to defend himself. Jacob did not defend himself whenever his brothers mocked him at the dinner table.; when Jethro made the ”tail tucked between your legs”comment, following Jacob’s return to Wheelerton in ”Manifest Destiny”; and when Enoch accused him of luring both Nathan and later, Jacob to the West. Instead of defending himself, Jacob merely remained silent in an effort to ignore the hurtful comments.

However, there have also been moments when he did defend himself. Jacob made a snarky comment about his grandfather Abraham’s penchant for rambling on about his past as Revolutionary War veteran and the family’s business. And the elderly man reacted in such a vitriolic manner that I found myself wondering if Jacob had ended up with a new hole in his backside. When Nathan raged against him for helping an escaped slave named Ben Franklin (Sean Blakemore) in Tennessee, Jacob insisted they had done the right thing considering that Ben had earlier released Nathan after holding him hostage with a knife. And when Nathan lost his temper over Jacob’s refusal to follow him to Texas, the younger brother merely insisted upon continuing his intention to join Jedidiah Smith’s expedition.

One could only wonder why Jacob had rarely bothered to defend himself against his family’s scorn. Did he share Thunder Heart Woman’s talent for imperviously ignoring the scorn and prejudices of others? I rather doubt it. Whereas Thunder Heart Woman had seemed unconcerned by others, Jacob’s face tends to express his pain or embarrassment caused by his family’s attitudes. I suspect that deep down, Jacob longed for not only his family’s respect, but their acceptance of his true self. But unlike many people, he was not willing to change his nature for the Wheelers or anyone else’s acceptance.

Why did Jacob decide to return to Wheelerton with his pregnant wife and daughter after eleven years in the West? In his narration, Jacob claimed that he wanted Thunder Heart Woman and his daughter Margaret Light Shines (Elizabeth Sage, later Irene Bedard) to meet his Virginia family. Perhaps he was telling the truth. Yet, a part of me found that hard to believe. The moment Jacob began to enjoy his Lakota in-laws’ hospitality, he felt certain that his own family extend the same kind of warmth to his wife. And yet . . . he had insisted upon returning to Virginia. Why? Had Jethro hinted the truth in his ”tail tuckered between his legs” comment – that Jacob encountered nothing but failure in the West and returned back to Virginia for a livelihood? Or was it something deeper? Perhaps a last chance for Jacob to seek final acceptance from his family? Who knows.

Whatever Jacob had sought in 1836 Virginia, he did not find it. His father Enoch revealed that the family’s wheelwright business had suffered a setback, due to the economic depression that struck the United States in the mid and late 1830s. And the Wheelers seemed no more closer in accepting Jacob for himself or his Western family. His cousin, Naomi Wheeler (Keri Russell) viewed Indians as non-human. His brother Ezra regarded Thunder Heart Woman as a mere ”squaw”. Naomi’s sister, Rachel (Jessica Capshaw), viewed young Margaret’s hand as a piece of dung. And Enoch seemed to act as if his new daughter-in-law and grandchildren did not exist. No wonder Jacob ended up complaining about the Wheelers’ treatment of his Lakota family.

Eventually, Jacob decided to take his wife and children and return to the West permanently – preferably Californa. It seemed the Wheelers’ continuing disregard toward them – along with news of his idol Jedediah Smith’s death – led to this decision. He almost seemed cold and distant toward his parents and Ezra. But he did not count on Jethro and his three female cousins’ decision to accompany him to California. Apparently, not all of the Wheelers viewed him as an oddball for his preference for the West. Jacob seemed heartened by Jethro’s decision to join him. And although Naomi, Rachel and Leah’s (Emily Holmes) decision to join the trek West took him by surprise, Jacob readily accepted their company. In the following narration, he came to this conclusion:

”I hope that I would prove equal to the responsibility I had undertaken.”

I found this comment rather odd. Jethro and the three cousins had been determined to follow Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman on the trek to California, regardless of anything he would have done or said. Even Jethro had later pointed this out.

The next three years (1837-1840) must have been the best Jacob had ever experienced with any of the Virginia Wheelers. The three cousins – Naomi, Rachel and Leah – finally began to view Thunder Heart Woman as a member of the family and cherished her and Jacob’s three children (Abraham had been born in Wheelerton in 1836 and Jacob Jr. was born in Missouri sometime in late 1840). Jacob’s close relationship with Jethro seemed like a far cry from the conflicts with Nathan that marred his trip to the west back in the 1820s. One would begin to think that Jacob no longer suffered from any insecurity by this point. And yet . . . they only remained buried inside him, waiting for the right moment to manifest.

In the end, it took the wagon train journey to California (dubbed ”the Wagon Train of Doom” by me) featured in ”Manifest Destiny” for Jacob’s insecurities to get the best of him. Upon their arrival in Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840, the Wheeler family remained there during the winter before joining a California-bound wagon train led by one Stephen Hoxie (Beau Bridges) in the spring of 1841. Surprisingly, only Thunder Heart Woman seemed reluctant to leave Missouri. I suspect she had enough of being constantly on the move for the past several years. But the rest of the Wheelers, especially Jacob, seemed determined to head for California.

Once the Hoxie wagon company began their westward trek, everything seemed to be faring well. The weather seemed beautiful. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits – including the black family from Illinois named Jones that managed to join the wagon train without any opposition. Both Naomi and Rachel attracted the romantic attention of the train’s two scouts – ‘Skate’ Guthrie and James ‘Jim’ Ebbets (Ryan Robbins and Christopher Heyerdahl). This contentment finally ended when Thunder Heart Woman spotted wolves feeding off the corpse of a buffalo and when the train later crossed what I believe was the Big Blue River. The incident proved to be the first of two disagreements between the couple. Thunder Heart Woman viewed the wolves as a sign that the wagon train would come to a bad end. She insisted that the Wheeler family return to Missouri. Jacob dismissed her worries as superstition on her part. But the expression on his face clearly indicated his doubts on the wisdom of the trip.

Then the first disaster struck. One of the emigrants, a German-born minister named Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), lost control of his wagon during the crossing. Distracted by the Hobbes family’s situation, Jethro nearly lost control of his wagon. Leah fell out of the wagon and drowned in the river’s fast flowing water. Although Hobbes received an angry response for his carelessness from Captain Hoxie, the Wheeler women’s anger seemed to be directed at Jacob for leading them to this western trek. The expression of guilt seemed very palpable on Jacob’s face, as Naomi demanded that he take the family back to Missouri. Leah’s death proved to be just the beginning.

The further west the wagon train traveled, more disasters followed. The emigrants were forced to deal with a severe thunderstorm and a cattle stampede that left the only son of a black emigrant named Absalom Jones (Neville Edwards) dead. Not long after the storm and the stampede, both Naomi and Rachel married two of the wagon train’s scouts, Skate and Jim. But that brief period of happiness failed to last when the wagon train attempted to travel through a pass. While traversing a pass, a wagon broke free, knocked Rachel down and ran over her leg, causing a severe compound fracture. The leg eventually became infected. Hobbes, the closest thing to a doctor available, tried to amputate Rachel’s leg; but his efforts turned out to be clumsy and Rachel died before he could finish. Although no family member angrily demanded that return to Missouri, the expression on Jacob’s face obviously conveyed his feelings of guilt.

The final blow to Jacob’s disastrous return to the west occurred when Mrs. Jones died from cholera. Since the Wheelers’ wagons had been traveling with the Jones’ wagon at the back of the train, they had been exposed to the disease. Hoxie and the scouts forced the Wheelers and the remaining members of the Jones family (Mr. Jones and Sally Jones) to remain behind under quarantine while the main body of the wagon train carries on. Only Naomi was able to continue with the train, since she had been with her new husband. Jethro became afflicted with symptoms of cholera but recovered. Both Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman drifted into a serious quarrel, when he suggested that she take their children and attempt to find her Lakota family. Needless to say, Thunder Heart Woman took the suggestion badly and reminded Jacob that he should have listened to her warnings about the journey.

No new outbreaks occurred after Jacob ordered that all drinking water be boiled. The Wheelers and the Jones rushed to catch up with the wagon train, but discovered that it had been attacked by Cheyenne warriors. All of the emigrants had been wiped out, aside from Naomi, who first became a captive and later, a wife of a Cheyenne chief Prairie Fire (Jay Tavare). The Wheelers and the Jones families were also attacked by Cheyenne warriors. They managed to repulse the attack, but Jacob ended up seriously wounded by an arrow in his chest. The surviving emigrants tried to move on with a wounded Jacob, but the juts and bumps of the trail made it impossible for him to endure the pain. Instead, he insisted that Thunder Heart Woman, Jethro, Mr. Jones and the children continue west to California without him, since he would only prevent them from crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter. They left him behind with great reluctance.

The period that Jacob spent east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains allowed him to wallow in loneliness and grief over the separation from his family. But he remained determined to find them. And it took him another four to five years before he finally did. Becoming a member of John Charles Frémont’s California Volunteer Militia during the Mexican-American War allowed Jacob to scour the region for signs or news of his remaining family. Five years passed before he finally came upon the ranch that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had settled. Jacob also discovered that in the intervening years, his brother and wife had considered him dead, began a relationship and had a child – a little girl named Cornflower. Devastated by this turn of events, Jacob decided not to reveal himself to his family. At least not openly. Instead, he left the wooden medicine wheel necklace that Thunder Heart Woman had given him when they first met to his youngest child, Jacob High Cloud. Another five years passed before Jacob finally reconciled with his family, due to the efforts of his daughter, Margaret Light Shines.

Ever since I first saw ”INTO THE WEST” and especially the above mentioned scene from ”Manifest Destiny”, I have found myself wondering about Jacob’s actions. I understood why he decided not to intrude upon the family that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had formed upon their arrival in California. But why did he leave the medicine wheel necklace to young Jacob? Surely, he knew that his family would be aware that he was alive . . . and knew about their situation? Looking back on his action, it struck me as a very passive-aggressive on his part. He lacked the courage to face Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman. And yet, he seemed determined to thwart the happiness they had created . . . as if he was punishing them for continuing their lives without him. Or perhaps Jacob felt a great deal of envy toward Jethro because the latter turned out to be the one who successfully led the family to California, and not him.

Perhaps Jacob had always a passively-aggressive personality from the beginning. His relationship with his Virginia family struck me as being marked by a great deal of passive-aggressive behavior from the start. Jacob seemed determined to be his own man, whether in his enthusiasm for the West, his decision to leave Wheeler or join Jedediah Smith’s expedition over following his brother Nathan to Texas. And yet . . . he never defended himself in the face of their criticism. Instead, he resorted to resentful silence. Why did he constantly fail to defend himself? Was he merely trying to keep the peace? Or did some small part of him fear that his family may have been right about him? It seemed strange than many fans and critics of “INTO THE WEST” seemed to adore Jacob for his seemingly self-assurance and outgoing personality. At the same time, they derided Jethro for being an insecure loser in their eyes. I got the feeling that they were so busy either scorning Jethro or adulating Jacob that they failed to detect the latter’s personal insecurities and darker traits. And Jacob certainly had them by the bucketful.

Did Jacob ever overcome his insecurities? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I wonder if many are aware of this, but it usually takes an individual to overcome his or her faults during an entire lifetime. A good number of people never succeed in overcoming all of their faults. And since “INTO THE WEST” focused more on his and Thunder Heart Woman’s children in the last three episodes, audiences never discovered if he had overcome all of his faults and insecurities. Jacob certainly seemed more at peace in his old age than he did during his first forty years. Perhaps those years of solitude near the Sierra Mountains foothills helped him finally achieve some inner peace.

“JANE EYRE” (1983) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1983) Review

As long as I can remember, both the Hollywood and British film industries have trotted out Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel,“Jane Eyre” in order to make a movie or television adaptation of it. Looking back, I realize that I have seen at least six adaptation of the novel in my life time. 

One of those adaptations turned out to be the 1983 BBC miniseries, “JANE EYRE”. Directed by Julian Amyes and adapted by Alexander Baron, the eleven-part miniseries starred Zelah Clarke in the title role and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester. Following Brontë’s novel, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a plain young English woman in early 19th Britain – from her abusive childhood to her position as a governess at an imposing manor in the Yorkshire countryside. Jane’s story began at Gateshead, where she suffered abuse at the hands of her widowed aunt-in-law and three cousins. After a clash with her cousin John, Mrs. Reed has Jane enrolled at Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls. Jane spends the next eight years under the tyrannical rule of Lowood’s headmaster, the self-righteous clergyman Mr. Brocklehurst – six years as a student and two as a teacher.

Longing for greener pastures, Jane advertises her services as a governess, and receives a reply from a Mrs. Alice Fairfax, housekeeper of Thornfield Hall. She takes the position and becomes governess for Adele Varens, the young French ward of Thornfield’s master, Mr. Edward Rochester. After meeting Mr. Rochester, Jane develops a close friendship with him . . . and the two eventually fall in love. But a secret involving strange laughs, a mysterious fire and an attack on Rochester’s house guest, Mr. Mason threatens any chance of marital bliss for the governess and her employer.

I first saw “JANE EYRE” years ago on a video cassette copy that featured no opening or closing credits between episodes. So, it eventually came as surprise to me that the 1983 miniseries had aired in eleven thirty-minute installments. I found myself wondering why the BBC had decided to air the miniseries in this fashion. Why not air it in five one-hour episodes? Or six fifty-minutes episodes? Regardless of the manner in which the BBC had aired “JANE EYRE”, I cannot deny that in the end, I found it very satisfying.

Before I wax lyrical over “JANE EYRE”, I have to acknowledge some of its aspects that I found unappealing. Many fans probably loved the idea of this adaptation being so close to Brontë’s novel in compare to many other adaptations. And while I am relieved that Alexander Baron’s screenplay did not rush the story in a manner similar to the 1997 television adaptation, there were times when I found this miniseries a bit too loyal to the novel. I might as well confess that I am not particularly fond of the sequences that featured Jane’s years at Lonwood and her time spent with St. John Rivers and his two sisters. The Lowood sequences bored me senseless. I understand that Jane’s interactions with the school’s headmaster was a message on the oppression of a patriarchal society, I practically struggled to prevent myself from hitting the Fast Forward button of my DVD remote. I could say the same about Jane’s time with the Rivers family. While I had initially found her relationship with St. John Rivers fascinating, I heaved a mighty sigh of relief by the time Jane returned to Thornfield Hall. Sometimes, a film or television production can be too faithful to a literary source . . . to the point of dragging the story’s pacing to a near halt.

I have one last complaint to reveal – namely the characterization of Edward Rochester’s mysterious wife from the West Indies, Mrs. Bertha Rochester. I realize that Baron and director Julian Amyes were trying to be as faithful to the novel as possible. Unfortunately, Bertha’s characterization turned out to be another example of the dangers of a movie or miniseries being too faithful to a literary source. I was surprised to experience a glimmer of sympathy toward the character, while watching the 1997 movie. I felt no such glimmer in this version . . . merely irritation. I cannot blame actress Joolia Cappleman. She must have been following the script or Amyes’ direction. But for years, I have harbored the feeling that the characterization of Bertha . . . and Adele’s dancer mother, for that matter, may have been examples of Brontë’s xenophobia toward the French or anyone who was not British. Bertha’s characterization struck me as completely one-dimensional and created in a manner to garner sympathy toward the controlling Rochester, who had just attempted to drag Jane into a bigamous marriage. Considering that the 1966 novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea” had been around for seventeen years around this time, could it have hurt both Amyes and Baron to portray Bertha in a slightly more sympathetic light?

Michael Edwards did a solid job in his production designs for “JANE EYRE”. I was especially impressed by his use of Deene Park, located near Corby, Northamptonshire; for the Thornfield Hall sequences. And his recreation of the Yorkshire countryside in 1830s England during those scenes featuring Jane’s attempts to find shelter and food following her flight from Thornfield struck me as tolerably convincing. Cinematographers David Doogood, John Kenway and Keith Salmon’s photography seemed pretty solid, despite the miniseries being shot in video film. Speaking of the 1830s, I still find it surprising that this is the only adaptation of “Jane Eyre” that is set during this decade. The other five versions I have seen were all set during the early or mid 1840s. I must admit that Gill Hardie’s costumes ably reflected that particular decade.

Despite my complaints, I still enjoyed “JANE EYRE” very much. Baron and Amyes did an excellent job of recapturing Brontë’s saga. Their handling of Jane’s romance with Rochester bridled with passion and intelligence. More importantly, they retained enough of Brontë’s work to convey a very plausible development of Jane’s character. Both director and screenwriter perfectly maintained Rochester’s complex personality. His love for Jane and appreciation of her intelligence seemed apparent. Yet, Baron maintained a good deal of Rochester’s sardonic humor and controlling nature. The meat of Brontë’s novel has always been centered around Jane and Rochester’s relationship. And the miniseries perfectly captured every delicious nuance of it. But I must admit that I was also impressed by the sequences featuring Jane’s early years at Gateshead. Baron did a good job of capturing the miseries that Jane suffered at the hands of the Reed family. When I first saw “JANE EYRE”, I had lacked the patience to appreciate the sequence in which Jane becomes a vagabond before meeting the Rivers family. This last viewing made me appreciate it, because it conveyed the suffering that Jane had endured after leaving Thornfield Hall – something that most adaptations seem to gloss over.

I cannot deny that the performances featured in “JANE EYRE” were top-notched. Both Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton created a strong screen chemistry as the two leads, Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester. Clarke’s Jane seemed very submissive in Rochester’s “commanding” presence . . . at least at first. There was an interesting scene in which Jane eagerly approached her employer, the morning following an evening of easy camaraderie between the two. Instead, Rochester responded in a brusque manner, producing a wounded puppy dog expression on Jane’s face. Another scene that impressed me featured Jane’s reluctant admission of her true feelings toward Rochester. The pair acted the hell out of that scene, leaving me convinced that I had witnessed their finest moment together. Some might view Rochester’s failed attempt to prevent Jane’s departure from Thornfield as that special moment. But the “admission of love” scene was the one that really impressed me.

Zelah Clarke did an excellent job in conveying Jane’s emotional growth from a reserved and pious eighteen year-old governess to the strong-willed and more emotional woman. Her Jane Eyre struck me as slightly more reserved than other portrayals. Which seemed all the more amazing to me, as Clarke slowly revealed Jane’s inner passions. Timothy Dalton gave, in my opinion, the best portrayal of the complex Edward Rochester. Mind you, he had his moments of theatricality. But in the end, Dalton superbly conveyed both the best and worst of Rochester’s character with seamless skill. Some have declared Dalton as too handsome for the plain-looking Rochester. Considering that just about every actor who has portrayed the character was more attractive than the literary character. I found such arguments irrelevant.

Both Clarke and Dalton received solid support from the rest of the cast. Damien Thomas seemed very impressive as Richard Mason, Rochester’s tenuously sane and nervous brother-in-law. I could also say the same about Andrew Bicknell’s cool and commanding portrayal of St. John Rivers, the missionary wannabe. Blance Youinou was quite charming as Rochester’s young French ward, Adele Valens. And Sian Pattenden was impressively believable as the hot-tempered young Jane Eyre.

I cannot say that “JANE EYRE” is perfect. Unlike other costume drama fans, I do not require that period movie or miniseries be an exact adaptation of its literary source. Although this adaptation of Brontë’s novel might not be completely faithful, I do wish that screenwriter Alexander Baron had been even a little less faithful, especially in scenes featuring Jane’s years at Lowood and her time spent with the Rivers family. But I cannot deny that this miniseries turned out to be an excellent adaptation. I would probably go so far to state that it might be the best adaptation of Brontë’s novel. And we have Baron’s writing, Julian Amyes’ direction and superb performances from Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton to thank.

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: Top Five Favorite Season One (2010) Episodes

In September 2010, a new series based upon Nelson Johnson’s book about the famous New Jersey coastal city during the Prohibition Era, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City”, had premiered on HBO. Created by Terence Winter and produced by him, Mark Walhberg, and Martin Scorcese; “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” starred Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt and Michael Shannon. Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from the series’ first season: 

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: TOP FIVE FAVORITE SEASON ONE (2010) EPISODES

1. (1.09) “Belle Femme” – This episode about Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s efforts to deal with the threat of a Democratic mayoral candidate screaming corruption and the D’Alessio gang; his mistress Margaret Schroeder promises to help a former employer; and Jimmy Darmody’s return from Chicago proved to be my favorite episode this season.

2. (1.10) “The Emerald City” – Nucky asks for Margaret’s assistance in backing his mayoral candidate with the passage of women’s right to vote, leaving her conflicted about her role as his mistress. He, along with Chalky White and Jimmy confront Meyer Lansky and two of the D’Alessio brothers. Jimmy’s common-law wife, Angela Darmody, witnesses his violent side against her photographer friend, and Federal agent Nelson Van Alden grapples with his emotions and has forceful encounters with both Margaret and Lucy.

3. (1.01) “Boardwalk Empire” – The ninety (90) minute series’ premiere episode introduced Atlantic City treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson at the dawn of Prohibition in January, 1920; and his plans to make himself and his associates very rich from the bootlegging business.

4. (1.04) “Anastasia” – Michael Kenneth Williams has a field day in this episode in which his character, Chalky White extracts vengeance from a local Ku Klux Klan leader for lynching one of his men. And in Chicago, Jimmy and Al Capone expand their business operations by taking over territories from a local Irish gangster, resulting in vicious consequences for a prostitute that Jimmy was fond of.

5. (1.11) “Paris Green” – This episode featured many shake-ups in the relationships of Nucky and Margaret; Van Alden and his assistant, Agent Sebso; Jimmy and his relationships with his real father, the Commodore, Nucky, and Angela.

“MURDER ON THE LINKS” (1996) Review

murderonthelinks

 

“MURDER ON THE LINKS” (1996) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1923 novel called “Murder on the Links”. But I have seen the 1996 television adaptation that starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. On several occasions. 

While on holiday in Deauville, France with his close friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, Hercule Poirot is approached by a wealthy businessman for help. Paul Renauld, whose assets include several South American business interests and the hotel where Poirot and Hastings are staying, claimed that someone – probably from South America – has made threats against his life. He asks Poirot to visit his home for consultation on the following morning. When Poirot meets the appointment, he discovers that Renauld has been kidnapped and Madame Renauld, left tied and gagged in their bedroom. The kidnapping case transforms into murder, when Hastings and his fellow golfers stumble across Renauld’s body on a golf course. Poirot also makes the acquaintance of Monsieur Girand of the Surete, an arrogant police official that views himself as the better detective. This clash of egos leads to a bet between the pair over who would solve the Renauld case first.

The case involves a bevy of suspects that include:

*Madame Eloise Renauld, the victim’s wife
*Jack Renauld, the victim’s stepson, who disliked him
*Marthe Daubreuil, Jack’s fiancée, who was frustrated by the victim’s opposition to the engagement
*Madame Bernadette Daubreuil, Marthe’s mother and the former lover/possible partner-in-crime of the victim
*Bella Duveen, Jack’s former lover, who may have mistaken the victim for him
*Mr. Stonor, the victim’s private secretary, who is in love with Madame Renauld

I would never consider “MURDER ON THE LINKS” as one of the best Christie adaptations I have seen. The movie’s prologue – set ten years earlier – almost made it easy to figure out the murderer’s identity. Second, the plot seemed hampered by one too many red herrings that involved mistaken identities and mistaken assumptions. And these red herrings nearly made the plot rather convoluted. I suspect that screenwriter Anthony Horowitz feared that the movie’s prologue nearly gave away the murderer’s identity and inserted these red herrings to confuse the viewers. Then again . . . I never read the 1923 novel and it is possible that Horowitz was simply following Christie’s original plot. Yet, the red herrings were nothing in compare to the line of reasoning that led Poirot to solve the case. The clues that he followed struck me as vague and slightly contrived.

But despite these flaws, I still manage to enjoy “MURDER ON THE LINKS” whenever I watch it, thanks to Andrew Grieves’ direction. One, I actually enjoyed the movie’s atmosphere and setting in Deauville. It gave the movie a touch of elegance without the series’ hallmark Art Deco style that had become a bit heavy-handed after this movie first aired. Production designer Rob Harris and cinematographer Chris O’Dell managed to capture the elegant mood of mid-1930s France without being too obvious about it. Andrea Galer’s costumes also struck me as near perfect. I especially enjoyed those costumes worn by the female cast members. The production’s pièce de résistance for me was the bicycle race featured two-thirds into the story. It struck me as a perfect blending of Grieves’ direction, editing, photography, production design, costumes and performances – especially by the extras.

Aside from one or two complaints, I thought the cast’s performances were first-rate. David Suchet gave his usual competent performance as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. But I was especially impressed by Hugh Fraser’s portrayal of Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s close friend. “MURDER ON THE LINKS” provided a strong opportunity for him to shine as a man who falls in love with one of the suspects. Damien Thomas was excellent as the desperate and very complex Paul Renauld. In fact, his character seemed to be the lynch pin of the entire movie – even after his character was killed off twenty minutes into the film. Diane Fletcher seemed remarkably subtle and charming as Renauld’s beloved wife, Eloise. Portraying someone as ambiguous as Jack Renauld must have been a bit tricky, but Ben Pullen did a good job in capturing the character’s amiable, but callow and self-involved personality. Sophie Linfield was solid as Jack’s current love and fiancée, Marthe Daubreuil. However, she did not exactly rock my boat. Neither did Terence Beesley and Bernard Latham, who portrayed Renauld’s private secretary Stonor and Lucien Bex of the police, respectively. I also have to comment on Jacinta Mulcahy’s portrayal of Hasting’s love interest – the beautiful songstress, Bella Duveen. Mulcahy portrayed Bella as an effective minor femme fatale as Jack Renauld’s rejected lover. And she and Fraser made a surprisingly effective romantic pair.

The two performances that left me scratching my head came from Katherine Fahey and Bill Moody. I wish I could say that Fahey’s portrayal of Bernadette Daubreuil – Renauld’s former lover and Marthe’s mother – made an effective femme fatale. But I cannot. I cannot accuse her of hammy acting, but I thought she tried a bit too hard to project the image of a mysterious femme fatale who was blackmailing her former lover and possible partner-in-crime. But the one performance that really disappointed me came from Bill Moody’s portrayal of Monsieur Giraud of the Paris Sûreté and Poirot’s professional rival. I understood that he was supposed to be a boorish and arrogant man. However, I still had a problem with Moody’s performance. His portrayal of a French police detective seemed to border on parody. It was like watching a caricature of the John Bull persona tried to pass off as a Frenchman. It simply rang false to me.

“MURDER ON THE LINKS” was not perfect. Although I found the murder mystery intriguing, Poirot’s solution to the crime and the clues that led him to that solution struck me as slightly vague and improbable. I also had a problem with the performances of two cast members. But Arthur Hasting’s romance with one of the suspects, the elegant setting of Deauville and the performances of David Suchet, Hugh Fraser and Damien Thomas made “MURDER ON THE LINKS”worth watching.

“THE KENNEDYS” (2011) Review

 

“THE KENNEDYS” (2011) Review

The past thirty to forty years have seen a great deal of movies, documentaries and television productions about one of the most famous political families in the U.S., the Kennedys. But none of them have garnered as much controversy or criticism as this latest production, an eight-part television miniseries that aired last April. 

Directed by Jon Cassar, “THE KENNEDYS” chronicled the family’s lives and experiences through the 1960s – mainly during President John F. Kennedy’s Administration. The miniseries also touched upon some of the family’s experiences and relationships before JFK first occupied the White House through flashbacks in Episode One, which also focused upon Election Day 1960. And Episode Eight covered the years between JFK’s assassination and the death of his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. But the meat of the miniseries centered on the years between January 1961 and November 1963. Unlike most productions about the Kennedys, which either covered JFK’s public experiences as President or the family’s private life; this miniseries covered both the public and private lives of the family.

Much to my surprise, “THE KENNEDYS” attracted a great deal of controversy before it aired. The miniseries had been scheduled to air on the History Channel for American audiences back in January of this year. However, the network changed its mind, claiming that “this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”. Many, including director Jon Cassar, believed that the network had received pressure from sources with connection to the Kennedy family not to air the miniseries. Several other networks also declined to air the miniseries, until executives from the Reelz Channel agreed to do so. That network failed aired “THE KENNEDYS” back in April and other countries, including Canada and Great Britain also finally aired it. After viewing the miniseries, I do not understand why the History Channel had banned it in the first place.

The miniseries not only attracted controversy, but also mixed reviews from the critics. Well, to be honest, I have only come across negative reviews. If there were any positive commentary, I have yet to read any. For me, “THE KENNEDYS”is not perfect. In fact, I do not believe it is the best Hollywood production on the subject I have seen. The miniseries did not reveal anything new about the Kennedys. In fact, it basically covered old ground regarding both JFK’s political dealings with situations that included the Bay of Pigs, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also covered many of the very familiar topics of the Kennedys’ private lives – including the adulterous affairs of both JFK and Joseph Senior. Hell, even the miniseries’ take on the Cuban Missile Crisis seemed more like a rehash of the 2000 movie,“THIRTEEN DAYS”. In fact, the only aspect of this miniseries that struck me as new or original was the insinuation that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy may have received amphetamine shots (also taken by JFK) from a Doctor Max Jacobson, to boost her energy for the numerous duties of her office. And I have strong doubts over whether this is actually true.

I have one other major complaint about the miniseries – namely the final episode. Episode Eight covered Jacqueline and Bobby’s lives during the remainder of the 1960s, following JFK’s death. For me, this was a major mistake. Although Part One mainly covered Election Day in November 1960, it also featured flashbacks of the family’s history between the late 1930s and 1960. But the majority of the miniseries covered JFK’s presidency. In my opinion, ”THE KENNEDYS” should have ended with JFK’s funeral, following his assassination in Dallas. I realize that the miniseries also featured the lives of Bobby, Jacqueline, Joseph Senior, Rose and Ethel’s live in heavy doses, it still centered on Jack Kennedy. By continuing into one last episode that covered Jacqueline and Bobby’s lives following the President’s death, it seemed to upset the miniseries’s structure. If that was the case, the setting for ”THE KENNEDYS” should have stretched a lot further than the 1960s.

But despite my complaints, I still enjoyed “THE KENNEDYS”. For one thing, it did not bore me. The pacing struck me as top notch. And it lacked the dry quality of the more well-received 1983 miniseries, “KENNEDY”. Although I believe that particular miniseries was superior to this new one, it sometimes felt more like a history lesson than a historical drama. It is possible that the additions of sequences featuring the family’s personal lives and scandals may have prevented me from falling asleep. But even the scenes that featured JFK’s presidency struck me as interesting – especially the scenes about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Episode Three. I also enjoyed the flashbacks that supported the miniseries’ look into Joseph Kennedy Senior’s control over his children and the shaky marriage between JFK and Jacqueline. At least two particular flashbacks focused upon JFK’s affair with Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, and its near effect upon younger brother Bobby. One scene that really impressed me was Bobby’s first meeting with the starlet. Thanks to Cassar’s direction, along with Barry Pepper (Bobby Kennedy) and Charlotte Sullivan’s (Marilyn Monroe), the scene reeked with a sexual tension that left viewers wondering if the pair ever really had a tryst. Both Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes gave outstanding performances in two particular scenes that not only featured the explosive marriage between the President and First Lady, but also the depths of their feelings toward one another. The miniseries also scored with Rocco Matteo’s production designs. I was especially impressed by his re-creation of the White House, circa 1961. I was also impressed by Christopher Hargadon’s costume designs. He did a first-rate job in not only capturing the period’s fashions for both the male and female characters, but also in re-creating some of Jacqueline Kennedy’s more famous outfits.

Aside from the pacing, the miniseries’ biggest strength turned out to be the cast. I have already commented upon Charlotte Sullivan’s excellent performance as Marilyn Monroe. But she her performance was not the only supporting one that impressed me. Kristin Booth gave a top-notch portrayal of Bobby Kennedy’s wife, Ethel. And she did this without turning the late senator’s wife into a one-note caricature, unlike other actresses. I was also impressed by Don Allison’s turn as future President, Lyndon B. Johnson. However, there were moments when his performance seemed a bit theatrical. I also enjoyed how both John White and Gabriel Hogan portrayed the rivalry between a young JFK and Joseph Junior during the late 1930s and early 1940s, with a subtlety that I found effective. However, both Tom Wilkinson and Diana Hardcastle really impressed me as the heads of the Kennedy clan – Joseph Senior and Rose Kennedy. They were really superb. Truly. I was especially impressed by Wilkinson’s handling of his New England accent, after recalling his bad American accent in 2005’s “BATMAN BEGINS”. And I had no idea that Diana Hardcastle was his wife. Considering their strong screen chemistry, I wonder if it is possible for husband and wife to act in front of a camera together, more often.

The best performances, in my opinion, came from Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes and Barry Pepper as JFK, Jacqueline Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, respectively. For some reason, Pepper’s portrayal of Bobby seemed to keep the miniseries grounded. He did a great job in capturing the former senator and Attorney General’s ability to maintain solidarity in the family; and also his conflict between continuing his service to JFK and the family, and considering the idea of pursuing his own profession.  Pepper’s performance eventually earned him a well-deserved Best Actor in a Miniseries Emmy.  Greg Kinnear’s take on JFK struck me as different from any I have ever seen in previous movies or television productions. Yes, he portrayed the style, charm, intelligence and wit of JFK. He was also effective in conveying the President’s conflict between his lustful desires for other women, his love for his wife and any “alleged” guilt over his infidelity. There seemed to be a slightly melancholy edge in Kinnear’s performance that I have never seen in other actors who have portrayed JFK. But I feel that the best performance came from Katie Holmes in her portrayal of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Personally, I thought it was worthy of an award nomination.  Unfortunately, the Hollywood and media establishments did not bother to nominate her.  Pity. I thought she did a superb job in capturing not only the style and glamour of the famous First Lady, but also the latter’s complex and intelligent nature.

I am well aware that most critics were not impressed by the miniseries. Hell, I am also aware that a good number of viewers have expressed some contempt toward it. I could follow the bandwagon and also express a negative opinion of“THE KENNEDYS”. But I cannot. It is not the best production I have ever seen about the famous political family. It did not really provide anything new about the Kennedy family and as far as I am concerned, it had one episode too many. But I was impressed by Jon Cassar’s direction, along with the outstanding cast and first-rate production and costume designs. And thinking about all of this, I still do not understand why the History Channel went through so much trouble to reject the miniseries’ airing on its network.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie,“GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation. 

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK”(which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that “DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and“GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas’ sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as aswot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that “DOWNTON ABBEY” will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”? I guess we will have to wait and see.