Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The ten worst Downton Abbey subplots, seasons 1-5

It's time to take a break from the trivial subjects I usually write about and talk about something important: Downton Abbey. I love this TV show, and I love sharing my opinions about it with anyone who will listen.  

In this post I'm discussing what I consider the show's ten worst subplots, starting with the least worst and ending with the absolute worst.  Do you agree or disagree?  Please make your opinion known in the comments; I'd love to hear what you think!

Note:  there are numerous spoilers ahead, so if you're watching Downton Abbey but haven't reached the end of Season 5 yet, you may want to skip this post.

10. The Denker-Spratt rivalry (season 5).  Spratt is such a stuffed shirt that we're eager to see him meet his match -- but his rivalry witih Denker quickly wears out its welcome.  Spratt hides one of the Dowager's suitcases -- ooh, wouldn't it be fun to see Violet arrive in London without her underwear? --  but nothing comes of it; Denker discovers the omission right away, so the sparks instantly fizzle.  And pardon me, but who cares if Denker can make delicious broth?????   

(Come to think of it, why do so many lame side plots occur at the Dower House?  Violet's illness, which no one in her family seems at all concerned about ... Violet's gardener, who might have been a thief but isn't ... yawwwwn ...) 

9.  Anthony Strallan and Edith (3).  This romance shows Edith at her most lovely and radiant, but Strallan proves to be a jerk, giving a pathetic excuse for not marrying her (and waiting until they're at the altar to tell her he can't go through with it).  Let's wipe this one from the family memory book, shall we?

8.  Sarah Bunting and Tom (4-5).  If there was any real chemistry between Miss Bunting and Tom, we might believe him when he says that she's made him remember who he used to be. But he never seems remotely comfortable in her presence.  Tom himself has shown that it's actually possible to be decent to people whose values you don't share -- but Miss Bunting seems unable to do that.  She would be a poor replacement for the sweet, spirited Sybil.  I'm not a bit sorry to see her go.

7. Edna Braithwaite's return (4).   Edna was bad enough in season 3 when she was dogging Tom's steps as a housemaid; now in 4 she returns to plague him and annoy everyone else (except the clueless Cora, who thinks Edna's just fine and dandy and castigates anyone who dares to hint that she might not be quite right for the job).  Edna is an irritating character with no interesting backstory and no redeeming qualities.  Please, let this be the last of her.

6. The mysterious soldier (2).  The sudden appearance of a disfigured (and therefore unrecognizable) soldier who might-or-might-not be the supposedly dead Patrick Crawley is straight from the cliche pile.  This subplot was disposed of within a single episode, thank goodness.

5.  Alfred and the kitchen maids (3-4).  Everyone, Mr. Carson in particular, goes on about how nice Alfred is and how hard he works, but I can't warm to his oafish character.  And the triangle between Alfred and Daisy and Ivy (or quadrangle, if you include Jimmy) just doesn't make sense to me.  When Ivy first appears, Daisy resents her -- but by the end of season 3, they're great friends, arm in arm at the county fair. Then in season 4, Daisy is again spouting venom at Ivy every chance she gets.  But why?  Maybe I missed something, but I can't see that Ivy leads Alfred on at all.  And anyway, if Daisy couldn't love William, who was a fine, upstanding person, how can she love a dope like Alfred?  (He's also related to Miss O'Brien, a black mark that, in my opinion, he'll never be able to overcome.)

4. Michael Gregson and his aftermath (3-5).  OK, Edith's only past writing experience appears to be penning a nasty letter about Mary, but it may not be too far-fetched to believe she could be an accomplished columnist.  And Michael does seem to love Edith.  But to complicate their romance by giving Gregson a mad wife ... hasn't that been done in literature before?  Give me a break!  And then there's Edith's pregnancy, which she cleverly hides from her mother by suddenly going to Switzerland for a six-month vacation. (At least that gives Cora time to return from whatever planet she's on.)  And Edith's obsession with little Marigold, however understandable, leads her (twice!) to wrench the child from the only family she knows, finally bringing her to Downton where she ... promptly leaves Marigold with nannies in order to take trips to London and Duneagle.  Sheesh.  (And by the way, when Robert says that Marigold reminds him of Michael Gregson, that's just not credible scriptwriting.  It would make much more sense for Robert to observe that Marigold looks like Edith did when she was a baby.) 

3.  Mary's suitors (4-5).  Tony Gillingham seems like a promising prospect for Mary.  Their attraction appears genuine, and their kiss when she refuses his proposal is lovely.  While I understand Mary's reluctance to marry him so soon after Matthew's death, I'm rooting for him.  But then Charles Blake comes along and complicates matters ... or does he?  His relationship with Mary is really much more brother-and-sisterly (seeing as it involves throwing pig manure at each other and all).  Does he ever even mention loving her?  To these guys, courtship appears to consist of showing up at every event Mary attends and glowering at each other.  (So ... the way to a woman's heart is to trail after her like a puppy?  Who knew?)  I feel sorry for Tony:  he goes from being almost too nice to being a pathetic hanger-on to being dumped for no apparent reason other than that Mary has changed her mind.  Her rejection of him, and Charles' scheme to help her jilt him and send him back to Mabel, seems phony and contrived.  Mary shows ten times more true emotion over Tom's leaving Downton than over any of her suitors. The truth is, no one can really replace Matthew* in her heart -- or ours -- regardless of what may happen in season 6. 
*Note that I'm not including Matthew's death in this list, for the sole reason that it was forced on the writers because of the actor's desire to leave the show -- it wasn't an event that they forced on the script.

2.  The Prince of Wales and the letter (4).   From the fake card party to the ransacking of Sampson's apartment to Bates exercising his forgery skills, this subplot is weak and farcical.  In fact, there are too many new characters in this final episode of season 4, yet nothing to really make us care about any of them:  the Prince of Wales, his mistress, Cora's brother, the old man who woos Cora's mother, the old man's daughter who -- inexplicably -- falls for Cora's brother... See, I can't even remember any of their names.  For a season finale, this one is pretty shabby.

1.  Anna being sexually assaulted by Green (4).  As a Twitter friend said recently, "I've never been a big fan of violence against women as a salacious plot point." At the point when this event takes place, Series 4 is barely under way and there are plenty of interesting plots that could be pursued.  To have a central character attacked so brutally -- and in a way so inconsistent with the whole tone of the show -- seems totally inappropriate.  I'm not suggesting such a thing could not happen to women of the servant class (or any class) in that period, but here it seems gratuitous.  It also leads to a flood of complication and lies that muddle character development rather than enhancing it. The Downton household's support for Bates at his previous trial was based on the staunch belief that he was not capable of murder:  yes, he hated Vera; yes, he threatened Vera; but he would never have killed Vera.  Yet why does Anna lie to Bates about her assault?  Because she thinks he is capable of murder.  So then what are we supposed to think about him, or about her, or about their relationship?  Currently, at the end of season 5, Anna herself is charged with the murder, which is ridiculous.  The Anna-Bates storyline has always been one of the best things about the show; it could have been deepened without making Anna a victim of senseless violence. Actually, I see this subplot as a perfect example of what's called "jumping the shark" -- an unexpected, gimmicky plot device that signals desperation and a show's declining quality.  While I still love Downton and will of course be watching when the final season airs next year, I  think the overall quality has declined:  note that almost all of the subplots in my "10 worst" list took place in seasons 4 and 5.

Well, I've had my say on this significant issue. Now it's your turn ...

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

May 2015 "Quick Lit"

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's monthly Quick Lit post, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.  I read two books this past month:

The Book of Negroes* by Lawrence Hill
This novel is the story of Aminata, a girl in West Africa in the 1700's, who is captured and put on a slave ship bound for South Carolina.  Her intelligence and usefulness to her captors (she can "catch" babies as her midwife mother did) help her survive the brutality of slavery and racism, although she suffers greatly, being separated from her children and her husband Chekura (who was one of her original captors).  After years in South Carolina, Manhattan, and Nova Scotia, she eventually revisits her African homeland and even travels to London to assist the abolitionist movement.  

The book's title is based on an actual document, "The Book of Negroes," in which the British Military recorded names of  black people who were loyal to Britain and whom the British planned to relocate to Nova Scotia.  (In the novel, Aminata is hired to record the names because of her skill in reading and writing.)  

This is an excellent novel:  Aminata's strength and character are compelling, and her story gives us a glimpse into the horrors of the slave trade and the resilience of individuals and communities.  It covers tough subject matter but not in an overly graphic way -- something I appreciated.  I'd highly recommend this novel.
*Note:  it was first published in Canada; the American title is Somebody Knows My Name.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This novel consists of narrator Kathy's recollections of her time in an English boarding school called Hailsham, and particularly of her relationships with two friends, Ruth and Tommy.  As Kathy processes her memories, it slowly becomes clear that Hailsham is no ordinary school; it has a far more sinister purpose.

Ishiguro's best known novel, The Remains of the Day, is one of my favourite books, and this one is actually quite similar in its approach.  In both books, the narrators work backward through old memories, trying to explain and understand events and their own responses to them.  But here the result is far less successful.  In The Remains of the Day, the butler, Mr. Stevens, was a well-defined character with a clear voice; his story played out with important world events as a backdrop; and just how self-deceived he was became clearer (and sadder) as the book progressed.  In Never Let Me Go, Kathy is too bland and faceless.  We have no reason to like her or hate her, trust her or distrust her.  What's really going on at Hailsham takes too long to be revealed, and when it is, there just isn't enough emotional impact.  I'd be interested in seeing the movie based on this novel, but I really didn't care for the book.  

Monday, May 11, 2015

The fearful and wonderful journey: a psalm for special needs parents

One of my interests as a blogger, and as a follower of other blogs, is the issue of special needs.  

I read the blog Not Alone: Finding Faith and Friendship on the Special Needs Journey daily.  

And some of the individual writers I follow write about -- among other things, of course -- their personal and parenting experiences with disability and special needs:  autism (Sarah Broady, Carrie Cariello, Sandra Peoples, Nish Weiseth, and my own friend from church, Melinda Benn); Down Syndrome (Amy Julia Becker and Ellen Stumbo); and less well-known disorders like osteogenesis imperfecta (Ellen Painter Dollar).  
As they write about their struggles and successes, I feel like part of a little community of people walking a different path from that of the majority.  It's encouraging and comforting to be part of that community.  We all need to know that someone else out there "gets it."

In the last couple of weeks I've also read posts from young parents who have told us about their newborn or not-yet-born babies with special needs.  As they move forward so uncertainly and bravely, my heart goes out to them, and I admire them for sharing their stories with the world.  It takes courage and grace to go public and allow other people, including strangers, into their lives -- knowing that amid all the comfort and encouragement they receive there'll also be cliches, easy advice, and pat answers.  (Contrary to popular opinion, God often does, in fact, give us more than we can handle.  Just saying.)

Now here's a little bit of our story.  A few years ago Jonathan's neurologist recommended that we have some genetic testing done; because of Jonathan's multiple issues -- autism spectrum, developmental disability, and seizure disorder -- she thought this might yield some insights.  

So Richard and I had blood work done on Jonathan and on ourselves, and we met with a geneticist, who asked many questions about our family and did all kinds of measurements (head size, distance between eyes, height of ears).  He commented thoughtfully, "Jonathan looks just like the two of you"; this seemed a little self-evident, but his point was that he didn't see any physical attributes that would immediately suggest a genetic problem.  We left the appointment thinking that while this testing was an interesting process, it probably wouldn't reveal anything abnormal.

But it did.  When we returned for our follow-up visit, the test results showed that Jonathan had extra (duplicated) material on his 16th chromosome.  "Even five years ago the technology wouldn't have caught this," the geneticist remarked.  What this abnormality actually meant, practically speaking, was not really clear, though.  He said this was probably an explanation for some or all of Jonathan's issues, but there was little literature about duplications on that particular region of that chromosome.  He gave us a photocopy of one case study that was slightly similar, but not really.  So the results didn't change anything.  They were just ... interesting.

A few days after we'd had this appointment I sat down to write my thoughts and feelings about the experience.  What did it mean for something to go wrong on one part of one chromosome during the early minutes? hours? days? of a child's formation?  And if I believe in God as Creator of all things, which I do, then what was He doing at that time?  Did He notice?  Was it a mistake?  The poem below, "duplication on chromosome 16," was the result of my meditations that day.  

I want to emphasize that this poem isn't meant to be an explanation or argument or answer for anything, nor is it meant to express anyone's ideas but my own.  The way I'd describe it is that it's not science, and it's not a sermon -- it's a psalm.  I'm publishing it today for the special-needs parents and writers out there -- the ones mentioned above, and all the others.  God sees, God hears, God knows; and He can handle all our questions and feelings.  May He continue to give us the grace to trust Him on this fearful and wonderful journey.

duplication on chromosome 16

As secret
            as silence
as quiet
            as midnight
at the eternal core of creation
Your fingers knit invisible fibers
something from nothing
life from the void
and You say it is good.

Your voice sings filaments of vitality
into sequence
and You say it is good.

In the depths of design
unseen, unheard
dark material
                on hidden strands
                like a knot in the thread
                like a dissonant note
                                in the harmonious fabric
to every

Too late to reverse the process.
Too late to start again.

You, the Timeless
submit to time
                letting Your work continue
                letting the loom weave
                letting the song play to its end.

And You say this, too, is good:
                not a mistake
                not a flicker of inattention
                not a tragedy
but another way
                to be
                to be Your image
                to replicate
                                Your wonder
                                Your weakness
                                Your ineffable joy.

Author of Being
Locus of Life
You say it is good.


poem by Jeannie Prinsen 2010
photo by Richard Prinsen August 2014

Thursday, May 07, 2015

A song for my mom, for Mother's Day

My mom loved music and always enjoyed hearing me sing.  Actually, to be more accurate, she enjoyed hearing me and my brother Lincoln sing together.  If one of us did a solo it was like "That's nice, but can't you do something in harmony?"  

But when I first sang this song, "John of Dreams" for her, she loved it and said, "That song is just perfect for your voice."

So with Mother's Day approaching I thought I'd make this recording in her honour.  I've never done a video recording of myself singing before, but now I can say (for what it's worth) that I'm on YouTube.

I hope you enjoy it -- you especially, Mom.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

51 is fine

Happy birthday to Richard -- a great husband and dad who's 51 today.  
Love from me and the kids!  xoxo