As luck (and the BBC and Masterpiece programmers) would have it, series two of Downton Abbey took its bows in the US the very same night series two of Upstairs Downstairs premiered in the UK. Now, I made my thoughts on the first series of Upstairs Downstairs quite clear when it aired over here last spring, and after recent rumors of a desperate-sounding lesbian storyline, I wasn’t expecting much. I tracked down episode one, fully expecting to let my snark flag fly. There was just one problem:
It didn’t suck. Not at all. I was actually more satisfied with this episode than I was with most episodes of my beloved Downton. Is there hope? Could Upstairs Downstairs actually bust the sophomore slump and turn out to be good, even without Eileen Atkins? We’ll just have to see.
We open with Agnes lying in a hospital bed, listening to a radio announcement of one of Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler. In a nearby wicker bassinette, a baby gurgles.
The chyron tells us it’s now September 1938, as Hallam’s car pulls up to a cluster of men waiting on a tarmac. Hallam and Spargo observe that Chamberlain’s plane hasn’t arrived yet. The Duke of Kent hops out of a nearby car and joins Hallam in his, moaning a bit about the weather and moving along to politics. Hallam’s not at all on the side of appeasement and thinks that’ll just get them all into another huge war. Kent knows the people of Britain don’t want a war, particularly over a spit of land none of them have ever heard of.
Back at the hospital, Agnes gets out of bed, moving painfully and slowly. She gathers the baby, calls for a nurse, and tells the woman she needs a taxi, because she’s heading home.
At Eton Place, Pritchard’s out on the street, practicing for a possible air raid, because apparently he’s the local warden. Johnny comes dashing out to drag him inside, having evidently just received word of Agnes’s imminent arrival. In the kitchen, the cook wails about Agnes bringing the kid home in a taxi and helpfully exposits that this is not the same baby we saw born at the end of series one—this is kid number two, who was born three weeks previously via C-section. Pritchard’s running around with a hot water bottle, prepping everyone for Agnes’s arrival and expositing himself that the new nurserymaid should be arriving that day. He also introduces the new kitchen maid (I think), named Eunice. No Ivy this season—yay!
A pretty young woman gets off a bus and heads for the house as Amanjit enters Maude’s office, unwraps a box, and pulls out an urn, reverently placing it on the mantle. Wait, Maude’s dead? Nooooo! Man, I’ll miss her. She was kind of obnoxious, but funny. From behind him, a woman speaks up, asking if he and Maude were ever lovers. The woman’s Maude’s half-sister, Blanche, and Amanjit’s seriously offended by her question, as well he would be. Like it’s any of her business whether he and Maude were involved or not. He pointedly offers to make arrangements for her to hit the road, but she settles right in and tells him she’s quite comfy right there, thanks. She’s already entering the Vera Bates Stakes for Worst New Character.
Dark-haired-girl arrives at 165 just as Agnes gets out of the taxi and slowly, painfully makes her way up the front stairs, still carrying the baby. Inside, Agnes introduces her son, Hector, to his new baby sister, Veronica. Blanche appears and tells Agnes she looks awful and shouldn’t be home so early. She kind of insults the baby too, in a backhanded compliment sort of way, then takes Agnes off to rest and reassures her she’s drawn up a wonderful plant-based diet for her to enjoy while she’s recuperating. Yummy!
Downstairs, the cook looks over Blanche’s menu and dismisses it as stupid, because Blanche is an archaeologist, not an MD, and what Agnes needs is iron and plenty of it. Liver all around!
Pritchard’s got dark-haired-girl—the new nursmaid, Beryl, in his office, where she’s receiving her new uniforms. She says Rose told her she could wear her own stockings and Pritchard informs her that Rose is in the hospital and he’s running things until she gets back. I’m quite sorry Jean Marsh has been ill, I really am, but I can’t say I particularly miss the character on the show. Beryl apologizes for being late and swears she came right from the coroner’s office. Okaaaay. Pritchard lets that one drop, approves her shoes, and tells her to dump the lipstick before she reports to the nanny.
Hallam arrives home and calls all the servants upstairs so he can scare the crap out of them. He tells them Germany’s not compromising at all and, no matter what the radio says, they’re not to be reassured. Thanks, Hallam! He tells Johnny and Spargo to volunteer for air raid warden duty and to start prepping for war. Everyone leaves; the cook moving slowly and looking rather devastated.
As he’s getting ready for bed, Hallam wonders aloud when his aunt plans to leave. Agnes, who’s clearly eased up when it comes to unexpected houseguests who outstay their welcome, tells him he should be nice and just let Blanche stay. I’m betting Blanche has nowhere else to go. She asks what the news is and he tells her he doesn’t want her worrying, he just wants her to get better. Apparently the birth was pretty bad and both she and the baby nearly died. Geez, Agnes can’t catch a break when it comes to birthin’ babies, can she? One born in a bathroom before the doctor could get there, one born prematurely in what sounds like a pretty awful c-section, not to mention that miscarriage she had.
Agnes reminds him that preparations for war are all around, and she can’t very well ignore them and not worry at all, so Hallam tells her that Lord Halifax and Chamberlain agree that they’ll do whatever it takes to appease Hitler and avoid war. He hopes to persuade them that won’t work and Agnes promises to support him no matter what.
Upstairs, Beryl and Eunice are sharing the room that Ivy and Rachel used to share. Hey, speaking of Rachel—where’s Lotte? I guess she’s away at school, but it seems odd that nobody’s mentioned her. Also: Beryl would totally be sleeping in the nursery with the children. That’s what nursemaids did. I learned that from Berkely Square.
Eunice is freaking out that they’re all going to die, thinking they’ll all be gassed, and Beryl snaps at her to stop talking about gas.
The next morning, Blanche lets herself into Agnes’s room and tells her that Pamela’s arrived. Turns out the home she was staying in was requisitioned for war use (seems a bit early for that, but ok. I also thought Pamela had been brought to live at Eton Place at the end of last season, but maybe they sent her away again after Maude died). Pamela comes in, smiling, and Agnes greets her rather sweetly while Blanche worries about the fact that Pamela hasn’t yet properly grieved her mother’s death.
Outside, Pritchard’s driving down the street in a truck, calling through a loudspeaker for everyone to report to their designated centers to receive their gas masks.
Cook (sorry, it’s shorter than Thackeray) and Beryl make their way down the street to get their masks, and when they get to the center, they tell Pritchard that they’re collecting for the whole household. He hates how unorthodox this is but lets them do so. Inside, there’s a newsreel playing, reassuring everyone that the filters are lined with asbestos which will protect them from mustard gas. Guess you get to trade one awful, immediate death for a much slower one, then. Yikes!
At his office, Hallam delivers a message to Halifax, inviting Chamberlain to another summit with Hitler. Halifax agrees to the meet, and Hallam finally screws up the courage to ask to go along with Chamberlain to make sure Hitler and the Nazis don’t screw them on any agreements. Halifax knows Hallam’s aligned himself with those who hate Hitler the most and he’s not at all happy about it. He refuses to allow Hallam to go to Germany.
At home, Blanche and Pamela are playing a game while wearing their gas masks. Pamela is finally permitted to take hers off and asks to play with Solomon the monkey. She’s permitted to do so, and Agnes, who’s cuddling the baby, tells Pritchard Pamela’s been a good girl and has earned a nice cool glass of soda water. While he goes to get it, Blanche joins Agnes and tells her that Pamela’s clearly in deep mourning and transferring her feelings for her mother to the monkey. If you say so, Blanche. I personally think Pamela just thinks playing with a monkey is more fun than playing with dice while wearing an asbestos-lined gas mask, and who wouldn’t agree with her? Agnes is rather chill about all of it—I think motherhood’s mellowed her—but she’s worried that, while Hector has an itty-bitty gas mask of his own, there aren’t any for newborns. Pritchard tells her that newborns can be rolled up in a blanket. Blanche points out how stupid that is, and furthermore instructs Pritchard to keep Solomon downstairs, because he bothers her. Apparently she doesn’t give a crap that Pamela likes him and he comforts her. Blanche is a peach.
The next day, Agnes receives a giant bouquet of flowers, courtesy of Persie, who also sent her the bill. I see she’s still a charmer. Agnes plays with the flowers a bit and then asks Hallam if he can try and track down Persie and bring her home, because if war breaks out, it won’t be so great to be an Englishwoman in Berlin. Hallam doubts he could get Persie home no matter what he tries to do.
Later, Pritchard proudly wheels a gas-proof pram into the front hall and presents it to Agnes. The thing looks like a wheeled coffin with a chimney sticking out of it. Agnes thinks it’ll be ok, as long as it’s thoroughly scrubbed down, and then she passes right the heck out. Johnny manages to catch her before she hits the ground.
Agnes is put to bed and apologizes to Johnny for being so foolish. He tells her it’s understandable, and then tells her that he was a preemie too, and was so small he had to sleep in a hatbox for a bit. Agnes opens up and tells him that Veronica has lung troubles and stopped breathing three times her first week. Holy crap, Agnes, and you still took her home before the doctors gave you the go-ahead? What were you thinking?
So, naturally, Agnes is worried about gas attacks. Maybe this is a good time to consider taking your two small children out of London, Agnes. You guys have plenty of money; surely you could find somewhere in the country to stay. Even if there aren’t gas attacks, there’ll be air raids and bombings. You really want to be around for all that?
Outside, Beryl’s scrubbing down the death pram while Johnny plays with Solomon. Beryl leaves the thing to dry and Johnny looks at the monkey and seems to get an idea. A horrible, horrible idea. He puts Solomon in the pram, wheels it into the garage, starts the car up, and heads outside to test the pram out. Jesus, Johnny! And I thought Thomas’s theft of Isis was bad! And really, show, kicking off a new season with some animal cruelty? Not smart.
Spargo comes strolling up, notices smoke coming out of the garage, shoves Johnny out of the way, and rushes to turn the car off, yelling at Johnny the whole time. He starts to air out the garage, and when Johnny explains what he was doing, Spargo asks him, rather wonderfully, if his brains are just painted on. He gives him a smack in the head for good measure.
Solomon’s brought into the kitchen, where Pritchard desperately tries to bring the monkey back to life, but it’s no good. Solomon is no more. Let’s have a moment of silence for our favorite cheeky cherry caresser.
Everyone’s freaked out that the family pet’s dead, and Johnny figures he’s out of a job for good this time. Spargo suggests they put Solomon in the back yard and make it look like he was attacked by something, but Beryl points out that his lips are bright pink, which is a sign of gassing. Spargo asks how she knows that and she refuses to answer. Pritchard swears them all to secrecy and stashes the monkey for the time being in the laundry.
Upstairs, Kent’s cuddling the baby and cutely agreeing to be her godfather, because he’s convinced she’ll be quite the little lady someday. It’s rather sad he won’t be around to see it. Hallam thanks him and takes the baby so he can return her and her older brother to nanny. When they’re alone, Agnes admits that Hallam’s feeling rather stifled at work because of his views on Hitler. Kent says he’s a bit worried about Hallam’s career too.
Johnny and Spargo are on trench-digging duty. Spargo says he hates the smell of mud, because it reminds him of his father returning from the front with French chocolates for his mother (hopefully not a raging case of VD to go along with it) and sixpence and fleas for Spargo. Johnny says his dad spent the last war in the mines. He worries again about losing his job and Spargo reassures him there’ll be full employment for young men like them soon enough.
At the house, Pritchard’s doing laundry or something when he hears Thackary return with Amanjit, early from their respective errands. Pritchard asks how Rose is doing and Thackary says she’s not doing well and she’s sure the shadow on Rose’s lung isn’t TB at all. Oh dear. She’s being moved to a sanitarium near Esher. As she moves around the kitchen, Pritchard desperately tries to keep her away from the monkey’s mostly-covered corpse.
That night, Pamela quietly steals downstairs to the kitchens, looking around.
The household’s soon roused by someone hammering on the door. Pritchard opens it and admits a sergeant, who tells Hallam that someone telephoned the station and claimed there’d been a murder at the house. Pamela, who’s stationed near the kitchen door, pipes up that it was her. She takes everyone downstairs to the kitchen, where the sergeant looks at the monkey, notices the pink lips, and says it’s clearly been gassed. He says this constitutes an offense against the Protection of Animals Act 1911 (which was replaced by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, for those who are interested). Amanjit is pissed and insists on justice for Solomon. Pritchard falls on the sword for Johnny and claims he was the one experimenting with the gas-proof pram. Pamela bursts into tears and Hallam wraps an arm around her. The sergeant says he’s willing to overlook this matter, considering all the bigger fish they have to fry at the moment, but Pamela’s upset, so they need to at least pay lip service to what happened. Pritchard dresses and accompanies the sergeant to the station, no doubt on the understanding that he’ll be released very quickly. Rather inappropriately jaunty music plays as he smiles at Johnny before he goes. Folks, a monkey just got gassed to death. This is not the time for the whimsy
Pritchard cools his heels in a cell for a bit before the sergeant returns to tell him they’re not going to make a big deal about the monkey situation. However, he is going to make a big deal out of the fact that this is not the first time Pritchard’s seen the inside of a cell. Seems Pritchard was a conscientious objector during the last war, info he’s never offered up because he was never actually convicted in court (just by a tribunal) and never did anything that constituted a criminal offense. Sergeant, however, has a major problem with people like Pritchard, because he served and lost all the toes on his left foot to gangrene. 1) ew. 2) Either he’s lying or someone didn’t do the research here, because it’s highly doubtful anyone could walk normally without any toes on one foot. It seriously affects your balance—even losing one toe will do that, especially if it’s the big toe. This guy would either have a limp or would need a cane, even after 20-some years. At the very least, he’d have a strange gait, but he walks just like everyone else.
Anyway, Pritchard admirably holds his own and says he acted in accordance with his principles. Sergeant yells a lot, then leaves Pritchard in the cell to think about what he’s done. Or not done, rather.
Hallam and his coworkers listen to the radio at the office. The announcer says they think war can still be averted, but Hitler still hasn’t altered his demands. Hallam gives Halifax a significant look before leaving the room.
In his own office, Hallam gets on the phone to somewhere in Germany and tries to track down Persie. The person on the other end of the line tells him she’s moved on from her last known address.
That afternoon, Hallam walks home through the park, passing a pack of soldiers marching together. Dirigibles float ominously over the lush scenery. He arrives home and asks Johnny why they don’t have sandbags out front yet. Johnny promises they’re going to be delivered soon. Hallam hears yelling coming from Maude’s room and he hurries in that direction to discover Amanjit livid over the fact that Blanche—aided by Pamela—is sifting through Maude’s things without so much as a by-your-leave and with absolutely no respect for Maude’s privacy. Hallam tells her to leave off, but Blanche says she’s just clearing out the desk because she’s commandeering it. She needs it to help curate the transfer of artifacts from the British Museum. She gets all excited at the idea of the Elgin Marbles being stored in a tube station, but Hallam’s had about enough. We know how he gets at home when he’s thwarted at work, and now he totally loses his temper, shouts at Blanche to defer to Amanjit and rent herself some rooms already. “I like it here,” Blanche says cluelessly. Geez, lady, the owner of the house you’re squatting in just told you to get lost, in no uncertain terms. GET LOST! Hallam tells her not to even think of touching anything on the mantelpiece, then swirls out, calling for Amanjit.
Amanjit tells him his position’s kind of awkward in the house now, since he doesn’t know who he answers to. Hallam tells him he certainly doesn’t answer to Blanche. He invites Amanjit to sit down, then unlocks a cabinet, pulls out a pistol, and tells Amanjit it was from his time in the navy. He hands it over, telling him he trusts him with it, if things get really bad. Amanjit takes it and reveals he served in the last war as well. He was wounded and everything. He promises to do whatever’s necessary. Hallam says he’d like Amanjit to go to collect Pritchard, and that they need to get over the death of Solomon.
Belowstairs, Spargo’s scrubbing at his blisters when Beryl comes down with the nappy pail. They have a rather cute moment.
Pritchard’s finally released, and before he goes, the sergeant says it’s too bad he didn’t gas a chicken, because then he could have set the scene with a few white feathers. Dick! Clearly mortified, Pritchard hurries out of the police station and into the car.
Back at the house, Amanjit’s letting Pritchard have it, yelling that the Great War was a just war, because every attempt to avoid it was tried (not true), so everyone in every country had a duty to bear arms. Thackary joins in, thrashing Pritchard for “marching up and down like a clockwork Mussolini,” which is so, so uncalled for. She lost a husband to the war, so I get that she’s suffered, but not a single person has bothered to even ask Pritchard why he refused to fight. And let’s not forget, he was in the ambulance service, so it’s not like he was sitting on his ass eating bonbons from 1914 to 1918.
Hallam arrives at work and hears that Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler in Munich. Halifax says this is their last chance to avoid war, and he realizes they need their best men on the job. He’s sending Hallam to Germany after all.
At home, Hallam has a moment with his mom’s urn before Agnes comes in and urges him to come upstairs and kiss their kids goodnight. Before he can, though, the phone rings and he’s summoned to Kent’s place, where he’s served a martini and some Billie Holliday, and if the circumstances were any different, I’d say this is a pretty awesome evening with a good friend. But Kent has an ulterior motive: his brother, King George, has written a personal letter to Hitler, urging the Fuhrer to avert the war, as one World War I vet to another. Kent wants Hallam to deliver the letter to Hitler, but after considering for a moment, Hallam refuses, saying it would be too much of an ego boost to Hitler. Historically, this did happen, and the letter was never delivered. Kent tries a little emotional and career blackmail, but Hallam stands firm. Good man, Hallam. I really like this character. He’s firm, good at his job, but sweet with his family. And he doesn’t mess around.
He arrives home and is informed by Pritchard that he’s all packed and ready to go the following morning. Hallam thanks him and says he’s sorry about the business with the police, because it’s really nobody’s business why he refused to fight during the last war. Hallam’s fair, another reason I like him.
Hallam passes a sleepless, restless night, and the following morning he faces a barrage of photographers at the airport. He and the other dignitaries take off for Munich.
At the house, things are mighty quiet in the servants’ hall at dinner. Pritchard politely asks Amanjit if he’ll pass the salt, and Amanjit rises, walks to Pritchard’s end of the table, and childishly slams the salt shaker down in front of him. Johnny comments that that was pretty uncalled for, but Thackeray says she’d have thrown the pepper at him too. Oh, geez, you two. Pritchard picks up his plate and goes to eat alone in his office as Beryl comes in and tells them all to just knock it the hell off already. Amanjit yells at her for dismissing the war to end all wars, but girl’s got some sass and points out that it clearly wasn’t a war to end all wars, now was it? So stop being so damn smug about it. Perhaps not the most diplomatic or kind response to a man who did, after all, serve in a devastating conflict, but that was kind of a stupid thing for Amanjit to say. Johnny hesitates for a moment, then takes his plate and joins Pritchard, who tries to tell him not to take sides, because it’ll just make things worse, but Johnny feels responsible for all this and he stays.
Before they can take another bite, however, they’re interrupted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire coming from the back garden. Amanjit’s shooting off Hallam’s pistol, and he’s got great aim. But this seems really out of character for someone who’s always been painted as pretty fair and level-headed. Pritchard emerges and reminds him that he’s shooting a frigging gun in the backyard of a house with lots of other houses nearby. Seriously, what if he misses? There are other ways to blow off steam that don’t include the use of deadly force. Amanjit ignores him, but then Agnes and Blanche come out and Agnes demands he hand over the gun. Amanjit shouts that Hallam gave him the gun and Blanche steps up and backs Agnes, telling him that Hallam’s not there and Amanjit’s provoking a disturbance. Amanjit immediately hands it over and Blanche unloads it before informing the servants that the spectacle has concluded, and they all need to have some tea. I think I’ll take her up on that.
Pritchard is now revealing his whole story to Agnes and Blanche in the sitting room. It turns out he was raised Quaker, and Quakers don’t go in for war, so instead of fighting he joined the ambulance service, so he could still contribute. Other Friends, however, publicly declared themselves conscientious objectors and they were sent to prison, where the conditions were so vile Pritchard felt obliged to declare himself as well, in an effort to draw attention to their plight. But then he ended up jailed along with them. He admits he’s sometimes driven by his passions—something he and Johnny have in common. See, this is how you believably have a character fall on their sword for someone. Downton Abbey could learn a little something here, because Bates’s similar actions just completely stopped making sense after a while. Agnes—proving she’s just as fair as her husband—accepts his explanation.
In Munich, the dignitaries pass the latest treaty back and forth underneath an enormous red swastika banner. Chamberlain seems to cross out one stipulation that Hitler withdraw troops from Sudetenland by October 10 before signing. Hallam asks him for a word in private, and once they’re alone, he begs him to put the stipulation back in, because crossing it out gives Germany the upper hand. Chamberlain says Hitler won’t agree to anything else.
Back in London, Agnes sits everyone down and tells them that, however different they may be socially, they’re one household, and they need to act like it. They’re all on the same side, and they need to remember that.
That evening, Beryl gives Spargo a manicure (I kid you not) and he’s amazed that she’s been able to get his hands and nails clean again. She tells him that she used to do nails at a hairdresser’s, and she’s currently saving up to apprentice herself to some fancy hairstylist in the city. Spargo asks if there’s any point in that if there’s going to be a war and she says that people seem to like lovely things even more in wartime. She recalls her mother cutting pictures of jewelry out of magazines back before she died. He asks if she knew she was dying, and it turns out she kind of did—she killed herself, using the gas from the oven. That’s how Beryl knew about the pink lips. Spargo is, as you can imagine, sympathetic.
Hallam, clearly in need of a good, stiff drink, arrives at a bar and takes a seat, asking for whiskey and soda. As he sits there, he hears a woman laugh and looks up at the bar to see none other than Persie, dressed in red, sipping a martini, smoking a cigarette, and surrounded by men. She notices him and soon they’re sitting together. She hasn’t changed much, though her German’s definitely improved. She says she heard Hallam was there via Von Ribbentropp, whom she’s apparently still buddies with. Hallam tells her Agnes wants her to come back to London, but Persie blithely thinks she’s perfectly safe. He tells her seriously that, if Britain signs the treaty he’s just seen, it’ll take about a year for war to break out, but if she leaves soon, he can arrange for her to get on a diplomatic flight. Persie shakes her head and tells him she’s got a whole life in Germany she doesn’t care to leave.
Later, Hallam walks her home and she tells him about some rich colonel she’s been dating. At the gate to the apartment building where she’s living, they pause and listen to a record someone’s playing. Persie sings along for a bit (I think it’s The Very Thought of You), and she and Hallam have a seriously loaded moment. He tells her she could leave with him the next day. She kisses him full on the lips—and not like a sister, believe me—says no, though she might come and wave him off, and then goes inside.
165’s all sandbagged now. Pritchard comes in from his warden duties, and there’s a long pause as he and Amanjit and Thackeray face off, but then Amanjit greets him politely and the ice seems to be broken. Well done, Agnes!
Hallam flies home, and Persie does, indeed, come to wave him off. The servants and the family gather in the sitting room to listen to Chamberlain on the radio. He’s giving an address from the tarmac in England, reassuring everyone that the Munich Agreement will totally help them avoid another devastating war. After all, crazy agreements didn’t at all contribute to the last war, now, did they? Hallam, standing behind him, looks a little sick. But everyone listening to the address seems reassured. Agnes hands the baby off to the nanny and rather optimistically pulls down the blackout curtains in the drawing room.
Next week: Kennedys!