Gay rights and cricket come to the Abbey
The two-hour “Downton Abbey” that just aired on PBS was broadcast in Great Britain as two separate episodes, the second of which was the season three finale. After that bucolic cricket match, audiences across the Atlantic had to wait two long months before seeing the Christmas special, which will air next week on PBS. I raise this matter of scheduling not to revel in the fact that we Americans don’t have to wait patiently for our next “Downton” fix, but to point out that “Downton Abbey” is now the kind of show that introduces its audience to a bratty, bright young thing engaged in foolish and clichéd nonsense in the season finale, rather than giving some more screen time to one of the dozens of underserved characters we already know and care about.
I’m as interested in gin parties as the next person — and why, if Julian Fellowes is so keen to show us roaring London, has he refused to let one of the Crawley girls have some fun? — but not when the person going to them is some random character dropped in from a crappy screenplay treatment of one of Evelyn Waugh’s lesser comedic novels. It’s the season finale! Lady Mary has not had a decent storyline since the very first episode of the season. She couldn’t have been making like a Mitford on the London social scene these past few months? Last week Daisy got offered a whole other career. What did she do about it? Who knows! Let’s check in on this Rose character instead!
A more generous soul would not lead with this head-scratching choice, since there was much better stuff in this mega-episode, including Tom’s brother’s resemblance to Zach Galifianakis, the resemblance of Edith’s editor’s backstory to “Jane Eyre’s” Rochester, and Thomas’s storyline. (The complete destruction of Tom’s principles and Ethel and Isobel’s realization the Granthams’ reputations matter most were maybe not “better” storylines, but they were interesting.) The Thomas plotline is the quintessential story of this season of “Downton”: It kind of doesn’t make sense and is extremely manipulative, but it made me feel something anyway.
To begin, O’Brien’s machinations to convince Thomas that Jimmy is actually interested in him is exactly the sort of “plan” that only works on TV shows where an “evil genius” is actually just lucky enough to have every little thing she or he does, which could go dozens of different ways, turn out perfectly. Thomas may be smitten, but he is also a clever guy who — as his willingness to own up to his sexuality suggests — has thought a lot, and done a lot, about his preferences. Way back in season one, he misread the signs and put the moves on someone he should not have, but at least that guy was awake. I don’t care how much groundwork O’Brien laid, I just don’t buy Thomas going into James’s bedroom in the middle of the night to lay one on him.
Once it had happened, things got interesting. Despite the fact that every single conversation that Thomas had about his sexuality was totally anachronistic — just like the conversation from the first episode of this season that contained the line “Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wilds whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed,” the terms of these conversation, that Thomas was born this way and could not be expected to change, were exceedingly modern — it reshuffled “Downton’s” standard alliances, making allies of characters with different motivations.
Jimmy and Alfred finally found themselves united on something, but Alfred’s resolve and honorability suddenly make him so much more of a jerk than the more pompous but flexible Jimmy. Mettle is a good quality, until it is indistinguishable from rigidity. Ms. Hughes, Bates, Carson and Lord Grantham eventually formed a Thomas-defense brigade, but with a vast array of incentives: Only Ms. Hughes and Bates were motivated by kindness, and even this was colored. Ms. Hughes was still laboring under the impression that the self-injuring Thomas was a war hero, and Bates was just trying to work out his own prison PTSD. In the sort of detail that makes me still love “Downton,” Lord “Let’s Give All the Money to Ponzi!” Grantham basically doesn’t care that Thomas is gay because (1) he’s good at cricket and (2) men kissing men is downright Etonian. So long as homosexuality is a tradition, Lord Grantham will protect the servant who practices it from the cops.
Meanwhile, Thomas, poor Thomas, is crying in the dark and feeling really pitiful for himself: Is this the beginning of his makeover as a not-totally bad guy? Or did that really start when he told Jimmy, all easy charm, “Well, I love you.” “I am not foul, Mr. Carson. I am not like you, but I am not foul” is a great line, and even when he gives Bates the words he needs to turn O’Brien, Thomas doesn’t tell Bates everything about his former friend’s misdeed, just “Her Ladyship’s soap.” O’Brien is now the only fully loathsome person walking around “Downton Abbey,” and though she did Thomas way, way wrong, there is some part of me that is hoping the two will reconcile. It’s been a pretty up and down season for true love on “Downton” this year: Matthew got Mary and Anna got Bates, but Edith got jilted and Sybil died. It would be nice to think that one day Thomas and O’Brien could scheme over cigarettes again.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer. More Willa Paskin.
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Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
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See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
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A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
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Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
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Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
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The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
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Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
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Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
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And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
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