Doors and doorways

On Kate Kennedy’s Portwenn Online site there is a thorough description of how the doors to the entrance to the surgery and to the kitchen have changed throughout the series. But I’d like to look at how these doors and doorways have been used in DM. I want to include the interior doors of the surgery in this discussion as well because they play a key role. After that I will look at the other doors and doorways that have been used in significant ways.

In literature, and in anthropology, there is a concept of liminality. The word is derived from the Latin “limen” which means threshold. It can be applied to all sorts of situations, e.g. actual crossing of thresholds between outside and inside, or rites of passage, or change in status, including marital status. I’m going to use it to signify actual thresholds and what happens when a character stands at the entrance to a room, building, balcony, etc. and either crosses the threshold or is stalled at or prevented from crossing it. In some cases in DM the thresholds of doors function as barriers, in other cases they are merely a site of egress or ingress. When it comes to the two main characters, I believe that physical thresholds are often used when Martin and Louisa are going through transitions in their relationship. They are in a position of liminality both in location and in their lives.

The surgery is the heart of the action throughout the series because it doubles as Martin’s workplace and home. From the moment Martin opens the front door to enter the little house that becomes his primary location in the town, we know that it will be a source of disruption as well as the place he commands. The fact that it is situated at a high point overlooking the town gives Martin a physically superior position to accompany his position of status as doctor. The location allows him to separate himself from the town and its people and to literally look down on them. On the other hand, as a doctor he is constantly involved with the townspeople and cannot distance himself from them. Moreover, many of the people use the road in front of the building and the bevy of teen girls passes by there frequently.

Anyone coming to his front door must cross a slate platform and this area is often the setting for conversations between M and others. It’s where the dogs linger and where patients line up on M’s supposed last day in S4E8. Pauline and Al sometimes sit there to talk and Aunt Joan meets Edward, her young lover, when she sees him on a ladder out there. The doctor’s friend, Gavin, first approaches him on this site, and it’s where he finds his mother, suitcase alongside, when she returns in S6E6. It’s also where Louisa talks to M on several occasions, including when he first makes a date with her to go to the pub and when he tells her she may have Erotomania. The previous night he had opened up to her and expressed his love for her, but when she comes back the next day ready to return his love, he backs away from her. He can be both willing to talk to her there and quick to become angry with her there. At one point, L stands on this site and asks Martin why their conversations always end up so combative. Thus, much happens before entering the front door, and we could say the platform that occupies the outer space before the door functions as a kind of threshold area.

For the patients, the front door is rarely an obstacle, although they better not let a dog in. On the other hand, there are several times when Martin stops visitors at the front door. Gavin discovers M has no interest in talking to him when M slams the front door in his face. He also slams the front door in the face of the water treatment plant’s executive in S1E3. He doesn’t quite shut out Mark Mylow when he comes to the front door to ask M to be his best man, but he might just as well have. And Joe Penhale gets very little respect when he meets M at the front door to tell him to name the baby before time runs out. Edith shows up at the front door after M has corrected her diagnosis of the patient with diverticulitis and M allows her in after accepting her non-apology. Louisa enters through the front door in the early series when she needs to see M for medical care or confront M about his treatment of other villagers. But later Louisa uses the front door to bring some clothes and the baby to live with M at the surgery, a clear indication that their relationship has advanced to a new stage. Not long after, Louisa struggles to push the baby carriage over the threshold while leaving the house, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that her difficulties getting over that threshold are symbolic of the stresses in her life with Martin in addition to having her mother show up. Series 6 has the awkward scene at the front door when Dennis and Karen come to dinner. Then in S6E6 Martin’s mother arrives and Louisa appears in the doorway. Margaret is stunned to see another woman cross the threshold and hold Martin’s hand to comfort him. Louisa surprises her again when she explains that she’s Martin’s wife and they are married with a son. It’s a big step for Martin to allow his mother to enter and he is distinctly not thrilled about it. Ultimately, of course, it’s the scene at the front door in the final episode of series 6 that makes the most impact. First Louisa talks to the taxi driver inside the front door, next Martin and Louisa interact inside and counterintuitively decide to move outside to have more privacy. Once they cross the threshold and go outside, the upheaval in their relationship becomes a reality. Martin says goodbye to James just as Louisa steps outside behind him. This is a bona fide liminal moment as it uses the threshold for both an indication of actual as well as emotional departure. It is then that Martin seems defeated and reverts to being more of a doctor than a husband. He gives Louisa some medical advice followed by an awkward kiss on the cheek, helps her into the taxi, and stands in the street watching them drive off. The family home has transitioned back to medical office, and the marriage has undergone a major blow.

Crossing the threshold of the kitchen door plays an important role in DM as well. The kitchen door is always unlocked and Aunt Joan tends to enter the surgery through the kitchen door most of the time, often carrying something for Martin to eat. Bert, too, shows up at the kitchen door on occasion. But it’s really Louisa who uses this door the most, and it becomes the site for the many evolutions of Martin and Louisa as a couple. One of the earliest times Louisa appears at the kitchen door is in S2E2 when she’s checking on Peter Cronk. This is the second time that she and Martin have had to step in to help the Cronk family and once again there is tension between the two of them. She enters the kitchen only to find Peter watching an inappropriate DVD. The next scene finds L sitting at the kitchen table talking to M. During this occasion L once again tries to establish some rapport with M and notes that M is different but she likes the way he is. He appears to be pleased until he begins to suspect that she’s only being nice to influence his vote on her candidacy to be headmistress. That reaction leads to L leaving in a huff, something we become accustomed to seeing. Another time Louisa comes to the kitchen door is S3E1 after she and M have had some disagreement over the care of a hyperactive girl. Louisa and Allison, the girl’s mother, stand in the doorway while L prompts Allison to say “thank you” to M and then prompts M to say “your welcome” in response. Here L uses this gateway to mediate a tense situation between Allison and Martin, which soon deteriorates and leads to L needing to usher Allison back out through the door. She, however, reenters to ask M if she can stay as his patient and talks to him about her worries concerning what she’s doing with her life. The scene and episode conclude with M and L hoping that “something new” will soon enter their lives. It is a very poignant moment.

But the most significant scene that involves L at the kitchen door is when she appears there pregnant at the end of S4E1. This time she never crosses the threshold-in fact, she takes a step back when M opens the door. Her return to Portwenn and her pregnancy are total surprises to M and turn his life upside down. The scene portends the trajectory for the series which is filled with a mixture of anger, resentment and frustration between these two until the last scene of the final episode. Then in S5, after M and L have moved into the surgery together, the kitchen door is the setting for several heated conversations, including one when Ruth enters through it only to find M and L arguing over L’s weight gain. Despite L’s decision to move out in E6, she can’t help coming back to seek M’s help with the baby and she turns up at the kitchen door pushing the baby carriage more than once. However, there’s always an undercurrent of her really wanting to be with M again. (He, too, regrets the separation.) In S6, they are married and we move on in the relationship. Now Louisa uses the kitchen door freely.

The interior door that is often a site of liminality is the door to the exam room. The door to the exam room is a boundary that separates the reception area and the rest of the house from M’s private space. Naturally, he examines patients there and what goes on behind the closed door is meant to be private and confidential. However, that condition is not always honored by his receptionists or the patients themselves. There are many occasions when the receptionists barge in without knocking or stay too long, and there are several occasions when the patients themselves walk through the door into the reception area partially clothed. These are transgressions of the boundaries and can be a humorous way to blur the line between private and public. Edith has no respect for the boundary of the exam room door and forces her way in without regard for the patients or Martin’s position. In addition, M frequently escapes to this room to talk on the phone in private, to work on his clocks, or to simply have some alone time. M shuts the door behind those patients or patients’ family members when he is in no mood to trifle with people who are disruptive or inconsequential to him. Thus, Gavin once again suffers the indignity of having a door slammed in his face while trying to meet with M in the exam room. And Margaret suffers likewise when M does the same to her.

Louisa is another matter. In her case, the door to the exam room turns into a sort of mixture of private and personal boundaries. She certainly respects it as a patient and as an early visitor, but as time goes on, her relationship with M advances and the door functions in a variety of ways. One ironic turn is when M decides L should see the new doctor to be checked for tears that could be causing perineal soreness. This time M must wait outside the door while L is in the exam room. He finds it very hard to stand there and even barges in at one point. Once they move back to the surgery, L comes to the threshold of that door numerous times. She stands there when she’s filling in as the receptionist to notify M when he needs to see patients, but it’s when M has neglected to tell L about the date of James’ christening that the doorway becomes a prominent liminal location. First L confronts M while standing at the threshold, then she enters the exam room in an aroused state, angry that M still doesn’t recognize the resentment she feels due to his continuous unilateral decision making. It is during this confrontation that L reaches a turning point and decides she doesn’t want the meal he’s planned or perhaps any more of his disrespect for her opinions, and walks out the door in another huff.

But it is S6 when the exam room takes on special importance to the relationship between M and L because during this series M uses the room to deal with many personal concerns that he does not allow L to know about. He hides the regular testing he does on himself after his hemaphobia returns, he never mentions the conversation he has with his mother about family, and he distances himself from everyone by regularly disappearing into the room. The mere fact that L must look for him there on several occasions while his mother is in the house emphasizes his estrangement from her. Certainly the beginning of E7 when L brings breakfast into the room so they can eat together underlines the intrusion into their lives that Margaret has become. But it is when L returns home after hearing about M’s sickness while releasing Penhale’s hand from the post in E6, where the door to the exam room is used as another prominent liminal site. First L stands just inside the door after putting James to bed and tells M that everyone is talking about M having thrown up on Penhale. She remains there while she asks him about his continuing problems with his blood phobia, then takes one step towards M as she asks M if he will phone the psychiatrist Ruth has recommended and asks him what he thinks is causing the problem to persist. She follows that with another step towards him while wondering if she’s the reason for his disorder. He is at a loss for an explanation and denies that she’s the source of his troubles, but they seem to be reaching an intimate point in their conversation when it is interrupted (as usual) by a knock on the front door. If they had had more time to finish this discussion, maybe some progress could have been made in their communication difficulties, but his mother’s arrival puts an end to that and the relationship unravels over the next 2 episodes.

These 3 doors in the surgery building are the ones with the greatest significance; however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene in E8 at the bathroom door. Here we see M on the outside of the closed door while L remains on the inside of it. We see their desperation and wish one of them would just open the door. But neither of them can or chooses to and the impasse is palpable. The door to the bathroom has been open for other conversations between M and L, and this private space has never before taken on the sense of privacy that a bathroom can have. This time it’s a definite barrier for them.

I also want to mention the door to the bedroom itself because M stands there while talking to L about keeping James quiet in S5, then ducks into and out of the door frame when she calls the baby Albert. In S6, L and M stand in the door to the bedroom when talking about Dennis and Karen, which leads to some very uncomfortable moments. M also closes the door to the bedroom in E8 after talking to L through the bathroom door, which seems to add some final punctuation to the scene.

I have no idea if the directors, writers, or anyone else regard the doors as anything meaningful and I may be reading too much into their use. Whether it was intentional or not, however, I think these sites contribute to the complexity and impact of the scenes and the relationship between the two main characters.

I realize this post is very long and I actually have other things to say about doors in other locations, but I will put them in another post.

Originally posted 2014-01-30 17:07:29.

10 thoughts on “Doors and doorways

  1. Carol

    I like this post too. The door that has always seemed significant to me is the kitchen door. Watching the show on a streaming service as I have done, the changes in that door from season to season are very obvious. The changes HAVE to have been done on purpose to allow Martin to figure out who is outside before they come in and Louisa’s outline is always very recognizable, no time more than when she returns to Portwenn pregnant. When I watched that episode for the first time I have to admit I was greatly relieved to see that silhouette at the door because I wondered if Caroline Catz was going to be gone. I think you are spot on in your observations, and I always appreciate background lessons on words.

  2. Post author

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that L’s silhouette is very important when she returns pregnant. We know it’s Louisa before M opens the door, and maybe he does too even though he appears surprised to see her. I’m making more of the decision to enter or not in this post, but her outline at the door also emphasizes the significance of the door itself. For some reason I never thought she wouldn’t be back. When I started watching S4, I thought L would still be living in Portwenn after the wedding was called off and things between M and L would just be really awkward again. I have to say that S4 is my least favorite of the series in general until the last episode. Edith is so creepy, and I find it hard to think that M could have ever been attracted to her. I hate to be too caught up in moral issues, but the fact that she’s an Ob/Gyn and taking care of L’s pregnancy while trying to win back M’s affections is very immoral and unethical to me. She also seems to take such pleasure in her little coups with M, driving by L with a smirk on her face. I was extremely glad when M decided to leave the hotel and then, in the next episode, tell her that maybe he just didn’t want to be with her.

  3. Carol

    Yes, I find S4 hard to watch as well. Although Ms. Williams (I think that is her name) is evidently much nicer in real life. I understand that she read a fanfic that was written about her and was very encouraging to the writer.

    I was so glad Martin left Edith too. I felt that it was a big step for him to realize that he did not need that type of person in his life. It was like there was enough of “deservedness” deep down that helped him to see that she was just another person who didn’t think he was enough.

  4. Post author

    I also want to agree that I wouldn’t want to confuse the actor with the character s/he plays. Just like Claire Bloom was asked to play a character who she, herself, finds rather despicable, Lia Williams is likely to be much different from her character. I’m only thinking about the character’s behavior and think the writers made her particularly devious and unethical as an OB.

  5. waxwings2

    Karen, I really like this blog post on liminality. Insightful. You make a strong case here by “framing” the doorway metaphor for us, documenting the various psychological and physical changes within the DM storyline/series. It made good sense, and added to our appreciation of the series. Showing how these architectural passageways helped build and shape the drama, tension and/or comedy was a natural reflection of what actually happened, and it was really great having it all pointed out and translated in detail.

    When I first encountered your word – liminality – from the latin “limen,” I immediately thought of another word — “limner” — which sounds very close, and it turns out that it is. It, too, is derived from Latin (“limnen” by way of Old French, luminer, to illuminate; and Old English, limn, to describe/paint) and while now obsolete, the word limner referred in Old English, specifically, to painters of images or ornamental decorators that enhanced an object. The word “limner” was used here in early 18th c. New England to refer to itinerant (and usually untrained) painters who did portraits and renderings of people for posterity. They tried to capture a likeness of reality at that moment in time. Similarly, I think what happens in the DM doorways that you’ve documented so well, is actually an illumination-by-framing. It literally (via architecture) frames an important moment in the show’s story line, a passage in the series that captures reality. The doorways heighten it — and the drama or tension of it — because the encounter takes place there at a framed “threshold.” Louisa’s return to Portwenn six months pregnant is the most dramatic example of the “doorway” moment.

    Once again, our hats off to those skilled DM writers–and to those who dissect their work with insight.

  6. Post author

    It’s nice to hear from you again Marta, and I certainly appreciate your comments. I think you’re right about the doors framing the action. Even if the director didn’t plan these uses of doors and doorways, these spaces function very effectively to augment what’s happening in the scenes.

    I plan to publish another post soon on the other thresholds in the show. Stay tuned!

  7. Amy

    Great post, Karen. We can add several doorway scenes from S7 now as well, including the important scenes we’ve discussed at the end of E7 and beginning of E8 where L and M are certainly on the edge of ending their relationship. And then there’s the scene where Martin surprises Louisa in the morning in her bathrobe and she teases him about breaking in to see her (and he cluelessly responds that he used his key).

    Hoping this goes through and not in the trash!

  8. Post author

    As you can see I rescued it from the trash again. I will now adopt a policy of checking the trash regularly. Absurd but there’s no other way to manage this right now. I sincerely apologize.

    We could add scenes from S7. The doorways perform a literal and figurative function that is really subtle and effective.

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