Downton Abbey Recap: The Tragic Fire and the Hot Footman

Photo: Joss Barratt/Carnival Films
Downton Abbey
Episode Title
Part Four
Editor’s Rating

At this moment in 2013, it’s not a good time for potentially untrustworthy fighting Irishmen. You all know the reasons. Let’s not rehash them here.

Coincidentally, in Downton Abbey’s version of 1920, it’s also a low moment for a less-than-forthcoming fighting Irishman. That’s because Tom Branson — former Downton chauffeur, husband of Lady Sybil, and an Irish Republican who refuses to wear proper white-tie attire because REVOLUTION! — has gotten himself into some trouble after participating in what I’ll politely call an arson-oriented protest at an aristocratic family’s Dublin castle.

Did Branson start the fire? No, Branson says when first questioned by Lord Grantham, who’s in epically pissed-off mode. Branson wasn’t even there. Well, okay, he was technically there. But he felt really, really bad about it. And it’s not like he planned to set that fancy-pants palace ablaze. Well, except for the part where he went to a bunch of Irish Republican meetings beforehand to discuss how to set the fancy-pants palace ablaze. But, like, Lord Grantham, Tom told everyone it was a super-bad idea.

In summary, to explain all this by slightly altering the words to The Office’s take on a Billy Joel song: “Branson started the fi-ya!” Even if he didn’t light the match, he was an accessory to fire-starting, which — as we all learned that time we played a half-hour Prodigy set at a 1996 company holiday party— is just as bad, especially when it involves fleeing the country, leaving your pregnant wife, and skirting criminal responsibility for burning down a rich man’s house by seeking refuge at another rich man’s house. You can’t blame Lord Grantham for shouting, and I quote: “Good God all mighty! You abandon a pregnant woman in a land that’s not her own? You leave her to shift for herself while you run for it?” (You can blame Lord Grantham, however, for making disparaging comments about Catholics that are apropos of nothing but foreshadowing.)

So is Branson buggin’ you? He doesn’t mean to bug ya, even though he won’t shut up about his politics. Really, he does have every right to feel disdain toward the elites preventing Ireland from securing its independence. It is troubling, though, that he’s channeled that disdain into acts of destruction far, far worse than trying to serve nasty soup to a British general. And we all should be highly frustrated by this simple fact: Given his commitment to his cause, he never should have married Sybil in the first place. A person simply cannot protest the U.K. equivalent of the one percent and also be one of them.

That underlying message was just one part of a Downton Abbey episode that was all about the tension between the haves and have-nots. Sure, that’s basically what Downton Abbey is about every week, but in this fourth hour of the third season, the messy interactions between the blessed and the bereft came into even sharper focus.

Ethel the housemaid-turned-desperate-prostitute gave up her son Charlie to his grandparents, the late Major Bryant’s wealthy and compassionate mum and the late Major Bryant’s wealthy and flagrantly evil dad, who apparently has memorized the names of every client of every bonnet-wearing hooker in town. (Wonder how he knows that, hmmmmm?) It was a heartbreaking development as well as a maddening one because — BING-bong. Cousin Isobel? The doorbell’s ringing and both logic and your conscience are standing there wondering why you didn’t just give this poor woman a job and let her keep her cute little lad and clothe him in wee British rompers from now until he passes his O-levels. Is Isobel trying to keep some separation between herself and Ethel so the other unfortunate women she works with will understand she’s not the Mr. Drummond to their tragically slutty Arnold Jacksons? Is she afraid to take her in because doing so would mean the Crawleys might have to — gasps while clutching her collar in a Mrs. Hughes–like manner — use the word PROSTITUTE on a regular basis at the Downton estate? Or were the Downton Abbey writers just forcing Isobel to be limited in her generosity so we’d all cry when Ethel said good-bye to her boy? If it’s the latter, well, mission accomplished, Julian Fellowes & Co.!

At this point, I could delve into all kinds of details about the snore-inducing excuse for a plot thread between Anna and Mr. Bates. Instead I’ll just say: no letters, sadness, then TONS OF LETTERS. Because who cares about all that “You’ve Got Mail” business when, butter my scones and call me Lady Lovepump, Hot Jimmy has arrived.

Hot Jimmy is Jimmy Kent, the new footman that Carson hired even though Downton is being wildly mismanaged and no one should be hiring anyone. (More on that later.) Ah, Jimmy Kent, your name is the same as every unattainable sixth-grade crush in the history of elementary school romance. Your mouth is even more seductive than the lips of Kemal Pamuk. And your confident swagger makes it quite clear that if Alfred is Downton’s Landry Clarke, then you, Jimmy Kent, are its Tim Riggins, just with shorter hair and, hopefully, less alcohol in your system.

The minute this guy walked into the servants kitchen for the first time, you could practically hear the housemaids’ lady parts sing, “Oh, sweet mystery of life” like Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein. When Thomas “accidentally” saw Hot Jimmy without a shirt on, his man parts pretty much did the same thing. That means that unless Jimmy is bisexual and agrees to have an open, steamy relationship with everyone on the Downton premises, including Mrs. Patmore and Molesley — which Jimmy can’t do because that would make him a PROSTITUTE — his presence is going to be a problem. Yes, a dreamy, souffle-serving problem, one that complements the attractive soufflé-making problem called Ivy that clearly has just ruined Daisy’s chances with Alfred.

Actually, for a quick second, I thought Hot Jimmy might give Edith a reason to start prancing around the house wearing lip gloss and popping her chewing gum. But no, the Jilted Crawley Sister has no time for such nonsense because she is now, officially, a suffragette. After the Dowager Countess rightly told her to “stop whining and find something to do,” Lady Edith wrote to the local newspaper (ha!) and advocated for all women to have the right to vote regardless of their age and social status (double ha!) and then the paper’s editors printed the letter even though the men of Downton never thought they would (ha, ha, and quadruple ha, suckas!) The way Lord Grantham exclaimed “God in heaven!” when he read the headline “Earl’s daughter speaks out for women’s rights,” followed by Edith’s look of delighted shock, lands in my top three favorite moments in this episode. (No. 2: The Dowager Countess’s dismissal of gardening as a pasttime. No. 1: Carson’s abject fear of electric toasters.)

But before we all get too excited and start planning a NOW march with Lady Edith as line leader, we have to talk about Matthew. Again.

“I sometimes feel the world is rather different than it was before the war,” Matthew announced during a discussion of Downton affairs with Lord Grantham. Gosh, Matthew, I think we all do because someone on this show says it at least once per episode. But what Matthew really meant was: We need to live more simply here, otherwise I’ll have to inherit even more money from some unexpected source, and I’m kind of running out of deceased fathers of dead ex-fiancées.

Yes, Matthew is quickly realizing that Lord Grantham has no idea how to handle his finances, something we all realized two episodes ago when he invested all the family dough in choo-choos from Canada. So Matthew is poised to potentially feud with his father-in-law as well as his new wife, with whom he already seems to be disagreeing about starting a family. (That nursery scene strongly implied that Mary may not want children ever. Which makes sense. It’s hard to imagine Lady Frosty frolicking with a toddler in a bouncy castle, or even her own, non-bouncy castle.)

Matthew, shrewdly, has already formed an alliance with the Dowager Countess in his little game of Money Management Survivor. But things will undoubtedly get contentious soon at Crawley Central, reminding us that even among the haves who live in fancy houses at which some Irish rebels may wish to throw stones, money can still rip people apart.