Nelson Mandela. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Jean Valjean. And now, ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Bates.
Like those other unjustly imprisoned figures, John Bates has finally secured his freedom after a long (read: five-episode) struggle for justice. As a result, some much-needed joyful news came to Downton Abbey at a time when the pall of Lady Sybil’s death still hovers thick and heavy over everyone at the estate.
So how did Bates finally get out of jail when Mrs. Bartlett seemed so unwilling to share the crucial, pastry-related information that could exonerate him? Well, Murray went to meet with her, and it became pretty clear that prison insiders were pressuring her not to share the evidence that proves Bates’s innocence, but then Bates had a little chat with his cellmate Craig, which, as such chats usually do, involved Bates throwing Craig against a wall and threatening him, and so THEN … zzz.
Oh, sorry! Fell asleep for a second there, as I have done during just about every scene that has involved Bates this season. Bottom line: His release from prison is miraculously imminent, which means maybe he can stop being so exceedingly dull or, at the very least, can be dull in a setting less grim than that bleakly tinted detention center. Happily, this development also should lead to a significant reduction in moments involving Craig, who is the least engaging character in Downton Abbey history, right behind Unidentified Housemaid No. 4 and that weird doll Joe Burns gave to Mrs. Hughes in season one.
If we can briefly go macro before we burrow back into the micro, this seems like a logical time to pause and take our collective temperature on the quality of Downton Abbey season three. Believe it or not, we’re already beyond the season-three halfway point; in terms of the PBS schedule, assuming you’re still going by that and not inhaling episodes via Amazon Instant, only two weeks of Downton remain, including next week’s two-hour installment and the 90-minute Christmas special that airs in the U.S. on an equally festive holiday: President’s Day weekend.
My read of viewer opinion is that this season has been enjoyable but, like S2, still less sophisticated and addictive than season one. At this point, I’m happy to watch because I still care about these characters, and because when Downton punches us in the gut, as it did last week, it can still punch hard. But I’m also aware that there’s no real narrative force pulling us along, propelling us toward a conclusion that will finally explain “How It All Turns Out.” There isn’t a particular “All” to invest in right now. Many of the significant plot developments that could have created a narrative force or two — like the potential loss of Downton, or Mrs. Hughes’s cancer, or the whole Bates murder mystery — have either been resolved quickly or, in the case of Bates, in a less-than-compelling fashion. Those tuning in with a partial clue as to what already unfolded on British television months ago may be viewing now mainly to verify the validity of all the spoilers.
Which brings us back to the micro and to Robert and Cora, who, as predicted in last week’s recap, began this episode on highly rocky terms following the death of their beloved Sybil. “You believed Tapsell because he’s knighted and fashionable and has a practice on
Hardy Harley Street,” Cora told her husband, insisting that he once again sleep in one of the 87 guest rooms instead of their bed and also accurately summarizing Lord Grantham’s role in ensuring that Sybil didn’t get the medical attention she needed.
Once again, we have a source of tension that should have lingered for several episodes. I mean, they lost their daughter. Regardless of whether Dr. Clarkson’s actions would have saved her, the fact remains Lord Grantham ignored his wife’s feelings at a moment of greatest possible urgency. Considering that some of us still harbor occasional bitterness toward our spouses over powder-room-paint-color arguments from six years ago, this should have stuck in Cora’s craw until at least 1947. But along came that meddling Dowager, who, seeing the potential irreparable damage in her son’s marriage, fixed it by convincing Clarkson to lie to the Lord and Lady and say that there was no way he could have saved Sybil. Lying, by the way, is a violation of the Hippocratic oath. But in Dowager Countess world, that’s not at all what Clarkson was doing.
“Lie is so unmusical a word,” she noted. Sure, Granny. Tell that to the Thompson Twins.
In a way, though, it’s hard to fault the Dowager for this, and not just because she’s Dame Maggie Smith and therefore reigns supreme in all things. Our Downton grand matriarch realized, rightly, that Cora and Robert would both remain trapped in their grief unless they found a way to face it together. So she gave them that way. And if it’s based on an untruth, so what? Lord Grantham still hasn’t told his wife about that time he tried to get it on with a housemaid, so what harm can a little more dishonesty do?
What’s more remarkable is that Cora was able to embrace Robert after the awful things he did, in addition to the Basically Killing Sybil incident, in just this episode alone. Those things include: demonstrating extreme prejudice toward Catholics, particularly his own, devastated son-in-law; characterizing his granddaughter’s name — she shall be Sybil, like her mother — as “ghoulish” even though a boy named after his father would, of course, be totally non-ghoulish; and, worst of all, bursting into Isobel’s luncheon and demanding that everyone leave because Ethel the hooker-cook had previously been forced to sell her body for cash. And this after Ethel, with Mrs. Patmore’s help, finally managed to make a meal that didn’t immediately send those who consumed it dashing for the nearest toilet! Lord Grantham, sir, I cannot say this strongly enough: NEVER crash a bereavement brunch while shouting the term “bastard child.” It’s just unseemly.
The only person behaving in a more uptight and irritating manner is Carson, which makes sense because Carson is basically Lord Grantham. Carson also has little patience for Catholics and wears tuxedos all day and will not give up his traditional views until you pry them from his cold, dead hands. And holy ladies of the night, does this guy hate hookers or what?
When he found out Mrs. Patmore had violated his rule about not visiting the House of the Slut, Carson practically popped a cummerbund in self-righteous anger, then accused the Downton cook of “frolicking with prostitutes.” This prompted Mrs. Patmore to ask the greatest question ever posed, in all of time: “Do I look like a frolicker?”
It’s difficult to adequately convey how great that line was. It was great because actress Lesley Nicol delivered it so perfectly that it made me guffawter, which is a unique combination of guffawing while sputtering. It was great because it forced us to acknowledge that, in Carson’s mind, when “nice” women and hookers get together, they leap around in meadows while the prostitutes liberally sprinkle powdered sin into the moral ladies’ dainty cups of afternoon tea. And it was really, really great because it immediately conjured an image of Ethel, Mrs. Patmore, Divine Brown, and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman dancing around in a field of lilies to the tune of Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” Seriously, the sublime genius of that question alone made me upgrade the rating of this episode from two stars to three.
Needless to say, Carson — flag bearer for an England in which the wealthy still rule and he still gets to tell footmen-in-training what to do with salad forks — is going to completely flip out if he finds out how handsy Thomas has been getting with Hot Jimmy the Fox-Trotting Footman. Thomas has been taking advantage of every opportunity to squeeze a knee or leave an arm around Jimmy’s shoulder a little longer than necessary. Unfortunately for Thomas, Hot Jimmy’s response to those gestures is similar to the response of another Jimmy, the one from Seinfeld, when he got dragged away from Kramer by security personnel: “Hands off Jimmy! Don’t. Touch. Jimmy!”
Of course, O’Brien is well aware of this. She’s set them up for a situation in which poor Thomas — Jesus, I never thought I’d write the word “poor” in front of “Thomas” — will make a real romantic move and Hot Jimmy will be forced to make an issue of it. At least it seems that way. And as Downton Abbey inches toward its season-three conclusion, it’s nice to be able to count on at least one thing: That, oh yes, there will be more frolicking.