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Downton Abbey Recap: The Thomas Affair

Downton Abbey Season 3
Sundays, January 6 - February 17, 2013 on MASTERPIECE on PBS - Part 6

Shown from left to right: Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham & Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley
©Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE
This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE CLASSIC. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only. USE ON THIRD PARTY SITES SUCH AS FACEBOOK AND TWITTER IS NOT ALLOWED.

Downton Abbey is well-known for its capacity to deliver delicious dialogue. At this point, the show that gave us both “Lie is so unmusical a word” and “Do I look like a frolicker?” in the same episode should not need to prove itself in that regard.

Even so, this week’s Downton Abbey doubled down so hard on clever wordplay that it was as if the show were playing in the fourth quarter of the Bon Mots Super Bowl and refusing to say die until it left it all on the field. (Apologies for using a football analogy to describe an episode that featured so much cricket, but after watching Molesley’s humiliation during that crucial Downton vs. Village matchup, I never wish to speak of cricket again.)

The MVP of said Super Bowl was, of course, the Dowager Countess, a woman who always knows precisely how to wryly acknowledge pots, kettles, and their mutual blackness. But others also stepped up, providing us with multiple, destined-to-be-repeated quotes that touched on a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Ideology. (Carson: “I’ve never been called a liberal in my life and I don’t intend to start now!”)
  • Literature. (Dowager Countess: “What is The Scarlet Letter? … It sounds most unsuitable.”)
  • Intolerance. (Carson to Thomas: “I do not wish to take a tour of your revolting world.” In a less hateful, non-homophobic context, let’s all agree that this is the ideal phrase to repeat the next time a Facebook friend shares too many gratuitous Instagram photos.)
  • Humility. (Robert: “You will both admit it when you realize you were wrong.” Dowager Countess: “Well, that is an easy caveat to accept because I am never wrong.”)
  • And, of course, medical care for seniors. (Isobel to the Dowager: “Have you changed your pills?”)

This list doesn’t even include some of the richer remarks, including Lord Grantham’s ironic suggestion that the keepers of the Downton estate consider investing with a “chap in America” named Charles Ponzi who “offers a huge return after 30 days.” Oh, Robert, this is why you’re no longer legally permitted to come within 50 yards of a bank in which you have active accounts.

In other words, friends, this was a very fine installment of Downton Abbey (technically, two smushed together for PBS-airing purposes), one that finally allowed some beams of hopeful sunshine to stream through the bleakness that has characterized much of season three. After so much tragic death and prison gloom, it was as if the writers said, “Let’s have some soapy-sudsy fun with this one.” As a result, Downton delivered one of the twistier story lines of the season via the saga of the Kiss That O’Brien Built a Scheme On, as well as the season’s least necessary new character in the form of Rose, the Dowager’s party-girl great-niece. Rose showed up for seemingly two reasons: (1) To remind us yet again that times and values are a-changin’ and (2) To finally make that point in a jazz club.

But enough about that. In an episode that was all about job prospects lost and found, let’s get right to the business of Bates, Thomas, Jimmy, and the late night lip-locking that made so many lines of dialogue unrelated to “the incident” sound unintentionally sexual. (“Cherish the ball. Don’t crush it.” Okie-doke, Mr. Molesley.)

Bates the Exonerated triumphantly returned to Downton and immediately devoted himself to long, Cialis-commercial-style walks with his Anna and reclaiming his job as Lord Grantham’s valet, a vacancy previously filled by Thomas. This made Thomas insecure and vulnerable enough to believe an Über-manipulative O’Brien when she said that Alfred told her that Jimmy basically told him that Jimmy likes Thomas. Like, likes-him likes him. (Those imaginary conversations between Alfred and Jimmy clearly took place at Ivy’s locker, right before they all went to fifth-period Calculus.)

All kinds of kissing and drama and scheming and near-firing took place after that. How best to summarize it all in a concise manner … okay, here goes: Thomas snogs sleeping Jimmy --> Alfred sees the snog --> Jimmy goes homopho-ballistic --> O’Brien persuades Alfred to tattle --> Alfred tattles --> Carson freaks --> Carson calms down, tells Thomas he shall quietly resign with a positive reference --> O’Brien insists that everyone on Earth will think Jimmy is gay unless Jimmy tells Carson that he plans to file charges with the anti-gay police  --> Thomas gets fired with no reference because Lord knows Carson doesn’t want any trouble with the anti-gay stuff --> Bates intervenes --> Her Ladyship’s Soap --> Lord Grantham defends Thomas --> Thomas gets promoted.

Honestly, there was more back-and-forth in all this than there is during a tennis match at Wimbledon. And while everything was resolved by episode’s end, there were still some lingering questions raised by the Thomas situation. Questions like:

1. Why did Thomas think it was a good idea to put the moves on Jimmy in the middle of the night? As a gay man forced to live in metaphorical shadows, Thomas presumably felt that the only time he could act on his feelings was under the cover of darkness. But even if Jimmy had reciprocated Thomas’s affections — and for the record, I think maybe, deep down, he does — he still would have been creeped out by such an unanticipated mouth invasion. Bad choice, Mr. Barrow. Still, all credit to Thomas for being honest about what happened and defending himself against Carson’s slurs: “I’m not foul, Mr. Carson.” Thomas was never foul because of his sexual orientation. And for once, he’s not even foul for any other reason.

2. Is O’Brien mentally ill? And since the answer to that is probably yes, why does everyone constantly take her advice? O’Brien would not rest until she made good on her promise to “make everything all wrong” for Thomas. Why was she so hell-bent on following through with her master plan of vengeance again? Oh, that’s right. Because Thomas erroneously told everyone that O’Brien was planning to step down when she wasn’t, a matter that was easily cleared up four episodes ago and that, despite her irritation at the time, Cora has never mentioned since. It’s a pretty thin reason for O’Brien to be such a capital B, but it made the reemergence of that horrible thing she did back in season one — with the bar of soap and the Ladyship slip — all the more satisfying. As for why Thomas, Alfred and Jimmy all took her words at face value, there is only one explanation: her bangs can magically turn into hypnotic spirals that convince others to do her bidding.

3. How surprising was Lord Grantham’s support of Thomas in this whole matter? A bit surprising, what with his bad attitudes toward Catholics and liberated women and generally anything indicative of progress. If pressed, most of us probably would have pegged him as only slightly more tolerant than Carson on the homophobe spectrum. But surely the writers realized that if Lord Grantham was a raging jerk about just one more thing this season, we’d be off him forever. So they let him be the hero. Another positive thing that came of all this: We learned that apparently when he was at Eton, Lil’ Lord Robert’s milkshake brought all the boys to the yard. I look forward to learning much more about that when The Robbie Grantham Diaries debuts on the CW in the fall of 2014.

4. Why was the only option for Thomas to become an under-butler and, therefore, a superior to Bates? So that their rivalry can continue in season four, when once again accusations about stolen wine will be lobbed with gleeful menace. Please. That one was easy.

Of course, Thomas wasn’t the only person finding new work this week. Owing to the Dowager’s meddling, Ethel miraculously got a job as a cook in the same village where Charlie now lives with the Bryants. Even though Lady Violet had no business intervening here, it all turned out for the greater good because, owing to an arrangement with Mrs. Bryant, Ethel can look forward to some quality time with her son and a life in which she won’t be refused service on the grounds of being a harlot. This, as Parenting magazine has told us time and time again, is the dream of every mother.

Edith also found a certain liberation outside the confines of Downton by traveling to London, agreeing to write that newspaper column, and developing a promising relationship with her editor, an obvious admirer of more than just Edith’s work. It was so clear in this episode that there’s a woman Edith is capable of becoming when, to borrow her words, she remembers she’s “not an object of pity to the entire world.” (I loved how forthright she was with Michael, the editor, about being jilted at the altar.) It seemed like she might even become that woman with Michael as her romantic partner until she realized he is already married … to a mad woman. Oh good. I always felt this show wasn’t nearly enough like Jane Eyre. Now that issue is finally resolved.

And then there was Branson, who, apparently softened by the loss of Sybil and his obligations to his now officially Catholic baby girl, has ditched his revolutionary ways and agreed to become agent of the Downton estate. Yes, things are looking up for the Crawley family in so many ways, especially now that Mary will probably become pregnant soon. She underwent some vague surgical procedure that she refused to describe to her own husband, but that — forgive the medical jargon — presumably involved tying her lacy lady parts into a tidy, pretty bow that will allow cherubs to pop out of her insides with no fuss, muss or snipping of things that involve the word umbilical.

So yay and hip-hip hooray! Let’s all gather in our crisp cricket whites as our three stewards of Downton — Robert, Matthew, and Tom — did at the end of this episode and engage in the Downton Abbey equivalent of the Anchorman Action News Team jump of joy. Because surely nothing can go wrong now, and especially not in the Christmas episode/season three finale that airs on PBS next week. Right, Downton Abbey?

RIGHT?

Photo: Giles Keyte/Carnival Films