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Downton Abbey Recap: Baby Blues

Part Five
Sunday, February 2, 2014
9 – 10pm ET on MASTERPIECE on PBS
Rose’s surprise party for Robert risks scandal. Mary meets an old suitor, and Edith gets troubling news.

Shown from left to right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham

(C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 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.

Why does Julian Fellowes hate babies?

Sorry, that’s not a fair question. Let’s try that again.

Why does Julian Fellowes hate babies and pregnant women?

I’m sure that in real life, the creator and writer of Downton Abbey, who also happens to be a father, loves children. When a relative or friend announces she’s expecting, Fellowes is undoubtedly thrilled. He’s probably even the first person to send a card, bouquet, or Japanese netsuke of congratulations. But on Downton Abbey, he has consistently emphasized negativity regarding the having of infants.

Before getting into all that, first, let’s take note of this week’s big breaking news, which was hinted at last week, when Lady Edith popped into the doctor’s office: Edith is pregnant. She got a letter from that doctor stating that she has symptoms consistent with the first trimester of pregnancy, which is the 1922 equivalent of a Clear Blue Easy plus sign. That would be great news, if a) she were not about to be subjected to public shame for having sex before marriage, and with an already married man, and b) that already married man wasn’t missing. Ugh. Poor Edith.

Also: for the love of God, America, and Great Britain, is it possible for any woman in the Crawley family to become pregnant, carry the pregnancy to term, deliver the baby, and bask in the newborn’s existence for more than ten minutes without the specter of death creeping in and ruining everything? That was a rhetorical question, because we all know the answer: hell to the no. Just in case you forgot, here’s a helpful refresher on Downton Abbey baby moments gone bad.

Lady Cora: Pregnant. Miscarries due to soap sabotage.

Sybil: Pregnant. Gives birth to beautiful daughter. Immediately dies of eclampsia.

Mary: Pregnant. Gives birth to handsome boy. Mother and son are perfectly healthy. Therefore, father immediately dies in a car wreck.

Edith: Finally decides to do something crazy and have sex with the man she loves one time — one time! Gets pregnant out of wedlock. Husband is missing and presumed dead by a shamed, hormonal Edith.

Fine, we don’t know that Michael is dead. After not being able to reach her beloved, Edith is simply leaping to the worst possible conclusions about what could have happened to him. But Michael did father a child with a Crawley woman for whom he cares deeply. So, yeah: Probably dead.

Even when there’s an opportunity to show genuine happiness between children and their parents or grandparents, Downton Abbey opts out, as it did in this week’s episode right before we, for the first time, were about to see Isobel embrace her grandson. After the moving moment she shared with Tom and Mary — “Well, aren’t we the lucky ones?” she said to her fellow bereaved spouses; yes, we can feel your halo, Isobel! — I was on the edge of dissolving into a puddle of tears at the sight of her smiling into the cherubic face of the little boy fathered by the son who’s now gone. But then the scene just ended. WHY? WHY THE REJECTION OF JOY, DOWNTON ABBEY?

And why does Fellowes keep going back to the sad-pregnancy well? Is he further illustrating the slow decay of aristocratic, estate-dwelling families by repeatedly demonstrating that even the promise of new life always brings the whisper of death? Maybe, although it seems like that theme is already being addressed more directly with the economic pressures and management changes at Downton. Plus, both Sybbie and George have survived and can carry on the family name, so it’s not like there’s no hope for future generations. Honestly, I think pregnancies are consistently problematic on this show for the simplest of reasons: It makes for easy, emotional drama. Few things are sadder than a child who either doesn’t make it into this world or who makes it without the benefit of both parents. Fellowes knows those story lines will tug at heartstrings, so he keeps recycling them. The Edith plot serves that function, while also adding a sense of mystery (The Curious Case of the Missing Michael) and the potential for major conflict, given the high likelihood that Robert will pop his cummerbund when he realizes Edith is knocked up.

Then again, who knows how Robert will react to things? I thought for sure that he and everyone else at Downton would spontaneously combust when Jack Ross and his band showed up to perform, at Rose’s behest, as part of Robert’s birthday celebration. (“Surprise, Cousin Robert! We got you a black guy for your birthday!”) Indeed, for a couple of seconds, when Carson first saw Jack and, later, Lord Grantham did the same, it appeared both men might succumb to starched-shirt strokes. But they immediately recovered. And completely unexpectedly, Downton Abbey turned into a hub for British racial enlightenment.

Robert, apparently pleased to have Jack in his home, began to dance with Lady Cora and, after a couple of drinks, reportedly requested “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly.

After asking Jack some dumb questions about Africa, Carson felt so proud of his intimate knowledge of the black experience that he decided to start the Yorkshire equivalent of the NAACP.

Mrs. Patmore got jiggy with it. (Seriously, she pretty much did.)

And after advising a semi-shocked Edith to be less provincial, the dowager countess retired to her parlor to pen an essay about why it’s terribly wrong to refer to Richard Sherman as a thug.

For real, though, actual question: Did the response to Jack’s presence feel unrealistic to anyone else? To me it certainly did. Sure, it was nice to see everyone display a welcoming and accepting attitude toward a black man. My sense of white guilt shrank three sizes this day because of it. But honestly, I’m not sure that’s how these people would have reacted to Jack in real life, especially given that they were blindsided by his presence. Rosamund’s response to him a couple of weeks ago, as comical as it was, seemed more believable.

To be clear: I don’t think Lord Grantham and Co. would have been rude to Jack’s face. But there would have been a more palpable sense of discomfort in the air, as opposed to a slight gasp followed by total sense of unease. Maybe that discomfort will become more palpable once everyone finds out that Jack and Rose are getting it on, as Mary discovered when she walked in on their frisky kitchen-ness.

Weirdly, as unrealistic as the Jack encounter was and as maddening as I found the handling of Edith’s pregnancy, I enjoyed this week’s episode of Downton Abbey more than last week’s. Maybe because Anna was no longer keeping secrets? Maybe I just enjoy hearing Dame Maggie Smith use the word netsuke? I’m not sure, but here are some of the small delights that prompted me to give this installment three stars instead of the two that last week’s got.

Lady Cora at the restaurant
It was so, so great when Cora swooped in and saved Anna Bates and her husband, John “I want to murder” Bates, from being rudely dismissed by Snootysnot Prisspot, Britain’s most elitist restaurant host. You know who Cora was in that moment? She was their Abe Froman. She was their Sausage King of Chicago. The only thing that would have made that scene more enjoyable — apart from Anna and Bates actually having an enjoyable meal — would have been for Bates, upon being seated, to look at that host and say, “You know, it’s understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person such as yourself.” If he had done that, I would have forgiven him for any and all future murders he may commit.

The continuing showdown between Isobel and Violet
Isobel and the dowager countess are clearly back at each other’s throats because Fellowes knows they’re more fun that way. And they are! When they started in about “young Pegg” again, I thought, good God, are they really going to fight over a letter opener and a figurine of a Japanese fat man for the rest of the season? But anything that gives Penelope Wilton an excuse to say “How you hate to be wrong,” and Smith to reply, “I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with that sensation,” is pretty much justifiable in my book. And the turning of the tables, when the countess actually put Isobel in her place by doing the right thing, unprompted, was satisfying as well.

Speaking of fights, let’s meet Mary’s new nemesis and inevitable passion-igniter
Even though Evelyn Napier still has the hots for Mary, he once again was stupid enough to bring another handsome companion with him to Downton, this time in the form of Charles Blake, who seems pretty determined to prove that estates like Downton are ruining life for everyone in England. Naturally, Mary immediately disliked him. Naturally, this means they’ll banter angrily a lot as an outlet for the increasing sexual tension between them, tension that will eventually be expressed with a kiss, then a slap, then another kiss.

The letter from Uncle Harold
Robert received a letter stating that Uncle Harold, Cora’s brother, is in some serious financial trouble, complete with references that imply Harold is involved in the Teapot Dome scandal that unfolded in America in the early twenties. This made me happy, not because of the scandal, but because this means Paul Giamatti’s Downton Abbey entrance is imminent!

Daisy’s sad good-bye
Turns out Alfred was recruited to train at the Ritz because one of the five budding chefs had to drop out, creating an opening for him. Upon hearing the news, Daisy went through several of the documented stages of grief — shock, denial, extreme sadness, yelling at Ivy — but said good-bye in a heartfelt, mature way that convinced me those two nerdballs will get together eventually.

Molesley’s back at Downton!
Because Alfred left and Carson gave up and let him back in. So, hooray! I guess?

The Baxter-tattling begins
Baxter kept her promise to become Thomas’s informant. So of course, when Cora told Mary that she overheard Bates tell Anna he felt he should have protected her, and then Cora told Baxter to make sure that information didn’t leave the room, the first thing Baxter did was run-tell-Thomas. Baxter doesn’t seem like a bad person, she just seems convinced that she has to do what Thomas tells her. Why, I am not sure. Couldn’t she just act like Cora never says anything interesting? Honestly: not that hard to believe!

This plot thread didn’t make me happy, really, but it made me laugh. Because as I pondered how wrong it is for Baxter to betray Cora’s trust, and how Baxter obviously realizes it’s wrong because she genuinely likes Cora, I realized that what Baxter is doing requires a new term: Baxter-stabbing. And that made me giggle. And giggling brings me joy. And therefore, this whole plot development brought me joy.

Look, on Downton Abbey, you have to take the joy where you can get it. Because it obviously isn’t going to come from the usual places, like love that blossoms unfettered, or newborn babies, or the hope that life will permanently become something wonderful for Lady Edith Crawley.

Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films