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Downton Abbey Recap: A Lady’s Right To Choose

Was there a PSA for the pro-life movement embedded not-so-secretly in this week’s episode of Downton Abbey? Some viewers may have reached that conclusion, especially since some pro-life supporters have already praised Julian Fellowes for using Lady Edith’s unexpected pregnancy plotline as an opportunity to convey that abortion is never the right option. I understand why some would draw that conclusion based on what happened in this episode, the sixth hour of season four. But I honestly didn’t see it that way. For me, the Edith portion of this episode served as an illustration of what it truly means to be pro-choice.

Look, the last thing I want to do is turn this week’s Downton recap into a Roe v. Wade-ish debate, especially when we need to devote some serious time to Mary’s romp in the mud and the asking of an important philosophical question: “Do you have a good pig man?” But Edith’s decision to terminate her pregnancy and her subsequent reversal of that decision demand attention.

Still unable to locate Michael and certain she would be branded a social outcast if she decided to have his baby, Edith made the very difficult decision to have an abortion. She traveled to London, told Aunt Rosamund she was pregnant, and also informed her aunt that she had made an appointment to have the illegal procedure done. A horrified Rosamund peppered her with questions but ultimately agreed to take her to a back alley clinic as planned. Once in the waiting room, Edith — who, via Laura Carmichael’s wonderfully vulnerable facial expressions, looked like a petrified little girl in almost every scene this week —  started to have second thoughts. “I do love him,” she said of Michael. “And I would have loved his baby. But I just can’t see over the top of this.” Though she had made up her mind, she was clearly conflicted. Then she happened to overhear and see a woman, post-procedure, crying and upset. That flipped a switch: Suddenly, Edith wanted out of that clinic and out of her plan to end the pregnancy.

It’s very easy to view Edith’s response as a rejection of abortion because in that moment; that’s exactly what it was. But let’s look more broadly at what happened here. When Rosamund first learned of Edith’s plans, she clearly did not approve. But what did Rosamund do? This woman — who is both judgmental and always happy to meddle uninvited in people’s affairs — did not meddle, nor did she overstep her bounds in attempting to change Edith’s mind. She recognized that handling the pregnancy was Edith’s decision to make. And she was there to support Edith, both when she fully intended to proceed with the abortion and when she decided it wasn’t what she wanted. That’s what being pro-choice is: acknowledging that the decision to end a pregnancy is an agonizing one that should be made by the woman carrying the fetus. Having a choice means a woman has the right to choose to abort, that she has the right to choose not to, and that she even has the right to choose one thing and, at the last second, decide to choose the other one after all. Everything that unfolded in that scene at the clinic, even though it ended with Edith not getting an abortion, conveyed that the choice was hers to make.

I suspect that both pro-choice and pro-life Downton Abbey fans did not want Edith to end her pregnancy, for a number of reasons, including this crucial fact: No one in this world is “pro-abortion.” Being pro-abortion does not exist; it’s not a thing. No one wants to see a woman go through such a wrenching loss, especially when, like Edith, she has the financial means to support a child and the generosity of spirit to be a good mother. But the main reason that an abortion seemed ill-advised is because Edith’s primary reason for getting one came down to her fear of being ostracized. She was afraid of being shunned, of perpetually being introduced as “the niece and the charming bastard.” That’s understandable, especially considering that Edith has been deemed an odd duck by her family for her entire life. The idea of becoming one in the eyes of larger society, in an even more “shameful” way than when she was jilted at the altar, must seem like too much to bear.

But surely Edith Crawley, feminist newspaper columnist, also knows she’d be viewed as having fallen from grace only because the values of her time and place are far too conservative, especially where women are concerned. By continuing to carry the baby, Edith is rejecting those values and insisting that women don’t deserve to be judged so harshly, by such an out of whack moral code. That actually makes a far stronger statement for female empowerment than it would have for her to quietly get rid of the child without anyone ever knowing.

So in conclusion, on the abortion debate, Downton Abbey is actually a pro-life liberal wearing just enough pro-life, conservative makeup to make its entire audience feel included. Kudos, Julian Fellowes. If this whole one-man-TV-writing-band thing stops working out, you’ve proven you have a promising career in politics.

To be clear: I doubt very seriously that Edith’s decision to move forward with her pregnancy means that everything will work out for Edith, and that she’ll find Michael, and they’ll get married, and they’ll have their baby, and they’ll live a progressive life in London with their spunky little daughter and a nursery filled with Playmobil hotel-bar play sets where little Playmobil ladies are permitted to drink Playmobil martinis in Playmobil public as often as they wish. No. Something will go amiss. It always does on Downton Abbey where babies are concerned. (See last week’s recap for further information.)

But enough about Edith for now. Let’s get to the other important moments in this week’s episode.

The Prime of Lady Mary Crawley: Has Mary ever been more delightful than she was in this episode? I say she hasn’t, not even — dare I whisper it? — when she was with Matthew. I loved the way she argued for Thomas to act as Robert’s valet during his trip to America by noting how enlivened Thomas would be by “all those handsome stewards strutting down the boat deck.” I loved it even more when Robert asked how she would know about such things, and she responded, “I’ve been married. I know everything.” That, my friends, was when the term smug married was officially born, several decades before Helen Fielding would use it in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

And I really got a kick out of the moment when Evelyn told Mary that Charles found her aloof. “Aloof?” she asked in astonishment, at which point the sub-zero chill of her breath immediately led to a Yorkshire-wide frost warning. “I am not aloof. And if I cared enough to speak to others who are clearly beneath me, I would explain why.”

Once made aware of her own obvious iciness, it was as if Mary actively decided it was time for a thaw. That’s when she and Charles went to visit Babe and the rest of the Downton pig family, otherwise known as the porcine saviors of all U.K. estate economic woes, and realized the pigs were dehydrated. That meant the answer to that aforementioned important question from Charles — “Do you have a good pig man?” — led to another even more urgent question from Mary: “Shall I fetch the pig man?” (When she asked that, all I could picture was Mary dashing off and coming back with the dude Kramer spotted at the hospital in this episode of Seinfeld.)

But Mary Crawley didn’t need a pig man, because she’s a woman who can do the work of ten pig men (and in heels!), especially when there’s another, non-pig-man there to help. She and Charles carefully fed water to the thirsty little porkers over the course of several hours, got caked in mud, threw additional mud at each other, and just laughed and laughed. Even though she was covered in slop, Michelle Dockery looked more alive and luminous as Mary than she ever has before. Charles, as a result, was immediately smitten.

Of course, so is Evelyn Napier, as well as the now-engaged Lord Gillingham who randomly popped in for a visit and brought his damn valet with him. (More on that momentarily.) Clearly, Mary will eventually have to choose from this handsome trio. I suspect she’ll go for Charles because he’s not putting her up on a pedestal like the other two are. He sees Mary’s faults and what she’s capable of despite them. Plus, they hated each other at first and now they like each other, and that’s always extra-hot.

So anyway, about that damn valet … It’s pretty obvious that Anna’s lie about who actually raped her can’t stand much longer. First of all, Bates opted out of traveling to America because he didn’t want to leave the still-vulnerable Anna’s side, which meant that Thomas got to go instead. This of course piqued the curiosity of Thomas, who shined the Baxter-stabbing signal — a light that illuminates the England sky and is shaped like a whispering lady’s maid — and let Baxter know it’s time for her to start digging up info and sharing it with Thomas. Thomas seeking intel is always a recipe for the revealing of Downton secrets.

The valet switch also led to Lady Mary learning about Anna’s attack, or at least the “Anna was attacked by a random ruffian” version. I ask again: Why is no one concerned about this ruffian? If he actually existed, he could strike again at any moment! When Carson finally hears the ruffian story, which he certainly will, he’s going to be like, “Wait, if there is recent history here involving a ruffian, why did Mrs. Hughes tell me not to worry about leaving the door unlocked the night Mary and her beloved pig man were out of the house so late? In an environment recently invaded by one or more ruffians, It’s completely illogical to have such a cavalier attitude about home security.”

Even Molesley, who doesn’t have the sense to know when he’s drinking a spiked beverage, can sense that something is up. And once Lord Gillingham’s valet showed up again, Bates could sense it, too. Why? Because the smug little woman-abuser — who was chewed out in spectacular fashion by Mrs. Hughes, prompting me to write the comment “Aw, SHIT, Hughes” in my notes — told everyone that he was downstairs during the Nellie Melba concert. Which means he was downstairs when Anna was raped. John Bates is no fool. John Bates immediately put two and two together. And based on the look on his face at the end of this episode, two and two equals MURDER.

The Dowager Countess, thankfully, didn’t die: When Violet said she wasn’t feeling well early in this episode, all I could think was: oh God, no. Don’t kill off that woman. Fortunately, it only turned out to be bronchitis of the sort that Isobel Crawley can cure by engaging in the kind of altruistic sacrifice that has earned her a prepaid, reserved seat in heaven’s VIP section. As a result, the Dowager Countess — tended to with even more care than Mary and Charles showed their pigs — will live on to continue insulting the woman who nursed her back to health. To quote the Dowager herself after a rousing round of gin rummy: “Goody, goody.”

Roundup of other stuff that happened: After a Three’s Company—esque attempt to keep Alfred from visiting Downton, he showed up long enough to make Daisy and Ivy mad at each other again and to force Mrs. Patmore to deliver the line: “We’ve warned him about our flu.” For God’s sake, Fellowes, give Patmore (and Lesley Nicol) more things to say. She is greatness.

Rose continued cavorting with Jack Ross, this time gondola-style while saying French words.

Tom went to hear a speech by John Ward, a member of Parliament, and met a random woman whom he will most likely marry because they met-cute in a political context.

Lastly, Robert headed off to America to somehow convince members of the U.S. Senate that Cora’s brother is totally uninvolved in the Teapot Dome scandal. I’m worried about Robert. His own reputation could potentially be besmirched by his association with the dodgy Harold Levinson. Plus, he’s going to have to contend with a lot of serious fashion issues. According to him, “the Americans have a correct uniform for practically every activity known to man.” For his sake, let’s all hope that none of those uniforms look like this.

Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films