Downton Abbey Recap: Radio Ga Ga

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Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films
Downton Abbey
Episode Title
Part Two
Season
5
Episode
2
Editor’s Rating
2/5

We’ve always known that class distinctions are eroding and times are changing on Downton Abbey, mainly because more than one character notes it at least twice per episode. But the proceedings really got modern in this week’s installment, which involved the welcoming of a wireless (GASP!) into the Downton estate and the procurement of birth control — and now I’m going to whisper because this is simply too scandalous — for a lady. Do you realize what this means? It means that the people of Downton have now accessed two of the necessary ingredients in the recipe for a life of totally hedonistic sin. Once they get access to drugs, FORGET IT. Everyone upstairs and down will be toking up and blaring radios and copulating at least once a month, and Carson will be so beside himself that he will spontaneously combust in the middle of a diatribe about how appalling it was to hear Mrs. Patmore and Daisy discussing S-E-X while simultaneously listening to a BBC news report.

But let’s not start fast-forwarding to season six just yet. Let’s stay focused on the here and the now, which means a Downton Abbey that, once again, recycled overly familiar narratives and themes but did so in a way that felt more insufferable than it did the week prior. Perhaps that’s because the script didn’t give the Dowager Countess any ripping retorts (well, aside from that one about Buckingham Palace). Or maybe it’s because Robert — a.k.a. Lord Donk, a.k.a. Lord Jackass (which is basically what Donk means, right, Sybbie, you smart-alecky little moppet?) — was so irrationally angry about everything that he was practically out-irrationally-angrying Rush Limbaugh.

It is a testament to Hugh Bonneville’s inherent warmth and likability as an actor that, while watching this episode, I merely wanted to punch Robert in the mouth, as opposed to hiring a hit man-footman (that’s a hit man, disguised as a footman) to have him killed. Honestly, listen to the litany of things Lord Donk said in this episode:

To his daughter Edith, upon hearing that she would like to care for a little girl who, as far as Robert knows, is an orphaned child: “You can’t just give the child up when you get bored.”

To his wife, after she said she sees no harm in having a wireless: “That’s because you’re American, but I find the whole idea kind of a thief of life. That people should waste hours huddled around a wooden box, babbling inanities at them from somewhere else.” Yes, why do that, Lord Grantham, when we can huddle around you and listen to you babble inanities from right here in this very room?

Regarding the possibility that Tom might leave Downton with his daughter and spend his life with Sarah Bunting, a woman Lord Donk referred to as “a tin-pot Rosa Luxemburg”: “I am not having Sybill’s only child snatched from everyone she loves to be brought up by some harpy in an American sewer!” (Double bonus points for using “harpy” and “American sewer” in the same outraged sentence.)

And, finally, this corker, to Cora: “And tell your friend Bricker to stop flirting with Isis. There is nothing more ill-bred than trying to steal the affections of someone else’s dog!”

Okay, Donk, you’re complaining that an art historian is hitting on your labrador retriever. Did that make any sense to you as you were saying it? I mean, clearly your real issue is that Bricker was flirting with your wife and your wife seemed to enjoy it, which makes sense since she has to sleep next to Sir Hater of Radios and Alleged Harpys every night. But just say what you mean instead of using breaches of etiquette to justify your reasons for disliking the character played by the delightful Richard E. Grant. Oh, that’s right. Sorry. You can’t just say what you mean. Because you’re a British stereotype. (I know, I know: How typical for someone like me, a harpy in an American sewer, to say such a thing.)

Even Julian Fellowes must have sensed that all the Lord Grantham self-righteousness had gotten too extreme. Which is why, before the hour ended, he tried to redeem good ol' Donk by having him cave in to Lady Rose’s incessant campaign to bring a much-coveted wireless to Downton so they could hear King George’s speech. (Not the King George’s speech from The Kings Speech, BTW, but a previous speech by a previous King George.)

Rose’s obsession with that speaker box once again confirmed that this thinly sketched character is based entirely on the wanting of things — nights on the town, interracial romance, radios — more than any actual, definable personality traits. Nevertheless, I found her wireless obsession relatable in that it reminded me both of Bart and Lisa’s “Can we have a pool, Dad?” nag-fest from the season-six premiere of The Simpsons as well as my own attempt to convince my parents, circa 1983, to get cable television. As I recall, their response to my insistence that I needed MTV also involved the words babbling inanities.

The truth is none of Lord Grantham’s misplaced outrage bothered me as much as both his, and nearly everybody else’s, constant disrespect toward Edith, and the fact that Edith is willing to just sit there and be smacked in the face with it, day after day. I mean, I get it: The love of her life has disappeared and is presumed dead. She can’t acknowledge the existence of their child. (Although now that Hughes found that baby picture — which I mistakenly thought was a photo of Gregson but actually seems to be a photo of Marigold — you just know that child-out-of-wedlock cat will be let out of the bag sometime soon.) Edith is depressed and ashamed and too weak to fight, which is incredibly disheartening to watch after seeing that character become her best self last season.

Seriously, where does her father get off, acting like she’s an 8-year-old who will abandon her interest in the little girl (actual daughter) she’s decided to care for, or by suggesting that the Drewes will get sick of her? And who is Mary to add to Edith’s embarrassment regarding the near-burning of Downton by telling her sister she behaved “like an idiot”? This is all so Edith circa seasons one, two, and mostly three, and it’s getting old. Edith is probably the most grounded and reasonable member of the whole Crawley family, which the rest of them would notice if they could extract their aristocratic heads from their own backsides.

That being said, her “Godmother to Marigold” plan is destined to backfire. At some point, Tim Crewe’s wife has to put 1 and 1 together and realize that Edith is this child’s mother, if someone else doesn’t realize it first. The fact that she hasn’t yet is surely more a matter of dragging-out-this-narrative convenience than a detail that makes actual sense.

Oh, hey! A paragraph ago, I used the word backside, which is a very vaguely naughty term, which means it’s time to talk about the very vaguely naughty business involving Lady Mary, Lord Gillingham, Anna, and the contraception situation. Listen, here’s the thing: At some point in life, every employee has to purchase a diaphragm for her boss and act like she’s buying it for herself. I mean: We’ve all been there. But the rude woman at the Downton Abbey equivalent of the local Walgreens — I believe her name was Mrs. Slut R. Shamer of Yorkshire — was judgey to such an over-the-top degree that I wondered if she and Robert had compared notes about how to speak to people earlier in the day. “There’s always abstinence,” she suggested to Anna, who took this sexist abuse just long enough to dash out of there with a boxed-up cervical cap in hand.

“Was it GAHST-ly?” Mary asked in amusingly hoity-toity fashion when Anna returned from the errand. It was. But even more GAHST-ly was the fact that Anna went to all that trouble solely to aid and abet Mary’s sex-having with Lord Gillingham, who wooed his Mary in Liverpool by proposing a “scrumptious dinner” followed by a night of making love until they ran out of stamina. While intended to be steamy, the whole thing felt about as hot as that moment in last week’s episode when Mary announced she was going upstairs to remove her hat. I mean: scrumptious? Lord Yawnington is starting to look very much like the Frasier Crane to Mary’s Diane Chambers, while Charles Blake — who paid Downton a visit and actually used the word sex in conversation, in a sexy way — may be her Sam Malone, albeit a much smarter, more sophisticated Sam Malone. (Those were all Cheers references, by the way, and if you didn’t understand them, please stop reading this and immediately start watching all the Shelley Long seasons of Cheers on Netflix.)

Did other things happen on Downton Abbey this week that also spoke to the changing of tides and/or eventual revealing of secrets in the Crawley world? Sure. In lightning-round form, they were:

  • The decision to place the war memorial in a modest, grassy area in town, as opposed to on Lord Grantham’s cricket field, which means that Carson and Robert are basically tied in the game called “Who’s Winning the War Memorial Committee?” Although Carson won, too, in a way, since the resolution of that issue put him and Mrs. Hughes back on the same side of things. (His regret that they weren’t on the same side for a while is probably the closest we’ll ever get to hearing Carson tell Hughes he loves her.)
  • Tom shared controversial opinions about Russia over dinner since Sarah Bunting couldn’t be there to do it herself. It appears Tom’s on the cusp of wanting to break away from Downton and get back to the person he once was: a rager against the machine. Is this surprising? Not even a little.
  • Barrow told Molesley the whole story about Baxter’s previous jewel thievery, although there still seems to be more to that story. Nevertheless, hearing about Baxter’s sordid past really upset Molesley. Kudos to Kevin Doyle for his performance in that confrontation with Baxter. He was so vulnerable and nakedly hurt that it made me genuinely care about Molesley as a human being for the first time, well, ever. Meanwhile, Cora still hasn’t fired Baxter, which probably means she won’t fire her. I mean, if some jewels go missing at this point, Baxter will obviously be the first person that Cora — oh, crud. I just realized what Thomas is going to do sometime in the next couple of episodes.
  • Speaking of Thomas, he happily escorted a local policeman into Carson’s office (best line of the night: “Thank you, Mr. Barrow, your scare-mongering has not succeeded”),  at which point said constable told Carson and Mr. Hughes that a witness to the death of Lord Gillingham’s valet — did you honestly think we could make it through a whole episode without mention of this?? — has suddenly surfaced. Is it possible to push this whole plotline in front of a speeding bus, then confess to the crime so we can all move on? No? Damn.
  • And, finally, again, speaking of Thomas, the character that Downton Abbey can’t decide whether to loathe or pity, he said good-bye to his beloved Hot Jimmy, who got canned after getting his freak on with Lady Anstruther. “I’m sad to see the back of you,” Hot Jimmy told Thomas before he departed. (Sad to see the back of you? That’s exactly what Hot Jimmy said to Thomas that time Thomas tried to jump in bed with him. HI-yo!) For real, though, the light in our lives will be dimmer without Hot Jimmy’s presence. So let’s pay him proper tribute by singing him out, to the tune of “Fare Thee Well,” a folk song covered by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford on the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack:

 “So show us Hot Jimmy, making Alfred & Ivy mad
Life ain’t worth living without Jimmy being a cad.
Fare thee well, Hot Jimmy …
Fare thee well.
Fare thee well, Hot Jimmyyyyy
Fare thee well.”