Downton Abbey Recap: Sex, Lies, and Spotted Dick

Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films
Downton Abbey
Episode Title
Episode Three
Editor’s Rating

Dishonesty was truly busting out all over England in this week’s episode of Downton Abbey. Just about everybody was telling lies, usually about something related to sex: the having of it, or an unacknowledged desire to have it, or the fact that a recently used contraceptive device was being hidden in a coat pocket ... the latter of which sounds like the kind of thing that happens in a Prince song, not during an hour of Masterpiece Presents: Downton Abbey. I mean, my heavens: In 1924, is there at long last no sense of decency?

But this week, after the diaphragm was used a great many times during Mary’s weeklong Tony Gillingham snog-a-thon in Liverpool, Mary gives it back to Anna so she can hide it?! Look, I’m all for sisterhood. But there comes a point when even the best, most loyal woman has to say to her boss/gal-pal: “I want to help you. I really do. But I cannot take responsibility for any object that’s previously been shoved up your hoo-ha, especially if that object could later be found in my possession and used as evidence that I was never raped by the dead valet who used to work for the man whose voracious sexual appetite is the whole reason I had to buy you this dumb diaphragm in the first stupid place.” Sometimes you really do have to say that. Am I right?

At this point, I should note that I have not watched any episodes of Downton Abbey season five beyond the one I am recapping at this moment. I have no idea if Mary’s sperm-blocker — or, to use Anna’s medical jargon, “You mean the thing” — will turn out to be the diaphragm that comes back to haunt Anna Bates forever. But so much fuss has been made about it that it seems like it must be important. Plus, at this point, playing the prediction game seems like more fun than analyzing the line of familiar behavior and themes that, so far, has paraded through every episode this season. The show is becoming so redundant that even I’m becoming redundant by pointing out how redundant it all is.

Oh, forget it. Let’s just get back to the lies, lies, lies, yeah! (I finally worked a Thompson Twins reference into one of these recaps. Take that, bucket list.) So, question: Of all the lying liars in this week’s Downton, who was the lying-est liar of them all?

Was it … Lady Mary, who is dishonest with her family (aside from her granny and brother-in-law Tom) about what she really did during her time away from Downton and, more important, dishonest with Tony about her intentions to marry him? She can clearly see a life of nonstop boredom ahead if she chooses to become his wife. But she also does not want to be “tarnished again,” which she might be if she dumps the guy and people later find out the two spent seven days playing Hide the Spotted Dick. Which they will. If you can count on just one thing about Downton Abbey, it’s that people will always find out about things that our main characters want to keep private. Oh, and also that Mrs. Patmore will say something unintentionally hilarious. (For those keeping score, this is the second reference to Patmore’s “Come and carry the spotted dick” outburst, easily the greatest thing in this episode.) 

Or was the lying-est liar … the Dowager Countess, whose jaw hits the floor, then drills through several layers of sediment after Spratt announces that he had seen Mary and Tony exiting from the same hotel in Liverpool? You have to hand it to the ol' DC, man: She can recover and concoct a fib faster than the Grinch can come up with a Santy Claus alibi for Cindy Lou Who. Although, granted, that fib was pretty farfetched. They were at a conference? What exactly happened at that conference, Lady Violet? Did Mary give a keynote on the finer nuances of pig-farming, then join her northern landowner colleagues for a brainstorming bootcamp on deriving inspiration from the paying of property taxes? Spratt has no choice but to buy that load of B.S., of course. Unless he was listening outside the door when Violet and Mary discussed all the particulars of her tryst. Which he probably was. I mean, the guy has rat embedded right there in the middle of his name, and he talks like Severus Snape with a lozenge permanently embedded in his throat, so he must be up to something unsavory.

But that wasn’t the Dowager Countess’s only untruth. She lies again by telling Mary that no proper woman could ever be tempted by a man who was not her husband, even going so far as to say that, “In my day, a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she’d been instructed to do so by her mama.” Yeah, okay, old-and-sad Lorraine McFly from the beginning of Back to the Future. We all know that’s not true because along came Violet’s Prince, as in Kuragin the Russian, who showed up unexpectedly at that Downton reception and acknowledged that, years ago, he gave Violet a hand fan that folds open and closed, which was CLEARLY the 19th-century aristocratic equivalent of sending a sext. When Violet later tells Mary her meeting with Prince Kuragin was perfectly respectable, is she lying yet again? Is it possible there was, to use the Dowager Countess’s own hideous euphemism for conceiving a child, an “unwanted epilogue” to that relationship? (There probably wasn’t. But I like the idea of some random Brit — preferably played by Benedict Cumberbatch — showing up on Downton’s doorstep and announcing that he’s Robert’s long-lost younger half-brother.)

Or was the lying-est liar … Lady Cora? She isn't entirely honest with her husband about the nature of her dinner with Mr. Bricker, which definitely got a little flirty. Actually, Cora doesn’t lie to Robert about it, exactly — nothing really “happened.” They didn’t even exchange hand fans in an act of steamy but unspoken sexual tension. The bigger deception might be the lie that Cora has been telling herself: that she belongs with the husband who consistently belittles her opinion instead of a Mr. Bricker, who (seemingly) values her taste.

Fine, Lady Cora’s clearly not the lying-est of liars. But what about … Thomas Barrow, who tells Carson he needed to take some time off of work because his father is ill, even though Barrow’s dad is most definitely not ill? Lying about the impending death of a parent is pretty high up there as far as unforgivable fabrications go. (You just know Baxter is going to find out Barrow’s dad is healthy, which will finally give her the upper hand in their ongoing power struggle that stopped making sense sometime last season and that absolutely no one cares about. So: Huzzah!)

What is Thomas up to, though? That clandestine phone call suggested he wants to attend a seminar called “Choose Your Own Path.” Is he trying to better himself? Start a new career? Hey, maybe he’s going to one of those conferences for northern landowners that are all the rage in Liverpool these days!

You’d think I’d be out of liars by now, but no, there’s still Edith, who continues to keep her motherly status a secret at her own peril. Now she’s temporarily banned from seeing Marigold because Tim Draw’s wife thinks Edith is trying to out-mommy her, not realizing, of course, that Edith is actually the mommy here. This is a classic example of Shit on Downton Abbey That Could Easily Be Resolved Via One Reasonable Adult Conversation. Why can’t Tim just explain the situation to his wife? Wouldn’t she be more understanding if she knew why Edith is so invested in the child? Might she be more willing to accommodate Edith, being a mother herself who could empathize with Edith’s pain? Why can’t people just TALK to each other and work stuff out in 1920s England?

Which brings us, finally, grudgingly, to the matter of Sgt. Willis and Mr. Bates and the newly invigorated investigation into the death of Mr. Greene, the valet-rapist. Oh my God, just writing that gave me a huge headache.

There are a lot of liars involved in this one. First, there’s Bates himself, who tells Willis he went to York and only York on the day the valet got shoved into the path of an oncoming bus, even though Bates’s train ticket from York to London suggested otherwise. Mary burned that ticket, though, so only she — and also Mrs. Hughes, because Mrs. Hughes is the nucleus around which Downton gossip orbits — knows that Bates had that ticket and is probably lying to police. And, of course, they’re both lying to Anna about knowing it, and also about the fact that Bates knows Anna was raped by Greene. And Anna and Bates are lying to each other about what they know regarding that assault. And quite frankly, the witnesses in this case — who have gotten inexplicably chatty about the whole matter all of a sudden — sound like they might be making up stuff, too. Why would some random woman retroactively remember hearing Greene say, “Why have you come?” right before he got tossed under that bus, yet neither she nor anyone else actually saw Bates (or anyone) do the shoving? Oh ... because lazy writing. Right.

So I guess that makes Bates the lying-est liar. Unless he didn’t really murder the guy, or the London train ticket wasn’t really his, in which case Mary is the lying-est liar, because she’s lying about so many things to so many people at the same time. I guess?

UGH. All I know is I just want to have a nice cup of tea and a little bit of spotted dick (third reference!) and think about people who aren’t fibbing it up all over the place. Like Baxter, who tells Cora the whole story about why she stole that jewelry — to impress some sinister dude named Peter Coyle — or good ol' Patmore, who very humbly asks if her nephew could be honored on the Downton war memorial and is immediately rebuffed by Carson. Carson tells Hughes that Patmore’s nephew, a war deserter, was a coward, but Carson didn’t even have the courage to tell poor Patmore that himself, to her face. God. Such a spotted-dick move. (Fourth reference!)

It’s like Patmore said: “Sympathy butters no parsnips.” I have no freaking idea what that means. But I’ll tell you this: Truer words were never spoken.