Let’s be honest with ourselves, Downton fans: Most of us tune in to this show for the fights. Granted, we’re usually disappointed. Aside from the occasional dance hall melee, mugging/beating of Thomas on Hot Jimmy’s behalf, or heated tussle between Matthew (aw, Matthew, we miss you) and Sir Richard (aw, Sir Richard, no one misses you), there’s isn’t much down-and-dirty, mano-a-mano action going on from episode to episode.
But this week, oh, this week, a major boxing match — the Big Boom in Cora’s Bedroom — finally goes down. In this corner: Lord Robert Grantham, super pissed off and dressed like a member of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the other corner: Mr. Bricker, super horny for Cora and dressed in what appears to be a woman’s silk bathrobe purchased at Macy’s with a 20-percent-off coupon.
Bricker: I’m not here at Lady Grantham’s invitation.
Robert: Then will you please leave at mine?
Bricker: You can’t be surprised. When you chose to ignore a woman like Cora, you must have known not every man would be as blind as you are.
Robert: You know what? I take back my previous use of the word please!
Then: FIGHT! FIGHT! Fists fly! Tiny, elegant tables are upended! Sgt. Pepper’s uniforms are rumpled! There’s such a flurry of mad violence that it attracts the attention of … one person.
Edith: Mama? Papa? Is everything all right in there?
Cora: Your father and I were just playing a stupid game. “Beat Up the Overly Handsy Art Historian Guy,” I think it’s called. Anyway, we knocked over a lamp, but it’s fine. Two men aren’t in here rolling around on the floor and fighting over my honor or anything like that.
Edith: All right then. I suppose I’ll just go back to my room, where I can continue feeling desperately sad while attempting not to set anything on fire. Good night!
Even though the fight pretty much fizzles out from there, it is by far the most exciting thing in this week’s episode of Downton Abbey, another hour that feels eventful because there are just so damn many scenes, but in actuality only a few important things happen. Honestly, Downton Abbey may be the only show on TV that trudges along at breakneck speed.
Take, for example, that scene in the rain with Tom and Sarah Bunting, which starts very abruptly and clumsily in the middle of a conversation that is never actually heard in its entirety. Why are they both in the street, in the rain? We’ll never know, much as we’ll never understand how Sarah could ask the following question about her relationship with Tom versus his relationship with the Crawleys with a straight face: “I’ve made it them or me?” Of course, you’ve made it them or me. Were you not at the dinner in last week’s episode when you went on and on about how the rich want to keep the poor in their place until Lord Grantham banned you from Downton with more ferocious anger than a grocer prohibiting Seinfeld’s Kramer from ever again purchasing mangoes?
Despite Daisy’s efforts to convince Tom that Sarah truly loves him and that he should beg her to stay, Tom decides to wish her well and let her go. I can’t say I blame him. Even if Tom agrees with her politics, the fact that (as he notes in aforementioned weirdly choppy rain scene) she never even tried to understand Tom’s respect for his late wife’s family seems like an ultimately insurmountable road block. So Sarah moves on, from Tom and to another town.
Sarah is not the only woman in this episode making decisions for herself that are based, to varying degrees, on the choices of men.
Take Anna Bates, who continues to make terrible life choices to save her husband from potential punishment (even though she doesn’t know whether he actually committed a crime) and a murdered rapist-valet from being revealed as a valet who raped before he was murdered. Based on evidence that still seems shaky at best, Sgt. Willis and an inspector from Scotland Yard show up at Downton to get to the bottom of things. “None of it makes any sense,” Anna tells Mary when Mary wonders why they want to question her. Oh, you got that right, sister.
Mary tells a white lie, explaining to the inspector that she has no reason to think Mr. Bates was anywhere near London on the day Green died. (Hey, Mary: That train ticket you burned would say otherwise, if anyone could dig it out of the ash.) As for Anna, she’s truthful about having been in London the day Green died, but lies by claiming to have liked the man. In her defense, she’s in a very tough place: If she says now, months after the fact, that Green raped her, the cops will wonder why she never reported the crime. Too many eyebrows will be raised. She should have just said something and reported it when it happened; the fact that she didn’t because of her stupid concern about her husband’s stupid temper continues to anger me, especially because I fear Downton Abbey is heading down a road that will lead to Anna Bates serving time for kill-shoving Lord Gillingham’s valet when her husband is the one who actually did the kill-shoving. If that happens, it will be the most extreme example of blaming a rape victim for being raped that I can think of without forcing myself to scan some extremely misogynistic Twitter and Reddit feeds.
To quote Mrs. Hughes: “I wish men worried about our feelings a quarter as much as we worry about theirs.” Indeed, over and over in this episode, our female (and often male!) Downtonites worry about what other people might think of them. Is it gauche to host a cocktail party instead of a formal, seated dinner? If Patmore doesn’t take Carson’s advice about how to invest her recently inherited money — “I have some good news for a change: an old aunt’s died!” — will it crush his man-feelings? And do the rules of the old-school society in which these people live dictate that Edith send her Marigold away to France before the child’s existence damages her reputation?
Rosamund and Violet both say yes. But to Edith’s credit, it seems like she’s saying no. At the end of this episode, she slips downstairs to use Carson’s phone — unofficial communications device for orchestrating all clandestine Downton affairs — and makes a call to London that suggests maybe she’ll try to take the child into the city without anyone knowing. Either that, or she’s also planning to hit that Choose Your Own Path seminar, which means in the next episode, she and Thomas may both be ambling around looking like they’re auditioning to be background extras on The Walking Dead.
No, for real: I think Edith’s trying to lay the groundwork to make an escape. Which will involve getting Marigold back from the Drewes (which is not going to be easy), getting out of Downton with her (also not easy), and living in London under an assumed identity with her daughter. Or something. Look, I don’t know how it’s all going to work, I just know I support Edith growing a pair of ovaries that haven’t been deflated by patriarchal society and doing what she needs to do to build a life for herself that isn’t dictated by outdated notions of what constitutes “proper” female behavior.
Women on this show constantly find themselves boxed in by others' expectations of them. Which is why, even though she’s hardly striking a blow for feminism by potentially marrying a lord, it’s nice to see Isobel assert the fact that she is more than worthy of a relationship with Lord Merton, despite the Dowager Countess’s absurd and pointless attempt to thwart the relationship. (As much as I love me some D.C., I had to cackle when Rosamund put her in her place: “I’m afraid you’ve read somewhere that rudeness in old age is amusing. Which is quite wrong, you know.” They’re both such damn busybodies. I think it’s because of those hats they wear, with all the feathery plumes sprouting out of them? It’s next to impossible to wear a hat like that and not be a busybody. There've been studies.)
And it’s nice to see the most potentially independent of them all, young Rose, meet-cuteing with a guy named Atticus Aldridge … which, by the way, seems like it should already have been the title of its own PBS series, doesn’t it? “Tonight, following episodes of Call the Midwife and Mr. Selfridge, it’s another installment of Atticus Aldridge.” I mean, that sounds like something that’s been said on PBS before, right?
Anyway: Atticus is both hot and Jewish, and that latter fact will further disrupt all sense of calm at the ultra-Anglo-Saxony Downton, assuming Rose decides she fancies him, and she brings him back to Downton, and everyone raises concerns about his religion, and she has to prove that, as she previously insisted, she will not be bullied out of being in a relationship with him because she is a woman who can make her own decisions. All of which will, you know, probably happen, possibly even in a single episode, given the amount of stuff that gets crammed into a single, overstuffed hour of this drama.
The underlying point of all these story lines, but especially Edith’s, is that women should be able to live as they wish without being punished. Which brings us back to Cora, and the aftermath of the Bricker Beatdown.
Following the fight, Robert cold-shoulders his wife something fierce, and everyone seems to notice. For once, it’s possible to understand why Robert is angry: He feels betrayed, and not for the first time, by her relationship with Bricker. And admittedly, Cora did encourage the flirtation, although only to a societally acceptable extent. She enjoyed the attention Bricker paid her. But she didn’t tell him to come to her room, and it’s not her fault that Bricker did, and she doesn’t deserve to be punished because of it, no more than Anna Bates did after Mr. Green forced himself on her last season.
In this episode, when Bricker makes his exit and takes one last backward glance at Downton, he sees Cora staring down at him, looking like a woman trapped in a castle. Her expression is hard to read. Is she angry with him? Sad to see him go? Or, like her daughter Mary, with her ping-ponging between Tony and the sneaky Charles Blake — BTW, he played a royally shitty trick on Mabel by inviting her to that dinner — does she feel so stuck that she has no idea what she really wants anymore?
Maybe Cora’s white lie to Edith wasn’t a lie. Maybe what she and Robert are doing in their relationship is playing a “stupid game,” one that’s rooted in tradition and no longer connected to anything resembling love. For Cora, who I believe is ultimately perfectly satisfied and comfortable with her life as it is, maybe it’s too late to alter anything. But for her daughters and the other women of Downton, both upstairs and down, it may not be. To borrow Daisy’s words: Those women are the future. And women like Cora? Well, maybe they’re the past.