This week, Downton Abbey finally provides some answers to some long-simmering questions, and it makes for the best episode of this plodding fifth season so far. Why do I call it the best? Because it attempts to at least commence the tying of loose ends, gives several story lines a sense of forward momentum, and, among other things, allows Mr. Bates to refer to a diaphragm as “a cunning piece of equipment,” a description that could also easily apply to the diabolical toaster Patmore acquired back in season three. Oh, and also because it shows off Mary’s insensitive yet undeniably bomb-ass haircut.
Don’t worry — there will be more discussion of Mary’s new ’do, which is obviously, in its own way, a cunning piece of equipment … or at least so attractive that it means Mary will probably need the original “cunning piece of equipment” again, really soon, amirite? But, first, let’s run through some of those aforementioned answers that fall from the sky this week like sobering, plot-resolution raindrops.
The big one, obviously, is the confirmation of Michael Gregson’s demise. The love of Edith’s life is definitely dead. His remains have been identified and it appears he was indeed beaten to death by Hitler’s “gang of thugs,” as long suspected. “At least they’ve locked Hitler up for five long years,” says Cora when she hears the news. Yes, Lady Cora, thank God Hitler's been imprisoned, which means he’ll never terrorize anyone else, ever again. Phew. Dodged a real bullet there.
Of course everyone pretty much knew Gregson was a goner, but, as Anna wisely notes, “He didn’t die for Lady Edith until this afternoon.” Which is why, after so much buildup and waiting, it’s pretty disappointing that we don’t actually get to see Lady Edith receive the devastating news from her editor. Edith, and by extension actress Laura Carmichael, gets short shrift in every possible way, including the privilege of a nice, juicy, Emmy-bait crying scene. Even worse, no one in the family reaches out in any meaningful way to comfort her. Cora keeps saying, “Poor, poor Edith,” in her classic, over-enunciated, condescending way, but without actually speaking to her daughter, while everyone else acts like everything is totally normal. Then there’s Mary, who decides that Edith’s moment of profound grief is the perfect time to get a makeover. (Again: more on the quality of this haircut later.)
Edith should be applauded for telling Mary what a selfish, self-involved little bee-otch she is, then apologizing to Atticus — who has rather quickly become, more or less, Rose’s fiancé — by saying, “I’m sorry, Mr. Aldridge, but you might as well know what we’re like.”
Edith, still speaking to Atticus: Yes, this is our family. Mary constantly reminds me what a burden I am, while my parents don’t bother to reprimand her for being such a royal ice queen, and then I swiftly exit the room in a huff that gets punctuated in my absence by a well-timed bon mot from my grandmama. Seriously, Mr. Aldridge: we have been doing this same shit for four-plus seasons. Can you even believe it?”
It’s quite clear that the Crawleys don’t understand how much Gregson means to Edith, partly because they don’t know the two have a child together, but also because they have never bothered to see Edith as she truly is, in the clear light of day. They still perceive her as they’ve always seen her in the dim, dinner-party light of Downton: old dumb-bunny Edith, the constant Debbie Downer who gets ditched at the altar by codgers, then finally finds a nice man but of course manages to wind up with yet another crisis on her hands, because everything Edith touches turns to sad garbage. Edith can never be her true self until she gets out of there, which is why it’s so heartening at the end of this episode to see her finally sneak off to London with her daughter to find — if I may wax a little Virginia Woolf–y for a second — a room of her own.
By the way, that scene in which Edith wrests Marigold away from Mrs. Drewe is just crushing. I actually teared up a little, something I rarely do while watching Downton these days. Kudos to Emma Lowndes, who plays Mrs. Drewe; her surrender of the child is so wrenching that it made me finally feel some empathy for that woman, despite how rude (albeit understandably) she’s been to Edith. In that moment and a couple of others, including the really sweet exchange between Molesley and Daisy, Julian Fellowes & Co. actually let some of the scenes on this week’s Downton Abbey breathe a little. We get to pause and see the humanity in some of these characters, as opposed to what we usually do, which is speed through every plot point as though we, too, are in some sort of horse race. (Riding sidesaddle, of course. Because we’re proper ladies.)
To be clear, there’s still a fair amount of plot-racing in this hour, in addition to (of course) more narrative answers. For example, we now know that Bates did not kill Lord Gillingham’s valet after all. Oh, as he explains to Anna, he was going to; he bought a train ticket to London with the intent to shove-murder Mr. Green and everything! But he didn’t actually do it. Anna’s relief at her husband’s confession seems to confirm that she didn’t kill the valet-rapist either. So who did? Well, that's still unclear. But because Anna is now on a crusade to prove Mr. Bates’s innocence, we can all be pretty certain that she, Mr. Bates, or possibly both of them will be convicted and executed for a crime they didn’t commit. The interrogation of Baxter certainly didn’t help their case. Although case seems like an inflated word for the investigation that Sergeant Willis and Mr. Vyne, that detective from Scotland Yard, are running. I’d say it’s more like a "weak theory founded on hearsay and shoddy police work." Seriously, this was the interrogation of Baxter in a nutshell, as conducted by the Rust Cohle and Marty Hart of Downton Abbey.
Vyne: Miss Baxter, before I ask you questions about something that happened at Downton before you were even here and therefore could know nothing substantive about, I’d just like to remind you that if you don’t tell us who murdered Mr. Green, you will go back to jail.
Mrs. Hughes: That seems a little preposterou—
Vyne: Silence! I have a lot of questions. Now, Miss Baxter: We received an anonymous letter that says you know stuff. So: tell us the stuff.
Baxter: I believe there was an incident at Downton involving Mr. Green. I do not know what the nature of the incident was, nor who was involved in it, nor even if it actually occurred. I also believe there may have been a journey to London no one knew about — but who took the journey and why, I cannot say. I don’t even know how I know this information, to be honest. It’s possible it came to me in a haze, after I dropped one of Lady Grantham’s heavy breakfast trays on my right foot and briefly lost consciousness.
Vyne: You don’t even know if Mr. Bates made that journey to London?
Vyne: Very well. I could ask you some pertinent follow-up questions about the Mr. Green incident to which you just referred, as well as why no one knew about the aforementioned journey to London taken by some unnamed individual. But since we came all this way to question you, I think it best that we just give up, accept your non-answers to all two of our questions, and take leave. But don’t worry, we’ll be back in next week’s episode to once again ask one or two questions without properly pressing for real information. Oh, and also to probably take you to jail, because you’re such a nice person and only bad things happen to nice people on Downton Abbey. Bye-bye now!
Fine. So the Lord Gillingham’s Valet Situation isn’t quite settled, perhaps because, like all great philosophical questions, seeking a definitive answer is a futile pursuit. (“If a valet-rapist gets shoved in front of a bus and no one is around to see it — although someone apparently overhears what happens beforehand without seeing it, which still seems suspicious — does it make a sound?”) Still, in other aspects, the rest of our principal Downtonites are resolving matters by (ironically) following Edith's lead: by pressing on and investing in new futures for themselves.
It’s what Isobel has done by deciding to accept Lord Merton’s proposal. (If Violet tries any harder to swallow her resentment over that relationship, she will do permanent damage to her esophagus.) It’s what Violet does by telling Prince Kuragin that Shrimpy may have tracked down Kuragin’s long-lost princess, thereby cementing her desire for closure regarding their long-ago affair. (If the Dowager Countess has any ideas about possibly rekindling their romance, one can see them evaporate all over her face as Kuragin pours her that cup of sludgy tea.)
It’s what Robert does when he forgives Cora for the Bricker incident, albeit only after she tells him to continue sleeping elsewhere “if you can honestly say you have never let a flirtation get out of hand since we married.” Which, due to that time he put his mouth on Jane the maid, he honestly cannot say. (I only wish Robert would take Cora’s advice to take Isis to the damn vet, stat.) It’s what Patmore does when she decides to invest in her dream retirement home: an exceedingly tiny house, with basically no kitchen and its own Jiffy John! (They really dream big, that Downton staff.) It’s what Carson does when he asks Mrs. Hughes if she’d be interested in investing in a property together, which is probably as close as Carson will ever get to asking her to have sex. And, finally, it’s what Mary does when she, with Blake’s help, continues to push Lady Mabel into Tony’s path. Although that haircut seems a little at odds with that effort.
Ah, the haircut. We’re finally there, folks. “I think she’s splendid,” says Isobel of Mary’s new look. “I think she’s cracked,” says the Dowager Countess. And I say: She’s both!
Mary is splendid-looking in that ultra-flapper-style bob, but she’s also cracked for getting the haircut in the first place, partly because of how insensitive it is to Edith, but also because she clearly does it to prove that she’s still enticing to both Tony and Charles. Why does she even need to do that if she knows Charles is still interested and she doesn’t want Tony anymore anyway? It’s petty and childish and emblematic of all the terrible qualities Mary supposedly left behind after she married Matthew. But this season, those horrible qualities are back in even fuller force, apparently because Lady Mary’s existence has become an opportunity to troll Downton fans.
Still: as wrong as it is for her to show up at the point-to-point while flaunting her modern womanhood like she’s starring in her own Enjoli commercial (that’s an old-school perfume reference for all you kids out there), you have to admit that when she does, I mean, hot damn, call the police and the fireman. (Well, not Sergeant Willis, because he’s the worst. And not volunteer fireman Mr. Drewe, because that would be awkward.) When Lady Mabel describes Mary’s appearance as “a cross between a Vogue fashion plate and a case of dynamite,” she hits the nail right on the head. That’s another reason Downton is great this week: So much of the dialogue just zings, from Isobel’s “Oh, don’t; I’m enjoying it immensely,” delivered with just the right dryness during Violet’s dispute with her new maid, to the Dowager Countess’s classic observation: “All this endless thinking. It’s very overrated. I blame the war — before 1914, nobody thought about anything at all.”
Meanwhile, Mary seems to be attempting, with mixed results, to embrace a new-school sort of femininity. But when it comes to sexuality, her efforts are nothing compared to Thomas's struggles. Another mystery solved this week: He’s not on heroin or any other drug. He’s been taking pills and giving himself injections of saline, to follow up on the electrotherapy that was supposed to “cure” him of his homosexuality. But he winds up with an abscess on his butt, an abscess he got because he’s been taking shots in the rear to curb his gayness.
Wow. That’s quite the overt sexual metaphor there, Downton Abbey.
Dr. Clarkson fixes him up, though, and tells Thomas he’s been duped. Still, he does not advise Thomas to embrace his true self and share it with the world, because that’s something someone would say in a TV show set in 2015. No, Clarkson, very 1920s-Britishly, tells him to “accept the burden chance has seen fit to lay upon you, and to fashion as good a life as you’re able.”
The whole thing is really, really sad, although will probably seem less sad when Thomas starts acting like a bastard again two episodes from now. Still, that advice — about accepting burdens and trying to create a happy life despite them — is practically the motto of Downton Abbey. Although Clarkson might be wrong when he adds that “harsh reality is always better than false hope,” as if harshness and hope can’t co-exist. (They certainly can, as demonstrated by Edith’s move to London.)
Obviously Edith is still devastated by Michael’s loss and her family’s continued disregard for her feelings. But now she has an inheritance coming her way, and she’s got her Marigold at long last. Together, they can share Champagne wishes and ice-cream dreams, and (ideally) a life in which neither of them has to pretend anymore. Is that a false hope? Perhaps. But at this point, any hope that Edith Crawley can experience is worth something.
Now, will someone please take Isis to the damn vet already?