Last week’s episode of Downton Abbey was hardly all cotton candy and giggle fits, but the show hummed along with more energy than it had all season prior. There was a horse race! Mary became the star of her own Salon Selectives commercial! Things were, possibly, maybe, starting to look up!
Well, that was then. And this is now: In this week’s Downton Abbey, things are back to the usual plodding plotting punctuated by sad dog deaths — oh, Isis! — and narrative developments that don’t quite make sense. (Read: everything that’s happening with Edith right now.) These situations are either taking a blatant turn for the worse, or they're hinting at the possibility of hard times ahead.
Isobel’s having second thoughts about marrying Lord Merton because at least one of his sons, Larry Grey, is, as previously established in season three, a total dickhead. (Actual description of Merton’s first-born child on the Downton Abbey Wiki: “The Honourable Laurence ‘Larry’ Grey is the elder son of Lord Merton and is a dickhead.” Hey, if it's on the internet, it must be true.)
The once seemingly promising union between Mary and Tony is now officially over. Mary finally convinces Tony they’re dunzo — even though that should have been pretty obvious, since they’ve barely been talking to each other for the past three episodes — by being kissed publicly by Charles Blake, making her goosey seem even more loosey than it already did. Oh, but Blake’s going to Poland for months, maybe a year — hell, maybe a decade. Who can say? So Mary’s list of diaphragm-worthy suitors pretty much goes from two to zero in a single evening.
Rose agrees to wed Atticus, which is wonderful news, if one can stop thinking about the horrible things that may eventually happen to them, as well as any children they may have, once Hitler rises to power. Anna and Bates decide they can “dare to plan their futures again,” since an entire episode has gone by without Sgt. Willis or Mr. Vyne showing up to half-assedly interrogate anyone. Which of course probably means the Bates’ futures will be hella ruined at some point in the two episodes of season five that remain.
And then there’s poor, poor Isis, the loyal family lab who’s been lying around like a sack of wet bricks and would clearly have shouted, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TAKE ME TO THE VET, YOU JACKASSES!” multiple times by now if she had the power to speak. But alas, this is Downton Abbey, not Dog With a Blog, so Robert only discovers she has cancer after it’s too late. Isis is in such bad shape that, by episode’s end, Robert and Cora choose to lay her in bed between them so she can die overnight, surrounded by the love of her owners and freshly laundered sheets with an exceptionally high thread count. What? I’m not crying for that sweet, sickly dog who’s wrapped up in that sad little afghan and about to breathe her last, blessed breath. Not at all.
The Isis illness is one of two genuinely teary moments in this week’s episode, the other being the Dowager Countess’s “dewy-eyed” confession that she’s sad about Isobel’s pending nuptials because she’ll miss having her as a frequent companion. Earlier in the episode, Violet reminds Mary that a lack of compassion can be “as vulgar as an excess of tears.” But Maggie Smith’s vulnerability when she talks about Isobel is not at all vulgar; it plucks emotional strings without yanking on them too much, which, presumably, guarantees that Dame Smith will be nominated for her fifth consecutive supporting-actress Emmy Award later this year.
While the sentimental moments in this episode are welcome, elsewhere, unlike last week, it seems we’re not getting anywhere. We still don’t know who killed stupid Green (although Baxter seems willing to throw herself under a bus, if not into an oncoming one, to make sure Bates doesn’t get framed). Tom leans toward leaving Downton ... but does not officially go. The only two really significant things that happen this week, aside from the loss of Isis, involve two women contemplating futures without the men they hoped to marry.
The first of those women is, of course, Lady Edith. To recap: Edith finally escapes from Downton! She proves she can manage as a single mom attempting to run her own publishing company! And she does this for … all of two days, before agreeing to return to Downton. In the name of the Isis angel currently wagging her tail alongside all the other dogs gone to heaven: So many things are wrong with the way the Edith situation is being handled, by the people who live at Downton Abbey, or the people who make Downton Abbey the TV show, or both. Let’s make a list.
1. When Mrs. Drewe finally shares with Cora the earth-shattering news that Edith has a child, we don’t see it. When Mary and Matthew got married, we didn’t get to see the ceremony. Last week, when Edith finally received the news that Michael was dead, we didn’t get to watch it happen. Then, in this episode, Cora finally learns that Edith has a daughter — that she, Cora, has a third grandchild who has been alive for roughly two years without her knowledge — and we don’t get to see her grapple with that information as it’s imparted to her. Sentence I actually wrote in my notes because of this: WILL WE EVER SEE PEOPLE FINDING OUT STUFF?
Downton Abbey is a drama. Yet the creative team behind it spends multiple episodes building up to certain dramatic reveals, then ultimately decides: “Hey, you know what? Let’s show what happens right after the big, dramatic thing. Because post-games are always far more interesting than the actual game.” UGH. I suppose it was semi-satisfying to see Cora lay into Violet and Rosamund for keeping her in the dark about Edith. Robert, of course, remains clueless because, as the Dowager Countess notes, “He’s a man. Men don’t have rights.”
2. For some reason, Atticus — at this point, still an outsider to the family — is the only person who realizes the best way to find Edith is to contact her office.
Atticus: Lord Grantham was saying that Gregson left Lady Edith his publishing company.
Rose: Yes, that’s right.
Atticus: Then shouldn’t somebody telephone the office? Wouldn’t she go there? They must know where to find her.
Rose: Call her at work? Oh my heavens, you’re a genius!
Atticus: It seems rather obvious to me. Seriously, does anyone in your family understand how life works outside of this bubble of aristocratic poshness?
Rose: Not at all. We have no idea how to make our own meals and can’t dress ourselves without help. We’re basically giant toddlers!
While it’s completely wrong that no one else in the Crawley family even considers contacting Edith’s office, further proof that they’ve made no effort to consider Edith’s life outside Downton period, Atticus’s befuddled “It seems rather obvious to me” is actually an example of Downton Abbey doing something right: poking fun at the Crawley family and, by extension, itself. I’d love to see this show do more of that. I’d also love to see Edith continue to be assertive in a way that’s consistent with the way she behaved in last week’s episode, as well as most of last season. Which brings me to the third Edith bone that demands to be picked.
3. Edith agrees to go home with only a minimal fight. In last week’s episode, Edith chose to flee Downton partly due to her grief, partly because Violet and Rosamund were threatening to send Marigold away, but also, and this is no small thing, because her family consistently treats her with colossal insensitivity. Yet when Cora and Rosamund track her down in London, after some initial pushback, she agrees pretty readily to Cora’s semi-preposterous plan to set up Edith and Marigold at Downton.
Sure, Edith initially refuses to talk with them. She also won’t let Cora see Marigold right away. But when Cora proposes a way for her to return to Downton with her daughter, Edith never says anything to the effect of “Mom, I can’t live at home because you guys treat me with less respect than you show a salad fork that’s been dropped on a floor that needs mopping.” Instead, she just leans right on into the notion of spending her life at Downton again, partly because she feels it’s her only option if she wants to stay involved with Gregson’s magazine, but mainly because it’s narratively convenient for her character to do so. Opting for Cora’s solution — that Edith pretend to take in Marigold as the foster child the Drewes can’t afford to raise — creates all kinds of opportunities for shenanigans to ensue back at Downton, and Isis knows, Julian Fellowes & Co. cannot resist the opportunity for shenanigans. As a result, the audience is deprived of the chance to see Edith really forge her own identity outside of the family unit, which is a shame.
4. Cora’s plan: destined to fail. Ludicrous. Insanity. These are the words Rosamund uses to describe Cora’s scheme regarding Edith, and for once, I actually agree with her. The idea of Edith taking in Marigold as though she’s not really her daughter? Fine, okay, that’s not so crazy, although Mrs. Drewe is definitely going to lob a few monkey wrenches in the direction of that plan, particularly since it makes her look like a poverty-stricken, ill-equipped mother. But keeping Marigold’s identity a secret from everyone else in the family? There’s no way that’s going to work. Cora and Edith couldn’t even get Marigold off the train without running into Mary and briefly turning Downton Abbey into a deleted scene from Fawlty Towers.
At some point, the truth will have to come out, probably in an extremely dramatic moment that Downton Abbey won’t even bother to show us. But enough about all that. Let’s turn our attention to that other key story line, the one involving Isobel.
The Return of Larry Grey, a.k.a. the Dick Who Rears His Ugly Head Again
So for those who don’t recall the awful thing Larry Grey did that everyone in this episode keeps vaguely referencing: Back in season three, he drugged Tom at a Downton dinner, prompting Sybil's then-brand-new husband to go on what, in retrospect, was a pretty Sarah Bunting–esque rant. When Anthony Strallan called out Larry for dropping something illicit in Tom’s drink, Larry owned up to it, then called Tom a “grubby little chauffeur.” In short, the guy was a colossal douche nozzle then, and, as he demonstrates after Isobel and his father announce their engagement, he has only gotten douche-nozzlier since.
First, Larry wonders aloud whether the class disparity between Isobel and his father will be the undoing of their marriage. Then he brashly announces that Isobel might fit in nicely with the other quote-unquote misfit in-laws in the Crawley family, noting: “You already boast a chauffeur, and soon you can claim a Jew.” In a moment designed to show us how far Tom has come since the previous incident, he stands up and, on behalf of the Crawley family and in his thickest Irish accent, calls Larry a bastard and insists that he leave. Lord Grantham backs Tom completely, while making it very clear, for the record, that he does not endorse the use of the word bastard. Meanwhile, Larry’s younger brother, Tim — who asks Isobel how else she could have expected them to react to the news that their father is marrying a middle-class woman — behaves in a way that’s only a few shades less atrocious than the other Grey. It’s all very ugly. (Well, except for the part where Molesley giggles over it with the rest of the downstairs staff. That’s pretty cute, actually.)
Some things about this: First, knowing what ill-mannered dipshits his sons are, why didn’t Lord Merton discuss his plans to marry Isobel with them separately and, perhaps, talk them out of coming to the dinner where they clearly were destined to ruin things? Oh, because if he had, then we wouldn’t have a scene where people say controversially horrible things in between meal courses? Yes, that must be it.
Second, shouldn’t Lord Merton have a better excuse for his sons than “They take after their mother”? Who is their mother? This woman?
Third, the guy’s name is Larry? I realize it’s short for Laurence, and I also realize I should have gotten over this the first time we met the dude two seasons ago, but it still seems odd for there to be a Larry at the table, next to the Roberts, Richards, Toms, and Atticuses. With all due respect to Larrys King and Bird, as well as Larry Dallas from Three’s Company, it just doesn’t sound like a high-society name. To understand why, just … well, just think of Larry Dallas from Three’s Company. I mean, sure, he hangs out at a place called the Regal Beagle, but that doesn’t make his name regal, know what I mean?
Anyway, bottom line: Isobel’s wedding is probably off now because she can no longer look at her husband-to-be and imagine a future with him. Instead, she looks at him and imagines a future with him, Beavis, and Butthead. She will be caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between a father and his sons; it's obvious from the look on Penelope Wilton's face as she leaves that dinner that she already knows this and already knows it's probably over. Here's the other thing we all know, though: Isobel will be okay. She was perfectly content and satisfied before she agreed to marry Lord Merton, and she'll be perfectly content and satisfied with her life if she chooses not to go through with it.
As a matter of fact, when you think of the most level-headed, self-possessed, and intelligent women on this show — Isobel, Edith, Mrs. Hughes, the Dowager Countess, even, increasingly, studious future farmer Daisy — many of them have one thing in common: For much of Downton Abbey's run, they haven't had a man in their lives. Their paths through life increasingly serve as reminders that not only is that just fine, it might even make them better, stronger people, the kind who can raise a child alone, admit how much they rely on their female friends for companionship, and be astute enough to spot a glaring red flag in a relationship that, for a little while there, really seemed like it could have been something lovely.