There are many things one expects to see during a typical episode of Downton Abbey. Men running around in tuxedos like a pack of high-class British penguins. Lady Mary looking down her refined nose at someone, usually Edith. Everyone chatting across a lavishly set dining-room table while the Dowager Countess displays her Resting “What is the World Coming To?” Face.
One does not expect to see a man in a tuxedo at a lavishly set dining-room table suddenly vomit blood all over the place. But that’s what we got during this week’s episode, Quentin Tarantino Presents: Downton Abbey, The Ulcer Burst. (No joke: Cora covered with that blood splatter is slightly reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight.)
We’ve known for several episodes that Robert was suffering from some sort of intestinal or abdominal pain, presumably related to last season’s diagnosed ulcer or, possibly, some other undiagnosed ailment. Despite his constant agony — and the fact that Cora’s been talking about the need for proper medical care practically every minute of the day, thanks to the arguments about oversight of the local hospital — it’s odd that she never demanded that he see a doctor. Dr. Clarkson has been sitting through the same boring meetings with her for weeks! But really, we all know why Cora, who’s ordinarily diligent about Robert’s healthy, would have been more lax this time. If she hadn’t been, we would not have gotten to see Hugh Bonneville unleash a crimson tidal wave all over the fine china and his wife, which is apparently the only way to get the Dowager Countess to shut the hell up about the whole hospital situation.
Seriously, guys: This actually happened. (Warning: The following image may be disturbing to people who cherish clean, bloodless tablecloths.)
I hope that Robert recovers. Based on the news that he had a successful gastrectomy — a word that Carson can pronounce but couldn’t define if his cummerbund depended on it, so mind your own business, Thomas — it seems like he will. But with all due respect: This was kind of awesome, wasn’t it?
As we all know, Downton Abbey can get a little sleepy at times. (Please see this week’s plotlines about Denker nearly getting fired and Carson’s concerns about the way Mrs. Hughes prepares bubble and squeak.) But once in a while it drops a truly shocking bomb — and not merely the kind of shocking bomb one might expect from a soapier version of a Jane Austen novel, like, say, Edith getting left at the altar by a runaway codger. I mean something dark and truly unpleasant that makes your faithful PBS-viewing grandmother clutch her pearls so wildly, she looks like she’s grasping for a necklace-shaped life preserver.
I’m talking about things like Kemal Pamuk dropping dead after (almost, maybe) having sex with Lady Mary, or a pregnant Cora slipping on a bar of strategically placed soap, or and the sight of Dead Matthew bleeding from the head after a fatal car wreck. These are all part of a grand, ghastly Downton tradition of moments designed to make us gasp. Even if we don’t care for what these moments do to our beloved characters — my kingdom for just one more moment with Dan Stevens! — we need the gasps to keep things lively. And Robert fire-hosing hot vein juice all over the dining room is only second, perhaps, to Bloody Matthew in the grand, ghastly, and gaspy department. From now on, whenever I see anyone upchuck in movies or on TV, I will say, “Well, that was gross and all. But it was no Lord Grantham.”
More importantly, Robert’s sudden collapse — which, to be fair, unfolds with a bit more visual restraint than the above repetitive GIF implies — pushes the Downton narrative forward in a couple of important ways. First, as Mary tells Tom, her father’s illness means that the two of them will now have to take over the day-to-day business of running the estate, officially putting a woman and an ex-working-class Irishman in the same position once held by a white, male aristocrat. And to think it all happened because of the recent Oscar voting changes enacted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science! (#DowntonSoWhite that Tom, a lower-class guy from Ireland, is actually considered the equivalent of a person of color. This racial logic has been brought to you by The Commitments.)
Robert’s sudden illness also forces Cora to put her foot down and tell Neville Chamberlain — future British prime minister but, in 1925, the minister of health — that he should advocate for the merger of the village and county hospitals. This may finally put an end to the most insufferable story line of season six. (If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: To end a debate, make sure someone barfs all over a table. Shuts down the bickering every time.)
Then there’s the whispery conversation between Cora and the Dowager Countess regarding the need for more family honesty, a chat that prompts Violet to mention the Marigold situation. This really doesn’t make sense, though, since there’s no reason for either of them to discuss Edith’s daughter while Robert is actively bleeding from the mouth. But they have to, of course, so Mary can overhear them and slowly begin to realize that Edith had a child out of wedlock. To recap: Mary now knows something about Edith that could bring shame to the Crawley family. That’s very similar to how, back in season one, Edith knew something about Mary that could potentially bring shame to the Crawley family. Edith attempted to use that information against Mary, and later regretted it. Will Mary travel a higher road?
Given the alarmed glances that pass between the two after Robert’s collapse — and the apparent détente they reach in the wake of his health concerns — maybe the truth will actually bring the sisters closer together. Can Mary stop rolling her eyeballs long enough to achieve sisterly intimacy? We’ll see.
That about does it for the truly significant things that occur this week on Downton Abbey, which, as per usual, spends the rest of its running time on Denker-related minutiae, astute observations about the pig business (“Pig-keeping requires physical strength.” — Lady Mary Crawley), or build-ups to major moments that don’t turn out to be major at all. Let’s lightning-round our way through the rest of the developments:
- Andrew continues to audition for the role of Daisy’s soulmate by: 1) Volunteering to help Mr. Mason take care of the pigs, and 2) Devoting himself to book-learning by attempting to become literate. His new mentor? Thomas, who plans to teach him to read and also will presumably tutor Andrew on the subject of becoming slightly less homophobic.
- Anna Bates remains pregnant. Two whole episodes have gone by without giving her a valid reason to break down crying, which must be a record.
- “Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer”: That’s right, Matthew Goode’s Henry Talbot is back again, racing cars in what appears to be an attempt to recreate part of the opening montage from Rushmore. He also takes Mary to a pub and continues to be charming by using the term “Blast!” as a curse word. But Mary tells Tom, “I don’t mean to sound snobbish, but I won’t marry down.” Um, I’m not sure there’s a way to say that without sounding snobbish. Also: I’m pretty sure Matthew Goode can figure out a way to blast the snob out of her. (Wow, that sounds even dirtier written down than it did in my head.)
- Not to be outdone, fellow bright young thing Edith also gets some man action from Bertie while in London. So Edith is a mom with a budding journalism career and a nice man to potentially call her partner. Surely this means it’s only a matter of time until Mary tries to screw it all up for her, right?
- Miss Baxter builds up the courage to testify against the man who made her steal from her former boss. It’s going to be very emotional when we actually see her sitting on the witness stand, speaking out against that scoundrel … which is why, of course, Downton Abbey never shows any of that actually happening. Instead, the guy decides to plead guilty and, after nearly two episodes of anticipation, Baxter simply goes home. That whole story line was a solid use of everyone’s time, wasn’t it?
- You know what is a solid use of time this season, though? Every minute spent looking at all the glorious headbands that Mary and Edith constantly wear. My God, the headband game on this show is amazing right now. It’s like peak forehead jewelry up in this place. The one Mary wears during the Robert barfing scene is so glorious, I would wear it even if it had Lord Grantham’s backsplash on it. Beauty is pain, after all. Sometimes, it’s even bloody.