Photo: Joss Barratt/Carnival Film & Television Limited
We begin this week’s episode with a strong sense of Downton deja vu. It’s 1920. The Crawley family is preparing to host a wedding. Matthew and Mary are bickering incessantly about money. Wait … isn’t this exactly what happened on Downton Abbey last week?
Well, yes. But also: no. Because this time it’s Lady Edith who’s getting married, to her beloved Sir Anthony Strallan, a man who clearly plans to spend his golden years with Edith because, well, his golden years have kinda already started.
“Something happening in this house is actually about me,” Edith says with a twinkle of pleasure as Downton begins to overflow with floral arrangements that, for once, have arrived in her honor instead of Lady Mary’s. Cora and Violet chuckle because, “Ha, ha, it’s true, normally no one gives half a rat’s backside what you do. But now, dear Edith, we totally care.”
Then the big day comes. Edith looks just lovely in that silky, drapey gown, a dress that is, dare we say it, prettier than Mary’s. As she walks down the aisle to join her admittedly dull but also admittedly sweet husband, we can’t help but think, “Good, she’s finally going to be happy.” Oh, and: “We get to watch this ceremony in its entirety but the Matthew and Mary wedding was trimmed for time?”
And that’s when, as they say in proper British society, shit gets cray. (Yes, Dowager Countess, I know vulgarity is no substitute for wit. But sometimes no other words will do.) Sir Anthony suddenly realizes he can’t marry Edith because if he does, in a few short years their lives will turn into a British-period-piece version of Amour. He stops the wedding and says he can’t let Edith throw her life away. Edith looks panic-stricken and legitimately googly-eyed, with no assistance from a Tumblr. Lord Grantham protests while using the word “chap.” Lady Violet rises, says, “It’s over, my dear” and forms a Dowager Countess shield around Edith to prevent her from running after her once-future husband. Then Sir Fuddy, minus his Duddy, dashes away like Julia Roberts in some rom-com mash-up of Runaway Bride and Notting Hill while Carson throws him enough shade to block Sir Anthony’s sun for the next five decades. And that quickly, it’s over.
Poor Edith dissolves into tears on the spot, then goes home and falls apart again, dashing to her room while ripping off her veil, which cascades down the staircase in a visual flourish reminiscent of how Mary’s veil looked floating down those same stairs on a happier wedding day. Listen closely and you can hear Edith’s veil whisper, “Metaphor, metaphor.”
Some Edith haters may react to this situation by seeing it as payback for the lousy way she handled the whole Pamuk situation back in season one. To which I say, first of all, that happened eight long years ago and secondly, the fact that Edith wrote that letter to the Turkish Embassy meant that we got to hear both Michelle Dockery and Elizabeth McGovern continue saying the word Pamuk — with their hard “p”s and pursed-lip “mooks” — well into season two. And that clearly was a gift to all of civilization, for which we owe Edith nothing but thanks. Thirdly and most importantly, Edith has matured and, despite the Olsen-Sarkozy-esque age difference in their relationship, she genuinely seemed to love Sir Anthony. The fact that she’s once again forced into the Eponine role while her sisters get to walk around like Cosettes paired with their Mariuses should make us all sympathetic to her situation.
Fortunately, bad news wasn’t the only kind of news on this week’s Downton Abbey. There was non-news in the Bates department, as Mr. Bates almost got framed for having drugs in prison but didn’t and Anna “Nate the Great” Bates almost got some useful information about Vera Bates but didn’t. There was additional non-news courtesy of Ethel Parks, the former house maid turned prostitute who again ran away from Isobel before saying anything substantive, and also via the erroneous “O’Brien is leaving” rumors spread by Thomas. “Everything’s all right with me but it will be all wrong with you before too long,” O’Brien warned her former evil-doing cohort once she learned of his trickery. Translation: O’Brien is planning something epic and sinister that, for generations hence, shall be referred to only as the Cummerbund Incident.
More importantly, there was actual happy news: Mrs. Hughes found out she does not have cancer. Given how quickly this narrative situation resolved itself, it felt a bit like much ado about benign tumors. But all that Mrs. Patmore hand-wringing was worth it because it led to one of the stronger scenes in this episode: the one in which Lady Cora told Mrs. Hughes that “I don’t want you to have any concerns about where you’ll go or who will look after you, because the answer is here and we will.” Mrs. Hughes was quite touched. So was I.
Between that moment and the wonderful way she tried to buck up her Platinum- Spinster-Card-carrying daughter — “Being tested only makes you stronger,” she told Edith with compassionate vigor — Lady Cora is emerging as the real hero of this Downton season. If I may use an ironic train-related analogy, the male British Lord may be the conductor of the estate, but it’s the American Lady who keeps its engines running, even when ovens break down, daughters get dumped and husbands blow cash on ill-advised train-related investments. I love Cora’s combination of generosity and unshakability and the way Elizabeth McGovern continues to reveal it subtly, with no hint of mother Martha’s American brashness
What I have loved less, however, is the “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” chapter in the Mary and Matthew love story. And that’s why I was heaving sighs of relief when that mercifully resolved itself through means even more convenient than (older) Carrie Bradshaw’s capacity to quickly hail New York taxi cabs. Before his death Reggie Swire wrote a letter to Matthew that said, and I’m paraphrasing only a little: “I know you really loved Lady Mary instead of my dead daughter, but I will give you tons of cash anyway, so please take it and use it to slather clotted cream on your scones. And don’t even feel guilty for a minute. Cheers, Reggie Swire. P.S. Actually, just give the money to Mary.” Yet Matthew still would not accept that mega-check (“Wife forgery!” shouted Dan Stevens) until, finally, in another moment of narrative convenience so insane it broke all barriers of sound, time and space, Mary verified via Daisy that Lavinia really had written to her father from her death bed and explained the whole Matthew situation.
“If you try to find one more excuse not to keep the money, I’ll have to beat you about the head,” Mary told her husband, speaking on behalf of the many viewers who were watching with their hands lodged in their LCD screens after attempting to beat her to the first Matthew punch.
The bottom line of all this is that Downton is saved! Lord Grantham and Matthew will manage it together, allowing them to keep the upstairs-downstairs-style economy chugging and avoid moving to that ghastly Tudor-style castle, which clearly was not up to English-manor code. (Not nearly enough turrets. And did you notice that the acres didn’t roll quite right?)
With that big-picture matter now resolved, it almost seems like we can pack up our season three things and call it a day. But of course, that’s not true. Even though Downton is no longer on the verge of shutting down, its future is not necessarily bright. We know this because logic as well as the Internet’s many season three spoilers tell us so, but also because the fates of our Downton characters have always been vulnerable to unforeseen shifts. If we have learned anything from this show, it’s that total joy and fulfillment can disappear at a moment’s notice, just as they did on a wedding day of promise that turned into a neglected sister’s moment of deepest grief.