Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films
Is it just me, or was Downton Abbey a little more fun this week? I mean, it’s just as thematically repetitive as ever, and pretty much everyone (even the Dowager Countess) is still being a dick to Lady Edith, and Sarah Bunting continues to annoyingly give freethinkers a bad name. But this episode embraces its soap-opera-ish tendencies more brazenly and advances a few plots with a bit more urgency. There are heartfelt marriage proposals, rebuffed breakups, announced divorces, heated arguments during seated dinners that turned all of the downstairs staff into whisper-y gossips … there’s even the equivalent of Downton Abbey Fashion Week!
Perhaps the simultaneous series endings of Parks and Recreation and Parenthood have put me in an emotionally vulnerable place that prevents me from being overly critical at the moment, but I definitely enjoyed this installment more than last week’s. Women attempting to assert themselves in a patriarchal society serve as the thematic order of the day in this fourth episode of the fifth season, in which everyone from Mary to Rose to Mrs. Patmore attempts to speak up for her own interests. Before we delve into all the stuff about sisters trying to do it for themselves, though, we must have an important discussion about heroin.
Specifically, the heroin that Thomas Barrow apparently acquired during his trip to London and has been repeatedly shooting into his arm without anyone, except kinda sorta Baxter, realizing what’s happening. First Barrow returns from his trip and says his dad is fine after all, a lie he tells while clearly showing off a pair of red “I am a junkie” marks underneath his eyelids. Then he very slyly snags a spoon from the kitchen to take upstairs … you know, for the blind bread pudding tasting that he’s obviously conducting in his room. Baxter finally finds him looking strung out and in possession of needles and ties for his arm, and all she can conclude is that he’s ill and trying to treat himself. Honestly, what does Thomas have to do to signal to everyone at Downton that he’s a junkie? Perform the In Utero album in its entirety in the middle of Pip’s Corner? Finally stage his long-gestating theatrical tour de force, One Man Trainspotting?
I know, I know: The good people of Downton Abbey don’t know how to recognize an addict, and they don’t have much experience with hard drugs. Plus, Thomas was seemingly gone for less than a week or so. Few would suspect that he’s a couple of highs away from turning into the British, heroin-using Tyrone Biggums. It all seems a bit sudden, and the reasons for his drug use remain vague. Given his interest in that program dubbed “Choose Your Own Path,” it seems possible that Thomas is treating heroin like some sort of cure for his homosexuality. A way that he can “choose” to be “normal”? Maybe. Future episodes will presumably shed more light on what’s actually going on with him; for now, all I know is that two recaps ago, when the radio and the diaphragm made their first appearances, I joked that all Downton Abbey needed to achieve peak debauchery was some drugs. Voilà! We’re all set. A couple more illegal substances and a few more sexual escapades and this show will pretty much have to rename itself The MTV Lost Weekend With Van Halen.
But now, let’s talk about marriage and the female response to it, a subject that takes center stage this week via multiple story lines. The return of Shrimpy (does anyone ever tire of saying that name? I don’t. It’s cute and also makes me hungry for seafood!) comes with the announcement that he and his wife Susan — that would be Rose’s parents — are getting divorced. Rose takes the news remarkably well, assuring her father that she won’t make the same mistake when she marries. “I don’t care how eligible some chap may be,” she insists. “I’m not going to be bullied.”
It’s a pointed choice of words because, just two scenes later, when Mary attempts to gently break things off Tony Gillingham, he won’t have it: “So you sleep with a man because he wants to marry you, but now you change your mind? It’s insane!” Tony then totally deflects all attempts at dumping him with his lordly superpowers, insisting that they’ll get through whatever’s bothering Mary by confronting it together. All of which … kind of felt like bullying to me? It makes me wonder whether Tony is really in love with Mary or more concerned about looking foolish if word spreads that Mary has now rebuffed him twice. And if Mary goes along with things because Tony is being difficult or threatening to ruin her reputation, that will fly in the face of the seemingly progressive attitude toward sex that she’s been trying on for size this season. Earlier in the episode, during the London fashion show with the least sexy runway soundtrack ever, Mary spies a woman dressed in a frock resembling a man’s suit. She remarks, “Golly, that would be useful.” At first that struck me as a funny aside. After the Tony confrontation it seemed more like a statement on what Mary needs to become: a woman with the courage to walk like a man.
Even though they’re older and, at least in theory, should be more traditionally constrained in matters of marriage than younger generations, Isobel and Lord Merton handled the uncertainty of their engagement in a way that seemed far healthier than the way Mary and Tony did. Lord Merton’s proposal to Isobel was charming and surprisingly touching, in the most British possible way: “I state freely and happily, Isobel, that I’ve fallen in love with you. And I want to spend what remains of my life in your company. I believe I could make you happy. At any rate, I should very much like the chance to try. And if it’s not too much trouble, please tell me yes or no at your earliest convenience. If you prefer not to speak your answer, feel free to spell it out using sugar cubes, scones, and English breakfast tea bags.”
The whole thing was the most polite marriage proposal in the history of proposals, as was Isobel’s “I don’t know” response. But at least they showed mutual respect for each other, and, notably, Lord Merton did not put any pressure on Isobel to answer right away. That’s more than can be said for Tony. Really, between Isobel’s pseudo-romance and the Dowager Countess’s acknowledgement that she almost (but ultimately didn’t) run away with Prince Kuragin to enjoy a life of passion, royal luxury, and vodka bubble baths, this episode of Downton Abbey pretty loudly declared that women can continue to be alluring well into their senior years.
That’s good news for Edith, because the way things are going for that one, she may still be looking for a partner when she’s 73. Oh, poor Edith: She found out the group of thugs who allegedly accosted Michael are going on trial in Munich, which means she may finally find out what happened to him. (That’s easy: Dead. So dead.) Those thugs, of course, are meant to represent the Sturmabteilung, the so-called “brown shirts” who were early supporters of the Nazi movement. But when Lord Grantham clumsily describes them in this episode as people who “wear brown shirts and go around bullying people,” all I could think was “Great. So Michael Gregson was basically killed by Nelson Muntz.”
Lord Grantham came so close — so close — to actually bonding with Edith that I was almost ready to rethink my attitude toward him. Then he had to go and tell Edith that he and Mary both pity her, which was about as Lord Donk condescending as it gets. That comment, as well as Violet’s suggestion that Edith should move on and stop thinking about her daughter, may have finally pushed Edith to acknowledge that Marigold is her daughter. I hope she does. Once Mary’s Liverpool lovefest becomes common knowledge, everyone in England will think the Crawley sisters are harlots, so honestly, what the hell’s the difference?
Another woman boldly speaking up for herself in this episode: Mrs. Patmore, who not only movingly speaks with Lord Grantham about her distress regarding Archie’s omission from the war memorial (also chucking Carson under several buses, with seemingly no regrets), but also, at Daisy’s urging, decides to write a letter to the war office advocating for a change in the war memorial rules. An empowered Patmore can only mean good things, you guys. Also, hopefully: more yelling about spotted dick.
While it’s good for Patmore and Edith to speak up for themselves, there are certain ladies who need to speak up a little less. And by “certain ladies,” I mean Sarah Bunting, and by speak up a little less, I mean “shut the hell up forever, or at least during dinner.” I don’t think that Sarah’s skepticism toward the upstairs-downstairs system is misplaced. I don’t even think she’s wrong to toss in a good jab about that once in a while when she’s dining with the Crawleys. But after Lord Grantham listens to Daisy’s kind words about Sarah and acknowledges that the young teacher may be doing some good, she just. Won’t. Shut. Her. Trap. “All I’ve proved is that Lord Grantham would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave,” she smugly states.
Did you catch the look on Tom’s face after she said that? He basically closed his eyes and tried to beam himself back to Ireland. Certainly the way Robert proceeds to lose his shit — “There is only thing I would like, and that I would like passionately. It is to see you leave this house and never come back!” — could probably be heard in Ireland.
Insulting Lord Grantham is not only rude, and embarrassing to Tom, it’s also completely counterproductive to Sarah’s goals. If she really wants to bring about change for the so-called “serfs” and to help people like Daisy come into their own, she certainly can’t do it by alienating the people who, like it or not, still control all the wealth and power. You know who theoretically already learned that lesson? Tom Branson.
But apparently sometimes lessons have to be learned the hard way. And when it comes to women who are constantly in situations that involve learning in hard ways, there is no greater specimen than Anna Bates, who OF COURSE is charged with taking a note to Tony Gillingham on Mary’s behalf, and then OF COURSE has to go look at the spot where Gillingham’s valet died, and then OF COURSE has to be spotted by a plainclothes officer. Now Sergeant Willis wants to question her. Which raises an interesting question: Where was Anna Bates on the day that Greene died? Could she be the one who did the shoving? Could Anna Bates, like the heroines in so many rape-revenge fantasies, have sought the ultimate payback by snuffing out her assailant’s life? If she did … well, that will suck because the odds of her being able to keep calm and quiet under police questioning are basically zero. But if she did, well, that also shows what a ballsy woman Anna Bates really is.
For the first time this season — no, make it ever — I’m actually curious to know who killed Lord Gillingham’s valet. Wonders (and Sarah Bunting’s running mouth) really don’t ever cease.