Elizabeth McGovern as Cora.
Dearly beloved: We’re gathered here today to discuss the wedding of Mr. Charles Carson — a stickler for etiquette, who somehow forgot he needed ushers at his own wedding — and Miss Elsie Hughes, a woman who came dangerously close to walking down the aisle in a dress so dull it could treat insomnia.
The team of Carson and Hughes officially become Carson and Carson in this week’s episode of Downton Abbey, just the third of the final season. It seems a little early to join Great Britain’s most beloved repressed couple in holy matrimony, though; I thought their prenuptial drama would drag on for at least another episode. Expediency appears to be the narrative watchword this season, so this knot officially gets tied — and in a way that emphasizes Downton Abbey’s central conflict between social classes.
With a church ceremony and reception at the schoolhouse, just as Mrs. Hughes had wanted, the wedding perfectly represents the couple. It’s sweet, but devoid of heavy emotion. It’s modest, but very proper and nice. And, of course, it’s upstaged by a member of the Crawley family.
Tom Branson, swaggering into the wedding reception: “Yo, yo, happy wedding, Carson and Hughes! Thrilled for ya and all. But guess who’s straight outta Boston and straight back into Dooownton? That’s right, it’s me, Tommy B., and E-Z Sybbie! And that means it’s time to throw down, y’all.” [House of Pain’s “Jump Around” comes on, prompting an excited Molesley to do a surprisingly competent version of the Running Man.]
Fine, it doesn’t happen that way. Tom doesn’t behave like Vanilla Ice and Molesley can’t really do the Running Man. (Don’t kid yourself, though. Dude can Cabbage Patch like a champ.) Nevertheless, Tom’s unannounced return steals a little of the bride and groom’s thunder, which, from a storytelling perspective, feels somehow appropriate. Given all the drama about whether this wedding should be about Downton or more reflective of Carson and Hughes’s less-posh circumstances, it seemed inevitable that a Crawley representative would steal some of the focus. Tom, the chauffeur who worked his way from downstairs to up-, is the perfect one to do it. His arrival and the details of the wedding signify compromise and, if not the changing fortunes of the workers, then certainly their growing ability to assert themselves.
Two key scenes in this episode — the one where Cora invites Mrs. Hughes to admit she’d rather not host the wedding at Downton, and the subsequent confrontation between Cora and Hughes as she tries on that wedding coat in Cora’s bedroom — are among the finest Downton Abbey has ever done on the subject of classism and snobbery. That’s saying a lot, since classism and snobbery are this show’s bread, butter, salad course, and main entrée.
In that first scene, after getting tipped off to Mrs. Hughes’s true feelings by Mrs. Patmore, Cora invites Mrs. Hughes into the drawing room and tells her she doesn’t have to host the wedding in the Great Hall if that’s not what she wants. This is exactly the coaxing Hughes needs to finally (albeit gently) put her foot down. Mary simply won’t have it, though, and there’s an obvious reason why: As a manor-born, she can’t fathom why anyone, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t want to marry in grand Downton fashion. She’s not offended because Mrs. Hughes is rejecting what could be construed as a condescending act of charity; she’s bothered because Carson deserves better and isn’t getting it. In her mind, it’s not possible for him or his wife-to-be to think there’s anything better than what Mary and her family have always known.
Cora, the only American in the room, understands the need for independence from British aristocratic tradition. But Mary accuses her of being a snob who simply doesn’t want all those poor people in her dining room. These various shades of elitism are discussed, yet never fully confronted; when Carson reenters the room at scene’s end, honest conversation is suddenly replaced by the sound of awkward tea-sipping. He may be worthy of a marriage on the floors the Crawleys tread, but Carson is still the help. There are some things the rich still won’t say in front of him.
Mary’s accusations of snobbery bubble up again in that second scene. Cora discovers Mrs. Hughes trying on the coat, which Mary promised to Anna and the soon-to-be Mrs. Carson for the wedding. Cora goes ballistic — and again, the reasons for her anger are complicated. Like anyone who’s ever walked in on a brother or sister rifling through her closet, she’s understandably annoyed. (Mary, you didn’t try that hard to let your mother know you gave Anna, Hughes, and Mrs. Baxter access to her boudoir.) Cora also just returned from a meeting about the hospital, where her mother-in-law repeatedly suggested that she doesn’t have the knowledge or right to make any decisions on the matter. When she finally gets home, she discovers she doesn’t have authority in her own private space, either. It’s easy to see why she loses it.
There’s an undeniable element of snobbishness at work here, though. Cora may treat her staff with respect, but she still cannot see them as equals. After years of being called “Her Ladyship,” a sense of superiority inevitably seeped into her bloodstream. (Also worth noting: For the second time this season, someone of a lower station has entered a Lady’s bedroom unbidden. Mary was just as appalled when it happened to her … but that reaction makes more sense. Her intruder was a blackmailing stalker.)
Cora redeems herself by apologizing and giving the coat to Mrs. Hughes — and thank God she does. There’s wonderful symbolism in Hughes standing there on her wedding day, wearing a simple frock paired with the grandest of outerwear. That combination of high and low suits her, and it also saves her from her other choices: a dress from the “Sarah Even Plainer But Not As Tall” collection, or going with the one Patmore ordered from the “Soul-Crushing Dishwater-Grey Is the New, Utterly Nondescript Beige” catalogue. Still, Cora’s kind gesture doesn’t erase the fact that she still sees herself as “above” the Hugheses and Carsons of the world.
Let’s tackle the rest of the episode, lightning-round style:
- Edith fires her sputtering nincompoop of an editor, then reconnects with Bertie, the guy she met at the Sinderbys’ last season. The two important lessons here: Some men aren’t intimidated by strong women, and it’s easier to do the impossible (i.e., crank out an entire magazine on deadline) when you have someone to help. Edith is basically the Helen Gurley Brown — or, if you prefer, the Peggy Olson — of Downton Abbey.
- After his interview at the “Do More With Less” Manor, Thomas applies for a job at Bizarro Downton, a depressing estate that’s devoid of activity and overrun with clutter. When Sir Michael Reresby mentions that he lost his own sons in the war, Thomas points to his war injury, the one he deliberately got so he could leave the front and return home. Now, years later, Thomas barely feels like he has a place to call home. That’s sad.
- Daisy practically signed a lease for the Drewes’s farm and started moving all of Mr. Mason’s belongings, but it’s still not clear that William’s father can live there. The Outspoken Champion of Social Justice Formerly Known As Mouse Girl needs to slow her roll.
- In one scene, Robert says he has indigestion. I think we all know what that means: Before this final season ends, he’ll have a heart attack and drop dead.
- Anna is pregnant again. That happened quickly, didn’t it? As Robert takes his last breath, perhaps the Bates’s firstborn will take in his or her first?
- Without the specter of unjust murder charges looming over a Bates, Downton Abbey has to shoehorn another crime into the show. Enter Spratt, who is suddenly harboring his fugitive nephew and being questioned by the ever-present Sgt. Willis. Ugh, who cares? Also: Who the hell invited Spratt and Denker to the Carson/Hughes wedding?
- Will the Dowager Countess lose the battle over the hospital? Even Dr. Clarkson is defecting to Isobel’s side. Our Violet still pops off some corkers this week, including: “I know several couples who are perfectly happy. Haven’t spoken in years.” And this one, to Isobel: “Did you drink at luncheon?” And this one: “A peer in favor of reform is like a turkey in favor of Christmas.” When it comes to firing off witty barbs that inevitably transform into pseudo-memes, the Dowager Countess is still winning big.