'Downton Abbey': A Gay Old Time

After all the swag and hot beatz and rockin' dudes on the Grammys last night, it was strange to jump right into a whopping two-hour episode of Downton Abbey, but they made it worth our time, didn't they?

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After all the swag and hot beatz and rockin' dudes on the Grammys last night, it was strange to jump right into a whopping two-hour episode of Downton Abbey, but they made it worth our time, didn't they? It was probably the strongest stuff of this kinda dour, kinda dull season, with lots of social intrigue and mannerly discussion of the mechanics of Downton. That might sound dull on paper, but those glimpses into a meticulously ordered and foreign world are what made the show so exciting to begin with. So it was great that last night's episode focused on that quite literally domestic drama, rather than slopping death and prison and other heavy stuff on top of it. Though, of course, it was a pretty dramatic episode nonetheless.

The star of the evening was poor Thomas, the snake with a soft underbelly who is forever unlucky in love. He's been smitten with Jimmy Kent since that handsome fellow's arrival, and last night began to think that he might get his chance. Of course he didn't really have one; his onetime scheming buddy O'Brien was feeding him false information, all part of a grand and terrifically cruel plan to bring Thomas down. I'm not sure I quite buy O'Brien being so scorched-earth about the thing — she was perfectly content to ruin a man's life and possibly get him imprisoned because that man goofed on her nephew a few times? Seems a bit extreme. But that was the plan, with O'Brien planting seeds of hope in Thomas's head and using her own nephew, poor gentle giant Alfred, as a pawn. Well, O'Brien couldn't have known that Alfred would discover Thomas kissing Jimmy in his darkened bedroom, which is what happened, but she ultimately played Alfred as well as she played anyone else. That terrifically uncomfortable scene, with Thomas leaning down to kiss Jimmy ever... so... slowly... while Alfred made his way up the stairs was a beautifully done bit of suspense, as ultimately sad and frustrating as it was.

After that we expected a lot of doom and gloom, with Thomas spiraling into nothing, his life collapsing while those around him looked on shocked and appalled. And that did happen to some extent; Carson was proper but firm while essentially dismissing Thomas, and did manage to call him some pretty cruel names in his blustery upright way. And Thomas was shamed and miserable, having to endure Alfred and Jimmy's nasty looks while he figured out what to do with his suddenly bleak-looking future. It seemed inevitable in the tragic way of the times that Thomas was to be bounced out, sent to live some unknown jobless life in whatever place Sal from Mad Men ended up. But instead, a glimmer of hope. Or several glimmers. Or, well, O.K. by the end of the episode things were pretty much back to normal. You see, Bates is back, living happily in a little cottage with Anna, and though he and Thomas have lots of bad blood between them, and of course are rivals for the same job, Bates feels some innate sympathy for a man facing total ruination. Being falsely convicted of murder will do that to you, I guess. So, suspecting some foul backstage plotting, Bates went about figuring out what happened; who was playing who, how they did it, and how it could be fixed. And he was remarkably successful at it.

It turns out that, yeah, most people already knew about Thomas, and while they very properly didn't approve, they didn't think it a hanging offense either. Even Robert knew about Thomas, adding that if he'd said something every time someone tried to kiss him at Eton he'd be hoarse within a week. (Or something to that effect.) Obviously that means we need to have a spinoff series about Robert's gay-beset days at Eton, but that's a discussion for another time. Really what surprised me about his and others' reactions — mainly from Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore — was that they were pretty progressive about the whole thing. They knew Thomas was, y'know, that way, but it didn't bother them much. And they certainly didn't think it was reason to cast him out of Downton with no reference and thus no future. (As O'Brien had arranged it.) I don't know the exact particulars of English sexual mores of the day, beyond being convinced that there was lots of kissing at Eton, but didn't this all seem a little too advanced? I mean, Robert is pretty stiff and prim about most things, but now he's all "Eh, live and let live" about Thomas sneaking into a fellow staff member's room and trying to kiss him? I'm glad he was, but it didn't seem all that in keeping with his character. I bought it more from Mrs. Hughes, who hinted to Mr. Carson that she'd met a few others like Thomas in the past (another spinoff! Young Mrs. Hughes!), but it seemed a bit of a stretch coming from Robert. I'm also not sure I liked the "batting for the same team" line Bates dropped about Jimmy; it seemed anachronistic and also a little too cute given the cricket subplot.

Oh, yes, there was some kind of cricket match played by Downton residents and staff alike, something about defending the honor of the estate, and so the episode ended with all the fellows in white (or beige or ecru or egg shell, really) and playing that funny looking game. There had been some other intrigues in the episode, but most of them were tied up well by the time the first ball was bowled. (They're bowlers, right? The pitchers in cricket? It's unclear to me. What is clear is that this phrase is on the cricket Wikipedia page: "grounding their bats behind each other's crease." Interesting! Quite fitting given the subject of the episode, no? Exactly how much crease/bat grounding goes on at Eton, I wonder.) Mary and Matthew are still having problems in the baby department, but they're completely committed to each other at least. Branson has decided to stay on at Downton, at least while baby Sybil is young, and will help turn the estate into a profitable place. There was some funny business with a young teen cousin — a rebellious sort who was caught at a jazz club with a married man. I suppose her storyline paralleled Thomas's to some extent, all about illicit desires and passions, and in some ways she got the tougher punishment in the end. Shipped off to Scotland to live with a dreaded aunt, the poor dear. At least Thomas gets to stay where he wants to be, tense as things might be for a while.

Speaking of poor dears, Edith met a man she likes: her editor, a younger version of her would-be husband from earlier this season. But, of course, he's married. His wife is a "lunatic" and a "mad woman" and he is only married to her because he legally can't divorce her, but that still leaves Edith in a pickle. She can date the guy but never actually actually make it legit. Sigh. Boy, does she know how to pick 'em! Poor googly eyed Edith. At least her newspaper writing is going well; she's being encouraged to write smart, serious things, pretty modern stuff for a lady. Maybe she'll say phooey to all that marriage stuff, strike up a relationship with the editor anyway, have a flourishing career, and that will be her very progressive life. Living in London, a successful working woman with a lover or perhaps even a partner, and that's enough for her. I sort of doubt that will happen, but wouldn't it be a nice ending for her?

The third season of Downton will come to an end next week, leaving us to scratch our heads and ponder just what a fourth season of this show might look like. I'm glad they righted the ship to some extent with last night's juicy episode, but all told I'm not feeling all that bullish on the future of Downton Abbey. They've run through a lot of their best storylines and are having to invent new and less interesting ones to keep things afloat. I'm glad they returned to Thomas's secret proclivities after almost completely ignoring them in the second season, though of course it might have been nice to see him actually get his heart's desire for a change. Maybe that's something to look forward to for next season. Though, something tells me that Downton would prefer to see Thomas in pain than, erm, in pleasure. Oh well. Par for the course at the ol' Abbey. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go work on this Eton pilot I'll be pitching to PBS as soon as possible.

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