Every week for the fifth season of PBS's period drama Downton Abbey, Joe Reid, Sophie Gilbert, and Katie Kilkenny will discuss the intrigues, upstairs and downstairs, of public television's favorite Yorkshire manor.
Reid: "Downton is catching up with the times we live in," said Mrs. Hughes, delivering Downton Abbey's commemorative 100th excessively blatant nod to the a-changing times our Granthams and Crawleys inhabit. This week, the begrudging adoption of a wireless and the question of whether or not Downton should succumb to the wicked fads of the day divided the house into familiar camps. There was Rose, the gung-ho modernist; Lord Grantham, Carson, and the Dowager Countess, squarely on the side of no fun ever; and Mrs. Hughes, ever the sage pragmatist. Ultimately, Lord G was swayed by the King, of all people, and so once again we got to see Downton dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age.
I have to admit, I feel a bit bad for unloading on Downton last week. The season premiere, while undoubtedly repeating so many of the steps we've already walked with this series, still showed enough flashes of charm that I'm not unhappy to have it back in my life. This week wasn't frustration-free either, but it offered some amusing character moments. Maybe that's the best way to consume Downton Abbey at this stage of the game, given that the show's insights into the changing times are rather blunt, and more often than not its attempts at soap opera are either clumsy (Edith's galumphing her way into Marigold's home life) or garish (everything to do with the fate of Mr. Green).
So much better, then, to view Downton as a delivery system for vignettes starring characters you've grown to know and enjoy. Like Anna going to the store to buy Mary a ... was it a diaphragm? (Everybody was so skittish and vague about it.) Birth control, at the very least. It was an incredibly funny scene, it managed to galvanize Anna in interesting ways, and I'd watch a weekly series that was just Mary and Anna having conversations in the dressing room.
The episode had a number of smart character pairings, in fact. Violet and Isobel having tea with Dr. Clarkson was an easy winner. I was also rather touched by Thomas and Jimmy's goodbye ... and Anna's follow-up scene with Thomas, for that matter. After a season of neglect, more or less, it's nice to see the show remembers they've got a whole character arc to be explored with Thomas, and seeing Jimmy's astonishment at how close he'd grown to a poof like Thomas was very nice.
Most unexpectedly, I was happy with the way the show paired Lord Grantham and Carson. Two crabbier sticks in the mud you’re not likely to find, but it was interesting to watch Carson assert his position with the memorial committee, particularly in opposition to Lord G's wishes for whether it should be in town or away in the countryside. While both men can often serve as simply the frowning faces of a world fading into irrelevance, this storyline allowed them both to be right, in their own way. Mrs. Hughes taking Lord Grantham's side, and Carson impressing upon her just how much he hates it when they disagree, was a lovely and earned little moment.
Have I become a softie with this show in the span of a week? And please talk to me of Mary and Tony's red-hot "sketching trip"!
Gilbert: Joe, you have definitely become a softie. Also, Downton has apparently become a smutty sex comedy in the great British tradition of Carry On films, which I’m actually totally fine with. If Sid James slopes into the drawing room next week and pinches Lady Edith’s bottom, at least it’ll be more entertaining than the umpteenth manufactured conflict involving the placement of a war memorial.
But really, there were at least four individual moments during this episode that warranted a hearty chorus of “That’s what she said.” “Mrs Crawley is never happier than when she has a chance to use her guiding hand,” said the Dowager Countess over lunch with Lord Merton and the poor beleaguered Isobel. “What about the instructions?” asked a disapproving chemist as she handed Anna a mysterious form of contraception. “They can be very difficult to manage.” Meanwhile, Lord Merton’s sunny breakfast room “needs a lady’s presence to make sense of it.”
And these were the occasions where people weren’t talking about sex at all! I half blushed, half threw up in my mouth when Lord Gillingham started talking about “stamina.” “And then we’ll make love?” Lady Mary asked, with all the enthusiasm of one whose college roommate had invited her over for an evening of boxed wine and assembling Ikea furniture. I guess it’s better than “sketching,” which was her euphemism of choice when her family asked her quite what she’d be doing on her weeklong, maid-free holiday. Sketching. That’s literally what she said.
The tonal shift of this week’s episode was a refreshing change from last week’s snoozefest (followed by a five-minute inferno, true), but it does make me wonder what sources the writers have been using for inspiration. Half the time people were trying to have sex with each other, while the other half was spent cataloguing the various revelations of the 20th century. Isobel was very excited about “the latest report of the drug insulin,” while Rose badgered Lord Grantham about getting a wireless radio, and Mary informed Anna about the pioneering writings of one Marie Stopes. There was also a brief reference to impoverished Russian aristocrats fleeing communism, and a rather gross analogy (from Lady Mary, no less) about overheated housemaids drooling over Douglas Fairbanks.
It’s not that I mind the encyclopedic approach to costume drama, per se, but does it have to be quite so arbitrary? “I’ve recently read a book on quarantine that I’ve been looking forward to discussing with you,” is, unfortunately, the kind of wooing aimed at poor Isobel at the moment, and she deserves better. Meanwhile, Lord Grantham was at his pompous nadir this week fussing over a cricket field, sneering at the prospect of Sybbie being raised as “some American harpy,” and mistaking the lecherous designs of an art historian (Richard E. Grant, a long way from Withnail) as being aimed at his dog rather than his wife.
But yes, it was an entertaining episode, because it wasn’t constantly trying to undermine its lighthearted upstairs-downstairs premise with moments of great drama. Thomas’ poignant goodbye to Jimmy was handled surprisingly gracefully (although Thomas, maybe people will like you more if you stop being, you know, the poisonous and Machiavellian definition of malevolence), and Molesley finally learned to accept Baxter, criminal record and all. The actual violins at the end of her speech about being “a jailbird” were a bit much, but it is Downton.
I fear we won’t have the same degree of levity next week given that Mr Green is back (in the metaphorical sense), and it’s almost inevitable someone’s going to be accused of his murder. Still, it was fun while it lasted. Now please excuse me, I have to go and steal the affections of someone else’s dog.
Kilkenny: After such a snoozy premiere, I'm all for this newer, soapier direction. While some of the romance felt strained, and Lord Gillingham's mansplaining has reached new levels of unattractive—was telling Mary all about why how he booked their adjacent hotel rooms really a smooth move?—others held more spark. The Molesley-Baxter misunderstanding (the tears in his eyes!) was quite touching. The art historian fresh from Alexandria, Simon Baxter, is undeniably steamy. Since when did Cora get a chance to hide a secret flirtation from her husband, who has himself strayed from the marriage poster bed? Let Robert think Baxter’s lascivious looks are aimed at his dog. Here’s to hoping Cora will pull a Pamuk right under his Romanesque nose.
In one respect, though, I found the episode a bit more nuanced. Is it just me, or is Downton pulling for downstairs this season? Last episode saw the appointment of a new, working class-friendly PM. This episode found the servants with newfound opportunities to climb the ranks: Daisy’s cultivating the life of the mind by brushing up on her mathematics; Carson’s being bossy with his role on the memorial committee; Mrs. Hughes suggests Downton may soon have no footmen; at the end of this episode, the king is transmitted via wireless, which obviously means the foundations of the English class system are quaking beneath the parquet floors. As the Dowager Countess, she of infinite wisdom, points out, “The monarchy has thrived on magic and mystery. Strip them away and people may think the royal family is just like us.”
Would the upheaval be such a bad thing, for the royal family and those just a bit lower on the totem pole? Take the scheme cooked up to make Edith feel better about giving her child away—essentially, to make her Marigold’s godmother though she already has one. What emotional abuse Marigold's poor adoptive mother Mrs. Schroeder, she of the venomous looks, is subjected to in the process! But we already have three kids, her husband points out (if he keeps this up he can forget having any more). Edith's visits will give poor Marigold a "chance," he adds. Now he's just being insulting. While I'm all for Mr. Schroeder feeling bad for Edith, who never gets any proper affection, there's obviously some seedy concern for money wrapped up in his sympathetic looks, which makes me think his supposed kindness is leading up to yet another instance of the world hating on Edith Crawley.
There's at least one character this season calling moochers out when she sees them. Ms. Bunting made another conspicuous appearance this episode, an unfortunate, but telling, harbinger of the fact that she'll be sticking around a bit longer. Last episode she loudly declared her intention of descending the stairs to thank the servants for her meal; this episode she's making the point louder by insulting Tom and calling him a "Roman" (a metaphor for converted classist snob). More Ms. Bunting, whose romance with Tom is strained, might be the only downside to this season's overarching theme of #RealTalk Abbey.
There’s one plebeian class commentator, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in episodes to come: Charles Blake graced the Abbey with his sarcasm and dimples of steel once more, causing a tittering amongst the ladies at the breakfast table and a rare frisson with Mary by the evening fire. Though he’s joined forces with just about everyone in the perpetual, tiresome assault on Rose's privilege (this time for trying to assist previously-wealthy Russian refugees) Blake is the rare soul who can acceptably check Mary's, too. His blowback against her snotty declaration that she is not an "overheated housemaid" pretty much encapsulated the entire episode: "Plantagenets are just as susceptible as housemaids when it comes to sex." In the process, he accomplished something rather extraordinary in Abbey Grantham: He got the last word.