Downton Abbey Delves Into the Dowager Countess's Secret Past

For all its failings, the fifth season's third episode gave the indomitable Violet her very own Doctor Zhivago.


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: I suppose we could talk about the continuing adversarial relationship between Lord Grantham and Miss Bunting, or Mrs. Patmore's deceased deserter of a nephew, but who are we kidding? Skip the first 40 minutes of tonight's episode and get to the good stuff: the Dowager Countess once had a romantic moment with a Russian prince, and he showed up at Downton several decades later! I don't even know where this story might be going, but we've waited more than four seasons for the Dowager C to get a love story, and I'm just so pleased that it's seemingly a Dr. Zhivago-inspired affair.

Still, the Dowager's storyline fits in quite well with the rest of the episode, spilling over as it is with romantic intrigue. I'm not sure how I feel about Cora and Simon Bricker making time in an art gallery. Sure, Lord Grantham is nobody's favorite, and the shabby way he treated Cora upon her return was enough reason for any of us to start rooting for an affair. But doesn't that seem altogether too easy? And aren't we just as certain that Simon will turn out to have some rat-like shortcomings that will ultimately send Cora back to her husband? Perhaps I'm not giving the show enough credit, but I can't imagine them upsetting the applecart that severely.

Mary's sexy getaway with Tony, meanwhile, felt like it was riding an uncomfortable middle ground between actually daring (it wasn't; everything was so chaste and polite in that opening post-coital scene) and genuinely romantic, but there seems to be precious little heat in their scenes these days.

All that said, Mary's entire pre-marital subplot has been worth it for the sequence of events in which Spratt (that self-satisfied goon) ratted out Mary to her grandmother. It afforded us an excellent moment where the Dowager Countess thought quickly to cover for Mary, but then wasted no time in getting all up in Mary's business about it later on. Bonus points for her rather meta lecture to Mary: "Don't let us hide behind the changing times, my dear." You first, Downton.

Gilbert: It did rather feel like all the sexual chemistry missing from Mary and Lord Gillingham’s Liverpool love nest had been extracted for the purposes of injecting it into the reunion of Violet and her former Russian acquaintance. To clarify: It seems like nothing more untoward occurred than two married people meeting in St. Petersburg, being attracted to each other, and one giving the other a fan (and really, who hasn’t been given an antique relic in the Winter Palace by a long-haired gentleman with Slavic charm and bedroom eyes?), but it’s clear enough that the moment was significant for both of them. And yes, the Dowager Countess deserves a romantic interlude more than Daisy deserves a day off, so please let’s have more of this and less of the godforsaken war memorial storyline, as sorry as I am for Mrs. Patmore and her nephew. But please, Downton, stop boring us for the length of a bible and then dropping things like blazing infernos and Violet's secret past in right at the end so we tune in next week. It's tacky.

Back to Mary for a moment: Has anyone in the history of England ever been quite so pale? She almost disappeared when she was sitting in her chalk-colored nightgown amid the sheets, even with Tony making ghastly “vulgar” jokes about working up an appetite. Maybe it’s a sign that he leaves her cold, or maybe it’s just that they don’t get much daylight in Yorkshire. Regardless, it’s clear that a week in bed with boring old Tony has rather dampened her enthusiasm for him, and now he thinks they’re getting married, and her grandmother thinks they are too, because in her day “a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she’d been instructed to do so by her mamma.” (Which is, when you think about it, absolutely horrifying, and worse than the worst birds-and-bees talk that was ever had. Also: untrue, as Violet later unwittingly proved.)

So, sorry Tony, but it looks like you’re on the outs. Also trending in a downwards direction is Lord Grantham, who was the most supercilious, vile, and sexist he has ever been in this episode, and boy is that saying something. If, gentlemen, you show up in London unexpectedly after clearly stating to your wife that you were staying at your estate in Yorkshire, do not then throw a fit when she comes home late and imply that no one could ever respect her for her brain. This is the kind of behavior that throws women smack into the arms of slightly oily art historians, who promise to appreciate their views on Piero della Francesca and the magpies of Umbria. Lord G., you deserve everything that comes to you, and more. Even Miss Bunting, who of course goes to a tea party full of displaced Russian aristocrats and praises Trotsky to the heavens. No tact, that one.

I guess we have to talk about Edith, although really I’d rather not. It is rather a tragedy that she’s been banned from spending time with Marigold by the long-suffering Margie, but what did she expect? You can’t dump an adorable baby on a fireman’s wife and then expect to get her back after a few years when everyone’s forgotten you ever had a boyfriend (and a job), or when pre-marital sex becomes the norm (because by the time that happens, Marigold will pushing 50). Also irritating: why the most incompetent police detective in the northern counties has suddenly figured out that Mr. Green had an enemy at Downton, and why Carson won’t budge an inch for poor Mrs. Patmore. We all know sympathy butters no parsnips, but maybe compassion makes a good roast potato, or something.

When Mary wasn’t off on her joyless romp in the birthplace of the Beatles, and Cora wasn’t taking moonlit walks with Mr. Bricker, Baxter was coming clean about why she stole from her former employer, and while it didn’t quite render her reputation spotless, it did go some way towards excusing her in the eyes of Cora. So she’s staying, and perhaps she and Molesley will finally get to share more than an eyeroll in Thomas's direction. Now, in the words of the Dowager Countess, if you’ll be good enough to let me drink my brandy in peace.

Kilkenny: Downton Abbey is beginning to feel like the latter seasons of The O.C., when the teen romance got so contrived the married folk had to make up for it with tales of California yore and affairs galore. Just as the Crawley girls start to weigh the show down with rehashed tales of woe—hasn’t Mary already had a premarital-sex storyline? And when will someone put Edith out of her misery?—in swoops Cora, finally interesting. Her London rendezvous with Mr. Bricker, creepy vibes aside, gave us rare insight into the true feelings of the soft-spoken American matriarch. As we already knew, she was young money shipped off to England to win respectability for her nouveau riche family. What was more surprising was that they felt like second-class citizens in Cincinnati and New York, perhaps because her father was Jewish. (Downton spinoff idea: The Buccaneers: Cora’s Tale).

Poor Cora. She went to scary London in Victorian times and all she got was this lousy husband. (Grantham's worst guff this episode: "Tom, keep her under control.") On the bright side, Cora's primer in della Francesca stole some screentime away from the insufferable Mr. Green investigation, which appears to be pinning a new prosecution on the human dart board Bates once more. This time a case is brewing based on his quotidian agenda on a day trip to York, where making inquiries at a shoe shop and sipping coffee in a local inn situated him suspiciously close to the train station, thereby giving him the ability to slip away to London and push Green in front of a bus. Given what we know about Bates’ insufferable martyr complex, it’s far more likely he was simply skulking around one city or other premeditating where he might acquire the perfect pair of penny lace-ups.

Speaking of Mr. Green and his awful legacy, it was a shame that after Joanna Froggatt's truly powerful Golden Globes acceptance speech this past Sunday, Anna wasn't given anything better to do with her trauma than thumb her nose at Lady Mary’s contraception. Sunday's speech had Froggatt emotionally dedicating her award to survivors of sexual assault, a few of whom thanked her in the wake of Anna’s brutal off-screen rape. That anecdote only made me wish that one season later the series would empower Froggatt more, if only to rebuke Mary's passive-aggressive demand she store a controversial lady-technology in her cottage, which portends more tears for the long-suffering lady's maid.

Come to think of it, there were a lot of great actors who weren’t given much to do this episode. The award for underachievement this week goes to Tom, whose slow devolution from scorchingly hot activist driver to milquetoast son-in-law reached its nadir when Fellowes tasked him only with delivering this week’s dispatch from the Changing World—that land developers want to build on some field called Pip’s Corner. What's more, he continues to attract the fallouts of ill-timed visits paid by Miss Bunting, whose overbearing personality is bulldozing any chance for him to recalibrate his personality. As for Rose, this episode she concerned herself with the lack of lemon at a tea for Russian aristocrats. And that's all I have to say about her.

The best performances this episode were fleeting: Margie’s eyeball-rolling after Edith left the Drewe household in Yew Tree, the collective sigh when the cute Grantham offspring was carted into the sitting room for Downton's now-routine pause to appreciate the adorable heirs to the estate. The kids are all right, and will be, as long as they don't harbor grand, premature plans for Pip's Corner.