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.
Gilbert: For four weeks now I’ve been stuck in a Sisyphean game of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Each week, the guest is Miss Bunting. Each week, Rose suggests what a lovely thing it might be to invite her, and Mary and Cora agree how nice it’ll be for Tom to have one of his working-class friends at dinner, and Robert gets huffy and everyone ignores him (which is usually a plus, but not on this occasion). Then Miss Bunting comes, to dinner, says something rude, infuriates Lord Grantham, and ruins the meal for everyone. But lo and behold, the next week she’s back, with her sharp northern vowels and her class warfare and her laser-sharp ability to goad Lord Grantham “with a surgeon’s accuracy.” I can’t take it anymore. For the love of all that is genteel, Downton, please just stop inviting her. No good can come of it.
Unfortunately, Groundhog Downton continues in more ways than one. Once again, Sybbie and George were paraded through the house and patted on the head by Grandpappa before instantly disappearing, never to be seen again. Mrs. Patmore was still heartbroken over her nephew. A member of the Bates family was possibly investigated for a crime s/he may or may not have committed. Mary spent time with Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake. Edith stalked Marigold. I know it’s the 1920s and the idle rich didn’t have much to do beyond go to fashion shows, debate the pros and cons of newfangled technology, and occasionally dispense their largesse in villages like Oprah with a hereditary peerage (you get a war memorial! and you get a war memorial!), but if Downton doesn’t figure out new things for its characters to do soon I’m going to take that della Francesca and beat myself into oblivion with it.
However, there were a few minor developments this week, most of which (cheeringly) involved the romantic lives of Downton’s more seasoned ladies. Firstly, it emerged that the Dowager Countess’s Russian gentleman must have had more to him that first met the eye, because he once asked Violet to run away with him. Unfortunately, her husband gifted her a Fabergé frame with pictures of her children inside, which deterred her slightly. (This is just like the plot of The Age of Innocence, only with a Slavic twist.) Plus, it turns out that the previous Lord Grantham was rather a dashing devil after all, even though “like all Englishmen of the type, he hid his qualities under a thick blanket of convention.”
Just when Downton giveth with a line like that, Downton taketh away again by having the present Lord Grantham opine with all the clarity of hindsight about the fellows in brown shirts “who go about bullying people,” and how he’s “afraid we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing." But I digress. The second emerging romance involved Isobel, who encountered Lord Merton at her doorstep and got a marriage proposal in return. This whole storyline is idiotic, chiefly because who wouldn’t marry Lord Merton? I’d marry Lord Merton, in two shakes of a lamb’s tail (that sounds dirty but is actually an old English saying). He’s the silverest of silver foxes. He’s richer than Croesus. He’s charming. And he proposed to Isobel by saying that he wasn’t doing it because he wanted a wife, or someone to help him run his enormous estate, but because he’d fallen in love with her. The fact that anyone on the receiving end of that kind of offer would still seem intent on turning it down makes me worry for the future of baby George, given that his paternal grandmother is obviously delusional.
I want to talk about Lord Gillingham and his incredibly sexist rage at the idea of Mary, a lady, being carnal enough to “give herself” to a man she wasn’t madly in love with, but the memory of him asking if he was a bad lover is just too much. So let us bow our heads in sympathy once more for poor Edith, who seems to be spinning into a state of abject hysteria over not being able to see Marigold, not to mention the prospect of finally finding out what happened to Marigold’s father. But at least she’s still writing her column! It’s about “the way the world is changing,” because of course it is. Maybe by the time next week’s episode airs I’ll have mastered the art of ice sculptures and boogie-woogie.
Joe and Katie, what do you think might be going on with Thomas? My first thought is drugs, because he looks so bloated and pale, but drugs aren’t supposed to cause agonizing pain (at least, not the fun ones).
Reid: My theory on our Thomas: he's sneaking off to undergo whatever passed for ex-gay therapy back in the '20s. That magazine ad that Baxter saw ("CHOOSE your own path ...") sure made it sound like that, at any rate. I'm not sure what kind of syringe action would make him look so sweaty and miserable, but I would guess the snake-oil factor on that kind of thing would have been pretty high. Poor Thomas. He's such a bastard, but I love him, for identification reasons and because the target of all his early scheming was dumb old Bates. Learn to be proud of you, Thomas! It gets better in about 100 years!
So, Miss Bunting. I almost feel silly talking about what a dinner-ruining monster she is because the deck feels so stacked at this point. I can usually go weeks and weeks without being reminded of Julian Fellowes' tendency to value the benevolent aristocracy above all. But now I can't seem to get away from it. Yes, Miss Bunting is a manners-less Clydesdale of a woman, stomping all over the manor with her socialism. She's being written in a way where no one would ever be able to sympathize with her ideas. Ultimately, we're all being conditioned against her and in favor of the maintenance of the oligarchical order. It's in Revelations, people! (Sorry, sorry. Too much.) So while I can get down with not wanting Miss Bunting invited back to any more fancy dinners, I still feel like I'm stepping into a trap by hating her.
Sophie, you make an excellent point about clunky foreshadowing, though. All of Lord Grantham's laments about Weimar Germany felt very textbooky, and I was getting very impatient to get back to the parts where Edith was getting doors shut in her face by her daughter's adoptive mother. It's so mean, but I find the Edith pile-ons rather delightful. She's like a sadder version of Jerry/Larry/Terry from Parks & Recreation, where even the nice characters are like "[facepalm], Edith." And now Aunt Rosamund is onto her baby-adoption ruse. Knowing the way TV works, I'm sure Edith ends up as the sole Grantham to survive WWII, but for now she's just so bumbling.
As ever, I'm more interested in Mary's storylines than I probably have a right to beth. It really doesn't take a lot of feminism to get me pumping my fist, but when Blake remarked that she's incredibly difficult to figure out, and she basically responded with, "I know, right??" I swooned. Choose yourself, Mary! As for Lord Gillingham, I feel a bit of the same manipulations with him as I do with Miss Bunting, although with less nefarious reasons behind it. The show really does like to stack the deck in order for the audience to side with the current storyline directions. Now that Gillingham's the odd man out, he's pouty and unlikeable. Downton could stand to respect its audience's intelligence and emotional stability once in a while.
Kilkenny: My guess? This latest plot twist with Thomas is Julian Fellowes' pale Imitation Game. Black rings under his eyes? Kitchen knives? Inspirational ad copy in The London Magazine? To echo Joe, everything appears to be pointing to the horrible, old-fashioned practice of chemical castration. I can only hope that by next episode Miss Bunting will show up in the kitchen, pass over Daisy, and begin instructing the butler on cryptanalysis, because Thomas is long due for a single redeeming quality—and as Lord Grantham won't stop reminding us, World War II is on the horizon.
Otherwise Downton's back to its old tricks, the oldest being its mid-season recalibration. Stacked cards, dinnertime disputes, and campy moments of Lord Grantham's psychically divining the future of the British political landscape aside, there was at least some amusement in the way Fellowes lackadaisically cast off unwanted subplots this episode. We could talk about Margie slamming the door in Edith's face, or Lord Merton's sudden proposal after his arduous courtship of Isobel, which I didn't appreciate as much as Sophie (note to the wise, Merton: Don't woo a woman with a quip about your weak knees.) But I'd rather linger on the abrupt, mysterious end of Mary's affection for Lord Gillingham, which she explained as a consequence of her mercurial nature but is probably code for: terrible in bed.
Lo and behold, Mary didn't have to feel guilty, or changeable, for long: Cue the return of Charles Blake, inexplicably in attendance at a London fashion show for wannabe flappers, seated conveniently across from Mary so as to send her sexy sidelong glances. (She came to admire the Erté-like suitdresses and high hems, stayed to eye her old flame’s killer dimples.) It’s nice to see Mary getting her mojo back with a man who can play it just as cool and smug as she does—“I was never the type to die of a broken heart, you know,” he tells her. “I’m sorry if that offends you”—though I hope things between them don’t stay chilly forever.
The primary emissary of cutting the crap this episode was, unsurprisingly, the Dowager Countess. I’m less interested in her slick, consonant-rolling Russian prince than the excuse their contrived romance gives us to spend more time with Maggie Smith and her one-liners. In this episode alone, the DC shut down the insufferable Edith with old-fashioned class (“You don’t know a thing about it”) and insulted Isobel in a way that was distinctly 2015 (Violet’s rejoinder to her complaint “Oh, you only say that to sound clever,” being “I know. You should try it.”) Next on my list of people at whom the DC should throw some shade: Mr. Bricker, whose metaphorical references to the beauty of Downton is an insult to Cora's intelligence; or her son, whose treatment of his wife is even worse. This episode, Lord Grantham censured Cora for encoding flirtation into her and Bricker's long-gestating cultural history of della Francesca. Plot twist idea for Fellowes: A duel for her honor on the pastures of Pip’s Corner.
Divorce, after all, is in. Shrimpy’s failed marriage elicited new dimensions within both Violet and Lord Grantham, who censured their relative by marriage out of pure social convention, but appeared to empathize from personal experience. “I never take sides in a broken marriage,” Violet said, referencing past troubles with the original Lord Grantham. Best of all, Shrimpy's dilemma showed a side of Rose not seen since she began fretting over the footwear of past Russian aristocrats. Her assertion that she will marry for love gives me fresh hope for the Crawley's least interesting cousin—Tom's not the only one who's lost his rebellious spirit this season.
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