Downton Abbey: Can Love Last In a Cold Climate?

There were two engagements this week, but both appear to be at risk thanks to unpleasant family members.


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.

Kilkenny: When a family member runs away, it might seem only natural to send guests packing. It's a time for making signs and inquiries, for determining motives and potential destinations. With the Downton denizens in crisis mode, no one would begrudge them a little quiet time.

It's both a testament to the Crawleys' good manners and total indifference to Edith that in the aftermath of her disappearance, they continued to host dinner parties. All while Edith was away, in the space of a single episode, the Crawleys hosted the Sinderbys, Lord Gillingham, Mabel Lane Fox, Charles Blake, Lord Merton, his sons Larry and Tim, Isobel, and Aunt Rosamund, who descended early in the episode like a pigeon chasing a bread crumb of scandal. Rosamund, who helped Violet break the news to Cora that Marigold is Edith’s daughter, probably would have been a lot more help to the search had she just stayed in London. Alas, in the face of personal tragedy our English aristocrats reflected quite a bit more on keeping calm than making logical decisions, so it was Atticus Aldridge who ended up pointing out the obvious—that Edith, budding female journalist, probably landed at the printing press she’s just inherited. (Thank God for Rose's good taste.)

Still, some characters proved their mettle in the face of a family calamity. Cora proved to be the biggest superhero of the lot: It was her novel suggestion that the family listen to Edith's wishes, rather than threaten her with sending Marigold to a boarding school in Swizerland. I have high hopes that Cora's inner spunk will continue to belatedly resurface in the impending WWII storyline—given her deadly combination of crisis management skills and compassion, she’d be one hell of an Angel on the Battlefield.

Tom’s personality, too, finally woke up from its wintry hibernation in the wake of Edith's absence. Inspired by her gall to strike out on her own, he took a stroll to a stream with his daughter to feel out the waters on her thoughts of America. Anticipating the melting pot appears to have done him well: He was in fine form insulting Larry Merton at the dinner table, which roused up that old Irish brogue that portends he's ready for anything Boston—or New York, or Newark, for that matter—might throw at him.

Indeed, Edith's absence brought out the true characters in them all, especially the most hopeless cases of sticks-in-the-mud. Mary offered negative sympathy for her sister, earning a spot-on censure from the Dowager Countess ("My dear, a lack of compassion can be just as vulgar as an excess of tears"). Hating on Lord Grantham is just about the deadest horse on this roundtable, but his caddishness was just too awful this episode not to flog: When Edith ran away, his immediate response was, “We have to give the impression that Edith is staying somewhere.” But when Isis was diagnosed with cancer, it was, “I suppose we can’t stop this ghastly dinner.” Uh-huh: He showed no compunction about forcibly ending dinners when Ms. Bunting was around. It has become abundantly clear—yet again—that Grantham prefers his dog to his daughter.

So it’s looking like Isis, who was never any more vivacious than the dinnertime gong, will die. This is sad, sure, but the potential upside is that her absence will refocus Grantham’s priorities. My bets are, however, that he’ll be in the market for a new proxy for his children. Perhaps by purchasing a nice hunting hound, or, if Spratt had it his way, hiring his mother’s new ladies’ maid. The butler had the best line of the episode when he likened her to a "dachshund."

Reid: For an episode that dealt so extensively with romantic relationships — Rose and Atticus' sweet (hopefully not doomed) romance; the resolution of Mary's with Tony Gillingham; Isobel's engagement to Lord Merton—not to mention the parent-child bonds of Edit/Marigold and Branson/Sybbie, I found myself most affected by what's happening with the more fraternal bonds at Downton. While I'm still very much into the soapiness of the series, I'm a real sap to scenes that acknowledge the bonds of friendship, and this one had that in abundance, sometimes from the most unexpected places.

It doesn't come as so much of a surprise that the Dowager Countess has grown rather attached to Isobel Crawley. No pair that's spent that many years verbally jousting could avoid building a bond. I can't believe it's taken me this long to compare Violet and Isobel to Siskel and Ebert, but I'm doing it now. Two ideological opposites who dislike fundamental things about each other but whose years of disagreement have formed a most unexpected bond. And now, as it turns out, that's the reason Violet has looked so stricken these many weeks. She's not so much queasy at the thought of Isobel outranking her as she is about Isobel leaving her. Suddenly, I find myself hoping that vile Larry's monstrous rudeness at the engagement dinner ends up kiboshing Isobel and Lord Merton's nuptials. I was always an Isobel/Dr. Clarkson shipper anyway.

Of course, Isobel wasn't the only estrangement the Dowager Countess had to contemplate this week. After finally—FINALLY—telling Cora about Edith's secret baby, Violet had to deal with the very cold shoulder of her daughter-in-law. While it seemed strange at first that Cora would be relatively chill to Rosamund, despite Rosamund acting like a real pill during their eventual strategy sesh with Edith, her harsher treatment towards the Dowager Countess does make some sense. They'd made quite the formidable team at the top of the Downton pyramid, nodding knowingly at each other whenever Lord Grantham got blustery, coming to sensible detente over any number of cultural issues. You can imagine how wounded Cora must feel now that she's been, as she sees it, betrayed. Of course, she's Cora. I can't imagine her staying mad at anyone for long.

Even Lord Grantham, that sour old lemon, managed to tug at my heartstrings this week. Part of that is surely because I expected him to fuss and finagle after Tom informed him of his decision to start exploring options in America. But rather than huff and puff over his family's rights towards Sybbie, he allowed the two of them to share a rather sweet moment of reflection over what is now undeniably their father/son bond. And if that weren't enough, there was the fate of poor Isis. Though it was strange to watch the poor dog's impending demise used as a narrative device to distract Lord G in order to wave Cora and Edith's adoption scheme past him, it was hard not to feel for the guy.

All these wonderful moments of non-romantic kindness (Daisy and Mr. Mason! Thomas and Baxter!) weren't only a nice antidote for any Valentine's Day curmudgeons in the audience (hey), but also a fine contrast to the increasingly unbearable Anna and Bates, who seem to care deeply for one another yet are horrible friends and co-workers. Sophie, what did you think of Bates' harshness towards Baxter and Anna's busybody gossiping about Edith and Mr. Drew?

Gilbert: Joe, I think one of the problems with Anna and Bates is that, as much as the audience might want them to be happy together, the curse of television is that happy couples almost inevitably make for boring viewing. As we saw in this episode, the issue is amplified in Anna and Bates’ case by the fact that the couple are almost unbearable when they’re not plagued by trials and tribulations—the very worst kinds of gossipy, judgmental smug marrieds. Luckily, they’re almost certainly going to suffer anew next week. “Do you feel the whole business of Mr. Green might be over?” Anna asked. “So we can dare to plan our future again? Like normal people?” Never has fate been tempted quite so recklessly by a woman who, as far as can be told, is still one of the prime suspects in a murder.

As someone who’s been irritated all season both by Edith and by her family’s neglect of her, it was mollifying to see Cora remember her middle daughter this week, and to see Mary finally chastised for being so unbelievably vile to her last surviving sister. Dowager Countess #realtalk never fails to put people in their place, whether it’s Mary, unpleasant dinner guests, or the increasingly put-upon Spratt. And like you said, Katie, thank goodness someone had the sense to think that missing Edith might pop up at the publishing company she'd just inherited. In fact, all Cora, Rosamund, and Violet had to do was show up in London and start arguing with a receptionist, and poof, there she was, sporting a sassy pinafore and holding a sheaf of papers, just like an Interwar Tess McGill. She even has childcare options! Maybe Edith’s publishing empire can support the rest of the family when Tom leaves for Chicago/Detroit, Lord Grantham fulfills his life's mission to run the estate into the ground, and Mary’s too busy toying with various chinless bachelors to care.

Speaking of Tom, Joe, I have to raise my objections at the touching moment between him and Lord Grantham in the library. Yes, it was heartwarming. But let’s remember: they are English. And they are men. And it’s 1924. I grew up in London in the positively touchy-feely ‘80s and ‘90s and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times my father expressed emotion! Everyone knows British people have historically been more capable of vocalizing feelings for animals than people, which is why the Queen has so many corgis, Prince Charles was such an emotionally stunted individual, and Lord Grantham is so devastated by the ailing Isis. The idea that a man and his former chauffeur would have any kind of a conversation involving the word “love” is so much of an anachronism that Tom may as well have pulled out an iPhone and sent Lord G. a text full of heart emojis. Preposterous.

Still, Lord Grantham’s unlikely but ultimately touching acceptance of Tom is in stark contrast to Lord Merton’s two terrible sons, both of whom deserve to be taken out back and whacked with a copy of Debrett’s Peerage. Yes, I know I’ve been an ardent fan of Lord Merton, but there’s nothing more unappealing in a man than an inability to reprimand his thoroughly snotty and unpleasant brats. It was also a reminder that the family desperately needs Tom, because no one else has the working-class chops to shout “bastard” in a crisis, or to threaten physical violence in the presence of servants. “And suddenly we’ve slipped into a foreign tongue,” was Violet’s response, but someone had to say it, as Lord Grantham himself admitted.

The cartoonish villainy of the two unpleasant Merton sons was only matched by Lord Sinderby, who’s apparently as sneering and cold as Atticus is charming and kind. Will he spar with Shrimpy, or with Rose’s equally unpleasant mother? Will Isobel decide she can’t deal with her two insufferable in-laws? Why does everything have to be so difficult in this ridiculous village?