On Downton Abbey, Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

Mary cut her hair and Daisy continued her studies, but the bravest move of all was Edith's.


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: This week Downton Abbey began on familiar footing, with a telegram bearing some very bad news. While the tidings that Michael Gregson had perished at the hands of Hitler’s cronies in the Beer Hall Putsch didn’t throw the house lineage for a loop like the sinking of the Titanic did four soapy seasons ago, it did give the series a new hill to climb. WWII is coming and, to top it off, Edith has absconded to London with her illegitimate child. Thankfully, a death everyone already expected didn't cast a pall over the episode for long: The ever-reliable Gregson willed Edith his old publishing house in London, and by episode's end she'd arrived in the city, presumably to begin her first bonafide editing position. The New Woman has come to Yorkshire—or rather, left it—and she’s celebrating with ice cream, Champagne, and an adorable but totally indifferent child.

None of the ladies outright self-identified, Beyoncé-like, as FEMINIST, but subtler cues of girl power nevertheless snuck their way into the episode. In a welcome moment of transparency, Cora took Lord Grantham to task for chiding her about Mr. Bricker (it's been three seasons and Cora's the forgiving sort, but not enough to let him live down Jane). Bates confronted Anna about discovering Marie Stopes' Married Love in their cottage, and instead of giving away Mary's secret, she told him off for going through her things (in a nice narrative twist, she also got him to spill about the beans about his non-trip to London instead). Violet visited her former Russian lover nearly alone. Mary rode with the boys in the point-to-point horse races and, in other news, she got a haircut.

That haircut, though. It’s often forgotten, or glossed over, that the New Woman wasn’t just any old kitchen maid (sorry, Daisy). To be New meant having money—a woman conveyed she was capable of making her way in the world not just via rebellious deeds, but also, crucially, via a wardrobe overflowing with shorter skirts, boyish suits, and yes, fashionable bobs. Mary tipped her hairdresser quite generously to make her feel “very strong,” giving the sly beautician one of the best moments of the episode as he dropped his phony French accent to compliment the way she worked it.

Mary hasn’t gone full flapper, or Pola Negri, yet: My bets are on Daisy to fill the void for the show’s truly daring feminist character, which would only be sweet justice after the many seasons when all poor Sophie McShera had to do was wince in response to Mrs. Patmore’s orders, ornament the cakes, reject William, and pine after Alfred. It’s time for a real, strong woman to emerge from the chrysalis of the long-suffering sous-chef, though I’m not sure Molesley’s history of England will help matters much. In any case, anyone’s an improvement on Ms. Bunting, whose absence this episode confirmed she is now firmly and thankfully ensconced in Lancashire.

The flip side to the boyish New Woman figure in the 1920s was the dandy, a self-made man of leisure who took great care to look fabulous at all times. Though Fellowes has yet to give us a dandy who's not automatically a sot or a villain, he has taken pains to reveal new dimensions in a man who doesn't feel quite at home with traditional gender norms. Joe, what do you make of what we learn about Thomas and his sickly condition this episode? And who knew saline could do such terrible things to one's complexion?

Reid: Take it from Downton Abbey: clean your needles. I'm of a few minds on the resolution to Thomas's ex-gay-therapy storyline, which saw Baxter take pity on her former tormentor after he showed her his awful abscess. Props to Dr. Clarkson for calling out Thomas's miracle serum as simple saline, though his parting words telling the footman to simply prepare for a hard life of loneliness weren't exactly cause for cheering. On the one hand, I'm happy to not have to see Thomas go through such pain anymore. The shameful history of gay men and women trying to change themselves (or being forcibly changed) by quacks all too willing to participate is too sad to think about. But after waiting through all of last season for this show to pay attention to Thomas and his proclivities, I'm worried he's just going to be shelved for the rest of the season, until the show needs somebody to sneer at Bates again.

Speaking of which, I realize we've all been avoiding the topic of Anna and Bates around these parts, but we have a good reason: Anna and Bates are terrible, repetitive, boring characters, and their storylines have been deathly since at least season two. But seeing as this investigation into the death of Mr. Green isn't going away any time soon, I suppose we should all be grateful that we got a good bit of forward momentum on this story at least. Bates told Anna that he categorically did not kill Green (though he wanted to), and that the train ticket found in his coat last year was proof of his innocence (because it was an unused ticket). I'm not sure why none of the other members of Downton's Number One Lady Detective Agency didn't put that one together, but fine. Bates isn't a killer. He is, however, an ass who decided to give Anna a hard time for possibly using contraception. The autonomy of women's bodies is going to be quite the issue for the next 100 years or so; he might as well get comfortable.

Meanwhile, I was struck by how many of Downton's residents found themselves looking into the future. There was Isobel, seemingly inclined to accept Lord Merton's proposal on the rationale that she deserves one last great adventure in her life. That's the spirit! Even if it does leave the Dowager Countess looking a little green around the gills. And with vague talk of retirement giving him second and third thoughts, Carson proposes to Mrs. Hughes ... that they go in on a rental property together. You're playing with our hearts, Carson! And with lord knows whatever condition has Isis-the-dog looking sluggish and sick on the floor, this is NO TIME to play with our hearts.

A haircut wasn't the only thing going full steam ahead this week, though I just want to give my own props to Downton for letting us appreciate the full bloom of Mary Crawley, which, at the character's best, includes as much preening and uncalled-for Edith-bashing as it does headstrong proto-feminism. We got Peak Mary this week, and I'm not mad about it.

Gilbert: On the plus side, none of us can complain about Downton being boring this week. On the minus: There was something quite jarring about the episode’s pendulum swing between the emotional torment inflicted upon Edith (and by extension Mrs. Drewe), and the jolly horse party (yes, I know it’s a point-to-point). Joe, I have to disagree with you: It’s a lot harder to like Lady Mary, everyone’s sarcastic spirit animal, when she’s so cruel to her sister. Edith’s lost the only man who ever loved her! Even though most of the family doesn't know that Gregson also happened to be the father of her child, it's an enormously painful bereavement any way you shake it, and when Lady Mary sniffs that she liked Gregson but she never quite understood what he saw in Edith, or flaunts her new hairstyle while everyone ignores her heartbroken sister, it does help explain why Edith’s quite so crazy. Middle child syndrome is real, and it’s apparently awful. And speaking of feminism, I think it's a lot braver for Edith to run away from her family and forge a future with her daughter than it is for Mary to get a haircut. (For the record, I cannot believe I'm defending Edith but these are seemingly the lengths to which this season has driven me.)
This episode also emphasized quite how sorry an idea it was for Edith to leave Marigold with Mr. and Mrs. Drewe, given the general emotional carnage that ensued when Edith showed up again to demand the child back. It was impossible not to weep for Mrs. Drewe, who really loved Marigold, and seemed to sense all along that Edith had plans to run off with her to the Abbey. But who knew it would come so soon, or that Edith would run all the way to London? And what can possibly happen next? Edith is well known in London (she’s a columnist, and now the sole owner of a publishing company), so it isn’t like she can suddenly show up with a three-year-old child and not raise eyebrows. And despite the ice cream and the Champagne, she and Marigold can’t stay in that room forever. My personal hope would be for her to buy a second-hand wedding ring, take her money and Marigold, and move to a village in France where she opens a sweetshop and changes the life of the townspeople. But that’s also the plot of Chocolat, so it wouldn’t be particularly original.
With all the excitement of the rest of the episode, the Dowager Countess’s reunion with her Russian almost went unnoticed, but finally it appeared to confirm that there was more between them than the gift of a fan in the Winter Palace. “It is not our first secret assignation,” Prince Igor said, before adding, “I wanted you from the first moment I saw you, more than mortal man ever wanted woman.” The burning ardor of this line wasn’t even slightly quenched when Violet replied drily (as Violet tends to do) that the sentiment was merely “an historical detail.” Igor’s admission that, if his wife were dead, he’d ask Violet to run away with him, seems to explain why Violet’s trying so hard to find the Princess: possibly to clear her conscience, possibly because she’d rather the past stay buried, or possibly because she wouldn’t. While I love the new chinks in the Dowager Countess’s starchy armor (note also the unchecked sauciness of her new maid), it’s also a relief to see her say things like, “Oh, all the endless thinking. It’s very overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914, nobody thought about anything at all.”
Speaking of the war, how tedious is it that Michael Gregson died in the Munich Putsch? When I was studying history in high school, one of the more dubious learning aids employed by the teacher was a video series that supposedly offered insight into momentous British events (the Blitz! the Somme!) by restaging them through the perspective of a fairly boring English family. There are times when Downton feels a lot like those incredibly snoozy and low-budget films, and it's occasionally even less subtle in the ways in which it reminds the audience that Very Important Things are on the horizon. I’m not saying that they have to ignore the events of the time, just that there might be more graceful ways to do it than have Lord Grantham and Cora discuss what a nasty chap Herr Hitler is, and what a relief it is that he’s been sent to prison.
Let’s end with the welcome and much-needed happy news that no one seems to mind Atticus Aldridge is Jewish, even the Dowager Countess, who simply sighed and said, “There’s always something, isn’t there?” Preach on, Violet.