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.