Downton Abbey Gets a Fresh Influx of Villainery

A sociopath, a drunk, and a tramp nearly ruined Rose's London wedding, even as the show's resident scoundrel showed his softer side.

PBS/The Atlantic

Every week for the fifth season of PBS's period drama Downton Abbey, Sophie Gilbert, Katie Kilkenny, and Joe Reid will discuss the intrigues, upstairs and downstairs, of public television's favorite Yorkshire manor.

Gilbert: A slow clap for Shrimpy, please. And, though it burns me to say it, for Lord Grantham, because even a stopped clock is right twice a day, as the Dowager Countess might say. The penultimate episode of Downton’s fifth season saw the (second) most pompous man in Yorkshire finally peel off some of his prickly aristocratic armor and do a very kind deed for Mrs. Patmore, honoring the cook’s nephew with a specially designed memorial stone in the village. He also finally twigged that Marigold bears an uncanny resemblance to someone—not Edith, his own child, who, as we know will be ignored until the world stops turning, but Michael Gregson. All it took was Cora to gently confirm his suspicions, and suddenly the Crawleys have a new grandchild to fuss over, or a replacement for Sybbie, anyway, since Tom seems hell bent on moving to Boston. I hope he has snow shoes.

There was an awful lot to unpack in this episode, which once again blended moments of comedy and tragedy with the kind of surging string crescendos normally reserved for Nicholas Sparks movies. Those who predicted Lord Sinderby would be enshrined as the season’s villain before the wedding was out were disappointed—the true snake in the Aldridge grass turned out to be Susan, Rose’s mother, who paid a “tart” (as Mary put it) to pose as a prostitute in Atticus’s hotel room, allowing a photographer to capture the moment and send the (misleading) evidence to Rose. Downton loves nothing more than a person doing malevolent deeds for no good reason, from Thomas (more on him later) to O’Brien to the first Mrs. Bates to Edna the saucy housemaid. Is England really so full of sociopaths? I understand that the show needs drama, but it does get exhausting watching villains try to ruin everything all the time, and there’ve been Disney baddies who’ve had more psychological clarity and motivation than the poisonous Susan.

Since it was her wedding day, and all went well despite her mother’s worst intent, let’s take a moment to appreciate Lady Rose. Once a flighty party girl sent to Downton to straighten up, she seems to have evolved into a kind, sweet, and perceptive person, caring for displaced Russian aristocrats and managing to wrap her head around even Lord Sinderby. While it’s easy to dislike Atticus’ father for his cold manner, hearing his speech about wanting to preserve the legacy of his ancestors gave him a lot more heft as a character than Susan, who only cares about saving face. But can she have any friends left to save face for? It’s a mystery.

While Shrimpy was upbraiding his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Lord Grantham (suitably chastened by the death of his dog) was remembering that commoners also have feelings, and Rose was getting married, the Dowager Countess’s maid was taking Andy the temporary footman to gambling clubs and drinking for free thanks to him losing all his cash. I have two problems with this. The first is that Violet is far too exacting a person to stand for a person like Denker being her lady’s maid. The second is that no one gets that tiddly (it is a long way to Tipperary) and doesn’t have even a shade of a hangover the next day. Nevertheless, it took a villain to understand a villain, and Thomas, astute as he is, was able to figure out Denker’s con and win back Andy’s money, leaving Denker with a nasty bar bill to settle. Spratt would be so pleased if he wasn't stuck in Yorkshire pondering his grievances.

There’s so much we haven’t covered. Katie and Joe, what did you think of Daisy’s decision (and then reversal) to move to London and live a life of culture? How long until Mr Molesley puts a ring on it? (“It” being Miss Baxter, obviously.) Will Tom actually leave for Boston or is this just one of those insufferable problems that gets mentioned over and over again before reaching a predictably tidy conclusion? (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the war memorial.) Why does “The Velvet Violin” sound so offensive to my ears? And, most importantly, did Lady Sinderby have the best comeback of the season?

Kilkenny: It's never too late to make up for lost character development on Downton Abbey, and now that Cora has finally earned our affections—and, with the sale of that pesky metaphor for her nonexistent infidelity, the della Francesca, is regaining her good-for-nothing husband's—it's high time for Daisy's personhood to see the light of day. This episode, Downton's most downtrodden maid finally got more to do than giving prolonged speeches on the woeful situation of the working class and the sad state of the Labour Party. Was it just me, or was her announcement that she was packing up for London genuinely shocking? I had my money on her self-educating, opening up a Yorkshire schoolhouse, marrying Tom, attending the odd rally or two, and stopping by Downton every Sunday for some customary tea and verbal abuse from Mrs. Patmore. This sudden surge of agency is throwing a wrench in every one of my sundry predictions, but it's also doing something novel for the series, which is to say it's fleshing Daisy out into a real character.

Of course, Daisy didn't go through with her claim, which suggests either that she's a bigger softie for Mrs. Patmore than she lets on, or she has the makings of an excellent fiction writer. The former may be more realistic, although Daisy had such existentially woeful lines this episode that I'm entertaining the latter. "It's as if I've been down a coal hole," she tells the poor, bewildered Molesley and Baxter, "and someone's opened the lid and brought me into the sunlight." A moment later: "I feel so resentful, so discontented. It's as if my whole life were a prison I have to go back to." Next thing you know she'll be describing visions of green fig trees with fat purple figs that represent her choices in life—marrying the temporary footman, Andy, becoming a famous professor, or traveling to The Hague to see small museums with Molesley as a chaperone. All of it, strangely works: Me and my angsty high school self are finally invested in this one. That's more than I can say for Molesley, unfortunately, his quaint affection for the Wallace Collection nonwithstanding (I'll answer your question, Sophie, with another one: When will Molesley ever have the guts to put a ring on it?).

As for the drama upstairs, I tip my hat to Lady Sinderby for her sass. (“We’re Jewish, so we pay well.”) Even more so, I'm impressed with her son, who proved his grace under pressure at the dinner party, where the villainous Susan made fun of his name. (What is with everyone's overblown fascination with it? Surely somewhere in the Abbey contains resides a tome referencing the ancient Greek philosopher!) I'm less clear whether he was proving his mettle when Susan planted a skeezy woman at his "stag" party, however, or presaging future mishaps: "Not tonight," Atticus told his saucy temptress, "I'm sorry if I misled you, but it's not going to happen." Was Rose's latest man just being super polite, or was he genuinely interested in another night? Perhaps I'm treating him with too much suspicion, but Downton has conditioned me to reflexively consider any rakish-looking underdeveloped male love interest a cad until proven otherwise.

Speaking of such characters, I was genuinely shocked to see Mary's icy facade melt this episode after a brief encounter with past paramour Lord Gillingham and his bride-to-be, Mabel Lane Fox. We all know how much the Lady hates to lose a pair of admiring male eyes, even those as forlorn and sad-doggish as Gillingham's, but I found myself genuinely affected by her distress when Carson happened upon her underneath the stairs. Seeing Gillingham and Lane Fox arm-in-arm planning their dry London wedding appears to have finally made her realize the Abbey's about to get very lonely. Little did she know the mass move-out was about to start sooner than suspected: Her lady's maid/confidante/bestie Anna appears to be settling in for a long internment in the county jail. Lord knows what trumped-up charges are keeping her there, but accounting for the calamitous misfortune that the Bates evince in every waking minute of their life (how do they manage the tea tray each morning?), let's all start prime the fast forward buttons on our DVRs and settle in for another drawn-out, torturous subplot.

Otherwise, there's quite a lot that remains unpredictable, or dare I say, exciting, at Downton as we head into the season finale. Joe, is Lady Violet about to leave Spratt and Denker to go at it in a dust-cloud-raising kitchen brawl and run away with Prince Kuragin? Will our pal Isobel be bullied out of her own nuptials by Lord Merton's bratty sons? And to pass Sophie's question on, should Thomas just put away his tails and pursue the life of a London card shark-cum-grizzled life mentor?

Reid: I'll happily talk about Thomas, since my complicated affection for that scheming li'l rascal was out on front street this week. There were a lot of ways I thought that story with Denker and Andy might go, and the fact that the show took one that I wasn't expecting at all was gratifying. It was nice to see Thomas not mooning over the newest pretty face, and I was impressed that Downton was able to deliver a Thomas subplot that was informed by his simmering gayness but not necessarily about it. Obviously, he was eager to come to Andy's rescue because Andy was a cute little lamb lost in the woods of underground gambling, but motivation aside, it was kind of wonderful to watch Thomas apply his talents for scheming towards a greater good.

Of course, there was a huge part of me that wanted Thomas to follow-up his card-shark heroics by making a move on Andy. (Come on, there's a decent chance he'd be reciprocated. Look at Andy's haircut.) I guess I just want all century-old gay characters to be happily romanced, even the ones who are jerks most of the time. I suppose hope for next week's "Christmas special" springs eternal.

That said, I'm let down that this is what's become of Denker. And not just because it means Spratt was right not to trust her. But I was so fond of her in the early going! After the business where she announced Kuragin's arrival to the Dowager Countess and so knowingly laid out what I can only assume was the 1920s English dowager version of a freakum dress, my notes literally read "Denker! Team Denker!" I had visions of a saucier kind of banter between Violet and her new maid. Alas, Denker turned out to be a hustler. I guess if you manage to raise the suspicions of Thomas and Mrs. Patmore, you really are a bad egg.

As for Violet and Isobel, both being called away by the promise of late-in-life romance, I think I want different things for them. For Isobel, I want her to have the last laugh at Lord Merton's sons. I think it dawned on her last week that she doesn't want a marriage that would be that combative so close to home. It's only a matter of time before she ends it; I just want her to really stick it to those kids. As for Violet, I think I do want her to run away with Prince Kuragin and have one last great adventure. Something that wraps up in time for her to return next season, sure. I'm not entirely unrealistic. But I have to say, one of my major sources of joy this season has been seeing the Dowager Countess climb out of her rut. Downton had gotten incredibly lazy with that character, essentially setting her up in the corner of the room to make increasingly formulaic wisecracks. We've gotten to see so much more of her this year, from vulnerability to compassion, and in general she feels like a much more vital part of the show. And she's even close to letting Mary make the wisecracks these days. Here's to you, Tsarina of Grantham.