On Downton Abbey, Two Rivals Finally Face Off

On Super Bowl Sunday, a showdown between Yorkshire's most pompous patriarch and an interloping art historian was perhaps inevitable.


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.

Reid: I'm happy to report that viewers who turned on their TVs on Sunday hoping to watch two heated rivals—one a popular cheater, the other a defensive stalwart—bash into each other in pursuit of a trophy were not disappointed. This week's Downton Abbey was easily the most action-packed of the season, mostly thanks to that old scoundrel Bricker, who took advantage of an invitation to Downton while Lord Grantham was away to sneak into Cora's bedroom after hours in the hopes of getting some Tony Gillingham-style action. For as much as Lord G. bothers me, and even as I wonder whether Bricker may have had a point about him taking Cora for granted, I let out quite the cheerful whoop when he backhanded Bricker halfway down the road (perhaps to Essex, where they were apparently holding a rather damp nudist party).

I'm definitely in the camp that prefers Downton Abbey soapy, so this was a rather wonderful development. As was Charles Blake's catfight gambit wherein he invited Mary to tea with himself and Gillingham's ex-fiancee, Mabel Lane Fox. The whole thing felt positively Seinfeldian when he proposed a reunion between Tony and Mabel, which ticked Mabel off enough that she left in a huff, allowing Blake and Mary to dine together. Everything's coming up Blake!

While I'd much rather talk about the Dowager Countess and Doctor Clarkson giving play-by-play commentary on Isobel and Merton's courtship—or even about Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore conspiring to soothe Carson's ego after asking him for financial advice, I'll leave those happier topics to you two. I'll be the bearer of dull news that Anna appears to be in the crosshairs of the investigation into Mr. Green's death. I can't believe we're still talking about this. And I can't believe Thomas still cares! Does he even remember why he hates Bates? We all hate Bates! Doesn't Thomas have enough problems with whatever awful treatments he's receiving giving him the day sweats?

Kilkenny: Indeed, Joe: If viewers tuned in to Downton this week seeking respite from padded athletes bludgeoning one another on another basic cable channel, then they sure were in for a nasty surprise. This week’s episode featured only one brawl of a physical nature, but the climactic domestic spats this week were equally cringeworthy. Where to even begin? In addition to Lord Grantham’s date with Bricker and the Persian rug, Edith brought her aunt to go coo over her child out of wedlock, Mrs. Patmore was given a painfully obvious lesson in first-wave feminism by Mrs. Hughes, Tom bonded with Lord Grantham over liquor the aristocrat was proud to have poured himself, and for his second date with Mary, Charles Blake made a restaurant reservation with her and her former romantic rival. Smooth! I understand it’s the end of an era and all, but do these growing pains have to be so damn excruciating?

There’s something to be said, however, for the fact that despite its midseason awkwardness, Downton finally made good on its long-gestating promise of change. The opening scenes convening the family at breakfast to review the social calendar always set the tone for the rest of the episode, and episode five was no different. From the nudist-colony reference on, the tone was distinctly liberal, the subplots quasi-revolutionary. Poor Carson, Downton’s resident monarchist: Things were going so well for him early in the season heading the memorial committee and all, but at this point the world has changed so much that Edith’s complaining about his reticence to serve cocktails and Mrs. Hughes is undercutting his authority to help Mrs. Patmore purchase a cottage in Houghton-le-Spring. It’s hard to imagine Mrs. Patmore taking the time away from the stovetop to enjoy her new property and the pleasures of northern England, but at least it’s not some crackpot investment scheme—because we all know how well that worked out for Thomas.

Keeping the tides of change churning this week is Rose, who is now in full-blown onomastics research mode on her new, it turns out, Jewish (!) crush, Atticus Aldridge. Rose has a thing for guys the old guard may not approve of—RIP, that brief, complicated fling with Jack Ross—and Aldridge’s ethnic qualifications, plus his part-Russian allure, probably mean he’s here to stay. Though the pair’s meet-cute was saccharine both literally and figuratively—he caught her in the rain coming out of a pastry shop and teased her for having a sweet tooth, for the love of Betty’s, Ltd.—I have high hopes for these two. Rose, after all, was Marie Antoinette-like, caught buying cake for Russian refugees. Perhaps a businessman from hardworking émigré origins will knock a little sense into her about what real people in need could use from her time and riches.

And then there were some developments that pressed rewind on the whole welcome change thing, though I can’t quite tell whether they were the result of Julian Fellowes’ right-wing leanings or his poor grasp of sustained serial screenwriting. Ms. Bunting, for instance. While I’m all for saying farewell, the manner in which Thomas did so made me wish for the socialist, green-clad driver of old. “I don’t think in black-and-white terms anymore,” he tells her, basically being very upfront about the fact that her character was only a psychological impediment to his more nuanced thinking about capitalism. Oof.

At least he’s learning from his romantic disappointment, which is more than I can say for Lord Grantham, who appears to be simply freezing out his wife after he caught her and Simon Bricker convening in his bedroom in their dressing robes. Bricker, pathetic though he was when pitted physically against the burly Grantham, made an excellent point that the patriarch appears to be neglecting his wife. “When you chose to ignore a woman like Cora,” he told him, “you must have known not every man would be as blind as you.” With Lord Grantham as oblivious to his wife, the changing times, and basically everyone but Isis as ever, Bricker’s departure, in my mind, makes room for a new suitor who will treat Cora right. With Lord Merton looking like a lock for Isobel, Dr. Clarkson appears mighty available. Just saying.

Gilbert: When it comes to Cora, Katie, I’m torn between feeling sorry for her, married as she is to one of the world’s most pompous misogynists, and being ever more flabbergasted by the blinkered serenity with which she sails through life. Has any mother in history ever been so unaware of her children’s mental states? Here we have Edith, who appears, like ice cream on a stove, to be melting into a puddle before our very eyes—to the point where Aunt Rosamund gets summoned from London and even the Dowager Countess notices that something’s afoot. And all the while, Cora’s gabbing about paintings and throwing cocktail parties, blithely unaware that her grandchild (whose existence she knows not of) is about to be shipped off to boarding school in France, the act of which will inevitably precipitate that state of hysterical insanity I like to refer to as “peak Edith.”

This episode had many advantages, chief among them being the presumably permanent disposal of the Bunting and Bricker storylines (more on that later), but let us briefly give thanks for its one-liners, which were truly spectacular. “Ellen Terry has nothing on you when it comes to stringing out a moment,” said Isobel to Violet. “I’ve got some good news for a change. An old aunt’s died,” said Mrs. Patmore (possibly I’m the only heartless wretch who laughed out loud at this). “You’re as infirm as Windsor Castle,” said Isobel to Violet, again. (Kickstarter to fund a show where these two drive around the country solving crimes.) “I’m afraid you’ve read somewhere that rudeness in old age is amusing,” said Rosamund, once more, to Violet. I cherish these bon mots all the more knowing that it’s inevitable the writers of Downton will also saddle us with lines each episode that more rightfully belong in a daytime soap opera, or a Harlequin romance with a political bent. “I’m relieved to know I’m not the only socialist left on earth, but maybe we should call it a day, before someone gets hurt,” said Tom to Miss Bunting, which is (a) totally how people spoke in the 1920s and (b) absolutely a good testament to the sincerity of his feelings regarding that particular sassy social reformer.

There was an awful lot of rain in this episode, presumably employed as pathetic fallacy to symbolize the nascent flames of romance being quenched by England’s soggy and conservative climate (you’ll notice that it was pouring buckets both times Miss Bunting tried to tell Tom she had feelings for him while he shrugged her off with all the ardor of a damp dishrag). But the rain, while it hastened Miss B.’s departure and presumably did nothing for Violet’s rheumatism, actually did Rose a solid when it elicited her meeting with Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber, who—fun fact!—once played Freddie Eynsford Hill to Michelle Dockery’s Eliza Doolittle at the Old Vic). Atticus, a handsome devil who responded with enormous tact and grace when Rose’s Russians stomped off at the news that he was Jewish, is also apparently very wealthy, which bodes well for a romance that will presumably irritate Lord Grantham and maybe even rescue old Shrimpy from destitution.

I can’t remember, so maybe we can discuss next week, but has Mr. Carson always been this insufferable, or is he doing his best to emulate his employer and succeeding miserably? I seem to remember Carson, that olde failed vaudeville performer of yore, being rather a kindly and almost paternal figure, particularly to Lady Mary and to Mrs. Hughes, but this season he’s been nothing but pontifical and condescending, to the extent where Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore both end up doing backflips in attempts to bend to his injured feelings. Saying, “I wish men worried about our feelings a quarter as much as we worried about theirs,” is all very well and good, but if wishes were horses beggars would ride, and it’s high time both Mr. Carson and Lord Grantham learn that being in possession of male genitalia doesn’t automatically entail a person with financial savvy, infinite wisdom, and unquestionable privilege. If that sounds like something Miss Bunting would say, I apologize. But it is lovely to know that Mrs. Patmore knows more about the intricacies of investing (“Have they gone public?”) than Mr. Carson does.

In terms of predicting which ways the winds of change will blow next week, it looks like Mr. Bricker has made his last visit to Downton, that Rose might have a new suitor, that everyone approves of Lord Merton (who is a perfect match for Isobel, as even Dr. Clarkson must admit), that whatever Thomas is doing to himself has made no impact on his malevolent scheming, that Mary and Mr. Blake are inevitable, and that Edith is planning to commit an act of child-stealing. It may not be perfect, but at least it’s better than another dinner party gone sour. Now, until next Sunday, it’s back to our lives devoid of industry and moral worth.