Downton Abbey: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

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Way back in April 1912, just after the Titanic went down with Mary Crawley’s fiance, Lord and Lady Grantham threw a weekend house party in order to troll for suitable marriage prospects.  One of the guests was Evelyn Napier, the son and heir of Viscount Bracksome, and a very suitable candidate he was indeed, except for his taste in friends.  Because it was Mr. Napier who introduced Mr. Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat, to Downton Abbey.  Lady Mary found Napier rather dull compared to his exotic friend and ended up welcoming Pamuk into her bedroom, which ended up being too taxing for the Turk’s heart.  Exeunt Mr. Pamuk!

I mention this ancient history because in the latest episode of Downton Abbey, Mr. Napier rematerializes on the Downton doorstep. It’s ten years later and he’s some kind of bureaucrat working on a survey of the economic viability of the local landed estates. He looks none the worse for wear despite having been wounded in the Great War. More important, he is apparently unmarried, and Mary, who had been so down-in-the-mouth about rejecting Lord Gillingham at the beginning of the episode, greets him with a smile the likes of which we haven’t seen since she broke up Edith’s marriage prospects in Season 2.

I’ve always been surprised at the number of young handsome swains who have been sniffing around Lady Mary.  You wouldn’t think there were that many unwed heirs in the entire Kingdom, but aparently they all want to marry Mary. Why that is, I’m not really sure, because she is, at heart, a very cold fish – spoiled, sarcastic, and world-weary.  Yet last week Lord Gillingham was proposing marriage after barely becoming reacquainted, and now here comes Napier with his mysterious boss, Mr. Blake.  It’s a near certainty that she will captivate either one or both of them.  (I love that Napier refers to Matthew’s death as “this ghastly business.” What quintessential British understatement.)

Am I being too hard on Mary?  Consider her response to the question of what to do with the estate land that became open with the death of their tenant farmer Mr. Drewe.  Embracing modern agricultural methods, she’s smacking her lips at the prospect of foreclosing on the property, but then Mr. Drewe’s son shows up, wanting to farm it himself. For sentimental reasons, Lord Grantham wants to let Drewe-The-Younger manage the property but needs to win Mary over. This is one time when Lord Grantham actually seems to have the better business argument (assuming the Drewes start paying their rent again); you have to be pretty far gone when the Lord makes more sense than you do, and Mary finally assents, but not graciously.

Speaking of the Drewes, here’s where my theory of the “Downton Abbey Law of Three” is once again proven  (the rule being, never explain something once when you can explain it three times).  First we learn that the Drewe family had lived there since the reign of George III, then that they were there since the Napoleonic Wars, and in case none of us were able to figure out when that was, Drewe himself helpfully spelled out that they’d been tenant farmers for “over 100 years.”

The Downton Rule of Three was also on display during the other major subplot of the episode: the ongoing saga of Anna’s rape.  Mr. Bates confronts Anna at least three times about why she is so cold to him before deciding to get to the bottom of it in true “Downton” style – by eavesdropping on Anna and Mrs. Hughes.  The characters on “Downtown” could work for the NSA – no secret is safe in that house, what with a servant lurking at every open door, listening at every vent or rummaging through every waste basket.

In any event, once Mr. Bates figures out that Mrs. Hughes knows the score he puts the screws to her – threatening to leave the house IMMEDIATELY if she doesn’t spill the beans.  And we know he will do it too, since he did the same thing after getting that letter from his wife several seasons ago.  Mrs. Hughes finally does crack, but not before making up a lame story about an unknown, unidentifiable perpetrator being the rapist.  And after a nice cry Bates goes to see Anna and acts like the Most Understanding Husband of All Time, offering support and comfort, saying there is no shame in it, and ending with “I never loved you more.”  Btw, you don’t think these people are saints?  Here’s what he says to her: “You’re made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you’ve been put through.”  It’s like she’s mortified her flesh like Saint Theresa of Avila.

Mr. Bates is a nice husband but not much of a detective, because when Anna asks who Mrs. Hughes fingered as the perpetrator, he says an unknown, unidentifiable outsider.  As we all know from seeing thousands of TV interrogations over the years, the smart approach would have been to say that Mrs. Hughes had pointed the finger at Mr. Gillingham’s valet and then watch her reaction. (“How’d you know” she would have gasped and he could have yelled, “Aha! I knew it!”)

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Not surprisingly, Anna turns out to be right that Mr. Bates would want to kill her assailant because in the final scene of the show, he tells Mrs. Hughes that the incident is not closed and that whoever raped Anna is a dead man.  (Cue melodramatic music.)  Which makes me wonder if maybe Mr. Bates didn’t really murder his wife after all.  I’ve been waiting for that shoe to drop for some time.  After all, the idea that the first Mrs. Bates would commit suicide to spite him seems really far-fetched. In any event, I think it’s safe to assume that Lord Gillingham’s valet will meet his maker in an episode or two in some ironic or self-deserved way that does not involve Bates wringing his neck.  In a show like “Downton Abbey” the producers will not want to leave any moral ambiguity about this saintly but violent man and the best way to maintain this is to have someone else kill the valet.

Some other observations:

— This was not a great episode but it was the least stupid one of the season so far.  No one did anything spectacularly unrealistic.   It just seemed like yet another “bridge” episode between major plot developments.  But then again, the whole season has felt like a bridge from Season 3.

— The other major plotline of the episode involved Alfred’s attempt to get a cooking job at the Ritz hotel in London, in a cook-off that resembled “Top Chef”.  Was I the only one who noticed that the Ritz sous chef seemed to have Spock-like pointed ears?  Of course Alfred did not get the job – that would have required writing him out of the show (just like Mary is not going to marry any aristocrats who would insist on her moving to their own estates.)  This is not a fundamentally interesting plot, except that even trying for the position shows his ambition, which raises his stature in the eyes of the other servants.

— I thought that Mr. Carson was unnecessarily cruel in offering Alfred’s position to Moseley and then informing him with real glee that the offer was withdrawn.  First of all, why wouldn’t he have made the offer contingent on Alfred getting the Ritz position?  But more important, why can’t Carson understand that Moseley might hesitate to take a lower position?  In my own life, I’ve had dozens of conversations with colleagues who were up for other jobs and the first thing that anyone considers is whether this new job would be a step up or a step down in their careers.  Poor Moseley has always suffered from that most despicable of flaws: the inability to keep his ambitions, status anxieties and feelings of triumph under wraps.  All of us have these feelings but if you can’t hide them people will treat you with disgust. I have a feeling it’s not only Mr. Carson whose bugged by Moseley and his ilk.  I think Julian Fellowes himself is too much of a snob not to have true sympathy for the lower middle class strivers who worry too much about appearances.

— It looks like Edith is pregnant.  I guess she didn’t borrow Edna’s birth control manual the night of her sleepover with Mr. Greggson because there she is, mysteriously visiting a doctor’s office.  Someone should do an entire essay on how “Downton” deals with medicine, especially issues related to the reproductive organs. We all remember how Matthew Crawley miraculously overcame his impotence; and how a simple, undetectable procedure ended Mary’s infertility.  Last week we saw that Edna was confidently able to practice birth control in an era before the invention of the pill, latex condoms or diaphragms.  In season one, an eye doctor was able to miraculously fix Mrs. Patmore’s eyesight and last year a doctor was able to diagnose conclusively that Mrs. Hughes did not have breast cancer.  And now it appears that Edith can get good guidance on whether she’s pregnant (I bet she’ll be over in Germany with the now-incommunicado Greggson before the season is over.)  If only we had doctors like that today!!

— What’s up with Baxter, the new lady’s maid?  First of all, considering all the problems they’ve had with that position, why would they rush and hire someone recommended by Thomas, of all people?  Second, are we really going to witness another conspiracy involving Thomas and Cora’s lady’s maid?  Are we really supposed to believe her only role is to function as Thomas’ early warning system?  I gather we’re supposed to deduce that she’s a decent person who’s beholden to Thomas in some way (sigh, here we go again.)

— I’m a little bored with Isobel’s do-goodism.  I think the Dowager Countess speaks for all of us when she says: “I wonder your halo doesn’t grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara ’round the clock.”

— So Tom wants to go to America?  Actually that makes a lot of sense.  Sybbie doesn’t really have a bright future at “Downton.” She’ll literally be the poor cousin growing up in that house.  She’ll develop aristocratic aspirations and pretensions but won’t have the resources to live that kind of life if she can’t snag a husband.  I understand that Shirley MacLaine is returning later this season to reprise her role as Cora’s blunt American mother (a development I am dreading.) Maybe she will take Tom back with her and set him up in the U.S.

— Theme of the week: the rapid advancement of the modern era.  Sewing machines, refrigerators, tenant foreclosures, declining feudalism. What, no flappers yet?

— Funniest line of the week:  When Lord Grantham says “If we don’t respect the past, we’ll find it harder to build our future,” his Mother is aghast to hear that he made it up because he might have an inclination for poetry.  “One thing we don’t want is a poet in the family,” she says. “The only peer that I know was a poet was Lord Byron and we know how that turned out.”  Right, Byron was described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” after having an incestuous relationship with his sister and ending up dead in 1824 during the Greek war of independence. Not much chance of that happening to Lord Grantham.

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2 comments
  1. I admit, I said I was “done” with Downton and then 9:00 arrived and I had to watch it like a car wreck. Thanks for the summary. I always enjoy your review!

  2. Thanks. I kind of regret not watching the Grammys. At least it wasn’t as aggravating as it normally is. I did hear that the second half of the season is better, so we’ll see.

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