Downton Abbey: There’s Something About Mary

downton-abbey-evelyn and mary

Evelyn’s back – that’s Mr. Evelyn Napier, the son and heir of Viscount Bracksome – and he’s having about as good a night as Peyton Manning, although he doesn’t know it yet.    Because he’s introduced his heartthrob Mary Crawley to Mr. Blake, and Mr. Blake is just the kind of bloke she likes, although she doesn’t know it yet.

Mr. Blake is a good-looking fellow who speaks his mind and doesn’t slobber all over Mary like poor Evelyn.  In fact, Mary and Blake take an instant dislike to each other.  Mary accuses him of being a “traitor” when he reveals that his mission is not to save the huge landed estates but merely to investigate what the impact of their dissolution would be on the nation’s food supply if they did fail.  Apparently being neutral must be construed as being on the “other side.”  Mary has frequently taken the “if you’re not with me you’re against me” approach to other aspects of her life and Mr. Blake doesn’t endear himself by pointing out that the prime minister David Lloyd George doesn’t care what happens to the aristocratic families as long as the agricultural economy doesn’t get disrupted.

For his part, Mr. Blake doesn’t cotton to Mary Crawley too much either.  “She’s the type who demands all this as her right, but she wants it on a plate,” he remarks to Evelyn.  “She won’t work for it.  She won’t fight for it. And her kind doesn’t deserve to survive.”  Ah, Mr. Blake doesn’t know our Mary.  First of all, she wants it on a silver platter, not a plate, for goodness sake.  And secondly, she is willing to both work and fight for it.  Why, wasn’t she out that very afternoon figuring out how to introduce large-scale industrial pig farming to Downton?

This is beginning to feel like “Pride and Prejudice” again, with Mary as the prideful Elizabeth Bennett and Blake as the prejudiced Darcy.  And we know how that turned out. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Blake has his own Pemberly stashed away someplace.  More to the point, though, this is just another rerun of the Mary/Matthew subplot that dominated Season One.  As strong-willed as Mary is, she likes a little pushback.  The mistake that Evelyn and Lord Gillingham make is in falling at her feet.  If they had seen how Matthew handled her by treating her with disdain they would have played it a bit more coolly and gone out of their way to get her goat.

Speaking of playing it coolly, Mary’s best scene in the show was the final one, who she descends to the servants’ quarters and comes upon Cousin Rose making out with the black singer Jack Ross.  Her expression never wavers despite the shock she must have felt at seeing her blood relative swapping spit with a musician.  How proper she is when she asks Ross to send his bill to Lord Grantham!  Such breeding!

Oh yes, the birthday party.  Of all the references this season to how Downton must cope with the rising tide of modernity, this one takes the cake.  To have a jazz band playing in Downton Abbey, just a few weeks after the fuddy-duddy Dame Nellie Melba screeched out her arias in the same spot shows that the Roaring Twenties have even come to Yorkshire.  I can’t tell whether Rose is being deliberately provocative or naturally obtuse when she provided no warning that the star of the show is a black singer but it was funny to watch everyone’s reaction as Ross materialized in front of them.  Mr. Carson almost had a cow.  Lord Grantham was initially shocked but he controlled his emotions better.  Only poor Edith is so slow on the uptake that she voices what everyone else is thinking – is it really appropriate to have this kind of entertainment at Downton.? But Granny’s there with the good advice: that she needs to be “wary of being provincial,” and to let her “time in London rub off a bit more.”

Unfortunately, Edith has let her time in London rub off on her a little too much, because here comes a letter: it appears that you’re knocked up.  Some thoughts on this.  1) It’s a good thing I was watching this on DVR because the letter flashed by so fast that I needed to rewind and freeze frame to read it. 2) The letter says that her condition and symptoms are consistent with being pregnant.  Now, there was no “rabbit test” in 1922.  Why did the doctor need to send her a letter when he could have told her the same thing right in the office?  I think the reason is obvious: to build suspense.  Because receiving letters is second only to eavesdropping as the primary way that people learn things in “Downton Abbey.”

In any event, Edith’s stricken reaction to the letter gives rise to the most ridiculous line of the show.  Somehow sensing that something’s amiss, Lord Grantham rushes into the room and exclaims, “My most darling girl.”  Edith quite rightly calls him on it, pointing out that she is certainly not his most darling girl.  He lamely tries the “I love my children equally” line, which never works in families where one child is favored and doesn’t work here either.

Unfortunately for Edith, in addition to being pregnant, the proud papa has vanished someplace in The Black Forest.  Maybe instead of hiring that private detective, Mr. Greggson’s company should deploy Hansel and Gretel to find him.  I hope he hasn’t gotten himself entangled with Herr Hitler and the rest of his merry National Socialist band, because it will take more than a card trick to get him extricated from that.  (Speaking of poor Edith, it’s just her luck to get pregnant after spending just one night with Mr. Greggson.  Matthew and Mary had been at it like rabbits for months before they conceived little George, but all it takes for Edith is a one-night stand.)

Two other important letters arrived this week.  Alfred learns via the post that he’s been accepted into the Ritz training program after all. So exeunt Alfred!  Thus ending the extremely protracted love quadrangle among the young servants.  Daisy is distraught, although why she wants Alfred hanging around mooning about Ivy is beyond me.  And in one of those O. Henry-like coincidences that Julian Fellowes is so enamored with, it’s just Ivy’s bad luck that on the day that Alfred departs she finally goes on an unescorted date with James, who turns out to have octopus hands.  Not satisfied with sweet kisses under a full moon, he starts to take liberties and Ivy’s all, like, “Why I never!” Fortunately we are spared another sexual assault on this series and James backs away fast, blustering about how a girl owes a guy a little treat after he takes her out – as if he’s a Division 1 “student athlete.”  The end result is that what had been a love quadrangle is not a triangle, not a two-sided romance but a group of single servants, all unhappy with everyone else.

The other letter that arrives is from Cora’s American brother Harold.  Apparently he’s involved in some oil lease problem with “Senator Fall.”  Why, this is just like “Mad Men,” except instead of linking plot developments to the history of the 1960’s, “Downton” is touching on the highlights of the 1920’s.  Because Senator Fall is actually President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall and those leases are connected to the Teapot Dome Scandal.  I hope Harold isn’t writing to Lord Grantham for business advice because we’ve seen what that is worth.  Of course we’ve already been told that Paul Giamatti has been cast as Harold, which means he’ll appear in future episodes, so perhaps he goes on the lam to Downton once his connections with Albert Fall are known.

albert fall

Harold’s friend, the aptly named Albert Fall

One character who is not on the lam is Pegg, the young gardener in whom Isolbel Crawley has taken so much interest.  If we can cast our minds back to a few episodes ago, Dr. Clarkson convinced Isobel to take an interest in the Peggs to cheer her up, because nothing cheers up Isobel like someone else’s pathos.  Ma Pegg was sick and somehow this translated into Isobel needing to find a job for young Pegg because nothing would cheer that lady up so much as seeing her son bowing and scraping to butlers and grand ladies.  So Isobel strong-armed the Dowager Countess into letting Pegg take care of the flowers.  Alas, two small knick-knacks went missing and the Dowager Countess blamed Pegg, to Isobel’s fury.

I can’t tell if Julian Fellowes is deliberately making her look bad, but Isobel’s objection is very lame: “Things, things, things,” meaning that people are more important than material objects and why get rid of Pegg even if he’s a petty thief.  Well, yes, but you also don’t want someone in the house who’s going to be stealing your stuff. This reminds me of the argument in “Annie Hall” when Alvy Singer’s father is mad because his wife fired the cleaning lady for stealing.   “She’s a colored woman from Harlem!” he says. “She has no money! She has a right to steal from us! After all, who is she gonna steal from if not us?”  It seems to me that Isobel’s strongest argument is that there’s no proof that Pegg stole it, as well as pointing out the logical fallacy of thinking that correlation (hiring Pegg) equals causation (the missing items.)

As it transpires, one item turns up in the cleaning basket, so Isobel finds a way to sneak into Violet’s study while she’s absent and lo and behold, it takes her exactly one second to find the missing penknife between the cushions in Violet’s chair.  Now how hard was that?  All this leads to yet another confrontation in which Isobel and Dr. Clarkson storm into Violet’s study demanding justice for Pegg, when it transpires that she has already hired him back.  Not only that, she had apologized to him for doubting his honesty.  It’s worth noting that Isobel does not apologize in turn to the Dowager Countess for thinking the worst of her.  In the end the Dowager Countess’s observation about Isobel’s motives is acute: “Some people run on greed, lust, even love.  That’s not her fuel.  She runs on indignation.”

Some other comments:

— Mrs. Hughes to the rescue again.  After Mr. Carson refuses to rehire that sad sack Mosely because he hadn’t shown appropriate gratitude upon being initially offered the job, Mrs. Hughes manipulates him into relenting by hiring Mosely for an even lower-prestige job: serving the servants.  Oh, the horror of a former butler reduced to waiting on servants!  So Mr. Carson gives in and Mosely’s back to spread his cheer among the staff.

— There was one genuinely affecting scene last night: the moment that Mary, Tom and Isobel reminisced about the days when they were first in love with their now-departed spouses.  Even Mary opened up, confiding that she was so excited that Matthew was about to propose that she didn’t even feel the chill of the rain.  Usually it’s everyone else who feels the chill when Mary is around, but we get the point.  Very sweet.

— Julian Fellowes is not American so can perhaps be forgiven this near faux-pas, but was it really appropriate for Mrs. Pattmore to say she was going to “jig about” to the music of a black singer?

— Anna and Bates are still having a tough time coming back from the rape.  He’s trying to be supportive and she keeps talking about how there’s a shadow over everything.  If only Oprah were around to give advice, they could sort this out.  But many more discussions like this and Bates is going to take the train to London to blow the rapist’s brains out.

— “Downton” has gone to some lengths to raise the likeability levels of the aristos.  Cora rescuing Anna and Bates at the restaurant where they were being snubbed by a maitre d’ who was a “snob” is a good example of how the Crawley’s are a lot more flexible and open to new ideas than their staff.  Lord Grantham makes a point of going with the flow when Rose has a jazz-themed surprise party with a black singer.  “I hope we haven’t shocked the servants too much,” he says, “Carson was about to faint.”  Contrast that with the servants. Carson, as noted, is the biggest snob in the whole show and is upset that he doesn’t get served the toast first. And Thomas is very particular about his rank and can’t bear the idea of serving food again.   “Downton” is a very silly show but one thing it gets right is the observation that the lower classes can be much more conservative than their social superiors.  After all, their status is very precarious and anything that upsets the social system threatens them directly.

— What’s up with Thomas and Baxter?  She doesn’t like spying for him and frankly she doesn’t do a very good job, just coming up with fragments that don’t really tell Thomas much.  I’m sure we will know soon enough what power Thomas has over her, but I would prefer that the show not tease us with this secondary storyline week after week.

Rudolph Valentino makes me shiver all over too!

  1. You never disappoint with the recap. I love the idea of deploying Hansel and Gretel to find the proud papa or at least deliver a letter!

  2. Thanks. Those wacky Crawleys are the ones who never disappoint. If they acted like real people do in the real world, it wouldn’t be fun.

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