Sorry Downton fans, but as a card-carrying Baby Boomer I had to spend Sunday night focusing on another British import – the Beatles — and catch up with “Downton” on DVR. Watching Paul and Ringo rock out on the 50th anniversary of their appearance on Ed Sullivan was great, but I did think that without the facelifts and dye jobs, Paul McCartney might look a little like the Dowager Countess.
In any event, it’s always a worrisome event when a “Downton Abbey” episode begins with a telegraph operator transcribing a message for the Crawleys. We all remember the last time it happened: we learned that poor Patrick Crawley had gone down on the Titanic. This time, though, it’s just a message from Cora’s mother reporting that Cora’s brother Harold is going down with the Teapot Dome scandal and beseeching Lord Grantham to hop on a boat the next day and scurry over to the U.S., where he can lend his august presence by sitting behind Harold when he testifies at a Senate committee hearing.
It is to Lord Grantham’s credit that he recognizes the absurdity of the request – it’s as if the characters themselves are finally beginning to push back against Julian Fellowes’ plot machinations. But off he goes anyway, with Cora basically promising to make it worth his while when he gets back (or IF he returns – remember that Titanic thing.)
Lord Grantham’s departure sets in motion the main plotline of the show, since he’s not there when the pigs arrive and isn’t around to see the mischief that Mary can get up to in the sty. He’s also not around to notice that Downton Abbey has turned into a Roaring Twenties version of “The Dating Game.” Because all the eligible men in Yorkshire seem to be knocking down the door to woo Mary.
And here are the contestants:
— Bachelor Number One: A young Lord who has carried a torch for Mary since they were children. Travels with a rapist in tow. Too quick on the draw with the marriage proposals.
— Bachelor Number Two. Another young heir – soon to be a Lord. Has carried the torch for Mary for at least ten years, but was found to be dull by her in 1914 and has not had a personality change since then. Has an unfortunate habit of showing up at Downton with house guests that Mary finds a lot hotter than he is.
Bachelor Number Three. A handsome young man of uncertain parentage but with strong opinions and a disinclination to fawn over Mary, which turns her on. Apparently a pig expert.
You don’t have to get a Ph.D from the Downton Abbey School of Screenwriting, as taught by professor Julian Fellowes, to know how this is going to turn out. And if she’s not turned on enough by Mr. Blake’s disdain for her, he saves her pig investment by noticing that the poor creatures are dehydrated, which results in the two of them carrying water in buckets to the trough and slipping and sliding in the mud (in their evening clothes, no less.) You know the sparks are really flying when he playfully flicks a bit of mud on her face, like he’s Cary Grant and she’s Katherine Hepburn. In the world of mainstream movies and television, this is practically a proposal. The real question at this point is whether he has some secret that will disqualify him from marrying her. After all this time no one has thought to ask him about his background and for all we know, he might have a crazy wife locked up in an insane asylum (probably not, since that plot has already been taken this season.)
Mr. Evelyn Napier, who foolishly introduced Mr. Blake to Mary, is so dim he might actually have Crawley blood in his veins. When he returns from a night away from Downton to find Mary and Mr. Blake joking about playing patty-cake in the mud, he worries that Blake may be falling for her. “Only trouble for me is that I’m afraid it’s increased the competition,” he remarks to Mary. Um, dude, there IS no competition. The only way you’ll win is if Mary somehow manages to kill this one too.
Meanwhile, the return of nice Lord Gillingham, brings the return of his not-nice valet, Mr. Green, whom I’m afraid is not long for this world. It doesn’t take long for Mrs. Elsie “Sherlock” Hughes to figure out that Mr. Green raped Anna. The woman really did miss her calling at Scotland Yard. This sets up one of the great Mrs. Hughes scenes, where she confronts the valet and forces him to admit it. The guy, of course, is pure evil, and tries to claim that both Anna and he were drunk, as if in the throes of passion Anna battered her own face. Mrs. Hughes warns him not to be a joker and to keep in the shadows, but the guy is such a jerk that he can’t help mouthing off at dinner, claiming that he went downstairs during Nellie Melba’s concert because he couldn’t stand to hear her screeching.
Bing! Bing! Bing! Mr. Bates finally puts two and two together, because the rape occurred downstairs during the concert; for a second I thought Bates was going to leap across the table and throttle him in front of the whole group. Alas, that’s where the episode ended – this is practically a cliff-hanger! Will Mr. Bates kill Mr. Green first or will Green have a convenient accident before Bates gets to him?
Now to the ethics of this plot. Much as I adore Mrs. Hughes, once she identified the rapist, she should have gone running to the police. It’s very likely that Green is a serial rapist and putting him away will prevent future crimes. Also, since she allows Green to walk around free she gives Bates the opportunity to extract his revenge, which could result in his being sent back to prison. I know Anna doesn’t want to endure the (undeserved) “shame” of being a rape victim, by c’mon, this is “Downton Abbey,” where everyone is so very understanding and supportive. If they’ll let Thomas off the hook for being gay, they’ll certainly give Anna a break. Look how Mary reacted when she heard the news – immediately convincing Pops to leave Bates at home so he could look out for his wife. (Department of “no good deed goes unpunished, “law of unintended consequences” division: Because Mary intercedes on Anna’s behalf, Bates is at Downton when Green returns, setting the stage for Bates to murder him. It would have been better if he were on headed to America with his Lordship. )
While Mary’s playing “The Dating Game” back at Downton, poor Edith is in London dealing with the consequences of playing “The Bachelorette.” In a melodramatic show with dozens of silly subplots, Edith’s story actually has some real emotional force. Always the unloved middle child, she’s so desperate for affection that she’ll convince herself she’s in love with any older gentleman who looks twice at her. Remarkably fertile, she gets pregnant at her first rodeo and feels she needs to get an abortion to retain her social position. She poignantly confesses to Aunt Rosamund that she doesn’t want to be an outcast, or the odd woman that everyone feels sorry for. Sybil, she says, could have pulled off the unwed mother thing, but not her This is probably the most honest bit of dialogue Julian Fellowes has ever written. And when Rosamund asks if she’s thought about the consequences she says this: “I am killing the wanted child of a man I’m in love with, and you ask me if I’ve thought about it!” Whoa, she uses two words that tip us off where this is headed: “killing” and “baby.”
It’s not really a surprise that Edith doesn’t go through with it once she gets to the clinic and sees another women crying in the aftermath of her abortion. The same thing basically happened to Joan on “Man Men” when she went to get her own abortion and decided instead to have the baby. And even on “Girls,” when Jessa got pregnant and her friends arranged for her to have an abortion, she conveniently had a miscarriage instead. “Downton” is not going to be the show that has a character doing what women won’t do on more courageous shows like “Girls” and “Mad Men.” And in any event, it sets up more plotlines for Julian Fellowes to mine; we can see from the coming attractions that she’s planning to give the baby to a family in the neighborhood and I’m sure there will be many twists before we get that far.
Some other thoughts on the episode:
— I counted seven subplots and six of them were about sex/romance or the impact thereof (Mary’s suitors, Edith’s pregnancy, Anna’s rape, Rose’s dalliance with Jack, the Ivy/Alfred/Daisy/James love quadrangle and Tom at the political meeting). The one plot not about sex concerned the growing friendship between the two old ladies. No wonder this show has so many female viewers.
— Speaking of the “Dowager has bronchitis” plot, this showcases Isobel’s best and most annoying characteristics. She is actually a doer of good deeds by taking care of Violet in her sickness (and doesn’t look the least bit fatigued after 48 straight hours of no sleep). But she also bossily bans Cora and Mary from the sickroom, brandishing the “I’m a nurse” card. How many times have we heard that! Only Isobel is allowed to do good at Downton. It’s all me me me. Not like Mrs. Hughes, who does her good deeds in secret.
— The Dowager’s illness gives rise to the best lines of the episode. When she’s delirious, she says of Isobel, “This one talks too much, like a drunken vicar.” Then after she recovers Dr. Clarkson tells her that Isobel was the one nursing her; encourages her to act a little grateful, noting she’ll be rewarded in heaven. “The sooner the better” she replies. It’s interesting, by the way, that one who will be rewarded in heaven is the one who gratefully accepts the gift, not the one who gives it.
— Nice to see just a little bit of the old bitchy Mary. When Mrs. Hughes tries to get her to convince Lord Grantham to leave Bates at home, she’s all: we pay you people plenty to do your jobs, can’t you just do them? Of course she loosens up when Mrs. Hughes tells her it’s to help her chummy chum chum Anna, but still, for a minute we saw the old spoiled brat. Then, when she and Mr. Blake are having scrambled eggs in the servants’ quarters (that she cooks, no less – send out the wedding invitations now!) it transpires that she doesn’t even know Ivy’s name. Good for her; that means she’s been spared the Ivy/Alfred/Daisy subplot.
— Seeing Mary’s many suitors makes me realize how much I do not miss Mr. Matthew Crawley. In fact, I can barely remember anything about him except that he was blandly handsome and a bit of a prig.
— Lord Grantham and Thomas sailed on the Cameronia, apparently a real vessel. Here’s the photo.
— I thought this was a good episode but sooooo predictable. Are we surprised by Rose and Jack’s dalliance? By Ivy’s new-found respect for Alfred or Daisy’s continuing resentment? Are we surprised that Mr. Bates finally figures out who the rapist is? Will we be surprised when Tom meets up again with that woman from the political meeting? No, no, no, no.
— Mr. Carson to Mrs. Hughes after she concocts a story to discourage Alfred from coming to the Abbey: “You’re quite a plotter when you want to be, aren’t you?” Her response: “It’s a skill all women must learn.” Like most of the men on the show, Mr. Carson is slow on the uptake if he’s just figuring this out.
— Considering that the Spanish Influenza of 1918 was the worst epidemic of the 20th century, the characters are pretty cavalier when talking about the flu. Dr. Clarkson is worried when he diagnoses Violet with bronchitis, remarking “I just thought it was influenza.” Just influenza? Does he forget that dear Lavinia died of the flu? And when Mrs. Hughes dreams up an excuse for Alfred to stay away from Downton, her story is that the inhabitants have the flu. Cough, cough.
— Has anyone else seen the trailer for the upcoming Liam Neeson movie “Nonstop”? Please note that Mary Crawley plays a stewardess and has the immortal line “This is a bad idea.” Not sure whether she’s speaking about her part or the idea of Liam Neeson being an action hero.
— So Tom has found a new politics buddy – Miss what’s-her-name, who seems less confused about her politics than he is. Well, there goes the idea about heading for America. By the way, in case anyone cares, the Lloyd George coalition government that the MP discussed at the meeting collapsed in October 1922. Lloyd George was a Liberal and in coalition with Asquith a Conservative. He had been prime minister during World War I, but no one can hang onto power forever (unless you’re Fidel Castro) and he was eventually booted out. (For more see this link )
— The Brits seem to have funny ideas about America. Lord Grantham absolutely must have a valet with him because the Americans have so many different costumes to wear at so many different times. I know what he means, why just yesterday I wore a different sweater in the morning than the one I wore at night. And then Mrs. Patmore is convinced that all we eat is steak and ketchup. Does she mean at the same time? If so, she might have a point.