Downton Abbey: I’ve Got a Secret

Crawleys and King

I think I’ve reached the fifth and final stage of “Downton”-based grief.  During most of Season One I was in DENIAL when the show didn’t become a high-budget version of “Upstairs Downstairs.” The time period and the themes were the same but I couldn’t accept that “Downton” was so much pulpier than that PBS great period piece from the 1970s.  Sometime around Season Two I morphed into ANGER, particularly when the World War I plots were so weak and contrived. I was furious that such a tragic and world-shaking event as the Great War had been transformed into a backdrop for plot machinations.  And I was particularly incensed by the appearance of the Canadian veteran who claimed to be Patrick Crawley, the anmesiatic and long-lost heir to Downton. As far as I was concerned, this destroyed any respectability the show had once had and exposed it as a pure soap opera.

I BARGAINED during Season Three, promising myself I’d be a less discriminating viewer if Julian Fellowes would only clean up his act a little bit and meet me half way. When that didn’t happen I suffered DEPRESSION in Season Four, particularly after Anna’s rape.  And here we are in Season Five, when I’ve finally achieved a measure of ACCEPTANCE, recognizing that yes, it is a soap opera, and understanding that I’ll be OK with that if I accept the show for what it is.  I still object to the Emmys it pulls in and the high viewership it generates at a time when there are so many better shows on TV, but I guess even PBS viewers deserve the occasional break from high-mindedness.

Now that I have accepted “Downton” as a classed up soap opera, I can forgive it for over-using one of the tritest plot devices in the soap opera bag of tricks: the secret.  When a soap opera doesn’t know what to do, it gives someone a secret so the cast can chew up a lot of time trying to keep the secret or figure out if there even is a secret.  Meanwhile the viewer can feel smug because they are in on something that the rest of the cast doesn’t know.

Consider the secrets maintained during the second episode of the season:  Edith has placed her bastard daughter Marigold with the Drewes, a secret that she and Mr. Drewe share at the expense of Mrs. Drewe; Mary takes off on a Liverpool love cruise with Tony Gillingham, a secret that only she and Anna share; Baxter has a secret related to her career as a jewel thief and jailbird, which she and Thomas once shared but which is now more or less out in the open, (except that no one understands the motivation); Cora is keeping Mr. Bricker’s flirtations secret from Lord “Donk” Grantham; and Mr. Bates has his secret about the death of the raping valet.  That’s a lot of secrets to keep straight, and in every case, someone is keeping a secret from a spouse.

There’s even one character –Thomas Barrow – who exists solely to ferret out secrets and use them as weapons against his perceived enemies.  He once had the biggest secret of all – his homosexuality – but that was dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction last year when he was exposed and no one seemed to care.  But having been treated charitably by Lord Grantham Thomas did not abandon his life of scheming, though, presumably because bad habits die hard, but really because “Downton” needs a villain.  Instead, he convinced Lady Grantham to hire the jewel thief Baxter and wielded this secret like a weapon, trying to force her to uncover secrets about Mr. Bates.  Having been thwarted in this scheme by Baxter’s own confession to Cora, Thomas now spitefully tells the secret to Molesley, hoping to ruin his budding relationship with her.  Having been a viper to everyone except those to whom he is sexually attracted (aka Jimmy, the fornicating footman), Thomas plays the “woe is me” card to Anna (whose husband he is trying to ruin!), basically saying “no one likes me.”  Boo hoo. He seems not to have noticed that each time he does something malevolent his popularity approaches Jimmy Jones levels.

One character who seems to have no secrets, probably because he’s not intelligent enough to keep any, is His Donkness himself, Lord Grantham.  Robert Crawley seems to exist on this show purely for the purpose of showing the obtuseness of the British one-percenters.  He’s wrong about the radio (aka, “The Wireless”) agreeing to let one in the Abbey only because the King was delivering a radio speech (on the Empire no less) and then dismissing it as a fad and a “thief of life.” He acts peevishly when the war memorial committee wants to develop a contemplative memorial on his cricket pitch and insists on having his way until Mr. Carson, based on a focus group of exactly one war widow, caves in and agrees to build a generic memorial in the village square. He’s rude to Tom about Sarah Bunting, calling her a ‘tinpot Rosa Luxemburg’ and then baiting him on Russian Revolution; later he pitches a huge fit at the prospect of Tom taking little Sybil to America. He’s dismissive at the art historian Bricker’s travels to Alexandria, remarking with a lot of self-satisfaction that “I’m not very good at abroad.”  And of course he doesn’t pick up on the fact that Bricker is flirting with Cora, complaining that is bad form for him to flirt with another man’s dog!

Mary Crawley is not as dim-witted as her dad, but she’s also not a genius on this show either.  The idea of going off with Tony Gillingam for a week of sex strikes me as the wrong approach to picking a husband.  Given the stock Mary puts into determining whether she and Tony are sexually compatible, I suppose we are to infer that Matthew Crawley’s prowess in the sack was so spectacular that Mary can’t bear to marry a man who’s not up to his standards down there.

This seems a little unlikely for someone who still refers to getting pregnant as “you know” (the second time now she’s used that phrase in a conversation about sex, btw). Or who’s so mortified to procure her own birth control that she sends her maid to do it.  Or who’s stiff as a board when she finally has her rendez-vous in Liverpool (Liverpool?  Really??!!??)  And then, when Tony tells her that he plans to “make love all night… as long as either of us has any stamina left,” she doesn’t exactly brighten up.  Instead she looks like he’s asking her to try her first oyster.

Mary’s suitors are pretty interchangeable – Rich Handsome Landed, etc. – so it was a surprise when Mr. Blake claims that Tony isn’t as “clever” as Mary is.  I had no idea there were distinctions to be made among these guys.  How are we supposed to determine who’s the cleverest of the bunch when the same voice permeates all the characters?  Nevertheless, Blake does make a good point: Mary should look for someone who’s temperamentally, intellectually, and morally on the same plane as she is.    Well, maybe we’ll know more from the glow (or lack thereof) on Mary’s face next week.

Other observations:

— As I’ve asked before, what is the time/space continuum on this show anyway?  The first scene shows Mr. Carson and the monument people meeting Lord Grantham to present their ideas, which would imply that several months have passed since the last episode. But the second scene shows Jimmy the footman leaving Downton, which would imply that only a day or two has passed since he was caught in bed with Lady Anstruther.

— Speaking of Jimmy, his final words to gay Thomas are particularly funny: “I’ll be sad to see the back of you.”  If there was a thought bubble above Thomas’s head it would have said “But I want you to be HAPPY to see the back of me. Or the front.”

— So Carson and Mrs. Hughes are finally on the verge of hooking up after that torrid hand-holding escapade at the end of last season?  Apparently so, because it pains Carson to be on the opposite side from her. Really, do they have to agree on everything?  In any event, they might as well be married because they spend the whole day together presiding over their little family.  The only thing they don’t do as a couple is the thing that Mary calls “you know.”

— Rosa Luxemburg (as in Sarah Bunting, tinpot version of) provides this week’s sole history lesson.  As Cora accurately explains to Rose, who’s never heard of her, Luxemburg was a Polish communist who tried to overthrow German’s elected government after World War I and was murdered and thrown in a river for her efforts.


— I’m already tired of Edith and Marigold.  To be honest, I was tired of them five minutes into the season opener.  Mrs. Drewe is completely right to complain about a lady from the big house swooping in and lavishing her attention on one of their children.  This is not going to end well for someone.  And what if Grandmama catches wind of this?  She knows about Edith getting pregnant and is sharp enough to put two and two together.  This is something she should be interfering with, instead of trying to derail Isobel Crawley’s romantic prospects.

— How many times do we need to be told that the dog’s name is Isis?  Ok we get it.  Last year Julian Fellowes had the foresight to name the Crawley’s dog after a soon–to-be terrorist state, which is also the name of an Egyptian Goddess.

— Speaking of Isobel, there are only two funny scenes in this episode, and one of them is her date with Lord Merton, chaperoned by the Dowager Countess.  I guess Violet failed in her efforts to head this off last week because Lord Merton remains hot for Isobel.  The scene is funny because the Dowager makes jokes that appear to go over the Lord’s head but which unnerve Isobel.

— The other funny scene is when Anna goes into the drug store to buy some kind of birth control device (what in the world is it?  It probably isn’t a condom since she only got one and whatever she bought required directions). In any event, she probably would have been smarter to buy the product from the male sales clerk because the woman clerk is all judgey, reminding her that “there’s always abstinence” if you don’t want to have another baby with your husband.  It’s not hard to believe that this women is abstinence junky herself.

— Best line: “Isobel has been distracted lately with Lord Merton frisking around her skirt and getting in the way.”

— Last week I thought we were going to learn that Daisy had some kind of math dyslexia but it appears that the real problem is simply that she never had a good teacher.  All it takes is one tutoring session in which Sarah Bunting explains that the figures are really her friends trying to tell a story and she’s practically on the verge of solving differential equations.  One thing that was very right about this scene, though, is that Sarah agreed to accept payment for the tutoring lessons, understanding that it would help Mrs. Patmore and Daisy maintain their dignity if they weren’t treated as charity cases.  One gold star for Sarah, and half a gold star also for giving Tom a pep talk encouraging him to stand up for himself.

— I was struck by the formality with which the family and servants listened to the King’s speech, including the family rising at the Dowager Countess’s urging when he began to talk. That was a nice touch, as well as her observation that “The monarchy has thrived on magic and mystery, strip them away and people may think the royal family is just like us.”  Trust me, Countess, no one is ever going to think that another family is just like the Crawleys.

— It was probably a coincidence, but Anna’s rape scene was broadcast simultaneously with the 2014 Golden Globes telecast and here she was at this year’s Golden Globes – or here Joanne Froggatt was at least – accepting an award and patting herself on the back for raising rape awareness.

— I’m sure there was a collective groan of pain across America when that policeman showed up in the final scene.   A witness to the death of the Raping Valet has come forward.  Oh please, not again.  It’s been two years now since the Valet exited this mortal coil and all of a sudden a witness comes forward?  Can’t Julian Fellowes think of anything else to do with Bates than to drag him through another murder case?

As for next week, in the “next week” clips, we see the Dowager Countess chastising Mary for allowing herself to be seduced by Gillingham.  Now I understand why Matthew Weiner insists on laughably unhelpful “next week” clips on Mad Men.  We’re better off not really knowing how that story line advances.

  1. I completely agree. “Downton” may be a soap opera, which leaves a bad taste in peoples’ mouth, but it’s a “classy” soap opera. The English accents help a lot!

    • Yes, very classy. And it’s almost good. What makes me mad is that with a little effort it could actually be a quality show.

      • This series is about a pivotal era in British society for pretty much everyone. In other hands it could have been ground breaking drama covering a period of history that’s been pretty much ignored by television, but instead it falls into the inept hands of Julian Fellowes, and you could weep for the wasted opportunities and the thought that it will be years, if ever, before anyone attempts anything similar for the period. A complete and utter waste of huge potential.

      • It’s hard to think of anything more important than WWI, which was covered so well in Upstairs Downstairs. Agree that this is a very disappointing wasted opportunity.

  2. I much prefer reading your post-show review to watching the real thing. Last night’s show was another episode that I just could not sit through, although I did find it touching and cute when the whole family stood up as the king started talking. Reading your thoughts is a hundred times more entertaining.

  3. Thanks Cindy. There are usually one or two saving graces per show, in among all the dross. But my wife keeps asking me why I keep watching and I don’t really have a good answer.

  4. Right on, Gary! If the writing and character development could only be as compelling and carefully considered as the costuming and table settings! How many times are we going to be whipsawed into liking/hating/empathizing with/hating Thomas Barrow?! What about loose ends like O’Brien, and her causing the accident that killed the heir? I can’t handle another season of Bates on trial and in prison. Why do they take a decent character like Bates and make him all dark and shadowy and full of foreboding? As for Lord Grantham, I must note that he did have a near-affair with a maid, so besides his petulance and dithering lack of insight, he does have a little secret that he kept from everyone. All this and we keep watching too, taking potshots all the while! Write on, Gary!

    • Thanks Jane. Yes, I did consider that Donk did have a little secret of his own, from that near-dalliance, but that’s nothing compared to the secrets that Cora is keeping from him: Mr. Pamuk’s cause of death, her jewel-thief maid, or the flirtations with the well-tanned art historian.

    • Thanks Jane. Yes, I did consider that Donk did have a little secret of his own, from that near-dalliance, but that’s nothing compared to the secrets that Cora is keeping from him: Mr. Pamuk’s cause of death, her jewel-thief maid, or the flirtations with the well-tanned art historian.

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