Downton Abbey: So You Say You Want a Revolution, or Thoroughly Modern Mary

mary and tony

I never thought I would say this but “Downton Abbey” this season has somehow hit its stride as a not-completely-ridiculous costume drama.  I haven’t done the actual calculation yet, but I think the percentage of interesting plotlines has finally surpassed the percentage of out-of-this-world-stupid ones.

I don’t know if it’s a happy accident or intentional, but Julian Fellowes has stumbled upon an interesting theme in his examination of revolution.  In the aftermath of the cataclysmic World War and the introduction of new technologies, the 1920s were a period of ferment, almost as much as the 1960s.  Even Lady Edith is writing a magazine column on the topic of changing times (when she’s not stalking little Marigold, that is.)  All season long we’ve seen how the times are a changing and in this episode we deal with two kinds of revolution – the political and the personal.

The political revolution is laid right out there in the opening scenes.  The Dowager Countess and Isobel take a field trip to see Rose’s Soup-Kitchen-For-Czarists community service project, ostensibly to see how Rose is doing but really to check out Prince Thingamajig (as Lord Grantham calls his mother’s admirer.)   These refugees from the Russian Revolution used to be even richer than the Granthams but now they are poorer than the Downton tenant farmers.  “I never thought it would be like this,” the Dowager Countess shivers, no doubt wondering at her own fate if the little folks of Downton arose.

Thankfully for her, it’s not the Drewes of the world who are revolting, it’s the Downton equivalent of the chattering classes, in the person of the Bitchiest Bolshevik, Miss Sarah Bunting, who is very revolting indeed.  It is completely inexplicable to me why she keeps getting invited to Crawley dinner parties.  She has proven to be an ungracious guest on more than one occasion (extolling the virtues of Trotsky to traumatized Russian refugees, as she did last week, shows that she’s not exactly adept at reading a room.)  In real life, she would never be invited back even if Tom does need a “friend,” but on “Downton” someone is either too dim (Cousin Rose) to understand the consequences, or too much of a trouble-maker (Isobel) to care.

Julian Fellowes is a Conservative Peer when he’s not writing soap operas, and he certainly stacks the deck against poor Miss Bunting because she’s the worst kind of revolutionary.  She doesn’t see people as flesh and blood individuals, she sees them as concepts and stereotypes. And since you can’t empathize with a concept, she seems to think that it’s OK to be downright rude and insulting to them.  Consequently, even though Tom implored her not to ruin the dinner because he “loves” the Crawleys, she goes ahead and does it anyway.

I have to say, though, that dinner party was one of the most entertaining events in the entire “Downton” run.  First there was the sight of Cora playing verbal footsy with the art historian, who has nothing better to do than to drop everything and spend several days mooching off the Lord’s hospitality and trying to seduce his wife (more on that later). But the real highlight of the dinner were the fireworks between Miss Bunting and Lord Grantham.

How bad is Miss Bunting?  So bad that she turns his Lordship into a sympathetic figure.  See, she’s been tutoring Daisy in Cartesian Logic, Microbiology, Constitutional Law and Applied Physics and the Lord suggests that she’s been slacking off because she’s been at the books when she should be scrubbing pans.  Miss Bunting’s got him dead to rights that he doesn’t know the name of the cook who’s been living in his house for 20 years (I’m surprise that Mary knows, to be honest).  But he’s right that Mrs. Patmore has been grumbling that she’s not carrying her weight – we saw her complaining with our own eyes just a few scenes earlier.  But when they summon Mrs. Patmore and Daisy into the dining room and put the screws to them, Mrs. Patmore circles the wagons and say that no, Daisy’s book-learning is not a problem (and what else is she going to say? She’s not going to throw the girl she considers her own daughter under the bus.)

Lord Gratham is gracious enough in losing the argument but Miss Bunting, who probably would have been manning the guillotine during the French Revolution 125 years earlier, won’t let it drop. “He would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave,’ she declares, which causes his Lordship to blow his stack: “Only one thing I would like,” he erupts in Vesuviusian rage, “and that I would like passionately! It is to see you leave this house and never come back!”  Like the Patriots fan who’s been told too many times by his snotty New York son-in-law that Tom Brady is a cheater, he flings down his napkin and storms off to his room for a good pout.  “Happy now?” Mary brightly asks Sarah, who, for some reason continues to sit at the table.

And this is the thing, Sarah doesn’t understand that Lord Grantham is not her enemy – it’s really Mary.  Who at “Downton” wants a revolution?  Not the servants.  Not the tenant farmers.  Grantham might be paternalistic (and a blithering idiot) but he’s no more paternalistic than the coming welfare state that really will subsidize people from cradle to grave while also robbing them of their dignity.  He’s shown on multiple occasions that he views Downton as a semi-socialist economy, with his role as the benevolent provider of largesse for the community as a whole.  On the other hand it’s Mary who wants to kick the farmers off the land if they fall behind in their rent, and it’s Mary who wants to sell off the meadow to a tacky real estate developer.  Mary’s the one who’s embracing the free market principles that are causing social turmoil in the rest of the economy.  To the extent that there was a threat of a British revolution in the 1920s it came from the mines and factories – the industrial sector – not from the landed classes, and I have no doubt that Mary would have been happy to grow into Margaret Thatcher and close down inefficient coal mines.

Sarah’s use of the word “serfs” and the presence of those exiled Russian aristocrats gives us a reason to contemplate the difference between Russia and Britain.  Because, as unpalatable as we may find British society 90 years ago, it was a paradise compared to Russia.  Before the Russian Revolution of 1918, Russia was an absolute monarchy, ruled by a Czar with little if any democratic input.  There was a small and immensely rich ruling class presiding over a huge agricultural economy of former serfs.  There was hardly any middle class and a pitiful industrial sector.  By contrast, the UK was governed by Parliament, which generally (although not perfectly) reflected the will of the people.  The monarch was primarily a figurehead and there was a robust commercial economy based on innovation, property rights and the rule of law.  So it’s not surprising that Russia had a violent revolution and that Britain didn’t.  And of course after the revolution, things got even worse in Russia.  The escaped aristocrats are the lucky ones. The country suffered through a five-year civil war and when it was over Stalin was in charge and anyone who stood in his way (including entire classes of people) was murdered.  This is the regime that Sarah Bunting prefers.

The political revolution is not the only one on the agenda of this week’s “Downton” however.  There’s also the social revolution, especially in the area of marriage.  All of a sudden, after years of linking marriage and duty, everyone wants to base marriage on love.   How revolutionary.   Consider:

— Lord Merton shows up on Isobel’s doorstep and passionately declares his love for her, admitting he hadn’t loved his former wife and wants his next marriage to be based on love.  Isobel is so taken aback by the ardency of his love claims that she says she’ll think about it.

— Mary has decided that she doesn’t really love Tony Gillingham after all.  Sure, he’s fine in the sack but she doesn’t think they have much in common.  Mary didn’t worry before whether she had anything in common with her first fiancé, her cousin Patrick Crawley (who may or may have not perished with the Titanic) but after having been in love with Matthew Crawley, she doesn’t want to settle this time around.  Naturally Gillingham is incensed, felling seduced and abandoned.  He basically says, you sleep with a man and then don’t marry him?  What kind of a slut are you?  He continues to be in a state of denial, claiming “We’ll get through this together.”

— Despite not having a bean, Shrimpie is divorcing his wife, who is so shrewish that the Crawleys continue to favor him even though she’s their blood cousin.  When Shrimpy tells Rose the news, she uses it to extract a pledge that she’ll be able to marry whoever she wants and won’t be forced into a suitable marriage like he was.

— There are hints that Cora is regretting not making a love match for herself.  In the early episodes of the series back in Season One, we were told what great lovebirds they were – why, unlike most lords and ladies of the time, they shared the same bed!  But now things have gone a little stale and Lord Grantham once again ignores her when she asks about the fate of the property at Pip’s Corner.  Now, we are asked to believed that Cora might run away with the art historian who is flirting so outrageously and asking her opinion about EVERYTHING!

— Then there’s the spectacle of the Dowager Countess, who had the chance to abscond with the Russian Prince Thingamajig fifty years ago but decided to stay with her husband after he presented her with a Faberge frame with photos of their two children – evidence that he did have some kind of heart after all.  Of course if the Dowager Countess had been a reader, she would have known from “Anna Karenina” that leaving your kids to run away with a Russian prince can only lead to an untimely end at the railway station.  In any event, the Dowager Countess’ decision not to elope in a passion happened 50 years ago, and I think we are supposed to infer that she might have taken the proposition more seriously in the lusty Roaring Twenties.

Some other points:

One of the topics that Daisy is studying with Miss Bunting is History, especially The Glorious Revolution the 1688.   If Miss Bunting were any kind of historian she would have recognized that this was a peculiarly English kind of revolution.   In fact, it wasn’t really a revolution at all – more like a bloodless coup, in which the James II, an aggressive Catholic, was forced to flee to the continent after the powers-that-be threw their support to his Protestant daughter and her Dutch husband, William of Orange.  In addition to lending their names to a very nice college in Virginia, William and Mary restored the power of the Protestant nobles, proving again that the British don’t need a bloody revolution to advance political pluralism.


 William and Mary, the beneficiaries of the Glorious Revoution

Instead of my weekly rant about how sadistic Julian Fellowes is to poor Edith, and what a bad idea it was to place her daughter with a neighboring pig man, I’ll make the following ancillary points:  1) She’s still writing that column? 2) And whatever happened to that document she signed that put her in charge if Gregson disappeared?  Shouldn’t she be down in London running the show like Katherine Graham ran the Washington Post instead of skulking around pig sties?  3) I don’t want to say I told you so, but I did predict last year that Gregson would be mixed up with those nasty Nazis.  It seems that “there’s a trial going on in Munich of the leader of a group of those thugs.” This particular leader wears a brown shirt.  I wonder who THAT could be? Turns out that Lord Grantham is also a master prognosticator because he observes, “I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing.  We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war.”

— It seems increasingly clear that Thomas went down to London in search of a quack cure for his homosexuality, but what is he doing with that stolen spoon and syringe?  The “Choose Your Own Path” ad that he’s been consulting sounds like a proto-Dale Carnegie course, but is obviously something more dangerous.

— So Charles Blake is squiring around Lady Mabel Fox, dumped last year by Tony Gillingham to pursue Mary.  Apparently there are only two eligible ladies in the entire country and every man is after both of them.  Looking ahead, when Mabel finds out that Mary’s about to wrest Charles away after stealing Tony, she’s likely to come after her with a pair of scissors.

— Just who exactly is investigating the murder of Mr. Green: is it Sergeant Willis or Inspector Javert?  Are they really staking out Lord Gillingham’s house 24/7 in the off-chance that the murderer would return to the scene of the crime?  And why is the appearance of the Lord’s fiancée’s lady’s maid in the least bit suspicious?  It looks like they are setting it up so that Anna will be blamed for killing her rapist since she doesn’t have an alibi for the day in question).  No one has any proof that Green was even murdered, yet this Sergeant has all the time in the world to be gallivanting to Yorkshire every other day to ask a few more questions?  “I just wish we could forget all about Mr. Green,” Anna says – as the rest of “Downton Abbey” Nation rises to their feet and cries “Amen”!

— The humiliation of Mr. Molesly continues apace. Carson doesn’t like him because he’s too grasping after his prerogatives (like insisting on being called the First Footman, which would have meant something before the war, but is virtually irrelevant now) so dumps work on him until he cries uncle and relinquishes the title of First Footman.  This is Julian Fellowes the snob piling on poor lower-middle-class Molesly, who is guilty only of being inelegantly conscious of social status.

— As usual, the Dowager Countess gets all the good lines.  I literally laughed out loud, when, after Lord Grantham pitched that gigantic fit and stormed out of dinner, she turned to Edith and sweetly asked how her column writing was going.  Then when she confides to Isobel that she almost ran off with the Russian Prince, Isobel says it was a good thing she found out in time, slyly adding, “If it was in time”.  The Dowager Countess turns vacant and says “I forget.”   Ha! She doesn’t forget a trick yet can’t remember whether she consummated her passion with Thingamajig?  Right.

— It seems like every Sunday night, “Downton” is broadcast against a different awards show with a different red carpet.  I didn’t watch the SAG awards or the red carpet presentations, but I doubt the clothes were as alluring as the ones in the fashion show that Mary attended with her aunt.   At first blush this scene may seem to be just more eye candy for the show’s predominantly female audience but it serves an important plot point in reminding us that London society is going through a massive sea change (those clothes would never have seen the light of day ten years earlier.)

— How big a shrew is Susan, the Crawley cousin and soon-to-be-former-mate of Shrimpie?  As you recall, at the beginning of last season she stole O’Brien, Cora’s lady’s maid, the one who is so adept at deploying infanticidal bars of soap.  Anyone who would willingly associate herself with O’Brien is obviously beyond the pale.

“Am I a bad lover?  Is that it?”  Of course Mary would be able to compare by now.  Can’t wait until she puts Charles Blake through his paces.

  1. kim burnett said:

    Gary, I cannot express how much I love your Downton blogs. Although it has been decades since our paths crossed, it delights me that you continue your witty upending of the conventional and willingness to dive deep when the rest of us skim the surface. I look forward to your blog almost as much as I look forward to the show. (I hope you eventually manage to throw in a reference to Fellowes campy, yellow-toothed appearances on the very silly show – which I also loved, in its early episodes – Monarch of the Glen from BBC Scotland.) Kim

    • Hi Kim, what a nice surprise to hear from you. How did you track this blog post down. I’m glad you like it and appreciate your comments. I have to say I’ve never heard of Monarch of the Glen but I’ll keep my eyes open.

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