Downton Abbey: Let Them Eat Cake

downton-abbey-season-5 ep 5

Well, the two most popular shows on television Sunday night ended with grown men rolling around on the ground throwing punches at each other.  And while the Super Bowl, with its “Deflategate” scandal, unexpectedly turned into a soap opera, “Downton” unexpectedly turned into an examination of the uselessness of the modern man.

This episode of “Downton” featured at least four plots involving women trying to manipulate the egos of their men.  Let’s see how they did, ranked in order of success from the women’s perspective:

Mr. Carson, Inside Trader: Mrs. Pattmore has suddenly come into an inheritance of 300 quid and she approaches Mr. Carson for advice on how to invest it.  Mrs. Hughes thinks this is a bad idea, although doesn’t explain why.  Does she think Lord Grantham’s atrocious investment skills have rubbed off on Carson or is she just a First Wave Feminist who thinks women should handle their own investment decisions?  Probably the latter because Mrs. Pattmore admits she went to Carson because “he’s a man,” which gets Mrs. Hughes tut-tutting.

Carson might not be the brightest financial analyst but like many in the investment industry, he does know the value of insider information.  When Lord Grantham confides that he’s likely to choose a particular developer to construct houses on Pip’s Corner, Carson suggests that Mrs. Pattmore invest her funds in real estate via this very company, although he doesn’t seem to know whether the company is publicly traded or what.  Mrs. Pattmore is dubious of this advice; apparently she’s a disciple of Peter Lynch, the former manager of The Magellan Fund, who famously advised small investors to invest in what you know.  She decides to invest in a little cottage and list it on Airbnb instead of trying her hand in the stock market, but to soften the blow she and Mrs. Hughes concoct a scheme to make Carson think it was all his idea.  But boy, they lay it on thick: “It’s good to hear advice from a man of the world,” Mrs. Hughes purrs.  Once again, Julian Fellowes wants us to feel superior to the characters because Carson is too dense to see he’s being played, although it’s all too obvious to us.

Mr. Bates, Big Strong Man: Anna is somewhat less successful than Mrs. Hughes at manipulating her man, but at least she succeeds in putting him off for another episode or two.  In the plot that “Downton” viewers hate with every fiber of their being, the London police seem to be zeroing in on Anna as the murderer of Mr. Green.  To restate: there is no proof that Mr. Green was even murdered, only that he said “Oh it’s you” before being hit by a car; for all we know he could have been distracted or even trying to escape from someone.  Secondly, even if Anna was in London that day, so were about a million other people.  Are they all suspects?  The guy was a cad and could have had dozens of enemies.

In any event, Mr. Bates doesn’t know why the police are nosing around and apparently doesn’t know that they’ve fingered Anna.  It’s pretty clear that when that happens, Bates will fall on his sword and confess to everything to save her.  It’s also pretty clear that this is why Anna is keeping her trap shut; she knows what a hothead he is, which is why she didn’t want to tell him about the rape in the first place.  Bates offers some sweet talk about how he’s going to protect her and that they’ll have lots of kids, etc., etc. He’s the big strong guardian, although if he did want to protect her, he wouldn’t have put her in this position in the first place.  Anna played her cards well, but she’s got a pretty weak hand.

Lord Grantham, Near-Cuckold: Cora didn’t do a very good job in managing Lord Grantham’s ego; in fact she stuck a pin in it.  I know we’re supposed to feel sympathetic to Lady G’s feelings because she’s not being consulted about Pip’s Corner and whatnot, but seriously, couldn’t she have just gone to the guy and said, “Hey dude, my feelings are hurt”? Instead she makes snarky remarks and encourages the attentions of Mr. Bricker, who obviously has more on his mind than Piero Della Francesca.  I know that it’s not politically correct to blame a woman for any advance made by a man, but she must have known she was leading him on and she definitely must have known Lord Grantham was jealous.  (Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that she is completely oblivious to all her surroundings considering how many years she had the wool pulled over her eyes by O’Brien and Barrow.)

It’s not exactly a surprise that when Lord Grantham attends an all-night officers’ party dressed like a peacock, Mr. Bicker tiptoes down the hall and sneaks into Lady Grantham’s boudoir.  And it’s not exactly a surprise that Lord G comes home early and finds these two chatting away in their bathrobes.  For the second time in as many episodes, the Lord’s previously unknown volcanic temper gets the best of him and he whacks Bricker (with the back of his hand – how much can that hurt?) The commotion brings Edith to the door but Cora assures her that all is fine – she and the Lord were playing a game and broke a lamp!  Because that’s exactly what a child of any age wants to hear – that her parents are engaged in some kind of bedtime roughhousing that results in broken furniture.  In any event, if Cora wanted to get her husband’s attention, she sure accomplished her goal.  Unfortunately he’s not speaking to her now.  If this keeps up she’s going to have to play the “you killed our daughter and I forgave you, so now you can forgive me” card.

Tom, Growing a Tiny Little Spine: In our fourth example or women deploying heir feminine wiles, we have an example of complete failure.  Miss Sarah Bunting (aka, the worst dinner guest only) has tried to manipulate Tom’s working man ego all season, but like many women, doesn’t realize that when men make a definitive statement they are sometimes actually telling the truth.  Before the disastrous dinner party in the previous episode, Tom asked her not to pick a fight with the Crawley’s because “I love them.”  Apparently Miss Bunting does not teach English in addition to math and socialism since she went right ahead and picked a fight.  Now she says, “Don’t you despise them?” Hello?!! Knock-knock.  Anyone at home in that brain of yours? His DAUGHTER is one of “them.” At this point Tom’s had enough and breaks off with her.

Finally Miss Bunting takes a hint, and decides to take a previously unmentioned job offer far away.  Kudos to Julian Fellowes for at least one successful piece of misdirection in this episode because when Tom hears this new he tells Mary that he’s on the verge of making an important decision and then rushes off to find her before she leaves for good.  We are meant to assume that he’s chasing after her like the hero of some Meg Ryan Rom-Com.  But when he reaches her just before her departure, he merely says “sayonara.”  When she says, “I loved you, you know. I could have loved you more if you’d let me,” he gives her a big lip lock and says, don’t let the carriage door hit you on the way out.  Exeunt Miss Bunting, who completely misplayed her cards.

Fortunately for the male sex, there are also examples of English Gentlemen not being led around by the nose by their womenfolk. None of them actually live at “Downton,” however, where the testosterone seems permanently underinflated.  In order of virility, here are three men who show that the XY chromosome hasn’t completely withered away:

Charles Blake: You can see why Mary likes him.  He doesn’t slobber all over her like her other beaus do and he gives as good as he gets, just like Matthew used to.  You’ve got to admire his audacity in bringing together Mary and Mabel Lane Fox, even if the object of the meeting – to get Mabel to take Tony “Small Package” Gillingham back – fails. Or as Miss Fox describes the plan “Let me understand: I should take the discarded leavings of Mary Crawley, dust off the flour, and put them on my own plate?”  Now there’s a girl with moxie; they should build a whole show around her. “Mabel Lane Fox and Friends.”  In any event, she walks off in a huff without eating, leaving Mary and Blake to consume a huge fricassee on their own.

Lord Merton: Once thought to be kind of an empty suit, Merty suddenly blossoms as a bit of a Renaissance Man.  Not only can he knowledgeably discuss goiters with Dr. Clarkson, but he’s a modern man, unafraid of change.  “The truth is that most of the customs we think of as English were invented by the Victorians.”   Excellent point!  The Dowager Countess seemed to think that if she put Clarkson and Merty in the same room with Isobel it would be apparent to Isobel that Merty was a doddering old fool, but if anything, this little tea party might have sealed the deal.  It’s hard to see how this marriage will actually come off, though.  If Isobel gets married, she’ll have to move to his estate and presumably out of the show.

Atticus Aldridge – This guy doesn’t have the same elan as Blake and Merty, but he does hold his own with Rose.  He charms her with his attentions, and while he doesn’t announce it at the first meeting, he’s forthright with her about being Jewish.  Now, I know this is another un-PC to say, but he certainly doesn’t LOOK Jewish.  If anything, he resembles Prince William, the current heir to the throne, what with that blonde hair and weak chin.  For all her ditziness, Rose does get off the sweetest moment of the show when she tells him, “You’re English now, but you’re still Jewish – what’s the difference.”  Of course, after throwing herself at a black musician last year, a Jewish banker is very conventional. Also, it now becomes apparent why Cora had to confirm last week that her father was Jewish – as a way of introducing anti-Semitism as an issue on the show.  Although I cannot see how that can possibly become a theme, given that if Cora herself is Jewish; how can anyone else object to Rose making such a match?


Alas, now we need to address ourselves to Edith, who drove the biggest plotline of the episode.  Mary’s casual remark to Aunt Rosamond last week that Edith is spending a lot of time with the pig-man’s daughter sends her up to Downton.  Rosamond is primarily concerned about avoiding scandal and believes – rightly – that Edith is about to undo all the work she put into hiding the pregnancy and spending 10 months in Switzerland. Granny can always sniff out a scandal and agrees that something drastic must be done.  Poor Marigold, who was stolen from one adopted family last year because Edith wanted her closer to Downton, is now apparently to be kidnapped from a second adopted family and sent to a “school” in France.  This is like something out of a Victor Hugo novel, with a little Dickens on the side.

Clearly no one has thought this through very much.  Do they think the Drewes are going to take this lying down?  The stink they would raise if their daughter were stolen would make the scandal so much worse than anything that would come out via rumor.  The solution to this is so obvious too.  All Edith has to do is explain to Mrs. Drewe that she’s the natural mother and I’m sure they could work out an arrangement. What is making Mrs. Drewe so wary is thinking that Edith is a madwoman.

The last scene of the show – Edith making a long distance call to London – is ambiguous.  Presumably she’s going to make some kind of arrangements to snatch Marigold and take her into hiding.  How does she think she’ll manage the costs of such a scheme?  Through her earnings as a columnist?  Or maybe she’s finally going to exercise her rights as the trustee of Gregson’s newspaper and get the paper to support them somehow.  Regardless, this show has become a walking commercial for secret adoptions, where the birthparents are cut off completely from the baby.  It’s tough on the parents (especially the mother) to let go but it’s hard to imagine that Edith’s arrangement is better for anyone.

Some other observations:

— Funniest exchange: Rose announces that someone has opened a nudist colony in Essex.  And the Dowager gasps: “In Essex? Isn’t it terribly damp? I think it’s a mad idea.” Isobel retorts: “I doubt they were aiming it at you.”  Apparently this was a real thing, though.  They called it naturalism and the club was called Moonella Group.  Alas, the Dowager Countess was right again. The Moonella Group only lasted at that site for a year.

—  Last week I joked that Rose was engaged in a community service project by helping the Russians at that soup kitchen, but now we learn that she goes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, which is a lot less service than we were led to believe. It also appears that her attitude is “Let them eat cake,” given that cake is her main contribution to alleviating their distress. What was striking about the scene with the Russians, though, is that any sympathy we might have had for them is dissipated by their anti-Semitism.  They don’t seem the least bit embarrassed by the pogroms that drove the Jews out of Russia and are outright rude to nice Mr. Aldridge (although according to Wikipedia, the Greeks, not the Russians were the major perpetrators of the Odessa pogroms of 1859 and 1871.)  This is another reminder, that although me might dislike the English aristocracy, they were not as bad as the Russians.

—  Miss Bunting might be gone but her influence remains, in the class consciousness of Daisy. She tells Tom, regarding the Crawleys, “We’re the future, they’re the past.” All this just because she wanted to learn arithmetic in order to do the books at the farm.

—  Do we need to be told multiple times in every episode that times are changing?  Isn’t “show, don’t tell” a basic principle of story-telling?  First it was the resistance to the telephone, then it was the radio.  It’s mildly interesting that the butlers – Spratt and Carson – are the most resistant to change.  I think we are supposed to consider them ridiculous figures, but it’s really piling on to have Carson claim in an age of Picasso and Virginia Wolf that John Singer Sergeant is a modern painter and Rudyard Kipling is a modern author.

—  All this talk by Bates about having kids makes me wonder how he’s going to react when he finds the contraceptive device that Anna has squirreled away someplace in their house.

 How I’d love to be invited to a cocktail party at “Downton Abbey”! Those cocktails looked delicious.

—  Thomas is starting to look like a vampire.  Whatever injections he’s giving himself to fight his homosexuality are turning him into a cast member from “Twilight.”  It’s certainly not curing his hatefulness, either.  He’s trying to create trouble for Anna and Bates, even though Anna has always been kind to him and Bates has never done anything to cause this antipathy.  And once again, a character has not really thought through the implications of his actions.  Does he really think his employers will look kindly on him turning in either Bates or Anna?

—  What are the Dowager Countess’s motives in trying to derail Isobel’s marriage?  Clarkson thinks she wants to prevent Isobel from becoming her social peer.  The Dowager Countess herself says she wants to save Isobel from ennui (or “a hollow existence in a large and drafty house with a man who bores her to death,” is how she puts it, apparently having personal experience of her own to back it up.)  I think maybe she just doesn’t want to lose Isobel as a friend.  They seem awfully chummy – always gadding about on adventures and assembling jigsaw puzzles.

By the way, thanks to Reddit I discovered a hilarious Podcast about Downton Abbey: “Up yours Dowton.” It’s definitely worth checking out.


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