Warning: major spoilers ahead regarding jarred horseradish and fat stock shows .
There are two great themes on “Downton Abbey”: gender conflict and the iniquities of the class system. “Downton” started out as a meditation on class but with a an increasingly female-skewing audience it slowly morphed into a series about women asserting their rights in a changing world. But the exploitation of the working class was back in full force in this second episode of the final season, perhaps even more vividly than Julian Fellowes intended.
Baron Fellowes is so enamored by the Crawleys that I wonder if he really understands how thoroughly he just exposed them as privileged, selfish monsters. After what they’ve just done to the Drewes, how are we supposed to admire them or think of them as anything other than parasites? And I’m not just reacting to the discovery that they are still requiring the servants to iron the newspapers before they read them.
Let’s review the sad story of the Drewes, who have been working the land at Downton since before Waterloo: Edith got herself knocked up, went to Switzerland to give birth in secret and left her daughter with a nice Swiss couple. She changed her mind and stole the daughter back, convincing the very kind Mr. Drewe to adopt her and keep her close to Downton. But that wasn’t not good enough, so she stole the child a second time and brought her to live at Downton itself. But no one is supposed to know it’s her actual daughter — especially not Mary.
All of that is bad enough, but now it transpires that Mrs. Drewe bonded with dear Marigold when she was in her care and became slightly unhinged when she was stolen away. When the Downton children are brought round to see Mr. Drewe’s prize pigs, Mrs Drewe can’t help but scooping up Marigold into her arms and re-bonding with her. Cora’s immediate response is that the Drewes will have to move out of the area before Mrs. Drewe spills the beans on Edith and Marigold, but Lord Grantham, in one of his periodic fits of decency, resists.
But even Lord Grantham can’t save the Drewes when there’s a second episode. At a local agricultural fair, Edith lets Marigold wander off and Mrs. Drewe takes her home, stealing her back for a few moments of super-intense cuddling. Well, that seals their fate. After having done Edith the enormous favor of adopting Marigold in the first place and then having done the extra-special favor of not ratting her out when she came calling for the baby, the Drewes are sent packing without a second thought. Edith and Cora coldly declare that it’s “for the best” and even Lord Grantham for all his supposed decency doesn’t intervene to suggest that maybe Edith and Marigold are the ones who should leave for London, as they plainly intend to do anyway.
It’s enough to make you think Daisy is right when she spouts some Sixties gibberish about Cora: “It’s the system’s fault and she’s part of it.” Daisy, of course, is in a lather because her father-in-law Mr. Mason is about to be evicted from his tenant farming gig in the neighboring estate (we’re sure learning a lot more about tenant farming than we ever expected to on this show). In the neat and tidy way that things work out in the “Downton” universe it seems like the Drewes loss will be Mr. Mason’s gain, since their departure occurs at the precise moment Mr. Mason needs a farm. I have a feeling that Daisy’s outrage about the system won’t extend to the treatment of the Drewes since Mr. Mason will benefit from it.
But what’s most appalling about the Drewe’s situation is that Mr. Drewe will not fight for his family. He’s such a caricature of the loyal yeoman farmer that he self-evicts himself before Lord Grantham has the chance to do the deed. He seems not to realize he has a very significant card to play – he knows Lady Edith’s secret and could threaten to reveal it pushed. It is possibly historically accurate that the tenants, servants, and townspeople would be so deferential to the Crawleys that they would sacrifice their own happiness to satisfy every whim from the big house, but Mr. Drewe’s extreme self-sacrifice seems a bit extreme.
Mr. Drewe is not the only one who cannot stand up to the Crawleys. Mr. Carson is so in thrall to them that he can’t refuse their offer to host the Carson/Hughes wedding reception in the big hall. And here we have another example of class conflict. Mary Crawley, in her role as the grand lady benefactor, insists that the reception be at Downton even though Mrs. Hughes has declared that she wants to have a reception someplace where the happy couple, not the Crawleys, are the center of attention.
You don’t have to be a bridezilla to want to plan your own wedding and I suspect that Mrs. Hughes will get her way eventually, but I hope Julian Fellowes doesn’t drag this out too long because this is one of those low-consequence conflicts (like the squabbling between the Dowager Countess’ servants) that takes up too much time on “Downton.”
Lady Mary (“Your reception will be in the big hall if it’s the last thing I do”) sets in motion many of the plots this week. It was her suggestion to bring George and Marigold down to the Drewes that started that row of dominoes tumbling, and of course her insistence on throwing the wedding reception is the source of conflict among Mr. Hughes and Mrs. Carson. She’s just blithely going on her way causing chaos without knowing it.
Mary’s at the center of the Bates’s plot too. She and Anna are like sorority sisters in Mary’s bed chamber, each confidentially exchanging their reproductive secrets. When Anna pronounces that she can’t have children Mary agrees to spring for a free visit to her doctor on Harley Street. After all, this guy miraculously cured Mary’s own infertility so certainly he can do the same for Anna. I’m not sure it’s wise for Baron Fellowes to refer back to previous medical cases on this show because they involve some of the most ridiculous aspects of the whole series: Mrs. Patmore was blind until she wasn’t; Mathew was crippled and impotent until he wasn’t; Mrs. Hughes had breast cancer until she didn’t; Lord Grantham had a heart problem until he didn’t. All it takes to solve a medical problem on this show is for Fellowes to wave his wand and it goes away.
In any event, off go Mary and Anna to the doctor, who diagnoses a case of “cervical incompetence,” which despite the absurd name turns out to be a real condition. Huh, one point for Baron Fellowes for identifying a real condition and a real treatment (read about it here). Apparently all the doctor needs to do is put a stitch in the neck of the womb when Anna’s 12 weeks pregnant and that will do the trick.
What I don’t like about this plot is that Anna and Bates are supposed to have an ideal marriage but they still keep so many secrets from each other. You’d think Anna would have learned to trust her own husband but she can’t help herself. The visit to the doctor is secret, as were her first two miscarriages, her rape, her previous criminal record, etc., etc. Of course Mr. Bates doesn’t help his case by spouting dialogue that would be cringe-worthy in even the sudsiest fem-weepie: “Being married means you don’t have to cry alone.” For all the lovey-dovey talk, the Bateses have one of the most dysfunctional relationships on the show. Each one jumps to conclusions about what the other wants and acts accordingly, and they’re at the point now where you can never be sure when one of them is actually telling the truth. Witness that discussion about adoption: can we really believe what either of them is saying?
Marital secrets figure into the hospital consolidation plot too. For some reason Lord Grantham decides he should not invite his wife to a rump meeting of the hospital board even though she’s a trustee. I’m not even sure what was the point of that secret meeting other than to give Fellowes an opportunity to rehash the countervailing arguments for any dim viewers who might be in the audience. Cora eventually finds out about the meeting, and is surprisingly not as pissed as she should be, but this only gives us a chance to hear the arguments repeated a second time during a tour of the hospital.
I barely have the energy to type these words since the hospital plot is so enervating. It’s obviously a ruse to create a conflict between Isobel and the Dowager Countess that will replicate some of their sparks from earlier conflicts in the series. So far, at least, the logical arguments all seem to be in favor of consolidation. They’ll get better medical equipment and access to the latest quack theories of the medical establishment. At least that’s the theory of Isobel, Cora and Merty. Merty himself makes the very good case that the Crawleys themselves would never be treated in that hospital so why should the people of the village be expected to live with such substandard care?
There may be a good fact-based argument for keeping local control of the hospital and the Dowager Countess and Dr. Clarkson advocate, but we haven’t hear it. Instead we get this lame plea from Dr. C to Lady G: “I wish we could persuade you to help stem the tide of change.” If Dr. Clarkson had his way, they’d still be using leeches to cure pneumonia.
I can’t imagine how this plot will continue any longer although I expect that it will. Lord Grantham keeps dithering, hoping that the situation will sort itself out. Little does he know that this conflict will not abate until Julian Fellowes himself decides that he’s had enough; and if the murder case against Anna taught us anything, it’s that he has enormous patience for protracted sluggish plots.
Some other thoughts:
- I was surprised that the one funny line of the show was a semi-smutty one. When Mr. Bates, unaware that Anna was headed to London to see a gynecologist, told her to rest and put her feet up, Anna responded, “I’ll put my feet up.”
- Are we supposed to feel sorry for Thomas, who’s looking more vampiric as the series progresses? After he’s wreaked havoc on the downstairs staff these past five seasons no one likes him except the saintly Baxter. Well, what did he expect? All all, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” His crush on Andy is unreciprocated – not surprisingly Andy doesn’t want to get private lessons on how to wind the clocks, since he’s undoubtedly worried about exactly whose clock will get wound. Mr. Carson doesn’t discourage him from looking for another position, but when he goes on a job interview the head butler has remarkable gay-dar and takes an instant dislike to him. This is another plot that seems to be going nowhere.
- Since when has Mrs. Hughes been jealous of Mr. Carson’s affection for Lady Mary? Now all of a sudden it’s a thing.
- The whole point of forcing the Drewes to leave is to keep Mary from learning about Marigold’s maternity, but what is she going to think when her prize-winning pigman disappears without a good explanation? I wonder if they’ll take Golden Empress with them and really break Mary’s heart once and for all.
- Mary doesn’t make a very credible agent. Does she think the job consists exclusively of meeting tenants in the drawing room and approving livestock entries in local fairs? If she were a true agent and really minding the store she wouldn’t be jaunting off to Haley Street with her lady’s maid every time there’s a case of cervical incompetence.
- Edith’s not having much luck getting her way with the managing editor of her magazine. The problem here is that we don’t know whether she is being unfairly dismissed because she’s a woman or if her ideas are actually lame. Given the high number of female viewers of the show, I imagine we will see Edith’s vision vindicated as she emerges as a flapper Katherine Graham. I think it’s a bit lazy, though, for us not to be able to judge for ourselves whether her ideas are any good.
- Merty is getting more obsequious every episode. He’s even mailing his own letters in hopes of bumping into Isobel in the street so he can curry her favor. What is that spell she casts? The same spell that the Dowager Countess cast on Prince Kuragin or that Cora cast on Mr. Bricker. They must all share some kind of special Downton pheromones.
- I’m not sure of the ethics of Moseley obtaining the previous examination papers for Daisy so she can study for her test. Morally I guess it’s the same as reviewing previous SAT tests, which is at the heart of SAT prep classes everywhere. Sill if it were truly ethical, Moseley wouldn’t be skulking around with them.
- Still no sign of any suitors for Mary and Edith, but there is a hint of that in next week’s coming attractions.
PS. Last week I questioned whether Mr. Mason had actually been a tenant farmer or an actual landowner. Turns out that in Season Three he was introduced as a tenant of Downton — not at the neighboring estate. So my memory on that was off, but not as off as Julian Fellowes, who, after all, wrote the thing.