Any question that the Democratic National Committee wanted to discourage voters from watching its presidential debates was pretty much settled on Sunday when they scheduled one at 9:00 on Sunday, directly opposite the season’s third episode of “Downton Abbey.” The core audience for “Downton” – women of a certain age – are also Hillary Clinton’s strongest voting bloc so it must have been an agonizing choice for liberal households up and down the East Coast as they tried to decide whether to take their medicine and watch the debate, or just treat themselves to a well-deserved glass of wine and snuggle in to catch up on the Crawley shenanigans.
Regardless of which option they chose, they got a lesson in politics. Why, there’s Thomas Barrow on a job interview with Sir Michael Reresby, the dotty lord of the disused Dryden Park, who looks like Bernie Sanders on a good day. “Are you a Republican?” his Lordship asks in alarm. “I can’t risk a Republican in this household when anyone could call.” I’m sure there’s many a “Downton” viewer who has said the same thing.
Of course being a Republican in Britain means almost exactly the opposite of what it does over here. A British Republican is someone who wants to dismantle the monarchy and the entire aristocratic rigmarole. We know that Baron Fellowes is not a Republican; if he were he wouldn’t have accepted that baronetcy. But more tellingly is the extreme sympathy we are meant to feel for this old coot.
Sir Michael is a figure of pity: his two sons dead in the war; his wife, a former lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Cornwall, also dead; attended only by a single servant; living in squalor in a huge drafty house; and essentially losing his marbles. He’s got enough sanity for one Stephen Sondheim-like reverie though: “You know what I remember? The women going up to their rooms at the end of the evening. Their faces lit from the flame from their candle … their diamonds twinkling as they climbed up into the darkness.” You can imagine Baron Fellowes writing those lines with a quill as the tears streamed down his face.
There did used to be one real Republican on the show: Tom Branson, the former political firebrand. Remember how he spent two seasons moaning about how Downton could never be his home because of his low origin and then embarked on an extended farewell tour at the end of last year? Remember that? Well forget it. All it took was six months in Boston to convince him that Downton actually is his home. Branson has always suffered from a weakness of character (e.g., fleeing the police in Ireland and leaving his pregnant wife to deal with the authorities; letting Lord Grantham dictate the terms of Sibyl’s disastrous medical care; letting himself get seduced by a conniving house maid, etc.) This return from Boston is another example of that; he’s like a college freshman who doesn’t like his roommate and wants to quit and go to the local community college. His explanation channels Dorothy at the end of “The Wizard of Oz”: “I had to go all the way to Boston to learn that Downton is my home and that you are my family.”
So what was all that Branson angst about last year? I had assumed that the actor playing him – Allen Leech – had wanted out of the series like so many actors before him, but apparently the “Tom-wants-to-leave-Downton” plot was just a way to fill screen time. And what is Tom going to do now that he’s back? Mary’s got his old job as land agent (although you’d never know it given how much time she has to meddle in the servants affairs.) The coming attractions suggest that he will face an existential quandary as he tries to carve out a new role for himself. That’s something you think he’d have worked out before his impulsive return.
And that return is staged in exactly the kind of way that drives me the craziest about this show. Without a word of advance warning – no telephone call, no telegram, nothing – he waltzes into the Carson/Hughes wedding at the exact moment that Carson is making a charming speech on behalf of his bride. He steals the limelight away from the happy couple – in the end, Mrs. Hughes’ bridal day is not about her after all. It was just like Bates materializing at last year’s Christmas party and Matthew returning from the war during a concert. No one ever thinks to call ahead.
Branson’s timing was particularly inopportune because the Carson/Hughes wedding (and we’ll call her Mrs. Hughes throughout this recap, even though she is now Mrs. Carson) was the highlight of the season so far. The machinations it took to get us to this point were a bit wearisome, though, and demonstrated a degree of interest by the aristocrats in the lives of the downstairs staff that was probably historically inaccurate.
For three episodes now we have struggled over the question of where to hold the wedding reception. Mrs. Hughes wants a fun blow-out party with their friends but Lady Mary, as willful as ever, wants to honor Carson’s long service to the household by throwing him a ritzy do in the Downton great hall. Lady Mary appears to have the upper hand because Carson can’t/won’t say no to her.
But after Mrs. Patmore puts a bug in her ear, Lady Grantham decides to trump Mary’s meddling with meddling of her own. She summons Mrs. Hughes to a meeting of all the Crawley Pooh-Bahs and makes her admit to the whole group that the wedding in the hall is not what she wants at all. It’s nice that the housekeeper feels confident enough in her station to publicly contradict her fiancé and embarrass the eldest daughter, but again, I bet that’s not the kind of thing that happened very frequently back then (or even now). Still, we have to recognize Lady Grantham’s actions for what they were – a dangerous form of interference. Who knows what kind of rift might have been caused between Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson by that little stunt.
Having preoccupied themselves with the location of the wedding reception, the Crawleys are not prepared to rest there. There’s also the matter of what Mrs. Hughes is going to wear. Now it’s Anna who puts a bug in Mary’s ear that Mrs. Hughes’s dress is yuck, and not having learned her lesson with the whole reception imbroglio, her ladyship takes it upon herself to offer Mrs. Hughes one of Cora’s house coats, without informing Cora beforehand. Cora flips out when she returns from her hospital meeting and finds the servants pawing through her things. She has a bit of a case – Mary couldn’t rouse herself to follow Cora out of the drawing room and give her a heads-up when she poked her head in. Nope, she stays planted in that chair knowing that Cora would find the dress-up party in full swing when she gets upstairs – and then has the nerve afterward to say she hopes Cora wasn’t “rude” to Mrs. Hughes.
Once everything is explained, Lady Grantham does the right thing and apologizes to Mrs. Hughes and gives her the housecoat to keep. Problem created and problem solved.
One problem that remains unresolved is what to do about the offer from the Yorkshire Royal Hospital to take over the Downton Cottage Hospital. Lady Grantham goes to get a little unauthorized due diligence and find out more about the Yorkshire offer. This leads to an explosive meeting of the Board at which accusations about personal motives fly back and forth. The reason this plot is so irritating is that it’s positioned only as a test of wills and a symbol of the struggle between change and stasis instead of a real issue. We never see any of the actual pro and con arguments: it’s just a repetitive ping pong of “local control” vs. “progress.” What did Lady Grantham learn on her trip? What exactly would a loss of local control really mean? We never learn these things.
In any event, it looks like Dr. Clarkson might be softening after Isobel blasted him for opposing the merger in order to save his position as “king of the place.” Only on “Downton Abbey,” where no one except Lady Mary holds a grudge, would a male professional absorb such a nasty personal attack and not stubbornly double down on his position.
The traditional male ego is on prominent display in the Lady Edith subplot, though. Mr. Fitch, her fat and obnoxious editor, can’t stand reporting to a woman, or so we are supposed to infer from his loud objections to her questions. But who knows? Once again this is an argument without substance. When she finally dismisses him it’s because of incompetence, not a philosophical conflict. He hasn’t done a good job of getting the next issue ready. So out goes Mr. Fitch and there’s nothing to be done except for Edith to roll up her sleeves and do it herself. Fortunately she has the help of a secretary and Bertie Pelham the land agent we met last year when the Sinderbys were renting Brancaster I guess there was no editorial staff in the building the night before publication. Because that’s how magazine publishing works.
Bertie seems intent on becoming Edith’s new love interest. He was apparently so smitten by her that he forwardly asks her out for drinks one minute after running into her on the streets of London. He volunteers to help put out the magazine, working with her until 4:00 a.m. and then telling her she “inspires” him. You don’t need an Ph.D in Downton Abbey-ology to see where this is going.
Some other thoughts:
- The scenes where Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, on the eve of their wedding, anxiously go to bed alone for the last time were two of the most heart-felt and real scenes ever shown on Downton. And no dialogue was necessary. Please Baron Fellowes – more showing and less telling!
- I love how Mary accused her (American) mother of being a snob for encouraging Mrs. Hughes to have the kind of wedding she wanted. It takes one to accuse one.
- Mary’s not content with simply mucking around in the Hughes/Carson nuptials. No, she’s already scheming to get the already pregnant Anna back to the London doctor who will treat her incompetent cervix. Kind of a funny thing where Mary’s closest friend is her servant.
- With the Carsons are married the path is clear for Edith and Mary. We are already three episodes into this season and not one Lord has come a’courting for Mary. How long can that last?
- Daisy, Daisy, why are you always so impetuous? When she gets word that the Drewes have been driven off their farm she naturally assumes, based on some pretty vague murmurings from Lady Grantham, that Mr. Mason will be offered the tenancy. Not only does she tell Mr. Mason that the place is his, she brings him to the wedding so he can thank Lady G in person. To be honest I also thought this was done deal last week but Cora’s look implies that it might be iffy. After all, she’s not the land agent, is she?
- Another touching moment occurs when the schoolmaster tells the autodidact Molesly that he “missed his vocation” and he replies, “I missed everything.”
- This is the second time that Barrow has told someone “I suppose you’ll be glad to see the back of me,” and the second time I smirked at the (probably unintended) innuendo, especially after Andy replied, “If that’s what you want.” Yeah Andy, he wants you to see the back of him. He wants you to have a really good look.
- Speaking of Barrow, we all remember when he cowardly allowed himself to get shot in the hand to escape trench warfare at the Western Front. It has been one of my pet peeves since then that despite having a couple of metacarpals blown to bits he’s had no impairment in his hand. So why is he all of a sudden wearing a bandage when he goes on his job interview? Has he had a sudden relapse ten years later?
- Uh-oh. Lord Grantham has “indigestion.” Didn’t we just go through this at the end of last season when we thought he had a heart problem? No one on “Downton Abbey” even burps without it turning into a medical emergency. I suppose he’ll have to go to the Yorkshire hospital for treatment to learn the value of consolidation.
- All of a sudden Denker is Miss Marple, sussing out that Sprat is hiding his fugitive nephew in the potting shed? (Yawn.)
- As usual, The Dowager Countess gets all the funny lines. My favorite: “A peer in favor of reform is like a turkey in favor of Christmas.” And I actually laughed out loud when she explained why she didn’t want to stick around and say hello to Cora, while brandishing her umbrella like a light saber: “I have a feeling that we will be saying hello much less than en garde.”