Downton Abbey: You Give Me an Ulcer

Mary and Tom

Well now we know who was responsible for World War II. The Dowager Countess had the chance to sidetrack Neville Chamberlain’s career before he became the prime minister who let Hitler take over Czechoslovakia and make “appeasement” a term of opprobrium to hard-liners ever since, but she muffed her chance and unleashed the dogs of war.

It turns out that before Chamberlain became the bête noir of conservatives everywhere, (here’s an article comparing Barak Obama to Neville Chamberlain for example) he was Britain’s’ minister of health. That’s a nice historical touch by Julian Fellowes. More important for our story (Season 6 episode 5), Chamberlain’s wife was the goddaughter of the previous Lord Grantham, the Dowager Countess’s little-lamented husband.   And never one to give up even though all her allies have deserted her, she induces him to dinner so she can harangue him into opposing the merger of the Downton Cottage Hospital.

How did she arrange this? As Chamberlain confesses to Tom (because future prime ministers are always sharing their most sensitive secrets with former chauffeurs), he once participated in a prank with his brother-in-law Horace de Vere Cole (an actual famous prankster, by the way: see here ) which the Dowager Countess threatened to make public unless he dropped by for dinner.

This is not a very well thought-out plan because all the supporters of the hospital consolidation are also invited to dinner and pile on against her. If the Dowager Countess had a blackmail card to play, wouldn’t it have been more effective to ask him outright to secretly kill the plan instead of forcing him to listen to a heated argument about it at dinner? After all, as the future appeaser says, he doesn’t really like a fight and is unlikely to wade into this battle.

In any event, this plan goes awry when the constant bickering causes Lord Grantham’s ulcer to erupt. This is one of the most shocking scenes in “Downton” history. Not shocking that Lord Grantham had an attack because that’s been well-telegraphed for several episodes now. What was disturbing was the way he spewed blood all over the guests at a formal dinner. It was like projectile bloodletting to match Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”

With only four episodes to go before the series ends, I thought this might be the end of Lord Grantham, especially once he managed to dramatically proclaim to Lady Grantham between attacks: “If this is it, just know I have loved you very, very much.” In a more serious drama he’d have bled to death on the way to the hospital. But medical miracles are an every-week thing on “Downton.” He is ferried off to the hospital where he is subject to a gastrectomy; this a partial removal of the stomach and it appears he will recover from it.

A couple of thoughts about this scene:

  • If the Downton Cottage Hospital has the wherewithal to perform a successful emergency gastrectomy, it sounds like a damn good medical facility and there doesn’t seem to be a need for a consolidation with the Royal York Hospital.
  • I found it very unseemly for Lady Grantham, who was, Jackie Kennedy-like, covered in her husband’s blood, to lobby Chamberlain one last time as she was headed to the hospital.   This is what you’re worried about at a time like this?
  • I still don’t understand the Downton hospital governance process. Who actually gets to make the decision on whether the proposed consolidation is accepted? In the season opener we learned about this proposal at a board meeting that was attended by several other silent and unidentified board members. Why isn’t the Dowager Countess lobbying them? Why do we have this endless rehashing among the Crawleys given that everyone’s already taken a position? Can’t we just vote and have this done with?
  • We’re supposed to think that Lord G’s ulcer was caused by stress, especially the stress of the hospital fight, although he hasn’t previously seemed unduly bothered by the debate. I believe the consensus now is that ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress, but I don’t know who has the outdated understanding, the characters or Julian Fellowes.
  • Julian Fellowes must be a frustrated physician because there’s always something medical happening in this show. Thanks to the miracle of Google, I now know what a gastrectomy accomplishes, why preeclampsia is dangerous, how to treat an incompetent cervix, etc.
  • Before the actual blood spewing, I so wish that Mr. Chamberlain had asked Edith how she occupied her time, giving her a chance to say, “Well, I inherited a magazine from my lover, who was killed in Germany by a group of jack-booted thugs, led by a man called Herr Hitler.  Let me tell you Sir Neville, that Herr Hitler is not a man to be trusted!!”

Lord Grantham’s dash to the hospital concentrates the minds of everyone at “Downton,” upstairs and down. “It only takes a moment for everything to feel quite different,” Mary muses. “Life is short,” Carson broods. “Death is sure. That is all we know.” Carson is “a man who’s been shaken to the roots of his soul,” Mrs. Patmore divines. “Everything he’s based his life on has proved mortal after all.” Only Mrs. Hughes, keeps her head, telling the downstairs team to stop their tinpot philosophizing and hop-to because there’s tea to be served.

Mary is the most shocked of all. Not only does Papa end up in the OR but she finally begins to figure out that Marigold is her biological niece and not just some lucky random kid. I’m sure what must be the most shocking to her is that everyone in the house – both the family and servants – seem to know the truth and that she’s the last to know.  She can’t even get her BFF Anna to spill the beans.

The ulcer/blood vomiting crisis causes Mary to have an Al Haig moment. She tells Tom that the two of them will have to take over management of Downton and keep Lord Grantham away from any estate-related stress. Oh sure, they’ll let him know about the “big decisions,” but the two of them will have to handle the day-to-day stuff.

“Long live our own Queen Mary,” Tom says admiringly.

This is the first episode where we get the sense that Mary is actually taking her responsibilities as estate manager seriously (although not so seriously that she can’t take the day off to go watch her new suitor Henry Talbot race cars.) She has, what seems to me, a legitimate concern that Mr. Mason is too old to handle the more physical challenges of pig-farming, what with the difficulty of separating breeding hogs and so forth. A visit to Yew Tree Farm is in order, during which she puts the question to him directly. Fortunately for Mr. Mason, the footman Andy is present and he volunteers to do the heavy lifting when he’s free from silver polishing. Apparently he’s got a powerful yearning to become a country gentleman. And of course we’ve seen that he’s sweet on Daisy so he’s trying to worm his way into her heart through Mr. Mason.

As for Mary, when she’s not seizing control of the means of production or second-guessing her tenant’s animal husbandry abilities, she’s amusing herself with Henry Talbot, the latest in a long line of handsome high-born men who have been entranced by her chilly charms. Almost all the other characters on the show have abandoned their period-distinctive traits of aloofness and snobbiness to the point where they seem like modern Americans, but Mary retains her essential bitchiness. She’s upfront that she only wants to marry someone of her own status. She definitely doesn’t want to “marry down”; and for that matter she doesn’t want to marry someone who would try to control her either. Matthew Crawley fit the bill because he was the heir to Downton Abbey (and we saw that she hesitated marrying in that brief moment when Lady Grantham was pregnant with a new heir.) But Henry Talbot? Who’s the heir to nothing and a mere race track driver? What’s he got to offer?

Poor Tom Branson. What a sad state his character has devolved into. There was a time when he was spirited enough to attract the equally spirited Lady Sybil Crawley. Now his only purpose on the show is to be Mary’s other BFF and neutered confidant. You can imagine the two of them curling up together with some popcorn and watching “Beaches.” He says things like, “There’s no such thing as safe love. Real love is giving someone the power to hurt you.” Ick. It’s hard to imagine any man outside the mass media saying something like that to a woman while completely sober.

Tom has taken it upon himself to promote the relationship between Mary and Henry Talbot, which seems to be the only game left in town for her with just four episodes left.   Barring the return of Charles Blake, which is apparently not in the cards because of some beef with the actor that played him, Mary will find a way to true love with this guy. Possibly because Dad’s ulcer/blood-vomiting shocked into realizing the evanescence of life, she might have a conversion to the merits of true love based on personality-based equality, instead of financial equality. And besides, as I’ve said repeatedly in these recaps, Mary cannot marry another heir to a landed estate because that heir will insist that they leave Downton and move to his estate. Given everything she’s gone though to preserve Downton for little George, that’s not going to happen. In other words, there can be no marriage of equals for Queen Mary. When a queen marries a king, the king is in control.

Some other thoughts:

Here’s a video of the Neville Chamberlain returning from his meeting with Hitler in which he had capitulated to Hitler one more time.

  • Edith’s courtship by Bertie Pelham is following the predictable path. He doesn’t seem to be spending much time up there in Branchester. He’s down in London again and rather shockingly ends up along at Edith’s apartment for drinks. A big lip lock ensues, but no actual hanky panky. I hope the extra-fertile Edith has learned her lesson on what a single night of fooling around can lead to.
  • What are we to make of Bertie’s cousin who is “more art than sport, if you know what I mean” and who likes to paint the young men of Tangiers. I think I know what you mean. Maybe Thomas Barrow could take a job at Barchester.
  • “Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?”  Excellent question, Carson. The Baxter plot, in which she is strong-armed into confronting the blackguard who convinced her to steal jewels, turns out to be dud. The guy pleads guilty before Baxter has to testify against him, which makes this whole mini-narrative arc seem particularly pointless. Why waste our time with a storyline that even the characters admit is anticlimactic?
  • Similarly, the story of the Carson’s newlywed blues seems like a time-filler. The difficulties of new brides keeping their husbands satisfied at the dining table is one of the hoariest plots in entertainment, but they usually involve young brides, not older couples who have decades of familiarity with each other. I gather the gripe is that Mrs. Hughes does not correctly heat up the food that Mrs. Patmore cooked. One week Mr. Carson is a sentimental old sweetheart and the next week he’s a dick. Geez. And how would he even remember how his mother used to cook anyway? That’s something that a 20-year-old groom would say, not a 70-year-old one.
  • Also really annoying is the burgeoning romance between Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason. Is the goal of this series to pair up every male and female character by the end of the show? Here are the potential marriages over the next four episodes: Daisy/Andy, Patmore/Mason, Mary/Talbot, Edith/Bertie, Isobel/Lord Merton, Baxter/Molesly. That’s a lot of lace.
  • And why would Daisy object to a Patmore/Mason union anyway? It would be like her surrogate mom and surrogate dad getting together.
  • The one good scene in the series was when the Dowager Countess learns that Denker had insulted Dr. Clarkson in a misguided attempt to curry favor with her boss. “It is not your place even to have opinions of my acquaintances, let alone express them … If I withdrew my friendship from everyone who had spoken ill of me, my address book would be empty. For a ladies’ maid to insult a physician in the open street! You’ve read too many novels, Denker. You’ve seen too many moving pictures.”
  • The Dowager Countess’s dismissal of Denker is a necessary corrective to the large amount of fraternization that’s occurring between the classes. Really, the lower orders don’t know their place but who can blame them given the inordinate amount of interest that the Crawleys take in their servants’ lives? Why here they are speculating about the relative power dynamic between Denker and Spratt or commenting on the assistant cook’s satisfaction with the arrangements at Yew Tree Farm. As noted above, are we really supposed to believe that a former chauffeur would attempt to worm a personal secret out of a cabinet minister? Or that a simple country doctor would argue healthcare policy in front of that same minister? This is all too much.
  • Somewhat related to the issue of fraternization is the fact that no one seems to be working very hard. If Baxter wants the time off to testify against her former lover, that’s not a problem; nor does Molesly have any difficulty getting the same time off to accompany her to court. If Daisy, Andy and Mrs. Patmore want to stop by Yew Tree Farm for a nice visit, no one seems to notice or care. Nor is there any problem with the Carsons getting away for a nice intimate dinner at their love nest.
  • Note all the blackmailing this episode: The Dowager Countess blackmailing Neville Chamberlain. Denker blackmailing Spratt. The prosecutor blackmailing Baxter’s seducer with the threat of her testimony.
  • We finally learn what we always suspected about Andy’s feelings for Barrow: that he’s doesn’t want to be alone with him for fear that he’ll make a pass at him. But all that goes by the wayside the second that Barrow offers to help him learn to read. In real life, it’s pretty hard for an adult to pick up reading, but I suspect Thomas is going to have a special touch with his ABCs.

“When we unleash the dogs of war we should go where they take us.” Good advice.






  1. I came across a comment after the UK telecast that what Robert had is more likely the beginnings of cirrhosis of the liver not ulcer given the amount of alcohol that he has been ingesting and since the end of series 4, there have been hints that he has been drinking a lot. Which doesn’t surprise me given how much his life has turned out and drinking could be the only way to blot out those horrors.

    Here is my take on this episode but focusing more on Chamberlain:

  2. Thanks. Really interesting analysis of Chamberlain. And very astute point that as a reformer he would have favored hospital consolidation. In fact, Violet’s argument (why should we change something that has worked for 100 years?) is exactly the kind of argument that wouldn’t have worked on him. The worst thing about this whole plot-line is that no one makes a cogent, fact-based argument either way.

    • You’re welcome and while Chamberlain enjoyed country pursuits such as shooting, his attitude towards the aristocracy was ambivalent at most and at worst especially with backwater families (like the fictional Crawleys), he held them in contempt essentially seeing them as obstacles to reform. Good point about the lack of cogent fact based argument on both sides with the hospital story line and without giving away the whole thing, let me say that it ends with a whimper like many other Downton story lines.

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