Downton Abbey asks “Whose side are you on?” as cracks grow into chasms

Downton Abbey asks “Whose side are you on?” as cracks grow into chasms

“I don’t want to be a servant on my wedding day!”


Downton Abbey

"Season Six, Episode Two"

Season 6 , Episode 2

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For six seasons now, and over the years between 1912 and 1925, the residents of Downton Abbey have spoken of changes underway, of a seismic social shift, but the actual changes have been so gradual as to be almost invisible, tiny cracks in the old ways that slowly grow larger. In this second installment of the sixth and final season, class and personal schisms are at the forefront, and those cracks begin to feel like chasms.

This episode is rife with the language of battle and bloodshed. Violet is “embarking on a civil war,” staking out territory and trying to draw support to keep the Downton Cottage Hospital under local authority—and under her authority. Robert doesn’t want to choose sides, though by keeping Violet’s meeting a secret from Cora, he’s already chosen, even if it’s in the name of sorting it out “before there’s blood on the carpet.” “There will be wigs on the green before we’re done,” Isobel jokes with Dickie Grey. Everyone’s talking battle lines, allies, and opposition. As Violet warns Cora, “Dr. Clarkson and I will fight to the last ditch.”

The most obvious rift on Downton Abbey is between the upper and serving classes, but within that divide, there are nuances. Mrs. Hughes explains again and again to Carson why she doesn’t wish to be married from Downton Abbey—not after Lord Grantham’s first invitation to “decorate the servants’ hall and make it look really special,” and not after Mary’s grander offer. Mrs. Hughes gets to the crux of refusing their largesse. A room they choose and decorate themselves will never be as splendid as what the Crawleys are offering, but “it would be about us in a way the great hall of Downton Abbey never can be.” It all comes down to one simple statement: “I don’t want to be a servant on my wedding day!”

Mary’s insistence is intended as a compliment, but it’s also presumptuous. Both she and her father assume their invitation is irresistible. Robert asks Carson not whether he and Mrs. Hughes have accepted, but whether Carson has “broken the news” to his fiancée. Even with Cora warning her off, Mary can’t imagine why Mrs. Hughes might prefer a modest wedding elsewhere to the splendor in the house where she serves. She promises Carson, “Your reception will be in the great hall if it’s the last thing I do,” as if that were Lady Mary’s decision, not the bride and groom’s.

The betrothed discuss this twice as equals, on a morning walk outside the manor and over an evening glass of wine, where they’re not Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes but Charles and Elsie, two people in love. But when she asks how the Crawleys took their refusal, Carson makes an error in his social reckoning, seating himself behind his desk and leaving his bride-to-be standing at attention as if she were a housemaid called on the carpet. Later, he tells her that the matter is settled despite her objections. Lady Mary wants to see them married from the manor, “and I can’t see why we shouldn’t be.” This is the kind of talk that breaks up engagements.

Mary handles her offer to Anna with greater delicacy, and the framing of the scene reflects it. First, Mary sits or stands in regal stillness, her face in bright, warm light and sharp focus, while Anna, out of focus and just out of the light, drapes her with clothing and jewelry. Lady Mary is the focus (literally) of this moment; she holds all the power, along with the ability to dispense or withhold it.

But when Mary suggests taking Anna to her fertility doctor, focus and lighting shift to Anna. This isn’t a lady bestowing a favor on her maid. It’s two women speaking almost as equals, one sharing advice and offering encouragement to the other. Mary reminds Anna that she had similar trouble trying to conceive; they hold this in common. The two laugh over their absurd adventures, and Mary assures Anna she’s earned this “fair and square” through her years of heroic service and secret-keeping.

Downton Abbey still holds bigger secrets than Mary’s Dutch cap, though perhaps not as big as “poor Mr. Pamuk.” Mary’s excursion with the children to Yew Tree Farm reawakens Mrs. Drewe’s pining for Marigold, and the distraught woman carries her away from the fat stock show. Her brooding over Marigold points out how different the girl’s life could have been. She was very nearly destined to be raised as a foundling in a farmer’s home, until Lady Edith snatched her back. Instead of being the adopted daughter of a pig farmer, Marigold is a cherished ward on the estate of the Earl who can turn that pig farmer out.

“I’m not pushing anyone anywhere.”

For all Robert’s cavils, that’s what it comes down to. The Lord of the manor surprises the pig farmer at his cottage and urges him to give up his tenancy, to take his wife away from Downton Abbey before she embarrasses Lady Edith. It feels like a cheat to have Mr. Drewe make that decision, once again leaving Lord Grantham clean-handed in the class struggle. “It seems very unfair,” Robert admits, “but I’ve thought and thought about it and I don’t see what else we can do.” If he can’t see an alternative, it’s because he doesn’t want to. Edith has a handsome flat sitting vacant in London, a magazine to wrest from her unyielding editor, and a life waiting for her outside the stultifying social smallness of Downton Abbey.

A move to London would also give her some space from Mary, and that’s a gap that could stand to widen. Age and experience might have tempered the rancor between them, but it never has. Edith can’t bring herself to tell Mary Marigold is her daughter. “She’s afraid Mary would use it as a weapon,” Cora says, “and she may be right.” If Mary hasn’t wised up yet, she should after this episode, with everyone asking such delicately pointed questions and casting about significant glances. That knowledge will give Mary a more pointed weapon than ever in their rivalry… or a chance to show her loyalty to her sister, and to her family.

John Bates believes in loyalty, and in family. His world isn’t divided into servants and masters, or haves and have-nots; it’s him and his against the world. Finding Anna weeping once again, he tells her, “It’s not right for you to cry alone.” When she castigates herself for depriving him of children, he corrects her. “To me, we are one person. And that person can’t have children.”

Bates sounds gentle here, and the show romanticizes him, but his demand for total candor is the flip side of his fury at finding the hidden contraceptive device, his refusal to listen to any explanation, his frequent sulks and displays of temper. It’s the dark counterpoint to his devotion, what Anna calls his tribalism. It was easy for his wife to believe he might be guilty of murder—and for him to believe he could commit murder. Bates is ferociously loyal, so long as those he loves cleave to his often unstated, always demanding standards. Woe to them if they slip… and to any party who might harm them, for John Bates will brood and plot their comeuppance, no matter how it grieves the injured beloved. In his eyes, you’re on his side or you’re his enemy.

Robert’s pleased at Mary’s success with the pigs. “These things remind the farming community that we’re all on the same side.” But they aren’t on the same side, not anymore. As Daisy says of Mr. Mason’s eviction, even as she anticipates Lady Grantham coming to the rescue, “That’s what makes me angry—the system—and she’s part of it.” Daisy’s phrasing is simplistic, but it’s a rough truth. The servants are immersed in a crumbling system that now takes more than it is capable of giving. The cracks are widening, and Daisy doesn’t realize she’s standing on the edge of one.

Stray observations

  • Anna thanks Mary with the hopeless, “It won’t work, but that’s not the point,” putting her in the running with Edith for Official Sad Trombone of Downton Abbey. I’d reckon the odds are evenly split between Anna and John Bates beaming at a newborn baby and Anna bleeding out in her bed after the surgery goes wrong, and maybe becoming a pawn in the battle over Downton Cottage Hospital. (I know many of you have seen the entire series; please be sure to tag spoilers in the comments.)
  • Speaking of cracks that become chasms: Mrs. Patmore concedes to Daisy that they could buy a jar of horseradish. With no kitchen maids for the scutwork, making every ingredient from scratch is daunting.
  • Bates tells Anna to try to get some rest during her jaunt to London. “Yes,” she says, no doubt picturing the stirrups in Dr. Ryder’s office, “I’ll be putting my feet up.”
  • Carson’s passive aggression to Barrow continues apace. He encourages Barrow to seek employment elsewhere, then upbraids him for scheduling an interview. “You don’t let the grass grow, I must say!”
  • “Goodness, this is a job for a one-man band!” Barrow isn’t keen to work as an “assistant butler,” a position coined by a Ripon butler to consolidate the work of a footman, underbutler, chauffeur, and valet for the pay of one servant.
  • When Mr. Finch learns Lady Mary is in charge of animal husbandry, his stifled “Mm-hmm?” expresses shock more clearly than dialogue.