Dear Lord, where to begin?
Tonight’s episode of Downton Abbey is like the TV equivalent of a deep-fried, double-stuffed Oreo cookie: so artificial, so ridiculous, but also so delicious. From start to finish, it’s jam-packed with pivotal life moments: there’s a miraculous physical recovery, a marriage, an illicit affair, a thwarted elopement, an engagement, a death, and an arrest. And, oh yeah, Mary and Matthew totally make out. Plot-wise, this is easily the sudsiest episode of Downton Abbey so far this season, but what makes it work is that, after lots of zig-zagging back and forth, all the main storylines finally progress in a significant way. After several weeks in narrative limbo, Downton Abbey has regained some much-needed momentum. (You might even say a little too much, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.)
In the opening shot of the night, the last Army truck pulls away from Downton Abbey, signaling that life is finally returning to normal for the Crawleys—and by “normal,” I mean rigidly hierarchical, idle, and extravagantly wasteful. Cause for celebration, right? Well, not exactly. Although everyone’s happy to see the war come to an end, nearly everyone has mixed feelings about returning to their fussy Edwardian ways, and there’s a palpable uncertainty about what lies ahead.
Let’s start at the top, with Lord Grantham, who’s in the full throes of an aristocratic version of a midlife crisis. He claims to be happy about the return to the old ways: “Before the war I believed my life had value, I suppose I should like to feel that again.” Of course, this is ironic, because Grantham was just as pointless before the war as he was during it. But maybe it’s his realization of this fact—coupled with Cora’s constant scheming—that drives him into the arms of Jane. Their quasi-affair was telegraphed from the moment she arrived at Downton Abbey, and there’s something distinctly Herman Cain-ish about the way Grantham pounces on her in the pantry, later pulls her into his room, and finally send her packing with a nice big check “for Freddy.” It’s all a little creepy, but honestly, I’m okay with it, because it’s about time someone upstairs did something sleazy for once. (Sir Richard’s spying doesn’t count, because he’s nouveau riche and therefore inherently evil.) Plus, I enjoyed the 15 minutes or so when it looked like Cora was going to die and a lowly housemaid might just become the next Countess of Grantham.
Of course, Grantham’s PG-13 romance with Jane also forces him to accept his own daughter’s transgressive relationship—oh, what, you didn’t catch that? The Sybil-Branson thing has been dragging on for-freaking-ever but finally moves forward in a big way this episode. For about the 900th time, Sybil tells Branson she needs more time to make up her mind. Then she goes inside, listens to her family’s inane conversation, and decides she wants to marry him after all. It’s some seriously ham-fisted writing, but whatever: I’m just glad we won’t have to witness any more of their awkward and super unsexy garage dates. I’m also really looking forward to next season, when Branson inevitably gets involved with the IRA, Sybil realizes she is a traitor to her class, and comes running back to Downton. One complaint, though: I wish Edith and Mary had barged in on them in the act at the Swan Inn.
Now to Mary, who fully reverts to her antebellum bitch mode when Carson informs he won’t be coming to Haxby Park. Though his reasons are perfectly justifiable, Mary feels abandoned and acts out in that singularly cruel way of hers. “Butlers will be two a penny now they’re all back from the war,” she says, making sure that Carson can hear her. My heart breaks into a thousand little pieces when I see the look on his face. It’s probably not terribly realistic, but Carson and Mary’s father-daughter-like relationship is one of the most intriguing and poignant ones on this series. Mary looks to Carson for protection, but unlike a real father, Carson can’t really tell Mary what he really thinks—i.e. that she shouldn’t marry nasty old Sir Richard.
Mary becomes even more miserable once Matthew miraculously regains the use of his legs. His recovery is completely and totally absurd, and in retrospect I’m not even sure why the whole impotence storyline ever really needed to happen at all, except to torture Lavinia and help fill in a few more episodes. I’m also convinced that Dr. Clarkson is the shittiest TV physician since Dr. Spaceman. But in any case, the recovery means that Matthew will be able to sire lots of little tow-headed babies. Approximately 30 seconds after regaining the use of his penis, Matthew asks Grantham if he and Lavinia can get married at Downton. He agrees, so they set a date for April, book a caterer, and register at Crate and Barrel. It’s on!
Poor Mary. After the announcement, her fire-breathing dragon of a fiancé asks whether she’s still in love with Matthew. Her haughty response encapsulates everything that is tragic and heartbreaking about Mary: “Would I ever admit to loving a man who preferred someone else to me?” Mary, you can pretend to be brave and proud, but we know the truth! So does the Dowager Countess who (bless her heart) barges into Matthew’s room and breaks the news that Mary’s still in love with him. Matthew more or less admits to feeling the same way, but says it would be ungentlemanly to turn his back on Lavinia. After all, she was willing to give up sex and spend the rest of her life giving him chaste sponge baths. That’s a lot to ask from a lady.
As we all knew it surely would, Spanish flu finally arrives at Downton. The sequence where, one by one, Cora, Carson, Lavinia and (seemingly) Molesley come down with the virus house comes is totally absurd, probably not medically accurate, but nevertheless fantastically entertaining (plus it reminds me a little of this, which is never a bad thing). I also really love how Fellowes is able to keep us guessing about who’s going to croak: when I saw that blood spilling out of Cora’s nose, I was sure she was a goner. But nope, in the end, it’s the Little Blond Piece® who succumbs to the deadly influenza. I can’t say I’m surprised about her fate, but I do appreciate the somewhat convincing fake-out. Well-played, Lord Fellowes.
Before she dies, Lavinia is subject to one last indignity. After everyone simultaneously comes down with the flu, Mary finds Matthew listening to a record in the main hall, and he suggests they share a dance. “Can you manage without your stick?” she asks. “You are my stick,” he replies. (At this point my inner Butthead chimes in, “Heh-heh-heh. He’s her stick.”) Then Mary says something about how they’re a show that flopped. You can tell from all the labored metaphors flying around, and also the euphoric way the camera starts circling the couple, that a kiss is imminent. Sure enough, all the stick talk proves too much to resist and these two finally lock lips for the first time in something like five years. It’s awesome.
But the elation is short-lived, because poor Lavinia stumbles upon the two lovebirds. Oddly—or maybe poignantly—she refrains from saying anything about the incident until later, when she tells Matthew he and Mary should be together. If I were gravely ill on the eve of my wedding and caught my soon-to-be-hubby making out with his ex-girlfriend, I’d be pretty pissed, but Lavinia is seemingly without any human flaws.
So Lavinia dies a martyr—a boring, perfect martyr—thereby eliminating one of the two major obstacles to a Matthew-Mary reunion. Unfortunately, though, a new obstacle has arisen in her place: Matthew is now totally overcome with guilt for fooling around while Lavinia was on her deathbed. At the funeral, Matthew tells Mary he believed Lavinia died of a broken heart. “We’re the ones that killed her. We’re cursed, you and I.” Now, a little remorse is understandable; after all, it’s not like Matthew is Newt Gingrich or something. But come on, really? What will it take to change his mind, short of a visit from Lavinia’s ghost? I don’t know, but surely Matthew’s self-inflicted state of misery cannot—and will not—last forever (crazy prediction: it’ll end right around Christmas).
This week also brings a welcome, if not happy, conclusion to Ethel’s plight. With some help form Mrs. Hughes, she ambushes Major Bryant’s family during a visit to Downton. Initially, it’s a disaster, and I’m kind of surprised Mrs. Hughes didn’t get canned—excuse me, “sacked”—for her part in it. But a few months later, the Bryants have a change of heart and come back with an offer: they’ll accept Charlie as their grandson if Ethel will agree to give him up. Ethel turns them down, which has me wondering what she’s going to do to make ends meet—perhaps a return to Downton is in the cards? I’ve never felt attached to Ethel as a character, but I can’t help feeling for her when Mr. Bryant calls Charlie “the nameless offshoot of a drudge.”
Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in sight for Anna and Bates, which means the one storyline that desperately needed to be put out of its misery is likely to drag on well into the roaring twenties. The one good thing I will say about the whole thing is that I admire the initiative Anna has taken this season: she was the one who tracked Bates at the pub, and, now that he’s a suspect in his wife’s death, she’s the one who decides they should get married so she can legally be his next of kin. Anna’s a stronger character than ever, but the flipside is that Bates has turned into a mopey, passive lump. He used to be wonderfully stoic, now he’s just inert.
Mary sweetly plans for a brief “honeymoon” in one of Downton’s zillion bedrooms (Jane does the actual work, of course), and the new Mr. and Mrs. Bates share a single night of passion. “You’ve had your way with me,” Bates tells Anna, as they lie together in post-coital bliss. It’s further evidence that Anna is the real Downton Abbey minx and not Mary. While I’m glad these two finally got it on after five long years of waiting, I’m not so sure I ever wanted to see them sharing sexy time. It just feels wrong, somehow. Once you see Bates’s bare chest, you can’t unsee Bates’s bare chest.
- In case you hadn’t figured it out, the second half of tonight’s episode was basically the season finale in the U.K., airing about a month before the Christmas special. At least we don’t have to wait that long.
- Next week, we’ve got the Christmas special, which means the story will jump ahead another six months. Will Mary go through with her plans for an August wedding? We shall see…
- I just wanted to say how much I have been enjoying everyone’s comments on Downton, especially after last week’s goofy episode. The conversation about soap operas and melodrama was really insightful. Bully to you!
- Most telling omission from this episode: Patrick/Peter. You’d think someone would have at least made a few phone calls to follow up on his claims to Downton or at least, you know, mentioned the guy. I mean Edith certainly seems to have bounced back just fine. But I guess that’s what next season is for.
- Conspiracy theory alert #1: Dr. Clarkson prescribes an aspirin to Lavinia, which we now know is a bad thing to do when you have the flu. Maybe that could have hastened her death?
- Conspiracy theory alert #2: Do we think it’s possible that O’Brien poisoned Mrs. Bates?
- I adore the costumes on the show, especially the red evening gown of Mary’s, but couldn’t ITV spring for a few more outfits? Mary had to wear it twice in a single episode. Mortifying!!
- “He’s stout little chap, isn’t he?” You took the words right out of my mouth, Mrs. Hughes.
- The subplots in this episode—like Molesley getting drunk at dinner, and Daisy accidentally messing up the cake—felt like a return to the lighthearted high jinks of season one.
- Nice anthropological detail: Anna explaining to Molesley all the different wines the family has with their meal, none of which they actually drink.
- I also liked Thomas’s ill-fated foray into the black market. I am starting to believe that maybe all his scheming really is driven by his desire for a better life.
- Something I don’t believe: the fact that he’s still lurking around the house six months after the war has ended even though he doesn’t work there and no one trusts him.
- Violet was ON FIRE tonight: “All this unbridled joy has given me quite an appetite.” “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class.” “The aristocracy is not survived by its intransigence.” “Wasn’t there a masked ball in Paris where cholera broke out?” (The last one is my favorite.)
- Just wondering, isn’t Lavinia from London? Why was she buried at the cemetery near Downton?
- Also, just how far away is the Crawleys’ cottage from Downton Abbey? Like maybe a couple of miles? As much as I am loathe to agree with Cora, it doesn’t really seem like it would be that traumatic for Matthew to go home.
- I really enjoy the little tête-à-têtes between Carson and Mrs. Hughes, especially tonight’s.
- “The bathrooms are like something out of a film with Theda Bara.”
- Grantham to Cora: “If you’re turning American on me, I’m going downstairs.”