If this week’s episode has a theme—which is rare enough for Downton Abbey—it’s that the entire house seems to have read Pride & Prejudice at the same time, without learning any of its lessons. The interplay between various characters’ preconceptions and others’ hampering sense of personal dignity colors most of the episode—from the Dowager Countess to Ivy, the kitchen maid. It’s stereotypically—almost farcically—British, which is where Downton Abbey is the happiest. I know audiences in Britain like the show, but the world over, it seems like the rest of us watch it to confirm our wildest ideas of how stiff and proper the British can be.
Still: It’s astonishing just how much plot Downton is able to fuel out of these characters’ stern principles and pre-judgments. If there’s anything dated about Downton, it’s certainly this sense of strong, overriding principle governing so many people’s actions. Lady Grantham and Isobel Crawley are butting heads—and will always butt heads—because they’re both equally convinced of their own set of values. Just as Isobel is firmly convinced that young Peg deserves a chance in the world, Violet is convinced that any breach of property should be swiftly punished. They’re both so wrapped up in their principles that they are unable to accept truths that reside outside it.
Copy this plot and paste it onto Bates and Molesley, and you reach much the same conclusions. Copy-paste it again over Lady Mary and the visiting government man Blake, and it’s essentially the same story. It fits well over the entire house’s reaction to Jack Ross, the handsome black bandleader that Rose calls to the house for Lord Grantham’s birthday. Copy-paste it, even, over the Bateses’ adventure to the high society restaurant, where the maitre’d is too snobby to even offer them a table until Cora intervenes. It’s interesting to see how Downton Abbey is changing to accommodate both the constrained rules of the past and the shifting categories of the present, but at the same time, this storyline runs the risk of being over-played.
For what it’s worth, Rose Crawley is rapidly becoming one of the most important characters on the show—precisely because she’s so ungoverned by these rules. Part of that is that she’s in a position of privilege, so she can ignore tradition if she wants to. But part of that, also, is that she just doesn’t care. It’s rather refreshing—and a role that badly needed to be filled, as it was occupied by Sybil until she died last season. Of all the young privileged people in the family, Mary wants pomp and Edith wants validation. Only Rose seems to be purely invested in novelty and fun. It will most likely get her into trouble, but I hope not too soon.
Last week, I mentioned that the women in the story hung back and remained silent while the men occupied all available space with their posturing. And though I was completely wrong about why Edith went to the doctor (as several readers pointed out, abortion was not legal in the 1920s in Britain), the general theme of desperation for the powerless comes out again strongly in this episode. This time, it’s not just women, though: Molesley and Peg both become bargaining chips for figures who are in power. The former is with Carson and Mrs. Hughes, which is not too terrible—but can you imagine being a young country farmer and being subjected to the back-and-forth from the local doctor, the dowager countess, and another rich lady? At least one of those people has met the King of England.
But what struck me most in this episode is Daisy’s powerlessness—and, worse, her perpetual powerlessness, stuck after 15 years still at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. She’s not as gormless as she used to be, but even if she weren’t, it wouldn’t really matter. Daisy has no education, little family, and no experience outside of the kitchen. Even if she did take William’s dad on his offer to run his farm, how would she do it? Whom would she do it with? At the core of her character is a singular hopelessness. Daisy has no choice to show up every day, because if she doesn’t, there’s literally nothing for her to fall back on. This adventure with Alfred seems so juvenile, but that’s precisely because she has no perspective on the rest of the world. All she knows is that this one guy who makes her life bearable is shipping out—because he’s a man and can leave, for one thing, and worse, because he will never love her enough to stay. Naturally, Downton makes this into a spat between Daisy and Ivy, but it’s sort of obvious that Ivy isn’t Daisy’s problem—she’s just the only person Daisy can actually be mad at. (It’s worth pointing out that members of powerless classes, especially women, often turn on each other instead of critiquing the overarching system, because that’s how institutionalized power works. Poor Daisy is just doing what she’s been told to do.)
There are a few characters on the show who have taken positions of relative powerlessness and turned them into positions of relative power—Lady Mary is probably the best example of this, and certainly the example the show is most invested in. But Mrs. Hughes, I’ve noticed, wields just as much quiet authority in her downstairs kingdom, and she must come from a very small world. Throughout this season, people keep having secret meetings with her in her office. (In this episode alone there’s Molesley and Rose conferring with her.) It’s not exactly that Mrs. Hughes is in charge—she has to publicly defer to Carson—but damn if she doesn’t know how to manipulate him to do what she thinks is best. (He lasts through Molesley’s tea service for about 10 seconds before caving. It’s a beautiful moment.) Phyllis Logan has long been one of the unsung heroes of the cast, and since I’m talking about powerlessness with Daisy, it seems important to point out that there are a few characters who have made lemonade out of really crappy lemons and seem to be really cheerful and wise about it now.
In fact, another strong point for this episode is that it interrogates a lot of our characters who up until now have been flatter “good guys.” Mary gets a dressing-down from Blake, and though he’s kind of a prig, he’s not, you know, wrong about not caring about the aristocracy when the nation is having trouble eating. Mary’s protestations that Lloyd George sounds “mean-spirited” are hilarious when you think about how she lives. I love her, but she’s a stuck-up snob, and it’s good to see the show getting into that. Similarly, Edith: I’ve grown very fond of her, but this episode showcases some of Edith’s perpetual issues. In crisis, her issues immediately turn to all of her childhood woes that were never addressed, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make her kind or temperate. It just makes her avaricious for better treatment. Her disgust at seeing Jack Ross is a very telling moment for the character. Edith is the type of powerless person that tries to get more power by putting others down. Which is why, I assume, Mary never liked her much. Mary, like Mrs. Hughes, learned long ago that the only way to get power is to act like you have it, right from the start.
Overall, this is a solid episode of Downton Abbey—full of rich moments and for once even overarching themes. And lovely music. And so much to say about the class dynamics. This is the show firing at all cylinders.
- I miss Sybil.
- Jimmy’s a douchebag. I guess we saw that coming.
- Carson learning to like Jack is maybe the best scene in the episode. It includes this gem: “I’m no more African than you are. … Well, not much more.”
- Another contender for best scene: Tom, Mary, and Isobel reminiscing on their great loves. It doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the episode, but it’s touching enough that it doesn’t matter.
- I don’t love Blake, as I said, but his cutting reply to Mary’s feeling sorry for the pigs is priceless. “Do you eat bacon?” I’m sure one of you knows more about the intensive pig farming that they’re discussing as a national plan—enlighten us in the comments!
- Isis Alert! Dog Grantham is in this episode, sitting by Mary’s feet when Robert comes back from London.
- As always, Granny Grantham takes the cake: “My dear, we country dwellers must take care not to appear provincial. Try to let your time in London rub off on you a little more.” And we get a disdainful bell-ringing scene. Best.
- Ivy: “And all this time, I thought he was so nice.” Mrs. Patmore: “And how many women have said that since the Norman Conquest?”
- I thought this throwaway line from Rose was a wonderful example of self-absorbed upper-class privilege: “Oh, please don’t let me disturb you, but I’d like to make a speech.”