I really enjoyed tonight’s episode of Downton Abbey. I was not expecting to. I know that I can be hard on the show, but often that’s because I remember liking it so much in season one, and have found myself at a loss to explain why it’s disappointing in these later seasons. What I noticed about this episode is that it’s full of lovely little one-liners. Downton Abbey is always humorous, sometimes to the point of being precious. But in this episode, you can feel how that the house is beginning to lift up from the gloom of the last two seasons (which saw the war, Matthew’s death, Sibyl’s death, WIlliam’s death, Edith getting jilted, and lots of other incredibly sad things, now that I think about it!). But my list of cute quips is much longer than last week’s.
It’s weird that I noticed that, because the other thing from this episode that struck me was how well-written I’m finding Anna’s storyline, following her brutal assault. Nothing in particular happens in her corner this week, but the way she’s playing it strikes me as so wholly realistic that it is hard to watch because it’s so affecting. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting takes on the decision to bring this storyline into this season of Downton Abbey—primarily, that Anna gets raped for Bates to experience character development. That’s a valid criticism, and I can see seeds of it happening in this episode, as Bates gets drawn into Anna’s personal trauma. But honestly? Bates needs to grow up, more than Anna does. And being victimized isn’t character development, it’s character assault. Anna did nothing wrong—she doesn’t need to change. But the fact that Bates isn’t someone she can trust with this? I think that makes him at fault, as he has routinely been at fault, for being selfish in his so-called “honor.” Additionally, Joanne Frogatt’s performance as this shadow of Anna is consistently just nailing it. This would be a way more contrived plotline if it weren’t for the fact that Anna has been a ray of sunshine in the background of every episode for three years now (which is like a decade in the show). Even Lord and Lady Grantham notice her silence and sadness.
As is the case with most stories in Downton Abbey, most of the stories don’t advance too far—but as with last week’s episode, I found the rhythm of the show as it moved through each story to be a lot stronger than what it provided in season three. This is also a show less afraid to take risks. One of the most frustrating things about season three was how long all the inevitable plot points seemed to take. Aside from how badly everything around Dan Stevens’ departure was handled, take the whole plotline around Lord Grantham losing his money and therefore almost losing the estate. It took over three hours of the show’s mere eight episodes to resolve what was really a moot point from the start—no one in the audience thought that the Crawleys were going to lose their house. Who cares that Lavinia sent a letter to her father as she was dying, and Daisy took it to the post? But we were told to care, and that annoyed me.
Meanwhile, in this episode? Lord Gillingham (or, as Mary calls him, “Tony”) was introduced as a potential love interest last week; this week, he proposes. No time wasted on idle speculation (even though the plotting between Cora and Lady Rosamund is quite funny). I love how fast this happened; I love that I’m not looking forward to a season of the two of them staring at each other across the room because one or both of them is afraid to admit to how they feel. Which is to say: I love that this romance already feels very different from Mary’s romance with Matthew. Mary might be the same—she’s still pushing away people who she cares about, because she is perpetually (and very British-ly) convinced she doesn’t deserve happiness. But Tony is a very different man from Matthew, as evidenced by the way he handled her rejection. He seems to be taking Mary’s issues a lot less personally than Matthew ever did—perhaps he has more innate sympathy for her hangups, or he’s just older and wiser. Even that little kiss of theirs on the grounds is so different from what Mary had with Matthew—that first kiss in season one is an electric, passionate moment that seemingly comes out of nowhere. This one is almost expected, and yet it’s so polite and formal. I don’t know if it was any good for either of them—hard to tell from this angle!—but it is interesting to me that Lord GIllingham is the kind of guy that asks permission for kisses, and takes rejections so well. Matthew and Mary had a very explosive relationship—and one of the ways Matthew got through Mary’s boundaries was by bulldozing through them. Even up to the very end of the third season, he was a bossy, dominating husband—not above making declarations without discussing it over with his wife. He was usually right, and Mary usually forgave him, but it’s hard to believe that they would have had a totally hapy marriage, isn’t it? But with Lord Gillingham, it looks like Mary is going to herself have to work on letting him into her inner life. I’m sure she’ll manage it and have a ton more babies with him. But we’ll see.
And! Edith loses her virtue in this episode, which is actually a super big deal for the show! I really don’t know what else to say about that, except that it’s pretty cute, and also pretty sexy, and Edith has inherited her mother’s inability to judge people for what they’re worth. (Cora’s taste in ladies’ maids and husbands is apalling.) I understand that Edith is around 30, and her virginity was weighing pretty heavily on her. And thank God someone in the family decided to let their hair down a little bit about social mores. But Gregson is still a dark horse. I’m not calling it a victory for Edith until he puts a ring on it.
The last plotline, which is clearly going to be a bigger and bigger one, is that Rose MacClare briefly dances with a black man at a club in London. He saves her from humiliation, which is just what Ty says about Josh in Clueless when he shows up to dance with her. I know that black people aren’t as significant a portion of the population in England as they are here—so it’s interesting that including a black bandleader is the show’s nod to diversity. (Surely there would be a lot more Chinese and/or Indian immigrants in England at this time.) But I did love that Downton Abbey finally put all of our heroes in the same room as a black man, because it shows just how totally racist they all would be. Mary is prim, Branson brusque, Gillingham is dismissive, and Rosamund is outraged. Only Rose has enough decency to smile and wave back. It’s not like Downton to call into question how great these characters are—so I loved this little nod in that direction. Jack will be back, according to the show’s press releases, so it will be nice to see the family squirm into accepting him.
- “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.” Oh, Carson.
- “Don’t be transparent, Mama; it doesn’t suit you.”
- Oh, Edna’s gone. I didn’t care too much about that plotline. But: “Are we living under a curse, doomed to lose our ladies’ maids at regular intervals?”
- Poor Daisy. The problem with having a workplace crush in a grand house in 1923 is that the person you are crushing on will probably live with you for the rest of your life.
- A few romantic gems from Gillingham: “Don’t punish me for wanting to see you again,” and “But he’s dead and I’m alive. We’re good together, Mary.” At last, someone as bloodlessly practical as Mary!
- “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”
- “My goodness, that was strong talk for an Englishman.”