There are plenty of stories on tonight’s Downton Abbey, but Edith’s and Thomas’ are the most immediate and compelling. Thomas abandoning his bogus therapy and Lady Edith’s flight from the estate may not seem to have much in common, but they’re both about people turning away from social dictates to strike a new path.
It’s horses for courses, as the saying goes: The race goes not just to the swiftest, but to the one suited to the terrain. Choosing your course wisely makes the most of your nature and your needs.
Thomas’ story is an ending to the self-inflicted pain of quack aversion therapy, and maybe to the shame that drove him to such desperate devices. Dr. Clarkson’s advice—to “accept the burden that chance has seen fit to lay upon you, and to fashion as good a life as you are able”—is appropriate for the situation and time, but it’s sound advice for many people, no matter their circumstances.
It’s Baxter who plucks my heartstrings, and Thomas’. He thinks if she knew him—what he’s done, who he is—she’d abandon him to his misery. But she does know, and she doesn’t care. She admires his bravery and determination. “Think what you could do in this world if you just set your mind to it.” He expects contempt; she offers compassion.
In her grief, Edith expects compassion, but often faces something suspiciously like contempt. This episode brings a resurgence of ill will between sisters, with Mary heaping scorn on her newly bereaved sister. The day after they learn of Michael Gregson’s death, Mary gathers family and guests to admire her new shingle bob. She swans in, fishing for compliments, and answers Edith’s (perhaps unfair but understandable) outrage with a tart “you usually spoil everything.” Nobody defends or comforts Edith during this upset; on the contrary, Cora defends Mary.
Edith could learn from Clarkson’s last words to Thomas Barrow: “Remember, harsh reality is always better than false hope.” She’s galvanized by Michael’s death, and perhaps by her family’s reaction: They speak of their sorrow and sympathy, but we barely see a hint of it expressed to her.
Thomas’ story is an ending, but Edith’s is a beginning. A few episodes ago, she challenged her grandmama, asking whether disowning Marigold was in Edith’s best interests or the family’s. Violet doesn’t hesitate. “To me, they are the same.” But Edith has slowly awakened to the possibility that they aren’t the same, that her best interests lie outside Downton Abbey.
She carries off Marigold from Yew Tree Farm, confirming Mrs. Drewe’s worst fears, and takes her to London, where she promises the unresponsive child ice cream and champagne so they can be “as jolly as we like.” Marigold’s scant eye contact is perfectly natural for a child to give an occasional caregiver, but it isn’t very jolly.
Downton Abbey’s direction and cinematography usually handle mirrors with discreet finesse, so it doesn’t seem accidental that the hotel mirror reflects only Edith; Marigold’s reflection is cut off by the frame. It’s a subtle hint at the distance between them. Edith has chosen her course, sacrificing the home and life she knows to claim a child she doesn’t.
The birth certificate Edith shows Mrs. Drewe is more than proof of maternity. It’s a sign of premeditation. Aunt Rosamund wanted her to give a false name, but Edith refused: “I knew I might need proof.” From the day of Marigold’s birth, Edith made a contingency plan in case she decided to reclaim her daughter.
Bates calls the ticket he carried in his coat pocket “a talisman,” and that’s what it was: a token to stave off disaster. It was a contingency plan, a piece of insurance. It’s a flimsy thing to hang a man’s life on, and I say “hang” advisedly. The unused ticket is often invoked in mystery novels of the period, but it’s scant evidence to keep a convicted murderer out of the dock (and off the gallows), even with that prior conviction overturned.
Bates thinks Anna has a contingency plan of her own, and he’s more heartsick and angry over it than over the loss of his life-saving ticket. Once he unburdens himself, it’s easy to see why. He believes his wife uses that “cunning piece of equipment to ensure there would be no Baby Bates” because she doesn’t want to bear the child of a murderer.
Mary sets up a little contingency plan, too. Asking Anna if she looks “rather frumpy,” she smartens up before Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake arrive, to “remind them of what they’re missing.” (Anna’s “You’d never be that heartless” only suggests to me that Anna’s never met Mary, especially since it comes seconds after Mary cracks a series of jokes over Gregson’s death.) Mabel Lane Fox points out that a woman resigned to spurning Tony wouldn’t show up “looking like a cross between a Vogue fashion plate and a case of dynamite.”
It’s horses for courses: Mary might be a better catch, but Tony would be better off with Mabel. “I know how to make him happy, and I certainly love him more than you do,” Mabel says, and Mary concedes, “That’s all true.” Charles Blake has been working behind the scenes to throw Mabel and Tony together, but Mary’s not helping. “I don’t believe in letting people win,” she tells Charles—on the course and off it.
Perhaps my favorite moment in this episode isn’t even in the episode: It’s the realization that when Edith’s real news comes to light, Mary—who fancies herself a rebel, who crows that her father “will explode” upon seeing her haircut—will see what a real explosion looks like. In the race to rebellion, Edith is a dark horse indeed.
- If, as it appears, Green just happened to die the day Bates intended to murder him, that’s more than contrived; it’s preposterous.
- “If you can honestly say you have never let a flirtation get out of hand since we married, if you have never given a woman the wrong impression, then by all means stay away. Otherwise, I expect you back in my room tonight.” Cora’s speech to Robert is delivered from the spot where Robert pulled Jane into his room.
- Molesley’s childhood dream of becoming a teacher, and his memory of that hope eroding under the pressures of poverty and family illness, broke my heart for him, as did his offer to tutor Daisy in history, “to make sure somebody got away.”
- Carson’s proposal to Mrs. Hughes is more than an investment proposal, and her smile as she turns back to her desk shows it…
- … while Violet quashes Prince Kuragin’s passion: “I wanted you from the moment I first saw you, more than mortal man ever wanted woman.” “That is an historical detail.”
- Everything about the race scene foreshadows an accident that never occurs, from the establishing shot in which a rider falls from his mount to the tense action shots of the hedge as Mary skirts over it. Mary tells Miss Lane Fox that she’s “dying to ride astride,” and Cora counters Isobel’s admiration of Mary’s “crazy” adventures with the reminder that adventures are fine, “as long as you survive them.”
- Cora’s worried about Isis, who’s “quite listless,” and Mary points out “she’s quite fat.” That sounds like a dire combination for a dog who’s been around—and full-grown—since at least 1912. Update: A commenter points out, quite correctly, that Isis was preceded in season one by Pharoah, which means she’s only been around and full-grown since 1916 or so.