So wow, an episode I finally thought was okay. It speaks more to the mediocre season as a whole than to the quality of the episode because it’s still miles beneath the show’s peak seasons (the first and second), but still stuff happened, I laughed, I sympathized, I tutted with disapproval. All in all, a strong showing.
Two major stories unfolded in this episode: one, Downton Abbey is opened up to the public to raise money for that blasted hospital, and two, something interesting actually happens with regards to the hospital drama.
Opening Downton to the public seems like a no-brainer to us modern folks only because some of us remember traipsing about country estates on vacations. But in 1925, many folks were resisting such a move because it felt intrusive and undignified. And for many of the insulated gentry, the idea of having strangers stroll through one’s home was bizarre. As Robert groused, “What on earth can we show them to give them their money’s worth? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?” It’s unfathomable for Robert to picture people poking their noses in and being lookie loos, but it’s just another sign of changing times. In a few years, Downton will probably have to be open just to break even on its operating costs – something that Branson suggested later in the episode, only to be shut down by the whole family, especially an appalled Mary. Things aren’t so bad for the Granthams yet, so they can just shove that unpleasant thought to the way, way, way back of their minds. Though if Mary’s grandchildren will be lucky enough (?) to inherit Downton Abbey, it’s probable that they will open up the place to tourists.
What is also interesting about this story line is that it enforces just how idle and dim the Granthams can be. Despite their professed love of their estate – Mary especially gets high and mighty – they know precious little about their home. In the episode’s funniest sequence, we have tourists asking interesting, probing questions about the house’s history, only to be met with either blank stares or confused looks. When a tourist asks if the dining hall refectory is where the Abbey in Downton Abbey comes from, Cora answers with an OMG, “I guess so!” Only Moseley and Violet know enough about the house to look intelligent – Mary and Edith do worse than Cora and look like a couple of ninnies, especially Edith whose interpretation of a painting amounts to “They were all rather marvelous and sort of living that life.”
Robert’s sequestered in his bedroom, bedridden because of his recent blood explosion and is convalescing. A little boy wanders away from the tour and ends up in his house. Because I can’t keep track of kid actors, I thought maybe the kid was George, but he isn’t. Anyways, the kid’s precocious and asks all the right questions at the time: why do the Granthams live in a big ass castle, when they really don’t need all that space? It’s a question that approaches a Marxist interpretation of class differences – an innocent way of cutting through swaths of genteel puffery to get at the core of absurdity of aristocracy. I’ve been asking that a lot – not just when watching Downton Abbey, but MTV Cribs, or Super Sweet Sixteen, or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or any other exhibition of conspicuous and ridiculous wealth. Robert is honest and shrugs, telling the kid that they stay in the house because that’s what they do – that’s what they’re used to. It’s comfortable. It’s status quo.
The status quo is what keeps Violet afloat, and any changes that insert themselves into her life make her go nuts. That is the other major conflict of the episode, Violet being ousted as president of the hospital. What’s worse is that the person to replace her is Cora, who championed the merger and the hospital’s progress. It’s all done very indelicately, with Dr. Clarkson and Isobel cheering a hesitant Cora along. Poor Violet marches about Downton, unaware that a letter will arrive cutting her down to size. When she learns of her fate, it’s during one of the tours, and furious she marches into the sitting room while Cora’s trying to muster up some kind of intelligent monologue to entertain the guests. The guests get to watch an apoplectic Violet rage at Cora, with justification. It’s a sore spot between the two women who both are playing a tug-of-war with the role of matriarch of Downton, and Violet’s always most vulnerable when she’s facing a change. She feels betrayed – and with good reason. While the hospital tiff was boring as shit, I do feel bad for Violet, who sees her world changing and moving and she knows that the new world has little use for people like her.
Speaking of change, the downstairs folks of Downton also have to adapt to new life. Mrs. Patmore is becoming an entrepreneur, opening a guest house, installing a telephone, and putting in an ad in the newspaper. She’s also cautiously entering a romance with Mason, which leaves Daisy feeling nonplussed. Daisy’s always been a brat, even when we’re supposed to cheer for her. It’s not surprising, then, that she feels territorial about Mason, even if it’s someone as close to her as Mrs. Patmore. Her nastiness as well as the impotent ways in which Mrs. Hughes scolds her also shows just how much authority and respect has shifted and disintegrated since the beginning of the show. Daisy’s much more confident now – but despite her self-assurance, she still maintains her childish pettiness which is unfortunate.
The change in staff also affects Thomas, who’s been secretly tutoring Andy in the evening. Because they do it in secret, in the night, behind closed doors, with whispering, folks are starting to suspect something. And before you can say Three’s Company, a rumor springs up that Thomas and Andy are having an affair. When Carson confronts Thomas, the two have it out – and Thomas insists that Carson takes his word, which I found ridiculous. Despite any softening and change in Thomas’ behavior in the last couple seasons, we have to remember that this was the guy who tried to get people fired, he stole, he cheated, he lied, he blackmailed – for a minute, I thought he was insane, because it seemed like he couldn’t get past a day without doing some kind of fuckery – remember when he “lost” Isis on purpose so that he could find her? But then she was really lost? Or even in this season when he tried to “out” Gwen as a former housemaid to embarrass her. So when Thomas intones in an injured voice, “So my word is not good enough, Mr. Carson. After so many years.” I wanted to say, “Yeah, no duh.” The final image of Thomas weeping by himself was supposed to engender some kind of sympathy, but Julian Fellowes spent too much time making him a dastardly villain, twirling his mustache, as he tied women to train tracks. Yeah, he had moments – he and Sybil liked each other, and when he thought a guy was hot, he managed some kind of kindness, but over all, the guy’s a snake. The self-loathing of a closeted homosexual in 1920s England would make anyone an acrid character, but little has been done to ameliorate all of his bad deeds – even when he’s nice, like when he’s playing with the kids, like Mary, I assume it’s because he wants to curry favor with the family.
The other minor plots have Edith’s and Mary’s love lives go further. Edith’s is a bit blah, though he does finally meet Marigold (but she’s still introduced as a ward of Donwton). Mary is still struggling with her love for Henry, whose love for fast cars has her worried. Not much was given to these story arcs, but it gave further evidence of how little Branson has to do in his return to Downton. Now he’s essentially reduced to Mary’s pet gay boyfriend. He’s pushing the two to get together, despite her reticence. Mary and Branson have a nice little relationship and Michelle Dockery and Allen Leech have a nice chemistry, but his contribution to the stories is so inconsequential, that one wonders why did they bring him back, after all.
All in all, a surprisingly solid entry into a season that I found lacking.
- Mary’s painted-on mermaid dress was gorgeous and very risque – something Michelle Dockery could wear to a red carpet today.
- Speaking of Mary, she and Edith are still sniping at each other. It’s getting old. Both women are going to be staring down middle age soon, and what was silly in their teens will become sour and ridiculous in the 30s and 40s.
- Carson and Hughes are still having issues with their marriage – Carson won’t stop nitpicking Hughes’ housekeeping and cooking skills – and she’s seething at this point. I’m waiting for the moment when she kills him.
- Anna and Bates – the saga continues. Anna’s feeling pain during her pregnancy and is whisked off to London to see Mary’s star gynecologist, but before Bates needlessly insists that he pay for the bill – his pride, which we’re reminded of time and time again, is important to him. More important than his family’s financial security. As Mary said earlier in the season, Anna earned the right to see this great doctor through years of loyalty and service to Downton. Bates wants to be the man of the house or whatever. Anyways, nothing’s wrong, Anna’s fine.
- Mary’s suspicious of Marigold and is starting to Miss Marple around, hoping to figure out what is going on.
- Elizabeth McGovern had a lot to do in this episode, which is great. Besides looking gorgeous, she was able to be funny, touching, and sad. It’s a shame that so late in the game, Fellowes remembered just how fantastic she can be.
- The funniest line – again Violet’s – happens during the tour, when Mary is trying to think of interesting things to say about the library. When she presses a furious Violet about the fourth earl, who built the library, about his interests, the angry Dowager Countess hissed, “Horses and women.”
- The second funniest line – again Violet’s, on Downton Abbey: “Why would anyone pay to see a perfectly ordinary house?”