Lots of drama in last night’s Downton Abbey episode, most of it new: we saw the introduction of a number of new plot threads, and only minor advancement on older ones. We’ll get into the nitty-gritty after the jump: SPOILERS BELOW!
Tom and Sybil
Let’s start with the firebrand, shall we? We see a man running frantically in the rain. Edith receives a cryptic phone call from Sybil. Tom arrives in the middle of a fancy dinner (this week’s hoighty guest: the Archbishop of York, who amiably swaps anti-Catholic slurs with Lord Grantham). It seems our Tom has been attending secret meetings in Dublin, culminating in the burning down of a mansion belonging to some Anglo-Irish aristocracy. (Inspiring some of the Dowager Countess’s most acid comments yet — Edith: “What a tragedy!” Violet: “Well, yes and no. That house was hideous.”) The sight of the aristocrats and their children in despair as their home burns down provokes Tom to remorse, presumably because these hated English interlopers are not unlike his own new family. Indeed, Mary castigates him with the observation that she came out with the lady whose house he was complicit in torching. (Tom never admits to actually being involved with starting the fire, but he says he was present, and implies that he was on board until he witnessed the family’s pain.)
The entire Crawley family is disgusted at Tom for leaving Sybil to flee Ireland on her own — there is some concern that she herself will be arrested or taken in for questioning. But Sybil arrives at Downton safely the next morning, and the news that Tom attended these Dublin meetings seems to come as a nasty shock to her. Lord Grantham heads to London to speak to the Home Secretary — Tom is not above receiving help from the English government to keep himself out of jail — and returns with the announcement, dripping with scorn, that Tom’s neck is saved but he is forbidden to ever return to Ireland.
It seems part of the reason the authorities were willing to cut Tom a break is the concern that Sybil might turn firebrand herself: “Why are Irish rebels so well born?” laments the Dowager Countess, referring to the Countess Markievicz and Lady Gregory, partcipants in the Easter Rising of 1916, and Maude Gonne, English-born advocate for Irish nationalism (and muse of William Butler Yeats).
At the thought of being banned from his beloved homeland, Tom is stricken to the core. It’ll be interesting to see which side of him wins out now: the part that wants to stay a free man, or the revolutionary. He sheds a lot of tears in this episode, tears of shame over having had to abandon Sybil, I think. Shame was a quiet undercurrent this week — it appears as a theme in the Ethel thread, too — and for me the most interesting part of the Tom plot was watching him cope with the knowledge that he had disgraced himself. It didn’t stop him from bullying Sybil, though, and I have to say I’m finding him less and less sympathetic a character as the weeks go by. “You’re very free with your musts,” he barks at Sybil when she is trying to get him to see reason — they must stay at Downton, the baby must be born there. When Tom is a good guy, he’s a great guy, and when he’s not, he’s horrible.
Matthew and Mary
Mary’s busy turning the nursery into a sitting room, seemingly oblivious to Matthew’s hints that he’d love to see it used as a, you know, nursery in the near future. Potential conflict brewing there? Mary is clearly in no hurry to start a family. Mary urges Matthew to get more involved in the running of the estate, now that he has invested the Swire fortune in it. Matthew dutifully dives into the account books and discovers a long-running pattern of mismanagement — rents unpaid, rents too low, inadequate maintenance scheme, lots of waste. Robert, after spending two full seasons expounding on Downton as His Life’s Work, shows little interest in discussing details, brushing Matthew off with featherheaded remarks about paperwork. Is it just me, or does this feel like convenient plotting? Or does it fit Robert’s character to be focused on some ideal of the Estate as Noble Calling without tuning in on a practical level in any way? What exactly has he been doing all this time? He resented being made a figurehead during the war, but has he been a figurehead Earl?
Matthew, frustrated by the stonewalling, turns to the person everyone turns to sooner or later: Granny. Who doesn’t bat an eyelash at the notion that Downton is being mismanaged. Matthew mumbles perplexedly: he feels a duty to improve matters but doesn’t want to put anyone’s nose out of joint. Violet, matter-of-factly: “Oh, my dear. Oh, I doubt there is a way to achieve that. I mean, you must do what needs to be done, of course, but…oh, I think I can safely say a great many noses will be out of joint.” But it’s clear he has her blessing. Have at it, Matthew.
The New Footman
Summary: Carson finally wrangles approval to get the second footman he’s been short since the war. Thomas: Kneejerk disapproval. Footman: I’m a looker! Thomas: Well, hello!
So we’ve got a winsome, gaspingly goodlooking young Jimmy (make it JAMES, Carson orders) melting hearts right and left. “Well done, Carson,” applauds Mary. Carson, who has been coaching Alfred on the finer points of cutlery, grizzles and glowers: in his book, “hard work and diligence weigh more than beauty.” (“If only that were true in the real world,” sighs Violet.) Jimmy-James is a bit too confident and familiar for Carson’s taste — he speaks too chummily of his former employer — and Alfred, having finally conquered the elusive bouillon spoon, is anxious to establish a hierarchy.
The New Kitchenmaid
The moral of this plotline is: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. Daisy continues her bitter mutterings about not getting another kitchenmaid, and then voila, enter new kitchenmaid, just at the wrong time. Daisy, having received William’s father’s blessing to get on with her life and find a new fella, is about to confess her feelings to Alfred when pretty Ivy appears on the scene. And Daisy is awful to her: “We don’t have to be friends.” I’m really hoping for some positive character growth in Daisy soon; it’s depressing to see her getting nastier and nastier as the weeks go by.
Now here’s a character whose growth I have really enjoyed. She’s gone from despicable to admirable, and I loved her venture into editorial-writing this week. There’s excellent plot potential there, and I particularly like how she has grown into the suffragist views she holds so strongly — she mocked Sybil’s early votes-for-women efforts, but now Edith is older, wiser, more insightful, and somehow, despite her deep personal pain over Sir Anthony’s jilting, less inwardly-focused. The powers of sympathy and competence she developed during the war are now maturing into actual kindness. Mary’s character seems regressive to me, or at least stagnant — it was a real disappointment this week to see Mary being as snippy and dismissive of Matthew’s concerns as ever. Her character arc is a flatline. Edith is on a much better trajectory.
Matthew: Well done. That’s most impressive.
Robert: Don’t say you support her.
Matthew: Of course I support her. And so do you, really…when you’ve…had a chance to think about it.
Carson: [strangled noise in background]
Ethel and Isobel
Ethel reaches out to Mrs. Hughes, asking for an audience with her son’s grandparents. She intends to give the boy to them to raise, even though she knows it means cutting all ties with him forever. Her heart is breaking, it’s horrible, but she wants him to have the best possible chance in life. Isobel tries to convince her there are other options — the Bryants unexpectedly offer her money so that she won’t have to continue as a prostitute (this is delivered with a cruel jab from Major Bryant), but Ethel holds to her plan. It’s clear Mrs. Hughes approves, but Isobel is crushed. She thinks it’s a mistake, but she’s left speechless when Ethel points out that of course Isobel wanted the best school and university for her own son. Isobel’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, serves as a harsh example of the censure Ethel, and by extension her boy, will always face from society, no matter what help Isobel is capable of offering. Isobel is powerless even to dial down her own housekeeper’s insults (“I do not believe it is part of my duties to wait on the likes of her”), and so, when it comes to the moment of decision, Isobel is mute, and Ethel lets her son go.
“I give you my blessings for your whole life long, my darling boy.” Did you cry? I cried.
Anna and Bates
My inner Miss Marple had to be content with her knitting last night: no new developments in Anna’s sleuthing activities. I’ll just have to keep obsessing about phosphorescent breath and gaslamp halos (see last week’s comments) for another week, I guess. Instead, we open with poor Anna suffering at a total lack of communication from Mr. Bates: he has stopped answering her letters and she’s informed that no visitors are allowed. She’s afraid he’s being gallant, trying to persuade her to move on with her life. But up in prison, Bates is in the same boat: not a word from Anna, and he fears she might have given up on him. Rest easy, Mr. Bates, that’s not at all Anna’s style. Turns out our Mr. Bates landed himself in the doghouse with the warden — something to do with foiling last week’s attempt to plant contraband in his bunk — and this week, thanks again to a tip from that helpful prisoner who has a beef with Bates’s cellmate, Bates turns the tables on the cellmate with the old Contraband Frameup trick. Bates’s gambit comes off more successfully than cellmate Craig’s, and now it’s Craig in the doghouse. The single best moment in the entire episode was the look on Bates’s face when he realized the real reason for Anna’s silence: his temporary “dangerous prisoner” status meant all communications were being withheld. Now that he’s restored to good favor (for the moment), he is rewarded with a stack of letters, several weeks’ worth, and a corresponding pile (so to speak) is bestowed upon Anna. And so we end in an unexpectedly rosy glow: the faithful pair smiling and laughing over each other’s long-awaited missives.
So what did you think about this episode? Best moment? Favorite lines?
My vote goes to Carson, re the housekeeper’s new electric toaster. “Is it not enough that we’re sheltering a dangerous revolutionary, Mrs Hughes? Could you not have spared me that?”