You don’t mind if I blubber all over my keyboard, do you? That last scene really got me. But let’s begin at the beginning, which is, as always, the spoiler warning. If you aren’t caught up to Season 3, Episode 5, proceed at your own risk.
What struck me in the opening shot was how huge and stark a shadow Downton Abbey casts. As the last automobiles pull away from the house after Sybil’s funeral, we’re left looking at Carson and Lord Grantham, tiny figures in the mansion’s gloomy shade: a beautiful image, reminding us not only of the weight of sorrow over the household, but the burden Robert and Carson, each in his own way, shoulder in their relationship to this vast edifice, and how insignificant each of them is to halt the forces of change — both good and bad — sweeping across England at this moment in time.
“My wife is dead. I’m past help.”
Inside, the family is in post-funeral silence, sunken in grief. Tom’s heartbreak is deeply moving, and I’m sorry to say that I’m finding him far more likable as Sybil’s widower than as her husband. Cora remains icy to Robert; everyone can see there is serious trouble between them. Cora looks older, shattered. “When one loses a child, is it ever really over?” she wonders, and the pain in her eyes is terrible to witness.
All over the house, and indeed in Crawley House as well, it’s the same — no one can quite wrap their heads around it yet. Sybil is gone.
“So nice of you to say ‘we.'”
The attorney hasn’t yet spoken to Mrs. Bartlett, so Anna has no real progress on the Bates case to report to Mary, who’s as frustrated as the rest of us by how slowly this plot is unfolding. But Mary is hopeful: This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Anna’s chin quivers. It’s a very sweet moment between the two of them: Anna is so grateful that Mary sees this as a “we” situation, not a “you servants.” I loved this moment with Mary, because she responds as if it’s something that’s a given — that Bates and Anna’s interests are as important to the family as their own. Mary is finally climbing outside her own head, and by the end of the episode she’ll be the one I’m cheering the hardest.
“I’d rather sleep alone for a while yet.”
Cora’s not ready to forgive Robert yet, and things look very rocky indeed for their marriage. Robert keeps trying, clumsily, to reach out, to apologize, to bridge the chasm between them, but Cora doesn’t want it bridged. She’s too angry and heartbroken. Her words are knives. This painful scene is one of many in this episode (and indeed, in this whole season, and going back all the way to last season’s War) in which Robert is confronted with his own total absence of agency. He wants to make something happen, but he is powerless to — whether it’s to save his daughter’s life, to reconcile with his wife, to see his grandchild raised in the Church of England — and on and on. It’s been a hard few years for Lord Grantham. I’m reminded again of his tiny figure outside in the shadow of the great house.
“Very painful at first, but I think it’s right.”
At breakfast the next morning, Lord Grantham learns that Tom intends to name the baby Sybil, after her mother, and to raise her as a Catholic. When confronted with his own powerlessness in a matter concerning a son-in-law or child, Robert is apt to fume and bluster, unlike the gentle deference he displays toward Cora. But Tom keeps his cool remarkably well here, quietly insisting that his daughter will be Catholic like her father.
“People like us are never unhappily married.”
Later, Violet urges Robert to consider his granddaughter: his relationship with Tom will influence how much influence the family has on her upbringing. Violet has relationships on her mind; she probes a little about Cora. She does not want Robert to allow himself even to think of his marriage being troubled; when couples “like us” are unable to reconcile marital difficulties, she murmurs, they are simply “unable to see as much of each other as we would like.” Perhaps Cora should take a trip to New York to see “that woman” — that is, her mother.
(Often when the Dowager Countess comes out with one of her outrageous utterances, it’s clear she’s doing it for her own entertainment, or to get a reaction from someone. What I loved about that line was that it wasn’t meant to be barbed at all — it’s simply how she thinks of Martha. “That woman.”)
“You know the problem with you, you’re all in love with the wrong people!”
With so much pain in the air, I found it hard to care much about the awkward love triangle — er, rectangle — er, pentagon if we’re counting Thomas — down in the kitchen. Daisy likes Alfred. Alfred likes Ivy. Ivy likes Jimmy. Jimmy likes himself, as far as I can tell. Thomas likes Jimmy and his advances are making Jimmy-James mighty uncomfortable. Ivy is rouging her cheeks. Alfred’s trying to learn the foxtrot. Mrs. Patmore sums it all up quite nicely. They’re all in love with the wrong people. But Daisy’s got something to take her mind off the Alfred disappointment: her kindly father-in-law wants to leave her his farm. Wants her to leave service, in fact, and come live with him to learn the ropes of managing a successful tenancy. He paints an appealing picture; Daisy could sell jams and breads in the market, could be mistress of her own kitchen. Daisy, unsurprisingly, is shell-shocked by this possibility. I’m sure it would be a lot to take in, for a girl in her situation. She, too, is a character who has consistently lacked agency; Daisy finds herself in one awkward situation after another and is generally baffled as to what kind of action to take. Her nasty remarks to Ivy are almost the only thing she’s ever done without being nudged. (The quick and fateful kiss on the cheek she gave William, way back before the war, was another.)
Mrs. Patmore, hearing about Mr. Mason’s offer, seems a bit sad to think Daisy might leave. But I for one would be very interested to see if she can thrive — and mature at last — in a new life as farmer-in-training. I certainly don’t want her to waste any more time on Alfred. He’s not such a nice guy, really.
“Anyone who has use of their limbs can make a salmon mousse.”
Of course, Mrs. Patmore has reason to know how really capable Daisy is in the kitchen, compared to other people — like, say, Ethel. Poor Ethel, still causing Isobel to make strained faces at the dinner table. Isobel wants to invite the ladies of Downton over for a meal, but she’d rather Ethel didn’t cook. Ham and salad will suffice. Naturally, Isobel runs straight to Mrs. Patmore for help planning a nice homecooked meal of — not ham and salad. Mrs. P. takes some persuading; Carson has forbidden the staff to have anything to do with Ethel, or even to set foot in Crawley House, but Ethel persuades her. Next thing you know, Mrs. Patmore is suggesting a menu of salmon mousse.
Of course she is eventually busted by Carson, seen leaving the forbidden house. Carson and Mrs. Hughes confront her, but Mrs. Hughes is somewhat milder on the whole subject. Carson is appalled — consorting with a former prostitute, it really is unthinkable to him — and his wrath is an echo of what Lord Grantham is feeling in his own confrontations during these couple of days. To Carson it feels as if the firm foundations are crumbling. Downton ways are changing, and not for the better, in his opinion — and there’s little he can do about it. This theme was hammered home for us this week: old Mr. Mason asks Daisy if she really thinks “these great houses” will be around for the next forty years of her working life.
“You are always flabbergasted by the unconventional.”
The family invites Mr. Travis, the vicar, over for dinner, presumably hoping Tom will change his mind about that whole Catholic thing. Not a chance. Tip: If you’re hoping to convert someone, calling his religion “pagan folderol” is not your best opening gambit. Next thing Mr. Travis knows, he’s got almost the entire family siding with the Catholics: is he suggesting, Tom wonders, that God does not smile upon France and Italy? Or, chimes in Edith, all of South America and Portugal? Or, adds Mary, the Russians, the Spaniards? Matthew throws in the Indian subcontinent and even Violet cannot resist invoking the might of the British Empire. It’s Mr. Travis they’re jabbing, but Robert is the one who feels the blows: they are all siding against him, it seems, in the matter of Sybil’s daughter’s upbringing.
And then Mary puts the matter to rest. It was Sybil’s wish, she says, that her baby be baptized into the Catholic Church. Robert is completely stunned by this, powerless again — to resist, or even to speak.
“Seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.”
The next day finds the Downton ladies enjoying what turns out to be a very respectable meal. It’s right about this time that Carson informs his lordship of the disgraceful background of Isobel’s cook. Robert, whose powerlessness in seemingly all important matters has been torturing him throughout the episode (didn’t help that Matthew finally blurted out something about the estate’s “bad management”), finally displays some agency. Unfortunately, the action he chooses is to burst into the luncheon, inform the ladies the food was cooked by a prostitute, and order them to march home. Ethel arrives in the room with dessert in the middle of his tirade and knows instantly that she’s the cause.
But the women don’t budge. And I ached for Robert, as rude and wrong as his behavior was — already estranged from Cora, the gap between them widening, feeling like his girls and even his mother, his mother!, are siding against him — he is helpless once again.
“Lie is so unmusical a word.”
But there is one member of the family who has agency aplenty, and that, it turns out, is the Dowager Countess. I’ve been thinking about how many surprises she has slipped us this season — how many quiet steps she has taken to galvanize action. She paid for Sybil and Tom to come over for Mary’s wedding. She stepped up to the altar and insisted that Sir Anthony be allowed to go ahead with his jilting. And now here is calling a private conference with Dr. Clarkson, persuading him to speak to Robert and Cora about the very real possibility that Sybil would have died even if the family had followed Clarkson’s advice regarding an emergency Caesarean. Clarkson is hesitant at first: he cannot, of course, lie. But he promises to look at the research, to honestly investigate Sybil’s odds of survival. With the result that Cora and Robert are summoned to Violet’s home, where Dr. Clarkson soberly informs them that Sybil was probably going to die no matter what. However, he points out, Sir Philip Tapsell “ignored evidence” and in an arrogant manner, at that — and I was glad for that outburst, because I don’t think Clarkson could have lived with himself if he hadn’t said it. But his words about Sybil have exactly the effect Violet was hoping for. Cora turns to Robert, weeping. He rushes to her, embraces her, breaks into sobs. They’ll be okay. The chasm is bridged.
And Violet, turning away, leaning heavily on a cabinet for support, stands alone.
I’ll leave the Mr. Bates thread for you to discuss (think he’ll really be released in a couple of weeks? I’m not holding my breath — but then again, I was convinced Mrs. Hughes’s tumor wasn’t really benign, so what do I know), and anything else you like. Mary, too! I said at the top that by the end, she was the character I was cheering for the hardest. Her final scene with Matthew was quite touching: her desperate sense that they must cherish the present moment, take nothing for granted. Mary has been taking everything for granted her whole life. I hope this new Mary sticks around. New Edith has certainly become a person worth knowing.
If you can’t bear the wait to find out what happens next, Downton Abbey Season 3 is now available on Blu-ray/DVD via PBS.