Downton Abbey: Week 5 in Review

NAVA BRAHE: Oh, the poor Crawley family. The fact that they had to make a show of it by keeping the stereotypical stiff upper lip in the face of Sybil’s death really got under my skin. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little keening or wailing under the circumstances: a 24 year-old girl is struck down in the prime of her life, leaving behind a grieving husband, family, and a newborn child (not to mention a houseful of well-meaning servants) who will never her know her, is deserving of some screaming, crying, and the flinging of breakable objects. Then again, I am not British, and I am sometimes known to wear my heart on my sleeve. Of course, in the best of British families, behavior like I just described would lead to banishment in the attic. Or, to one of the attics if you reside at Downton.

Episode 5 was akin to riding shotgun in a car with someone who drives with both feet. The emotional constipation exhibited by Robert and the Dowager made me queasy, as did Robert’s obstinate attitude towards baby Sybil being baptized in the Catholic faith. Ladies Mary and Edith continue to exhibit progression towards modernization by making peace with their sister’s life choices, but Robert’s behavior goes beyond the typical parental protective mode. It is clear that he is as eager to abide by his deceased daughter’s wishes, as he is to follow Matthew’s advice on how best to preserve his ancestral home. In many ways, you can’t blame him for his attitude. If you are a person who lives life believing it is God’s will that you are who you are, then there will be many realities you will have trouble facing. Robert’s behavior reminded me of Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, in Stephen Frears’ amazing movie. The Queen. If Elizabeth believed it was God’s will that she be queen, then why wouldn’t Robert believe it was God’s will that would see him through tough times? Anyway, I don’t want to delve into the religious aspect of it; from my perspective, there is much more to avoiding painful realities than simply hiding behind God.

Again, there were more conveniences written into the plotlines: Mrs. Bartlett somehow fessing up to her original story finally getting Mr. Bates sprung from prison; and the Countess getting Dr. Clarkson to convince Robert and Cora that the likelihood of Sybil surviving eclampsia was not very likely. Both storylines wrapped up very nicely with those two events, further illustrating the powers of persuasion the British gentry possessed. Or was it Julian Fellowes’ way of mocking the wealthy and their detachment from reality?

My favorite scenes in the episode involved Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore standing up to Mr. Carson as he attempted to berate Mrs. Patmore for coming to the aid of Ethel the prostitute-turned-cook. Second, it was wonderful how the Crawley ladies stood up to Robert en masse by refusing to leave Isobel’s home before finishing the lovely luncheon Ethel prepared for them. And finally, kudos to the Dowager Countess for uttering, “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding,” in the face of Robert’s harsh judgement of Ethel. In my opinion, that was the best food-related line of dialog since Anthony Soprano, Jr. exclaimed, “What, no fucking ziti?” upon hearing that he would not get to eat his grandmother’s baked ziti at his birthday party.

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: In echoing Nava’s observation of the emotional constipation of this episode, I found the stiffness in the days following Sybil’s death to be just fascinating to watch. Frustrating, of course, also from an American perspective, but at the same time I can completely imagine the benefits of holding one’s self together for the moment, then on one’s own, in a safe place, letting it all out. But the moments of letting down their emotional guards seemed to speak volumes. Elizabeth McGovern as Cora (probably because she, along with Branson, is not keeping it together for the sake of appearances as well as Lord Grantham or Ladies Mary and Edith) is becoming the most interesting character to watch for me. The intensity of her gaze at Dr. Clarkson in the Dowager Countess’s parlor was numbing and beautiful, punctuated by her mutual breakdown with Lord Grantham at realizing Sybil’s death could not have been prevented. It was a solid moment of emotional breakthrough for the two of them which, in recalling previous seasons having gone through it all from affairs to miscarriages to potentially fatal illness, puts them once more back together as a couple who truly loves each other.

Speaking of which, can we talk about Mary’s line to Matthew, “I don’t want to take ‘us’ for granted”? There has been some concern this season about a coldness from Mary, something that has kept her distanced and conservative in her emotions, particularly towards Matthew. And yet, in thinking of Sybil’s death and Branson’s recent status as a widower, she declares to Matthew something that we all have been speculating about: is she taking her new marriage for granted? Perhaps relying on it too strongly for her ascension to the role of Countess, and hence Lady of Downton? But I think that her feelings here were genuine in not wanting to lose Matthew, who reassures her that he will always love her. But, then again, that doesn’t really mean anything in the practical sense. I think that Lady Mary is grappling with her own fears following Sybil’s death, from children to marriage to how her family keeps peace within itself. Hoping these trials will allow for us to see more of her humanity.

I maintain that whenever we see Anna Bates with a huge smile on her face that something very very bad is going to happen. Her breaking the “much needed good news” of Bates’s release gives me that gut wrenching feeling from season two, where everything was so right then so wrong then so screwed up within the trajectory of about an episode and a half. I’m very glad Bates is coming back, for sure, but I don’t trust the length of this newfound elation at Downton for a second.

HOWARD MEGDAL: We tend to agree on these episodes broadly, so I’m surprised that I took so much more pleasure from this episode than any other this season, or apparently, than the two of you.

Listen, they are reserved in their grief. This isn’t a Neil Simon play; these aren’t the Jews of World War II-era New York. These are British aristocrats, and I’m pretty sure a more emotionally emotive set of responses would have run false.

Moreover, we had plenty of that in the last episode. This was about the quiet moments after Sybil has died, the funeral has come and gone, and now the family is to live with its grief. This felt pitch-perfect to me, and we didn’t need to jump through entirely too many plot-twists to get there.

This episode, for the first time since arguably, season one, allowed us to sit with the characters, let them breathe, let us breathe. Nothing really happened, other than the resolution of the Bates storyline (and Julian, you better not be jerking us around again, not so much for the sake of Bates, but because I’m not sure your own show can withstand being overwhelmed by it). My goodness, remember when Bates was a conflicted, complicated character allowed to do things other than sit aloft his miscarriage of justice cross? What a waste of Brendan Coyle this has been.

A couple of lines didn’t quite ring true for me- Mary talking about taking the marriage for granted was a necessary revelation, but the formulation felt a bit modern to me. And Carson saying “I am who I am” was a bit too Gloria Gaynor of him.

Let’s not forget to discuss Daisy’s big move from kitchen mouse to potential heiress. Her hesitation about it makes sense; truly, she seems to hesitate about everything (let’s not forget the hours we spent waiting for her to show a little bit of kindness to William). This takes the idea to its logical extreme: here Daisy, take a huge amount of money and property, and give up a job you hate watching people ignore you! What? You need to think about it?

I love the periodic return of Mr. Mason, however. He’s wise, he echoes William’s kindness as a kind of Yahrzeit candle to him (though he’d probably not use quite that phrase), and he sees long-term economic trends in a way Lord Grantham clearly doesn’t.

Oh, and someone needs to send Edith some Dorothy Parker clippings, stat. She’d be a perfect inspiration, and a contemporary!

About Sonia Brand-Fisher

My name is Sonia Brand-Fisher and I am a film studies major at Smith College. Interests include vintage film and fashion, fake-swing dancing to early Standards, cooking lavish meals that stem far outside of my culinary comfort zone, and musing over the implications behind all things aesthetically intriguing.
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