SONIA BRAND-FISHER: This week’s double dose of “Downton Abbey” was one of the best episodes (well, technically two best) that I have seen this season. Minus the pointlessness of Cousin Rose (seriously, I don’t want to know what they’re going to do with her thoroughly obnoxious character) despite introducing us awkwardly to the fabulous underground party world of London in the 1920s, many very interesting story points were introduced. Characters often stuck in their ways proved to have more complexity than their starched exteriors often allow. Relationships developed and grew with a surprising level of intimacy, trust, and knowledge. And finally, we got to see Carson playing cricket. With so much to possibly focus on in this episode, I’m going to tackle a few points that I have been particularly interested in all season.
Thomas. The servant you love to hate to love to hate to love. Thomas, for me, has represented so many levels of pathos that it might be easy for many to write him off as a figure of melodrama. However, he demonstrates for me what is an essential component of the social, political, class-conscious world of Downton; he is a practitioner of the “unthinkable.” Before the war, he was boldly attempting to form romantic liaisons with various aristocratic male guests (once succeeding). He smoothly enjoyed (and still does) manipulating members of the servants’ hall, taking his actions to the next level every time, whether it’s by sabotaging Mr. Bates, O’Brien, or himself. He purposely wounded his hand in the war so he would be able to come back to Downton and avoid a fate worse than a hand wound. And at the culmination of all of these events, he freaks out, violently, angrily, and often quite helplessly. The frustration of Thomas clearly propels him to keep pushing the envelope for the sake of finding happiness inside. This event with James we could see coming, but the scene preceding the incident, that showed Thomas pacing in his tiny room, thinking, hoping, struggling, convincing himself, I found to be incredibly moving, because it did not feel out of the ordinary for Thomas. It was ritualistic, and hence more troublesome. And then, in the days following, like so many other times he has been wounded in this way, he tries to make things right, tries to be unobtrusive. When Kieran Branson arrived, he was laughing at his antics along with everyone else.
But everyones’ reaction to the incident, who knew of the exact discourses, I found to be shocking. Beautiful, in many ways, yes, but I wonder if they were realistic for the time period? Either way, everyone from Lord Grantham to Carson to Bates seemed to have an unusual amount of sympathy for Thomas, regardless of his often unpleasant and scheming demeanor. No one was really very surprised at Thomas being outed, which may speak to everyone’s sympathy. It made me think about the secrets that circulate around Downton from season to season, and the importance of avoiding a scandal at all costs. Last week, the Dowager Countess refused to make a scene at Isobel’s over Ethel’s position there. Suddenly, the Dowager (albiet, for her own “Machiavellian” motives) supports Edith’s newspaper column. A part of me doesn’t want to believe that the kindness and understanding surrounding Thomas’s outing is only for the purposes of avoiding scandal. The reference to Oscar Wilde by O’Brien (snarky on her part, yes, but nonetheless relevant and reverent for a modern audience) brings to light the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, though one would, perhaps, assume that the aristocracy and those serving it would be less patient with an alternative sexual lifestyle (or an attempt at one) than was legal. But this reaction seems to speak to an understanding of a very private and very delicate matter, which at Downton is expected to be handled with the utmost etiquette and dignity. Thomas is not “foul,” nor is he “beaten,” but exposed and made vulnerable in a way that he is all too familiar with.
Oh that cricket game. I cannot begin to understand what made me so happy about everyone in their sporting whites drinking tea and watching the likes of Carson, Thomas, Mosely, Lord Grantham, Matthew, and Branson (I’m still having trouble calling him “Tom,” just because I’m so used to him being “Branson,” so I’m with the Dowager on this one) all run around and play and shake hands with each other. To quote “The Philadelphia Story,” “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the sight of the privileged class enjoying its’ privileges.” Said tongue-and-cheek of course, but the same principle somehow applied to that cricket scene. Was it the tea? Was it the pearls? Was it Mary and baby Sybil? Was it the lovey-dovey nature between the family and the servants? Was it because it all felt so rare an occasion, or because, at Downton, it didn’t really feel that rare at all? Who knows? But all I know is I want more cricket games in the future.
NAVA BRAHE: Since Sonia tackled the Thomas issue in such depth, all I will add is that Lord Grantham’s admission of having to rebuff what sounded like countless advances from his Eton classmates, sounded rather hollow. You would think that a man of his standing would be more homophobic than he was portrayed, especially given his resistance to change.
The storyline I most enjoyed through both episodes was Robert Crawley’s discomfort over the changes taking place at his beloved Downton, along with his desperate attempt to keep things status quo. I really admire Matthew and Branson (I’m with Sonia on this one!) for standing up to him, especially Branson, who even though he transcended class via marriage, has been able to adapt, despite his original stance as a socialist revolutionary. I admire his ability to grow up and realize that not only is Downton his daughter’s legacy, it has become his as well. Of course, the women had to exert the only power they had back then, which was to gently cajole the men into doing the right thing.
The one point of historical reference that sent a chill down my spine was when Robert went on about the high-yield “schemes” he’d heard about, particularly the one by Charles Ponzi. I wondered if Julian Fellowes deliberately included that as a dig towards all the Americans who got taken by Ponzi – and in essence – Bernard Madoff – or, if it was meant as the last nail in the coffin of Robert’s obstinate attitude. It makes for a better storyline to see Downton change with the times, as opposed to going on as if the post-war world had remained the same. From the looks of it, the Great Depression will have to be written in at some point, so it will be interesting to see how Fellowes depicts its effect on the Crawley family, their staff, and the estate.
For me, the house/village cricket game was reminiscent of a corporate softball game I participated in years ago. We weren’t quite as elegant or refined, but the idea of the gentry mingling with staff and villagers is not all that different from corporate management getting down and dirty with the peons. You rub shoulders for a few hours, then everyone returns to their assigned stations. It is a necessary ritual, albeit one that carries with it a certain level of discomfort. If you screw up on the field of play, as Molesley did after he talked such a good game, how will it affect your standing in the real world?
The cousin Rose storyline, along with Edith’s encounter with her new editor, seemed superfluous and boring. Is Rose meant to be the anti-Sybil; what we thought Sybil was going to turn into instead of what she actually became, or is she just a frivolous diversion? Of course, Edith has to meet up with another unavailable man, only this one, like Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester, has a crazy wife locked away in the attic – er, asylum. Poor Edith just can’t catch a break.
Lastly, the Dowager’s Ethel flip-flop came as no surprise. She and Cousin Isobel’s rivalry is at once amusing and intriguing, because we never know where it will take us. At first, I was more sympathetic towards the Dowager, since Isobel was portrayed as pushy and nouveau riche. Now, my sympathies lie more with Isobel, as she seems to have grown into her role in the Crawley family, without coming across so shrill and ambitious.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I think of Cousin Rose as the lone blemish on an otherwise delightful Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes has birthed many characters we adore; indeed, it is their company I believe so many of us who watch Downton Abbey are seeking out, not some new plot twist.
Basically, Cousin Rose felt like an excuse for a single shot: of Matthew, Edith and Rosemund entering the jazz club. That’s a ton of wasted screen time for a single visual joke.
But truly, watching Bates putting his life back together, Thomas fight for his, and the eloquent way the two paths intersected was interesting enough as plot and a perfect vehicle for us to partake deeply in the downstairs crew. I particularly like the extent to which Mrs. Hughes feels more comfortable half-jokingly chiding Carson for being Carson. And I adore seeing Ms. O’Brien consistently press her advantages, letting her bitterness turn victory into defeat.
I thought the Ponzi reference was less of a shot at modern Americans, and more for Fellowes to make it clear: Lord Grantham knows about having money, but he hasn’t the first idea about how to make it. And Molesley can talk cricket, just not play it. Am I the only one who hoped, desperately, that he’d star?
But between getting our moments with Anna and Bates in their new cottage, or even the rekindling of Matthew and Mary, complete with the best Lady Mary line of the season, “You’ll make me untidy”, this episode gave closure in every significant way but one: who won the damn cricket match?!?