Many TV shows make the mistake of thinking that their series need to be packed full of plot points ("Downton Abbey" being among them - I refer you to Season Two for all the evidence you need). But when you've created a rich world populated by characters we have grown to care about, sometimes there's pleasure to be found in the simplest of things. This week, conversations between Matthew and Violet, Mrs. Hughes and Isobel, Matthew and Carson, were a few examples of how something so seemingly non-dramatic as an exchange can be great, rich storytelling.
Still, "Downton" loves to blow through its plots, which keeps the stakes low and very enjoyable, though not challenging. One of the reasons most of us probably like the show to begin with is that it's lush and lovely and, well, simple. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, people don't change and anything unpleasant is dealt with quickly. Take Bates and Anna for example. There are few things so painful as not hearing from someone you care about and not knowing why. Even on the simplest modern level, think of that unfortunate feeling of "but they haven't texted me back!"
But we knew why Bates and Anna weren't in communication even if they didn't, and within one hour the problem was solved for everyone. Anna didn't even have time to properly be upset over the lack of correspondence from her husband, and Bates surely didn't seem to bothered by it (just another chapter in "prison sucks" for him, I guess). It all tied up a little too neatly with quite a lot of conveniences, but is that a bad thing? Narratively it's not very interesting, but it also doesn't cause any stress (and writing this after that incredibly upsetting Falcon's playoff loss, I can say that sometimes a lack of tension is a really, really welcomed relief).
Still, though it may appear at first like not much happened in last night's hour, there were lots of small, fantastic character moments. Branson helping to burn a house down and abandoning Sybil to a later boat to flee Ireland was crazy and cowardly and soap operatic, but the other characters' reactions to it were great: Mary hiding Branson's secret at dinner but whispering it to her father, the Earl's indignation over the whole affair, Violet's quiet bemusement that such a hideous fortress was burned, regardless of why or by whom.
The same was true regarding the new staff members Downstairs, Jimmy and Ivy. Carson's reactions to Jimmy were the highlight of the night, particularly in his conversation with Mary and Matthew about how Alfred was ok "despite being Mrs. O'Brien's nephew," and pretending to not understand why the ladies preferred Jimmy.
"Downton Abbey" has always been about the confluence of opposites - social status (Upstairs vs Downstairs), personalities (Violet vs Isobel), and bigger issues like modernity vs. tradition - and those were on full display in this episode. Carson, the bastion of the Old Guard, is trying to keep things at bay but it thwarted even by the steady Mrs. Hughes with her electric toaster. Robert tries hard to hold on to the old ways, but is constantly fighting for the right - Matthew wants to modernize Downton, which it sorely needs, but Robert won't hear of it. Isobel, idealistic crusader that she is, invites a prostitute into her home and thinks she can still make a life for herself (which Mrs. Hughes, consummate realist, knows is probably not the case).
Modernity is creeping into Downton slowly, probably more slowly than the younger generation would care for, but it is still coming. Carson had more quips and one-liners than the Dowager Countess for once, in his open displeasure at the changes occurring around him (Matthew, meanwhile, stifles his questions as Robert hires another footman and maid with the wave of a hand). The family chides Branson's revolutionary tendencies, but still dine and chat with him.
It's not to get drawn into the melodrama of Ethel giving her child away to his grandparents, or Robert had to talk to the Home Secretary to assure that Branson and Sybil wouldn't be hunted down like dogs for Branson's political transgressions. But it's important to keep an eye on how the war has left the world changed - not as much as the war coming up - but enough to make revolutionaries even out of Edith and Matthew. Still, the old ways have a strong hold for now, and they are ever so pretty to watch without thinking too hard about them.
Next Week: Mrs. O'Brien looks to be ready to exploit the Old Ways if Thomas' affections for Jimmy cause his "preferences" to be called into question openly. Meanwhile, Edith becomes a writer, and Vera Bates' scheme is revealed.
Musings and Miscellanea:
- I really liked Matthew going to Violet for advice. I like it when two characters we don't see interact get time to chat. The conversation portends of much to come with the modernization of Downton, and Matthew's hand in it.
- "We all live in a harsh world, but at least I know I do" - Branson
- Carson was on fire with quotes last night. His intonations when he says things like "I shall do so then with a spring in my step" or "we are harboring a murderous revolutionary, could you have least have spared me [the electric toaster]?" and of course "hard work and diligence mean more than good looks in the real world," were perfect.
- The Daisy / Alfred story has been slowly playing out this season, and while I'm not sure she's really that interested in him, she's interested enough that his attentions being drawn to Ivy make her jealous and petulant.
- "No family is ever what they seem from the outside - Violet
- For those curious, Lady Gregory (which Robert accuses Sybil of becoming) was from a family who supported British rule of Ireland, but became an advocate of Irish freedom and of preserving Irish culture.
- "A guinea for scent? Was his wearing a mask and a gun?" - Violet
- Thomas has always been one of my favorite characters because he's one of the most nuanced of any on the show. His jealousy at Alfred getting helped was compounded by Carson saying all he had to do was ask. I don't know if Thomas felt that Carson disliked him too much to have extended that courtesy to him in the past or, more like, that he felt (with a chip on his shoulder) he wanted to prove and make his own way on his own. I felt sorry for him in that moment.
- The moral of the Bates plot this week is the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
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