I continue to be impressed by how much "Downton Abbey" has settled down this year and returned to what made its first season so great: family moments. Family, in this case, extends Upstairs and Down. Season Two seemed to fashion itself as a sweeping war epic, and while it was sweeping, in terms of epic or having much to do with war ... not so much. This current season has slowed down, both narratively and with its crazy time jumps (where no one ages - they should all be about 10 years older now, and yet...), and has benefitted immensely.
The plots remain sprawling (if not particularly scandalous), which is exactly what we want from the manor house. At this point in the series, I would think most viewers would just enjoy spending time in this world and with these characters - we don't need hyped-up drama (Branson helping to burn down a house) and ridiculously shoehorned affairs (Robert and Jane from last season, blech). The payoff will presumably be much more emotionally satisfying now for some of the slowly building story lines, like Matthew wishing to modernize the estate, Ethel becoming a real cook, the love triangle downstairs, Thomas and Jimmy's flirtation, Bates' return home, etc.
Though episodes like this one can feel fractured, with everyone going in different directions and doing their own thing, the main theme remains unshaken: It's Robert against the world. Upstairs, the Earl (like Carson Downstairs) cannot come to terms with a progressing world. The world changed hugely and forever after the Second World War, but after the First, things also really began to pick up speed, as industrialization began to bowl over the agrarian lifestyle of so many European nations, particularly England. As we are constantly reminded in the show, Downton's way of life won't last for much longer.
It's interesting how modern everyone else in the house is besides Robert and Carson, though. Perhaps one reason is that the uber-rich can afford to be a bit more liberal, since unlike the middle class (especially at that time), they have nothing to prove. This also relates to Thomas' relationship with Jimmy. It's my own presumption that Jimmy may be gay, but that he thwarts Thomas' advances because he doesn't want to be found out, seeing as so much of his popularity comes from female crushes on him. I could be completely wrong, but it's interesting that he fears the repercussions of being "found out," even in a house where Thomas' "eccentricity" (as it is plainly seen) is, if not completely accepted, at least wholly ignored. Still, Jimmy saying to O'Brien that he would go to the police shows how seriously he takes the suspicion, as society did as well.
In a parallel story, Ethel attempts to make a new life for herself, despite the apprehension of Carson and later Robert. Though the staff and the ladies of the house don't condone what Ethel did, they seem to be willing to put aside social mores to, as Mrs. Hughes comments, just be kind. Is it because they are changing with the times, or because Ethel is known to them? If Isobel had just taken in any woman of the night, would her reception have been so warm (or would she at least have been tolerated)?
In a way, though, the liberalism and progressive feelings of the characters can ring false. Suddenly everyone supports Branson, is down on the Church of England, is OK being served by prostitutes, etc? I'm not suggesting it's unbelievable in general, but that everyone should gang up so easily against Robert (when it used to be more of Isobel and Branson on one side, Robert and Carson on the other, with everyone else debating in between) seems a little too convenient.
Poor Robert. I never thought I would say that about the Flop of Grantham, but Hugh Bonneville played that moment perfectly after Cora excoriated Robert about Sybil's death, where he stifled a sob in the hallway. The same was true when he had a heartfelt moment with Mary about how much he misses sharing things with Sybil. It was Violet, with the aid of Clarkson, who in the end helped set things right between Cora and Robert, but the poor man did deserve some good news after having everything around him fall apart.
Mary was also a quiet hero, supporting Branson's desire to call the baby Sybil (not unusual in those days at all, especially if the mother died in childbirth), as well as The Catholic Question and also her sincere support of Anna regarding Bates. Mary has grown up a lot in the last few seasons, and her maturity is refreshing to watch.
Overall, a very satisfying episode in A Day In The Life At Downton, which is exactly what the show was always meant to be.
Next Week: Matthew and Robert butt heads again about the management of the estate, Bates returns, which causes valet drama, Edith meets with her editor, and things with Thomas and Jimmy take a turn.
Musings and Miscellanea:
- So, so happy the Bates crap is coming to an end. We knew it would, but in the meantime it has been interminable.
- Hmm, do I sense something happening regarding Branson's uncertain future and his knowledge of farming, something the estate needs ...?
- The Catholic talk Upstairs and Down was quotable for every single line. Great repartee among both tables.
- "You know the problem with you lot? You're all in love with the wrong people!" - Patmore
- Really liked them bringing back Mr. Mason and how he's adopted Daisy as his daughter. She would do well to get out of service, and I truly believe she's strong enough now to handle something like managing a farm.
- Clarkson: "I could never tell an outright lie!" Violet: "Have nothing in common?"
- Simple things like Patmore helping Ethel and the luncheon being a success are what make "Downton Abbey" so genial.
- "I am never against you, but you've lost on this one." - Mary to Robert
- Carson having a conniption over everything in this episode in parallel to Robert was great.
- I had to look up when Ivy says to Patmore, "A cat can look at a king." It's an old saying that means everyone is equal, and inferiors are allowed to have an interest in what their superiors are up to.
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