American audiences got another supersized episode of Downton Abbey this week: episodes six and seven of the U.K. series were rolled into one. Long episodes make for short recaps (pretty sure there’s an axiom for this), because there’s way too much ground to cover to tackle it scene by scene. So this week, let’s dive straight into discussion, shall we?
Anna and Bates
It was the moment we’ve all been waiting for — waiting so long, in fact, I’d just about given up hope the plotline would ever resolve. Bates is free. After all the nailbiting earlier in the season, the offstage resolution to his problem last week (Mrs. Bartlett coughs up her exculpatory testimony) felt a bit anticlimactic. After all those dreary prisonyard scenes I was ready for a giant hullabaloo over Bates’s release. Instead we got a quiet and sweet reunion with Anna. At least the family sent the car to pick him up.
Confession: I was sorry to see Bates back in his trademark bowler. He’s so much twinklier with his prison hair rakishly falling over his forehead. (My favorite Brendan Coyle role is Robert Timmins in Lark Rise to Candleford, who had both the mussed hair and the twinkle.)
So Bates’s suddenly smooth return to the household didn’t fill me with wild jubilation the way it would have earlier in the season, but still I enjoyed the twinkly camaraderie between the happy couple, and it was charming to see them setting up housekeeping together.
O’Brien’s evil scheme worked exactly according to her plan — or would have, if (cue the Scooby villain lament) it hadn’t been for that meddling Bates. Thomas, who really should have known better, takes the bait and makes a move on Jimmy. In some of Downton’s most writerly writerliness yet, he catapults directly to the Sleeping Beauty kiss, which goes about as badly as it can possibly go. Jimmy objects in horrified outrage, Alfred witnesses the kiss, and Thomas finds himself out of a job, possibly without a reference, and in serious danger of prison.
Early in the episode, Thomas coaches Jimmy in how to sabotage a fellow employee’s position with the family: the matter of the poorly place lobster spoons. (“These things can be managed,” Thomas murmurs to Jimmy — making me wonder, later, how it was possible Thomas could be so blind to the way O’Brien managed him in their conversations about Jimmy.) So there we have Thomas just as scheming and self-serving as ever, and yet (having seen his soft side with his genuine grief over Sybil) it was heartbreaking to see his terror and despair after Carson revoked the character reference. Largely, this story arc gave Bates an opportunity to shine, and to restore our faith in his fundamental goodness, after all those violent outbursts of his in prison. (Not that I doubted him. See above under Eyes, Twinkling. Pretty sure it’s an immutable law of fiction that the man with the twinkle in his eye has to be either a con man, which Bates is not, or a deep-down sweetheart. This is known as the Sawyer/Charles Ingalls Principle.)
A couple of thoughts. 1) I’d like to go back and rewatch the relevant bits of Season 1 — did Thomas definitely know about her ladyship’s soap? I know he and O’Brien did some scheming about possibilities, but did O’Brien tell Thomas that she actually did it? He could easily have surmised from the outcome, of course—but if O’Brien knew he was holding on to that volatile piece of information, I don’t see her entering into open warfare with him, even all these years later. He always had the power to destroy her. Did she know this? Either way, her expression when Bates whispered the words into her ear: horrifying. My heart always goes out to a villain in that moment of doom.
2) Just when I was starting to feel like the take-it-in-stride reactions of most of the household and staff (particularly Mrs. Hughes) were rather anachronistic, Lord Grantham comes out with that line about Eton. Ha!
And now we have Thomas as “under-butler,” a position that outranks Head Valet Bates. I enjoyed Bates’s wryness on this subject near the end of the episode. And Jimmy has been promoted (to Carson’s surprise) to First Footman. Sorry, Alfred. Will O’Brien orchestrate a Jimmy-Alfred war next? Or is she tamed?
Suddenly we’re in the middle of that classic British literature plot: the madwoman in the attic. Her affable and flirtatious editor turns out to have an insane wife in an asylum, so far gone she doesn’t even know who he is. (So he says, at least.) Mostly I found this development annoying, especially since it was so refreshing to see Edith’s work truly appreciated.
Wild Cousin Rose
I admit it: when 18-year-old Rose stepped out of the car, I remarked to my husband that it felt like the fourth season of a sitcom when a small adorable child is suddenly introduced to the cast. I warmed to the arc, though, because it was such fun to see a flapper in full swing. And it’s always fun to watch Violet go to work. I enjoy watching Rosamund twist under her mother’s machinations. But wow, they brought Rose in and dispatched her mighty quickly, didn’t they?
Ethel and Isobel
Last week I wrote about how the Dowager Countess is the Downton character with the most agency (this season), the person most likely to set events in motion. (O’Brien comes close, and actually Anna is a character with agency in spades — within the limits of her social position.) This week, the Dowager takes up once again the Problem of Ethel. She can’t remain in Isobel’s employ because People Are Talking. Is Violet merely shrewd, or also kind, in her insistence that Ethel must find other employment? Certainly she seems touched by (or at least thoughtful about) the sight of a miserable Ethel in the village, her pain and ostracism completely visible. So Violet sends Edith to London to take out an ad (blackmails Edith, actually, in her genteel way — promising support for Edith’s writing job) on Ethel’s behalf. And the only position Ethel is interested in is the one that puts her in the same neighborhood as her little boy. Because it puts her in the same neighborhood as her little boy. Isobel, grim-faced about the whole enterprise, and not bothering to hide her animosity toward the Dowager Countess anymore, though always polite-ish), thinks moving near the Bryants is a bad idea, because it risks defeating the purpose of Ethel’s fresh start. But Violet interferes again and brings Mrs. Bryant herself down for a visit. Result: Ethel will get to see her boy occasionally. I’m a sap: I loved this development. Sorry, Isobel.
Mary and Matthew
Oh, you two, sneaking visits to the same doctor. So the fertility problem turns out to be Mary’s — and has already been handled via discreet operation. Okay…What condition do you think Mary was treated for? At any rate, it’s nice to see them happy. And I’m glad Matthew finally called Mary on her inconsistency — pressuring him to get more involved in the estate, and then berating him for having ideas about the estate. Of course, Mary simply acknowledges her inconsistency with a smile. She’s very sanguine, these days, about her own difficult temperament.
Speaking of the Estate
Matthew, with Tom at his back, presents his Big Plans to Robert. Who reacts just as sullenly as he has every time the subject has come up this season. Besides, who can think about trivial things like Saving Downton for Posterity when there’s a cricket match coming up? (How have we lived this long in ignorance of the World’s Most Important Cricket Match?)
Hilarious to hear Robert pushing for involvement in an actual, literal Ponzi scheme. Good save, Matthew.
Well, the resolution of the great estate drama was sensible, if unsurprising: Tom Branson will stay at Downton and take an active hand in the farming — he’s got family experience. Matthew’s got the eye for business, and (Tom handled Robert beautifully, almost O’Brienly, in this matter) Robert has finally been persuaded to stop huffing and help out. “You understand our responsibility to the people,” Tom points out, and I was glad Matthew wasn’t in the room because the poor guy has spent the entire season trying to convince Robert his help is actually, genuinely needed. Well, it was nice to see Tom being treated with respect — and interesting, as my husband pointed out, to hear the (former?) Marxist talking about maximizing profits.
I loved that Tom asked Mary to be baby Sybil’s godmother, and loved how discomfited Robert and Violet were by appearing in the photo with the priest.
Well, there’s tons more I could say about this episode (and probably will in the comments), but it’s time I turned the floor over to you.
Favorite lines? Mine came from O’Brien, I think: “Get back in the knife box, Miss Sharp.” And Anna, who wields a powerful twinkle of her own, smiling back.
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.