Downton Abbey Season 5, Episode 3: Sympathy Butters No Parsnips

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Ah, Episode Three. Before I get started, I have to remark upon what a gorgeous episode this was. I mean, Downton is always a feast for the eyes, but this one was really something special. I took way too many screencaps because frame after frame was like a Dutch painting–the amazing light, the glowing reds. I could happily turn the sound down and let this play on a loop just to enjoy the lush visuals. Mmm.

As for story, we’re settling in for the ride now, having established some major themes (the continued focus on shifting roles in society; the ache felt by each major character over some kind of unfulfilled longing, and how they’re dealing with it). Now we’ll dive a bit deeper into personal drama and ratchet up the tension on our mystery thread. Particularly welcome this week was a glimpse behind Cora’s placid smile. I think we’ve all been waiting for her show some spirit.

But let’s begin at the beginning. We open in the Liverpool love nest, where Mary and Tony have spent what appears to be a pleasant week enjoying each other’s company. (She says demurely.) Tony is ready to start the wedding march immediately, but Mary is a bit more reticent. And when Tony steps out of the room, the look on Mary’s face speaks volumes. She made this trip in order to assure herself that Tony was indeed the man she’d be happy spending the rest of her life with. And now, although she is certainly comfortable with him, she doesn’t exactly appear…assured.

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Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Back at Downton, the kitchen is alive with Daisy’s happy chatter. She’s feeling so buoyed by her progress in arithmetic, thanks to Miss Bunting’s tutelage, that she’s beginning to set her sights even higher. Mrs. Patmore, however, isn’t hearing her; her attention is riveted by some distressing news contained in a letter. Aw, I hate to see you this way, Mrs. P.

Upstairs, Edith is surprised to see Cora at the breakfast table. It seems she’s up early for an important meeting to discuss church flowers–a suggestion of her less than critical role in Downton affairs, setting up a contrast for later scenes. We’re not the only ones tired of seeing Cora sidelined all the time; she’s sick of it too.

She mentions that Simon Bricker has offered to show the family the Piero della Francesca paintings in the National Gallery, now that he has had the honor of viewing the one owned by the family. Tom and Edith are mildly interested, and Robert encourages her to go up to London but clearly has no interest in visiting the museum herself. Tom mentions an “intriguing proposition” he has received about the estate, and Cora wants to hear more, but Robert can’t be bothered to satisfy her curiosity. She is quietly ticked off. Boy, Elizabeth McGovern is on fire this week, treating us to a range of expressions that rival Maggie Smith’s.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Tom offers Edith a lift to Yew Tree Farm, and as they depart Cora smiles over Edith’s affection for little Marigold Drewe, but Robert snipes that he hopes she isn’t “driving the mother mad.” Well, okay, for once his instincts are on the money, but it’s still kind of a nasty comment since he has no significant interest in Edith’s doings, and Cora shoots him another uncharacteristically critical look. It won’t be the last time she gets annoyed with him this episode. Welcome to my world, Lady G!

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Thomas begs permission from Carson to make a telephone call. I was going to bust on Carson for being so grumbly about having to leave the room to give Thomas some privacy, but then I remembered I’m no saint either if you interrupt me during my cup of tea. But oh, the disgruntled look on Carson’s face when he finds himself in the hall, shut out of his own nook, was priceless.

“Hello,” says Thomas into the receiver, “I’ve been reading your advertisement in The London Magazine, ‘Choose your own path.'” Oho, what have we here? (I’m channeling Mrs. Hughes.)

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
spotted by sprat
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary and Tony, the souls of discretion, exit their Liverpool hotel together and kiss on the pavement in plain sight of anyone who happens to be looking, such as, oh, say, the Dowager Countess’s butler, Spratt. He’s across the street minding his own business (came to town for his niece’s wedding, we’ll find out later) and is shocked to the core to see Mary so clearly up to hanky-panky.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Isobel is visiting the Dower House. Violet, ringing for tea, asks ever so spontaneously, “Oh! What is the latest from your aging Romeo?” Isobel appears to contemplate poisoning Violet’s tea.

Carson is having another chat with the nice policeman assigned to investigate the late Mr. Green’s connection to Downton folk. A Piccadilly witness heard Green speak to an unidentified party just before he fell into the road. “Why have you come?” said Green to the mystery person. The policeman is following up on reports from Gillingham’s other servants that Green had complained of having been badly treated by someone at Downton, shortly before his death. Carson doubts there is anything to the rumor, because he hasn’t heard about a quarrel and therefore no such quarrel can possibly exist. This made me pause a moment to ponder the ratio of Events That Happen at Downton to Events Carson Is Aware Of. I hope he never finds out the truth of that equation; it would break his heart. Don’t break Carson’s heart, people!

Mary returns home in time for tea. How about those sketches, Mary, Edith wants to know. Where are all the sketches from the famous sketching trip? I love it when Edith gets a jab in at Mary; Mary’s so offhandedly nasty to her all the time.

Now that she’s back, Tom discloses the offer he’s had from a developer who wants to build fifty houses on a chunk of Grantham land. Robert is quite naturally appalled by the concept of ugly little modern homes eating up his estate. Tom, with a more realistic grasp of the account books, thinks it’s a good offer. I don’t know about you, but I’m all in a tizzy. It’s always unnerving to find myself siding with Robert, but you know what happens after they widen the lane to the village green to accommodate the residents of the new development. Starbucks, that’s what. On the other hand, now I really want to live in a place called Pip’s Corner.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Patmore reveals the contents of her upsetting letter to Mrs. Hughes. Her sister has written to say that her own village’s War Memorial Committee has refused to include her son Archie’s name on the memorial, because he was shot for desertion. Mrs. Patmore wonders if Mrs. Hughes will speak to Mr. Carson about adding poor Archie–who, after all, was only nineteen, and a victim of shellshock–to the names on the Downton statue. Oh dear. This promises to get bumpy.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Speaking of bumpy, Spratt is back at work and tiptoeing awkwardly through rocky territory. He very badly wants to apprise the Dowager Countess of the dirt he has on Mary, but he dares not say so directly. His pained expression and curiously loaded turns of phrase alert Violet to his difficulties, and she badgers him until he works up to spilling the beans–in a roundabout manner, of course. Violet weathers the shock with perfect aplomb, sliding effortlessly into a cover story–Mary and Tony were in Liverpool for a landowners’ conference–that leaves Spratt in a state of utter mortification. Violet tosses in a mild job threat for good measure. But after he leaves the room, her worried-grandmother face spells trouble for Mary.

Anna is terrified the inquiry into Green’s death could lead to Bates finding out about the rape. She really, really doesn’t want him to know. Mrs. Hughes thinks the secret is safe, since the only other person who knows the truth (she thinks) is Lady Mary, who won’t tell. Still, Anna is anxious. (I have my theories about what else she might be worried about besides Bates finding out.) At dinner that evening, she murmurs something to Bates about wondering what it would be like to go away somewhere where no one knows them. He’s puzzled by the notion and she quickly drops it.

Thomas, who got a mysterious call in response to his earlier telephone inquiry, asks Carson for time off with a cover story about his father being at death’s door. Baxter offers sympathy; she knew Thomas’s family as a girl and remembers his father kindly–unlike Thomas. She’s being awfully nice to him, considering how he has treated her lately, but then she really believes his story. I for one can’t wait to find out what he’s up to. What “new path” is he choosing?

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

At bedtime that evening, Baxter begs Cora to make a decision one way or another: is she fired or not? Cora says Baxter is going to have to reveal the missing piece of her story: what happened to the jewels. Tomorrow, in fact. Only after she has all the facts will Cora make a decision.

(I loved this shot of Baxter, former jewel thief, standing there holding the jewels. It happens again later, just before she gets in the car to go up to London with Cora. She has a whole long conversation with Molesley with that jewel box in her hands the whole time. I remember reading somewhere that one of a lady’s maid’s responsibilities was looking after her mistress’s jewels, specifically CARRYING THEM in her hands while traveling. Which just seems like begging for trouble, doesn’t it? I was sure that box was going to go missing on the journey and Baxter would be blamed. Glad I was wrong.)

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Robert comes to bed and Cora, sitting at her dressing table in putting on lotion in a way that always reminds me of Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond, reminisces a little about–of all things–the War. Not the grief and horror, but the busy-ness of it, the way she felt useful. “When I was running everything with Barrow,” she muses. Robert, who would be much more alert to signs of discontent in his dog, rolls his eyes at everything she says.

And when she presses for more information about the house-development offer, he brushes that aside, too: “Nothing to trouble you with.” It’s interesting that Robert came around pretty quickly to Mary taking an active role in running the estate, and now he seems to respect her opinions and even enjoy the discourse. But he’s got Cora slotted into a pretty-face-at-the-dinner-table category. and it’s clear she’s getting fed up with it.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Down the hall, some unusual (but not unsurprising) tension has arisen between Mary and Anna, of all people. Mary wants Anna to hide her contraceptive in the Bates cottage. Anna is as dismayed at that notion as she was about shopping for it last week. Of course Mary takes it completely for granted that Anna will accommodate her wishes, and she’s rather taken aback when Anna mutters something about feeling like she is “abetting sin.” Mary pointedly changes the subject to the policeman’s visit and seems nonplussed to hear about the possible witness and the rumor that Green quarreled with someone at Downton. She assures Anna that the police can’t suspect Bates of any wrongdoing, but her expression belies doubts of some kind or another.

Anna hurries to her coat in the hall and tries to stuff Mary’s goods in her coat pocket. Of course Bates catches her and grills her about it, in his creepy post-Season 3 way. Remember Season 1 Bates? How sweet he was? Even if he’s just attempting to be chummy here, he comes off as suspicious. It’s always Twenty Questions with him. I can’t imagine what their evenings are like at home. “Anna, what are you thinking about right now? How about now? Why do you stir your tea clockwise? Tell me, why did you take a bite of meat before a bite of potato? Why are you holding out on me?”

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Hughes brings up the Archie question with Mr. Carson, and predictably, he isn’t keen on the idea. He’s sympathetic to the family’s pain, but he’s quite sure the Memorial Committee will never consent to allow a deserter’s name on the statue. Mrs. Hughes is disappointed, although she predicted as much to Mrs. Patmore. Soon after, Carson tries to extend some sympathy to Mrs. Patmore but she scoffs at the gesture–“Sympathy butters no parsnips”–and scurries off to the kitchen in tears, probably to butter the parsnips.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Daisy pounces on Carson to ask for his blessing if she decides to continue her studies and sit her examinations. He sighs permission but speechifies about the foolishness of it, prompting Mrs. Hughes, who by this point is thoroughly irked by his rigidity, to give Daisy a rather heated pep talk about “going as far as God and luck allow her.” Daisy is left a bit baffled, but it’s okay; Butler-Housekeeper Dynamics won’t be on the test.

It’s time for Baxter and Cora to head up to London. As Molesley is loading the car, Baxter confides in him about Cora’s ultimatum. He counsels her to tell the truth on the condition that once she does, it has to be over and done with: no more dredging the matter up, no matter what outcome Cora decides.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary and Robert seem to be returning from a walk, discussing Robert’s plans to surprise Cora in London that evening. They happen upon Bates, who is having a word with Molesley, and although it’s probably a totally benign conversation (“Is it just me, or did those parsnips at lunch taste like tears?”), Bates looks as shifty as can be. I think I need to go watch some Lark Rise to Candleford so I can fall back in love with Brendan Coyle.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Summoned by Grandmama, Mary arrives at the Dower House and is greeted by Spratt, who inquires pointedly about her recent stay in Liverpool. Mary’s discomfort is a delight to behold. Violet lets her flail only for a moment and then tosses her the life preserver of the landowner-conference cover story. Mary pales, realizing she has been busted by her grandmother. When Spratt leaves, Violet chews her out. She’s immensely relieved to learn that Tony wants to marry immediately, and then appalled to hear that Mary is in no hurry. The side-eye in this scene is world class.

Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.
Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.

Cora and Baxter are settling in at Rosamund’s place in London, and Cora declares the now-or-never moment: Baxter needs to let her know what really happened with the stolen jewels, or find a new job. Baxter takes a deep breath and tells her tale. There was a man–a handsome footman by the name of Coyle. She became involved with him and quickly realized he was a cruel person. “He was nasty, and he made me nasty.” It was his idea for her to steal the jewels. She gave them to him and showed up at their arranged meeting point, but of course he didn’t show. She didn’t report him. She did the time and moved on, full of remorse and disgust at how she let Coyle change her.

Cora hears the sad tale with calm sympathy. It’s interesting that this is playing out now, when she’s got some other things going on. She’s feeling useless at home and underappreciated by her husband. But as we saw last week when she chewed out Thomas, she has a lot of fire under the placid surface. She has handled the Baxter business with a consideration and patience not many in her position would have shown under these circumstances. It might be possible to read her response as passive–last week she certainly struggled aloud with her inability to make a decision–but she hasn’t been passive at all, really, just patient. She has given Baxter time to frame a response, and has taken time herself to think the matter over. No impulsive decisions, no emotional reactions. But emotions and impulses, certainly. More than ever I want to know what she was thinking about during all those looking-out-the-window scenes last season.

Sergeant Willis interviews Bates about his movements in York on the day of Green’s death. Bates gives an account of a full day but can’t offer much that might verify his movements: he had a bite to eat here, stopped in a shop there. Willis isn’t much concerned; he thinks he has enough to go on to establish an alibi. He assures Anna not to worry, it’s all routine. Anna’s pretty well petrified, though.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Look at this gorgeous scene. Could be a painting itself. Cora and Bricker are visiting the della Francesca paintings at the National Gallery. Cora impresses Bricker with her insight. She is drawn to the story of the painter, who produced some of his finest works near the end of his life. Cora muses aloud that she envies him that–the ability to create something that would last long after his death. Bricker is clearly smitten with her, and she seems to be enjoying his compliments, but she isn’t flirting back. Just having a pleasant time being taken seriously, for once.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Drewe returns to her farmhouse expecting to find Edith babysitting Marigold, but the house is empty. Mrs. Drewe immediately panics; she’s sure Edith has taken Marigold away. She tears through the gardens and finds them chatting with her husband by the chicken coop, happy as can be. Edith looks comfortable and happy, more at ease than we ever see her at home. She has even toned down her wardrobe into farmyard neutrals.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mrs. Drewe makes little attempt to hide her agitation. She sends Edith home with the barest nod at politeness and bursts out at her husband: “She can’t have our child!” And Mr. Drewe answers like a blockhead: “You’re being unreasonable.” I get that you don’t want to break your word to Edith, Tim, but telling your wife she’s soft in the head and storming off isn’t going to improve this situation.

Mrs. Hughes and Mary discuss Bates’s alibi. Mrs. Hughes thinks it’s weak–all the places he mentioned visiting are close to the train station and wouldn’t preclude a quick run to London to bump Green off. Mary and Mrs. Hughes both seem certain he is guilty and are worried the police will see holes in his story.

Cora can’t get hold of Rosamund, and Bricker talks her into having dinner with him. Afterward, they walk back to Rosamund’s house, chatting and laughing. Bricker is all but humming “On the Street Where You Live.” Finally we get a welcome bit of backstory on Cora, which makes me realize no one has asked her these questions in all the time we’ve been watching. Her family “wasn’t in the first rank” in Cincinnati, much less New York: her father was Jewish and they were new money. Her mother thought she might have a better chance landing a husband in England, which is exactly how it played out.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Bricker can’t contain his compliments and hopes they might be able to spend more time together. Cora smilingly lets him down. She is frank about having enjoyed the conversation and the attention, and she’s been a little glowy at his rather heavyhanded praise, but she hasn’t flirted back and doesn’t want to encourage him at all. She’s in happy spirits as she enters Rosamund’s house, calling out a cheerful apology about missing dinner, and finds Robert waiting for her in black tie and frown. She’s delighted to see him but he’s very peeved. He enlightens her as to all the reasons he has a right to be angry and then tosses out an insult more withering than his mother on her best day: “That an art expert would find your observations on the work of Piero della Francesca impossible to resist–yes, it is hard to believe.” And then he seems baffled that this offends her.

seriously not amused

Back at Downton, Tom and Mary are enjoying a chummy drink by the fire. Tom thinks Edith seems distracted, but Mary hasn’t noticed. (Shocker.) She does surprise me by expressing some mild interest in Tom’s state of mind, but before I have time to faint, she’s back on herself, articulating the Tony problem. Delightful bit of brotherly teasing from Tom, who saw right through the whole sketching ruse.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Mary admits to being less certain of her feelings for Tony, now that she’s gotten to know him better. “He’s a very nice man.” Ouch. Charles Blake’s parting shot last episode scored deeply: you can see that Mary spent the whole time in Liverpool listening to Tony and thinking, You aren’t clever enough for me.

Tom vows to back Mary up if she’ll back him in the Sarah Bunting department. Mary is dubious; she isn’t keen on Miss Bunting, she says bluntly. And she doesn’t want to encourage Tom in thoughts of taking Sybbie to America. But he turns it back on her quite deftly: “If you love me, you’ll support me.” It catches her by surprise–the realization that she does love him. She smiles one of her sweet, real smiles, the kind we so seldom see. Wonderful scene. You can’t move to America now, Tom; you’ve almost made Mary act like a human.

The next day, Cora and Robert return from London–in silence–to find the house abuzz with preparations for a visit from “Rose’s Russians,” the aristocrat-refugees she has taken under her wing. Robert has some souvenirs from his parents’ visit to Russia in 1874 he wants to show them. Mrs. Patmore, arranging some food on the party table, is visibly upset, and Robert asks Carson what’s wrong. Carson informs his Lordship that he wouldn’t be interested, which annoys Robert no end. I know, right? It’s so irritating when you ask people questions like “What was all that about building houses at Pip’s Corner?” and they tell you not to trouble your pretty little head.

Tony Gillingham surprises Mary by crashing the party, which has Violet beaming knowingly. Mary hastens her away. Violet delivers a little lecture on self-control, as only a Victorian grandmama could. Mary rolls her eyes.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Rose, doing some Miss Moneypenny cosplay (that dress is a scream), pops down to the kitchen for some last-minute instructions and bumps into Sarah Bunting, who has arrived for Daisy’s lesson. Of course Daisy’s too busy today, so Rose invites Sarah to stay for the Russians’ visit. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Cora, dressing for the gathering, lets Baxter know her job is safe. Baxter draws in a sharp breath of relief and fights back tears as she murmurs her gratitude.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

Cora–having had power over a person’s fate and feeling happy to be able to bring that person joy–is still smiling as she joins Robert downstairs and delivers a sweet-voiced jab when he asks her a question. “Does it matter? We both know you place no value on my opinions.” Robert non-apologizes. Cora tells him he doesn’t get to be unjust. He’s flabbergasted again. It’s so shocking to him that she thinks he’s the one in the wrong.

Edith is summoned to the back door for an interview with Mr. Drewe. In his typical laconic way, he tells her she has to stop visiting. Not, “You’re freaking out my wife, can we please let her in on the secret?” Just “Stay away.” My collection of Sad Edith screenshots grows again.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

She rushes past Anna and Mrs. Hughes on the stairs, crying, and their worried glances lead me to wonder what exactly their suspicions might be about Edith’s secrets. They found the baby picture under her pillow after the fire; Mrs. Hughes eyed Edith suspiciously when she was talking to Mr. Drewe the night of the blaze; and now Anna knows she spoke to Drewe outside and returned in tears. And of course everybody knows how much time Edith spends at Yew Tree Farm. I bet they’ve got a whole wrong theory going.

Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.
Screen shot by Melissa Wiley.

Enter the Russians. It takes exactly three minutes in their presence for Sarah Bunting to offend them to the point of a walk-out. Cora saves the day by wooing them back with an invitation to view mementoes of the wedding of Tsar Alexander II’s daughter, which Violet and her husband attended in 1874. Naturally, Robert thanks her by growling an I-told-you-so about Sarah.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

The Russians weep over the relics, which, Violet explains, means they are enjoying themselves. She dazzles Rose with a few details of the 1874 wedding, and among the mementoes she is delighted to find a fan that was given to her at a ball in St. Petersburg. She describes the scene, and her tale is picked up by a bearded gentleman at the end of the table–the dashing Russian prince who gave her the fan those many years ago. He hints at a connection between them. Violet is a bit shaken, and Rose briskly moves the party along to refreshments. Mary makes sure to let us know Robert and Rosamund were born before this Russian sojourn, lest we form any inappropriate ideas. A grin slowly breaks over Isobel’s face as she realizes she now has something to tease Violet with, next time Violet starts up about Lord Merton. Nobody notices Edith never came downstairs.

As the party breaks up, Mary calls her grandmother on having had a romantic adventure of her own. It was perfectly respectable, Violet insists, but Mary feels the ground has leveled a bit.

Violet climbs into her car behind Isobel, whose expression can only be described as what my daughters call “smugging,” as in, “Mom, she’s smugging at me again!” She lets Violet get settled beside her before inquiring innocently, “Have you made plans to see your admirer again?” Isobel raps on the chauffeur’s window with her cane, because she’s not allowed to brain Isobel with it. Isobel beams all the way down the lane.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

And we’re out! Before I close, are you ready to swap theories about the identity of Green’s murderer? Skip this bit if you don’t want to know mine. Here, have some more Sad Edith instead. Go ahead, take it, I have plenty.

Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.
Screenshot by Melissa Wiley.

All righty, then: I think it was Anna who killed Mr. Green. I haven’t looked back at last season to see if she had an opportunity–wasn’t she in London with Mary around that time? I think she confronted him on the street; the push was probably spontaneous and maybe even an accident. But I’d like to go back and watch the last few episodes of Season 4 to test my theory. What do you think?

And what path do you think Thomas is choosing?

Season 5 recaps: Episode 1Episode 2

My Season 4 recaps are at Here in the Bonny Glen.

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