This week's installment of Downton Abbey was in many respects all about recovery, as inhabitants both upstairs and down attempt to recover from the reeling blow of Sybil's sudden death. As such in many respects this episode is arguably as emotionally difficult to watch as its predecessor, as family members respond to grief in different ways -- either bringing them closer, or threatening to fracture once-strong bonds. But peppered throughout the episode are moments of unexpected warmth and humor, a welcome solace as each character strives to find their footing once more.
The episode opens with the last of the mourners motoring away from Downton, leaving the family alone in their grief and struggling to adapt to this "new norm." The icy chill that developed between Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) following the former's insistence on acquiescing to the dictates of the aristocratic doctor, who in the end misdiagnosed Sybil, has only grown more pronounced. Robert is basically a mess this season. I really do believe that at his core he is a good and decent man, but where that frustrates, and where things go wrong, is in those very qualities that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Robert's goodness and decency spring from a deep-seated love for and adherence to TRADITION...and in a rapidly changing world, and on multiple fronts, Robert is constantly being assaulted with the demand to change, which he resists with all his might -- which I think in his mind probably involves lowering his standards. In that respect I think Fellowes has successfully scripted the Earl as very much a product of his times -- a good man caught between his desire to uphold tradition, honor the past, and grappling with a shattering, unspoken fear of change.
Cora has never seemed more quintessentially American to me than this season, where she regularly reveals a warmth and a proclivity and willingness to adapt to life -- qualities that, if she'd been allowed her way, possibly could have saved her child. While given the time in which Sybil lived and her advanced symptoms rendered survival unlikely, even if Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) had been able to perform a C-section, that is of course small comfort to a broken-hearted mother. What is SO difficult to watch play out in this episode is how Cora and Robert's split impacts their family, leaving Mary and Edith (Laura Carmichael) in particular grieving not only a sister but a severe rupture between their parents. To Robert's credit he recognizes that there is just cause for Cora's feelings -- and Bonneville broke my heart with his quiet acceptance every time Cora spurned a tentative overture.
Help for Cora and Robert's marriage comes from a surprising quarter -- Violet (Maggie Smith), more well known for her sarcastic comments instead turns her keen eye and considerable influence in an attempt to mend her son's marriage. I absolutely LOVED the scene where Robert seeks his mother's advice -- it is the closest we've ever come to seeing Violet as a caring, vulnerable parent. And while there were no hugs or tears on either side (heaven forbid!), the restrained emotion of the moment was brilliantly played by both. Violet turns to Dr. Clarkson, basically telling him that Robert's marriage problems were his fault (didn't it feel that way?) -- but her instincts were right on target. Recognizing that Robert and Cora need each other if they are to survive this, she instructs Clarkson to research Sybil's condition, hoping that the unlikelihood of her survival will remind both Robert and Cora that they had rather unite and share their grief than take sides over what-ifs.
Branson (Allen Leech) is reeling in the aftermath of Sybil's funeral, which only exacerbates his outsider status. Branson has some (to my mind) completely reasonable plans for his daughter's immediate future, the first being naming her after her mother and the second having her baptized a Catholic (seeing as he is one, this makes sense) -- both of which scandalize Robert to no end. The name thing I don't get AT ALL and honestly it felt more than a little crass to have Robert raising objections on that score. The tendency to view Catholics as second-class citizens, however, was a very real issue during this time period. I loved how Robert invites the vicar to dinner in some sort of misguided attempt to sway the family to his side, and EVERYONE ELSE takes Branson's side and calls the vicar out on his prejudiced views. That was fun...and really, at this point, let's try to have some perspective here, Robert -- at least your son-in-law has some sort of faith and value system he's attempting to adhere to when it comes to his child.
There are rather vague mentions of Branson "doing something" in Liverpool, which we all know is total bunk, right? Because if Leech decides to leave the show at some point I am pretty sure the odds are 2-to-1 that Branson will die instead of just, say, emigrate to Australia or something. But WHATEVS, because I have the PERFECT PLAN for him! While rambling around Downton with Matthew (Dan Stevens), Branson reveals some surprising FARMING related knowledge! All this while Matthew is bemoaning the lack of tenants who will properly see to the upkeep of the land & buildings! But NO ONE puts two and two together here and thinks GOLLY! WE SHOULD GIVE BRANSON A DOWNTON FARM! That will keep him close by and give him something useful to do but GET HIM OUT OF THE HOUSE! Wins all around, right??? *wink*
In other news, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is still working her darnedest to exonerate her beloved Bates (Brendan Coyle), hoping that Vera's BFF will admit she lied in her testimony to Robert's lawyer. I love Anna and Bates, but the whys and wherefores and hows of him still being in prison, and this random guard and his cell mate and Vera's BFF all working together to keep him there...I just don't care anymore. Did I quit caring too soon and miss something that explains HOW these three know each other? And why this guard would care enough to try and make Bates's incarceration even more miserable? For the LOVE this storyline has gone on too long. The only redeeming factors in this episode are 1) the moment when Bates unleashes his inner bad-ass and lays down the proverbial LAW for his cellmate and 2) the look on Anna's face as she shares the news that her husband is FINALLY COMING HOME. (Side note: I really love how Mary repeatedly asks about the progress on Bates's case...I really don't think that would've even been a blip on first-season Mary's radar. Also, how SWEET was that scene where Mary and Matthew reaffirm their never-ending love for each other?! Adorbs!)
Down the road from Downton, Isobel (Penelope Wilton) continues to bring scandal to the neighborhood by employing THAT EX-PROSTITUTE THAT CAN'T EVEN COOK, a.k.a. Ethel (Amy Nuttall). Now, hear this well because I don't know that I'll ever be able to repeat it...I actually kinda liked Ethel in this episode. Isobel was her usual smug, annoying self, but Ethel on the other hand -- she seems to be embracing this second chance at respectability with everything in her. Seeing her go to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) for cooking "tutoring" was smart and funny, particularly when Carson (Jim Carter) discovers that Mrs. Patmore has flouted his orders and she responds by saying something to the effect of he's nuts if he thinks she's corruptible. *wink* Anyone else think Carson was going to have an apoplexy when he realized that when it comes to Ethel, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) isn't on his side? This episode is all about girls uniting isn't it, lol!
The Robert/Cora "feud" comes to a head when he discovers that every female member of his family is eating lunch at Isobel's, EXPOSING THEM TO SCANDAL (dude, remember the Turk? your family doesn't have to leave the house to get scandalous). To the credit of every single Crawley woman, they refuse to shun Isobel and Ethel by leaving -- it isn't a question of accepting her past choices, but of offering a second chance -- THANK YOU CORA AND VIOLET. Personally I suspect Violet was secretly relishing any potential scandal, hmmm? *wink* If Ethel continues along this path of holding her head high and refusing to be cowed, of smartly seeking ways to better herself and her chances...girl, we could become friends. I'm just sayin'.
My favorite storyline in this episode involved Daisy (Sophie McShera) and the romantic will they/won't they entanglements brewing among the younger members of the downstairs staff. Alfred (Matt Milne) is still crushing on Ivy (Cara Theobold), while she keeps making eyes at Jimmy (Ed Speleers). Quick side note here -- the way O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) keeps encouraging Thomas (Rob James-Collier) to make romantic overtures toward Jimmy is just AWFUL. This cannot end well. *sigh* Anyways, back to the fun drama -- I had a thought, when Mrs. Patmore tells Daisy & Co. that they are all in love with the wrong people, do we think there might be a possibility that Jimmy has eyes for Daisy? I'm wondering if this is a possibility, since he seems rather *ahem* attentive when she compliments him on his piano playing, and seems rather eager to demonstrate the fox trot for Alfred by dancing with Daisy. Thoughts? If this is a possibility I could sort of get behind this...
But Daisy has other decisions to make besides romantic ones -- her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), once again invites her to his farm for the day. While there he surprises her by sharing that he would like to make Daisy his heir, leaving her his tenancy, farm equipment, and savings. Between the land and a side business cooking she could do quite well for herself. I LOVE how Mr. Mason has adopted Daisy since William's death, as goodness knows she needs some family and sound advice. This is a fantastic opportunity for her, and while I would hate to see the dynamic duo that is Mrs. Patmore and Daisy broken up, I love the fact that she has this chance. :)
Looking forward, I cannot wait to see how Ethel's writing pursuits play out. :) And I LOVED Mary in this episode -- she seems to finally be striking a balance between protecting and idolizing her father and realizing that some change is necessary, inevitable, and even good. This was a very strong installment for Daisy and Ethel, and a fantastic showcase for the inimitable Maggie Smith's dramatic range, as she revealed the all too rarely seen softer side of Violet. Please chime in with your thoughts! :)