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I know there's been some controversy over the quality of this season of Downton Abbey, but on balance (poor Anna's shocker of a storyline aside) this is shaping up to be one of my favorite seasons. I know this probably isn't a popular viewpoint, but Matthew Who? *wink* Sure, there have been some storylines that have worn thin (i.e., anything involving Rose), but on balance I think the show has done an excellent job moving Downton forward into the brave new world of the 1920's.
This installment opens with an urgent missive from Cora's (Elizabeth McGovern) mother, requesting Robert's (Hugh Bonneville) presence in America ASAP in order to lend some sort of English aristocratic credibility to his embattled brother-in-law. (And it turns out I was right about his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal! High school history FTW!) Robert is all "do I HAVE to go?" and Cora is all "you're the BEST HUSBAND EVER if you do," so of course, powerless to resist his wife's charms off he goes to make plans to leave for America (no small feat in 1923 either). (Side note: I love Robert & Cora's marriage, but perhaps never more so than this season. Well done, Fellowes.)
But Robert being Robert wouldn't leave for America without his valet, placing Bates (Brendan Coyle) in the horrifically awkward position of leaving Anna (Joanne Froggatt) just as they're trying to recover, or resigning his position without notice or explanation, leaving him likely without a reference. Anna attempts to put a brave face on the situation, insisting he go, but when Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) learns of the plans she takes matters into her own hands and goes to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to plead Anna's case. And so Mary has to be told of the horror Anna has endured, and she immediately goes to her father, convincing him to take Thomas (Rob James-Collier) to America in Bates's stead.
Mary has gotten a lot of flak over the course of this series -- most of it undeserved in my view -- for being too stand-offish. But underneath her public persona is, I believe, an extraordinarily caring woman who feels very deeply about her family, home, and friends. And it is never more apparent than here of just how much she values Anna, as she tries to cross the boundaries of class and employment to offer her support and friendship. I LOVED that.
Of course Thomas thinks he's won the friggin' lottery when he receives the news that he's going to America. This apparently puts him in an expansive mood as he's rather nice to Jimmy (Ed Speleers), making some off-hand comment about how he hopes the footman, thwarted in his pursuit of Ivy (Cara Theobold), is stepping out with a nice "village girl" when he gets back. But then he has to go and ruin the illusion of niceness by charging Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) with finding out exactly WHY Bates is staying at Downton (clearly Thomas has never heard that saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth...the ingrate :P). I have a terrible feeling that just WHY Baxter is -- apparently reluctantly -- in Thomas's power is an issue that is never going to be resolved. Oh well, c'est la vie!
After the family gathers to bid Robert a fond "bon voyage!," a very ill-looking Violet (Maggie Smith) quickly retreats back to her home, and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) bums a ride from Branson (Allen Leech) back to the village. I really enjoyed their exchange here -- both have been dealt heavy losses, but Isobel is really coming back to life now and uses this time to encourage Branson to do the same. She convinces him to attend a political lecture in nearby Ripon, and he agrees. However, she soon realizes she must cancel the engagement when she discovers just how sick Violet actually is, and SUPERHERO NURSE ISOBEL kicks into high gear, immediately summoning Dr. Clarkson (David Robb). He diagnoses bronchitis, and I had my doubts (because when has this man EVER been right??), but hey he turns out to be right for once, and charges Isobel with Violet's 24/7 nursing care in order to prevent pneumonia from setting in.
Props to Isobel here, because not only do she and Violet have a prickly relationship at the best of times, but she basically stays awake for something crazy like TWO DAYS, refusing any help because she views this as an opportunity to pay the Crawley family back for making her one of their own (or something to that effect, her exact quote escapes me now). When Violet finally turns the corner and realizes to whom she owes thanks for her care, her reaction is PRICELESS. I loved the scene where the two play cards, and Violet has this resigned look on her face, like "I am never ever EVER going to be able to get rid of this woman now." If the scripts start moving these two into reluctant BFF territory I will just die laughing...the comic possibilities are endless!
While Isobel is off nursing Violet, the rest of Downton (namely Mary) is concerned with the arrival of the PIGS! (This is not a euphemism for the lower-classes or anything like that, lol! ACTUAL PIGS!) Mary is all about this latest venture, which receives the hard-to-please Blake's (Julian Ovenden) support, though she's irked that he seems to feel all their efforts to make Downton a viable enterprise are doomed to fail. This episode succeeded in making Blake a viable and compelling potential love interest for Mary, developing into a classic case of pride versus prejudice. :) She thinks he's too egalitarian, wanting to see the old families fail, while he thinks she is too superior -- a privileged lady who is too aloof and knows what she wants but is unwilling to dirty her hands in order to see her plans succeed.
But oh how Mary proves him wrong. Following an intimate dinner consisting of just Mary, Blake, and Cora (isn't this COZY), Blake suggests they take a post-dinner stroll to check out the pigs (does he ever know how to woo a woman!). Mary agrees, but only because she's into the PIGS and not Blake, and she doesn't want to scandalize her mother by rudely refusing. But instead of marveling at Downton's latest additions, they discover the pigs NEARLY DEAD FROM DEHYDRATION!! I mean they had the pigs dropped off and then just left them there? (So maybe Blake has a point...) But there's no time like the present for a little TEAM-BUILDING EXERCISE, and the two unlikely allies join forces to haul water for the parched critters. This is EPIC...both of them covered in mud, Mary's gorgeous dress ruined, Blake all disbelief that she's doing this at all, and best of all, no one at the house is overly concerned that Mary is out all night at the pig sty with Blake. THAT cracked me up! So they've bonded, and she actually COOKS HIM EGGS (!!!) -- nearly giving Ivy a heart attack when she finds them in the kitchen -- and poor Napier (Brendan Patricks) is apparently left out in the cold for good. The guy cannot catch a break where Mary is concerned, can he? If they play this right, I think Blake could be an excellent match for Mary -- he has the backbone to challenge her but also, I think, to be an extremely supportive ally. It won't be easy, but goodness I think it could be worthwhile. *wink*
Now let's talk about Edith (Laura Carmichael) for a moment, shall we? The poor girl is still barely holding it together in the wake of the news that Gregson is still missing, and the confirmation of her pregnancy. Under the pretext of returning to London to check on business matters, she makes an appointment to obtain an illegal abortion. On the eve of the event she breaks down and confesses her secret to Rosamund (Samantha Bond). Rosamund urges her to reconsider -- what if Gregson returns? -- but Edith can see no way out of her situation, no way to live with the social stigma that would be branded on her were she to "go public" as an unwed mother. These scenes just broke my heart -- while Rosamund was an excellent mother figure, I do so wish Edith felt she could've confided in Cora -- that woman desperately wants to be there for her daughter. The two keep the appointment, but once they arrive and Edith overhears another sobbing patient, she finds she can't go through with it -- so she makes the choice to keep the baby. I foresee a trip to Europe in her future, and a carefully placed adoption, hmmm?
Rose (Lily James) accompanied Edith to London, all to -- surprise, surprise -- visit Jack Ross (Gary Carr). How these two developed such an intense romance in the pre-cell phone age is beyond me. I mean WHERE ARE THE SPARKS?! I've been fairly tolerant of Rose overall, but this episode she crossed all sorts of lines, pitching juvenile fits when Edith wants to cut short their London stay, or when Rosamund wants to know her plans...just ridiculous, super-annoying, childish behavior. This was the grating Rose that was first introduced in season three, well before that year's infamous Christmas special where she seemed so dialed back and borderline normal (for her age, at any rate). This over-the-top, hysterical, conniving version is SO ANNOYING. Please, please make it stop, Fellowes!
Wrapping things up, there is a whole subplot where Carson (Jim Carter), Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) try to keep Alfred (Matt Milne) from visiting Downton because they don't want to deal with the conflict sure to arise from such a visit between Ivy and Daisy (Sophie McShera). I'm a bit over the whole "love triangle" thing between the three of them, but Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore were HILARIOUS, making excuses about trying to nix his visit because they think they all have the flu or something. :) Of far more interest to me was seeing Branson attend the political lecture solo, where he has a "meet cute" with one Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis). I'd read that Lewis was cast as a potential love interest for Branson, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out -- politically-minded, and too cute for words in her smart ensemble? I see loads of possibilities here, Tom!
The episode ends on an ominous note as Gillingham (Tom Cullen) returns to Downton to make eyes at Mary or something (he is SO colorless when compared to Blake!), bringing along his scummy valet Green (Nigel Harmon). Poor Anna is unable to conceal her shock when she finds Green back in Downton's kitchen, and after he makes some comments about being unable to stand Dame Nellie's singing during his last stay, forcing him to leave the concert, Bates begins to put two and two together, and there's murder in his eyes. But honestly I think Green should be more afraid of Mrs. Hughes, as corners him in the boot room and gives him absolute hell, in full-on mama bear mode. She is NOT a woman to trifle with, that Mrs. Hughes!
Only two weeks left this season, can you believe it?!
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