Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 3, Episode 3 of PBS' "Downton Abbey."
Lord Grantham and Carson look increasingly like the last men on an ever-shrinking island of aristocratic entitlement, as the chaos of modernity swirls stubbornly in every direction.
As Tom Branson puts it, during one of many awkward encounters with His Lordship over Tom's near arrest and -- worse, from the family's perspective -- unchivalrous treatment of Lady Sybil, "We all live in a harsh world, but at least I know I do."
There's wisdom in that, even if I can't shake the feeling that, at the end of the day, series creator Julian Fellowes has more than passing sympathy for Robert's suspicion of Catholics in general, and Irish-Catholics in particular, as a bunch of rabble-rousing "Johnny Foreigners." (By the way, discerning bigots may want to take up that phrase, as it seems far less likely to invite a punch in the nose than its more popular alternatives.)
Anyway, Tom -- who annoys even me, and I share the same low-boiling-point Irish blood -- is in a world of trouble because he can't decide which side of the wall he belongs on. One minute, he's cheering the wanton destruction of a Big House full of Prods; the next he's belatedly realizing that the Big House in question looks an awful lot like the one where he's been milling about in a tuxedo, shooting billiards with Matthew Crawley. I'd say it was unfair of Fellowes to give us such an unsympathetic hypocrite as a representative of the Irish rebellion, but I'm enjoying Robert's discomfort too much to really care.
Sybil, meanwhile, cracks me up. I doubt she has the intellectual capacity to be the next Maud Gonne, but she's certainly spirited. The desperate phone call, and then that 360-degree, "Dreamgirls"-style embrace she shared with Tom upon her arrival at Downton? At least she loves him. These two are so ridiculous that I'm not even mad about the ultra-clunky plotting that will presumably force them to stay at Downton for the remainder of the season.
Elsewhere upstairs, Matthew Crawley has delved into Downton's bookkeeping and does not like what he sees. There's a McKinsey-style reckoning on the horizon, and only Heaven knows what costs Matthew is going to decide to cut. For now, Robert is steamrolling him, giving Carson the green light to hire a new footman, a new housemaid and a kitchen helper, but it won't be long before Matthew starts asking how many poor people the family can reasonably discharge in exchange for Mrs. Hughes' new toaster. I love that he takes his concerns to the Dowager Countess, who seems only moderately alarmed and the slightest bit titillated by the prospect of seeing noses put out of joint.
Speaking of titillated, Thomas and the maids are practically clawing each other's eyes out over who gets to bunk with
Jimmy James Kent, the handsome new footman. Actually, this isn't my field of expertise, but he doesn't seem that handsome to me. I guess we're grading on an English scale here, but man, the whole house is going bananas over this guy and I don't get it. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't realize at first what O'Brien was up to, telling Thomas how charming the new fellow is. Clearly, she's hoping to steer him into a compromising situation and then expose his "unnatural" inclinations. If she succeeds, Thomas' fate will make Ethel the prostitute's look positively rosy.
My goodness, Mrs. Crawley sure loves freaking everyone out by pronouncing the word "prostitute" at every opportunity, doesn't she? And yet, her idealistic efforts to raise the station of these women -- who are so low on the food chain that even her maid won't hand them a coat -- seem doomed to failure, at least in the short term. As such, it falls to Mrs. Hughes to reassure Ethel that the plan to turn her son over to his rich asshole of a grandfather is in fact a wise one, no matter what Mrs. Crawley says. This whole subplot is super sad, and I can't find anything amusing to say about it.
You know what is amusing: the silly subplot involving Bates and Anna and their intercepted letters. Though I must say, I know how they feel; last time my gmail inbox filled up, I went almost 90 minutes without getting an email and thought I was going to die (of relief, but still). Thankfully, this episode brought a few more hints concerning the identity of that thing that Bates' cell mate planted on his bunk; there was talk of a "dealer on the outside" with ties to the cell mate, and then we saw Bates turn the tables and plant a thing on the cell mate's bunk. Best I can tell, it's some kind of drugs. I have no idea what kind of drugs people did in England in the 1920s, or even whether they were illegal. Maybe it's, like, super-potent snuff or something. In any case, the whole incident put Bates back in favor with the guards, and now he and Anna can resume their epistolary marriage, which I guess is better than no marriage at all.
Hey, you know who had a good episode? Lady Edith. It was only last week that we saw her writhing in bed, wondering how on Earth she'd survive without the slithering presence of Sir Anthony in her life, but here she is making herself useful, or at least trying to. After absorbing a dose of the no-bullshit advice for which we all value the Dowager Countess -- "Edith, dear, you're a woman with a brain and reasonable ability; stop whining and find something to do!" -- she went ahead and wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper criticizing England's backward laws regarding women's voting rights. And, lo and behold, they published it, causing Lord Grantham to flip out at the breakfast table. What more could a budding young suffragette hope to achieve?
It remains to be seen whether Edith will pursue the politics of enfranchisement, a writing career or some combination of the two, but already I'm reconsidering my opinion, expressed last week, that the marriage to Sir Anthony would have been a good thing. I hope Edith moves to London, becomes a journalist or something and leaves Mary and the whole silly world of Downton Abbey behind.
And so does everyone else, it seems -- except Robert and Carson. Asked his opinion of Edith's letter, Carson would only reply, "I'd rather not say, m'lord." Hey, you know what, Carson? Nobody cares what you think anyway, because you're a servant in a massively unequal society. Maybe someday the Stockholm syndrome will wear off and you'll see the situation as it is.
Until then, Lord Grantham will always have his butler to endorse his intolerant beliefs. I wonder what this harsh world will do next to shake him up.
"Downton Abbey" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.
Follow Mike Hogan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mike_hogan