Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 3, Episode 5 of PBS' "Downton Abbey."
Hey, did you happen to pick up on the theme of this week's "Downton Abbey"? Because they only whacked us over the head with it 15 million times, give or take. Yes, the world is changing, and that's good news for everybody except a few white, middle-aged, male prigs: We have one upstairs (Lord Grantham, who spent the episode inflicting his sublimated rage over Sybil's death against everyone from Isobel and Ethel to poor Tom Branson) and two more downstairs (the Anglican inquisitor Carson and our closet Biblical scholar Mr. Moseley).
Interestingly, these sticks in the mud all meet opposition in the form of formidable females. Still reeling from her husband's behavior on the night of Sybil's death, Lady Grantham has come to see Robert's reactionary posture as a curse that will doom the whole family if he isn't stopped. When he tries to regain entry to the marital bower, she effectively accuses him of killing Sybil with his snobbery. "You believed Tapsell because he's knighted and fashionable," she hisses. "You let all that nonsense weigh against saving our daughter." Then she drops the hammer: "You blocked the last chance we had to prevent her death." I love his pinched response, which I plan to keep in my back pocket for a special occasion: "I'll say goodnight then."
Throughout the episode, Cora doesn't miss a chance to zing Robert for his backward beliefs. As the family discusses Tom's controversial decision to baptize his baby Catholic over dinner with their bigoted pastor Mr. Travis, Cora informs her husband that "not everybody chooses his religion to satisfy DeBretts," a reference to the aristocratic register that, amusingly, now has a website. And when Robert barges in on lunch at Isobel's and demands that the whole family leave at once, lest they be stained by association with Yorkshire's own Hester Prynne, Her Ladyship observes, "Robert frequently makes decisions based on values that have no relevancy anymore."
It gets so bad that Robert confides in the Dowager Countess that his marriage appears to be broken. After sternly reminding him that "people like us are never unhappily married," the D.C. urges him to take a trip or something. But behind that high forehead, the gears are already cranking. Eventually, she persuades Dr. Clarkson to inform Lord and Lady Grantham that Sybil's chances of survival would have been slim to none even if they had operated (we're left to assume that this is real information, since Dr. Clarkson isn't the truth-stretching kind), thereby letting the air out of Cora's rage and enabling these two crazy love birds to grieve together, as they must.
But there is another formidable female at work: Lady Mary, who tells her father to stand down on the baptism issue -- since Sybil endorsed it on what became her death bed -- and to stop antagonizing his wife. He confesses to her that he feels like a fool over the railroad investment thing, and she shows some empathy for his plight: "The world isn't going your way -- not anymore." I know a lot of you don't have time for Lady Mary, but I think she has real character, and I think she's a good stand-in for the next generation of aristocrats. She's hardly forward-thinking, but she's flexible enough when incontrovertible facts arise.
In the servant's quarters, meanwhile, Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore are the ones arrayed against the forces of yesteryear. Patmore has no desire to disobey Carson's command to shun Ethel, but she's a soft touch and she wants to help Isobel do something nice for the ladies of Downton. Mrs. Hughes is smarter and more principled, and she makes her views known via two righteous one-liners. When Carson muses that he doesn't advocate persecuting Catholics, per se, but does question their loyalty to the crown, Mrs. Hughes shoots back, "Well, it'll be a relief for them to know that you no longer want them burned at the stake." And when Mr. Moseley quibbles with the notion that Jesus broke bread with Mary Magdalene, suggesting that he only let her wash his feet, she replies, "Well, I'll tell Ethel she has a treat in store."
Mrs. Hughes is Scottish, so it's safe to assume she's Protestant, but there's enough of a link between Scotland and Ireland for her to see through Carson's baloney about "standards." And lest we forget, she was the one who watched Ethel give her son away and mused that things would have to change a lot before a woman like her could have a chance in the world. Thanks to Isobel's boldness, that change is happening a lot faster than anyone expected.
What else? Well, the pheromones are flying so fast and furious in the downstairs kitchen that even Mrs. Patmore is commenting on them. Ivy, Daisy and Alfred bore me, but I'm really curious to see what happens with this Thomas/Jimmy sexual-harassment scenario. Thomas literally can't keep his hands off Jimmy, and I expect the whole shebang will come to head when Bates returns to reclaim his job as the Earl's valet (more on that presently). I wonder if the inevitable exposure will spell ruin for Thomas or if the kinder souls of Downton Abbey will manage to exercise some compassion, even if he is a creep. (The signs of an alliance between Thomas and Anna point in that direction, don't they?) Of course, there's also a third option: Thomas will manage to outsmart O'Brien, wiggle out of trouble and make someone else suffer.
How do we, as residents of the 21st century, interpret the scene where Daisy and Jimmy are caught Foxtrotting? I've been pondering this, and the best example I can find of a current dance craze that confuses and alarms the olds is Dubstep. Of course, most households don't have servants anymore, so imagine this: You came home and caught the microwave and the dishwasher twerking to Skrillex. I might react just as Carson did, in that case.
I'm so relieved that the stupid Bates-in-prison subplot is ending that I'm not even bothered by the ludicrous scheming that has him released in no time because some lady made a statement. Maybe it worked that way in Edwardian England, but in this country, it takes about 25 years to force some dipshit prosecutor to admit that he convicted the wrong guy for murder. Hey, whatever: Downton needed good news, and here it is. By the way, during the scene where Bates held that dinky little pen knife up to his rival's neck, I realized that all these prison scenes must be based on Julian Fellowes' experience at boarding school. It's really the only explanation for the bizarre innocence of them.
Was anyone else relieved when Robert finally cried at the end of the episode? Jeez, what a stiff-upper-lip-fest. Only Cora the American, Tom the Irishman and, surprisingly enough, the Dowager Countess expressed anything that looked like genuine emotion up until then. Sybil's body isn't even cold, yet the residents kept scheming, especially Matthew, who just can't wait to get cracking on his plan to reform the estate.
And speaking of Matthew, there sure was a lot of foreshadowing in that one scene, wasn't there? I won't spoil it for those who've managed to avoid the news, but ... damn!
What did you think of the episode? Will Lord and Lady Grantham make it through? Is the Dowager Countess getting soft? Is Jimmy secretly hot for Thomas? Was it wrong for me to completely ignore the thing about Daisy inheriting her father-in-law's farm? Share your thoughts in the comments!
"Downton Abbey" airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.