We are not told precisely when this episode takes place, but for a season of Downton Abbey, time is moving glacially. Due to the number of letters Bates holds at the end and the fact that it seems as though Reggie’s money has just been added into the estate, I put this about a month after the last episode, or June 1920.
Unfortunately, this season is just not engaging me in the same way that the first two did. Most of the stories being told are just dull, with the weekly exception of one or two that I find charming. But, only charming -- not compelling or leaving me at the end breathlessly waiting for next week’s installment.
Take the Bates and Anna story as an example. Since the first episode, they have been two of my favorite characters and I have loved watching the evolution of their relationship and their relationships with both the people upstairs and down. This season, however, I get the distinct impression that Fellowes didn’t know what to do with Bates. A story in which we got to explore Bates’ guilt or innocence would have been fascinating and could have gone in a myriad of interesting directions. Instead, there is this odd conspiracy in the prison to keep Bates and Anna apart. This might have been interesting if we were told why Craig is so against Bates, why the Governor of the prison accepted Craig’s story so readily or even why the other prisoner is so willing to help Bates. All we get is enormous angst in both of our main characters about not receiving the letters that is then neatly wrapped up by the end of the episode.
The story of Robert and Matthew running the estate is another example of a story that could be fascinating to watch. The old earl versus the new; the old world versus the new; Mary caught between her father and her husband. The scene with Carson about whether to hire all the new staff was telling. Robert is all for a full contingent; Matthew is unsure that Carson genuinely needs another footman. It turns out that Mr. Murray has been telling Robert for years that the estate is being mishandled. But, rather than listen to his lawyer or his new son-in-law, Robert just imagines that he knows best.
Which would be all right if Robert behaved better in this episode. For someone who has just had his whole world saved, Robert is annoyingly condescending (“Who knows, you might have some good ideas.”), bigoted (“There always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.”) and rude (“Other men have normal families with sons-in-law who farm or preach.”). Throughout the course of this hour, we see him shout and preen and it irritated me beyond the telling of it.
In Robert’s defense, he might have a point about Tom. I find it astonishing that Tom would leave his pregnant wife and run to England to protect himself. No one else seems to be able to believe it either, other than Lady Violet who continues to try to see the good in every situation. It feels almost inevitable that Tom’s passion for his home country would lead to something tragic, but this story felt like a way to get Tom and Sybil back to Downton, not a true exploration of the consequences of such an event. Of course, Robert shouts and yells but in the end does exactly what needs to be done to keep Tom out of prison. While Tom is gracious, humble and grateful, Robert is beyond rude to the man who is, after all, his son-in-law.
Edith is looking for something to do that means something, and that does not include ensuring that the Archbishop sits next to Lady Violet at dinner. Her grandmother sees more than Edith’s parents do and continues to encourage her to do something, anything, rather than just mope. Good for Edith, she gets her letter published in the paper. Again, Robert shouts and carries on before he thinks it through. To Edith’s credit, she listens to her brothers-in-law who support her unconditionally and finds pride in what she did.
Carson annoys me nearly as much as Robert does. The toaster is yet another example (going back to the telephone in season one) of Carson refusing to see the good in anything new. If an employee of mine, let alone a servant, ever spoke to me the way that Carson speaks to Matthew in the scene about hiring the servants or reacts the way he does when Edith’s letter is published, s/he would be out of a job. Robert appears to so wrapped up in his own rudeness that he can’t see it in others.
Maybe the new downstairs staff will shake things up a bit. Jimmy (sorry, James) Kent is the new footman, hired because he is better looking than the other candidate. Of course, Thomas is smitten at once and offers to help Jimmy find his way. Miss O’Brien, on the other hand, wants Alfred to be head footman and Jimmy to be under him. Could it be that this poor boy is being set up as a pawn between these two?
Daisy finally has her new kitchen maid which means that she is now a proper assistant cook. But, what a double-edged sword. Ivy comes in and Alfred takes an immediate liking to her. So, we’re going to have a triangle downstairs now. Guess we’ve done without that particular plot point for long enough and it’s time to resurrect it.
The story I did like, very much, was Ethel’s. Although she has never ranked among my favorite characters, the story of her chosen profession and the choices she has to make about Charlie are heartbreaking. The scene where Ethel says goodbye to her son and then walks away, her arms wrapped around herself, brought me to tears.
It is, not surprisingly, the women who support Ethel and her decision to give up Charlie. Isobel is astonishingly kind throughout, and appears to be the first person in quite a while who is firmly on Ethel’s side. Mrs. Hughes, who seems to have disappeared from Ethel’s life, finds the right words of comfort at the end. Even Mrs. Bryant understands what it is that Ethel has just done and promises to help in any way she can.
Bits and Bobs:
-- The Nineteenth Amendment (“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.") was ratified by Tennessee on August 18, 1920 at which point it became law throughout the United States. Just as a matter of amusement, Mississippi did not ratify it until 1984.
-- Although some women got the vote in the UK in 1918, it wasn’t until 1928 that women received the same rights of men in terms of the vote.
-- In old English money, a guinea was the equivalent of a pound and a shilling, or 21 shillings. It was often used for more upper class expenses such as land, professional fees and luxury items such as Lady Violet’s scent. The more prosaic expenses were paid for in pounds.
-- Maud Gonne was an English-born Irish revolutionary and feminist. A magnificent woman, she fought hard for Irish independence while at the same time managing to shock the establishment by having affairs with William Butler Yeats (much older than she) and Ezra Pound (much younger than she). Lady Gregory was another wonderful woman. Also born into the English aristocracy, she was a writer famous for her salons and a strong supporter of Irish Home Rule. Constance Markievicz is my favorite. In addition to supporting Ireland, she was very active in politics and ended up in prison several times for her work. She was the first woman in the world to hold a cabinet position.
-- Sarah Wilson was the first woman war correspondent, covering the Boer War. She was a Churchill. Sir Winston was her nephew, the son of one of her brothers.
Lady Violet: “Edith dear, you are a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do!”
Tom: “Those places are different for me. I don’t look at them and see charm and gracious living. I see something horrible.”
Lady Violet: “With Drumgoole Castle, I rather agree.”
Lady Violet: “Lady Gregory, Countess Markievicz… why are the Irish rebels so well born?”
Carson: “Hard work and diligence weigh more than beauty in the real world.”
Lady Violet: “If only that were true.”
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.