Try as they might, Lord Grantham and Carson cannot stop the winds of change from upending the once tidy, well-ordered life of the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. In Sunday night’s installment, the Irish War for independence comes banging on the front door in the form of a soaking wet Branson (I know, it’s “Tom” but tonight he was vintage Branson through and through) delivering one of my favorite shows of the entire series.
Having gotten Shirley Maclaine’s distracting guest starring stint and two very different weddings and their respective dramas out of the way, Julian Fellowes wrote an episode to draw us back into the much more interesting than they have a right to be daily existences of the Granthams, Crawleys and their incredibly snobby staff (Mr. Moseley and Mrs. Bird I’m talking to you! If I were Ethel I’d have hissed at the old bird!) Sunday night it paid off in a fast-paced episode with especially snappy dialogue that managed to move all the game pieces several spaces ahead with some clever twists and one lively new character all while wiping out a whole box of tissues with one heartbreaking scene I’ll be thinking about for days.
On the same evening that the Granthams are entertaining the Archbishop of York where Lord G proudly touts his bigotry against Catholics (“There always seems to be something ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about the Catholics”), Branson turns up without Sybil explaining to Mary that he had to make a run from the police and left her behind to make her own way out. Rather than throw him back out into the stormy night, Mary hides him upstairs until their guest is gone.
If you actually thought that Lord Grantham was actually starting to accept Branson as part of the family, think again. After learning that his Fenian son in law left his wife behind in Dublin and the authorities are after him because they think he was “one of the instigators” in burning down a British aristocrat’s house, Lord G explodes with rage. Having thought the former chauffeur (“our tame revolutionary” as Robert called him last week) had finally put all that silly talk about freeing Ireland aside and embraced his inner aristocrat, the family is shocked by his actions. Cora is incredulous: “You gave them Sybil to save yourself.” Mary is horrified that the family whose house was destroyed belonged to a social swan she once knew. (“We came out together!”) But the Dowager Countess, who can always be counted on to put things in their proper perspective, thought the estate a bit unsightly and perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. “That house was hideous” she offers to defuse the tension in the room.
But Robert is not amused, particularly when Branson admits that while he didn’t set the fire, he was there to see the house burn to the ground. How could he be a part of this when the house is so much like the one he’s sitting in right now? asks Mary. “Those places are different for me – I don’t see charm and gracious living, I see something horrible.” But then admits, “When I saw them turned out watching their home burn I was sorry.”
“What a harsh world you live in,” says a disapproving Lord G.
To which Branson replies with the best line of dialogue in the episode that encapsulates its not so subtle theme: “We all live in a harsh world. At least I know I do.”
Cora tells Robert he must pull whatever strings he can to keep Branson out of jail for the family’s sake. “Go to bed!” he bellows at his son in law. (Funny enough Carson bellows the same directive downstairs when he’s had enough of the staff.) “I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” Upstairs, the confused – and yes, tamed — revolutionary dissolves into tears. Mostly for Sybil, I’m sure, but yet I also get the sense that he’s feeling just a bit torn now that he’s crossed the great class divide, put on evening clothes and played billiards with Matthew in the big house.
The next morning there’s more tears as Sybil shows up and there’s a reunion set to the couple’s love theme and accompanied by some dizzying camerawork. (It reminded me of E! 360 Glam Cam.) The couple faces another dressing down from Lord G who went to London and made sure Branson is off the hook. The authorities “don’t want to make a martyr” out of Branson, says Lord G, so they’re willing to let him go on the condition that he never return to Ireland. They are to stay at Downton. Branson is outraged but hardly in a position to object – especially since he hadn’t told Sybil he went to several meetings she hadn’t known about. Is there trouble in paradise? Sybil has gone through too much and needs “peace and safety,” says Cora. Their baby will be born in England not Dublin – a convenient plot point that keeps my favorite couple at Downton giving Lord G and Carson plenty to harrumph about for the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Mary, who seems perpetually annoyed at Matthew, is encouraging her husband to jump headfirst into being Downton’s co-owner. “You have to pull your weight,” she tells him as she’s being waited on hand and foot by her BFF and lady’s maid, Anna. Then she gets even more aggravated at him when he does. For his part, Carson isn’t sure what having two masters of the house means and asks, “Am I to answer to you both?” and is reassured when Matthew says, “Nothing has changed.” Sensing the opportunity he’s been waiting for, Carson asks the million pound question, “Can we bring the staff up to snuff?” to which the financially maladroit Lord G says, “Yes.” Not so fast, says Matthew, who after all supplied the loot for all the hiring the first lord of the manner just approved. But no one pays attention to his call for a modern, modest way of life. His father in law dismisses his objection as if swatting away a fly.
When Matthew does delve into the books, he finds a financial mess (did you expect anything less from a man who nearly bankrupted the family with bad investments?) and when he brings his concerns up to Lord G, they’re brushed aside. Matthew finds a surprising ally in the Dowager Countess when he tells her there’s been “no proper management for years.” Go ahead and do what you think you must, she tells him and don’t worry if you put some noses out of joint in the process. Seems Violet can’t get enough drama.
Matthew is also dismissed by his wife after she summons him to the nursery. He’s got babies on the brain and gets his hopes up when he hears that Mary has gone to the doctor, but she informs him she’s picking out fabrics for their new sitting room and any talk of babies will have to wait until the couple is “a little further down the line.” So much for newlywed bliss.
Speaking of weddings, Edith has seemingly bounced back quite nicely from being left at the altar which makes me happy because I’m rooting for her. Who needs that weird looking old codger anyway? The girl deserves a break, for god’s sake. There seems to be no shortage of advice from the family on what she should do. The Dowager Countess tells her: “Edith, dear, you’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability – stop whining and find something to do!” And she does, writing a letter to the editor of the Times (at Matthew’s suggestion) criticizing England’s laws on women’s voting rights now that the 19th Amendment has passed in the states are giving women the right to vote. It was great watching the increasingly insufferable Lord G, who was certain the paper would never publish Edith’s writing, get his comeuppance when he found Edith’s letter in his morning paper. “Well done!” offers Matthew while his horrified father-in-law looks for solace in his fellow change hater, Carson. Could a career in journalism be in the cards for Edith? Or perhaps she’ll become Downton’s own Jane Austen and exposure “the underbelly” of her relatives who have been ignoring her since she was born. Go, Edith!
Downstairs, a handsome and cocky new footman Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers, who looks like a young Simon Baker) arrives on the scene and sets everyone’s heart aflutter. While being interviewed by Carson, he tells him that his last employer “begged” him to move to France with her and he feared he wouldn’t like the food so he didn’t go. “Begged?” says Carson sensing he is dealing with yet another servant who doesn’t know his place in a household. “You know how women can be,” he says by way of explanation to which Carson offers this retort: “Not as much as you do.” Jimmy gets the job, of course, (and rechristened ‘James’ by Carson) and even Lady Violet is smitten. “He looks like a footman in a musical review,” she says when she sees him in the dining room for the first time. Thomas’ keen interest in Jimmy/James does not go unnoticed by O’Brien and I’m sensing this is going to result in some downright evil doings. Yikes.
I’m saving the best and most heartbreaking development for the end of my recap. (What can I say, I love a good cry) Ethel enlists the aid of Mrs. Hughes and Isobel to reach out to the ghastly Mr. Bryant and his mousy wife and arrange a meeting where she plans to give them her beloved son, Charlie because she see no way out of her life as a prostitute. (“I have no life. I just exist.”) Isobel does her best to convince the former maid that she does not have to give up her child, that she can help her, but Ethel is undeterred.
With adorable Charlie in tow, Ethel arrives at Isobel’s house where the Bryants have come with a teddy bear for the child and an offer of financial support for Ethel unaware of what she has in mind. “We know what you are,” sneers Mr. Bryant while his wife tries to soften the blow with, “We’re not judging you. We’ve decided to offer you some money.” That money could Ethel the funds she needs to give up being a lady of the evening (“Unless you like it,” says the hateful man). His words don’t hurt her, she’s too numb. There is no insult Bryant can hurl at Ethel now that she is about to give up her heart and the remaining shreds of her life so that her son may live the life of a gentleman.
I could barely hear the dialogue over my own sobs when Ethel bends down to say goodbye to the adorable tot whispering in his ear, “You have my blessing for your whole life my darling boy,” adding that she knows he won’t remember these words or her, but they will stay with him nonetheless. Amy Nutall’s acting is superb here and the child actor’s naturalness makes their parting one of the heartrending I’ve ever seen on television. Remember Ethel back in the early days when the saucy maid sat at the table in Downton’s servant’s hall reading a tabloid while proclaiming her desire for the good life? A sad, sad fall. This tender, heartbreaking moment is shattered when Bryant comes between them saying, “Let’s not make a meal out it” and walks off with the boy. Mrs. Bryant promises to write and says goodbye leaving Ethel, Mrs. Hughes and Isobel to watch the carriage pull away. Ethel doesn’t seem to fully grasp what she’s given up “forever” until they pull away. Her pained expression says it all as she watches her little boy wave goodbye from the back window of the car. She knows Isobel doesn’t approve and she’s right. The kindly Mrs. Hughes tries to reassure her telling her, “You did the right thing for the boy” because of the harsh realities of their world. Ethel finally walks off alone which is a good thing because by then, I was out of Kleenex.
In other news:
The Bates Anna storyline is going nowhere and has gotten really really tiresome I like both of these characters but enough already. Tonight they both were miserable because neither one had received a letter from the other and didn’t know why. It was because Bates had been declared a ‘dangerous’ prisoner after roughing his lovely cellmate who has a connection to a “dealer on the outside” (so that mystery package was drugs!). As a result, he wasn’t allowed mail or visitors. When a fellow prisoner explains all this to Bates he overjoyed because it means Anna hasn’t given up on him after all. He fishes out the contraband he was hiding last week and turns the tables on this enemy and just like that, is back in the guards good graces. Cut to scenes of Anna and Bates each lying in their respective beds reading batches of long delayed letters. Just get him out of there.
Daisy, who for some inexplicable reason gets far too much screen time every week, was just about to tell Alfred how she feels about him (with William’s dad’s blessing to boot!) when she finally got her wish for a new kitchen maid. As luck would have it, Mrs. Patmore brought the new girl around for introductions just in time to interrupt Daisy’s declaration and wouldn’t you know it, she was pretty enough to catch Alfred’s eye. You know what they say – be careful what you wish for.
I’ll tell you what I wish, there are only four (!?!) episodes left in the season that’s barely begun, so I’m putting in my request now for a 13 episode order for season four. See you next week!
Diane Clehane is a New York Times best seller author and journalist who writes on her many obsessions: television, fashion, pop culture, parenthood, the British royal family, and Downton Abbey. She will be recapping Downton’s entire season.
New Episodes of “Downton Abbey” air on Sundays at 9/8c on PBS.