We return to “Downton Abbey” this week and find that, despite Edith’s horrifying rejection at the altar, life continues on for our beloved Brits. Though Matthew has (finally) agrees to save Downton from a fire sale, that hardly means everything is smooth sailing. This week’s episode takes a while to warm up, but once it does it suggests some difficult times are ahead for some pivotal characters (no spoilers, no spoilers) and that we’re going to see even more cracks in the problematic class structure and political landscape of 1920s England. As much as I’ve enjoyed the more insular storylines (and there’s still plenty of house intrigue), I can appreciate that in season three we’re moving into a broader view of what was happening in the world beyond Downton — even if it’s abundantly clear that not all of it was good.
Bates gets the upper hand over his cellmate and Anna worries
Let’s see how quickly I can summarize this particular plot line — because really, the less time we focus on Bates’ prison life, the better. As much as I love Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) together, if I wanted to watch prison intrigue I’d scare up some excellent old episodes of “Oz,” which would be far more interesting and resonant than this storyline. Watching Bates grappling with his mean, dunderheaded cellmate Craig is stressful (dumb doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous) but it’s not exactly stimulating television. In any case, here goes: Bates’ jail buddy alerts him to Craig’s in with a dirty guard, Bates turns the tables and plants something… brown (seriously, no idea what it is) in Craig’s mattress, Craig is dragged away (probably to solitary) and Bates gets a stack of letters from Anna that had been withheld.
When Bates asks the guard who tosses the thick stack of letters at him why he’s suddenly receiving his mail again, the guy shrugs and says, “You were out of favor. Now you’re in favor again.” I guess that explanation’s supposed to satisfy us as well, but we don’t see enough of the jail to know anything about the inner workings of the place or the shenanigans going on with dirty guards, so this just feels like slipshod storytelling. Still, I’m not sure I want to know more than I already do — to spend too much time in the jail system would throw off the balance of “Downton Abbey,” so I can only hope that Bates gets out of here, and soon.
The happy turn, of course, is that Bates’ letters to Anna were also being withheld, and with this change in his status Bates’ letters to her are released as well. Watching her become more and more withdrawn and distraught throughout the episode believing Bates was trying to set her free by cutting off contact, then be treated to a big stack of reading material, almost makes this otherwise unsatisfying storyline worth it.
Sybil and Branson return to Downton, but not under the best circumstances
Edith knows something is up after a cryptic phone call from Sybil, but Mary is still shocked when Branson shows up at the door, soaking wet and panicked. It seems that he’s on the run from Irish authorities who believe he played a hand in the arson fire that destroyed a castle. When Mary whispers the news to Robert that Branson has arrived under questionable circumstances, he sputters, “Other men with normal families have sons-in-law who farm or preach or serve their countries!”
The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who can always be counted on for a pithy comeback, says, “Maybe they do, but no family is ever what it seems from the outside.” And Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is soon tasked with the responsibility of making sure the Crawleys appear to be respectable, at least from the outside. Branson (I should refer to him Tom, but I’m so used to him being Branson) explains how he grabbed the last train out of town and left Sybil to fend for herself in the morning. “You mean you gave them Sybil while you saved yourself?” Cora asks with understandable indignation.
But Branson is far too busy having an epiphany to worry too much about the Crawleys’ rising panic. He admits he was at the burning of the castle, but “those places are different for me. I don’t look at them and see charmed and gracious living. I see something horrible. But when I saw them turned out, standing there with their children, all of them in tears watching their home burn… I was sorry.” Given that Mary actually knows the daughter of the family that lost that castle, no one in the room is exactly overflowing with sympathy for Branson. Eventually he retires to his room, in tears. I’m guessing he’s worried about his wife and he’s also questioning the cause, but I couldn’t say which one is more important to him.
After much stomping and railing, the next morning Robert goes to London to plead for Branson. Sybil finally arrives at the house, which leads to an emotional reunion with Thomas, but when Robert delivers the news of Branson’s fate, it’s not the happy ending we might expect. Branson can never return to Ireland — and if he does, he’ll be arrested the moment he sets foot on dry land. It seems Branson didn’t tell the Crawleys everything — like the little detail about his attending meetings during with attacks on the Anglo-Irish were planned. Sybil, who had been holding her husband’s hand, drops it.
That night, Sybil confronts Branson about not telling her about the meetings. “I never told you I didn’t,” he huffs. “I know I can’t stay here, not for long.” Yeah, well Sybil isn’t going back to Ireland, not while she’s pregnant. She knows she’ll get medical care and help if she has the baby at Downton. “You’re very free with your musts,” Tom sneers, and it’s at this particular moment that I sort of want to shake him. Sybil is clearly important to him, but I’m starting to think that, as “evolved” as he may be about the freedom of Ireland, he doesn’t see women’s rights as equally important, not if Sybil’s version of equality doesn’t mean following blindly behind him. But eventually he buckles, as even he has to see her logic. But I have a sinking feeling Sybil may be having this baby alone.
Edith finds direction
It’s (apparently) been a month since Edith was dumped at the altar, and she’s reluctantly getting used to her spinster status. But when she looks to Granny (the Dowager Countess) for sympathy, she doesn’t exactly get it. “There must be something you can put your mind to,” Granny says. Like what, gardening? “Oh, nothing as desperate as that… You’re a woman with a brain… stop whining and find something to do!” Edith, being a smart cookie, does exactly that. Upon hearing that American women are getting the vote, and that she still can’t (“I’m not over thirty and I’m not a householder,” she says. “It’s ridiculous,”) she writes a letter to the paper. When Robert sees it’s not only published but gets a big, blaring headline (“Earl’s daughter speaks up for women’s rights”), he’s mortified — but Matthew and Branson are proud of Edith. It suggests a door has been opened for her, and though it may be scandalous, I think she may actually end up getting a job.
Ethel makes a difficult decision
It seems every episode of “Downton Abbey” has to have a depressing storyline, and this one is right up there with the most gut wrenching. Ethel, the fallen maid, finally asks Mrs. Crawley for help. She wants her to give a letter to Mrs. Hughes — she wants to request a meeting with Charlie’s grandparents, the Bryants. “Will you write to the Bryants, that I want them to have Charlie?” she asks Mrs. Hughes. Yes, Ethel, who violently opposed the suggestion before, now feels she has no other choice but to give in to the bullying Mr. Bryant.
Mrs. Crawley tries to argue that she can help her get back on her feet so that she can give her son a good home. “Ethel, you have a choice,” she says in her spirited, optimistic way. “I suppose Mr. Crawley went to a famous school and university?” Ethel shoots back, and for once, Mrs. Crawley is rendered silent. No matter how much she may want to believe there’s a level playing field in England, the truth says otherwise.
Ethel knows that to keep Charlie would be to deny him opportunities, and she knows that her downward spiral has only just begun. “I’ve got no life,” she says. “I exist, but barely.” Even Mrs. Crawley’s maid Mrs. Bird is nasty to Ethel, as if prostitution is somehow contagious.
Of course, Mr. Bryant couldn’t possibly make this transition easy on Ethel. “We know what you are now, Ethel,” he sneers. “We know how far you’ve fallen.” He admits he’s had someone spy on her, then adds, “I judge her and I find her wanting.”
Finally, Ethel rips off the Band-Aid. “I don’t think you’re a nice man or a kind one, but I believe you love my boy. So you’ll be pleased by what I’ve com here to say.” He practically priest the little boy out of Ethel’s arms, mumbling, “Let’s not make a meal of it,” and Mrs. Crawley watches in silent disapproval.
Only Mrs. Hughes is able to tell Ethel she made the right decision. “You’ve done a hard thing, Ethel. You’ve done the hardest thing of all. You’ve done the right thing for the boy.” She and Mrs. Crawley watch the former maid, the one who dreamt of being an actress in Hollywood, disappear into the town to face an uncertain future. “She’s taken the road to ruin,” Mrs. Hughes sighs. “There’s no way back.”
This storyline is the crushing indictment of both the times and the British class structure that we probably need, lest we get too swept up in the glamor of Downton. Beneath the surface, women of a certain class had few rights and fewer options, and the idea that Ethel, having no other way to support herself, is forced into prostitution is a dark twist. Even if I do want her to bust out into “I Dreamed A Dream” more than once.
A new footman is hired
Upon learning that Matthew will be shoring up Downton Abbey’s finances, Carson eagerly starts rattling off his wish list of new hires. He wants a footman, Mrs. Hughes wants a housemaid, and Mrs. Patmore (and Daisy) want a new kitchen maid. Matthew is noticeably uncomfortable with this, but Robert gives Carson the go-ahead. Robert clearly believes everything is back to normal — though I’m not sure how long Matthew will be able to go along with bloated, free-spending, “normal” Downton. Anyway, Carson starts grooming Alfred for the footman job, which Thomas can’t quite understand. “I feel quite jealous,” he says upon seeing Carson quiz Alfred on spoons.
Carson coolly replies, “I don’t know why… he asked for help. You never did.”
But Carson’s efforts come to nothing once Jimmy Kent applies for the job. Jimmy is cocky and good looking, and once Carson admits this to Mary, he’s got the job. “Oh do pick him, Carson, and cheer us all up a bit. Alfred’s very nice, but he does look like a puppy who’s been rescued from a puddle,” she says. Though Carson makes a halfhearted case for Alfred (the halfheartedness being mostly focused on his being related to O’Brien), Mary has her heart set on Jimmy. “Tell the maids they can buy their valentines,” she chirps as Cason leaves the room.
O’Brien doesn’t seem too distressed that Jimmy gets the job over Alfred, but that might be because she sees in him a worthy rival for Thomas. Even though the battle between O’Brien and Thomas seems to have died down a bit, I don’t think it’s over.
Matthew makes a troubling discovery
Matthew doesn’t want to get into the details of Downton, but Mary tells him to grow the hell up and look over the books. The problem? He finds the place is being horribly mismanaged. Robert doesn’t want to hear about it, and when Matthew goes to the Dowager Countess to ask how he might unravel the problem without getting noses out of joint, he finds no easy answers.
Daisy can’t win
When Alfred gets taken down a notch by Jimmy’s arrival, he takes a moment to thank Daisy for coming to his defense when there’s some debate over who should serve the vegetables. She’s finally ready to be forward and make a play for him — just as the new kitchen maid, Ivy, shows up. Alfred is instantly smitten, and just like that Daisy’s hopes for a romantic entanglement are dashed. I can’t stop thinking everything would change for her if she got a haircut with bangs, but no matter. She finally gets the kitchen maid she wanted so badly, and it turns out to be another cross to bear. When Ivy says she hopes they’ll get on, Daisy snipes, “We don’t have to get on. We have to work together.” Increasingly, I think that’s all Daisy will ever get out of Downton — work.
Mrs. Hughes gets an electric toaster
Well, I get the impression I read her reaction completely wrong last week — it seems like Mrs. Hughes really does have a benign something-or-other, as I don’t think she would have gone out to buy an electric toaster as a “treat” if she thought she were fixing to die. It’s not much of a storyline, but it does suggest another change ahead for Downton (newfangled electrical appliances!) and it gives Mr. Carson an opportunity to be utterly horrified. When Mrs. Hughes presents her electric toaster, he reacts as if she just whipped out a merrily buzzing sex toy. “Is it not enough we’re sheltering a dangerous revolutionary, Mrs. Hughes? Could you not have spared me that?” he says in his stentorian voice, eyebrows fluttering. For an episode with lots of ominous overtones about the future, it’s just the right amount of wrong.
Do you think Matthew will decide to “get noses out of joint” about Downton’s mismanagement? Do you think we’ll ever see Ethel again? And what do you see ahead for Edith?