Lords and ladies,
We bid you welcome to our weekly blog, Downton Abbey Devotees. We would be remiss if we did not caution that Downton Abbey secrets, even gossip, will be revealed in the writing below. We are concerned that the revelations may trigger a splenic attack for those unfortunates who haven’t seen the new episodes. Perhaps they should depart forthwith?
Patricia: The theme of the week is SCANDAL! In Edwardian society, that deserves upper-casing, since any hint of wrongdoing could permanently ruin a person. Truly. Friends and family would disown the disgraced, business doors would slam shut, and forget about invitations to lunch or dinner; those would be a thing of the past.
The first big scandal of the episode involves Shrimpy and Susan, a.k.a. the marquis and marchioness of Flintshire, who are Lady Rose’s parents. The couple, recently returned from a diplomatic posting in India, hate each other with every fibre of their bodies. They have also run through all the family money. And now they want a DIVORCE, which is terribly, horribly unacceptable in the era. They are set to become pariahs, though Robert (in a return to his formerly gentile form after all that huffing about Cora’s art historian) announces that he’s going to continue to associate with Shrimpy, even though Susan is his cousin.
Genna: Man, it is easy to forget what a big, fat, hairy deal divorce used to be, even for the rich, who got the privilege of having most of their sins either swept quietly under the rug or dismissed as eccentricities.
This subplot is delicious, and it may just eliminate one of my chief beefs with this season: There’s no baddie for the characters to unite against. No clear villain has emerged to take the place of card shark and all-around ne’er-do-well, Terrence Sampson. Remember when Susan stole Cora’s beloved lady’s maid? And how about when she planned to banish Rose to Scotland? She’s the worst. And also the best. I can’t wait for more.
Patricia: As those infomercials state, “But wait, there’s more!” The Russian bomb that was dropped on viewers in the last episode detonated. The dowager countess (DC to the devotees) came this close to ditching hubby for a fantastically rich, amazingly romantic Russian prince. The only thing that stopped her from being swept away in a sleigh onto the Russian steppes was the gift from her husband of a Fabergé frame containing the pictures of her children. Ahh, right. Because if she’d flitted off with Prince Igor Kuragin, she’d never see them again. (Click on the link, for more on the power of Fabergé, when combined with portraits of children.)
Now, she’s trying to figure out if Kuragin’s horror of a wife is still alive—ostensibly, to help him, but in part, to see if she can renew their relationship. And that makes her tut-tutting regarding Lady Mary’s week of love look a tad disingenuous. As colleague Genna bluntly states: “Pot calling the kettle a floozie.” (For more on what happened to those aristocrats who stayed in Russia, read my review of Former People, which is an amazing account of what happened after the revolution.)
Genna: I never once suspected the Lady DC of being as prim as she makes herself out to be. She’s the smartest person upstairs, by leaps and bounds. Have you heard her comebacks? Who can compose and deliver, “Sybil, vulgarity is no substitute for wit,” on no notice? Anybody who is capable of verbal sparring at that level is way too smart to actually want to sit around drinking tea and looking pretty all day. I think Violet secretly finds aristocratic life lethally boring. Of course, she had a torrid affair with a Russian prince. Born into different circumstances, I could see her as a radical, half-starved suffragette chained to the fence at 10 Downing. The lady has an attitude.
Patricia: And for those wondering about the return of the earl we all know and love, I think the whole “ghastly” art historian storyline—talk about narrowly missing a scandal that would have shaken the abbey to its foundations—was some devious plot by writer Julian Fellowes to get us to take a hard look at Robert. After all, he’s often a secondary figure to all the women. Yet, as he proved when dealing with the “Mrs. Patmore wants her executed nephew recognized on the war memorial” situation, and the “I was wrong to think of selling land as a solution to short-term financial issues, so let’s not do that again” conundrum, he’s the pivot on which the upstairs of Downton Abbey revolves.
And oh, that scene where he comforts Edith. Hankie time!
Genna: Before you go singing the earl’s praises, don’t forget that dreadful scene at dinner. Guest Sarah “s–t disturber” Bunting goads Lord Grantham into hauling Daisy and Mrs. Patmore up to the dining room to discuss the assistant cook’s education. Miss Bunting points out, correctly, but rather impolitely, “You’d like servants to stay in their allotted place from cradle to grave.” And His Lorship throws a tantrum like an overgrown baby in a tux.
Also, I must say that I love the way he sees fit to insult his wife’s friend, the art critic Mr. Bricker: “He flatters her. He always asks her opinion on everything!”
Patricia: Can we talk fashion? Again, Isobel Crawley is the best-dressed woman of the episode (the above picture is all we’ve got from Episode 4, but at least it shows Isobel, along with a rather pale Thomas—see below). Usually, Lady Mary is a close runner-up, but her style suffered an ignoble collapse in London when she wore a red velvet hat with an electric-blue dress that featured a fussy white jabot and matching cuffs. Her evening outfit wasn’t much better. She redeems herself a bit while ditching Lord Gillingham, but again, with that cherry-red hat, which doesn’t go with a burgundy-coloured coat!
And Lady Edith should never wear red when sitting on a red velvet sofa—her body vanished, leaving only a sad, disembodied head.
And, while on the subject of Lady Mary dining in London, may I say that I’m shocked, shocked! that colleague Genna thought a black-tie outfit was appropriate for lunch. Gracious! That said, her encyclopedic knowledge and instant recall of every character’s name is quite astonishing.
Genna: My attention was distracted by the hat, about which, by the way, I disagree with you on the strongest of terms. Mary is decades ahead of the curve with that sublime outfit. Her red-and-blue ensemble makes for a sort of proto colour-blocking effect, and the lacy jabot and square lines portend the androgynous styles of the later 1920s and into the ’30s. The hat is unexpected—and unexpectedly lovely and fresh—with the burgundy-coloured coat. Notice how it matches the cherry-red detail on the sleeves? Fashion rules are for breaking. I’m so, so into it.
You know what I’m not into? Sad Edith. We were reminded this episode that she’s still writing her newspaper column about “the way the world is changing,” but we never hear anything about that anymore. Less sobbing, please, and more writing and political controversy. Forget Tom and Sarah “please go away” Bunting. I want to see Edith take up a cause and garner some attention and recognition in her own right. Her life isn’t only about her kid.
We can’t finish discussing this episode without mentioning the biggest “awww moment” of the season so far. It was cuter than a baby sloth in a onesie.
Patricia: Hmm, Lord Merton wants to marry a middle-class widow. I see issues ahead. But wow, is that the best marriage proposal EVER? (Yes, I realize I’m shouting a lot, but it was an episode worthy of dramatic exclamations.) It was so elegant and eloquent that I was hard-pressed to think of who could do something similar today. Then I remembered how Benedict Cumberbatch announced his recent engagement. Sigh.
Quote of the episode: “I think I could make you happy. I should very much like the chance to try.”—Lord Merton, asking for Isobel Crawley’s hand in marriage.
Next week: What’s up with Thomas? He came back from his father’s “near death” looking dreadful. And was that a needle I saw in his room when Baxter tried to help? Baxter wonders if he went away for treatment and is now trying to keep up with it on his own. Is he on heroin? Opium? Or just the poppycock that passed for mainstream medicine in 1924?