Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 3 Episode 3:
Having watched all of season three in its original UK airing, I was interested to see how my opinion would change, with regards to this episode. If last week’s Downton Abbey was about the difficulty of maintaining appearances and how things are rarely what they appear to be on the surface, this week’s episode seems to suggest the opposite. Sometimes, things are exactly what they appear to be on the surface, which makes it all the more difficult to expect others not to judge, as in the unfortunate case of Ethel Parks. I had imagined that since the occasional scene or subplot from the UK airings get trimmed for the American installment, this episode might have been a bit brisker and less dreary than I had remembered it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really the case. Then again, I’m not sure how they could have cut around the problems I had with the episode initially, assuming they had cut anything at all, which doesn’t appear that they did (in a rare instance of PBS keeping an episode intact from its UK original). This is both to the episode’s benefit and its detriment, as we get a broader sense of context for how the dynamics in the house are changing, both upstairs and downstairs, but at the expense of a truly compelling narrative. What works about the episode basically boils down to the two plots that shoulder its dramatic burden.
Since just after his very first appearance, former chaffeur-turned-son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has been a total pill. I suppose he’s presented as something of a heart throb, a handsome revolutionary who sweeps the sultry Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) off her feet, whisking her away to his native Ireland and knocking her up quicker than time skips forward on this series. Yet while it’s easy to understand Branson’s desire to see his homeland freed from the yoke of British rule, his personal ideology often consisted of taking a combative stance against nearly everyone, whether they were actively talking about the plight of the Irish or not. In a sense, he both holds Ireland’s problems against the moneyed English elite (like his in-laws, the Crawleys) while lording his supposed ideological superiority over them as well. It’s hard to know just how much of Branson’s pretentiousness is a cultural amalgam of revolutionary ideas to which he desperately wishes to cling, or if it’s simply a byproduct of his guilt over having been up-jumped to that bourgeoisie status through his marriage to Sybil. Either way, he’s essentially the Irish Hipster of the 1920s. “You don’t know Ireland’s problems. I know Ireland’s problems. I knew about Ireland’s problems before Ireland had problems. You don’t even know.” And so, even though the issues in Ireland at that time were very real and very serious, it’s hard not to condemn Branson’s utterly tactless approach over the past season and a half. For once, the romantic ideal presented on this show doesn’t turn out to be so romantic.
First, a brief bit of background: at around this time, a conflict was developing in connection with the creation of the Irish Free State, an independent entity from the United Kingdom and its accompanying imperial sovereignty. The Protestant majority in Ireland went out of their way to make sure that Northern Ireland opted out of the rebelling Free State, essentially dividing Ireland into two separate states, and instigating a civil war. Violence became the norm, with terrorism becoming the business of escalation, and though characters like Branson often paid lip service to the notion of a non-violent, political solution to the larger issue of British rule, so that their children and their children’s children might live in a free Ireland, there’s a certain desperation in such men to see Ireland freed today, right now, in their lifetime. Hence, Branson’s storyline tonight, in which he arrives at Downton in the dead of a stormy night, seeking refuge after having been involved in burning down the house of a bourgeoisie family back in Ireland. It turns out that Branson frequently attended the Dublin meetings where these attacks on the Anglo-Irish were planned, a fact he conveniently hid from Sybil, who believed Tom had merely been present but not active.
It stands to reason that Robert (Hugh Bonneville) would be furious and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) mortified. Hell, it’s one of the few times in recent episodes in which Robert doesn’t appear the least bit unreasonable in his outrage, taking his son-in-law to task for leaving a pregnant woman behind in a war-torn country in which she’s not only a foreigner, but also a symbol, as the daughter of a moneyed Earl, of the British oppression that is the cause of all this turmoil. Our sympathy with the Crawleys is why the episode’s climactic turn, in which Branson’s immunity from arrest and prosecution will hinge on his never again setting foot in Ireland, isn’t nearly the tragedy to us that it is to Branson. After blowing all that hot air over the past season and a half, to where does he turn when everything goes to Hell? Downton Abbey, hat in hand. And it’s Robert who uses his contacts to arrange a meeting with the Home Secretary to secure Branson’s freedom, even if it means his exile. Branson at least has the grace to be grateful, but he doesn’t seem all that intent on obeying the directive never to return to Ireland, telling the (thankfully safe) Sybil that he still plans on having their baby in Ireland, one way or another. He still has the hope of returning to his homeland one day, and why shouldn’t he? After all, as we hear from another character in the episode, “Never is a long time.”
The episode’s other storyline is the continuation of last week’s saga with Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), former Downton maid turned prostitute. It would appear that Ethel has come to recognize her error in keeping young Charlie for herself, as opposed to giving him a chance at a life outside the boundaries of poverty by allowing him to live with his wealthy grandparents. She turns to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) for help in contacting Charlie’s grandparents and arranging a meeting, and though Isobel tries to convince Ethel that there has to be some other way, that perhaps they could work out a way for her to keep Charlie and raise him herself, Ethel won’t hear of it. Ethel, when meeting with the boy’s grandparents, declares that the grandfather isn’t a particularly kind man, but that she believes he truly does love her son, every bit as much as his wife appears to, and so she’s decided to allow them to raise Charlie. However, the grandfather adds the provision that she’s not allowed to see Charlie again, a provision to which Ethel can do little else but accede, for the good of young Charlie. The parting between mother and son is as heartbreaking as it is excellently performed – a story like this tends to speak to a more visceral element of the human condition, particularly in an age like ours. Poverty is something against which families, even a family of two, are hard-pressed to overcome. For Ethel, real love is in what you can provide – in the clothes on a child’s back, the roof over his head, the food in his stomach, and the soundness of his mind and body. Motherly love is all she can provide, and while it’s a lovely, fairy tale notion that love sustains all, the truth is that you can’t feed someone love, or clothe them in it, or heal them with it when they’re sick. It’s no fantasy, but instead a devastating actuality that leads her to this decision. She resigns herself to never seeing her son again, but our quote above about “Never” is spoken to Ethel by Charlie’s lovely, sweet-natured grandmother, which means, at least, that there’s hope that the parting won’t be permanent.
These are the two best elements of an episode that suffers from not having a clear, motivated narrative. The episode just sort of meanders from one point to another, checking in with characters who are perhaps better left unaddressed, such as Daisy (Sophie McShera), who gets a bit of advice from her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), to pursue her crush object, new footman Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne). It’s not necessarily that the story is uninteresting, but that it lacks the immediate substance of the above plotlines, and feels pretty inconsequential in the larger context of the episode. And the introduction of the lovely new kitchen maid Ivy Stewart (Cara Theobold) at just the moment when Daisy was about to confess her feelings felt awfully trite, even for a show that’s ostensibly a soap opera.
In addition, the interminable business with Bates (Brendan Coyle) continues, as he despairs over having not received a letter from Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in weeks. Likewise, Anna hasn’t received any word from Bates, and his visitation privileges have been revoked, leading to her erstwhile assumption that her husband is “being gallant” and trying to force her to forget about him. What’s funny is that this wouldn’t entirely be out of character for Bates, a man so stoic and forthright in his convictions as to be noble to the point of tediousness. However, this isn’t actually the case. As it turns out, the missing letters and revoked visitation privileges are the doing of cellmate Craig, and a crooked, anti-Bates warden. The aid of a sympathetic prisoner who hates Craig allows Bates to undo much of the damage being done to him, as he plants in Craig’s bed the same contraband that Craig had tried to plant in his, leading to Craig being caught and reprimanded, and putting Bates back in favor. Though it ultimately wasn’t an outburst of Bates’s pride that caused the separation between himself and Anna, this episode clues us in to the fact that Bates has finally set aside the pride that’s been causing him to push Anna away. He admits that he needs Anna, essentially intoning his fear of her having given up on him. It’s a significant bit of growth from the heretofore reserved, stoic Bates, who endured and endured with relative grace. He’s actually acting like a person now, as opposed to the minor martyr he’s been portrayed as over the years. But the plotline still isn’t all that interesting, and it saps the episode of any sense of momentum.
That said, the minor subplots aren’t completely devoid of merit. I enjoyed watching Carson (Jim Carter) teaching Alfred the difference between the various kinds of spoons set out at the dinner table, in addition to the hiring of a new footman for his lordship, the rakishly handsome Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers), a hire based solely on the need to throw the ladies in the house a bone, and providing the house with a pleasant bit of eye candy. Thomas (Rob James-Collier) seems equal parts threatened and enticed by Jimmy. I also enjoyed Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) gradually recovering from the wedding debacle last week, finding something substantial to do with her time, at the encouragement of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), and on the advice of Matthew (Dan Stevens), who compels her to write a letter to the Times, espousing her views on the disparity of voting policies and suffrage in England. To her surprise, the letter is published, and though Matthew is pleased, Robert is ruffled, continuing a long-standing tradition of Edith being unable to catch a break. Nor can Matthew, it seems, as Robert shuts down his concerns about how Downton is being run. Now that Matthew has made an investment in the estate, I imagine this will become a conflict between Downton’s two lords, and it should be interesting, if for no other reason than because we’ve rarely seen the kinship and bond between cousins Robert and Matthew tested in any significant way.
Though the episode is a bit of a slog, it’s at least consistent with the initial British airing, as neither the season premiere nor last week’s episode was fully intact from how it aired across the pond. In fact, the episode that aired tonight was the fourth episode in the UK airing, whereas last week’s episode was a combination of the second and third episodes of the UK airing. I don’t know why PBS does this, other than to assume that it’s because US television has a more restrictive standard on time constraints. But this is one of the few times where an episode doesn’t really suffer for it, the way some of the episodes of season two seemed incomplete in their American iteration. I can’t be sure how the rest of the season will play out, when it comes to editing, but this is one case where I can confidently say that you didn’t miss much of anything between this airing and the original.