Worry is perhaps the most constant of all human conditions. There’s always something bearing down on the mind, the soul, the heart, whether it’s the concern of a potentially bad diagnosis or the niggling doubts over one’s path in life. Downton Abbey is a show that gets us to care about the Crawleys and the people in their immediate sphere by appealing to our universal condition. They worry just like us. They have joy but they also have concern, oftentimes in equal measure. For as often as our worries amount to nothing of any great concern, it’s just as likely that hardship can come when we’re least expecting it. Such is the case with poor Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael).
In an episode where Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is in a constant state of dread over the coming test results on her cyst, and the Crawleys are in turmoil over the potential financial ruin of Downton, it’s the one person without a care in the world who winds up with the short straw. Lady Edith has always had it rough, in a way. She’s certainly pretty, after a fashion, but she’s never approached the dazzling, elegant beauty of her sisters, nor has she inspired the number of suitors. She’s very much a woman who’s watched life from the sidelines, rarely getting asked to dance, and watching on as Mary yawned at the prospect of marrying cousin Patrick, with whom Edith nursed a lasting infatuation. This is to say nothing of the bumpy road Edith and Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) have traversed to get to their big wedding day, from Mary’s spiteful sabotage in series one, to Robert’s insinuations last week. Edith isn’t a saint, but she hardly deserved getting ditched at the altar.
It’s not entirely out of left field, since the series has laid the groundwork for this over the course of the entire series, with the insinuations that Strallan is too old, and his infirm condition will make caring for him particularly troublesome for a young woman. We’re also reminded this episode of Robert’s (Hugh Bonneville) grievances, as Strallan sits for a drink with the Earl of Grantham and assures that he’ll do everything he can to make Edith happy, in spite of his objections. Robert insists that it was never personal. Hell, he’s even seemingly gotten used to Branson (Allen Leech), Lady Sybil’s husband. But the pall still hangs over the proceedings, thanks to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) refusing to let the matter go. This climaxes in the wedding where, just as the ceremony is about to begin, Strallan announces that he can’t do this. He tells Edith that she is too young to be tied down to so old a man, with all his infirmities. Edith, and even Robert, try to talk him out of doing this, but the Dowager Countess cuts in and coldly insists that Strallan is right, and that Edith must allow him to go. He flees the church and bolts for his car amidst shocked silence.
The filmmaking does much of the work of communicating just how sad this development is. At the start of the episode, we’re treated to a series of shots of the servants preparing Downton for the wedding, putting out the flowers, rolling out the carpet, setting the table, a happy hustle and bustle for another joyously Downton party. After the jilting, we see this series of shots reversed, the flowers being put away, the carpet being rolled up, Edith’s veil fluttering down from the staircase as she tosses it away. It’s as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. That said, with the Matthew storyline having personal honor as its complication, I find myself wondering if it isn’t too soon to have wrapped another around the auspices of one’s honor, even if it is a very apt issue for proper gentlemen at the time.
Honor has always been a prickly thing on Downton, coming into conflict, more often than not, with a woman’s happiness. I’m not sure what kind of comment that is on the period, or even if it’s a point the show is trying to make, but there appears to be no end in sight. Sir Anthony believes it to be more honorable to abandon Edith at the altar, allowing her to find her own happiness with a man she deserves, despite the fact that he clearly still loves her. Matthew (Dan Stevens) feels it to be more honorable to refuse Reggie Swire’s inheritance since it’s offered under the pretense that he remained true to Lavinia. He does this, even though the money could save Downton and, possibly, his own marriage. And Bates? Well, I’m still wondering when he’s going to stop trying to push Anna away, with all his talk of forgetting about him and moving on with her life. It seems men are making the women they love miserable, in service to some vague notion of honor, or of the greater good. The conflict this usually creates is rife with drama, but it has the dual effect of feeling awfully contrived, a means to prolong a story with no legs. Which is why the Matthew storyline tonight is the episode’s best.
The Crawleys are holding a picnic at what is to become their new estate once Downton is sold off. Robert has the thought to rename it Downton Place (doesn’t have the same ring to it, really), and Cora is taken with the place. For a woman of wealth, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has never placed that high a premium on money or the status it generates, yet Robert is crumbling despite his attempts to take the loss in stride. He fears his status will forever label him as the man who lost Downton. His failure will be complete. However, Matthew receives a letter in the mail written by Reggie Swire just before his death, absolving Matthew of any guilt he might feel over his perceived lack of fidelity to Lavinia, stating that he gives the money to Matthew freely and happily, to use as he sees fit. Because we need the plot to last the episode, Matthew believes there’s a chance that the letter is a forgery, arguing that Lavinia would never have had time to write her father while on her deathbed. Thankfully, upon confronting the staff, Mary (Michelle Dockery) learns that Daisy actually spoke with Lavinia before her death, posting the letter on her behalf. Matthew can now accept the money with a clear conscience.
However, there’s still the obstacle of honor, where Robert is concerned. He refuses to accept Matthew’s gift and, for a brief moment, that appears to be the end of things…at least until Robert responds with a proposal of his own: for Matthew to use the money to invest in Downton, sharing the title of owner with Robert, integrating him into Downton proper. Matthew agrees, and Downton Abbey will now be every bit Matthew’s home as everyone else’s.
In these times, it can be pretty hard to be expected to feel anything approaching genuine relief or joy at the prospect of the rich getting to remain rich. But that’s exactly what happened for me here, more because I’m glad that the absurdity of the “Loss of Downton” storyline is over, for the moment (oh, it’ll come back), but also because of how the investiture of Matthew Crawley brings him over the line into the moneyed bourgeoisie. Next to Branson, Matthew is the last holdout among those who are resisting becoming “one of them.” This crossing of the threshold could have interesting implications for his character, as he attempts to reconcile his working class desires with his uplifted condition.
In other, worry-related developments, Carson (Jim Carter) overhears Hughes discussing her illness with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), which leads to his approaching Dr. Clarkson over how best to help Hughes recover. Carson brings the news to Cora, offering to take some of Hughes’s responsibilities, but Cora goes one step further, calling Hughes to her room and offering her all the hospitality of Downton in her recovery. The story develops the Carson-Hughes dynamic, which is one of the show’s strongest, even central, relationships. They are the heart of the “downstairs” class, and it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine Downton without either one. Their friendship is also among the show’s most understated. Rarely do they confide in one another, but there’s an unspoken fondness there, a tacit understanding of the respect and admiration they share for one another. Carson spends the episode mothering Hughes by trying to keep her off her feet, and though we know that this is absolutely the worst thing for Hughes’s emotional state at the moment, she knows that his episode-long nosiness comes from a good place. Perhaps the most touching moment of the episode is when Hughes breaks the news to Carson, through Mrs. Patmore, that the cyst is benign. As she walks down the halls immediately afterwards, she spies Carson singing happily as he polishes the silver. Hughes can hardly contain her tears, seeing Carson so happy with relief over her condition. It’s a touching moment that doesn’t require an explicit acknowledgment of how close they are, how vital to one another’s lives they’ve become. It’s the kind of moment Downton does best.
Less effective, however, are tonight’s two duds. In the first, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) uses Molesley (Kevin Doyle) to plant the idea in Cora’s head that O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) intends to leave Downton Abbey, creating a host of trouble for O’Brien, who gets lectured to by Cora, who feels betrayed and disappointed. When it comes to light that Thomas is responsible for the lie, O’Brien confronts her former partner-in-crime and gives him a stern warning of the troubles that are going to be coming his way. In the other underwhelming storyline, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) tracks down the close friend of the late Vera, who’s still broken up over her friend’s death and insists that while Vera was depressed, she wasn’t suicidal. She was afraid of Bates and what he might do, and it seems to me that the show seems to be planting the idea that perhaps Bates (Brendan Coyle) isn’t as innocent as we think he is. However, that would probably tear asunder everything we know about Bates, so I’m still having trouble figuring out what their game is here. Bates, for his part, is having troubles of his own, as his cellmate attempts to frame him by placing contraband under his bed. Luckily, Bates a tip-off in the exercise yard and removes the item before the guards can discover it. It’s a subplot that feels like it ends before it ever really starts. There’s also a bit of ancillary business concerning cousin Isobel’s (Penelope Wilton) encounter with ex-Downton maid Ethel Parks, whom we learn has been prostituting. She’s still resistant to accepting Isobel’s help, however. Also, Daisy (Sophie McShera) looks to finally get an arc of her own this season, as it appears she has a crush on new footman Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne). Given how little we’re given on these stories this week, I’ll reserve judgment until we see more. If nothing else, I enjoy Daisy being reintegrated to the fold, and cousin Isobel’s cause-of-the-moment is usually good for some drama.
Of course, ignoring these minor misfires, this is the best episode of Downton this season, thus far. We’re hardly out of the woods, where the subject of honor is concerned, and we’ll never really be out of the woods in the worry department. But it feels like these are people better-equipped to manage, more so than even a year ago, with the war raging about all around them. The resiliency of the Crawleys and their servants are reason enough to justify our investment in the direction the show is headed.