“No family is ever what it seems from the outside.”
This nugget of wisdom is brought to us by Downton Abbey‘s resident witticist, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), in relation to one of the hardest characters to get a grip on in the series so far, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). If last week was about the prickly nature of pride, this week is about the prideful facing the reality of their situation, and sucking it up. This is a more resonant theme in some cases than in others. Since just after his very first appearance, Branson has been a total pill. There’s pride in one’s country and the earnest desire to see the homeland freed from the yoke of British rule, but then there’s Branson’s ideology, which is taking an adversarial stance against nearly everyone in his immediate sphere, both holding Ireland’s problems against them while lording his imagined ideological superiority over the entire lot. He’s 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 approach outright. We learn tonight that Branson has been involved in burning down the house of a bourgeoisie family back in Ireland, after frequently having attended the Dublin meetings where these attacks on the Anglo-Irish were planned, a fact he conveniently hid from Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who believed Tom had merely been present but not active.
At around this time, the Protestant majority saw to it that Northern Ireland was not included in the rebelling Free State, leading to an internecine civil war among the Irish, in addition to the larger conflict with the British. Violence had become the norm, with terrorism becoming the business of escalation, and though characters like Branson often paid lip service to the notion of a political solution to the larger issue of British rule, there’s a certain desperation tinging such men, to see a free Ireland today, right now, in their lifetime. Nothing else will do but for this to come to fruition. And that’s an entirely understandable ideology, in itself. But Branson is just such an abrasive character that it’s hard to get at the center of his pathos. Which is why the episode’s climactic turn in the Branson storyline, his freedom from arrest and prosecution under the condition that he never return to Ireland, isn’t nearly as resonant as it should be. After blowing all that hot air over the seasons, Branson leaves Sybil in Ireland while he makes his escape, with plans for her to follow after him. And where does he turn? Downton Abbey, hat in hand. For once, Robert doesn’t appear the least bit unreasonable in his rage, excoriating his son-in-law for leaving a pregnant woman behind in a war-torn country in which she’s a foreigner, if not a symbol of British oppression. Of course, it’s up to Robert to use his contacts to meet 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. After all, as we hear from another character in the episode, “Never is a long time.”
Former Downton maid and current fallen woman, Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), has come to realize that she was being selfish when she elected, last season, to keep her son for herself, as opposed to allowing him to live with his wealthy grandparents. Ethel turns to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) for help in contacting little Charlie’s grandparents and arranging a meeting. Isobel tries to convince Ethel that there’s another way, that, together, they can work to bring her out of a life of prostitution and into a life where she raises Charlie herself. He might not go to a famous school or anything, but he’ll be alright, and, most importantly, he’ll be with his mother. But Ethel won’t hear of it. Upon meeting with Charlie’s grandparents, she refuses their offer of money and offers them Charlie. The parting between mother and son is heartrending stuff, excellently performed, and speaking to a visceral element of the human experience. Poverty is something against which families, even a family of two, are hard-pressed to overcome. For Ethel, 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. Love is all she can provide, but the love she can provide isn’t what can sustain a human being. At least not in her eyes. And that’s a heartbreaking actuality. 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. If nothing else, cousin Isobel has never met a cause she didn’t like.
Bates (Brendan Coyle), meanwhile, hasn’t 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 the beleaguered Mrs. Bates to assume that her husband is “being gallant” and trying to force her to forget about him. As it turns out, the plot is merely the machination of cellmate Craig and a crooked, anti-Bates warden, who have been withholding Bates’s letters. The aid of the same sympathetic prisoner who warned Bates of cellmate Craig’s intentions last week is key in cluing Bates in and helping him to undo the damage that’s been wrought, including planting in Craig’s bed the same contraband that Craig had tried to plant on Bates. 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. It’s the episode’s best development.
Other developments in the episode see Carson (Jim Carter) hiring a new footman for his lordship, interviewing the rakishly handsome Jimmy Kent for the position. Kent is something of a ladies man, and though the women in the kitchen are swooning, it seems Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is equal parts threatened and enticed. Meanwhile, Daisy (Sophie McShera) is having a hard time confessing her feelings for Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), and, unfortunately, when she finally finds the courage to do so, in walks the pretty new kitchen maid she’s been asking Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to hire all these weeks. Like any young, hot-blooded male, Alfred’s attention immediately goes to the lovely Ivy.
Also, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), still in recovery from having been jilted at the altar, is encouraged by the Dowager Countess to find something to do with herself, and so, on the advice of Matthew (Dan Stevens), she decides 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 (Hugh Bonneville) is ruffled. Poor Edith can’t catch a break. Nor can Matthew, it seems, as Robert puts off his very serious 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.
Ultimately, however, the episode as a whole is a bit of a slog. Amy Nuttall does tremendous work as Ethel Parks, but her troubles have always been a peripheral concern, and the business between Anna and Bates has never been enough to carry an episode on its own. This leaves Branson’s plotline to shoulder the burden, and I don’t feel it gets the task done. It’s not necessarily a bad hour of television, but never has Downton Abbey felt like homework as much as it did tonight, as the plot rushed to check each mark off its list of things to do and characters to visit. We’re at the halfway point in the season, so it’s encouraging that series three has made it this far in without a misstep, but it’s also disheartening in the sense that we should be beginning the process of heading into the home stretch. Shirley MacLaine, though a tremendous force as Cora’s mother, ultimately ended up being a non-factor in the proceedings of the season, disappearing almost as quickly as she arrived. I suppose time will tell as to whether she comes back or not, but beyond this concern, it seems as though very little has changed beyond Matthew investing in Downton. Things have happened, but not a whole lot has changed. Hopefully, this latter half of series three will up the stakes; or at least give us stories we can really sink our teeth into more substantially.