Downton Abbey – Recap: A Rose By Any Other Name
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Series 4 Episode 2:
As Downton Abbey reorganizes itself in the wake of last season’s big developments, a certain amount of patience is necessary, since the show is going to spend an awful lot of time being relatively dry with its storytelling. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, necessarily, but this week was one of the slower episodes in recent memory. I understand the need for careful setup, as we begin the process of moving Mary (Michelle Dockery) into the next, post-Matthew phase of her life, but this doesn’t really explain the glacial pace of everyone else’s storylines. Why all the mystery about the nature of the feud between Carson (Jim Carter) and Grigg (Nicky Henson) if it was just going to turn out to be over a girl they both loved in their youth? Why the continued focus on Molesley (Kevin Doyle), or the circuitous scheming of Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and Edna (MyAnna Buring)? All-in-all, this was a fairly middling episode that didn’t pick up in any substantive fashion until the very end.
The biggest development of the episode is Robert’s (Hugh Bonneville) discovery of a letter among Matthew’s belongings detailing his wishes for the estate, an embryonic will of sorts that may or may not be legally binding. The letter itself, written just before the family left for Duneagle last season, names Mary his sole heiress, which upsets Robert. Violet (Maggie Smith) immediately catches on that Robert would prefer to have the running of the estate left entirely to himself, as he doesn’t want to share power with (or surrender it completely to) Mary. Robert doesn’t want to admit this, but he makes his position pretty clear when he grills Mary at dinner about her lack of knowledge about the practicalities of running the estate. Violet, properly annoyed at her son’s childish behavior, has Branson (Allen Leech) take Mary along on his rounds so she can pick up the business and learn the ins and outs of estate management, since she feels her granddaughter should have a say (and also because Robert is becoming a bit desperate with his hold on power). If nothing else, Mary proves herself to be game for the setup, as she accompanies Branson and familiarizes herself with the land. The storyline is the episode’s most substantive, as it furthers Mary’s growth beyond Matthew’s shadow, in addition to reorienting the politics of Downton, as Mary now has a larger voice in the management of the estate than she ever had before. The story exhibits a certain progressiveness in its mindset, as the power is slipping away from the patriarch of the family, and into the hands of the women — women who, in many ways, have helped Downton to thrive by producing heirs in the first place.
Yet the episode has other stories that help comment on the theme of changing power structures, at least where class is concerned. Lady Rose (Lily James) asks Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to accompany her to a dance in York for blue collar workers. In going to the dance, Rose must pretend she’s a worker herself, a task that proves difficult, what with her high-born accent and overall comportment. She lies to a handsome suitor named Sam Thawley, telling him that she’s a maid from Downton and her accent is the result of having worked all over the place. But being gorgeous means that none of the details really matter, and so it’s no surprise that Rose proves to be a big hit at the event. Such a big hit, in fact, that a fight breaks out over the right to dance with her. Sam gets into a fight while Rose badgers the man attacking him to leave him alone, and it’s pandemonium as the cops storm in. Luckily, Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers) is on hand to whisk the ladies away before they can get lumped in with the rest of the crowd. However, this isn’t the end of Rose’s little sojourn into the land of the blue collar worker, as Sam tracks her back to Downton and asks to meet with her. Panicked, Rose throws on a maid’s uniform and comes outside to meet with the man.
What follows is a genuinely sweet scene, as Rose clearly wants to see Sam, but knows that the class differential won’t allow it (although one would think Sybil having married the family chauffeur would have shown Rose that she needn’t necessarily write off someone of a lower class. Granted, for it to work, Rose would have to be willing to fight her family’s objections for the right to see Sam, and I’m not sure how willing she’d be to commit that kind of effort). Rose lets Sam down gently by saying that there’s someone else, and it’s a rare moment of cautious judgment from the usually-rebellious Rose, who’s been known to keep company with married men in the past, among other men of questionable character. Ultimately, she sends him on his way with a fairly passionate kiss, and the declaration that any woman would be lucky to have him. There’s clear regret in her eyes about the decision to let him go, but it’s another in a long line of unfortunate necessities of Rose’s overprotected life.
As for the other storylines, some work better than others. The only minor story that manages any resonance is the end of the feud between Carson and Grigg, as both Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Hughes (Phyllis Logan) try to compel Carson to give his old friend one last meeting before he goes off to start a new job in Belfast. But Carson is obstinate, and refuses to give the man an opportunity to make amends for whatever past harm was done. Yet Carson softens when Hughes makes one last plea on Grigg’s behalf, saying that both men need closure. And so Carson meets with Grigg at the train station, and we learn that the feud originated over a woman named Alice, whom they both loved. Alice chose Grigg and Carson harbored that resentment ever since, as he felt his old friend set out to steal the woman he loved. Yet Grigg sets the record straight, saying it was never his intention to steal Alice away — and besides, he says, Alice loved Carson anyway. As Grigg explains, Alice all but admitted that she’d made a mistake, and that she could have been happy with Carson. The statement brings a certain peace over Carson, and it’s some of Jim Carter’s subtlest, most affecting acting. When Carson accepts Grigg’s proposal to part as friends, one could see that while Carson might not want to accept that he was wrong about the man all these years, he feels a certain obligation to at least accept the handshake, for all the accumulation of years existing between them. It’s a deceptively simple storyline, but it’s remarkably effective.
Less effective are the plotlines involving Anna and Bates (Brendan Coyle). When Edna accidentally burns one of Lady Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) favorite articles of clothing, Thomas comes to her rescue by devising a scheme in which they’d essentially plant the idea in Lady Cora’s head that Anna was the one who burned the piece out of some lingering malice against Edna. It’s one long, circuitous ploy that does little else but reestablish Thomas as a schemer while setting up Edna to be one of the season’s big villains, as she gets a cruel joy in the hardship of Bates and Anna, laughing about the incident at the end of the episode. Yet it’s not all bad for Anna and Bates, as they are able to help out an old friend. Utilizing the forgery skills he picked up while in prison to create a false loan receipt, Bates is able to convince the destitute Molesley to accept a gift of money by tricking him into believing it was in repayment of a loan given years earlier. The pacing of the episode might have been without the storyline, but hey, I like Molesley, so it’s good to see him catch a break. I also enjoy any storyline that sees Edith (Laura Carmichael) happy, as her relationship with Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) continues to flower (although I fear it’s going too well not to end catastrophically).
This episode suffered from very labored pacing, yet I’d argue it’s a transitional necessity, as we move from one phase of the series to the next. This might not be as plainly exciting as last season, but we’re still in the early going, with quite a bit more to establish before we get to the real meat-and-potatoes. At the very least, one would hope so.