Downton Abbey – Recap: Modern Women
This is a review of the American airing of Downton Abbey – Season 5 Episode 2. There may be slight differences from the original UK airing, necessitating a different approach. However, reviews for the original episodes can be found by clicking the “Downton Abbey” tag. Episodes from UK airings are tagged as “Series 5,” while American airings will be listed as “Season 5.”
By its nature as an ensemble drama with no clear-cut lead, Downton Abbey is a busier show than most. If last week’s season premiere set the stage for the season ahead, this episode incrementally advanced the overarching stories of the season for each character.
And yet, the episode was so languidly paced that it was hard to get a feeling for the momentum of each storyline. Progress is certainly happening here, but I’m not sure you’d ever know it from how these stories are written, since so much of tonight’s episode is recursive, simply reminding us of things that came before, without adding anything new to it. There’s the snooze-inducing business of Carson (Jim Carter) and Robert (Hugh Bonneville) working to reach some kind of agreement with the committee on how to proceed with the memorial gardens project. And then there’s the triangle of intrigue between Thomas (Rob James-Collier), Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), and Molesley (Kevin Doyle), with Thomas trying to get Baxter to help him spy, Molesley sticking to his faith in Baxter’s inherent goodness (despite the story she revealed last week about the jewel theft), and Baxter nervously wringing her hands about her employment status to Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). It’s not a bad story, by any means, but this week’s addition to the plot doesn’t feel demonstrably different from what we saw last week, leaving with the sense that little progress has been made. At the very least, we get a bit more on one of the village workers — unfortunately, that worker is Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis). Her antagonistic attitude towards the Crawleys is embodied in her attempts to get Branson (Allen Leech) to reclaim his former political ideals, failing to realize that while he may not be one of the aristocracy, he can’t simply disavow his place in that world, considering his daughter was born of that line. However, at the very least, Miss Bunting gets a point in her favor by helping Daisy (Sophie McShera) in her studies. I still don’t particularly like the character, but Lewis does a fine job of portraying Sarah as someone with fierce convictions and an obstinate demeanor. And that makes her an interesting force in the series.
Also somewhat interesting is all the hubbub about the radio. In short, Rose (Lily James) finally gets Robert to agree to get a wireless radio, and I suppose its function is in showing how modernity is slowly encroaching upon the old world. There’s a certain resistance and mistrust of this new wireless technology, yet those fears are quickly set aside when it becomes clear that it’s merely a new way of conveying information, of allowing the people to hear their King in a way that “makes him seem more real.” It’s a neat thematic exploration of how technology reshapes the era in which it’s introduced. Less interesting, however, is the ongoing back-and-forth between Violet (Maggie Smith) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton), as the Dowager Countess teases her cousin over the attentions of Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). It’s a cute storyline, but not much more than that, at this point. Hopefully, it blossoms into something more substantial, but then, maybe my antipathy towards it is a byproduct of the fact that I shamelessly ship Isobel and Dr. Clarkson. I mean, come on! They’re perfect for each other! At least, inasmuch as any two people can be perfect for each other on this show.
Case in point, the troublesome courtship of Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Gillingham (Tom Cullen), which has “bad idea” written all over it. Basically, Mary needs this getaway with Gillingham in order to ascertain whether or not she wants to actually marry this man. It’s a surprisingly modern approach to the concept of courtship, and yet, Mary’s indecisiveness about Gillingham makes the situation potentially volatile, since he’s someone who is clearly enamored with her, and is unlikely to take rejection well, should it come to that. At the very least, Mary has the good sense to make sure no children come out of the affair, as she gets Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to go to the pharmacy on her behalf to get contraception. It’s a huge favor for Mary to ask, considering how quickly Bates (Brendan Coyle) is likely to fly into a rage if he has reason to think Anna is deceiving him about sharing his desire to start a family. But even then, the favor results in a wonderfully awkward scene, as Anna attempts to delicately broach the subject with the male pharmacist, before asking if she can speak with a female instead — only to find the female is somehow even more judgmental. Anna has to lie and say that another pregnancy would be detrimental to her health before the female pharmacist will let her purchase the contraception. It’s an interesting window into the sexual and gender politics of the time, as even Anna makes note, later, how strange it was that she should have to explain herself. Anna suggests that, for all anyone knows, she could be a mother of eight who simply couldn’t afford to have another child. Is she supposed to forego sex when modern medicine has made it so she doesn’t have to? I found it to be one of the more compelling elements of the episode. And yet, even with all this talk of sex, it isn’t really about that, for Mary. As she explains, she needs to have this trip with Gillingham in order to know if this is real or just a passing fancy. “The point is, I want to marry again. And I absolutely don’t want a divorce,” Mary says. Gillingham is her first lover post-Matthew, so having the jitters is understandable, even expected. Still, it just reads as a horrible idea, even though “horrible idea” for the characters can often equate to “good television” for the viewers.
Speaking of bad ideas, Edith (Laura Carmichael) makes an arrangement with Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) to be a regular part of little Marigold’s life, despite Mrs. Drewe’s obvious hang-ups about having Edith around all the time. I really can’t blame Mrs. Drewe for having issues with Edith becoming Marigold’s godmother. Aside from the fact that her sister is already the girl’s godmother, Edith simply comes across — to someone who doesn’t know the truth behind Edith’s true relation to Marigold — as someone who’s found a new plaything, and wants to be a mommy without doing any of the hard work involved in actually raising a child. Of course, we know this isn’t the case, but Mrs. Drewe doesn’t, although how she couldn’t is beyond me. I guess that, even to the proletariat, it’s inconceivable that a proper lady would make the same mistakes a commoner would, or have the same physical impulses. Of course, as we learned with Mary, a highborn lady certainly can have sex out of wedlock. My main interest in the Edith storyline is in seeing the situation inevitably explode. The route in getting there is engaging enough to hold attention though, so no real complaints here. That said, Mrs. Drewe’s obliviousness is mirrored in Robert, who somehow fails to recognize that Cora is getting hit on by a skeevy art collector: Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) returns to help a friend get a look at a painting he wishes to appraise in the Grantham household. This friend, Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant), takes a liking to Cora, and basically throws himself at her. But Robert somehow interprets this as Bricker trying to win the affections of Isis, the family dog. Robert’s overprotectiveness regarding this seemingly-immortal dog is one of my favorite running gags on the show, and here, it’s so amusingly absurd that I couldn’t help smiling. “Tell your friend Bricker to stop flirting with Isis,” he tells Cora before bed. “There is nothing more ill-bred than trying to steal the affections of someone else’s dog.” If the episode had ended there, I’d have been satisfied, but the show still managed to cram one more plotline into the proceedings, as a sergeant arrives at Downton with news that a witness has come in the death of Mr. Green, prompting the investigation to be reopened. Groan. Anna and Bates are never going to catch a break, are they?
That said, even while I have my qualms about the direction of individual episodes, it’s clear that Downton Abbey is laying the foundation for some big developments in the weeks ahead, so I don’t feel like I can really fault these episodes for their glacial approach. Julian Fellowes is more of a gardener when it comes to the stories he writes, and these plotlines are going to talk time and nurturing to grow into something worth the investment. So I guess a lot of this is based on faith: your investment in the season depends largely on whether or not you trust Fellowes to deliver, at the end of the season, something that was worth the seven hours it took to get there. For my part, I’m firmly on Fellowes’s side, even when an individual episode didn’t really do it for me.