Downton Abbey – Recap: The Crawley Girls

Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 5 Episode 3 (PBS airing):

The pace is gradually starting pick up on Downton Abbey Season 5, after what’s been a pretty methodical start. Things are happening now, and while some stories are naturally larger than others, and not all the storylines necessarily feel like they share the same universe, the show is getting back to a more soap operatic style, away from the period piece trappings that have left the show feeling sort of boring in the past.

This week, we have some drama centering on the relationship between Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who spend a week at the Grand Hotel, having sex and living the good life. Of course, because this is Downton Abbey, a secret can’t remain a secret, so Mary and Gillingham are seen leaving the hotel together by Spratt (Jeremy Swift), Violet’s butler. This leads to a wonderful scene in which Violet (Maggie Smith) chides Spratt for taking such pleasure in telling her the news, nimbly covering for Mary by saying that she and Gillingham were attending a conference for Northern landowners. She then gives Spratt a hard time for imagining something vulgar had been going on, saying that such thoughts are beneath the dignity of their house. It’s a terrific moment that illustrates that Violet is still as sharp as a tack, from years of maneuvering through increasingly tedious social constructs.

Downton Abbey -  Recap and Review - Season 5 Episode 3

Credit: PBS

But despite Violet’s quick excuse to Spratt, she still needs to have it out with Mary. The resulting conversation features some rather frank discussion about the boldness of what Mary’s doing, since her actions with Gillingham are unfathomable to someone from the Dowager Countess’s generation — Violet even goes as far as to tell Mary not to hide behind the “generational” argument, as these actions are shocking to anyone in 1924. They discuss whether or not there will be children, and what, exactly, is the nature of the proposal Gillingham has made. Mary makes it clear that she wasn’t seduced, and yet, what’s even more scandalous is the fact that Mary now isn’t so sure certain Gillingham is even the one. She goes over her doubts with Branson (Allen Leech), noting that Tony is certainly a nice man, if nothing else. Still, her primary, unspoken grievance with Gillingham seems to be that, well, he’s not Matthew. She just doesn’t feel the passion with him that she felt with her late husband. Her doubts result in another conversation with the Dowager Countess, with Violet expressing shock that Mary could be so cavalier (going as far as to reveal that, in her day, a lady couldn’t even feel attraction to a man before being expressly instructed to by her mother). She warns Mary against letting her emotions rule her and get in the way of her better judgment. However, Mary is essentially buckling under the pressure of Gillingham’s presumptions, since he is all but assuming that they are to be wed. He even wants to lock down a date for the ceremony! This leaves Mary in an awkward position, and to make matters worse, one of her few confidantes is a grandmother who couldn’t possibly understand her plight.

Or could she? During an event hosting several Russian dignitaries, the Dowager Countess tells the story of meeting a man while traveling to St. Petersberg with the late Lord Grantham, and it’s as if the Dowager Countess reverts back to her girlhood, remembering a time when she was desired by a man. Maggie Smith, delivers a marvelous performance here, particularly once one of the Russian refugees at the gala being held at Downton is revealed to be the man from that evening, Prince Kuragin (Rade Sherbedgia). Kuragin is a severe-looking man, but with a certain rugged charm. And Violet is absolutely flustered. It’s a great moment for two reasons: Smith’s performance, and Mary’s realization that perhaps her grandmother understands her plight better than she knew. The notion of a romance storyline for Violet, and one that could possibly mirror Mary’s own, is a downright fascinating development.

Downton Abbey -  Recap and Review - Season 5 Episode 3

Credit: Nick Briggs

In addition to Mary’s romance, Violet’s would mirror the developing romance between Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton, as the Crawley women are apparently all the rage among the men in this county. Case in point, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is being outright pursued by Bricker (Richard E. Grant), to such an extent that Robert (Hugh Bonneville) gets jealous, as he surprises Cora while she’s on a trip in London, only to discover she’s out with another man. Granted, the show doesn’t even seem to be saying that an affair with Bricker is even possible, particularly since it’d be so wildly out of character for Cora. She just enjoys the compliments, the attention, and the company Bricker provides while she’s away in London, along with the intellectually stimulating conversation centered around their shared artistic interests. However, the show does seem to be using this connection with Bricker as a foundation on which to base a story centering on marital discord between the Granthams. Yet I don’t feel that’s a particularly worthwhile story to pursue, given that Cora isn’t all that interesting, and Robert isn’t all that likable. At least not here.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Nick Briggs

Still, this Robert/Cora/Bricker love triangle is way more interesting than some of the other subplots this week, whether it’s Daisy (Sophie McShera) preparing to take a big test, or Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) pleading to have her late nephew’s name added to the war memorial, with Carson (Jim Carter) refusing to honor the request since the young man abandoned his post during the war. We also get Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) learning that she’ll get to keep her job, after explaining to Cora that she stole the jewels for a charismatic, vindictive man named Peter Coyle, a terrible human being who emotionally abused her and twisted her into a criminal. Cora suggests that Baxter should explain this to the police, but she states that the past is in the past, and it’s best to just leave it at that, since Coyle will “never know happiness” as it is, since he’s such an abjectly miserable person. These storylines aren’t necessarily bad, but they don’t add much to an episode that is already pretty cluttered as it is. Ditto the story with Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who claims his father is unwell as an excuse to go to what appears, at least from his clandestine phone call in Carson’s office, to be some sort of camp or doctor that will help him “change” himself. Could he be looking to “cure” himself of his homosexuality? If so, it’s a strange storyline to be bringing up now. It would have made more sense last season following the misunderstanding with Jimmy — or was that two seasons ago?. Either way, this seems like a random time for Thomas to suddenly decide he wants to be “normal,” although it could be an interesting (though sad) plotline all the same.

We also get a bit more with Bates (Brendan Coyle), as Hughes (Phyllis Logan) realizes that Bates has listed alibis that place him in the vicinity of the murder scene at the time of Green’s death. Although she doesn’t expect the sergeant to be smart enough to puzzle it out, both she and Anna (Joanna Froggatt) are nervous all the same. However, neither leads on to Bates, which leaves Bates more than a little confused, since Anna seems like she’s putting him off. For her part, Anna doesn’t know if Bates knows it was Green who raped her, and we still don’t know definitively whether Green was even murdered at all, much less if Bates was the one who did it. It’s a mystery that helps compel interest, giving this hour a lot of momentum. Ditto the story with Edith (Laura Carmichael), who gets her visitations revoked by the Drewes when Mrs. Drewe becomes fed up with Edith’s obnoxiously frequent visits. Basically, Mrs. Drewe sees Edith as a woman who thinks her money entitles her to claim the child as her own, but she doesn’t know that Edith’s dilemma in giving the child up in the first place was one of social necessity. Both women are right, in their own ways, which makes this story more tragic.

Ultimately, this was a solid episode for Downton Abbey, resulting in some impressive performances and some genuinely engaging storytelling. The show remains largely patient in its storytelling approach, but it’s beginning to pay off through stories that have a lot going on. This isn’t a show that’s spinning its wheels. And that’s encouraging.

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