Downton Abbey – Recap: The Battle of Downton Abbey
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 5 Episode 5:
So…it looks like business is picking up on Downton Abbey, as we get a knock-down, drag-out brawl to go along with the (glorious) departure of an unpleasant character, and the increasing desperation of a woman pushed to margins of a society that leaves her little recourse. More on all that in a bit, but needless to say, this is the best Downton Abbey of the season so far, simply for how much it gives us to chew on.
First, about that desperate woman: the implication at the end of tonight’s episode is that Edith (Laura Carmichael) is going to run off to London with baby Marigold. In a manner of speaking, the unspoken laws governing decency in this society won’t allow a highborn woman like Edith to actually raise the child as a single mother (which is a bit crazy, since she’s in a far better position to care for a child as a single mother than some of the poor villagers who’ve been trapped in similar circumstances (like Ethel Parks, who had to give up her little boy, Charlie, back in Season 3). Of course, social conventions aren’t the only thing barring Edith from being with Marigold, as Mrs. Drewe can no longer tolerate having Edith around, believing she just wants Marigold as a plaything. On the one hand, it was a seriously bad move on Edith’s part to bring Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) to see the child, largely because it makes it seem even more like Edith is showing off Marigold like some sort of toy. On the other hand, it still seems strange that Mrs. Drewe hasn’t figured out Edith’s true relationship to the child. Just as puzzling is the question of how, exactly, Edith expected this entire arrangement to play out. Did she really think she’d just be allowed to visit with the child forever, without Mrs. Drewe ever objecting?
It certainly seems that way, at least Edith initially tells Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) that she won’t allow them to leave, as if she has any sort of say in the matter. Yes, she’s Marigold’s mother, but not legally. So her refusal to go along with the compromise suggested by Lady Rosamund and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), in which the child would be raised in a home in France that would likely allow Edith to visit, is both unsurprising and kind of damning. I understand the stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock, particularly when you’re a high-born lady. Yet Edith comes across as a woman desperate to have it both ways: she doesn’t want to suffer the shame and condemnation that goes along with having a child out of wedlock, but she also wants to be allowed to continue seeing and being a surrogate mother to this child that, for the past few years, has had a perfectly fine, loving family. I know it was an impossible choice for Edith to have to make, but there really was no way this was going to end well for her. It’s a shame, since I kind of resent Julian Fellowes for making Edith the show’s punching bag. But that doesn’t mean I can objectively believe Edith is in the right here. That said, I appreciate the moral ambiguity of a storyline that could easily have been portrayed as a black-and-white scenario.
As for other issues of morality, I can’t really get mad at Branson (Allen Leech) for not sticking up more for Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis). One of the most frustrating aspects of this episode, to me, was the notion that Branson is somehow the bad guy for not defending Miss Bunting to the Crawleys. Daisy (Sophie McShera), in particular, pleads with Branson on Miss Bunting’s behalf, since the teacher has decided to leave town altogether as a result of her complete rejection by the Crawleys. Yet, when Branson goes to visit Miss Bunting, she doesn’t seem to want to hear reason concerning the upper class: Branson explains that not only was the woman he loved one of them, but his daughter is one of them as well. But Miss Bunting wants Branson to dislike the Crawleys as much as she does, to feel like an alien within their ranks so that he’ll choose to leave and recommit to socialism. Everything about Miss Bunting is selfish. Hell, even when she confesses her love to Branson before leaving town, she frames it in terms of how much better she could have loved him had he only been free of the Crawleys. “I wish we had met before you knew them,” she says, essentially wishing little Sybie out of existence. Was he really supposed to raise his daughter around someone who secretly resented where she came from? Were the Crawleys really supposed to be okay with some random woman coming in and disrespecting their values at every turn? Yes, you can disagree with an ideology, but that doesn’t mean you get to come into someone’s home and question the manner in which they run it.
Case in point, Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant) making his move on Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) while Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is away on business. In one of the more nervous scenes this season, Bricker comes into Cora’s room at night and tries to proposition her, just as Robert is returning from a dinner with the committee. He walks in on the two, a fight breaks out, and Cora springs into action to break it up, even coming up with a quick excuse when Edith comes knocking (“Your father and I were playing a silly game.” Haha, what?). However, just because the fight isn’t allowed to play out doesn’t mean that its effects aren’t instantly felt, as Robert grows even colder and more unresponsive to Cora, completely giving her the silent treatment at a gala the next day. And really, it’s not Cora’s fault, per se. Sure, she never outright rejected Bricker, but she didn’t explicitly lead him on either, nor did she give him an indication that popping into her room in the middle of the night is something she would have wanted. And who’s to say he would have taken no for an answer anyway? He might have persisted regardless. The trouble this could cause for Robert and Cora’s marriage is interesting enough on its own, but it’s also compelling for how immediately everyone seems to notice the coldness between the couple, as Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Violet separately notice, and appear concerned. However, Mary has her own matters occupying her time…
Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) holds a meeting between Mary and Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) in which they attempt to come up with a solution to their Tony Gillingham problem. In short, Blake proposes helping Mabel win Tony back, since this gets everyone what they want: Mary will be liberated and Mabel will have her man back. But Mabel is offended by the meeting and storms off, leaving us right back at square one. It’s an interesting story in isolation, although I’m not entirely sure it’s the best use for Dockery. But hey, at least it means Julian Ovenden is back. She probably should have ended up with Blake over Gillingham anyway, and if this story takes her in that direction, then all the better. And if not? Well, at least romance is in the air for others: Lord Merton still has his eye on Isobel, despite Violet’s insecurities about her cousin’s possible departure, and Rose (Lily James) meets a handsome gent named Atticus Aldritch, a Jewish man whose family left Russia from Odessa.
However, it’s not aces for everyone in Downton: Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is undergoing shock treatments to “cure” himself of his homosexuality, to diminishing returns (although he swears otherwise), while Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) considers investing her late aunt’s inheritance in W.P. Moss, at the suggestion of Carson (Jim Carter). And then there’s the interminable business of Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanna Froggatt) coming under investigation for Green’s death, as Sergeant Willis is the ghost that just refuses to stop haunting them. Overall, I thought the Thomas arc was the strongest of the “downstairs” arcs this week, as Rob James-Collier does terrific work making Thomas a pitiable villain, someone for whom we can still have sympathy despite his irascible demeanor. It was pretty much the only worthwhile thing to happen among the servants this week, since I’m just not that big on the “Anna-as-murder suspect” arc. At all.
That said, it’s not as if it detracted from the episode. Ultimately, this was the strongest Downton Abbey of the season so far. Maybe I’m not particularly thrilled by the notion that this The stories were compelling and had momentum enough to compel interest for the coming weeks. Well, for next week, at least.