Downton Abbey – Recap: Reality Check
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 5 Episode 6:
This was probably the toughest episode of Downton Abbey so far this season, not because it was bad — in fact, I thought it was quite good — but rather because it forced the characters to face some harsh truths, some of which ultimately proved comforting (in the case of Anna and Bates) but most of which were emotionally devastating (as was the case for Edith and Thomas).
Of course, what makes this episode as compelling as it ended up being was the ways in which those harsh reality checks compromised the morality of some of these characters. Look no further than Edith (Laura Carmichael), who essentially abducts her own child when faced with the reality that Gregson is dead and never coming back. Okay, maybe “abduct” is a bit of a strong term, since Marigold technically is her birth child. But what Edith does here paints her in a troubling light, I think. She’s not thinking about Marigold’s best interests so much as her own, since Edith’s plan to take the child away from the Drewes has almost nothing to do with giving Marigold a better home. It’s about helping Edith feel better. It’s a selfish kind of love, but in a lot of ways, the show has argued that all love has a certain selfishness to it (as we’ll see later with Violet and Isobel). This isn’t meant to exonerate Edith for what she does, as she takes Marigold from a loving home and emotionally devastates the woman who’s raised her since she was a baby, but it does provide context for why we should probably still feel at least a small pang of sympathy for Edith in spite of all she’s done.
And yet, I still can’t help but feel bad for Mrs. Drewe. Sure, she isn’t Marigold’s real mother, and I understand that Edith does have a certain claim to the child since no official adoption papers were filed, but the scene in which Edith tears Marigold away from a hysterical Mrs. Drewe (Emma Lowndes) while Tim (Andrew Scarborough) holds her back is utterly heartbreaking. In fact, it somewhat erodes the sympathy I had for Edith. Really, it comes back around to the same problem I’ve always had with this storyline: what, exactly, did Edith expect would happen when she gave away her baby to someone else? Did she think they were just going to keep her, feed her, raise her, and then hand her right back to Edith with a smile on their faces and thank her for the privilege? Did she really think there would be no complications? And to keep the rhetorical questions going, does she even think there’s anything wrong with what she’s doing? Or is she simply that entitled? She made a choice to give up the child so as not to ruin her family’s reputation (or her own), and while there is absolutely a stigma surrounding single, unwed mothers with children born out of wedlock in that time period (hell, in this one too), it’s not as if this wasn’t something that could have been kept inside the family had Edith just owned up to it. But she didn’t. She chose the harder path, and suddenly, YEARS LATER, she wants to renege? I find myself wondering if Edith even realizes the damage she’s possibly doing to this kid by yanking her away from the only home she’s ever known? The closing scene of the episode, in which Edith rents a hotel room and then joyfully talks to Marigold about how happy they’re going to be together, is an utter indictment of Edith as a character, because it sounds as if she’s every bit as desperate to convince herself of this as she is desperate to convince the child. She comes across as a woman completely unhinged by her grief, clinging to a child that has no idea who in the loving hell she is. I suppose that’s an interesting direction to take the character, but it complicates her morality. I get that she was put in a tough situation, but this was a situation born of her own choices, for the most part.
But even as heartbreaking and complicated as Edith’s storyline is, Mary’s somehow manages to be insurmountably obnoxious. For the most part, I’ve liked Mary (Michelle Dockery) for the past two seasons, since the character has been changed by marriage and motherhood. Essentially, she’s shown significant maturation from her primadonna behavior in the first two seasons. But now she’s right back to being the superficial, painfully self-absorbed Mary of old. She decides to get a modern haircut, and then holds a gathering in the parlour to unveil it. When Edith flips out on Mary for once again making everything about her, since it’s barely been a day since she learned the love of her life is dead, Mary responds by wondering why Edith is so upset. Her rationale is that since Gregson has been missing for years, she should have known he was dead by now, and should have dealt with that grief already. I mean, hey, they all knew he was dead, right? Why is Edith so slow on the uptake? Seriously, I can’t believe no one in this family took Mary aside to tell her she was being a bell end, especially since even Robert (Hugh Bonneville) notes early in the episode that the inevitability of an outcome doesn’t mean you don’t hold out a shred of hope that things might end differently.
Mary only gets more insufferable from there, arriving at a horse racing event where Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) will be, in order to “show them both what they’re missing.” This flies directly in the face of her stated mission to get Gillingham off her back, and Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) even calls her out on it. To which Mary responds that while she wants nothing more than for Tony to choose Mabel over her, she doesn’t want to make it easy on him, which is just about the most singularly infuriating thing to come out of her mouth this season. Can Mary’s ego REALLY not countenance letting a man think of another woman as more appealing than her, without at least first forcing him to think long and hard about it? Is she really going to risk her plan over vanity? My God, I have no idea what the point with Mary even is anymore, and this entire episode seemed engineered to undo whatever progress she’s made over the last three seasons. I had been interested in her storyline before, and maybe that’ll change next week. But right now, I’m actively dreading having to spend time with Mary Crawley again, and that’s a horrible feeling to instill in your viewership.
That said, there was still more to like about this episode than there was to dislike. For instance, it was great to see Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) shut Robert up about Bricker by implying that he isn’t exactly innocent of flirting with other women. I know Cora doesn’t know about the maid Robert kissed several seasons back, but she understands, at an intrinsic level, that flirtation is something that just happens over the course of a marriage. It doesn’t necessarily mean either party wants out of the marriage, it’s simply a way for married people to get a little confidence boost of sorts. Cora is certainly flattered to still be seen as appealing to another person, despite having been off the market for years. Maybe she should have nipped Bricker’s flirtation in the bud, but her failure to do so doesn’t mean she wanted to leave Robert for him. Nor does Robert’s mistake with the maid mean he doesn’t still love and value Cora. It was a great little bit of storytelling, as Robert forgives Cora by returning to their bed, understanding that he isn’t perfect either.
Similarly, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) admits the limits of his own self-confidence, revealing to Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) that he’s developed an infection as a result of the saline injections he’s been utilizing as part of his desperate attempt to cure his homosexuality. Rob James-Collier is a tremendous talent, and I’m glad that the show is finally utilizing him to his dramatic potential, since his struggle with his own sexual identity has been among the more consistently compelling storylines of the series. When Dr. Clarkson breaks it to Thomas that there is no cure for his condition, it seems as if Thomas is doing all he can not to break down then and there, since he now has to face a harsher reality than he was prepared to face. And so I found it kind of beautiful when Baxter comforts him by letting Thomas know just how brave he is. His borderline contemptuous attitude with Baxter belies the depth of his pain, and his desperation to “be normal, like other men,” which makes this one of the most achingly authentic storylines of the season, considering how, even today, gay men are still struggling for wider acceptance.
As for the downstairs storylines this week, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) decides to invest in a cottage of her own, which prompts Carson (Jim Carter) to propose a similar real estate investment idea to Hughes (Phyllis Logan), although it seems as though Carson is interested in more than just real estate. It’s an interesting direction for this relationship to potentially take, but part of me worries how this dynamic would fundamentally change what has been one of the show’s strongest pairings. Carson and Hughes are so good as a bickering but reverent duo that I wonder if we really even need them to get together romantically. That said, it does feel like the episode is at least exploring how the possibility of marriage can change things, such as when Isobel (Penelope Wilton) accepts Lord Merton’s proposal, upsetting the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) in the process. Violet basically fears the loss of her only companion, and although she doesn’t feel she can voice this to Isobel, part of me feels as though it’s understood, on her part. Yet, just because it’s understood doesn’t mean Isobel can just ignore the proposal to keep Violet happy. As Isobel says herself, this might be her last shot at adventure. Besides, whether Isobel knows it or not, Violet has a host of problems of her own to face, namely that she’s getting closer to tracking down the missing wife of Prince Kuragin (Rade Šerbedžija). Okay, that’s not really the problem, per se. Rather, the issue here is that Kuragin doesn’t want his wife back. In fact, he tells Violet outright that he’s always loved her, and still does. Violet controlling her emotions and firmly rebuffing Kuragin is a thing of beauty, as Maggie Smith has to play the part as if she’s aching to give in, but desperate not to — all while maintaining the image of propriety. There is a clear tinge of regret in Violet’s eyes, but she cannot continue with Prince Kuragin, since she’s perhaps the most concerned with the old way of things. Appearances are everything, and so she cannot be with a man who is still married, even if this is perhaps her last chance at romance. And even if everyone else around her seems to be tying the knot, not only Isobel but also, possibly, Rose (Lily James) and Atticus Aldridge. And so she spends her time tracking down Kuragin’s wife, and getting wrapped up in Edith’s troubles, since she seems to believe her time for love has passed. Such a shame, and such a wonderful performance from Smith.
Lastly, it looks like we’re beginning to wind down on the Anna (Joanna Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) arc. It turns out Bates is actually innocent of killing Green after all, although he admits he did want to kill Green with every fiber of his being, since he knew Green was the rapist all along. Bates and Anna are neck-and-neck with Edith for the show’s most mistreated characters, yet their dilemma inspires greater sympathy, I think. Bates is an innocent man and a husband willing to be there for Anna, if she’d only let him. Anna, meanwhile, is made insular through no fault of her own: she knows what can happen to men accused of murder, and she knows exactly the kind of man her husband is capable of being against someone who threatens their future together. So Anna isn’t necessarily wrong to be so guarded, nor is she all that wrong to presume Bates may have committed the murder, which is why it comes as such a relief to her that Bates is innocent. Granted, they don’t have the return ticket to London to prove it, which means they’re going to have to find some other way to prove his innocence. You know, unless we’re in for a shock and Bates ends up hanging from a noose anyway. There’s always been something about Bates to suggest he isn’t long for this world, much like Isis the Seemingly Immortal Dog, who is apparently now feeling the crunch of time (or unfortunate comparisons to current world news).
All in all, this was probably the strongest episode of Downton Abbey this season, obnoxious plot developments aside. It was a story that was less about pure plot, and more about the characters at the heart of those plots. Some characters developed, others regressed, but I feel there’s a lot of forward momentum for the overall season right now. And that’s a good thing, since that means the coming weeks are likely to bring a resolution that’s worthy of our patience.