Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Downton Abbey: “Season Five, Episode Five”

Elizabeth McGovern (Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014)
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No one in tonight’s episode really listens to the things they’re told, or to the silences that say so much. Nobody can take a blasted hint.

Isobel, usually so perceptive, doesn’t consider Violet’s motive for arranging a meeting between Lord Merton and Dr. Clarkson—her former suitor and her current suitor—despite Violet’s amusement both at Isobel’s “follower” and at Isobel’s decorous refusal to confide in her.

Violet enlists Dr. Clarkson to her cause (supposedly to save Isobel from the “hollow existence” of marrying for status), not suspecting he’ll see—and candidly say—how very well-suited Isobel and Lord Merton are. When Dr. Clarkson asks the Dowager if she resents Isobel’s possible social ascent, Violet ignores his meaning, fluttering, “I do not quite grasp your question. It bewilders me.”

Miss Bunting would be surprised, and probably appalled, at any similarity between herself and the Dowager Countess of Grantham, but they’re alike in their denial, in their perseveration. Miss Bunting insults Tom’s family no matter how he balks at her intransigence. Tom points out that the nobility she despises includes his late wife and tiny daughter; she replies, “Don’t you despise them, really?” It seems Tom has truly parted ways with Miss Bunting, and I admit I’m as relieved as Robert Crawley must be.

Cora flatly refuses to take her husband’s hint that she shouldn’t host Simon Bricker while Robert is away. “It’s not that I dislike him exactly,” he says, an obvious lie, and adds a would-be generous, “You’re not forbidden from inviting him.” Cora scoffs: “Good, because I already have!” She forces his hostility—and, more important, his illusion that he controls Cora’s social life—into the open.

Cora’s carefully measured greeting tells Bricker everything he needs to know, if only he’ll listen. “You’re very welcome,” she says, “… as long as you behave.” She’s simultaneously greeting him and warning him off. But he won’t listen, and he won’t behave.


Slipping into Cora’s room, Bricker shows how little her respects her clear, if friendly, warning. Friendship, even flirtation, isn’t an invitation to adultery, no matter what he assumes. For several episodes now, Cora’s walked a careful line, basking in his companionship but refusing to indulge or encourage more.

Bricker observes, quite rightly, that Cora’s family ignores and passes over her in conversation, but he’s just as guilty of that. He’s captivated by her charms, but he ignores both her tacit and explicit boundaries, even as he barges into her room. She insists repeatedly (and quietly, to avoid fuss and embarrassment) that he must leave, and he plows ahead, overriding her.


Even after Robert, home early, discovers them together, Bricker fails to take a hint. Rather than leaving quietly, he spouts off: “You can’t be surprised. When you chose to ignore a woman like Cora, you must have known not every man would be as blind as you.” In addition to a drubbing from the Earl, Simon Bricker gets the treatment his presumption deserves: He’s ushered out of Downton Abbey with no goodbyes, none of the family in attendance, only Carson escorting him to a car already packed.

Robert, as always, displays the temperament of a spoiled child. His “I’m sorry if it’s a disappointment” upon arriving unexpectedly is a nasty slap at Cora’s character—and in front of his rival, no less. The next night, he gives his wife the silent treatment at their cocktail party. It’s natural for him to feel vindicated, even angry or mistrustful, after the misadventures of the night. But his sulk is blatant enough to worry even Violet and Mary, neither of whom is famous for her social delicacy.


Perhaps Downton Abbey’s greatest flaw is its insistence on proving Robert Crawley right, time after time and year after year. If Robert’s wary of a builder’s proposal, the houses must be an unprofitable eyesore. If Robert unleashes his temper on a dinner guest, it’s only because she goads him incessantly. If Robert warns his wife against hosting a friend unchaperoned, the bounder will take scandalous liberties. The show’s infatuation with Robert Crawley—and, in a lesser way, with John Bates—gets tedious, only in part because it’s so predictable.

Edith is as headstrong as her father, but her impulses and desires aren’t buttressed by Julian Fellowes’ narrative. Despite Mrs. Drewe’s hints and Mr. Drewe’s direct instruction, she persists in popping in to visit Marigold, even bringing Aunt Rosamund to meet her. “It’s a tinderbox, it could go up at any moment,” Violet says, and knowing Edith’s luck, it will. If she’d taken a hint, Mrs. Drewe’s anxiety might have flared back down. But she didn’t, and it didn’t.


Lord Grantham and Bates live in a fictional world that tacitly supports them at every turn; Carson’s social world similarly bolsters his ego. As butler to a great house, he’s more than a household manager; he’s a man of authority. As Mrs. Wiggin points out, “Mr. Carson is a considerable figure in the village,” and he expects to be treated with deference, even when he doesn’t merit it.

Seeing Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore conspire to coddle Carson’s self-regard is doubly exasperating because he’s done nothing worthy of respect. Too pompous to admit his inexperience, he gleans a crumb of investment advice from the Earl and passes it off as his own, only to be flummoxed by the simplest practical questions. His advice is worse than useless, but he expects Mrs. Patmore to follow it gratefully and without question.


Still, the two women feel it’s their duty to reassure him of his absolute expertise, though anyone with sense should see through their blandishments. Even as they present Mrs. Patmore’s investment as a fait accompli, Carson bristles and fumes. Carson, take a hint and be satisfied with the soft-soap they’re offering.

If anyone at Downton Abbey could take good advice, if they could listen honestly and earnestly to the people they care about, if they could take a blasted hint, everyone would be better adjusted. But well-adjusted people make dull television.


Stray observations:

  • The Dowager Countess’ thoughts on a nudist colony: “In Essex? Isn’t it terribly damp?”
  • Rose, take a hint: If your gentleman friend doesn’t mention his family’s Russian history to the refugee aristocrats, he has his reasons—like avoiding a confrontation with bigots.
  • Tom’s pause as he and Mary part on their way to bed is the stuff that ‘ships are launched on.
  • “What shall we do with your food?” Charles Blake asks as Miss Lane Fox stalks out of Simpson’s. Oh, Charles, you troublemaker, don’t pretend this is the first time a dinner date walked out on you.
  • Bates’ search for a bandage is going to uncover The Unspecified Device, obviously, and just as obviously, the scene in which he and Anna discuss their childless state (“Do you really think it will happen?”) is a set-up for him to brood over his wife’s presumed deception.
  • My grading this season has a certain… sameness. Each episode, I think, “Well, that sure was an episode of Downton Abbey!” It’s all consistently and comfortably entertaining, lavishly costumed, and not especially memorable. We’re past the halfway mark of Season Five now; here’s hoping it all gets a little more remarkable soon.
  • Downton savvy: Let’s speculate. (I know, I know: The rest of the season is out there, and some of you have seen it. But for those of us who haven’t, this is pure speculation.) Bates promises Anna, “Nothing bad is ever going to happen to you again.” Will Bates nobly go to the gallows to save his wife from arrest or scandal? I would cheerfully suffer through his smug self-sacrifice if it saves us an interminable half-season of Bates in the dock.