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Downton Abbey: “Season Five, Episode Four”

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Called on the carpet by Lord Grantham, Daisy speaks with a candor and passion that seems to surprise even her. She’s sorry her lessons have disrupted the routine downstairs, “but I must say this, my Lord! Miss Bunting has opened my eyes to a world of knowledge I knew nothing of. Maybe I’ll stay a cook all my life, but I have choices now, interests, facts at my fingertips.” Everyone at Downton Abbey could take a lesson from Daisy, who has started looking squarely at the choices ahead and working hard to make the most of them.


Lady Mary’s choices parade before her, as alluring as runway mannequins displaying the new season’s dresses. Of all Downton Abbey’s residents, Mary has the most choices, the most latitude. When she married Matthew and bore his son, she secured the future of her family and its estate. That duty fulfilled, she’s free to pursue her own happiness, however she defines it… and she defines it broadly. Even the menswear-inspired suit she admires (“Golly, that would be useful!”) illustrates the breadth of Mary’s opportunities, well beyond the horizons of most women of her time, even of her station.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Aunt Rosamund (Samantha Bond) seeing the latest fashions (Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014)

But it’s 1924, and even The Unspecified Device can’t prevent every consequence of illicit sex. In the Crawleys’ social circle, a spurned lover can do as much damage to a lady’s reputation as an illegitimate pregnancy.

Mary failed to see the power she handed over to Lord Gillingham—and how readily he would avail himself of it. “I want him to be the godfather of my children, just not their father,” she tells Charles, blithely assuming the future of her friendship with Tony is her prerogative to decide. She’s blindsided by his anger and by the blackmail implicit in his bluster. Mary has been luxuriating in an embarrassment of choices—but now one of those choices threatens to embarrass her.


Edith subsists on the illusion of choice. She pretends she can continue to choose how and when she sees her secret daughter, as if the Drewes haven’t warned her off. She pretends her persistence won’t spur them to greater estrangement. She pretends that her grandmother and aunt won’t discover she’s brought Marigold to Downton from Switzerland. She pretends that she can keep Michael alive by ignoring news of his fate.

Thomas feels he’s making a choice, trying in vain to avert his desires, eschewing a sexuality his society condemns. Though I find his everlasting melodramatic villainy tiresome, it’s excruciating to see the hints of the agonizing course he’s pursuing, and to see how his self-reproach isolates him. “There isn’t a man in this house who could help me!” he cries to Baxter, and he’s right. Thomas Barrow is a scoundrel of farcical proportions, but his story is a tragedy, too.


Defending her nephew’s memory, Mrs. Patmore says, “He could’ve stayed here, safe and well, until they came for him. But instead he chose to fight for his country.” She argues that Archie’s “so-called cowardice” was no choice, but a natural consequence of the dreadful battles he volunteered to fight. Though she trusts their explanation, she also feels Lord Grantham and Carson could choose to honor his name with his fellow soldiers, if only they were willing.

Rose’s father—call him Hugh MacClare, Lord Flintshire, the Marquess, or Shrimpy—has made a difficult choice, and he’s come all the way from India to break the news to his daughter. Shrimpy and Susan have decided (finally) to divorce, though it will devastate him socially and professionally. “Is it worth it?” Robert asks him. Shrimpy confides that Robert would understand their decision, “if you’d ever been as unhappy as I am.”


Learning from her parents’ mistake, Rose stakes out the right to make her own choices. “Don’t try to force me into an unsuitable marriage, like you were forced.” Shrimpy—no, in this touching moment, let’s dignify him with his name: Hugh MacClare knows that such a promise is tantamount to “a blank check”… and he gives it anyhow, because he’s in no position to gainsay Rose’s insistence that she’ll only marry “if I am totally, absolutely in love.”

There’s a rush of emotional frankness in this week’s episode. Surprising no one, not even Cora, Simon Bricker’s ardor overflows the bounds of propriety, and he pretends to have no choice in expressing it. (“I must, or I’ll burst!”) Violet reveals the late Lord Grantham’s unexpected and eloquent emotional subtlety: The gift of their children’s photographs in a Fabergé frame swayed her from the temptations offered by Prince Kuragin. Lord Merton surprises Isobel—not with his proposal, but with his earnest declaration of love, which presents her with a choice she will take her time considering.


Even among these pronouncements, Tom is becoming the most emotionally outspoken character on Downton Abbey. Last week, he recruited Mary’s support with the forthright (and implicitly challenging) “If you love me, you’ll support me.” This week, he reminds Miss Bunting that, whatever she thinks of the Crawleys, “I love them.”

For the first time, Miss Bunting is Tom’s intended guest for an evening at Downton Abbey, not a surprise contrived by Rose or Cora or Edith, not a last-minute invitation. He urges her to “be nice” to Robert, and she smirks as she concedes, “I will be… if he’s nice to me.” Maybe for the first time, Tom sees that her goading of the Earl is not an innocent mistake or a social misstep, but a carefully calculated gesture, a deliberate choice. Though it discomfits him, it reminds him of Sybil, and he likes her for that.


Tasked with tracking down Princess Irina Kuragin, Shrimpy tells Violet and Isobel that many of Russia’s Tsarist sympathizers eke out a living in Hong Kong as “servants and taxi drivers, milliners and prostitutes, anything they could lay their hands to.” Violet pointedly refuses to speculate which profession would suit the vanished princess. It’s a quip, as so much of the Dowager Countess’ conversation is, but it maintains the assertion that we always have choices… and the fiction that those choices always reflect our character rather than our circumstances.

Stray observation:

  • It’s a bit heartless of Mary to tell Charles Blake she’ll be jilting Tony before she breaks the news to Tony, especially since she repeatedly congratulates herself on telling him properly, face to face.
  • Charles Blake is starting to sound… unreliable. Squiring his rival’s jilted fiancée around London? Taking delight in introducing Mabel Lane Fox to Mary, and in pointing out the ticklishness of the moment? Asking Mary out for her one evening in town, though he knows she’s there to see Tony? I suspect Charles Blake likes to stir up trouble.
  • “I’d love to understand the merits of the argument,” Cora says of the Pips Corner debate, but Robert ignores her completely, and Mary and Tom follow his lead. Every time her family slights her, Cora gets riper for the attentions of an outsider.
  • Seeing Edith glum over her estrangement from Marigold, her father chimes in, “I knew that would happen!” Thanks, Papa, there’s nothing quite so comforting as a good I told you so.
  • Is Mary’s accent getting more exaggerated? I keep hearing Emily Mortimer gasping, “Careful, my bones!”
  • “I just wish we could all forget about Mr. Green.” You and me both, Anna.

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