In this episode’s opening scene, Lady Mary and Lord Gillingham sprawl amid tangled sheets, looking appropriately wanton for lovers at the end of a week-long assignation. But their conversation is dry, practical, even a bit chilly. She welcomes him to her bed and her body, but refuses to share more than a crumb of her breakfast. When Tony looks forward to being married “before you can say ‘Jack Robinson,’” Mary stiffens. “Nothing is going to happen that isn’t properly announced, organized, and executed.” Ah, pillow talk.

Kissing her goodbye, Tony says, “We’re settled now, we just have to get organized.” Maybe he’s trying to match her brisk, businesslike tone, but it’s a bloodless end to an illicit week. It’s no surprise that Mary, tepid after treading the primrose path of dalliance, chooses to strike out on a new road without him.

Having learned of Mary’s liaison from Spratt, The Dowager Countess gives every sign of being scandalized, but betrays her pragmatism quickly. Her heartfelt “My dear, you have to take control of your feelings before they take control of you” is the voice of a woman who understands the power of longing, the way appetite can undo the best intentions.

Accordingly, The Dowager Countess is surprised by her own admirer among the Russian refugees welcomed to tea at Downton Abbey. Amid the dizzying enchantments of Russian balls and midnight sleigh rides, Prince Kuragin (Rade Šerbedžija) gave Violet a lace fan… and, it’s hinted, something more. (“Thank heavens Papa and Aunt Rosamund were already born,” Mary tartly remarks, “or we could spin all sorts of fairy tales.”) It’s Violet’s chance to consider the path she took, and the path she left untaken.

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Cora is looking back at her own path, and ahead to the future. Alone with Robert, she recalls the hectic days of the war, remembering “how busy we were, how useful.” In the National Gallery with Simon Bricker, she muses over the immortality of Piero della Francesca’s art and her own life’s impermanence. “I doubt they’ll remember anything I’ve done by the time my body’s cold.”

After their impromptu dinner, she reminisces about the days before she was Lady Grantham, before meeting the Earl, before titles and estates and children. She was just a girl fresh from the schoolroom, overawed by the glamor of London, but pretty (“I suppose I can say that, now I’m an old lady”) and wealthy, surrounded by suitors and possibilities.

Simon Bricker’s attentions must make heady fare, especially compared to Robert. “I’m afraid I find those journeys more of a slog these days,” he says as Cora packs for London, and the whole episode with Robert is one long slog of grousing and conversation stoppers. No wonder she’s ripe for an evening with someone who takes such (so far) innocent delight in her company—in her stories, in her insights, in her presence.

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The pure pleasure of their outing is palpable. As Bricker, Richard E. Grant gleams with interest and attachment, but never brooks impropriety. His words, tone, and body language paint a picture of unfailing attention and respect. He stands close but not crowding her, hands clasped behind his back. He’s captivated, even ardent, but never presumptuous or seductive.

Elizabeth McGovern shows how Cora won over the gentlemen of London society, even as a callow schoolgirl. She’s aglow with pleasure, but she never falters into indiscretion. When he entreats her for another meeting, she demurs with warmth and grace, and her obvious joy (and complete absence of guilt) at Robert’s surprise visit reflects her blamelessness.

How crushing to return from a brief, blameless sojourn to recriminations—and worse, to her husband’s certainty that no one could be interested in her conversation. Just two episodes ago, he was hailing her as “the best companion in the world,” a rare prize boasting “beauty, brains, a heart, a conscience, all in one.” The thoughtless disdain he displays in London is a cruel (and probably temporary) reversal, but enough to cast a moment’s shadow on the path she’s chosen.

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Anna has rarely been allowed to choose her own path, especially in recent memory. Her story is one of agency appropriated, over and over. Rape is a horrific violation of both sexual agency and bodily autonomy, but the people who love and care for Anna also ignore her decisions and impose their choices upon her. After Anna pleads for privacy, Mrs. Hughes breaks her word and divulges Anna’s rape to Bates. Bates annexes her trauma, first defining her suffering as an ennobling ordeal (“You are made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you have been put through”), then simmering with impotent rage for Green, unmoved by her claims that it was a stranger. Lady Mary and Mrs. Hughes conspire to keep Bates’ trip to London from her, even destroying the ticket that was its only evidence.

Their blithe disregard for Anna’s choices persists into this episode. When Anna confronts Mrs. Hughes with her fear that Bates is suspected in Green’s death, Mrs. Hughes flatly lies: “I don’t know anything you don’t know,” she says, shortly before conferring with Lady Mary about the many things they know that Anna does not.

Mary even overrides Anna’s religious scruples. Asking for “the greatest possible favor” (again), she gives Anna her—diaphragm? cervical cap?—and Marie Stopes book to tuck away in some unseen corner of the cottage. Clearly unwilling, Anna protests, “I do feel I’m aiding and abetting a sin. I just hope I won’t be made to pay.”

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The tale of Mary’s unspecified contraceptive device—its procurement, its concealment, and presumably its future discovery—captures the social distance between the two women. Mary has found a way to exercise power of almost every kind: She has money (though limited for her rank), title, respectability, meaningful work, and now sexual freedom. But her relative freedom depends in part upon her casual exploitation of those who serve her, and especially Anna.

Mary blazes her own trail, but she does it by trampling on the feet of those who cannot refuse her. It’s not malicious, or even intentional. It’s just how things work at Downton Abbey.

Stray observations:

  • We’ll have to wait until next week to hear the subject of Thomas’ mysterious phone call: “I’ve read your advertisement in The London Magazine, ‘Choose your own path.’”
  • Baxter shoulders her blame for the path she chose. However swayed she was by passion or greed or even love (though she never says the word), her misdeeds are her own responsibility. Presumably, her refusal to report Peter Coyle’s crime leaves the door open for the sinister footman to reappear.
  • Rose, stop inviting Miss Bunting to parties. It never goes well.
  • Mrs. Drewe’s panic is misplaced, but you can’t fault her instinct. She sees that Lady Edith’s interest in Marigold far outstrips that of even the most attentive godmother, and that her sense of connection to the child trumps courtesy and common sense.
  • Is everyone else tired of saying “Poor Edith”? Just once, I’d like things to go well for poor Edith, if only because her emotional pratfalls have become wearily predictable after five seasons.

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