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Downton Abbey: “Season Five, Episode Two”

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The world is getting smaller, and getting bigger. The wireless brings news and music from afar, even carrying the voice of the king into homes where he would never deign to set foot. Marie Snopes’ literature gives women a chance to enjoy (or endure) the marital embrace without, as Mary Crawley tactfully puts it, “consequences.” With peace in Europe and travel faster than ever, an art historian can pop over to Alexandria to research paintings and escape the winter. Once, broad horizons were the birthright only of the ruling class, but new advances in science and communications are expanding the world for everyone.


Not everyone seeks a broader world, or welcomes a smaller one. When Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant) mentions his travels, Lord Grantham responds with mild distaste: “I don’t envy you. I’m not very good at abroad.” In one sentence, Robert Crawley reduces a world of possibility to a simple not here. He likes the world he inhabits at Downton Abbey, small and familiar with himself at its center.

That world is crumbling. Last week, Downton Abbey considered Boudica and the Romans. This week it’s Russian refugees, a “tin-pot Rosa Luxemburg,” and stories of the second Earl traveling through France during the fall of the Bastille. So many fallen empires, and so many aristocrats who fell with them.

Rose pities the deposed Russians for their loss of station, imagining them “dancing and shopping and seeing their friends, then suddenly being thrown out to fend for themselves in the jungle.” She sees herself in them, and with good reason. But the privilege of the ruling class isn’t only about leisure and luxury, but the assurance of rank.

Robert Crawley is accustomed to speaking peremptorily, even sharply, to those around him, and to seeing his advice followed like orders. As patron to the village memorial committee, he’s taken aback when the post mistress speaks to him just as tartly. Even Carson, so reverential to the master of house, is less deferential as chairman of the committee. Discussing the memorial’s location, Carson speaks to Lord Grantham as an equal, challenging him—civilly, but with confidence and conviction.


Mary tries to prepare for a smaller, more independent future than her parents enjoy, and even cites that domestic intimacy as the spur for her tryst with Tony. But her complacency in assigning her lady’s maid an errand she daren’t undertake herself belies that abdication of noble prerogative. “There’s one thing I have to ask you. I’m really sorry, but I must,” she says to Anna, sending her out to buy contraceptives. But she doesn’t sound like she’s asking, nor does she sound sorry.

Mary’s imperious chill may disguise vulnerability, even humiliation, at exposing herself so frankly. But she’s still favoring her private embarrassment over Anna’s public embarrassment and exposing Anna to the possibility of gossip Mary wouldn’t risk for herself. (That’s especially deplorable since Mary believes Anna’s husband subject to outbursts of murderous jealousy.)

Laura Carmichael [Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014]

Edith had no Anna, and no Marie Stopes book, to prevent the consequences of her passion. Unknown to her protective aunt and grandmother, she’s brought her beloved little consequence home to Downton. Despite her good intentions, Edith is just as high-handed as her sister, and as insensitive to the demurrals of those she imposes upon. “I hope I’m not being a nuisance,” she burbles, barging into Yew Tree’s teatime once again, never pausing to notice Mrs. Drewe’s silence in response.


Thrilled to have an excuse to dote on little Marigold, Edith is oblivious to Mrs. Drewe’s simmering resentment, and Timothy Drewe pays it little heed, too. Clueless husbands are something of a theme tonight on Downton Abbey. Robert Crawley lapses into invective several times, railing against the intrusion of a wireless, the ploys of his niece, the audacious Miss Bunting, and the imagined horrors of his granddaughter spirited away to America. He only becomes more incensed by his wife’s conciliations. Having tested her patience, he then grouses over Bricker’s attentions to his dog. Robert’s fulminating must make Simon’s (thus-far perfectly proper) gallantry to Cora even more gratifying.

Mrs. Hughes and Isobel Crawley agree that the wireless broadcast “makes the King more real,” “less of a myth, more of a man.” Violet alone seems to see how perilous this is: “The monarchy has thrived on magic and mystery. Strip them away and people may think ‘The royal family is just like us.’” “Familiarity breeds contempt,” as the proverb says. Another adage advises, “No man is a hero to his valet”—and precious few to their wives and children.


This episode simmers along, laying out circumstances and character dynamics that will no doubt be brought to a boil as the season goes on. There is a revolution quietly brewing on Downton Abbey, but it isn’t one of beheadings and riots and blood in the streets. It’s a revolution of kitchen workers quietly educating themselves in the downstairs halls, of respectable daughters seeking carnal pleasure and nurturing illegitimate children, of pert words from commoners, of a nobleman’s guidance greeted as opinion, not decree. The Earl of Grantham won’t lose his head in this revolution. He will lose his upper hand, his undoubted grip on the affairs of his estate and its environs. And perhaps he counts that more dear.

Stray observations:

  • We’ve seen the della Francesca painting before. In the first season, Mary shows it to Kemal Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat, just before he urges her to allow him into her room that night. Let’s hope the flirtation between Simon Brooker and Cora Crawley is better-fated, or at least less fatal.
  • Daisy’s ease with numbers, subtly revealed in last week’s episode, pays off in renewed confidence and a handsome compliment from Miss Bunting: “You’ll prove a talented mathematician.”
  • “There is nothing more ill-bred than trying to steal the affections of someone else’s dog!”
  • “With talk like that you, make me want to check the looking glass to see that my hair’s tidy!” “Get away with you.” Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are making me downright giggly.
  • Molesley pretends indifference to Thomas’ poisonous gossip about Baxter, but Thomas knows better: “Because you listened to the story, didn’t you?” Enthralled by Downton Abbey’s most salacious turns and twists, but still happy to justify the wrongdoing of sympathetic characters, Molesley is a surrogate for the audience—or perhaps for writer-creator Julian Fellowes. Frankly, I’d be relieved to learn that Baxter is the “common thief” she calls herself, with no noble extenuating circumstances. But Molesley and Lady Crawley insist “There must be something more to it than that” and hope to hear “the whole truth.”

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