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On Downton Abbey’s wedding episode, standards slip and time slips away

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In the first scene of Downton Abbey’s wedding episode, Mrs. Hughes sighs, “I don’t mind. Not really.” Those aren’t the words of an overjoyed bride. Instead of her big wedding breakfast “with all of us sat at groaning tables having a jolly time,” she’s resigned herself to “stand about with nibbly bits getting stuck in their teeth,” because Carson wants to do it the right way—and to him, that means “how posh people do it.”

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Dragging her fingertip through the dust on a library table, Violet Crawley tacitly introduces the episode’s theme. Standards are slipping, and the Dowager Countess notices. Protesting Edith’s plan to return to London, she asks, “Is it proper for a young woman to be alone in a flat?” In the way of descendants since time immemorial, Edith brushes off her disapproval with the reminder that times have changed, in more ways than one. “I’m not a young woman,” she reminds her grandmother, “I’m staring middle age in the face.”

The days before a wedding can make anyone antsy, and this episode conveys that feeling ably, plucking at several small tensions. Mrs. Hughes frets over her wedding breakfast, her dreary dress, her would-be husband’s dismissal of her wishes. Spratt has a secret and Denker is determined to dig it up. Edith faces a tight deadline. Lady Grantham walks in on Anna and Mrs. Patmore draping Mrs. Hughes in Cora’s finery, and they’re shaken by her reproaches. Anna’s pregnant again, and this time she hopes—and doesn’t dare to hope—she’ll carry it to term. Daisy keeps thanking Cora for settling Yew Tree Farm on Mr. Mason, and Cora keeps being prevented from correcting her misapprehension. And then there’s Thomas Barrow’s sad, almost surreal interview at Dryden Park.

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But it’s also a clumsily facile episode. Mrs. Patmore and Anna both uncharacteristically confide Mrs. Hughes’ private anxieties to the Ladies of the house, setting them up for dramatically necessary interference. Spratt’s drama of the fugitive nephew hidden in the potting shed starts and finishes offscreen, serving only to join him to Denker under the weight of his secret. Daisy being pressed into service to replace the usual maid is plausible enough, considering the manor’s ever-shrinking staff, but Cora’s repeated failure to set her straight about the farm stretches credulity.

Edith’s trouble with her cantankerous editor concludes with improbable simplicity. When she suggests “we part company once and for all,” he storms out without another word; Edith even gets a cheery “Good riddance and well done!” from her typist before she has to shoulder the work of putting together the magazine overnight. (For the purposes of maximum drama, apparently Mr. Shouty also made up the entire design and layout department.) If “poor Mr. Pelham” (Harry Hadden-Paton) seemed a good match for Edith when they first met, he seems even better now, as he volunteers to make coffee, fetch sandwiches, and carry bits of paper, advises her pithily to feature “best clothes and prettiest faces, nobody cares about anything else,” and admires both her abilities and her “incredibly modern” ways.

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The dust at Downton Abbey and the scandal of a respectable woman alone in her flat are nothing compared to the shambles awaiting Thomas Barrow. The first sign that something’s amiss at Dryden Park, even more than the crumbling stone of the façade, is that Barrow calls at the front door. He soon realizes he’s addressing the owner himself, who now lives alone in the derelict manor where he once consorted with royalty.

Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup) leads Barrow through an ornamented arch of ivory tusks into a hall lined with hunting trophies and not much else. His lament for the lost days— his memories of women climbing the grand staircase at evening’s end, the candlelight flickering over their faces, their diamonds twinkling in the dimness—is an elegy for an entire age gone by, and it gave me goosebumps. This is what Downton Abbey does best, capturing a sense of something grand and glorious, even foolhardy, that’s gone forever.

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Then romance gives way to tragedy. The estate is ruined. Where it isn’t empty, it’s cluttered, piled with books and newspapers, dirty crystal glasses littering every surface, Lord Reseby’s underthings drying on the fire grate. His mention of two sons who “never came back from the war” isn’t a euphemism, but a delusion. The old man drifts around the ravaged manor waiting for prosperity to return, and his heirs with it. “We can’t let them down, do you see?” he lectures Barrow. “When the good times return, they will all come back. We must be ready.”

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Sir Michael is the logical extension of the doomed attempt to cling to the old ways in a changing economy and a changing culture. He’s the ghost of a world that no longer exists, rattling around his decaying estate, standing amid squalor as he declares, “We can’t let our standards slip.” Violet Crawley would agree with him as much as she would pity him. But (as Prince Kuragin tried to tell her) grand standards without the means to maintain them are more than than outdated; they’re disastrous.

Grand standards imposed from outside can turn a celebration into a chore, and joy into dread. Cora confronts Mary, Robert, and Carson alike with the reality that they’ve “rather railroaded” Mrs. Hughes into accepting a formal reception in the great hall instead of a hearty meal, music, and “a bit of hooley.” Even after Cora coaxes the bride-to-be into confessing her wishes, Mary keeps scoffing. “Does anyone have a sit-down wedding breakfast any more?”

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Mary means well, in her limited way. She wants Carson to have the pomp she thinks he deserves. And she means well, too, when she promises to arrange for Mrs. Hughes to borrow one of Cora’s evening coats to smarten up her dull day dress. “She won’t mind. She’ll be pleased!” she assures Anna. But with typical breezy thoughtlessness, Mary fails to ask Cora, or even to tell her. After a long day wrangling with Isobel and Violet over the hospital merger, Lady Grantham walks into her bedroom to find Anna, Mrs. Patmore, and Mrs. Hughes pawing through her wardrobe, and remonstrates them sharply.

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With all the dithering and minor stories of mundane suspense, it would be easy for the joy at the heart of this episode to be obscured. But Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan play their parts with quiet perfection. “It’s a long time since I’ve been on the brink of anything, except maybe the grave,” Mrs. Hughes jokes to Mrs. Patmore, but when her groom comes to confer about the last details, they flutter with subdued excitement. Later, Mrs. Hughes sits tucked into her single bed, long braids down for the night, taking one last look at her solitude, as Mr. Carson, sitting alone in his room, lays a hand to his coverlet in what might be wonder and might be trepidation. It’s a potent reminder that these are people who’ve found love late in life, against all their expectations… and that their lives are about to be irreparably altered.

Anna and Mary convey a similar sense of mingled excitement and unease over Anna’s pregnancy. Mary’s excitement is contagious, even if it’s understandable that Anna can’t share it until she knows this pregnancy won’t also end in a miscarriage. Michelle Dockery conveys that selfless pleasure beautifully, lighting up her face with naked delight, then swallowing her excitement like a child taking her medicine.

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All’s well that ends well. Cora apologizes handsomely and gives Mrs. Hughes the wedding gift of a luxurious velvet evening coat to be tailored to fit her. Edith has newfound confidence and a new admirer. Mr. Carson consents to a reception in the schoolhouse, with bunting and wildflowers and a big bowl of punch, where he toasts his new wife’s grace and charm. Anna lets her hope blossom, just a bit. The episode starts with rumblings of slipping standards and dark changes ahead, but it ends with the reassurance that—for the moment, at least—all will continue as it should, and it delivers on that promise in the last minute by bringing Tom and Sybbie back to Downton Abbey.

Stray observations

  • Violet’s in classic form, as if the show realized it’s running out of time for her witticisms. “Cora and I will be saying hello rather less than en garde!
  • Robert mentions “a bit of indigestion,” which could just be a recurrence of his ulcer trouble, but it looks like the bleakest of foreshadowing.
  • Edith chokes out “my… that is, my ward. Our ward,” as if she’s never explained Marigold’s place in her life to an acquaintance.
  • “I know now I need a purpose. That’s what I’ve learned,” Edith tells Bertie Pelham as they lounge after their triumph. But didn’t she learn that when she pitched in with farm labor in season two, and again when she handled convalescing soldiers’ welfare?
  • Like Edith’s epiphanies of purpose and Bates’ limp, Barrow’s hand injury comes and goes as the story demands.
  • I confess to being scandalized by Lady Edith congratulating both Mr. and Mrs. Carson. In days gone by, well-wishers offered congratulations to the groom but best wishes to the bride, to avoid the implication that landing a husband took some effort.
  • But not as scandalized as Anna was by Mary’s “Lord knows the problem isn’t Bates!”
  • Anna, upon seeing the replacement dress: “Oh. Well. It’s very, um… it’s an improvement, I can say that.” Daisy, incredulously: “Is it? What was the last one like?”
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