Readers, we have seen the star of tonight’s Downton Abbey, and he is us:
I don’t know whether it’s the series’ headlong rush to its conclusion or last week’s bracing infusion of, um, fresh blood, but Downton Abbey has been a blast for two episodes running. The show always has a certain soapy appeal, puttering along in its glamorous trappings, tut-tutting at motorcars and telephones and lady editors while murders and blackmail plots unfold, but lately it’s been more vigorous, more self-aware.
In this episode, that self-awareness goes into overdrive as Downton Abbey asks, “What’s Downton Abbey? Basically, it’s about a bunch of honkies who live in a church. Or maybe it’s a museum.” When Mary and Tom arrange an open house at the manor to raise funds for the hospital, the show gets a chance to explore its own appeal, and to expose the sheltered denizens of the manor to the scrutiny of hoi polloi—and to their own ignorance about the luxury and history they inhabit.
The older generations born to the manor can’t imagine what visitors would be paying to see. Listing off their handful of “decent” paintings, Robert concludes that townsfolk would be better off going into London to the Tate; Violet asks, “Why would anyone pay to see a perfectly ordinary house?” as the camera pulls back to show the luxury of even her relatively modest Dower House, with its silk-tufted pillows and draperies, the silver tea set, the polished wood gleaming, and the six-point folded napkin that holds her scones. It’s a far cry from the battered, serviceable furniture and plain white china in the tea break downstairs at the manor, or even the cozy comfort of Yew Tree Farm.
Downton Abbey isn’t an ordinary house, and that’s the appeal of the open house just as it’s the appeal of the television show. The personal dramas of the characters and sweeping social changes of the era can make great stories, but Downton Abbey can be entertaining even when the story arcs falter, precisely because it’s jam-packed with period detail animated by its characters. Though Robert mentions the Tate, a day trip to Downton Abbey would better rival a walk through the Victoria And Albert—but along with an eyeful of what Molesley characterizes as “fine craftsmanship and beautiful paintings,” both the open house and the TV show offer a peek into private lives.
Bates wouldn’t watch Downton Abbey any more than he’d pay to tour a great house. If anyone knows the chasm between the haves and have-nots, it’s a servant in one of the few remaining great estates, but Bates insists there’s no difference between the ways of lords and ladies, or even the Royal Family, and his own life. “They sleep in a bed, they eat at a table. So do I,” he says, sitting at the bare communal table in the dim downstairs room where the servants take their meals. Funnily enough, Bates’s dismissal echoes Violet’s. “Oh, roll up, roll up, visit an actual dining room!” she scoffs. “Complete with a real-life table and chairs!”
Maggie Smith puts in an expressive performance, underpinning the Dowager Countess’ indignation with a palpable note of panic. Having received the hospital board’s letter “allowing” her to step down as president, she storms into the open house and rants at Cora, heedless of the commoners witnessing her outrage, then upon Robert, captive in the bed where he’s recuperating, she vents her spleen, shrieking of traitors and humiliation and being “cast into the dust.” (Special congratulations to the costumer who selected that hat for
Chicken Lady’s the Dowager Countess’ furious entry to the open house. Its soft tuft of feather trembling with her every gesture and word adds both a hilarious focal point and an element of vulnerability to her high dudgeon.)
Here’s where the unheralded star of the episode comes in. “Why’s she in such a tizzy?” asks the village boy (Noah Jupe) who wanders away from the tour, past the velvet ropes, and into Robert’s room. I laughed for a solid minute after Jupe leaned in from the doorway, summing up the question we all ask rhetorically, delighted and appalled and tickled, at intervals every season.
Confronted by their ignorance of their own family legacy, the Crawleys come off like ninnies during the open house, especially in comparison to Bertie’s brisk competence. Asked to identify the people in a painting, Edith can only essay a limp “Oh. Well, they were all rather marvelous and sort of… living that life.” Cora does best delivering fragments of the house’s history, but when a visitor asks if the refectory that makes up the great hall is the source of Downton Abbey’s name, Cora’s dumbfounded for a beat before blurting out, “I guess so!” Even in her rage, Violet Crawley is the only one to recount bits of manor history with (unsurprisingly) both crisp confidence and wit.
“What on earth can we show them to give them their money’s worth?” Robert ponders, “Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?” The latter image shocks Carson, but not the viewer, because for all its pretensions, mundane things are the heart of this show. It’s a trifle anticlimactic to have Health Minister and future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain show up only to hustle out so quickly, but it isn’t surprising. Downton Abbey isn’t about heads of state or even about cast social shifts; it’s about intimate daily moments between the people living through those shifts.
Even when the plots and characters plod toward an obvious outcome, we want to see them snatching a private moment out of the rain or sniping at each other over breakfast or, yes, unwinding in the bath. Those tiny moments are what lives are made of, and where drama lives. Though Downton Abbey catalogues Mary’s many romances, her most (ahem) revealing scenes are of her dressing or undressing, because that’s when she pours out her heart to Anna, as much as Mary ever pours out that guarded heart to anyone. Just as important, those are the scenes when Mary lets herself care about someone else, and seeing that feels like true intimacy.
- Above, see a gratuitous screencap of Mary’s “medium-smart” evening wear. Not pictured: the saucy rear-hem fishtail that draws the eye. Golly.
- “Henry, to be honest, this is moving much faster than I’d imagined.” LIKE ONE OF HIS FAST MOTORCARS, EVEN.
- Carson, get that Château Chasse-Spleen away from Lord Grantham unless you want to see him spew up blood again.
- Edith: “I used to go to the Criterion with Michael.” Mary: “Do you have to put a damper on every restaurant in the capital?” The naked hostility between Mary and Edith was ugly enough in 1912, when they were callow girls. Between 30-something adults, it’s pathetic, even grotesque. But I’m perversely afraid Fellowes will force a superficial reconciliation between sisters in the last episodes, though an uneasy détente is likely the most these two could stomach.
- “I want to start bringing things a little more up to standard.” I’d be wielding a wooden spoon at Carson by now, but his wife is made of sterner stuff. Their showdown should be worth the wait.
- Speaking of an impending showdown: “It must’ve fallen in the rubbish by mistake.” Oh, Daisy.
- The way Downton Abbey’s sympathy for Barrow wavers from season to season is frustrating, but that last shot of him weeping in the dark—not even retreating to the privacy of his room—got to me.
- Molesley! Molesley! Molesley!