So far this season, Downton Abbey has felt like it’s running in place. So many plots are being burned through, and yet, every week the household faces the same problems. Bunting continues her reign of terror at the dinner table, yet she keeps being invited back. Lord Merton is sweet to Isobel, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. Violet hints at some former romance with a Russian prince, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Edith yearns to spend time with her daughter, but is turned away. Cora and Mr. Bricker flirt. Mary waffles about Gillingham. Baxter tries to be nice to Thomas, and he lashes out at her. Bates is sweet to Anna, but she remains suspicious of him. Molesley appears for comic relief. End of episode. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I love Downton. That fact isn’t readily apparent when a review starts like this, but loving Downton is complicated. It’s like dating someone who is so gorgeous you can’t believe you’re actually sitting there, getting lost in those beautiful eyes. But then they speak, and …
There are lots of wonderful things to explore in Downton. Frankly, as terrible as Edith’s story has (always) been, I actually felt true sorrow for her in this episode. I mean, she really can’t catch a break. The worst part was probably Robert declaring triumphantly that he knew the Drews would get tired of her! Of course she annoyed them! And then the whole Gregson thing gets dredged up again, when his office calls with just enough news to be upsetting, but still nothing definitive. At this point, I’m truly hoping Gregson is alive, returns to Downton, that he and Edith steal their child and then elope off to Australia or something.
Downton is at its best when its focused on relationships. This is its bread and butter. Cora handling Robert (and him trying to keep an eye on Bricker), Mary dining with Blake and trying (unsuccessfully) to break things off with Gillingham, Violet and Isobel having tea together, Carson and Hughes whispering about the dust-up upstairs, Ms. Patmore’s testimonial about Archie — none of these were particularly dramatic, and most were just lulling. But they are part of that beautifully lush, calming world that makes Downton the perfect Sunday night show.
There are things like Thomas’ drug addiction. How long was he in London, one day? And now he’s a full-blown junkie, taking spoons from the kitchen in clear view of everyone so that he can go and cook up his heroin? Thomas is a really interesting character. In fact, aside from Mary, he’s probably Downton‘s best asset. He’s complicated, and he has proven time and time again that his asinine behavior is all a façade of insecurity. He lashes out before he can be belittled or ridiculed, which probably stems from his father’s abuse over his homosexuality. He can’t be who he really is, so he pretends to be a villain. Over the years, he’s come to rescue of many a Downton denizen, and showed what a hard worker and loyal friend he can be. And yet, the show does nothing with this. Also, for a show so devoted to relationships, how come Thomas never gets to have one?
Then there are the Russians. Has there been a less compelling story on the show? You can’t even fully blame Rose, but of course she’s the one who brought the Russians up in the first place. Look, I love Doctor Zhivago as much as the next person, but the Winter Palace this is not. Would I be up for a PBS series based on the Russian revolution? Too right. Is Downton Abbey the place to explore this historical event? Too wrong. The show’s track record when it comes to incorporating anything real has been grim. Leave it be, guys.
Plenty of other things simmered along in “Season 5, Episode 4,” like The Education of Daisy (which is happening at lightning speed), the continued police investigation into Mr. Green (the rapist’s) suspicious death, geriatric courtship, as well as Robert’s sudden desire for conservation, and Molesley renouncing his title of First Footman (which, forgive me, but why was Carson so self-satisfied about this?) None of them are amounting to much yet, which isn’t a necessity, but they also don’t really amount to anything on their own, either. Mary dawdling in London is all fine and well — we get beautiful clothing, witty repartee and some casual slut shaming by Gillingham — but these other stories just don’t catch that same spark.
“Season 5, Episode 4” continued, in some ways, Downton Abbey‘s focus on an ever-changing world, like Edith mentioned in relation to her article (which I would love to hear more about, frankly — it would make her more interesting). Yet for the most part, this season has really been about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Episode Rating: ★★
Episode Rating Key: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated ★ Poor — A waste of time; clear your DV-R space
Musings and Miscellanea:
— So as you may have noticed, we’re switching up our TV ratings system! I was close to a three on this, but there was just too much hogwash.
— “Prince thingamajig” – Robert.
— “Hope is a tease that only keeps us from accepting reality” – Violet.
— Shrimpy is looking old. And pale. Does he not get out in India?
— Speaking of light, I love Isobel’s drawing room. And the walk that Mary, Robert, and Branson took …! So verdant and gorgeous.
— “Mid-day seemed more appropriate for bad news” – Mary’s Heartbreaking Rules 101.
— Mary 2, Lane Fox 0. She stole your man and out-dressed you, sorry to say!
— “I wish I could work you out” – Charles Blake. You up for a trip to Liverpool?
— “More like The Battle of Little Minx!” – Carson.
— So Rose wants a carte blanche for a happy marriage, hmm? What mistake will she make with this freedom next?
— “Quite a testimonial!” – Shrimpy.