Downton Abbey, Season 3
This week, the dowager countess was a caring parent rather than a zinger-delivery mechanism.
Posted Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, at 10:00 PM
Photo courtesy of Joss Barratt/Carnival Film & Television
Editor’s note: For the benefit of American readers who haven’t yet seen Season 3 of Downton Abbey, please do your best to avoid spoilers when commenting.
June Thomas: What a gut-wrenching episode! Do you share my view that this was the dowager countess's finest hour? She gets off so many great lines that I sometimes think of her as an incredibly efficient zinger-delivery system, but this week she was above all a caring mother. Yes, she was scheming, but not in a Blair-Waldorf-in-mourning-dress kind of way. She simply gave Dr. Clarkson an opportunity to mend the rift between Cora and Robert.
I found that final scene of the two parents bawling over the loss of their youngest child, while Violet discreetly turned her back on them, sad but lovely.
Seth Stevenson: The dowager may be vicious at times, but she is an astute observer of human nature. And she understands how important a bit of nuanced social maneuvering can be to keep the world spinning smoothly. That can mean asking the doctor to—I'm looking for a more musical word ... prevaricate? Fudge? It can also mean saying that she wishes to remain at Isobel's prostitute-marred luncheon not because she's taking a stand against Robert but because it "seems a pity to miss such a good pudding."
Thomas: This is a time of rapid change—so rapid that Ethel went from botching consommé to producing a dessert worthy of the aristocracy in a matter of days. But Charlotte russe? Did she have to make such a foreign-sounding pud?
Stevenson: Between the intractability of Lord Grantham and that of Carson, this was a week for aging white dudes caught out of step with the times. We're foxtrotting now, June, and painting rouge on our cheeks, and raising our children Catholic. Are you ready for this brave new world, or do you want to stick your head in the linens and hide?
Thomas: I'm torn about all this transformation. I'm glad to see upstairs and downstairs defying their father figures when the dads make ridiculous demands. But at the same time, I find myself thinking that Ivy needs to spend less time flirting and more time taking care of whatever tasks Mrs. Patmore assigns her. And when Mr. Mason offered Daisy a chance to leave service and take control of her own life, I couldn't help worrying that she'd be lonely out there on the farm. For all its petty disputations, life below stairs does seem companionable and—sometimes at least—supportive.
Stevenson: I wouldn't mind foxtrotting in the servants' hall while Jimmy plays a rag. But I'm not sure this Thomas/Jimmy/O'Brien vortex will turn out to be a happy chapter in the downstairs saga. Also, the footmen slobbering over Ivy is starting to grate on me. She is fetching, but she has yet to say or do anything at all interesting. I guess I liked it when she noted that "a cat can look at a king." A fitting epigram for this whole episode—be it a kitchen maid glancing at a cook, a prostitute serving noblewomen, or a Catholic widower defying an Anglican clergyman.
Thomas: It's true, for every gesture of support—as when Anna intervened on Thomas' behalf when Alfred was ribbing him about grieving for Sybil a little too flamboyantly—there are two examples of servant-on-servant squabbling, sniping, and undermining. Maybe Daisy should get out of there as quickly as she can. (And perhaps she should take Mrs. Patmore with her: I bet her jams would bring all the farmers to the fair.)
Stevenson: Do you think, as Lord Grantham does, that it's "ghoulish" to name the baby Sybil? Or will you fondly remember Jessica Brown Findlay whenever you hear the infant's name?
Thomas: Much as I hate to side with Lord Grantham, I confess I am a little creeped out by the child’s name. No one could ever forget Sybil, but do they need to be reminded of her tragic end every time they speak to her daughter? If only Sybil Sr. and Tom had picked out a name in advance.
What did you make of Carson telling Mrs. Hughes, "I know you won't abandon me"? Was Carson just expressing head-of-household solidarity, or was it something more heartfelt?
Stevenson: Seemed like Carson assumed that Mrs. Hughes isn't one of these foxtrotting, rouge-applying Johnny-come-latelies, and that she still appreciates the old attitudes. But Mrs. Hughes has increasingly valued forgiveness for human frailty over outdated rules. I do think she has a tenderness toward Carson, which makes her think he's capable of eventual change. I think, rather than ever abandoning him, she's likely to stick around and nudge him toward it.
What did you think of the scene where Mary holds baby Sybil as Matthew looks on warmly? We sort of lost track of the couple's efforts to conceive. Will they lobby to become parents to their half-Fenian niece? Tom seems set on lighting out with babe in tow, but I'm not sure he should be in such a hurry. I'd like to see him flesh out his plan a bit more.
Thomas: It would make so much sense for Mary and Matthew (which, of course means Anna and a nurse) to look after young Sybil. How can Tom care for his daughter, who is now at her neediest, while setting himself up in a new city, finding a job, and generally dealing with his crippling grief? But it also seems cruel to separate them. Left-footed Sybil is Tom's last connection to pillow-lipped Sybil. In other words, this is a classic soap opera scenario in the making.
Stevenson: It would be somehow very Mary to push Tom aside and claim the baby for herself. Even if it might drive Tom to at last torch Downton.
Though I had heard "kicks with the other foot" used as a code phrase for homosexuality, I had never heard "left-footed" as a euphemism for Catholic. Couldn't understand where that would come from. So I did a quick search, which suggested it has something to do with the configuration of Irish shovels. I confess I'm still pretty confused.
Thomas: Having called Tom a Fenian and a left-footer, I think the only low-grade anti-Catholic slur left to Lord Grantham is "Celtic supporter," but I suppose, being upper-crust, Robert's more of a rugby union man.
I was happy to see Cora given a little more to do this week. She is, for me, the most underused—maybe even misused—character on the show. Other than constantly reminding us that she's different because she's American, Julian Fellowes never seems to know what to do with her. During this episode, I thought she might actually get more than two lines of dialogue, but now that she and Robert are—more or less—reconciled, I suppose it's back to "supportive wife who actually enjoys sleeping with her husband but who has a slightly different worldview because she's a foreigner."
Stevenson: I recognize the importance of reconciling in grief over a lost child. But I don't think Cora should let Robert entirely off the hook. Even if he didn't quite cause Sybil's death, Cora's criticisms remain valid. Robert mindlessly deferred to knighthood. And now he's imposing a religion on his grandchild in order to "please Debrett's." (Which I also had to Google! It is apparently a guide to peerages and baronetages and such.)
Thomas: I am very familiar with Debrett's, having spent many an evening attempting to find Lady Gaga in there. (She is not one of the Hampshire Gagas, incidentally.)
Stevenson: Perhaps Robert was just born this way.
OK, how do you see Thomas' infatuation with Jimmy playing out? I don't think Jimmy is going to keep quiet much longer. This seems ready to come to a boil.
Thomas: I'm not looking forward to the showdown between Jimmy and Thomas, which I suspect will be brutal. Still, I hope it comes soon. Now that we're going to be rid (please God!) of the boring Bates-behind-bars storyline, let's not replace it with endless footman-on-footman discomfiture.
Stevenson: I'm wondering if Thomas' attempts to kick with the other footman will end up pushing his sexuality front and center. Could it become a topic of open conversation around the servants' table? Maybe even upstairs? Or is that going many feet too far?
Thomas: As you may recall, Violet told Robert, "people like us are never unhappily married." I'm pretty sure PLU don't acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, either. Meanwhile, below stairs, Carson is equally obsessed with propriety. So I don't see the servants starting a chapter of PFLAG anytime soon.
Stevenson: I liked Violet's sly prescription for unhappy marital phases: "In these moments, couples are unable to see each other as much as they'd like."
You're right, there will be no rainbow flags draped across Downton's facade. But surely there will be quiet conversations, upstairs and down, if Thomas is somehow outed. And I'd like to hear what various characters might have to say on the matter.
Anyway, it would be more fun than spending another minute with Bates. By the way, when did he lose his chronic, disabling limp? He was strutting around that prison yard at a steady clip! Did I forget some plotline in which Dr. Clarkson miraculously heals him?
Thomas: I noticed that, too. Apparently, York Prison has all the recuperative powers of an expensive continental spa.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.