After the high drama of last week, this episode proceeds at a more subdued pace—right up until the final scene, which comes off like a promo instead of a scene: Previously on Melrose Abbey. But truly, there wasn’t a whole lot of Melrose in the house this time around. The most shocking development was that Mary voluntarily spent ten minutes in the nursery with baby George.
We open in a somber mood: Bates walking alone and lonely from the cottage, Anna in silent misery in the maids’ room, covering her fading bruises with powder. When she finds Bates waiting for her in the passage downstairs, she’s short with him: “I don’t know why you always wait for me. There’s no need.” He tries to answer with the old warm smile, but when she rebuffs him again, he shifts into that forceful, almost angry tone that makes him seem more like the bully his first wife claimed he was rather than the gentle Bates we fell in love with along with Anna. Of course we’ve seen, more than Anna has, his tough side; we know how he was able to take care of himself in prison. I’m wondering, this season, if Julian Fellowes wants us to harbor doubts about whether or not Bates really was innocent in the matter of Vera’s death, after all. In response to Anna’s sudden and unexplained distancing, Bates slips quickly into a stern countenance. He doesn’t plead with her to explain so much as order her to.
The tense exchange is interrupted by the new lady’s maid, Miss Baxter. Time for this week’s Newfangled Gadget! What will Mrs. Patmore make of Baxter’s electric sewing machine? At least she needn’t worry that it will replace her in the kitchen. (Hold onto your corset-strings, Mrs. P.; before the evening’s over, Lady Cora will ambush you with a refrigerator.) A nice moment with Daisy: When Miss Baxter offers her a try at the machine, we get the first smile we’ve seen out of that girl all season.
And Mrs. Patmore may not be a futurist (loved that line) but she’s forward-thinking enough to encourage Alfred’s dream of attending the cooking school at the Ritz. “Hope I’m not inciting a revolution!” she sings out, sounding for all the world as if she wouldn’t mind if she did. Daisy is giving Albert cooking lessons—and demonstrating her own competence as she does, though she seems unaware of it. It’s nice to see how far she’s come in her profession, given how little she seems to have matured emotionally these past ten-odd years.
Miss Baxter seems off to a good start, wooing Cora with orange juice because she’s heard Americans like it. She is friendly and likable, and though we learn soon enough that Thomas has landed her this job because he wants a spy both above and below-stairs, Miss Baxter doesn’t seem like a schemer. I’m sure Thomas will put the squeeze on her soon, and we’ll see how she reacts under pressure, but for now, I’m rooting for her.
Isobel, at the good doctor’s prompting, takes a young villager under her wing, securing him a position as the Dowager Countess’s undergardener. This is a minor subplot, introducing a bit of tension between Isobel and Violet, which always makes for good dialogue. Violet lands some of her pointiest blows in recent weeks, seeming to revel in the open (but oh so genteel) warfare with her do-gooder relation. “I wonder your halo doesn’t grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara round the clock!” And now a letter opener’s gone missing, and my guess is it would positively make Violet’s day to see Isobel humbled by having put forward a thief. Isobel, despite having been pressured into recommending Peg by the doctor in the first place, climbs to the highest heights of her high horse at the very suggestion. It’s to these actresses’ credit that they can ratchet this rather banal storyline into some of the sharpest comedy of the episode.
Meanwhile, in Affairs of the Estate: an aged tenant has died and since he hasn’t paid rent in a long time, his heirs are to be evicted. But his son, Mr. Drew, an earnest man of middle age, pleads with Lord Grantham to let him take over the farm.
“Our family has farmed at Yew Tree since the Napoleonic Wars. Surely that’s got to mean something.”
“It means a great deal to me,” Robert replies, promising to see what he can do—meaning, see if he can talk Mary into letting the man renew the lease. Interesting to see how helpless Robert already feels when it comes to decisions regarding the estate. Just a few weeks ago he was tsk-tsking over the idea of Mary having any involvement at all, and now he’s all furrowbrowed over the prospect of approaching her for permission.
Later, Mr. Drew visits Robert in the house. He speaks frankly, with dignity: he can’t pay the arrears right away, but “we’ve worked this land in partnership with the Crawleys for centuries.” This resonates with Robert. He offers to lend Mr. Drew the back rent out of his own pocket, so that the estate books may be brought clear.
When Mary hears that her father wants to give the lease back to the Drews, she’s a bit peeved. Robert makes an earnest case for the partnership—that word again.
“If we don’t respect the past, we’ll find it harder to build our future,” he says at dinner, prompting a comic reaction from his mother, who finds it too fine a sentiment: “The one thing we don’t want is a poet in the family.” It’s become impossible to know when Violet is serious, and when she’s just trolling. A chauffeur she can adjust to, but a poet? Horrors. “The only poet peer I’m aware of is Lord Byron. And I presume we all know how that ended.”
As for Mr. Drew, it seems even Cora is in his corner, pointing out the moral (not legal) obligation to work with him. I enjoyed Tom’s reaction to Mary’s prodding. He’s on the farmer’s side, of course! “I haven’t abandoned all my socialism.” Tom continues to struggle with questions of identity—bit of a Pygmalion thing going on—but for the most part the family whisks past his mental turmoil. They’ve welcomed him into their inner circle and it’s baffling to them that he might not feel at ease there in the long run.
By the end of the episode, Mary and Tom have discovered Robert’s secret loan to Mr. Drew. Mary is heartened by Robert’s confidence in the man, and by his kindness. Echoing her father’s expression, she remarks to Tom that the incident tells her they are “in partnership with a good man.” Mary doles out compliments sparingly (just ask Edith), so this was a nice little beat.
Meanwhile, Mr. Carson (mightily pleased with his cleverness) has decided to kill two birds with one stone by offering Alfred’s job to Molesley, should Alfred get into the cooking school. Woe to Molesley for not responding with groveling gratitude. His hesitation offends the dickens out of Carson, who seems to take relish in rescinding the offer when poor Alfred gets a rejection letter. Molesley’s reaction to the bad news is rather hilarious. “You’ve missed your chance.”—(shrugs) “As I generally do.”
And back we come to Anna and Bates. I was bothered by the two bootroom scenes. Isn’t that where the rape occurred? It’s horrible to have Bates looming over Anna in such a disagreeable way, there in the very site of her attack, his tone never gentle, earnest, or imploring, but rather stern and grim. He’s reading her sudden coldness as an indication that she no longer loves him, and his reaction to that seems to be primarily anger (not anguish) because she won’t tell him what he did wrong.
When he eavesdrops on her conversation with Mrs. Hughes, he gets a glimmer of understanding that maybe he hasn’t trangressed after all. First chance he gets, he transfers his hostile interrogation to the housekeeper. If she won’t spill Anna’s secret, he’ll have to leave Downton immediately. He’s playing hardball, and it works. Mrs. Hughes reluctantly explains. He guesses the culprit but Mrs. H. denies it, even (under his relentless inquisition) swearing on her mother’s grave. She’s a staunch and generous soul, that Mrs. Hughes.
Alone in the hall, Mr. Bates breaks down and sobs. But before long he’s back in the bootroom, confronting Anna—and again with the menacing edge, for the first part of the conversation. He confirms Anna’s worst fears: “If it was the valet, he’s a dead man”—forcing poor Anna into the terrible position of having to defend Green, lest Bates go hunt him down and wind up back in jail.
Because of all this menacing on Bates’s part, the tearful reconciliation didn’t move me the way I think it was meant to. Bates’s words were touching, and he sounded sincere— “Why do you talk of shame? You are made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you have been put through. You are my wife, and I have never been prouder or loved you more than this moment”—but I was too bothered by his prior behavior to be melted by this speech. I’m glad, at least, that he and Anna are reunited, if not recovered. Bates’s parting words to Mrs. Hughes at the episode’s close make it clear recovery is a long way away. And that scene, as I suggested above, struck me as completely superfluous to actual plot. There’s no reason Bates needs to glower at Mrs. Hughes and tell her the matter isn’t over and done with. If he’s harboring revenge plans, what point is there in troubling her with them, except to milk a bit of drama out of the ending?
Odds and ends:
• No letters for Edith, who still hasn’t heard from Michael. All right, gang: do any of you have guesses about what’s become of him? Her doctor visit suggests tempests ahead. (At least, that looked like a doctor’s name on the brass plate on the building she entered in London.)
• Tony Gillingham is engaged to Lucky Mabel, but I wouldn’t order their wedding gift just yet.
• Looks, it’s nice Mr. Napier, last seen shaking his head in regret over having lost Mary’s attention to his Turkish friend in season one. (I presume we all know how that ended.) He’s still carrying a torch for her, obviously. But, oh, poor Evelyn. “It’s lovely to see you looking so…lovely.” Mary requires a more witty bantering partner than that. He’s in Yorkshire on government business: he’s involved with an assessment of the estates in the area and manages to wrangle an invitation for himself and his boss to stay at Downton for the duration. Hasn’t he learned not to invite competition?
• “Mrs. Patmore, is there any aspect of the present day you can accept without resistance?” “Oh my lady…I wouldn’t mind getting rid of me corset.”
• Tom: “Made me face the fact that I’m living where I don’t belong.”
Edith: “Welcome to the club.”
Mary: “Oh, stop moaning.” Boy, when she told Edith (after Sybil’s death, was it?) that they were never going to be friends, she wasn’t kidding.
Oliver Rose has an idea for Robert’s birthday party. Gee, I wonder what ::coughjazzbandcough:: that might be?
• Mostly I want to talk about that awesome moment when Violet says to Isobel, “Nobody cares as much about anything as you do” and then chortles to herself for the next ten minutes. That laugh, burbling out of her in fits and starts, was amazing. You could fill an entire episode with Maggie Smith chuckling over her own witticisms and I would watch it on repeat.
About This Week’s Episode of House
Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 8: The London Season
Painted with woad, and howling
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