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'Downton Abbey' Recap: 'We All Live in a Harsh World'

Do Irish rebels and fallen women reveal the cracks in Downton as a system, or as a show?

Matt Milne as Alfred Nugent and Ed Speleers as Jimmy Kent in 'Downton Abbey'
January 20, 2013 10:05 PM ET

Never forget: Before his burning-down-the-house act in tonight's episode of Downton Abbey, fiery Irish rebel Tom Branson's great act of protest was supposed to be dumping kitchen slop on a general's head. Downton's long painted Branson as something of a joke, and tonight's portrait was its most unflattering yet. The big question: Is the painting ugly because of the subject, or because of the painter?

Exhibit A in the case against Branson: Contrast his earlier support of independence for both Sybil and, back in season one, the maid who wanted to become a secretary, with the way he bigfoots his wife in the bedroom. His sarcastic "You're very free with your 'must's" is one of the show's most creepily sexist lines since, well, his earlier command of "Don't disappoint me, Sybil, not now" in the season premiere. Tom strikes me as a guy who'll resent other people for illuminating his own shortcomings, and I suspect the tears he sheds over his failure to stick by Sybil's side while fleeing Ireland will bear bitter fruit.

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Note also the voice in which the harshest condemnations of Branson are issued. Tom's chief upbraider is Lord Grantham, the show's reluctant but ultimately utterly reliable voice of moral reason. Robert repeatedly grants Branson's premises – yes, Ireland has suffered; yes, Branson's political convictions are worthy of respect – which makes his outrage and disgust with Branson's actions all the more convincing. No matter how you slice it, and no matter how on board Sybil seemed to be, it is kind of hard to fathom why you'd leave your pregnant wife to evade police on her own in a foreign country. In the gutwrenching Ethel storyline, on the other hand, the unhappy hooker gets torn a new one by her babydaddy's martinet father Mr. Bryant, arguably the single least sympathetic character in the history of the show. We're clearly meant to see him as an asshole and his personal politics as cruel and retrograde; the comparable comparison between Robert and Tom does Tom no favors at all.

Finally – and most unforgivably – Tom's revolutionary politics are revealed to be comically naïve. Once upon a time, from the safety of his chauffeur's uniform, Tom was (albeit briefly) comfortable expressing his hope that Russian revolutionaries would put the young children of the Tsar to death for the crime of being Tsar-spawn; now he's questioning his entire political program because he didn’t realize until he saw it with his own two eyes that expropriating the overclass might actually upset them.

Look, Tom's empathy for the Other is actually quite admirable. Here in America, as our flying killer robots rain death across the Muslim world, it's of paramount importance to remember that the suffering of their children is as real and as reprehensible as the suffering of our own.

But in Tom's case, it's a rigged game, innit? Tom's devastation upon seeing the crying children of the English lord as they watch their home burn is a vital human response to suffering, but who benefits? The status quo, the ruling class, the people who ascended to their position of power on a ladder built from the bodies of the poor and the foreign, pulled the ladder up after them, and only then adopted a system of morality wherein it's wrong to take things from other people to advance your own agenda. Robert denounces the attack on the castle as "savagery" that will impede Ireland's cause, but neither he nor the show acknowledge the savagery that necessitated that cause and provoked that response in turn.

Or does it?

Just before Branson's unceremonious arrival in the rain, we hear Robert talking some truly unexpected smack about Catholicism, enough for a freaking Anglican archbishop to be all "Whoa, slow down, dude." As a survivor of Catholic high school I'm skittish about making anything out of "anti-Catholicism," a phrase the Church uses almost exclusively as a diversion while it kicks women and gays and child-abuse victims in the taint, but obviously its history in England is very real and very ugly. By putting it in Lord Grantham's mouth in the very same episode where he takes a seemingly justified hard line against his family's one Catholic member, Downton signals that we need to be aware of ulterior motives even if we conclude they're not the primary ones. 

And please note that when it comes to consequences, our feckless Fenian has it easy. Lord Robert uses his connections and influence to effectively immunize Tom and Sybil from punishment, a fortunate fate few of Tom's co-conspirators are likely to enjoy. I'm guessing a combination of Tom's genuine belief in the Cause and his less admirable need to prove his superiority and put on a big show about it will land him in trouble anyway, but he's got an out if he wants it.

There's a reason why this happens in an episode in which multiple characters conclude that the vastly less well-connected Ethel has no hope whatsoever, characters who include Ethel herself. Ethel, poor and female, has societally verboten sex and is condemned to a life of poverty, prostitution and relinquishing her son to a dude who hates her guts; Branson, married-rich and male, commits a felony and is "condemned" to the life of a lord. That's Downton pointing out the limits of the decency fantasy, its own stock in trade.

And it casts a pall over the proceedings, even over the sense of well-deserved triumph among Edith and Tom and Matthew when Edith's letter to the newspaper about women's suffrage becomes not just an entry on the letters page but an actual news story. At long last, Edith has found a way to claim agency and alleviate her stultifying situation – perhaps in such a way as to alleviate those of other women as well, which is pretty freaking awesome. But like the "well-born" Irish rebels that Lady Violet shakes her head about, it's precisely Edith's status as well-born that enables her to be a rebel in the first place.

Even the B- and C-plots have an element of "life's not fair" to them this time around. Why do Bates and Anna get something of a happy ending this week while poor Daisy gets her petals plucked yet again? Is it coincidence this happens in an episode where Anna is officially promoted to lady's maid for the future lady of the house, while Daisy takes the resentment of years spent on the bottom rung of the ladder out on her replacement in that lowly position? 

In fact, on no fewer than three separate occasions in this episode, characters marvel aloud at the contrast between the world as it ought to be and the world as it is. When the hunky new footman Jimmy provokes an incredulous Carson into musing that "hard work and diligence mean more than beauty in the real world," the Dowager Countess snorts, "If only that were true." Earlier, and to the visible chagrin of idealistic Isobel Crawley, the good-hearted Mrs. Hughes reveals that she's resigned herself to the injustice of Ethel's situation, judging it unavoidable "until we live in a very different world from this one." And Branson, of all people, is given what could well be this episode's epigram, responding to Lord Grantham's dig about the Irish living in "a harsh world" with a snarl: "We all live in a harsh world, but at least I know I do." When you're really up against that harshness, unless by some miracle you hit one of the very few weak spots in the armor of gender and class and nationality, decency's only going to get you so far.

Last week: Always the Kitchen Maid, Never the Bride

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