For once, Lady Edith Crawley is the center of attention. Literally: In the opening scene the camera revolves around her in a great sweeping circle, a big goofy grin plastered on her face as she watches her servants prepare Downton Abbey for her wedding reception. How does she explain what the day of her marriage means to her? “Something happening in this house is actually about me!” The line manages to be passive-aggressive, self-effacing and utterly charming. Finally, after a lifetime of hearing how this house is the place where the Crawleys belong, she’s given a reason to feel a sense of belonging. Meanwhile, of course, the Herculean labors of her servants continue.
That scene’s combination of strong visual filmmaking, character-revealing dialogue and gently but unmistakably satirical subtext carried over throughout the entire hour. Downton Abbey is a show I’m predisposed to like – I’m a guy who defended season two against charges of excessive soapiness, though as a daily viewer of both The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful I damn well better have done – yet even given this relatively high baseline, this episode stood out.
In part this came down to the swing-for-the-fences shot compositions the episode kept coming up with: the vertiginous overhead shot of the servants rolling up the rug to prepare for the wedding reception in the morning, and its sad reversal that afternoon; the marvelous long shot of Matthew following a despondent Robert out of Downton and onto the grounds, both of them tiny figures dwarfed by their immense ancestral home; the deliriously bad-romantic shot of Edith’s discarded veil fluttering off the balcony to the floor below. The show is nearly always gorgeous to look at and has had no shortage of memorable images, but this is as show-off-y as it’s gotten in some time, and huzzah for that.
But more than being one of the series’ best-looking installments, it was one of its most well-written. Which is odd, when you think about: Creator Julian Fellowes generates every script himself (I think he had a co-writer on a grand total of one episode back in the first season), so shouldn’t there be a level of consistency that would elude even the most notorious writer’s-room taskmasters – like Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner, say, his American counterpart in period-piece prestige dramas?
Yeah, probably. That’s why, say, Shirley MacLaine’s broad, flat American caricature Martha Levenson flopped: We expect better, particularly in the bon mot department. And in this episode, better’s what we got, because the lines that delivered the biggest laughs nearly always also gave us the clearest glimpse into the characters who uttered them.
Indeed, Edith’s hopes for herself are so crushingly modest – her prospects for self-determination and happiness so limited by her class, her gender, even her place in the birth order – that when she walks to the altar and says hello to the man she thinks she’s about to spend the rest of her life with, her greeting is an achingly understated “Good afternoon.” I’ll admit it: The fate of Anthonedith was one of two major plot points I had spoiled for me during the long delay between season three’s initial run on U.K. TV and its debut here in the States – thanks, PBS! – so knowing what I knew was coming, that line gutted me. Can’t Edith get one single goddamn good afternoon?
Edith’s life of quiet desperation is further reflected in the way she describes the future she hopes to pull Sir Anthony back into after he’s made his (visibly gut-wrenching; kudos to actor Robert Bathurst, consistently excellent in this role) decision to forsake it: “We’re going to be so terribly, terribly happy!” There is something terrible about happiness to Edith, in the “Oz the Great and Terrible” sense – something intense and awe-inspiring and, ultimately, alien.
By episode’s end she’s deep into “Something I Can Never Have” territory: “Being tested only makes you stronger,” says her mother, Cora (who between this and her refusal to take O’Brien at her word when she says she has no intention of leaving has never been more infuriatingly serene and oblivious simultaneously). “I don’t think it’s working for me,” Edith sobs, managing to be wryly self-deprecating even in her extremis. That’s why she’s a catch, gentlemen of Yorkshire, not because she’s got a “Lady” in front of her name and her hot sisters are already taken.
Edith was far from the only character graced with Fellowes’ en fuego writing this week, though. Her father made out well, doing what that character always does best: grappling with the idea that being a decent guy is not quite enough, not anymore, maybe not ever. His Bilbo Baggins-like explanation to Sir Anthony of how he’d made peace with the pending nuptials – “I’m happy Edith is happy; I’m happy you mean to keep her happy; that is quite enough happiness to be going on with” – is a deliciously loquacious way of saying “Well, fingers crossed, man.” Later, his extravagantly caustic self-assessment as he prepares to announce the sale of Downton, an event he says will “astonish the world with the extent of my wretched failure,” could give his lady mother a run for her money in the dramatic overstatement department.
Elsewhere, two of Downton’s power couples – Matthew and Mary and Thomas and O’Brien – weathered their respective storms in wildly different ways. With the possible exception of the Don/Megan material on Mad Men last season, Downton‘s better than any other show on television at exploring the dynamics of long-term committed relationships facing problems but still fundamentally functional. Matthew and Mary’s conflict over Reggie Swire’s money works as a plot driver because it’s easy to see from both sides: of course Matthew would be wracked with guilt over his conduct toward a woman he fell into and then out of love with and betrayed while she was dying; of course Mary would take his stubborn self-flagellation as a betrayal of their happiness; of course she’d needle him about it; of course he’d needle back. We may not be able to relate to the specifics of their fight, but even so, their exchange about Mary reading Reggie’s letter – “It wasn’t your decision!” “Well I made it my decision!” – rings many a bell. That’s how couples who love each other fight. (They also throw a little black comedy into the argument now and then to break the monotony, hence Matthew’s hilarious response when Mary tells him the letter absolves him of all his sins: “You sure you didn’t write it?”)
Meanwhile, the Thomas/O’Brien axis of evil has snapped with sudden, frightening finality. Thomas’s move against O’Brien wasn’t the least bit subtle, which is what made it so chilling. He’s out to get her, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He’s out to make her feel shitty, too, putting her down for her spinsterhood just to add insult to injury. Still, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes right now. O’Brien’s inability to smile has always been scarier than Thomas’s perma-smirk, and when she tells him everything will go wrong for him soon enough, it’s classic promise-not-a-threat stuff.
But the single best line in the episode wasn’t an insult or an epigram – it was exposition. Matthew refuses to believe Swire’s letter is legit because it’s based on an alleged deathbed letter sent by his late fiancée Lavinia, a letter no one in the family knows anything about. A visit by Mary to the servants downstairs solves the mystery: “Daisy posted it,” she tells Matthew . . . before adding “the kitchen maid.” She lives in their house, makes their food, saved Matthew from a lifetime of guilt, and rescued both the reputation and the childhood home of Mary’s entire family, but Mary still needs to explain to Matthew just who, exactly, their working-class hero actually is.
Fellowes and Downton come in for a lot of criticism (a lot of it justified) that they gloss over the tremendous inequality, inequity and suffering perpetrated by Britain’s class system – that this is Gone With the Wind with tonier accents, a rapturously shot and impeccably performed piece of historical revisionism. Indeed, the very qualities that make the show such an oasis to experience week to week – the open minds and hearts of Lord Robert and his family (when they do shut, they never stay shut for long) and the reciprocal loyalty and decency of their servants – are precisely what make it so appalling to critics. The law of averages suggests there must have been some Roberts out there, but to focus on that rather than imperial Britain’s bloody fusion of feudalism, colonialism and rigged-game capitalism is to weight the scales in favor of a feel-good anomaly.
But a line like Mary’s hasty addendum of “the kitchen maid” – or Carson and Hughes’ brief debate over whether it’s OK, just this once, for a footman to insult a knight of the realm, or Tom’s SMH comment that most people would look at the Crawleys’ dreaded country house and see “a fairy palace,” or Hughes and Patmore’s conversation about feeling sorry for an earl’s daughter because “all God’s creatures have their troubles” – shows that Fellowes is aware of these issues, even if he’s chosen not to make them the center of the work. Downton Abbey is a decency fantasy, a story of the magical One Percenters in their fairy palace and the people fortunate enough to be within range of their magic wands. They’re the idle rich, yes, but the show is very much about work: the intense labor required to build and sustain rewarding relationships – between couples, between family, between co-workers, between communities. Earl’s daughter or no, that’s work worth doing, and worth watching.
Last week: Your Kiss Is On My List