All you really need to know about this week’s double-sized episode of Downton Abbey you can learn from Cousin Rose – or, as I like to call her, “Cousin Oliver: Downton Edition.” Less a character than a human mash-up of the Roaring Twenties and Taylor Swift in the “I Knew You Were Trouble” video, she’s an obvious attempt to fill the gap of youth and beauty opened by the demise of Sybil and the departure of Jessica Brown Findlay. (Good luck with that!) Yet without her, we wouldn’t have gotten that marvelously jarring trip to the nightclub, which with its raucous jazz and dirty dancing and the first not-white people we’ve seen since the randy Turkish diplomat back in the day truly felt like a new world. So much of the episode was about Robert, Matthew, and Tom attempting to massage the transition from the old ways to the new, to exert control over Downton’s delayed but inevitable emergence into the 20th century, that to see said century in all its cosmopolitan glory was as invigorating as it was unexpected.
Cousin Rose was just one of the ways in which this week’s ep took apparent weaknesses and turned them into strengths – or more accurately, the tools needed to access strengths. So yes, Edith’s budding romance with her editor Gregson has a been-there-done-that feel in every particular; we’ve had “the kind but older suitor” with Edith and Sir Anthony, and the “well-meaning man trapped in a marriage that’s over in all but name” with Anna and Bates. But when we get to the bottom of the editor’s story, we hit a potential goldmine: mental health issues, women’s rights, office romance, you name it. It’s a bit too soon to tell yet, but you have to hand it to a show that retraces its steps but actually finds new stuff to do along the way.
And yes, the Bates Imprisoned storyline has been a season-long bore, which was why it was so gratifying that they wrapped it up in the very first scene rather than prolonging the agony with some tedious snafu between his exoneration and his release. But without it we wouldn’t have gotten this two-hour climax for three seasons’ worth of scheming and backstabbing between Bates, O’Brien and Thomas – a climax that truly felt climactic in how it brought the characters’ deepest secrets and most powerful animating desires to the fore. You have to start with Bates, after all: Downton has always treated him like a superhero whose power is decency, but even Bates would be hard-pressed to just up and forgive Thomas for years of rivalry. It took his prison time – time during which he believed his life destroyed and his power to change it completely evaporated, all through no fault of his own – for him to truly empathize with Thomas’s plight.
O’Brien herself is the wobbliest wheel on this tricycle, I suppose. For a couple seasons now she’s had something of a redemption arc, repenting for her schemes against Cora at the end of Season One and regretting her role in ruining Bates during Season Two enough to be truly happy upon his release and return (she smiled and everything!). Yet she still spent this season going hard against her former best friend, on behalf of a nephew we’d never heard of before. But with the whispered words “Her Ladyship’s soap,” the episode saved this shaky character work by providing both O’Brien and the audience a reminder of how bad she can be, and what she stands to lose if she ever strays off the righteous path again. (I love the detail of Thomas telling Bates the phrase that pays, but not the meaning behind it. Depending on how you look at it, this is either Thomas shrewdly maintaining a monopoly on highly classified information, or mercifully refusing to hang out to dry the woman who’d just tried to destroy him even now.)
In turn, Thomas’s storyline in these episodes is nothing more or less that the culmination of his entire storyline to date; this was the big one. I mean, you knew O’Brien meant business when she centered her revenge scheme against Thomas not on some attempt to make him drop a dinner plate or lose his uniform, but on freaking outing him. This is his most closely held secret, the most fundamental part of his personality, and most likely the number-one reason he behaves as badly as he does– a lifetime of being forced to play-act has broken and embittered him. Carson was right that Thomas had been twisted into something foul, just not in the way he meant. Actor Rob James-Collier always makes the most of Thomas’s depressive meltdowns, working the contrast between his bottomed-out misery and his usual smirking, scheming self with skill and pathos, and this is no exception. (He’s also never looked hotter than he did in this ep, which didn’t hurt.)
The most moving part of his story in this episode, then, wasn’t his panic and desperation after getting caught. It was the way getting caught forced him, in his extremis, to be a better man at last – to stop lying and scheming; to stand up for his basic dignity by saying “I’m not foul, Mr. Carson”; to allow himself to ask for and receive aid and comfort from people like Mrs. Hughes and Bates and even Carson himself. In true Thomas failing-upward style, he even ends up better off than he was when he started: in a higher ranking position, his enemy defeated, his relationship with many of the other servants strengthened, his darkest secret now an open one.
The curveball, of course, is that it’s been open all along. Apparently, damn near everyone knew what was up with Thomas and had made their peace with it long ago. By my count, this includes not just O’Brien, who only pretends to be disgusted in order to goad Jimmy into narc’ing on him, but also Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Bates, Anna, Carson (who clearly knew but pushed it aside until he was forced to face it, and who even then couldn’t detect a certain, ahem, irony in telling young Alfred to deal with homosexuality by saying “You are a man now, and you must learn to take it on the chin”), and most surprisingly – and hilariously – Lord Robert himself. The Earl of Grantham has spent the entire season, and much of this episode, raging against the brave new world, yet he shrugs off the so-called revelation of Thomas’s sexuality with the line of the night: “If I tried to shout blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I’d have gone hoarse in a month.”
That’s funny, but it’s also telling. Robert’s problem this season hasn’t been that he refuses to accept change, but that change is coming faster than he can adjust to it. He’s OK with Thomas because he’s had since boarding school to come to terms with that aspect of human nature; he flies into rages with Tom and Matthew because having his granddaughter raised as Marxist Catholic and overhauling the Downton farm system to provide him with money rather than the other way around are brand-new concepts to him. He’s spent the season as the antagonist simply because he’s on the modernization equivalent of a five-second delay; his embrace of his unconventional sons-in-law, amid the bright and sunny and optimistic white-and-cream colors of a cricket match, is the exact moment when the two timelines sync up again. By this time next week, we’ll know how just how long this one brief shining moment will last.
Last week: ‘The World Isn’t Going Your Way’