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Last week: Branson and Lady Mary looked at some fields, Lady Rose dabbled in a brief re-enactment of the song Common People and Bates tricked Molesley into signing away his mortal soul.
And now join me again for a later-than-usual and shorter-than-usual instalment of What’s Up In Downton, due to a combination of man-flu and… well, if you’ve seen this week’s episode (and you probably should have before reading this), you’ll know why perhaps this episode doesn’t feel like it lends itself well to the usual joking about.
Well, okay, let’s be fair – for the first forty minutes or so it was pretty good fun, with a bunch of miscellaneous poshos descending on Downton for a bit of a knees-up. Lady Mary got all chummy with a chap called Lord Gillingham, who despite Lord Grantham’s description of him as a ‘glamorous pirate’ seemed tremendously sensible and unremarkable to me. He’s clearly being set up as a potential new love interest for Lady Mary, but first he’s going to have to overcome his own engagement to someone else, the fact that Mary is not quite as miraculously recovered from her bereavement as previously suspected, and his almost total lack of personality.
Meanwhile, Lady Rose flirted with a chap who liked jazz (because even three episodes in, Rose has yet to develop any character traits beyond Liking Jazz that could be used as a basis for conversation), a caddish cove called Samson fleeced everyone at cards, and there was an entertaining faff over whether to invite Dame Nellie down to dinner. Lord Grantham’s surprise and relief when she turned out to know her wine rather than insisting on downing a gallon of Castlemaine XXXX and passing out on top of the piano was a definite highlight.
There was fun and games downstairs too, with Jimmy spraining his wrist in a jam-related mishap and Mrs Patmore fussing over the sauces so much she almost gave herself a heart attack. Molesley’s Search For A Purpose In Life continued in fine form, this week seeing him sink to the depths first of grocery shop delivery boy and then substitute footman – a job he first jumped at the chance to take, but quickly regretted when he realised he’d be bossed around by Alfred and (horror of horrors) have to wear gloves. Unemployment’s really made the character (and the actor playing him) come into his own at last – I’m looking forward to seeing what further humiliations or unlikely jobs the rest of the series has in stock for him, from sewerage worker to sandwich-board wearer to busking as a one-man band.
Altogether it was inconsequential but fun, setting up some potentially interesting new plot developments and with some lovely character moments, from the unlikely fondness that Lady Violet has for Branson to Carson indicating his appreciation of Dame Nellie’s performance with nothing more than a soulful twitch of the eyebrows. For a moment it felt rather like the glory days of Series One –
– and then everything went wrong.
It was obvious that the subplot involving Lord Gillingham’s servant chap putting the moves on Anna wasn’t going to end well, but I don’t think anyone watching was expecting there to be a rape. It’s true that Downton has something of a habit of tragedy coming completely out of the blue, with injuries and miscarriages and premature deaths all over the place, but it always felt like melodrama, just far removed enough from real life for it to not touch the escapist silliness of the rest of the show. Meanwhile, the writing’s always shied away from following potentially grim subplots to their logical end – Matthew’s disability, Bates’ death sentence, Mrs Hughes’ suspected breast cancer – all were hinted at, but averted. Having a character sexually assaulted might have worked if the series had more adeptly balanced dark and light before, but thrown in at the end of an otherwise lighthearted episode it seemed jarringly nasty. I can forgive Downton its ridiculous ‘shock’ twists and flippant handling of potentially serious subjects, but this left an unpleasant aftertaste, making everything around it seem rather pointless and stupid in comparison. And Downton is stupid, mostly, but that’s fine as long as the script doesn’t remind you of it while you’re watching. I don’t know how this is going to pan out, but right now it feels like a serious misjudgment.
Best bits: Lady V schooling Branson on the baffling vagaries of etiquette. The withering disdain with which Carson uttered the phrase ‘since you’ve been working at Bakewell’s’, as if to imply it’s one step above standing by the roadside with a sign saying ‘will valet for food’.
Worst bits: I think that goes without saying.
Quote of the week: “Do you fear the corrupting influence of opera?”
Mysteries of the week: Why Dame Nellie Melba was there in the first place, and what exactly she was meant to contribute to the episode. I’m also beginning to worry about the kids – that’s two episodes in a row without sight either of them or anyone responsible for looking after them.
Next week: Jazz singers! Edna and Branson being spied on! And, fingers crossed, nothing unexpectedly horrible!