'Downton Abbey' recap: Season 3, Episode 5

The family struggles to return to normal after a painful loss

"Downton Abbey"

 "Downton Abbey"

Credit: PBS

As you might expect after last week's episode (and if you haven't watched last week's episode, come on, just catch up already; you're killing me here), all is not swell at Downton Abbey and likely won't be for quite a while. Though life has returned to some semblance of normalcy at the great estate, things have changed -- and are going to keep changing. If there's any theme this season, it's that as much as Robert (and, to the extent that he represents old guard money) wants to hold on to the past, change has come to Downton and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. 

We're all a little worried about Branson and Cora

Poor Branson stumbles around the house in a daze, which is to be expected. When Matthew offers his help, our weary widower can only sigh, "My wife is dead. I'm past help. But thank you," which ranks right up there as one of the most incredibly sad and yet remarkably polite refusals in "Downton" history. 

Still, what isn't so expected (though it probably should be) is how comfortable Robert is in being a jerk to his former chauffeur-turned-son-in-law. The Lord of Grantham is the only member of the family who feels just fine supporting Branson's vague plan to start looking for a job, and he has no problem stomping around in indignation when Branson mentions he plans to not only name the baby Sybil (a decision he concedes will be "very painful at first. But I think it's right. I want to remember her mother whenever I look at her,"), but also baptize her as a Catholic (or left-footer, as Robert huffs). 

The surviving sisters seem especially aghast by their father's indignation and squawk accordingly. Cora, however, seems to not only expect it but comes armed with pithy comebacks to spit out whenever her husband gets his jerk on. Though the girls seem surprised at what a jackass their dad can be, as if Sybil's death has ripped off a collective blindfold, Cora she has no such illusions. Throughout the episode, she seems to vacillate between anger and grief, and her interactions with Robert are mostly the former. 

When Robert suggests he go back to sleeping in the marital bed instead of on the floor of the closet or in a cat box or whatever (Kidding! I don't think they have a cat), Cora isn't interested. Robert tries to stutter through an apology, but Cora snaps back, "You believed Tapsell because he's knighted and fashionable and has a practice in Harley Street. You let all that nonsense weigh against saving our daughter's life." 

You would think that zinger would end the conversation, but Robert presses on. When he counters that he misses Sybil, too, she has another biting reply ready to go. "I should think you miss her more since you blocked the last chance we had to prevent her death." Finally, the conversation peters out right before I yell at the television for Robert to just leave already, as he's only making things worse. 

Finally, the Dowager Countess takes it upon herself to bully poor Dr. Clarkson into admitting ("Lie is so unmusical a word," as she says) that a cesarian section might not have saved Sybil after all, then parroting this "confession" to Robert and Cora. He tells them that, after reading up on eclampsia, there was likely no way to save Sybil and she would have died either way, though I'm not sure that's entirely true (I wrote more about this in last week's post). She had a very slim shot of surviving given the medical technology of the time, but I think Clarkson ultimately decided that a broken marriage wasn't something he wanted on his conscience. It's a relief to see Cora burst into tears and let Robert take her in his arms, though I find it hard to believe everything can be patched up between them quite so quickly or neatly. 

 

Ethel has more fans than Lord Grantham does

Obviously, Robert doesn't have many fans in this episode, but it's still striking that a reformed prostitute wins the popularity contest between the two. Ethel not only manages to soften up Mrs. Patmore, who goes so far as to give the poor girl some recipes for the tea Mrs. Crawley's hosts for Cora and the girls (and the Dowager Countess, who invites herself along), but manages to finally serve up a decent meal, much to Mrs. Crawley's surprise. 

Things are looking up for Ethel right up until Robert gets wind of the fact the former prostitute is working for Mrs. Crawley -- and that the distaff side of his family is contracting hooker cooties from  her at that very moment. Storming into Mrs. Crawley's house, he demands his wife, mother and children follow him home immediately -- but no one moves. As Cora points out, "Robert frequently makes decisions on values that are no longer relevant," and she's not wrong.

Even the Countess Dowager simply shrugs, eyeing the charlotte russe, "It seems a pity to miss a good pudding," and with that Robert has no choice but to stomp home alone, wondering what the world is coming to.

Of course, Carson is just as alarmed, and (like a downstairs echo of Cora), Mrs. Hughes is the voice of reason, reminding him and everyone else that Carson has no right to tell Mrs. Patmore who she can fraternize with and that Ethel is no longer a prostitute anyway. One of the best scenes of the episode is between Mrs. Hughes and a righteously indignant Mr. Molesley, who huffs that Jesus may not have eaten with Mary Magdalene, though she did wash his feet. Smirking, Mrs. Hughes replies, "Well, I'll be sure to let Ethel know she has a treat in store."

This all seems awfully modern and forward thinking of "Downton Abbey," and I suspect this girl power plot is wishful thinking more than an accurate reflection of the times. I mean, at this rate, the sisters will be burning their undergarments next week and exposing their knees to complete strangers. Still, it's an upbeat storyline at a time when the show really needs them, whether they're grounded in reality or not. 

 

Daisy eyes the farm

Mr. Mason (remember him? William's dad, Daisy's father-in-law for the two minutes she was married to his son?) invites Daisy to visit his farm, and he has a suggestion for her. He'd like to leave all of it to her someday -- and have her come live on the farm so he can teach her how to use the tools and maintain the property. She's hesitant, of course. She prides herself on having gotten a job in service. But, a Mr. Mason points out (thump, thump, here's the THEME in case anyone MISSED IT), the days of great houses like Downton Abbey are limited, and she's not likely to get another forty years doing the job she's doing. Given how poorly things are going with her crush on Alfred, I think she may eventually want to be rid of Downton in any case. It's certainly not a great hook-up joint where she's involved. 

 

It's still all about the raging hormones at the Peach Pit, er, downstairs

This storyline is best summarized by Mrs. Patmore, who yelps with exasperation, "You know the trouble with you lot? You're all in love with the wrong people!" Ordinarily I'd find all the non-stop flirting below deck a little tiresome and soap-y, but I think given all the sadness above deck it's a welcome relief to be able to focus on (mostly) wholesome crushes and everyone yearning to learn the foxtrot. 

Of course, it's not all Disney fodder. Thomas can't resist touching Jimmy, and when Jimmy cluelessly blurts out, "A man can choose to be different without it making him a traitor" during a discussion about religion, Thomas thinks he's gotten a green light.

Jimmy, who does not seem to like Thomas half as much as Thomas thinks he does, complains to O'Brien, who simply refuses to listen. I'm still not entirely sure what she hopes to happen to Thomas, but at this point, it looks like a beating. 

 

Mr. Bates lays the smack down on all this stupid, petty jailhouse folderol

After Anna tells Mary about Mrs. Bartlett's accidental confession and Mary happily tells her it's the moment they've all been waiting for, Anna bursts into tears. "It's so nice of you to say 'we,'" she says, and given how involved and supportive the Crawley family has been of Mr. Bates' fight for justice, it's a sincere and moving moment.

Still, somehow Mary does make it all about the Crawleys, though it's somewhat understandable given the circumstances. "We need some good news in this house, Anna," she says. "And this is it. It must be it." And if it's not, well, Mr. Bates will continue to rot in jail and maybe Mary can get a pony. 

Anyway, the expected roadblock is soon bumped up against when Mrs. Bartlett, warned by the dirty guard or his minion to change her story, refuses to repeat it for Mr. Bates' lawyer. Anna and the lawyer relate this unhappy twist to Bates, who says he'll take care of the situation. This causes Anna to flutter about nervously for fear he'll just get into more trouble. To which I say, oh, Anna, you do not know your husband well at all, do you?

Later, Bates takes a moment to corner Craig in the yard and inform him that if he doesn't get Mrs. Bartlett to change her story, he'll tell the governor about how Craig's selling drugs and tried to force him to do it, too. Craig mewls that it's a lie, which is ironic, but the point is made -- Craig can be an evil little brat and get another five years behind bars, or he can stop interfering with Bates and move on.

Voila! The lawyer gets a revised account from Mrs. Bartlett and it seems Bates' conviction is about to be tossed out. Crazy! As this storyline has become one of my least favorite on "Downton," I'll be relieved for Bates to get out and away from the dreary, one-note prison. What will be more interesting still is what his return will mean to Downton in general and to Thomas (who became Robert's valet in Bates' absence) in particular, especially now that Thomas has bonded with Anna over their mutual fondness for Sybil. 

 

Matthew and Mary think about babies and change and stuff

The Ross and Rachel of "Downton Abbey" are, thankfully, on the sidelines right now, where they're able to be helpful and sympathetic and largely more pleasant than they are when they're the focus of the show. We also get hints of bigger plot lines for both of them ahead. 

Together, they go to visit Sybil's daughter, and as Mary holds her, we can see the emotions play across her face -- longing being the most obvious. Knowing how much she and Matthew want a child, I'm wondering if they won't be stepping in and asking Branson if they can care for the child instead of him leaving it with a cousin or a stranger while he's working in Liverpool, as he refuses to stay at Downton (though his knowledge of farming suggests Matthew may be able to twist his arm, at least short term). I don't think Branson is going to be able to easily skip town with the only grandchild Robert and Cora have (and, at this rate, will have for the foreseeable future, unless Edith is able to lay eggs), and as much as Matthew wants to support him, I have to wonder if he's going to be feeling very conflicted very soon. 

Speaking of farming, Matthew tries yet again to talk to Robert about making Downton more efficient, and yet again gets shut down. I'm thinking this can only happen one or two more times before Julian Fellowes realizes he's boring the crap out of viewers by repeating the same scene over and over again, and someone finally does something. 

There's also a suspicious scene in which Matthew and Mary lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and musing about Sybil's death. "We must never take us for granted. We never know what's coming," Mary says breathlessly to Matthew, and I'm hoping this isn't a cosmic hint about more bad, sad news to come. But if it is, don't tell me. I don't want to know.

Are you glad everyone stood up to Robert? Do you think Daisy should take on the farm? What do you think is going to happen between Thomas and Jimmy? 

 

Liane-bonin-starr-sm
Liane Bonin Starr is an author, screenwriter and former writer for EW.com. Her byline has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety and a lot of other places. Her last book was called "a scandalously catty, guilty pleasure" by Jane magazine. Expect the same from Starr Raving.
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