Downton Abbey S1E5: The Love of a Sister

Posted on January 02, 2012

If last episode was the one where the show indulged its soap opera tendencies by introducing a bunch of running plotlines, this is the one that turned in a slightly different direction by setting all those plotlines in motion, away from each other. In other words, the world of Downton keeps expanding outward with each episode, and this was right around the time one got a full sense of the scope of the show. For all that, however, Mary remains the center of everything, to the eternal annoyance of Edith.

Lord Grantham seems to have become quite annoyed with his eldest daughter. It’s largely unstated but of course it’s because she rejected Matthew. In the context of the day, we don’t blame him. The earl and his wife are under growing pressure to get not only Mary, but all three of their daughters paired off. It speaks to the growing importance of the situation that Robert has feelings about it at all, since he’s treated it up till now like something the ladies should handle. But unlike the ladies (or at least Cora), he really doesn’t understand her reasons at all. “There will come a day when someone thinks you mean what you say,” he warns her sharply. “It can’t come soon enough for me,” she replies. It hasn’t really entered his mind that at the root of Mary’s somewhat troublesome ways is someone who wants control of her life.

Which isn’t to say that Mary is all victim in this scenario. She’s still tripped up by her own emotional immaturity, like she was when the first really good-looking man in her life paid attention to her. In this instance, she’s caught up in ridiculous sibling one-upmanship with Edith, using the men at the table as both prizes and pawns.  These are the earl’s daughters at their most vicious. “You think it’s going to be like Little Women,” said Cora, about raising daughters. “Instead they’re at each other’s throats from dawn to dusk.” Which isn’t quite fair to Sibyl, since she has wisely removed herself from any of the nonsense her older sisters engage in, being quite aware of how awful they act to each other. When Gwen mentions that Anna would never tell that she left the house for a job interview, she says, “She’s like a sister; she’d never betray me.”  Sibyl practically snorts in response: “She’s not like my sisters.” Downton is idyllic in a lot of ways, but those two young women are toxic to each other, bringing out the absolute worst behavior.

We don’t actually endorse Edith’s silly, but very dangerous, rumor-mongering, but we can certainly see what motivates her to be so aggressive toward her sister. Mary treats her with contempt, but the rest of the family largely ignores her, which is all the more hurtful. Typical middle child reaction in a lot of ways, even if spreading life-ruining stories in response is just a bit over the top.

But let’s face it: Mary was a bitch this episode, not only to Edith but to Matthew and Mr. Strallan as well. Worse (for her, at least) is how open she is with her manipulations. She went straight from making fun of him in front of all the women to throwing herself at him. That kind of behavior tends not to go unremarked-upon. Ironically, it’s her father, of all the people in the room, who noted her actions and called her a child. Cora had no idea what he was talking about. She is, like many parents, blind to some of the qualities her most favored child possesses.

Another interesting thing about Cora that we’ve not had a chance to mention is the way she can go from sweet and composed to hissing and acid-tongued when the doors are closed. Cora can come across pretty bland and saccharine at times but they make sure to give her one good snipe per episode or so. When Robert mentions his sister’s fondness for food from the estate with “She enjoys a taste of her old home,” Cora responds with a weary “She enjoys the taste of free food,” a comeback worthy of her mother-in-law. You have to figure a quarter-century of dealing with the Dowager Countess has made Cora pretty sharp, but then we recall that she was quite blase about the fact that she married Robert knowing he didn’t love her, which speaks to us of someone who really wanted that title. You can draw a line from Violet to Cora to Mary of women in the family whose ambitions have made them in some ways quite cold.

Downstairs, Mrs. Patmore is going blind and somehow it’s all poor Daisy’s fault. This was family melodrama at its most basic, with a staging and storyline that could have come right out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons, as kindly Mr. Carson stoked the fire and held her hand as she cried over her fate. Almost retro, in a way.

O’Brien and Thomas twirl their respective moustaches and come out against Bates by trying to frame him for stealing a snuff box. We can understand why Thomas would be driven to do this, since he feared Bates knew he was stealing wine. But why on earth is O’Brien getting involved in drama between Edith and Mary? How does the knowledge of what happened with Mr. Pamuk really benefit her? These are the times when we have to roll our eyes at the character. She and Thomas can be deliciously evil and fun to hate, but their motivations don’t always make a whole lot of sense. Obviously, like a lot of antagonists, they’re tools to force the protagonists into certain positions, and Anna and Bates teaming up to give them both a taste of their own medicine allowed them to draw that much closer together, with bosom-heaving declarations of love and a sprinkling of secrets. The scene with Bates and Anna on the road was very charming in a lot of ways, but almost ruined by the heavy-handed symbolism of putting him on the back of the cart. “I mustn’t slow you down.” Dialogue thunk.

And finally, in the ongoing battle between Violet and Isobel, the latter scores a couple points. The last time that happened, a working class man’s life was saved and this time, a working class man was granted some pride and dignity through Violet learning a little humility. It’s harmless and not worth examining too deeply, but it is kind of interesting to note how their tug of war always seems to have working class people or servants in the middle of it. That’s largely because Isobel tends to choose her battles in defense of people she feels are disenfranchised, but Violet proved to her last time that her meddling wasn’t always to their benefit. It’s an entertaining back-and-forth between the two of them – Isobel’s insincerely breathless “How thrilling!” upon hearing that Violet wins the flower show every year always cracks us up –  but it also does a very good job of defining the characters and their respective class backgrounds.

[screencaps: tomandlorenzo.com]

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