This episode was the first time we had real issues with the plotting on the show. Up to this point it’s been fairly well done, but when you have two characters causing drama for no better reason than because drama is needed, the stories start to falter for us a bit. In both instances – Lady Mary and Mr. Bates – we suppose the point could be made that people are their own worst enemies and that they’re often self-sabotaging. In fact, these points have been made about both of these characters, to a certain extent; Mary driving Matthew away by getting caught up in childish sibling bullshit with Edith (not to mention the way she acted with Pamuk) and Bates keeping too many things to himself to the extent he will cripple himself with pain and attempt to shrug it off. But oddly, it didn’t seem like these points were being made in the writing this time around. It’s as if the writers felt that, since they’d established the natures of these two characters, then the audience should be ready to accept either of them acting in totally stupid, almost nonsensical ways. People often make bad choices for themselves, yes. But that doesn’t mean we all run straight off a cliff every time we encounter one.
Mary’s attraction to Matthew is growing, to the point that she’s not really trying to hide it anymore. After Edith lands Sir Anthony and Sybil demonstrates rather obviously that she has a crush on Matthew, it perhaps doesn’t speak well of her that she chooses this particular moment to make her move. Not that we doubt her attraction to him, but it sure looks to us like she panicked when it looked like either of her sisters could wind up paired off before her; especially if one of them winds up with Matthew. Whatever her motivations, she sent up the flag and he saluted on command. After this, Mary makes a rather passionate and breathless declaration of her love for Matthew and that he proposed to her. She has come to this moment independently, on her own terms. The acceptance of Matthew’s proposal would settle virtual everything that’s troubling the character. She will have a form of autonomy because Matthew clearly wouldn’t dream of controlling her, she will remain the Lady of Downton, and she will have rehabilitated her quickly dissolving reputation among society. The fact that she actually does love him is the cherry on the sundae. Her answer to his proposal? She hasn’t given one yet. She’s not sure.
This is why we couldn’t be in service. This would be the moment when we’d burst through the door having eavesdropped on the whole conversation, put our hands on our hips, and said, “Pardon me, my lady, but are you fucking nuts?”
You think Thomas is an evil queen? You have NO IDEA.
Even if we can somehow buy that Mary is THAT self-sabotaging, we find it more and more difficult that Cora would be so laissez-faire about it. She knows even more than Mary how bad things have gotten on the rumor-mongering front. That she would sigh and wait patiently for Mary to make up her mind doesn’t ring remotely true to us, especially in light of the little airhead’s insistence on telling him about her Turkish slip-up. Cora and Violet would threaten to take away everything that’s within their power to take away from her if she doesn’t snap the hell out of it and recognize a good thing when she sees it. We realize Cora and Robert are unusually permissive parents for this time and place, but come on. You can’t keep telling the viewer that the stakes are high (“My life is ruined! This scandal will live on long after I’m dead!”) and then have the characters linger over the very best solution to all their problems. Not without making them all look either stupid or impotent.
We haven’t forgotten that this is serialized drama and requited love is the most boring thing in the world. We’re not arguing that Mary should be marrying Matthew right now. We’re arguing that the proposal shouldn’t have been written in at this point. Sure, have them carry on a snogging session over sandwiches in the dining room, but don’t go right to the marriage proposal after that. There could have been a dozen little roadblocks to put in their relationship and add drama without making Mary look truly idiotic.
Downstairs, Mr. Bates is handed an equally made-to-order solution to all his problems and, like Mary, rejects it. Just because. At least with Mary’s drama we can write it off as matters of the heart to a certain extent. No one’s completely rational when it comes to love. But Bates will not accuse a man of crime, even though the accusation is true and he hates the man in question; even though the man in question has tried repeatedly to ruin him and may yet find a way to do so. Why? No idea, really. “I don’t want a man to lose his job because of me.” To make matters worse, after he unequivocally clears his own name (thanks to some help from Daisy), he then gently shuts the door and admits to a whole host of crimes no one’s accused him of or had any reason to know about. When you’re writing a noble and tortured character, you have to be aware that there’s a very fine line between “noble” and “moron.” This makes ZERO sense and it’s only here because it’s a way of putting an obstacle in the path of the Bates and Anna romance. It’s frustrating and stupid from a narrative sense. Give us a reason why Bates would do something like this. “You’re going to find out some day” doesn’t quite cut it. And besides, we find it a little hard to believe that he’d be cut loose that easily considering his past with Lord Grantham. We can handle roadblocks. In a serial drama, we even expect them. But good serial dramas know how to set them up and bad ones take lazy shortcuts. What makes this so disappointing to us is that everything up till now has been so smoothly done.
In other news, Sybil is becoming more radical by the second. We criticized the scene a few episodes back when she showed up for dinner in a shocking pair of pantaloons and everyone just smiled indulgently. Seeing an actual family argument play out over Sibyl’s growing political awareness felt far more true to us. It was interesting to see how the fight shook up. Violet, for all her bitchiness, does tend to refrain from direct confrontation in front of other family members, but she couldn’t help herself here. Robert played the stern father part and for the most part, it suited him. And finally, Lady Edith jumped in to support her father’s anger and get a couple digs in at Sibyl herself. On the other side of the table, it’s Cora and Mary defending Sibyl. This is pretty much exactly how family arguments shake out. People take sides based on the sides other people are taking.
We thought there was a point rather deftly and subtly made about aristocrats like Sibyl who get involved in politics. Her zeal for reform did not extend to treating her chauffeur with respect. “Really Branson. I thought I gave the orders,” she says condescendingly when he begs her to get back in the car, knowing full well how much her own actions are putting him at risk. Sibyl is easily the most likeable among the 3 sisters, but even she has issues with snobbery and entitlement. Another moment came when Sibyl tried to bolster Gwen’s confidence over her job prospects. “You’re brought up to think it’s all in your grasp,” Gwen tells her wearily. “We’re not like that. We don’t think our dreams are bound to come true because they almost never do.” That’s a rather succinct and well-spoken illustration of privilege and how it can’t grasp the perspective of those who don’t have it.
Mary had a somewhat better outcome in her dealings with the servants. At first, she was shown to be just as blindly privileged as anyone else in her family when she rudely laughed at William’s recounting of how his mother has wanted him to better himself. “As a second footman?” To her credit, she at least recognized how snotty she was coming across and in the end, did right by William. We thought their scenes together were quite sweet. We like when the show pairs family and staff off in unusual ways. It allows for commentary on both characters. There was a wonderful moment last episode when Sibyl ushered O’Brien out of her room and then muttered “Odious woman.” It’s something no other member of the family would say, just like what Mary did for William here is something only Mary would have done for him, because she “doesn’t give a fig about rules.”
And finally, Cora and Violet have a real face-off and Cora comes out the winner. We thought everything about this development played out exactly as it should have. You got a real sense from both women how pained and shocked they were by Mary’s actions; Cora especially. But you also understood why they would both support her and forgive her. “Mary has the trump card, ” says Violet. “Mary is family.”
We wonder if they’ll feel the same way about Edith should her part in this scandal ever come out.
Tags: Downton Abbey