Downton Abbey: Burning Down the House

Posted on January 21, 2013

This was kind of an odd episode, in retrospect. It had all the feeling of a table-setting episode; one where various characters and plot points are arranged just so, in order to pay off storylines later on. And those types of episodes are usually difficult to assess because it’s all so vaguely presented. But looking over our notes and our twitter feed from last night, it turns out that quite a lot happened, right under our noses, without our realizing it.

Part of what made this episode somewhat appealing to us was the “life on the estate” feel of it. There were no major, earth-shattering revelations; just a series of smaller ones that played off the characters and gave you some sense of where the rest of this season is going. Of these, the ongoing O’Brien/Barrows war holds the most promise to be absolutely delicious. Now that they have a footman with visible abs, O’Brien has all the ammunition she needs to destroy her former partner in crime. Thomas, bless him, never did have the sense to keep his desires a little more on the down-low. The look on his face when he walks into the kitchen and sees Jimmy for the first time is priceless, but also painfully transparent, and O’Brien will know exactly what to do with his recklessness. Be afraid, Thomas. Be very afraid.

But the preceding is a perfect example of what we’re talking about with this episode: a relatively quiet development, the hiring of a new, good-looking footman, is turned into something with seriously sinister undertones and the potential for explosive plot developments simply because we know these characters well. This is Downton Abbey at its best, we think.

Similarly, the show came dangerously close to admitting something it’s clearly loath to do, even though the evidence is overwhelming: Robert, Earl of Grantham, is something of an enormous buffoon. His eager promise to make Matthew co-lord of the estate is clearly something he didn’t mean all that much. And given the stupidity with which he handled the estate’s money, you’d think he’d be just a little more open to the ideas of the man who single-handedly saved it and is set to inherit it next. But no, Robert stands as a mild rebuke by Julian Fellowes of the ways in which the aristocracy can be problematic: an almost pathological resistance to change and an obnoxious assuredness that everything aristocrats do is the right thing to do and always has been. His father ran out of money running the estate, now he has run out of money running the estate, but by god, not one thing will be changed about how the estate is run. He won’t even listen to Matthew, cutting him off every time he brings it up.

In other news, Mary is having the nursery redecorated to be a sitting room. Uh-oh.

Edith, for her part, seems to be turning into someone who doesn’t want to sit at breakfast like a lady and would rather get out there and tell the world what she thinks of it. Her family, because they’re all kinda jerks, basically wave away all her thoughts and ambitions. This is to be expected, given who they are and when they are, but even so, it’s appalling how badly the family treats her. It seems Matthew is the only one who considers her a full person with her own desires.

But of course the big news among the sisters is the fact that the youngest one married a terrorist. Tom has turned out to be a nightmare of a son-in-law for Robert. Obviously, history will show that the Irish had very good reason to want to fight the English, but Tom was extraordinarily naive thinking he could have a foot in both worlds, the working class revolutionaries and the aristocratic family he married into. Worse, it’s to the aristocrats that he turns to for refuge and help once things almost literally blow up in his face. And it was an enormously cowardly move to flee a country and leave a pregnant wife behind to fend for herself. Yes, there were reasons given as to why he did so, but for once, the family’s anger toward him was justified.

Downstairs, Anna hasn’t heard from BateZZZZZZZ for a while. This is actually a plot point; one that comes close to dominating the episode. We have yet to hear from one person who cares about this Bates storyline and most people seem to be in the same boat we are: not having a clue what’s going on with him. There’s … some sort of trouble with his cell mate? And little bits of burlap found in mattresses… that’s a bad thing? Whatever. This storyline can’t end soon enough. For god’s sake, Matthew went from crippled to walking to burying his fiance to marrying Mary in less screen time than it takes Bates to sigh in a saintly manner.

Also: Daisy takes the day off from berating Earth-2 Daisy and returns to the Shire, to be among the other hobbits.

And finally, Isobel pushed her way into someone’s life, full of self-righteousness, but ultimately balked at the idea of letting her make her own decisions for herself, doing everything she could to impose her middle class values on Ethel, who simply can’t afford them. It was Mrs. Hughes who stood up and said “I know what world we live in, Ethel, and I know this is the best choice for your child.” Fellowes alternates between elevating and rebuking the upper and lower classes on this show, but his disdain for the middle class is relatively consistent throughout. Isobel is always presented as a person with conviction, but somewhat naive in her understanding of how the world works.

But a decent episode, we think. Put it this way: we’re wondering what happens next with everyone and we don’t think we rolled our eyes once or said “Oh, come ON,” while watching the episode. That’s gotta count for something.

Prediction for next week: Mrs. Hughes accidentally burns down Downton with her electric toaster, but everyone assumes it’s Tom’s fault.

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