Downton Abbey: High Spirits at Breakfast

Posted on January 20, 2014

Robert James-Collier as Thomas, Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes and Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey, on PBS.


Mrs. Hughes for the win. Mrs. Hughes for Prime Minister. Mrs. Hughes for Queen of the Bloody World.

While it might seem to others that this episode was all about Mary’s romantic adventures (to say nothing of Tom Branson’s misadventures) and the shock, pain and disarray that is the Bates marriage, for us, it was all about Mrs. Hughes, the real heroine of Downton Abbey. It felt like this episode was finally giving this character her due. We saw her kind and gentle loving side, as she gave Mr. Carson a gift that allowed him to acknowledge the existence of his own heart (while at the same time, finding a place for herself within it, that sly gal). We saw her compassionate and deeply empathetic side as she tried over and over again to comfort Anna and keep the Bates marriage from disintegrating any further. And then we saw her furious, dangerous Scottish side as she threatened to lock Edna Braithwaite up and pretty much beat her to within an inch of her life, in a scene that ranks as one of the most viscerally enjoyable in the show’s history. It’s a cliche, but in this case, it’s an apt one: she really is the heart and soul of that house.

Oh, and how DELICIOUS was that bitch-off between Thomas and Edna on the back stairs? CLAWS UNSHEATHED. Of course the bitchy gay won.

As for the ongoing drama between Bates and Anna, we find it to be fairly well done, to our surprise. Part of that comes down to Joanne Froggatt’s heartbreakingly brittle and fragile performance and part of it comes down to the fact that it plays off the characters’ histories very well (which is not always a thing in the Downton Abbey scripts), and part of it is the well-executed feeling of suspense, because you know this is going to get bigger, but you don’t quite know how. One thing’s for sure: she may be the heroine of the house, but you should never trust Mrs. Hughes with a secret. Of course, a really big part of why this storyline is working is because previous Anna/Bates plots were deadly dull by comparison. For once, you can believe their future together is truly on the line.

As for Lady Mary and Lord Poutylipzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Sorry. Nodded off there. We couldn’t possibly be less interested in this pairing. It occurred to us that Tony Gillingham is, essentially, a male Mary; a very good-looking, dark-haired, foppish aristocrat. The fact that Matthew didn’t know what fork to use and had the temerity to be unembarrassed by that fact when he arrived at Downton was a huge factor in her attraction to him. And the baby-faced blue-eyed blond that is Dan Stevens made a nice visual counterpoint to Michelle Dockery’s piercing eyes and angular face. The only difference between Poutylips and Cheekbones is that he doesn’t appear to be quite the snob that she is. He makes up for that by being really creepy and pushy, though; proposing marriage out of the blue and after having only just met her as an adult. 1923 or not, that’s a red flag, girl. And would a widowed mother raising the next Earl of Grantham really be considered that hot a catch for another aristocrat? We won’t fret over it, though. It’s so lacking in fire that we doubt it’ll go anywhere in the long run.

And speaking of going nowhere, could we please wrap up this Ivy/Daisy/Alfred/Jimmy non-story? It’s the dullest thing to ever happen downstairs. Meanwhile, Isobel’s getting the attention she deserves in the story. She has a very different grief from Mary’s, and we’re happy to see such care is being taken as to its depiction and how she’s overcoming it. Penelope Wilton’s doing her best work of the series here. It makes up for the horrible way the character was written in season 2.

Meanwhile, in London, Lady Edith becomes modern and Lady Rosamund isn’t having it. We’d like to give her a “You GO, girl!” but given how shady Gregson is (not to mention SHE SIGNED SOME DOCUMENT HE ASKED HER TO WITHOUT SO MUCH AS GLANCING IT. GOD, is she ever Robert’s daughter), and the realities of 1923 and how the world felt about unmarried ladies who aren’t virgins, this all feels very ominous to us. It also feels like Edith’s first really interesting plotline. Remember when she was making out with pig farmers and begging daddy figures to marry her?

It seems to us that there’s no small amount of value for a show like Downton Abbey to acknowledge that it’s a soap opera and embrace it in its writing, which is what appears to be happening this season.The plots, soapy as they are, haven’t been as ridiculous as the “Will Matthew’s penis ever work properly again?” days of the show and to our great surprise, the shakeup in the cast (losing both its primary male hero and primary female villainess in one swoop) has really re-energized it. We didn’t realize until now how much the war years and then the subsequent two deaths in the family really weighed this show down. It’s not that things aren’t dark for some of the characters, but there’s definitely a new lightness in the air (very 1920s appropriate) that helps the show tremendously.

In other words, while Lady Sybil’s harem pants were droll and cheeky at the time, Lady Rose dancing with a black guy in front of her mortified family is kind of insanely fun.




[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE]

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