Downton Abbey: A House Divided

Posted on January 18, 2016

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As is so often the case with these things, in the days before a wedding, tensions keep rising and rising until the household collapses into a heap of fighting and sniping, the vehemence of which shocks even the people doing said fighting and sniping. But this being Downton Abbey, all’s well that ends well and the bride gets to have her day in the sun with the man she loves while everyone looks on lovingly.

It would be easy to dismiss this episode as a gentle tale about a wedding between two lovable characters where the biggest problem facing everyone is what the bride is going to wear and where the reception will be held. But underneath all the genteel trappings and tea-sipping, there was quite a bit of conflict to be found in this episode – and it didn’t all get as neatly resolved as you’d think. It’s not exactly rare to see Violet and Isobel go at it over some matter, but the escalating war between the two of them is starting to get nasty. Worse, it’s having serious effects on the people around them. Both Cora and Dr. Clarkson got their feelings deeply hurt by the sharp tongues of both women, which in turn caused Cora to lash out at her servants, which spurred Mary on to unleash her acid tongue on her mother and call her a snob. It’s all very quietly and appropriately stated, of course, but this is as vicious as anyone’s ever gotten on this show. Had any of it gone any further, we would have felt a little uncomfortable watching it.

But we admire Fellowes for really going there in this, the final season. He only has so much time to wrap up each character and it seems that before they say their goodbyes, each of them is going to briefly grab the spotlight and loudly declare what they stand for, whether it makes them sound like a nice person or not. He could have gotten away with an entire season of characters telling each other how much love they have in their hearts. The critics would have savaged it but the hardcore fans wouldn’t have minded, for the most part. Instead, he’s going all in on some of the show’s less warm and fuzzy themes. He is, to our surprise, trying to make a point, which is not something we would have accused him of in earlier seasons, unless said point was “The upper classes are always right.”

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Not so with this season. Yes, we’ve been hearing for years now about how everything is changing and the old ways are being cast aside. And we’ve been saying for some time now that despite these constant declarations about the state of change in this world, the residents of Downton seem determined to pretend otherwise. “Who has an Under Butler these days?” asks Lord Grantham, who employs an Under Butler. But this was one of those rare episodes of Downton Abbey which really made it feel like huge changes were underway and everyone was feeling tense and unsure of themselves because of it. Interestingly enough – and more to Fellowes’ credit – he used the “change” theme to underline one of the show’s earlier, mostly abandoned themes.

Looking back at the first couple of seasons, the show seemed to have much more to say about the inequities of the old class system in England, but Fellowes fell a little too in love with the aristocrats in the story and that mostly fell by the wayside, seemingly because he didn’t like showing the Crawleys in too bad a light on that one matter. To us, it was a bold move to paint Lady Cora in such an unpleasant light by having her tear into her servants over a misunderstanding. Granted, she was almost instantaneously taken to task for it and wound up apologizing in as kindly a manner as Fellowes could depict, but there’s no doubt in our minds we were all meant to feel very badly for poor Mrs. Hughes, getting yelled at like a naughty child on the day before her own wedding. These scenes underline the fact that, no matter how well the family treats their servants, at the end of the day, they are still servants, and thus not likely to be treated in an equitable or even dignified manner at all times. It’s interesting to note how the so-called under-classes tend to be the ones who suffer the most when the high-born start arguing with each other. Mrs. Hughes got caught in a battle of wills between Mary and Cora and wound up humiliated, just as Dr. Clarkson got caught between Cora and Violet and wound up getting insulted over it (although that had more to do with Isobel’s lack of tact than anything else).

Meanwhile, Lady Edith couldn’t care less about what’s going on in the family home because she’s off in London, firing assholes who don’t pay her respect and letting cute guys fall all over her in worship. And yet she STILL thinks she doesn’t have a purpose in life. Girl, please. You are WINNING at life. Someone needs to shake you until you understand that. Your Aunt Rosamund sure does.

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In other news, Thomas goes on a job interview at the decaying Drysden Park and listens to poor, sadly delusional Sir Michael wax rhapsodic about a past he’s absolutely sure will come back any day now, even as the walls of his estate crumble and he’s forced to dry his undergarments in the sitting room fireplace. For all the talk about change over the past six seasons, nothing evoked that as sadly and poignantly as a three-minute scene with a character we’re not likely to ever see again. In a way, we wish someone would do a show about a truly decaying Great House like Drysden, rather than one like Downton, where the worst problems facing the house are a little dust on the side tables and an assistant cook who has to light the bedroom fires.

And while we’re sure we were supposed to clap in glee at the sight of Tom returning to the family fold, we couldn’t help thinking that despite all the battles Mrs. Hughes had to fight in order to yank control of her wedding away from her employers, she was still stuck playing second fiddle to the Crawley family and their ongoing dramas at her own reception. We would have loved to have seen even the slightest flicker of annoyance cross her face at Tom’s grandstanding, but we suppose that would have been too much to ask of Fellowes. It’s good enough that he’s allowing so many of the upstairs characters to be seen in a bad light.

 

[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015]

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