Recovering nicely from the horrible dress she was forced to wear in the last episode, Bertha gives the society ladies a tour of the in-progress Metropolitan Opera House in a killer ensemble that comes with a cape. Before we continue, we feel we must pay tribute to Carrie Coon’s stunning ability to make these furniture frocks look hot as hell. Check out her sashay in this scene. Naomi Campbell couldn’t do it better. The “normal” way for an actress to emote in a bustle and corset is to stand rock-rigid, but Coon manages to find the fluidity in these forms. It’s probably not historically accurate, but she is ALL hips and butt when she walks in these things. There’s a scene later in the episode where she comes flying down the grand staircase in her house to tell George the news about the Duke and it’s honestly kind of amazing how freely she’s able to move in these garments. We take this as a choice to underline both her clearly sexual relationship with her husband as well as the modernity and ambition that defines her. Anyway, Mrs. Winterton is among the group and she keeps making little throat-slashing and “I’m watching you” gestures at Bertha when no one’s looking. Bertha sticks a note on her back that says “KICK ME I’M A WHORE.” We might have imagined a few details in the retelling. Perhaps not surprisingly, Former-Turner reiterates her stance that she’s not interested in Bertha’s boxes. “Which box is yours?” she asks Mrs. Russell (the “bitch” at the end of the sentence is implied, as always, with anything Former-Turner says). Bertha tells her nothing is settled yet. “And I’m to believe that?” Former-Turner hisses before slithering away. Aurora Fane hears a society reporter ask Bertha about the rumors surrounding Larry and Mrs. Blaine and she is once again nonplussed. She is perpetually nonplussed. “I don’t know h-where they get their nonsense,” Bertha articulates to her. Aurora, perhaps not as genteel and confused as she tends to come across, sticks the knife in a little by mentioning that Maude Beaton made a joke about the Mrs. Blaine situation. Despite the impressive display of progress for the potential patrons, Bertha is informed that the money has run out and work can’t continue.
At the Van Rhijn house, Jack the footman is still talking about his alarm clock and we’re amazed that they’re going to turn this into a whole storyline. On the other hand, we have no idea where they’re going with this, which is always a little fun with a show. Upstairs, Ada is eagerly supporting Reverend Forte’s missionary work by giving a tea. Once again, we have to point out that the only skill any of these people have is putting together social events and they deploy it in response to literally everything. “I’m suddenly horny for a priest! I should throw a tea party!” Marian is surprised to see Oscar at the gathering, but he’s just there to impress Maude Beaton, who was so taken with the reverend’s work (so much for our theory that she’s sapphic) that Oscar makes a donation on her behalf. This homo is determined.
Also determined is Cousin Dashiell the Unblooded, who offers to escort Marian to the mother-daughter tea at his daughter’s school. She demurs, but he is insistent upon taking her. At the school, another mother rushes up to her to compliment her on her daughter and this whole thing felt very odd and unlikely. She was likely to have known that Marian was a teacher there, not to mention the fact that maternal mortality rates were pretty horrifying at the time, even among this class, so it doesn’t seem likely that anyone would so readily make this sort of assumption. Frances is even pushier about the matter, referring to the three of them as “family” and insisting that Marian ride home with them. Marian, who was all but throwing herself at Dashiell in the first few episodes, suddenly seems very cool to the idea of him. In semi-related news, she is offered a full-time teaching job for underprivileged students. Agnes snorts slightly less vehemently than normal at the news, possibly because she’s okay with people of her class giving the appearance of charity work rather than the appearance of career work.
Back at the tea party, the reverend touches Ada’s hand. She passes out from the shock. Agnes doesn’t even notice.
In Newport, Larry and Mrs. Blaine (who, much like Mrs. Winterton, doesn’t appear to have a first name) are nakedly rolling around in bed when she brings up the gossip about the two of them and mentions that they have to be careful. Larry scoffs at the idea and again, we find a good deal of this to be highly unlikely. Of course people of this class and time fucked just as much and just as recklessly as any other class of people in history, but both Larry and Mrs. Blaine would have been far more aware of how dangerously scandalous this behavior is and how dire the consequences for it could be. While she’s vaguely concerned, his “I want to tell the world I love you” responses sound like nonsense to us.
At the Russell household, Bertha is still not dining with Hot Beard. He is dejected to hear this and offers the news that, after calling his good friend Mr. Cunard (or whatever), he managed to get the two of them invited to a dinner with the Duke of Buckingham. Bertha is mildly assuaged for a moment, until she remembers that the money ran out for the Metropolitan Opera and Larry is bringing scandal to the family. Hot Beard tells her it will all soon blow over, but she responds by flipping out on him and runs down the exhaustive list of everything she has to do as a hardworking mother to this family. “Trying to make sure Larry stays out of trouble! Trying to make sure Gladys meets the right people!” Truly awe-inspiring, back-breaking work there, Bertha. However do you manage. Anyway, Hot Beard tells her he’ll look into the money issue with the Met and tells her he’ll always have her back because it looks so damn good walking away, girl.
Peggy and Mr. Fortune arrive in Alabama for an extended sequence at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. While this focus on parts of the country other than New York and parts of the population other than the very wealthy and their servants is welcome, we’re afraid a good deal of it came off like a staged history diorama, with characters giving speeches at each other rather than interacting. Mr. Fortune believes that the formerly enslaved should shoot for higher aspirations than domestic work and farming, while Mr. Washington feels that progress will be made one person at a time, getting leg up and then helping the next one. Peggy is very clearly on Washington’s side of the conversation and Mr. Fortune seems a little scandalously intrigued by her. While all of this is portrayed in a somewhat stilted manner, it’s still miles ahead of the dead baby storyline they tried to foist on her. Later, she milks a cow and Denée Benton is delightful in this scene.
Reverend Forte and Ada go for a walk. He gives her peonies. She has a panic attack.
Mrs. Russell entertains Mrs. Blaine at her home – and by “entertains,” we mean “eviscerates.” Without so much as a passing attempt at niceties, Bertha launches straight into the topic of the growing scandal regarding Mrs. Blaine’s affection for Mrs. Russell’s son’s privates. “Don’t think I care what they write about you,” Bertha says acidly, before calling her a dried up old crone who’s too old to give him an heir and whose death will be eagerly anticipated by Larry in the years to come. “You must remember what that was like, when you were married to your husband.” When Bertha Russell wants to take you apart, she will do it with the skill of a surgeon. We’ll repeat something we wrote last season: “These are not the genteel aristocrats of Downton, after all. These are robber barons, found in the historical record under the listing ‘People You Do Not Fuck With.'” Mrs. Blaine runs out upset and we are once again wondering just what the hell she thought was going to happen when she started making out with men half her age on her front step.
Dinner at the Van Rhijn house. The peonies are on the table and Agnes is holding court – or at least she thinks she is. When Ada tells her that she has plans with the Reverend the next night, she tries to go in for the kill. She must be feeling pretty threatened, because she does something here we don’t think she’s ever done on the show before: tell an outrageous lie. In this case, she insists that Marian has been going around gossiping about Ada and the Reverend, which is honestly a shitty thing for Agnes to do, given how weaponized and dangerous gossip can be among this crowd. Agnes says it would be “a poor return after all these years,” if Ada left her, which all but states outright that she believes Ada owes her because she’s been living under her largesse for decades. Ada and Marian lie about where the flowers came from and Jack’s alarm clock goes off, announcing both the end of the dinner and the end of Agnes Van Rhijn’s hold over her household. Once again we must complain about how badly Christine Baranski is being used here. All she does is sit on the same sets, cracking insults and generally being completely clueless about what everyone in her house is doing.
Hot Beard’s valet Mr. Watson, who is formerly Mr. Collier, meets with his son-in-law Mr. McNeil to tell him he won’t accept his offer to leave the city until he hears it from his own daughter. McNeil calls him insolent. Like all of the servant drama on this show, we don’t find any of this compelling, possibly because Michael Cerveris whispers all of his lines and generally comes off like a robot on this show. In somewhat related uninteresting news, Mrs. Bruce the housekeeper can play the piano and the not-French chef is sweet on her.
Mrs. Astor sits in her parlor like a ladyspider in a web and receives Mr. Winterton. She tells him that his box at the Academy is being rescinded because he married a dirty girl. She makes vague insinuations about Mrs. Winterton’s former career, which leaves him livid in response. Later, in his castle, he confronts Former-Turner about it. We were a bit surprised to hear he knew nothing about it and even more surprised that she tries to continue lying about it by claiming she was a paid companion to Mrs. Russell. We don’t know what the hell she’s thinking, especially since it’s clear that Mrs. Astor is aware of the details. We guess Former-Turner thinks she can keep the lie going just long enough to see her husband buried, but that’s a hell of a risk to take. It’s clear we’re meant to assume that this is all Bertha’s doing, but we never saw her do it (which seems notable), and besides, half the servant class in New York must know her story by now. She hasn’t exactly been smart about keeping a low profile. Just the fact that she accepted an invitation to the home she used to work in – where literally everyone will recognize her – seemed pretty dumb.
At the dinner for the Duke of Buckingham, Bertha sneaks into the dining room ahead of time and changes the place cards so she’s seated next to him. It’s cute, but there’s no way in hell she would have been able to get away with something like that. She does her best to charm the hell out of the Duke and in this instance, we think she probably had a leg up on most of the other women in the room. She’s forthright and unstuffy in a way that would likely appeal to a member of the aristocracy, who would find all of the bowing and scraping by Americans to be a little uncomfortable. It seems odd to us that she hasn’t yet set her sights on the Duke as a possible son-in-law, but we guess she’s too focused on yanking him away from Mrs. Winterton. As for her, she winds up seated next to Oscar Van Rhijn, who recognizes her immediately and is delighted by the scandalous gossip possibilities. Former-Turner says it’s a relief to sit next to someone who knows her whole story and again, we have no idea why this lady thinks she can be so open about her past while trying to keep it from her husband.
“Why must I be the villain in every story?” Hot Beard whines after a group of laborers on the street call him a murderer. No, George, you not the villain in every story. Sometimes you’re the fuckboy. Anyway, he vows to have all working class people put in prison or something.
Ada sits in a pew with the Reverend and listens to the choir practice. He moves very quickly from touching her hand to asking for it in marriage. We’ve been a little critical of Cynthia Nixon’s performance, but the moment where she goes from shock to fear to eager acceptance is beautifully played. You can feel a lifetime of regret over missed opportunities come to the fore. They start making out. Everyone in the choir drops their hymnals in shock. At home, Agnes sits alone at the dinner table, bereft at having no one to insult.
A jubilant Bertha announces to Hot Beard that her scheming worked and the Duke will be staying with them at Newport, which means everyone has to come to her parties, even if they’re dying. Seems like a weird thing to be happy about, but these people aren’t normal. The news makes both of the Russells horny for each other again and soon, they’re all over each other. Bertha knows that the best way for her to get past her husband’s disappointing behavior is to utterly destroy the woman who caused it. As for the destroyed, she has a total meltdown when she hears the news. Mr. Winterton reminds him that there are other dukes in the world. “I don’t want other Dukes,” she screams in response. “He’s mine! But that WITCH stole him from me!” It was at this point that we clapped in delight. Look, you can fault Julian Fellowes (and to a lesser extent, his co-creator Sonja Warfield), for some silly plots, no-stakes drama and clunky dialogue, but watching Mrs. Winterton vow at the top of her lungs to destroy Mrs. Russell – after watching Mrs. Russell spend an entire episode taking down everyone in her way – we have to admit that he knows exactly what he’s doing. It takes skill to write a fun soap opera and while he tends to recycle his plots way too many times, Fellowes really understands the form. We are all-in on the Russell-Winterton war to come.
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