By Meredith Blake
10:24 AM CST, February 10, 2014
Near the end of Sunday’s “Downton Abbey,” I half-expected Chris Harrison to show up in the Crawleys’ drawing room and start quizzing Mary about her favorite bachelor. Just a few short weeks ago, our heroine was catatonic with grief over Matthew’s death; now she’s frolicking in the pigsty, scrambling eggs into the wee hours of the night and fending off the handsome, eligible suitors with a stick, like some kind of jazz age “Bachelorette” (or, if you prefer, the Scarlett O’Hara of Yorkshire society).
It’s ridiculously good fun to watch -- especially that mud scene, which I'll get to, I promise -- but I don’t think I’ve ever understood Edith’s resentment of her sister quite as well as I do now. Heck, at this point, I think maybe even I’m beginning to resent Mary, who’s got practically every single gentleman who survived the war under her thumb.
Meanwhile, Edith’s situation is like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Desperate and out of options, she decides to obtain an illegal abortion from a doctor (ahem, “doctor”) she found through an ad in a ladies magazine in the train station waiting room -- hardly an encouraging sign.
Rosamund pries the truth out of her in a conversation that begins in judgment but ends with compassion. Even for the steely Rosamund, it’s hard to remain stern with Edith, who is clearly devastated. “I am killing the wanted child of a man I am in love with,” she says. It’s certainly not the outcome she desires, but the other option available to her -- raising an illegitimate child on her own as a social outcast -- is even less palatable. That is, until she actually gets to the doctor’s office and has a change of heart, fleeing from the abortionist’s shadowy office and straight into an uncertain future.
While perhaps intellectually I would have appreciated a bit more social realism -- after all, women were getting dangerous illegal abortions long before they were legal in the U.S. or Britain -- I’ll let the commenters at Jezebel get angry at Julian Fellowes for shying away from a potentially explosive story line. This being “Downton Abbey,” where pregnancy almost always turns fatal, chances are Edith would have suffered some gruesome fate in that doctor’s office. Frankly, after what Sybil and Anna have suffered, I’m relieved this episode didn’t turn into “Vera Drake.” There is a fine line between social realism and sadism.
I also cling to the hope that Michael will turn up alive, perhaps with a bad case of amnesia after slipping in a beer puddle at the Hofbräuhaus. Or maybe he really did go to see the castles of King Ludwig and lost track of time. It’s possible! As Edith relays to Cora, the detectives have determined that he checked into his hotel, went out to dinner, and never returned. It will be a miracle if he turns up alive and well, but at this point Edith is long overdue for a miracle, especially when you consider Mary’s good fortune.
I know it probably sounds callous to call Mary lucky, given the “ghastly business” with Matthew, but she really does seem to lead a uniquely charmed existence. In addition to Evelyn Napier, whose crush on Mary grows more obvious and awkward by the second, she’s got a new love interest this week in Charles Blake. (Called it!)
Their mutual attraction is sealed during a trip to see the pigs after dinner, which is the most fun scene “Downton Abbey” has conjured up in a long, long time. Hearing Mary utter the phrase “Should I fetch the pig man?” is enough to make this an all-time classic on its own, but on top of that we’re treated to a bit of flirtatious mudslinging (of the literal kind) and an early morning breakfast in the kitchen that has a sexy, forbidden air to it, even if it wasn’t technically post-coital.
This show is nothing if not a mish-mash of literary references, and Mary has always had more than a little Elizabeth Bennet in her -- sharp-tongued and sassy, there’s an appealing earthiness beneath that haughty facade. She can even scramble eggs! At the risk of revealing my own bias, Blake is clearly the Darcy in this scenario, his self-righteous digs at the aristocracy and at “aloof” Mary the equivalent of “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.” And just like Mr. Darcy, all it takes Blake is seeing Mary with a little -- OK, a lot -- of mud on her dress and he’s smitten. (Mud’s also a proven aphrodisiac for Mary; remember when she went riding with Mr. Pamuk?)
Mary and Blake have barely slept off their all-nighter with the pigs when, of course, Lord Gillingham decides to show up “on his way to Inverness.” (Man, this guy is transparent, isn’t he?) Mary asks after Miss Mabel Lane Fox, and his non-response means either she’s officially out of the picture or soon will be; in any case, Gillie’s as moony-eyed as ever. I don’t know who’s going to win Mary’s heart -- though I think I’m on Team Blake, because he is a “practical farmer as well as a theoretician,” and what’s hotter than that? -- but judging from that exasperated sigh Mary emits after his latest come-on, I’m quite confident Evelyn Napier is going home next week without a rose.
I’m also sure it’s no accident that it turns out Gillingham and Blake know each other from the war. There’s only one reason two seemingly unrelated characters on a show like “Downton Abbey” would have a shared history, and that’s in order to reveal one of them as a scoundrel; the question is who will turn out to be Mr. Wickham in this scenario.
Gillingham’s surprise appearance at Downton also causes major shock waves downstairs, since it means the return of the despicable Mr. Green. Mrs. Hughes, bless her heart, makes it clear she knows exactly what happened with Anna and issues a stern warning: “If you value your life, I should stop playing the joker and keep to the shadows.”
But by the end of the episode, he’s loudly calling attention to himself in the kitchen, prompting a murderous glare from Bates. The tension does not go unnoticed by Baxter, who’s under strict orders while Thomas is abroad to find out what happened between Anna and Bates. This is all unfolding just as Anna’s secret has become known upstairs -- Mary doesn’t know the whole story, but it feels like only a matter of time before she and Baxter sniff out the truth, or Bates takes matters into his own hands.
While I’m dreading to see what he might do to Green, I’m also glad to see this story line moving forward. Even if Bates goes vigilante, as I suspect he will, it’s better than seeing him mope and having the same depressing conversations with Anna, over and over again. This episode has a real sense of momentum, with each subplot moving forward in a significant and promising way. Even Branson, who’s spent most of the season talking about pigs, meets a fetching young lass at a political lecture in Ripon, which of course means Edna is going to return any day now. “Downton,” don’t ever change.
-- Frock Watch: There were some really spectacular gowns this week. Mary’s black fringy number is a show-stopper, but Edith’s cream and gold dress was also stunning, and I loved Cora’s pale turquoise number with the silver zigzag.
--I’m glad Mary now knows about Anna, but Mrs. Hughes’ rationale for telling Mary -- which, as always, happens offscreen -- was a classic bit of convoluted “Downton Abbey” logic.
-- Nearly as fun as Mary’s mud-slinging is Violet’s bout with the flu, which is an excuse for more great Dowager zingers, which are somehow even sharper through the haze of her fever, e.g. “This one talks too much, like a drunken vicar.”
-- What is there to say about Rose’s behavior except she is reckless and this is not going to end well? When Grantham left her in charge of fun, I do not think this is what he meant.
-- I really, really hope we get to see some of Grantham and Thomas’ trip to America next week. Think of all the handsome stewards we’re missing!
-- Another standout scene: Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes pretending to have the flu when Alfred shows up at Downton.
-- Mrs. Patmore gets poetic in her explanation for keeping Alfred the heartbreaker away from the house: “The tears and heartbreak that will flavor our puddings for weeks to come.”
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