This review contains spoilers.
In the end stages of any faltering relationship, when it’s all but dead and buried and the mental dividing-up of belongings has begun, a destabilising flash of what first brought you together can blow in from nowhere. Are we making a mistake, you think, chucking all this in? We used to be good together, didn’t we. Didn’t we?
This week’s Downton Abbey was just that sunny moment, a visitor from days past whose reappearance reminded us why we were so keen to wrap Downton’s cosy duvet around ourselves in the first place. It was so stuffed with familiar old standards – the Crawleys being confronted by the twentieth century, Violet and Isobel butting heads, a scandal brewing at the Abbey, Carson trumping about toast and etiquette, Mary being snide to a house guest – that it brought back the froth, vim and glamour of the early antebellum episodes. For the first time in a long time, I was back under Downton’s slightly suspect, you-know-you-shouldn’t-really, chocolate éclair charm.
Who couldn’t be cheered by a frisky Mrs Patmore shivering over Rudoph Valentino and wanting to jig about, provoking a censorious Mr Carson to emit a jowl-shaking bass-note so resonant it must have emptied the Abbey’s dovecotes? Or by Mr Molesley, a photocopy of a photocopy of an Alan Bennett character, entering Carson’s man-cave and asking to plunge down the ladder of preferment? It’s just that kind of fond, low-stakes silliness we first came to Downton for, and this episode had it, and much more, in good supply.
The non-Carson portion of this week’s gentle comedy came from Lady Violet and Isobel. It not being cricket of the Dowager Countess to lay into a grieving mother, we’ve had to endure a temporary ceasefire between the two of late, but thankfully hostilities have now resumed. Defending the honor of cap-clutching McGuffin, Pegg, Mrs Crawley set about solving the case of the missing paper knife. That the resolution – her finding said object down the back of a Chesterfield – lacked narrative tension shouldn’t put ITV execs off using this plot thread as a backdoor pilot for an Isobel spin-off. Solving entirely tension-free crimes could be her USP. Sock missing from the dryer? Someone taken the last cookie from the barrel? Call Crawley; she’ll sort it and give you a high-horse lecture on social justice to trunk.
The episode also boasted a touching goodbye, as lanky streak of virgin Alfred trekked off to learn about bouillabaisse at The Ritz, leaving Daisy bereft and Downton’s lowest-hanging chandeliers breathing a sigh of relief. Fare thee well, Alfred, you and your expressive chin acting will be missed. He leaves an elongated hole in the Abbey behind him.
Though it’s not the way of things once people leave the Abbey, it would be fun to check in on Alfred’s fish-out-of-Yorkshire progress in future. (Will he, for instance, befriend a canny rat who believes anyone can cook?) Like the tantalising prospect of detectives searching for Edith’s missing baby daddy in 1920s Munich, it’s hard not to feel that the really exciting stuff is going on off-stage.
Not that the Abbey doesn’t have excitement of its own. That came in the form of Jack Ross, a cat amongst racist pigeons. (Fact fans might like to know that Ross was singing I’m Just Wild About Harry from the show Shuffle Along, the first Broadway hit with African-American writers and performers, so we’re double bubble on race taboos being broken – ta Wikipedia.)
Ross’ appearance at the Abbey was an exercise in euphemism. Like an extended game of Mad Libs, the many racial epithets that would no doubt have been employed above and below stairs to refer to the handsome band leader had been replaced by a single adjective: ‘odd’. “Who is this singer and how did he get here. Isn’t it rather odd?” asked Edith, with Carson noting it was all “an odd sort of thing to be happening at Downton”. Disingenuous it may be, but the censorship is entirely understandable. Like a nip-happy dog that’s been seen to, writer Julian Fellowes has lopped off the Crawley family’s offensive bits, leaving them with only confused grins and a two-step with which to express their discomfort at the ‘oddness’ of the situation. Imagine if he’d allowed them to let rip with all the authentic colonial nastiness of the period. They’d never get another Radio Times cover for a start.
For all the Yank heiresses, revolutionary chauffeurs, middle class lawyers and newspaper editors the Crawley family has welcomed to its bosom, Rose and Jack’s romance is likely to be the trickiest. Not only is Jack black, but he’s American, and a nightclub singer; an unsuitability storm that could only be made more perfect were he also a Jewish Communist woman with trenchantly opposed views on intensive pig rearing.
Speaking of imminent scandals, though the news was a shock to Edith, it was fun to see her receive her pregnancy test results on a silver salver delivered by the butler, instead of crouching over a pee-drenched stick in the lavvy (or, in the case of the understairs maids’ results, screamed by a witch into a trunk, or whatever system the lower classes relied on back then).
What else? It was date night for the Bateses, who were given two prettily lit scenes to talk through “it” (the rape every bit as euphemised as Mr Ross’ ethnicity). The victory over the snobby maître d’ would have been more fun were their situation not so awful to begin with, and it’s difficult not to feel that two such likeable characters could have been spared the indignity of their “somewhere special” being Lady Cora’s “frightful hotel”, even if it was. “I’m not a victim. That’s not who I am” will be Anna’s GIF moment for this week’s Downton Tumblrs. It’s just a pity she was made into one to stimulate headlines and ratings this series.
A genuine pleasure in the episode was the nursery scene between three of Downton’s widowed spouses. Tom, Isobel and Mary’s declaration that they, having known giddying, all-encompassing love, were the lucky ones, was simple, warm and affecting. Mary may not be ready to be happy yet, but with a new enemy with whom to butt heads in Charles Blake, odds are on that she’ll be in another clinch before long. Will she end up with the persistent family friend, the dishy viscount (due a return next week), or the “traitor” who’s got her so riled? I’ve a feeling it’ll be the pal she can’t stand. I think I saw a rom-com once where that happened.
To end on a note of particular joy, this week saw the first mention of rakish Uncle Harold (Paul Giamatti), meaning that the stage is being set for his arrival in this year’s Christmas special. “That’s the berries!” as handsy Jimmy might say. Quite.