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'Downton Abbey' recap: Guess who's coming to dinner

Left to right: Rose Leslie as Gwen Harding and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham.
Left to right: Rose Leslie as Gwen Harding and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham. (Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for Masterpiece)

Meals at Downton are never just that.

Throughout the seasons, they have become Dining Moments of Dramatic Consequences, where marriages are announced, insolent liberals are scolded (who can forget Robert vs. Ms. Bunting?) and the dowager countess cuts her meat as vigorously as she verbally cuts down family and frenemies alike.

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So it's no surprise that Episode 4 brought about two such DMDC (copyright pending). You can't drink a $4,500 bottle of port in this house without something life-changing happening.

DMDC 1 starts off innocently enough -- just a dinner -- but it obviously needed to be turned into a place to fight about the Hospital Battle Plot No One Cares About. This time, sensing the tide is turning against her, the dowager has invited her posh BFF, Lady Shackleton, to have her back. In a pre-dinner pep talk, the dowager reminds Shackleton that they are to take down Cora and her allies unmercifully.

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When Shackleton makes an intelligent observation that the York hospital takeover could actually help the town with more advanced and varied treatments, the dowager asks, "Are you here to help or irritate?"

The dowager is the Queen Bee of 1925 Downton Mean Girls. Shackleton, if you can't take her side against treating people's diseases in a modern way, you can't sit with her.

Lady Shackleton brings a surprise guest along. Henry Talbot (the tall, dark, handsome and pompously confident guy who Mary was drawn to in the Season 5 finale because of, well, his pompously confident nature). "Golly!" she says when he arrive,s because as hard as she tries, Mary has no chill sometimes when it comes to suitors she sees as potentially worthy of her Mary-ness.

Thomas has barely overseen the dinner's first course (Carson's away on his honeymoon, so he is serving as interim butler -- more on this later) when the bickering begins about the hospital and York and government intervention and other things we've already had to endure in the first three episodes.

In the middle of the incessant bickering, Mary takes the chance to talk with Henry, who matches her "upper-class playing hard to get" game. He mentions he makes a living by racing cars, to which Mary responds that she once met someone who breeds guinea pigs in Peru.

"People are so weird these days when they aren't rich and inherit a mega-mansion estate!" she pretty much exclaims.

Henry gives her his card, which Mary says is "common" (still want to pursue this, Henry?). And later in he episode, when Anna and her incompetent cervix have a miscarriage scare — the family doesn't have any follow-up questions when Mary alerts them that she's running off to London for "something medical," because sure — Mary takes her to London to see the doctor and then uses the opportunity to have a fancy date with Henry.

Mary: Hello, Henry. I found your "common" card in my pocket. Ugh, it just burns such a "common" less-rich-than-me hole in my pocket.

Henry: You're in town already to see me? I knew it would take you less than a day to pursue this. Also, did I mention I race cars?

Mary: Yes, well, my maid and her unborn baby almost died, so let's make the best of it. Fancy dinner at a private club will do.

They end up having a Patented Mary Acts Like She's Uninterested banter-filled meal, during which Henry voices how impressed he is that Mary works as the estate's agent and Mary responds by insulting Henry's racing career. Fun date!

And surely there will be more dates in the future. After 24 eligible bachelors pursued Mary at the same time in the previous two seasons, it's actually sort-of refreshing to see just one dude go for it.

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DMDC 2 also involves a surprise guest. To further reinforce his TIMES ARE CHANGING ESPECIALLY FOR WOMEN point, writer/creator Julian Fellowes brings back former maid Gwen Dawson, who was a Season 1 fan favorite because she was kind and relatable and was used in plots to show how awesome Sybil was, since Sybil worked very hard to find her a job and convince her there's more to life than servitude.

Like being a secretary.

Now Gwen Dawson is Gwen Harding, we learn, and married to a guy who runs a school for women who want to better themselves. Aunt Rosamund is a trustee at the school and explains that it's for "women from modest backgrounds ....... [pause] .... but clever women with potential." Poor women who are kind of stupid — out of luck.

We discover than Gwen worked at a telephone company then moved into local government (somehow) where she met her husband. She is used as a Symbol That Women Are Doing Whatever They Want and Bettering Themselves Now, which is great although her life's track doesn't seem too representative of what really was going down in the 1920s in England.

Either way, Thomas uses his Temporary Butler Reign of Terror to remind the family that Gwen used to work at Downton, in an awful attempt to shame and embarrass her. You see, the family didn't recognize her because even though she worked therefor two years, she never spoke to anyone except Sybil. "Our bad!" Edith says.

Sidenote: What to make of Thomas this episode? He spends half of his time evil-y scheming and the other half complaining about how he has no friends, which is traditionally how they've spent the entire series run representing him. But does he have a heart or not? Can we make some decision on this before the series ends? is the lesson here just to be nice to people?

Meanwhile, the whole Gwen lunch turns out to be a fond remembrance about how much better than everyone else Sybil was, enough to make Mary feel bad about being Mary.

But I highly doubt that if Sybil hadn't been Sybil, Mary would have befriended Anna the way she did, enough to, in this episode, secretly take her to London in the middle of the night and pay for her personal doctor to check out her cervix — incompetent or not.

BTW, Anna finally decides to stop lying to her husband about what's going on, since he never really deserved to be kept in the dark about all of this. So, yay?

The reminder of Sybil's kindness is even enough for Mary, in a first, to give Edith something resembling a compliment. When Edith mentions that she wants to hire another woman to co-edit her magazine with her, Mary says it's a good idea. When Rosamund says that it was surprisingly nice for Mary to say that, Mary responds that even a chimp can type a Bible given enough time.

Oh Mary: One step forward, two steps back.

In Random Other Plotlines news, since Sergeant Willis is done with the Bateses and the Spratt concealing his no-good nephew situation has died down, he is now tasked with trying to convince Baxter to testify against the man who once convinced her to steal jewels from a former employer for him. Apparently this dude is still making women left and right steal things for him.

At this point, Sergeant Willis should just move into Downton. Carson's room is free.

Robert continues to have his stomach pains, which the accompanying swelling dramatic music suggest we should pay attention to.

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And Daisy, high on empowerment and Socialistic ideals (or something) is convinced Cora isn't going to help give the Drewes farm to Mr. Mason, so much that she's mad as hell and isn't going to take Rich People Nonsense any longer.

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The thing is, Cora has been trying all along to give the farm to Daisy's father-in-law and finally convinces Branson and Robert to do so, right before Daisy has another Auction House Meltdown moment. This storyline has been a whiny waste of time — but WOMEN ARE DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY NOW.

On the ridiculous front, the Crawleys just refuse to accept that they may have to now call Mrs. Hughes ... Mrs. Carson. A first, it's funny to watch Robert so annoyed by this, but then Mary is bothered about the name change and then so is the dowager and even Rosamund, who seems to visit Downton, like, twice a year, voices hr issue with it. Just how will they cope!?

Finally, when the Carsons arrive back from their honeymoon, Mr. Carson announces that, to make things less weird, apparently, they can still call her Mrs. Hughes, and everyone is SO RELIEVED BECAUSE THE WORLD WAS GOING TO END.

Some things never change.

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