Monday, February 04, 2013

the ladies who power lunch at downton abbey

Downton Abbey manages to pack a lot into one episode, bringing up controversial issues (like former chauffeur, now son-in-law Branson wanting to baptise little Sybil as Catholic), somewhat resolving the Countess's (Elizabeth McGovern) and her husband the Earl's (Hugh Bonneville) estrangement over their daughter Sybil's death last week in childbirth due to the brilliant machinations of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), and finally putting an end to the storyline that was dragging on and on — Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) in prison. Thankfully next week will see him return to Downton and an end to that bore of a subplot.

The Earl interrupts lunch, and is not welcome
But again, one of the most powerful threads of last night's episode centered around the former prostitute and now cook/housekeeper to Mrs. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Ethel (Amy Nuttall). Mrs. Crawley, like everyone else, was concerned about how hard Lady Grantham, Cora, was taking the death of her youngest daughter, and wanted to do something, anything, to bring her out of herself. She planned a luncheon for Cora and her daughters, to which the Dowager Countess tagged along ("Am I one of the girls?")

Ethel is admittedly not a whiz in the kitchen, so Mrs. Crawley asked her to keep things simple. But Ethel wanted to do something nice for her former and current employers and enlisted the help of Downton cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to make some decent food. This of course caused a scandal in he eyes of head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who had forbidden everyone at Downton from having any contact with Crawley House and its fallen woman. He ran and told Lord Grantham, Robert, about the scandalous luncheon and Robert hightailed it to Crawley House to "rescue" his ladies. He was promptly ignored, especially when Ethel brought out a delicious dessert. Cora still being angry at her husband certainly helped, as she brought up more than once in the episode how Lord Grantham's old-fashioned views were holding everyone back (Edith taking a job writing for the paper, last week's choice of a Harley Street doctor and subsequent inaction which may have led to Sybil's death) — sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Ethel, that dessert does look delicious
With his son-in-law Matthew (Dan Stevens) determined to drag the management of Downton into modern times, and his other son-in-law (Allen Leech) about to baptise his daughter in the "pagan" religion of Catholicism, the Earl is clearly out of touch. His mother may share many of his views, but she is wise enough and has lived long enough to know when to give way. She also knows that sometimes bending the truth a little may help everyone in the long run, as she so brilliantly exhibited when asking Doctor Clarkson (David Robb) to tell Lord and Lady Grantham how slim Sybil's chances of surviving birth were, regardless of whether a Caesarian section had been performed or not — so they could finally come together to grieve.

Hugh Bonneville is doing a masterful job portraying his befuddlement at how the balance of power has somehow shifted inexorably away from him when he wasn't looking. It will be interesting to see if he continues to stubbornly refuse to go with the flow and becomes a fossil, or if he, like his middle daughter Edith, will find "something to do." As Mr. Mason (Paul Copley) pointed out to assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera) — does she really think she'll be in service the rest of her life? Or that old houses like Downton will still be operating in the same fashion in the next forty years? Downton's world is changing, and rapidly.
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