Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 3, Episode 2 of PBS' "Downton Abbey."
Deception swirled upstairs and down and sudden revelations brought both salvation and devastation in tonight's episode of "Downton Abbey" -- but, hey, what else should we expect from everyone's favorite purveyor of class-system porn?
At the pinnacle of the hierarchy, we had the ongoing saga of Matthew Crawley, unlikely heir to what used to be Lady Cora's vast American fortune, battling his conscience over whether to accept yet another out-of-the-blue inheritance -- this one from Reggie Swire, father of Matthew's dearly departed near-miss wife, Lavinia. Poor Lavinia expired from the flu after catching a glimpse of her intended groom canoodling with Lady Mary under the staircase, and Matthew still feels grievously guilty about it all -- so much so that he absolutely refuses to accept Swire's largesse.
Matthew has a knack for coming into fortunes for no reason whatsoever, so it's possible he's just getting cocky now, but I for one never understood why he was so morally opposed to taking the damn money. For one thing, it's not like Mary was going to let him keep any of it: She was going to pour it all back into saving the centerpiece of Matthew's first unearned inheritance, Downton Abbey. (And lest we view this as an act of pure selfishness, series creator Julian Fellowes has sized about 13,000 opportunities to show us that Downton is An Engine Of The Local Economy.)
Still, as we all know by now, Matthew is A Man Of Principles, as well as a bit of a drama queen. He feels so squishy about the whole affair, in fact, that he simply cannot summon the strength to read the accompanying letter from Mr. Swire, which obviously will urge him to relax and cash the check. So it's up to Mary to open the letter herself and read it out loud to Matthew. Naturally, the dead man had anticipated every one of Matthew's bizarre objections and produced arguments against them all. I wasn't the only one thinking Mary, that sly minx, had composed this rather convenient missive herself. "Are you sure you didn't write it?" Matthew says, then catches himself before being kneed in the private parts he only just recently learned how to exploit. Someone -- not Mary, but someone -- has forged this, he opines, because Lavinia's father had no way of knowing about his last-minute blah blah blah. Still with me?
The upshot is that Mary now has to find a servant who can prove that Lavinia sent her dad a letter right before she croaked so that Matthew will finally fork his fortune over to her instead of to some orphanage or whatever. Lady Mary barges in on the servants to ask if anyone recalled running this errand, and everyone squirms and says no until Daisy, the simpleton, shows up and says, "Oh, it was me." Just like that, Downton is saved! Mary gives Matthew the news, coupled with a strict warning: "If you try to find one more excuse not to accept the money, I'll have to beat you about the head." Shh, Mary, don't spoil the Christmas episode!
Meanwhile, Lady Edith is getting married! Oh, it's a joyous affair, despite the fact that Downton is on the verge of bankruptcy, everyone is still exhausted from the last wedding and Edith's betrothed, Sir Anthony Strallan, is a 150-year-old man who walks around with one arm in a miniature sling. Edith, for her part, is just glad to be the center of attention for a change, although the truth is that Cora is more interested in the downstairs drama concerning Miss O'Brien and Mrs. Hughes (more on that later), and His Lordship hasn't stopped converting everything he sees into shillings since discovering that his Canadian rail investment was the AOL-Time Warner merger of 1919.
Sybil, at least, is game for some excruciatingly awkward sex jokes. She joshes Edith about saving her strength for her wedding night, prompting the Dowager Countess to scold, "Sybil, vulgarity is no substitute for wit." But what's this? Sybil has been living too long among uncouth Fenians, for instead of blushing and fluttering her eyelids, she looks right back at the D.C. and says, "Well, you started it!" Whose eyelids are fluttering now, bitch?
More coded sex humor in the church, this time courtesy of the D.C. herself and the priest, God help us. Seeing how anxious Sir Anthony looks, the D.C. whispers to Father Dominic, "He looks as if he's waiting for a beating from the headmaster." Father D. detects a whiff of performance anxiety on the poor old man, to which the D.C. replies, "He's done it before so he must be in possession of all the facts." OK, enough! I'm getting nauseous! No wonder the British didn't officially recognize sexual intercourse until 1963!
But no, as it turns out, Sir Anthony was not sitting there wishing someone would invent a little blue pill to help him satisfy his hot-blooded young princess. In fact, he was questioning his resolve to go through with the wedding, thereby condemning Edith to a life spent nursing his ailments, redecorating his dank bedrooms and seeking out strapping mechanics to tune up the Rolls, if you know what I mean. "I can't do this," he exclaims at the altar, choosing a moment guaranteed to produce maximal humiliation for all involved. Edith begs him to reconsider, Robert sternly informs him that it's too late to back out, but here is the Dowager Countess to dispense a bit of grandmotherly wisdom. Let him do it, she tells Edith, and don't drag it out. "You know he's right -- doing the only sensible thing he's done in months." (How fitting that Sir Anthony thanks her for this remark.)
It's all terribly embarrassing, of course, and Anthony is the worst kind of coward for doing the jilting at the altar, but I think we're meant to conclude that Edith dodged a bullet here, and I'm not so sure that's true. She's not exactly popular with boys her age, and she could have enjoyed a reasonably independent life with Sir Anthony's estate as her home base. Lord knows the vast majority of women on this show appear to have outlived their husbands, many of whom were presumably older. Then again, times are changing, and Edith may soon find out that being a "spinster" can be a hell of a lot of fun -- even if breakfast in bed is expressly forbidden.
Before we venture downstairs, attention must be paid to Robert's condescending treatment of Tom, the chauffeur, who has disgraced his pike-wielding ancestors by exchanging his tweeds for a tuxedo but evidently still can't afford white tie. "Tom is our tame revolutionary," Robert says to Sir Anthony. "Every family should have one." I was rooting for Tom to whack His Lordship in the face with a shillelagh for that one, but instead he smirks and makes a joke. Look for this relationship to evolve asymmetrically.
On to the servants! Thomas and O'Brien are turning their prank war up to 11. First, O'Brien hid His Lordship's shirts, causing untold reputational damage to the prickly homosexual valet, and now Thomas strikes back by whispering to Mr. Moseley that O'Brien is planning to abandon her post as Her Ladyship's maid. Moseley unwittingly plays his part in the drama perfectly, interrupting half the family in the drawing room (or whatever room that is; how should I know?) and recommending a replacement. Naturally, Cora is nonplussed. O'Brien leaving? She acts as if she knew all along, then confronts O'Brien. Eventually, the truth comes out, and O'Brien tells Thomas to his face that she is going to make him quite sorry.
It's a whole bunch of nothing, really, but if you ask me, what we're really being set up for here is a storyline involving Mr. Moseley, who is taking a lot of abuse these days. I'm not saying he's going to load up a hunting rifle and shoot the place up -- or am I?
Mrs. Hughes' cancer drama doesn't add up to much, either. I'm not doctor, but a rudimentary understanding of TV-show dynamics was all you needed to predict that this lump was going to turn out to be a "benign something or other." But I was moved by Cora's words of kindness to Mrs. Hughes -- "I don't want you to worry about where you'll go or who will take care of you, because the answers are 'here' and 'we will'" -- all the more so because the family's financial travails could have made that a very hard promise to keep. And I loved it when Mrs. Hughes burned Carson for being such a wannabe aristocrat: "As you know, I don't worship them like you do." Shots fired! I also found myself smiling along with Mrs. Hughes as Mr. Carson sang his weird song about "dashing away with a smoothing iron" now that the cloud looming over his work wife had finally cleared. Any chance these two wind up getting it on? God, I hope not.
What else? Oh, well, there's Anna and Mr. Bates. Does anyone else find it disturbing that literally the only servant at Downton in possession of a living, breathing spouse happens to be married to a man imprisoned for murdering his previous wife? Also, is there a chance the rest of the servants are going to get fed up with Anna and her fact-finding missions to London, given that the rest of them haven't had a day off since the sinking of the Lusitania?
Eventually, Anna is going to find a way to clear Bates' name by proving that his ex offed herself; in the meantime, his prison scenes are hilarious. Brendan Coyle is a fine actor, but he's not exactly one of the dudes from "Oz." This time, he's walking laps around the prison yard when a fellow inmate warns him that he's being targeted. Turns out someone has planted a thing in his bunk. I watched the scene three times and have no idea what this thing is. It looks kind of like a cigar -- or a very strange stick? He's just discovered it when two guards barge into his cell and search the exact spot on his bunk where it had been hidden. For some reason, they don't bother searching Bates or his cellmate to see if either of them has removed the thing from its hiding place. No matter. After they leave, we see that Bates has stuck a tiny bit of the thing to the wall. I have no idea what this means. I guess he found a hole in the wall and shoved the thing into it? Not knowing what the thing is, I am having a very difficult time interpreting this event, but my assumption is that Bates' cellmate tried to get him in trouble in retaliation for last week's equally hilarious "fight." More unintentionally funny prison scenes, please!
So there you have it: Downton is saved, Edith is single, Mrs. Hughes is healthy, Carson is happy and Thomas is next. At the end of the episode, Matthew informs Robert that he intends to save Downton with Reggie Squire's fortune after all, but Robert insists on making him an investor and a full partner. It's terribly generous, though I actually thought Matthew was set to inherit the whole damn thing anyway. But what do I know? I'm just an American, and as we learned last week, Americans know precious little about tradition.
What did you think of the episode? Will Mary and Matthew ever stop bickering? Will Edith move to London and marry an author of lewd books? Is Sybil going to put Guinness in the baby bottles? Will Mr. Moseley go postal? Will Carson and Mrs. Hughes make sexy time? Tell us in the comments, and vote in our poll for the episode's best Dowager Countess one-liner!