7.5
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Downton Abbey Review: "Episode Three" (Episode 4.03)

January 20, 2014  |  6:20pm
<i>Downton Abbey</i> Review: "Episode Three" (Episode 4.03)

Although the show is primarily about the Crawley family and their struggles as they are thrust unwillingly into modernity, Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson have always been the real soul of Downton Abbey. They’re the only ones with deep knowledge of what goes on both upstairs and downstairs, and without them there’s not a chance in hell that the house would keep running smoothly. But beyond that, they—more than Lord Grantham and his “bumbling rich guy” shtick, more than the Dowager Countess’ failure to understand what a weekend is—represent the era Downton seeks to capture. Tradition is everything to them, even when it dictates that people like them can only aim so high in life. Their entire existences are tied to a family that isn’t theirs, and they appear content (on the surface, at least) to have it remain that way indefinitely.

That’s why the best episodes of Downton Abbey are the ones that explore these two characters a little further, whether it’s looking back into their histories or forcing them to take a stand. Thankfully, this week’s episode did a little bit of both. Carson opens up to Mrs. Hughes about his old love, Alice, and in the end she buys him a framed picture of Alice to display on his desk. It’s a fine illustration of the deep bond between Carson and Mrs. Hughes, but it also indicates a change in Carson, a softening, a step away from his usual stiff upper lip. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of this storyline. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hughes continues to play the role of Downton’s fixer, assisting in sweeping any and all scandal under the rug. This week she’s got her hands full, dealing with the aftermath of Tom and Edna’s tryst and Anna’s rape.

The former is a no-brainer for her, as she sides with Tom. It’s not the attempt at social climbing so much that bothers her—we’ve seen her show compassion to women like Gwen and Ethel who attempted to better themselves and rise above their circumstances. It’s the way Edna goes about it, deceitfully, seducing Tom and attempting to trap him in a marriage by pretending to be pregnant. No, Mrs. Hughes finds this to be loathsome, and she gets as stern as we’ve ever seen her, threatening to lock Edna in a room and rip off her clothes so a doctor can examine her if she doesn’t do the right thing and walk away. But it’s the aftermath of Anna’s attack—and her promise to remain silent about it—that proves more challenging for Mrs. Hughes. Anna refuses to tell Bates what has happened to her, and she can’t stand to be touched by him, convinced that she’s somehow tainted now. She requests to move out of their cottage and back into the servants’ quarters, offering no explanation to Bates and leading him to believe he must’ve done something wrong. Mrs. Hughes tries to convince Anna to tell her husband what happened to her, but Anna remains unconvinced and afraid Bates will murder Lord Gillingham’s valet if he finds out. “Better a broken heart than a broken neck,” she says.

It’s a well-acted storyline, to be sure, but it doesn’t push the show in any new directions. At this point in the series, Bates and Anna have endured far more than their share of unhappiness—so much so that putting them through this isn’t compelling. Nor is the predictable “Lord Gillingham proposes to Mary, she rejects him even though she kinda wanted to say yes” thread. These are all things we’ve seen before on Downton. The plots that drive the show into uncharted territory—Edith sleeping with Michael, Rose interacting with a black bandleader, Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson continuing to open up to each other and reveal more of their backstories—are the ones that should be highlighted. But, like Hughes and Carson, Downton Abbey is caught in between the downstairs and the upstairs, the past and the future. Here’s hoping this week’s forward momentum will be the push it needed to start climbing out of the mess the show found itself in at the end of last season.

Stray observations:
—”I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.”
—Weekly “We Live in a Changing World” Watch: they won’t hold the train for the duchess, “not these days;” “A lot may be changing, but some things will always remain the same.”
—Interesting that it’s Tom, who is so often portrayed as the “radical” one, who gets up to stop Rose from dancing with Jack, the black bandleader.
—”The damages cannot be irreparable when a man and a woman love each other as much as you do … my goodness, that was strong talk for an Englishman.”

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