I think we all know where we have to begin here: Poor Edith. Poor, poor, sad, pathetic, wobbly-chinned Edith. This episode dangled in front of her everything she has always wanted: a romantic future with her cousin (a little icky, but…ok), a chance to become the Lady of the house, the besting of her older sister (Downton being a far preferable settling place than musty old Haxby Park with an abusive tycoon) and, best yet, a genuine crack at true love.
Of course, knowing Edith’s luck, none of these things will ever happen. Laura Carmichael, who is quite the beauty in real life, plays Edith so downtrodden and life-weary that nothing good can come to her without tragedy attached. She looks like she always smells of rosewater and despair. Even if Patrick-Peter Gordon was who he said he was, Edith would have shackled herself for life to a puss-leaking Canadian who looks not unlike Mel Gibson in The Man Without a Face. Her self-esteem is so shot at this point that she convinces herself that the Elephant Con Man is the best she can do, and it is agonizing to watch her try to convince her skeptical family of the same. When Mary’s sisterly cattiness comes out in full force (her “he isn’t anything to look at” was as withering a comment as she’s ever made), you almost want to hush her and tell her to just give Edith this one already. Sure, accepting fake Peter-Patrick as the new heir would de-Earl a crippled man and entrust the future of the estate to a terrifying huckster, but at least Edith would get to hold someone’s stump at night.
But the Phantom of the Convalescent Home flees as quickly as he came, and Edith is left reading his (totally insufficient; what a jerk, etc.) goodbye note while weeping and staring at the house she’ll never inherit. This moment is actually effective, as we’ve spent almost two seasons now investing in how much of a sadsack Edith is, and this is the apex of that depressing character arc. But the deformed-guy-might-take-over plot also marks the point at which Downton turned from a soap opera that held a small allegiance to reality into something approaching high farce.
Now that the war is over, the drama has not ended with the somber chime of the peace clock. Instead, everyone’s lives are more messy and convoluted than ever. The show used to juggle a few nefarious plotlines every week alongside a few more uplifting stories; when someone was falling out of love, someone else was falling in. Now, nearly every single person inside the house is living in a nightmare, or in a situation soon to be one. It is as if Julian Fellowes and his team have gotten overexcited about the theatrics — they learned how much we loved it when scandale rocked the ensemble (Season One would be nothing without the dead bodies and dead babies), so now they are just giving us all scandale, all the time. It’ll make for good water-cooler conversation, but a lot of that talk will just consist of “so how insaaaaane is Downton lately?” Going crazy when it blossoms naturally from the characters is one thing; introducing a million unearned complications for the sake of thrilling television is more risky.
Let’s take, for example, the tension that seems to be building between the Earl of Grantham and Cora, and the chemistry that is blooming between the Earl and the widow housemaid, Jane. I’m no soothsayer, but I can guarantee this is not going anywhere good. Cora’s sneaky decision to bring Lavinia back into the mix is “curiously unfeeling,” according to the Earl. Yes, it is a manipulative move on Cora’s part. But to set up the premise that, feeling that his family is falling apart and his own wife is sacrificing his (clearly favorite) daughter to an cruel magnate, Earl Grantham will seek solace in Jane’s feather-dusting arms — come on, you know it’s coming — is so jarring that it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this show. This isn’t East Enders, for goodness sake. Grantham’s paternalistic perfection can get boring, but it’s a bedrock of the series. To play with that is to play with fire. Tread softly, Fellowes. Or many women who have had too much rosé will be after you with pitchforks.
Still, all the sadness is strangely compelling. No one’s life is good after the war! No one! The downstairs celebration party was a sham. So let’s take a moment to reflect on where all of our players are left after Armistice Day. A rundown of peacetime sorrow, if you will:
1. Lady Mary: While it was a kick to see Mary and Matthew gossiping like best friends early in the episode (Mary teasing about “Jack Johnson” arms, Matthew joking that Carson would “open his veins” for her), that playful camaraderie was shattered by the end, with Lavinia’s bashful return and Sir Richard Carlisle’s swift descent into verbal abuse. The marriage between Mary and Carlisle has always felt like a train that will never quite pull into the station, and Mary has taken it for granted just as much as we have. She says priggish comments like “Your lot buys it, my lot inherits it,” getting in a little dig at her future mate about his new money while dismissing a breathtaking estate that looks as cold and marbled as Sir Richard’s heart. She’s not invested in the match, and Carlisle, sensing this, pulls out the big guns by trying to lure away Carson to polish the silver at Haxby. He can’t bring Mary’s darling papa along, but he can buy the next best thing; and it doesn’t have the desired effect.
Mary is still so gaga over Matthew that she cries out about “all he’s been through!” in front of her entire family — she doesn’t care who knows how she feels anymore. Only Cora with her sneaky plan can keep the two apart, and Mary sees right through it. Grumbling to Carlisle about Lavinia’s homecoming in the hallway, she gets the vicious browbeating that has been coming to her since she started provoking her betrothed — poke a dragon with the power to destroy your entire family, and you are going to get burned. Still, no amount of sass deserved that “never cross me” blackmail speech. Mary’s marriage is doomed. If only Edith knew, she’d be dancing somewhere instead of getting teary grass stains in the moors.
2. Matthew: Ah, Matthew, the Picasso of self-loathing. How Mary still finds him attractive is a testament to their chemistry, because Mr. Wheelchair has become the resident Debbie Downton of the house. He says that even a non-heir who looks like Sloth from The Goonies would be a better Earl, given his working nether regions. Matthew is so focused on his permanent flaccidity that he can’t see beyond it; men really do think with their laps. We know that when he tells Grantham that it will “take a man that is more than I am to follow you,” he is not talking about his legs. There is a small bit of hope after the peace gong, when Matthew feels a tingle down below, but even if he can magically sire children again (and if that’s the case, really, Fellowes? That was a waste of a two-episode investment), then he will need a major attitude adjustment. Also, Lavinia squeezing herself back into his life is nothing anyone wanted to see happen. Even Matthew gave us one of his best forlorn looks, straight to camera, as if to say, “I’m stuck with her….wonderful.”
But what about Anna and Mr. Bates? Read on…