This review was originally published on rickey.org
When there’s a viewer discretion warning in front of an episode of Downton Abbey, you know something serious is about to go down. Whether it’s Anna getting raped by an absolute monster, or Lady Sybil dying a slow, horrific death in front of her powerless family and loved ones, a viewer discretion warning is usually the harbinger of tragedy. But tonight, Downton Abbey really topped itself by delivering one of the most disturbing moments in the show’s history.
Last week, one of the subtle storylines unfolding in the background related to Robert (Hugh Bonneville) suffering from an undisclosed medical condition which he wasn’t taking very seriously. Perhaps he didn’t want to confront his own mortality, or perhaps he was so involved in running the estate that he couldn’t afford to let himself be sidelined. Either way, his decision to ignore his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and simply hope the problem went away on its own proved to nearly be his undoing. During a visit from, ironically, the Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain (Rupert Frazier), Robert begins coughing up blood. Actually, “coughing” is the wrong term for it, as he actually starts projectile vomiting blood in disturbing qualities, collapsing to the floor and telling a horrified Cora, “If this is the end, know that I have loved you.” All the while, his face is basically a crimson mask, as Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) declares, Robert’s stomach ulcer has burst, and he needs to be rushed to the hospital as soon as possible.
It’s a very well-crafted scene, from a dramatic standpoint, since it gives off visual cues as to the severity of the situation. We don’t need Dr. Clarkson to tell us what’s happening for us to understand the urgency, whereas the same couldn’t necessarily be said for Sybil, whose death was a fairly bloodless one (albeit no less disturbing, really). The production also did a good job at gauging the amount of gore to show: too much blood would have made this tragicomic, bordering on being something straight out of Carrie. Too little, and the audience might not have gotten the full picture of just how serious this situation was. I know it probably sounds silly to be discussing the amount of blood on a primetime soap, but I think part of why this scene worked so well was because it never bordered into the realm of the needlessly grotesque. We’ll get enough of that from other shows on Halloween.
Naturally, everyone is in a state of panic, and I can’t pretend I wasn’t either. Really, someone has to die this season, and everyone is fair game since…well, this is the last year. But to have it happen in the middle of the season again (a la Sybil’s death) seemed like a bold choice, considering how much story remains in the season. The amount of blood, and the sudden onset of the tragedy, instantly makes this one of the most memorable, and deeply, deeply unsettling moments in the history of the show. When the viewer discretion warning played at the start of the episode, I was expecting something pretty bad, but I can’t say I was expecting that. Downton Abbey is a show that stakes some of its most iconic moments on instances of pure tragedy, but it’s rarely a show of overt grotesqueness or violence. I suppose that’s why this was so shocking. This type of stuff never happens on Downton Abbey, so it’s all the more powerful when it finally does. The world seems to come to a stop, and the realization settles in that not even the wealthy can escape the long shadow of death. As Carson (Jim Carter) bluntly puts it, “Life is short, and Death comes for us all.” In short, there’s an air of finality to what happens to Robert, the sense that Downton will be shaken to its core in the wake of what is certainly the end for the Earl of Grantham.
…Which is why it’s all the more surprising when he doesn’t die.
Luckily, Robert gets to the hospital in time, they perform an operation, and he’s apparently on the mend. Because this happens so late in the episode, the repercussions aren’t entirely felt just yet, although we do get hints of what Robert’s medical emergency might end up causing.
For one, while Robert is being loaded onto a stretcher, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) overhears her grandmother, Violet (Maggie Smith) implying that Cora is mad at her because she helped Edith keep baby Marigold a secret. All of a sudden, the pieces fall into place for Mary, and she seems to understand, for the first time, that Marigold isn’t some child the Crawleys are fostering. Marigold is actually her niece. Granted, Mary doesn’t bring this up to Edith (Laura Carmichael), nor does she seem entirely convinced that her suspicions are correct without more on which to base it, but the seeds have definitely been planted for the truth to come out. Of course, Mary has other concerns in addition to her father’s operation, as does Edith.
For Edith, she’s trying to figure out her feelings for Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton), the agent of Brancaster Castle in Northumberland, and the handsome gent who helped her finish editing her magazine on that hectic night two weeks ago. She doesn’t feel worthy of his affections, but he’s enamored with her regardless, although it seems their relationship might be put on hold with all of Robert’s troubles. On the plus side, she at least found a female editor to fill a position at her magazine, which makes her a trailblazer of sorts in the community.
As for Mary’s addition troubles in the wake of her father’s illness, she’s taking it upon herself to become a bit of a trailblazer in her own right, deciding that she and Branson (Allen Leech) will manage the estate themselves. They’ll still go to Robert for major decisions, but the day-to-day operation needs to begin and end with the two of them. The story was already headed in this direction, but by expediting the process, Mary and Branson will now be pushed closer together at a time of immense crisis.
The possibility of a romance developing is very much something worth considering, especially since the script this week seemed primed to remind us that Branson was once, for better or worse, the romantic lead of the series. In one touching moment, Branson recalls how his marriage with Sybil was a marriage of equals, perhaps not in social station, but in ideology and commitment. This, in response to Mary’s assertion that she doesn’t want to “marry down”. The scene plays as foreshadowing a potential relationship, particularly when considering the parallels this story already has with Mary’s courtship by Mr. Talbot (Matthew Goode). Both Branson and Talbot made a career out of driving cars, and both are very forthright in their convictions. While I don’t particularly feel much in the way of chemistry between Mary and Talbot, I suppose this is as good a love triangle as any on which to close Mary’s storyline of six seasons. And yet, we don’t know that that’s even what this is yet. Is this a love triangle, or a woeful misreading on my part? Frankly, I could see it going either way.
Robert’s ill health also has an effect on Thomas (Rob James-Collier), of all people. He admits that, initially, he assumed he wouldn’t care when the Grim Reaper finally came for Robert. Yet, he’s found himself caring quite deeply. In this regard, he’s surprised himself, noting that he must be growing soft in his old age. And there’s more to that hypothesis than just Thomas’s reaction to Robert’s emergency.
Earlier in the episode, Thomas discovers that the new footman, Andy, can’t read. Turns out, the lad has just been staring at pictures in magazines and newspapers all this time. In retrospect, it’s a character trait that seems rather obvious, since Andy seemed to go out of his way to be seen reading, as if to deflect suspicion. Andy admits he never picked up the skill in school because he spent so much time goofing off, although it seems crazy to think anyone would make it to the end of school without ever having learned how to read. Regardless, Thomas takes pity on the young man and offers to teach him how to read or write — all this, just one week removed from the ostensible return of Thomas’s scheming ways. Thomas is a very hard character to pin down, and I have absolutely no idea what kind of ending Julian Fellowes can even write for the guy, outside of giving him happiness in a secret gay affair. Maybe Andy is the first step in that path — or maybe not. Honestly, I couldn’t completely let go of my suspicions that Thomas has an ulterior motive in wanting to help the guy. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Among other changes happening in Downton, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) seems to be hitting it off with Mr. Mason, who’s finally moved into the vacant Drewe farm. Daisy (Sophie McShera) is annoyed, because she assumes Mr. Mason isn’t lonely, and that Mrs. Patmore’s friendship isn’t something the old man needs, which somehow manages to make Daisy even more unlikable than she’s been the past several weeks. Leave it to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) to try and knock some sense into Daisy, stating that Mr. Mason gaining a friend like Mrs. Patmore will do both parties good. At this rate, Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason getting married would be an expected but interesting route for the story to take, since it would fundamentally make Daisy the daughter Mrs. Patmore has always treated her as, albeit by marriage (since Mr. Mason is really only Daisy’s father-in-law).
The episode also checks in on Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who are trying to remain cautiously optimistic about the pregnancy, resulting in a cute moment where Bates shouts out the words “bad harvest” as part of a tradition Anna tells him about, in which farmers would pretend their crops were all bad so the gods wouldn’t grow jealous of their bounty. It’s nice to see those rare moments of genuine happiness between Anna and Bates, considering their entire relationship has been buttressed by injustice and tragedy.
Speaking of justice, Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finally builds up the courage to testify against her former lover, only to have the crook change his plea to guilty, thus rendering her testimony unnecessary. Baxter laments the loss of her opportunity to confront the man who nearly ruined her, but Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is glad to see Baxter spared of the hardship, because Molesley is a man who never passes up an opportunity to be relieved about something. This storyline is so slight as to hardly register, similar to the business between Denker and Spratt, as Denker blackmails Spratt into saving her job. It’s nearly as aimless as all this stuff with the hospital (which I can’t even pretend to follow, at this point), although I can’t really complain about that subplot this week, since it led to the ghastly business with Robert, which ultimately gave this season one of its most instantly memorable moments, for better or worse.
All told, while the episode itself wasn’t as dramatic until Robert’s bloodletting, that moment alone instantly made this one of the most memorable Downton Abbey episodes in a while. Although it ended up faking us out of that major, expected death, I found myself relieved to find Robert survived by the end of it. Downton Abbey is, for better or worse, a very tight-knit community. There’s a certain comfort in being able to spend time in this world, with these people. And so, even characters in which we might not have been so invested, suddenly take on vital significance when they’re in peril. It’s part of the struggle of these six seasons that we want to see happy endings for these characters, even as we know all of them can’t have one.