Downton Abbey

Tom Cullen stars as Lord Gillingham, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, center, and Samantha Bond as Rosamund Painswick. (Nick Briggs / Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for "Masterpiece")

"Downton Abbey" has always been a costume drama with a libido. Unlike other pop culture featuring English people in corsets and top hats, this is not a show that pretends as if sex was invented in 1967. Desire is not just present in this series, it actually plays a pivotal role in the narrative. In the first season alone, Thomas canoodled with his secret lover and Mary's would-be love interest, the Duke of Crowborough, while the fallout from Mr. Pamuk's fatal late-night booty call to Lady Mary's chambers was felt for years to come. 

We've watched as housemaid Ethel was forced to turn to prostitution after bearing a child conceived during a brief affair with a handsome officer, and during Matthew's brief, miraculously cured paralysis, there was lots of frank talk about his ability to sire children, reminding us that once the war was over everyone would get back to the business of breeding and securing the line of inheritance -- just as it should be!  

So even though "Downton Abbey" has always had sex on the brain, never before has the subject dominated a single episode as much as it did on Sunday. One of the constants on this show is social change, and virtually every story this week is concerned with intimate matters and the loosening of interaction between the sexes in the heady days following the Great War. Carson, talking to Mrs. Hughes about his chaste courtship with long-lost love Alice, says it was "not like it is today. You’re lucky if you got to walk them to the corner.” But it's Violet who, as she so often does, delivers the line that sums up the hour: "If we only had moral thoughts, what would the poor churchman find to do?”

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First up is Branson who, his judgment impaired by whiskey and an overwhelming sense of isolation, has apparently given in to Edna's aggressive sexual overtures. Now she's demanding that he do the honorable thing and marry her -- that is, if she turns out to be pregnant. 

It all looks pretty hopeless, at least until Branson comes clean to Mrs. Hughes. It just so happens that she has discovered a scandalous sex manual, "Married Love" by Marie Stopes, among Edna's things. From this, she deduces that Edna is not with child but is instead planning not to get knocked up until Branson has officially agreed to marry her -- and then she'd quickly get pregnant by someone else. (I confess I had to watch this scene more than once to unravel that logic.) Edna is promptly sacked, but the laws of "Downton Abbey" dictate that this is not the last we'll see of her. Whatever brings her back, I'm certain Thomas will play a part in it. 

Though it's impressive that Mrs. Hughes figures out Edna's scheme so quickly -- move over, Sherlock, there's a new detective in town -- it's less easy to celebrate what comes next.  Downton's beloved housekeeper promises to "tear the clothes" from Edna's body "if that's what it takes" to prove she's not pregnant. While I certainly cannot condone fake pregnancies or gold-digging lady's maids, I am a bit troubled to see Mrs. Hughes making threats (however idle they might be) of physical violence and intimidation. Let's not forget Branson acted of his own free will when he slept with Edna.

Mrs. Hughes' threats seem especially out of character given her tremendous sensitivity to Anna's plight. The action resumes the very morning after her brutal rape at the hands of Lord Gillingham's valet, Mr. Green, when she's forced to eat breakfast beside him. Unable to tell Mr. Bates the truth for fear he will retaliate with violence and, at the same time, overwhelmed with shame, Anna asks Mrs. Hughes if she can move back into the house in order to have some distance from her husband. 

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"I can't let him touch me because I'm soiled," she says. Mrs. Hughes kindly dismisses the idea that Anna is to blame, and urges her to go to the police, but it's no use. Anna would rather Mr. Bates have a  "broken heart than a broken neck." There's something slippery about the writing here: As the scene begins, we sympathize with Anna but by the end our concern has shifted to Mr. Bates. Anna's fear of physical intimacy is not uncommon among rape victims, and it's a powerful and profound enough subject to warrant its own story line in the show, without turning her trauma into another chapter of the Saga of Poor Mr. Bates. 

I have no idea how this will all work out, but frankly I am worried. We know Fellowes is not averse to torturing the Bateses, and I shuddered a bit when Anna vowed to kill herself if she ends up pregnant by her attacker. Let's cross our fingers for a less gloomy solution, shall we?  

Mary finds herself in a much, much happier kind of predicament, as her relationship with Lord Gillingham escalates from equestrian flirtation to full-blown proposal in the space of half an episode. You gotta hand it to "Tony" (somehow that name does not suit him, does it?). The man knows what he wants. After his visit to Downton, he shows up unannounced at Rosamund's house despite Mary repeatedly declining his offer to meet up in London. As they dance, Mary says she won't be ready to marry again for many years, and yet the very next day Gillingham follows Mary to Downton, traveling in secret via third class, confesses his love and proposes marriage. "You fill my brain," he says, sounding oddly clinical. (Surely "mind" would have been a better word choice?)

Anyway, I am not sure whether to find this terribly romantic or a bit stalker-y. As Mary herself acknowledges, these two hardly know each other. Gillingham is certainly handsome but that's pretty much all we know of him at this point.  I suppose he is in a time-sensitive situation, under pressure to follow through with his kinda-sorta engagement to Miss Mabel Lane Fox, so we can forgive him for being a bit pushy.

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Mary stalls the best she can but ultimately she declines Gillingham's proposal because Matthew still "fills her brain." Gillingham sensibly points out that he is alive and Matthew is dead, but it's no use. Still not wanting to leave empty-handed, he asks Mary for a kiss, and she obliges. (You have to admire his determination.) The embrace is passionate enough that within a few minutes Mary is already second-guessing her decision.  The laws of "Downton Abbey" dictate that this story is far from over. Something tells me Miss Mabel Lane Fox is going to draw the short straw in this scenario. 

Things are heating up in Edith-land too. Michael Gregson is about to head off to Munich in the first step toward German citizenship though, oddly, he has no idea how long the process takes (I mean, I know he didn't have Google but surely he has a lawyer to answer these questions?). Edith claims she wants to go hear some jazz at the Lotus Club, but her saucy arm cuff tells a different story and, finally, she gives into temptation, sneaking back into Rosamund's house late at night. The next morning, she gets an earful from her aunt, who reminds her that while things may be changing, "some things will stay the same." Among the things that aren't changing? The fact that getting pregnant by your married, soon-to-be-German boyfriend would be disastrous.  Let's hope Edith has her own dog-eared copy of "Married Love" somewhere.   

Even downstairs, Jimmy and Ivy take their flirtation to the next level by making out in the boot room, where poor Alfred (steered in that direction by a jealous Daisy) catches them in the act. More interesting to me than their middle-school romance is what I hope will be a "Top Chef"-style face-off between Daisy and Alfred. The unlucky-in-love footman decides to enter a contest to win a place at the training school at the Ritz. What I'm hoping is Daisy signs up and beats him at his own game. Lean in, Daisy girl. Lean in!

Stray thoughts: 

-- Carson on morning people: "“I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast." Amen to that! 

-- After being abandoned by Gillingham's drunk friend, Rose dances scandalously with a black jazz singer named Jack. Did no one tell Julian Fellowes that when it comes to fictional transgressive romances, the names Jack and Rose have already been taken?

-- Lady Mary: “Edith’s about as mysterious as a bucket.” 

-- Carson and Mrs. Hughes share a sweet little heart-to-heart about his courtship of Alice. I keep hoping Alice turns out to still be alive. That would be a very "Downton" twist, wouldn't it? 

-- Grantham, still the worst: “I wish someone would provide me with some free labor.”

ALSO:

Edith comes into her own on 'Downton Abbey'

'Downton Abbey' recap: A shocking crime below stairs

'Downton Abbey' recap: Mary moves on without Matthew

Twitter: @MeredithBlake