Love is in the air at Downton Abbey, and it’s spreading like the swine flu.
A season that began gloomily, with Mary deep in mourning over Matthew, has surprisingly evolved into one that’s mostly about romance. As we approach the season finale, even Branson, Isobel and perpetual loser Molesley are getting in on the action. What could possibly be next? Gregson turning up alive, just in time to cut his baby’s umbilical cord and put a ring on Edith’s finger? A nice young farmer sweeping Daisy off her feet? Carson proclaiming his undying passion for Mrs. Hughes? A girl can dream.
If it feels like not all that much has actually happened this season, outside Edith’s pregnancy and the brutal attack on Anna, I suppose it’s only because Grantham’s managed not to blow the estate, war hasn’t broken out and no beloved characters have died a tragic or premature death.
But let’s begin with Mary, who continues to be the icy heart and soul of “Downton Abbey.” When last we saw her, Mary was fending off the attentions of three suitors in what seemed like a very well-appointed episode of "The Bachelorette." Now, with Evelyn Napier quietly packing up his suitcases and catching a late-night limousine ride to the airport (metaphorically speaking), she’s down to just two men. Following the triumph of their sexy romp in the pig sty, Blake pulls further ahead by adorably playing with “bruiser” baby George. Then, like clockwork, Lord Gillingham invites himself to stay for the night on his way back from Inverness, which is the fancy aristocratic version of “I just happened to be in your neighborhood and thought I’d stop by.”
True to form, Gillingham does the exact opposite of playing it cool, sensing that he has a new rival for Mary’s affection and jealously pouncing on Blake over dinner -- why, yes, Blake is a pig expert, thank you for asking. The next morning, Mary bids farewell to her “desire of suitors,” but not before Gillingham once again lays it on with a trowel.
Later, over coffee in London, Gillingham continues to follow the “Pepe Le Pew Guide to Dating,” pivoting from a conversation about Green to telling Mary that he loves her and won’t give up until she’s walked down the aisle with another man -- and possibly not even then. Because she is the woman we all wish we were in these situations, Mary’s response can be summed up thus: “That’s cute, now I’ve got to run. Thanks for picking up the check.”
Meanwhile Blake plays it pretty cool, despite the obvious sparks with Mary, which makes me think he’s got the edge in this whole race -- that plus the fact that he’s got much more Matthew in him than Gillingham. Mary likes someone who will challenge her, and Gillingham certainly doesn’t offer that. Blake turns up later at the Downton bazaar, where he unequivocally lays his feelings on the table but manages to do so without seeming the slightest bit stalkery. Advantage: Blake.
If things are not quite so promising for Edith, they certainly have been worse. Although she’s still pregnant -- it seems increasingly unlikely she’ll be saved by a miraculous miscarriage, no matter how many heavy baskets she lugs around the house -- she has in theory figured out a way to have the baby without bringing shame on her family.
At first, she concocts some scheme involving Mr. Drew, the tenant farmer and Downton’s newest pig man. At first, based on the goo-goo eyes she made on him as they discussed the livestock, I assumed she was going to seduce him and then rope him into marriage -- a la Edna Braithwaite. Then, on a second viewing, I realized her plan was even more cockeyed -- that she was going to leave her child with Mr. Drew to raise, based entirely on the fact that he’s handy with pigs and seems to like her family. It’s a bizarre and convoluted scheme, even by the standards of “Downton Abbey.” How did Edith plan to keep the whole pregnancy and labor thing under wraps? And did she think no one would notice when her child went missing and another one turned up on Mr. Drew’s doorstep?
But nevermind all that, because Aunt Rosamund, who’s neck and neck with Mrs. Patmore for the title of this season’s MVP, hatches a much better plan. She and Edith will go to Switzerland “to study French” for the next several months. Edith can deliver the child there and give it up for adoption, all far from the prying eyes of the English aristocracy. This provides Julian Fellowes with the seemingly irresistible opportunity to get in some digs on both the Swiss (“Switzerland has everything to offer except, perhaps, conversation,” says Violet) and the French (Rosamund wants to learn French but would rather not do so in France because of French people).
Cora being Cora, the woman who entrusted O’Brien for years, she accepts Rosamund’s story at face value. Violet being Violet, she sees right through the artifice. In a terrific scene, she sternly forces a confession out of Rosamund and Edith (“You have told me the truth, but I would like to hear it enunciated more clearly,” she says). Of course, she reacts to the news of Edith’s pregnancy with the kind of anachronistic tolerance practiced by seemingly everyone at Downton, encouraging Edith to go to Switzerland and even offering to pay for it, lest her granddaughter be forever indebted to Rosamund. (As Branson’s new love interest, Sarah, proves, It’s only the poor and middle class on “Downton Abbey” who are close-minded and judgmental, never the aristocrats.)
The question now is what could possibly go wrong. And the answer, of course, is: a whole lot! My prediction is Edith and Rosamund will run into family friends up there in the Alps, because this is “Downton Abbey” after all, and/or Gregson will reappear in good health the very moment Edith after has given up her child to a loving Swiss family.
In other matters of the heart, Mary intervenes to break off Rose’s engagement to Jack in a way that miraculously (and rather implausibly) doesn’t come off as racist -- in fact, Mary suggests, Rose is the one using Jack for the color of his skin. Mrs. Patmore, who really continues to shine this season, helps bring what I sincerely hope is the end to the love triangle among Daisy, Ivy and Alfred. Ivy turns down his hasty proposal and Daisy takes the high road and sends him on his way with a basket full of frankly delicious-sounding treats from Mr. Mason.
Meanwhile, Isobel takes a shine to Mary’s godfather, Molesley strikes up a sweet flirtation with Baxter, and Branson continues to flirt with Sarah, the plucky, politically active teacher he met in Ripon. At this rate, there won’t be anyone left to marry off by next season -- except for crazy Cousin Rose
In virtually the only non-romantic story arc of the episode (or, for that matter, season), Anna reveals to Mary that it was Green who raped her -- not because she wants to see him brought to justice but because she fears Bates’ reprisal. Mary convinces Gillingham to sack Green, but not before the evil valet dies in an apparent accident in Piccadilly Circus while Bates is on a mysterious day trip to York. Though the circumstantial evidence is incriminating, it’s far from clear that Bates killed Green, and ultimately the fact that Anna even suspects he might have may prove more problemtic for these two.
--Just how pregnant is Edith at this point anyway? She’s not showing at all, and those flapper dresses are forgiving, but it sure seems like she’s been pregnant for about six months.
--Mary takes a mean swipe at Edith over dinner, suggesting she’s only going to Switzerland to search for Gregson. Really, Mary, making fun of your sister’s possibly dead boyfriend? No need for that.
--Just wondering where everyone stands on Gillingham versus Blake. To me Gillingham, despite the dashing good looks of Tom Cullen, seems both bland and pushy. But convince me otherwise!
--Branson has some great moments in this episode. He’s a character who still strikes me as a little one-note, especially when he drones on about his “beliefs,” but Fellowes has done a creditable job making him a bit more human this season. I loved his panicked reaction when Mary told him Granny was coming to dinner so he’d better put on tails, and the nervous way he relayed the news about Jack and Rose and then ran for the door.