'Downton Abbey' recap: Mary gets her freak on

Mary and Gillingham take their relationship to the next level -- and then some -- on #DowntonAbbey

Lady Mary is flirting with disaster. 

In this week's "Downton Abbey" our heroine follows through with her plan to shack up with Lord Gillingham in order to make sure they're sexually sympatico before they get married. She concocts a highly implausible cover story about going on a sketching trip, gets poor Anna to buy her some contraception at the village chemist's and then heads off to Liverpool -- because nothing spells romance quite like a grimy port city in the north of England -- for a week-long romp with Gillingham, who's staying in an adjoining room.

What could possibly go wrong? 

Even for someone as self-assured as Mary, it's a bold -- one might even say reckless -- move. But then Mary doesn't know what we know about the rules of "Downton Abbey," a show whose narrative is propelled by gossip, overheard conversations, misunderstandings and coincidence. The odds of Mary's tryst going undiscovered are about as good as the chances that Thomas will ever lose his job. Which is to say, virtually nonexistent. 

But, hey, let's just assume Mary takes Gillingham out for a test drive and doesn't get caught. It's not guaranteed their little sex-periment will have positive results. It might turn out they have as much chemistry as two captive pandas. Gillingham's excessive confidence in his lovemaking skills makes me think he's bound for failure, but even if he's not, there's also the issue raised by Charles Blake during his visit to Downton: is Mary forgetting that there's more to a relationship than physical attraction? When's the last time she had a spirited debate or witty exchange with Gillingham -- or, for that matter, talked to him about anything except how much he wants to marry her? Sure, he's cute, but he's also kind of a bore.

Mary taking a premature honeymoon is a shockingly modern idea for a show that's all about an era when strict codes dictated nearly every single social interaction, and yet it's nothing new for "Downton Abbey." Sex has always been a major part of this show, which is one of the reasons it's such dishy fun. 

And though it's often accused of taking a rose-tinted view of the past, "Downton Abbey" has always been sympathetic to the particular injustices faced by women of the era, something very much on display this week. Having read Marie Stopes' "Married Love," the same birth control manual Mrs. Hughes found on Braithwaite last season, Mary asks Anna to procure the contraception for her, a task that's surely above and beyond the call of duty.  (She better tip big this Christmastime.) 

Anna dutifully goes to the chemist's, makes up a story about not wanting any more children because she's in poor health and nervously runs out the door so quickly she doesn't get the instructions -- a fact that I'm guessing might come into play in the not-too-distant future. The scene is mostly played for laughs, but it also leads to a feminist awakening in Anna. "Suppose i was a working woman with eight children and I didn't want anymore?" she says to Mary. "I feel like going back tomorrow and ordering a baker's dozen."

Other new relationships are in bloom this week, some of them nearly as scandalous as Mary and Gillingham's. Blake brings an art collector, Simon Bricker (played by the great Richard E. Grant), to Downton, ostensibly to view one of the paintings in the Crawley family collection, but instead he spends most of his time making eyes at Cora. Lord Grantham, who's more concerned that Simon is flirting with his dog, had his dalliance with that maid back in Season 2, perhaps now it's his wife's turn?  

Then there's Edith, who graduates from creepy-neighbor-lady-who-takes-a-little-too-much-interest-in-Marigold to a sort of unofficial godmother, an arrangement that is already raising eyebrows and is surely going to hasten the discovery of her not-very-well-kept secret. The question is whether it will be Mrs. Hughes (you can practically see her piecing it all together) or Mrs. Drewe who figures out the truth first. The smart money's on Mrs. Hughes, especially after  -- but then isn't it always? 

Speaking of Mrs. Hughes, it seems like Carson is ready to take their relationship to the next level. "I don't like it when we're not on the same side," he says when she takes Lord Grantham's side in the Great War Memorial Debate of 1924. When she calmly reminds him that they won't always agree, he replies, "I know, but I don't like it" -- and millions of "Downton Abbey" fans go "SQUEE!" in unison.  Seriously, Mary can stay single forever, just so long as these two crazy kids end up together.

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