'Downton Abbey' recap: An indecent proposal

'Downton Abbey' recap: An indecent proposal
Allen Leech as Tom Branson, left, Tom Cullen as Lord Gillingham, and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary. (Nick Briggs / Carnival Films for "Masterpiece")
The nature of life is not permanence but flux -- except on "Downton Abbey." 

As the series resumes for a fifth season, it's 1924 and a full (fictional) decade since we first met the Crawley family. Carson's above observation may be accurate, but it's a truth that doesn't extend to the halls of Downton Abbey, where seemingly little has changed other than the hemlines. That's the paradox that makes this show enjoyable and vexing in equal measure: Despite the cataclysms unfolding in the broader world and even closer to home, Thomas will continue to scheme, Violet will continue to be the best of frenemies with Isobel, and Edith will continue to be comically unlucky in love. 

But lest we think the inhabitants of Downton Abbey are permanently suspended in amber, the new season begins as Lord and Lady Grantham are planning a big dinner party for their 34th wedding anniversary. See, time does pass after all? Among the guests is Lord Gillingham, a.k.a. "Tony," one of the two wealthy, handsome and impossibly patient suitors (still) looking to win Mary's heart. Our heroine isn't just an indecisive ditherer: As she confesses to Anna, she's dragging her feet because the social codes of the day prohibit her from spending much time alone with any potential suitor. And as for "you know," as she puts it, that's out of the question.

Or is it? In a plot twist that calls to mind Mr. Pamuk's ill-fated trip down the hallway back in Season 1, Gillingham sneaks into Mary's chambers with a shocking proposal: In order to help expedite her decision, they will take a secret trip together to "spend the days talking." Rather than react in shock, Mary -- who is, after all, no longer a blushing virgin -- ups the ante. "And the nights?" she wonders with an arched eyebrow. Turns out Gillingham has a plan for those, too. "I want us to be lovers." Well, well.
Despite the many, many things that could go wrong with this plan and apparently forgetting the time a strange man died in her bed, Mary appears to be on board with the idea of a sexy, surreptitious getaway. But before she and Gillingham can iron out the details of their rendezvous ("Your yacht or mine?") they are interrupted by a fire accidentally set by Edith, whose life has become a very vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of out-of-wedlock canoodling. With her secret daughter Marigold now a toddler and baby daddy Gregson still missing in Germany somewhere, Edith is understandably not the happiest of campers. (Side note: Marigold? I know Edith's a suffragette but I never pegged her for a hippie) When one of Gregson's books -- a German primer, of all things -- turns up in a corner of the house, it's salt on wounds that remain very raw. To make matters worse, it doesn't seem like Marigold's identity can remain a secret for much longer. At a time like this, can you blame her for being a little careless about fire safety?

And just to be sure no one in this episode gets away with any extramarital relations, the fire also cuts short Lady Anstruther's assignation with James. Played by Anna Chancellor (who will always be "Duckface" from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" to me), Lady Anstruther is sort of the Cher of her day, seducing the handsome young footman as if he were a bagel boy. Unfortunately for James, he's caught in the act by none other than Lord Grantham, and it looks like he may not be at Downton Abbey for much longer.

If only he were as lucky as Thomas, who once again proves himself to be the cat with nine lives -- and then some. His scheme to blackmail Baxter backfires when she goes straight to Cora and confesses to her deep, dark secret: She was fired for stealing jewelry from a previous mistress and spent three years in prison for it. Baxter refuses to explain why she committed the crime which, this being "Downton Abbey," can only mean she had a perfectly reasonable and sympathetic reason for doing it, one that will be disclosed only after at least another season and approximately three dozen identical conversations with Cora. In a turn of events that borders on the miraculous, Cora for once sees through Thomas, wondering why he would have recommended her for the job -- unless, of course, he had an ulterior motive. 

But the moment of clarity does not last for long. All Thomas has to do is save Cora's daughter from a burning fire and all is forgiven -- never mind the pesky question of what he was doing in the gallery in the first place. Sigh. Cora, will you ever learn?


Limited as their roles may be, Edith and Mary live with abundant freedom compared with poor old Daisy, who causes a minor sensation downstairs by deciding to -- gasp! -- learn arithmetic! Mrs. Hughes thinks it's a wonderfully practical idea, but Carson, ever in support of the status quo, thinks it's dangerous. Carson is also mortified when he, and not Lord Grantham, is asked to be chairman of a local memorial committee and accepts the offer only when the group also agrees to create a symbolic position for his boss.

Rounding out the list of people who will never change is Molesley, who provides some comic relief in this episode by dying his hair with what appears to be shoe polish. It's a rather pathetic bid to get Baxter's attention, and as with all his schemes, it ends in humiliation. Grantham observes that he suddenly appears "Latin," Baxter estimates that he's a full year older than he is, and Carson tersely orders him to "take steps" to remedy the unfortunate makeover. Molesley forgot the cardinal rule of "Downton Abbey" -- that change is rarely ever a good thing. In this case, that just happens to be true. 

Stray thoughts: 

--Downton Abbey has its own volunteer firefighting crew?

--Was anyone else hoping that Gregson's lost book would yield a clue about his whereabouts? Maybe it's not too late?

--I guess Mrs. Hughes and Carson decided to stop at holding hands? Too bad.

--Why is Violet so concerned about Lord Merton's crush on Isobel? Could it be she harbors some feelings of her own?

--Memo to Miss Bunting: Take it down a notch.

--Branson's denial of any wrongdong with Miss Bunting is hilarious in an I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman sort of way.

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