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'Downton Abbey' recap: The Battle of Little Minx

Is 'Downton Abbey' starting to feel like 'Groundhog Day' with posher accents?

OK, "Downton Abbey," I think it's time we had a talk. 

First, let me say congratulations on your win Sunday at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. No one can argue that the acting on this show isn't top notch, even when the writing isn't, which, well… 

What I'm about to tell you comes from a place of love. We've been through some ups and downs, you and me. Way back in Season 1, you were so charming and captivating, I could hardly take my eyes off of you; then in Season 2 you sort of went a little nuts, but hey, there was a war going on. Seasons 3 and 4 got a little dark, but I went along for the ride.

But now, dearest "Downton," I'm starting to lose my patience. We're halfway through the fifth season and you're starting to feel like "Groundhog Day" with posher accents and prettier costumes.  

Let's start with what's working. Maggie Smith has always been one of the most compelling reasons to watch "Downton Abbey." She's so great at delivering a tart zinger that it's easy to forget that there's very little we actually know about Violet, a character who in the hands of a lesser actress would be a one-dimensional quip machine.

She is long overdue for a juicy subplot of her own, so the reappearance of Prince Kuragin, an Anthony Hopkins-lookalike she almost ran away with 50 years ago, is a welcome development. Given how easily Edith gets under Violet's skin by referring to him as an "old beau" -- the usually unflappable Violet fires back, "You don't know anything about it!" -- it's obvious she still holds a flame. Could a bit of romance be in store for the Dowager? (And is it terrible to admit that I hope Prince Kuragin's wife is, in fact, dead and not just exiled to Hong Kong?)

It's nice that "Downton" is tending to characters we've taken for granted; the same goes for Isobel and her burgeoning romance with Lord Merton, who makes a sweet confession of love that almost convinces Isobel to give up the single life. (If only she'd given Dr. Clarkson the same consideration. Sigh.)

Likewise, I'm happy to see Daisy with her nose in the books, writing letters on behalf of Mrs. Patmore. She's been complaining about her lot in life for oh, about a decade now, so it's refreshing to see her staging her very own Glorious Revolution. Character development, however incremental, is a good thing!

And while we're talking about the good stuff, the navy blue and scarlet ensemble Mary wears to London is completely fabulous, and may alone make this episode worth watching. The scene at the fashion show is also a delightful glimpse into an aspect of high society we have not yet seen portrayed on "Downton Abbey." Would it be too much to ask for a fashion show every week? 

It's too bad then that when Mary finally gets around to dumping Gillingham -- after talking about it virtually nonstop with Anna and then Charles Blake -- the scene is over in about 30 seconds. Why bother with all the build-up, only to skip over most of the awkward confrontation? We join the scene after Mary has already delivered the bad news, leaving Gillingham -- and us -- to wonder exactly where he went wrong and probably ensuring him a lifetime of sexual insecurity. Nice work, Mary.

The hastiness with which Mary dispatches poor ol' Tony drives home just how thin a character he is, and the fact that he's really only here to prolong Mary's eventual decision to marry Charles Blake. It's also clear that Gillingham is not going to take Mary's decision like a gentleman -- the guy is a certified Stage Five Clinger -- so we know there's more drama and possibly some boiled bunnies to come. 

But Gillingham is a study in complexity compared with Miss Bunting, who inexplicably keeps getting invited to dinner at Downton despite a borderline pathological need to insult her hosts. This time she ticks off Lord Grantham so badly he kicks her out of the house for good in what Carson -- God bless him -- dubs "The Battle of Little Minx." Though I rarely find myself agreeing with Grantham, I have to admit I find his contempt for Miss Bunting perfectly understandable. Despite all her disdain for the aristocracy, she seems awfully happy to mooch free meals off the Crawleys. You can't have it both ways, Little Minx. 

The problem is that, like Gillingham, Miss Bunting is not a fully rounded character, but rather a (very annoying) means to an end in a plot twist we can all see coming a mile away -- in this case, Branson's decision to leave Downton Abbey for good. The worst part of it, though, is that Branson doesn't even seem to enjoy her company. Whenever she's around, he looks nervous and terrified, as if she'd just wandered in holding a live grenade.

Speaking of villains: In between blackmailing Baxter and menacingly smoking cigarettes in the corner all day long, Thomas has apparently found the time (not to mention money) for a severe heroin habit. This may be the least convincing struggle with addiction since that time Kelly Taylor became a coke fiend on "90210." On the bright side, he may be too distracted to bother Anna and Bates any longer. Not that it matters: Apparently the local police are now monitoring Anna around the clock and while in London, she's observed -- gasp! -- walking through Piccadilly Circus. Surely the only reason a woman would go to one of the busiest crossroads in the nation's capitol is because her husband murdered someone there. 

If only the police were as dogged in their pursuit of long-lost Michael Gregson. News of a trial in Munich reignites Edith's hope that he may still be alive and, for her sake as well as ours, let's hope he is. Her life has turned into an endless Lars von Trier movie. It's so bad that she's even taken to tearfully spying on Marigold from the bushes. Give the girl a break. 

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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