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‘Downton Abbey’ recap: All the single ladies

Between Beyonce’s show-stopping halftime performance at Super Bowl XLVII and “Downton Abbey,” Sunday night was all about the ladies – single or otherwise.

As I noted last week, the female characters have taken center stage this season on “Downton Abbey” in a way that’s somewhat surprising, with scorned bride Edith now a budding feminist, Isobel an unapologetic advocate for “fallen women,” and Daisy poised to become a trailblazing lady farmer. At the same time, two of the most prominent men of the manor, Carson and Lord Grantham, are turning into living anachronisms before our very eyes. With all these capable, upwardly mobile women and hopelessly out of touch men lurking around “Downton Abbey” these days, I wonder if Julian Fellowes hasn’t been watching “Mad Men” – and taking copious notes.

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Let’s start with Lord Grantham, who’s persona non grata at Downton Abbey following the tragic death of Sybil. As the episode opens, the Crawleys have just laid Sybil to rest and everyone is still very much in mourning. Not only does Cora refuse to allow her husband to share the marital bed, but she’s also taken to criticizing him in the most brutal fashion. She privately accuses him of imperiling their daughter’s life on a snobbish whim, and later stands up to him in front of the entire family – first over dinner, where she suggests he chooses religion to satisfy Debrett’s (the social register) then later by refusing to leave Isobel’s luncheon.

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The insurrection even spreads throughout the house: None of the other Crawley ladies listen to Grantham when he barges in on their meal, and Mary scolds him for his anti-Catholic bigotry. Like his master, Carson looks like an intolerant buffoon this week, prohibiting the female servants from interacting with Ethel. And like their mistresses upstairs, Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore blatantly disregard their orders. This is probably a case of contemporary wish fulfillment – it’s doubtful that a cook and a housekeeper have been quite so rebellious back in 1920 – but whatever: It’s good fun to watch.

The battle of the sexes is so heated that it takes some major meddling by Violet to bring Lord and Lady Grantham back together. In a beautiful scene, she enlists Dr. Clarkson’s help in fostering a reconciliation. (“Lie is so unmusical a word,” she says in the line of the night.) Reassured that there was only an infinitesimal chance of saving Sybil’s life with a C-section, Cora is finally able to forgive her husband.

And while it’s heartening to see them grieving together, their détente doesn’t change the fundamental fact that Grantham has his head up his own posterior about so very many things. There’s his virulent (although probably historically accurate) anti-Catholicism, not to mention his stubborn refusal to listen to Matthew’s advice about the management of the estate. My suspicion is these two issues will come to a head very soon. Like many of you, I also wonder if Mary and Matthew might not end up adopting baby Sybil. They certainly seem at home with her, don’t they?

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Daisy is fast becoming the Peggy Olson of Yorkshire. On her day off, she pays a visit to Mr. Mason, who tells her he’d like to give his farm to her. At this point, I should probably be grumbling about yet another “unexpected inheritance” storyline, but I’m happy that Fellowes has found something interesting to do with someone downstairs. Will Daisy choose to continue a life in service – which, as Mr. Mason points out, may not be such a secure career path – or will she strike out on her own and learn to run a farm? Daisy has always resented her lowly position at Downton, but at the same time she’s not exactly a revolutionary: When Mr. Mason proposes the idea, she instinctively replies, “But I’m a woman.” Even still, the prospect of owning her own property and a life free of Mrs. Patmore’s tyranny must be enticing.

The question now is whether she’ll take any of Downton’s footmen with her. The hormones are bouncing off the walls in the servants’ hall, where, as Mrs. Patmore so wisely put it, everyone is in love with the wrong person. This week they’re all taking somewhat desperate attention-getting measures: Alfred learns the Foxtrot, Ivy paints her face like a common hussy, and Thomas continues to treat Jimmy like his own personal stress ball. Once again, the power lies in Jimmy’s hands. He’s not interested in Thomas or Ivy, but it seems like he might have eyes for Daisy. He would make an awfully cute farmhand, wouldn’t he?

Mercifully, the long saga of Bates finally seems to be coming to a close, and not a moment too soon (if I had to see him marching moodily around the prison yard one more time, I might have eaten a poison-laced pie myself). The problem with this subplot isn’t just that it’s dragged on for half a decade at this point, it’s that no one’s motivations make much sense – remind me, why does that prison guard hate Bates again? It’s been a drag on the show for the past two seasons, so I only hope that Fellowes isn’t faking us out once again.

Stray thoughts:

--This season of “Downton Abbey” has vastly expanded my knowledge of anti-Catholic slurs (“left-footer,” anyone?).

--I am awfully hard on Lord Grantham, but even I’ll admit to being touched by his grief over Sybil (especially that line about her favorite rose).

--To extend the “Mad Men” analogy, Grantham basically is Lane Pryce (with a bit of Roger Sterling’s intolerance mixed in), while Mary is a less buxom Joan.

--Interesting trivia: So maybe there hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation, but Evelyn Waugh, perhaps the most famous fancy English Catholic of them all, was once married to the niece of the Earl of Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle (a.k.a. the real Downton Abbey).

--Loved Thomas’ snide reaction to Alfred’s views on religion (“What do you think about transubstantiation?” Burn!).

--“Anyone who’s got use of their limbs can make salmon mousse.” Mrs. Patmore, you assume far too much.

ALSO:

‘Downton Abbey’ recap: Father knows worst

‘Downton Abbey’ recap: Burning down the house

‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘Mad Men’: Why the good old days are hot again

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