Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 7: What will they think of me?

In the second to last episode of the season, many characters are standing on the precipice of personal growth and change. The question is: will they jump in?

In the penultimate episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season, it seems like everyone is at a crossroads. I guess that’s what happens when you’re setting up for a season finale though, right?

For several characters, the choice that lies ahead will involve a serious step across that proverbial line the Downton crew has been toeing for years: the line that separates their cherished past from the uncertain future.

Throughout the series, the future has seemed to impose itself upon the central characters. Since Sybil’s death in season three, followed shortly thereafter by Matthew’s death, there has not been a central character singularly bent on pushing the estate and its inhabitants into the future.

Isobel is the closest with her progressivity motivated by compassion. Edith had her moments, striking out on her own as a writer, but that has since fallen away. Mary is convinced that change must be accepted if her way of life is to be at all preserved, but she is hardly marching flag-in-hand in the parade of progress.

Cora, as wonderful a woman as she is, has melted dully into the walls this season. Her American upbringing (not to mention her firebrand mother) could have made her a forward-thinking force to be reckoned with, but instead she has faded into a supporting role for her family, both upstairs and downstairs.

Robert and Mr. Carson remain the reliable sticks in the mud, joined occasionally by Mrs. Patmore when she complains about sewing machines and electric mixers. All others are content to float along in the wind, adapting whenever necessary to the tide of change that informs all life.

Now, some real choices are being presented and the characters of Downton Abbey are being forced to face the future - for better or for worse.

Alfred, still at culinary school in London, proposes to Ivy. She turns him down, saying that she can’t know what life still has to offer and she’s not ready to tie herself down. Mrs. Patmore is impressed with (if not entirely confident in) Ivy’s decision.

“You’re a very optimistic generation, I’ll give you that.”

Indeed, for a kitchen maid to feel that she has a choice between marrying and continuing to work and wait for the best possible opportunity shows the influence of the strong female support network in the Downton servants’ quarters. Remember when Mrs. Hughes chose not to marry that farmer because she was happy with her life as it was? Now the younger generation is taking that philosophy as the rule, rather than the exception.

With his heart broken once again, Alfred decides not to return to Downton again. Daisy is hesitant to say goodbye to him, but chooses to end things on good terms. Her carefully chosen words are simple and sweet, evidence of Daisy’s growth in confidence and self-determination since we first met her.

“I loved you Alfred. I won’t deny it,” she says. “But that’s done with now. It’s time for you to go your way and me to go mine.”

Her maturity brings Mrs. Patmore to tears.

“If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.”

Another youngster at Downton who is growing fast is Rose - though she is not yet as mature as Daisy.

Rose has been seeing Jack Ross, the black singer. The two agree to marry - a choice that Mary learns is (for Rose, at least) mostly a teenage angst-driven plot to challenge her overbearing (read: rightfully concerned) mother. Mary’s choice lies in whether to expose their affair or to deal with the issue herself. She goes to see Jack, who says he has already decided to call off the engagement.

“I don’t want to spoil her life,” he says, acknowledging the provocations they will face as an interracial couple.

“It doesn’t mean I think it’s right,” he continues. “I wouldn’t give in if we lived in even a slightly better world.”

“It may surprise you, Mr. Ross,” Mary responds, “but if we lived in a better world, I wouldn’t want you to.”

Mary herself faces a difficult choice; though, for Mary, it must be an exhausting choice at this point. Because no man is able to cross paths with the incomparable Lady Mary without falling under an all-consuming spell, she has three ardent suitors, for whom Edith coins the plural noun: a “desire” suitors.

Still hesitant to move on after Matthew’s death, Mary refuses yet another proposal from Lord Gillingham. Charles Blake says he will put up a fight before allowing her to push him away. Poor Evelyn Napier has fallen to the bottom of the pile, moping like a lost puppy until he disappears completely in the episode’s final scenes.

For now, Mary will continue to focus on her estate, the pigs, her son and the future. Mary’s suitors have always been there, and they probably always will be.

Another Crawley family member finding new romance is Tom Branson. Last week, he met schoolteacher Sarah Bunting at a political meeting. She shows up twice this week, once on a trip into town with Isobel and once on the side of the road with a broken-down car.

Just as Edna Braithwaite did, Sarah (a staunch liberal) challenges Tom’s migration from militant socialism into the British aristocracy. However, this time it is Tom’s turn to open someone’s eyes to the complications and nuances of politics and human character. When he tells Sarah how the Crawley family continued to accept and care for him after his wife’s death, Sarah is surprised.

“It makes me take a kinder view of the family,” she says.

When Tom asks what she has against them, she says she just doesn’t usually “warm to their type.”

“I don’t believe in types,” Tom replies. “I believe in people.”

In Tom’s questioning of his politics and his future, it feels as though Fellowes is trying to address head-on the critics who accuse him of promoting wealth and excess and glossing over the more troubling details of social life in early 20th century Britain. Through Tom, I see Fellowes challenging his audience to see the characters simply for who they are, and to focus on the common humanity of their circumstances that unites us all, regardless of class.

Do I buy it? Not completely. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I like to read between the lines of the plot and put it in a larger context. But do the stories presented on this show have something legitimately emotional and humanistic to offer? Of course. There are certainly elements of human experience that do unite us - or at least, those of us who have the access and opportunity to enjoy this show.

As I’ve said before, one common experience that I think the writer has been handling well so far this season is that of unwanted pregnancy. After backing out of an abortion last week, Edith continues to struggle with being pregnant in unforeseen and uncertain circumstances. Her privilege gives her many options - certainly more than most women both then and now who find themselves in her situation.

But as I discussed last week, the social climate in which she lives limits those options further than simply what money will allow. I really wanted her to do something progressive, to break the mold of what is “right and proper” and grab her identity and her future by the horns. I wanted her to stand up for either her right to have and love the child whether or not its father is in the picture, or her right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Unfortunately, that’s simply not in Edith’s nature.

Instead she succumbs to social pressures and shame, and agrees to be spirited away to Switzerland with her Aunt Rosamund for a few months, where she will have the baby, give it to a Swedish family, and never see it again. It’s a very Philomena moment, 30 years before the character in the Weinstein’s Oscar-nominated film was forced to give up her child in shame and secrecy. Indeed, Philomena Lee was but one of millions of women on both continents who suffered the Magdalene Laundries of the early 20th century. (Spoiler warning for both of those links.)

Though Edith is too privileged to be sent off to a convent to repent for her sins and work off her debt to God and society, she still faces a similar fate. However, the difference is crucial: she can still change her mind. I hope she does.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one character whose choice no longer lies in the future; either he has made it, or it has been made for him.

When Anna goes to London with Mary, Mr. Bates takes the day off to go into York. Both before his trip and after, he refuses to divulge exactly what he was doing there. The next day, Anthony Gillingham returns to Downton to tell Mary that Mr. Green (his valet, and the man who raped Anna) has died. He stumbled into the road in Piccadilly and was killed by a passing lorry.

Did Mr. Bates do it? Did he make up his mind that Mr. Green was his wife’s attacker, and set out that day to kill him, carefully crafting an alibi by telling Mr. Carson that he would be in York? I doubt it. It would be too obvious, and he’s not that stupid.

But did he have some hand in it, even if he was not the hand that pushed a man into the street? Yes, I think he did.

Bates has said before that he learned a great many things while in prison. Presumably, he also made a great many friends. If The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have taught me anything, it’s that with one who has friends in the dark underbelly of society can get a lot done when he wants to. Either Mr. Green just so happened to fall in front of a truck the same day Bates took a holiday in York, or Bates was in York to avoid association with, shall we say, an “unfortunate accident.”

The only thing that belies my theory is Bates’ mysterious response to Anna’s inquiries.

“You wouldn’t do anything foolish, would you?” Anna asks.

Looking quite pleased, Bates replies, “When I do a thing, I like to have a very good reason for doing it.” Then he simply walks away.

Mystery or no, sending Bates back to prison just doesn’t make much sense. Though it wouldn’t be the first time a soap opera recycled a story line, it still seems an unlikely choice. The details will emerge with time - perhaps even in next week’s season finale - and I think Bates will walk away with clean hands. At least, I sure hope so.

The season finale should be quite a romping good time. Cora’s mother Martha (Shirley Maclaine) and brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) will be in town for Rose’s big coming-out and debutante presentation. Personally, I’m hoping for another indoor picnic and plenty of healthy snarking between Violet and Martha. I have but one request: no deaths this time, please and thanks.

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