Last night’s episode of Downton Abbey was all about transitions. There were changes afoot both upstairs and downstairs. With Matthew investing his inheritance in Downton, that means new staff members below stairs and new masters of the house above stairs. Beyond the goings on of daily life at Downton, the highly volatile transition of the Irish revolutionary movement hits home at Downton, Edith takes on the rights of women, Mrs. Crawley helps the downtrodden Ethel Parks, and Anna and Bates endure a painful separation.
Things have been a little quiet for our star-crossed lovers, Lady Sybil and Branson, so it was about time there was a bit of drama from Ireland to shake up the Abbey. Now, everyone knows Branson is a self-proclaimed Irish revolutionary. He’s working as a journalist now, documenting the fight for Irish independence, and he and Sybil are living a very different life than the one she used to lead in England. Ireland in the 1920s was at the tipping point in its bid for independence from England and it seems Branson has been witness to a violent act of, well, let’s face it, terrorism, on an Anglo-Irish estate. To escape police, Branson flees to England, leaving Sybil behind. Arriving in a storm, he upsets the family during a dinner with the archbishop, angering Lord Grantham as the entire family wonders where Sybil is, having received a cryptic phone call from Sybil prior to Branson’s arrival. It’s pretty clear that Branson feels like an ass for what he’s done – but he’s not willing to turn his back on his revolutionary roots. When Sybil finally does arrive (she’s fine, of course), Lord Grantham must go to see the Home Secretary to see what can be done so that neither Sybil nor Branson get arrested – even though Branson insists he must return to Ireland. Once everything is said and done, Lord Grantham returns and says that Sybil and Branson can’t return to Ireland, because if they do, they’ll get arrested. Branson is still incensed because he wants the baby to be born in Ireland. However, Sybil pleads with him to stay at Downton so they are safe, and he concedes.
I understand that this storyline brings Sybil and Branson back to Downton, but I feel like we’re being cheated a little about how precarious the situation in Ireland may have been. Also, Branson’s a bit of a hypocrite. Here’s why I say these things. First, wouldn’t it have been a bit more dramatic had we seen some of the “troubles” in Ireland? Does everyone realize Branson’s pretty much been keeping company with Sinn Fein? And second, isn’t it ironic how Branson flees to the aristocratic in-laws, the type of people who his “countrymen” are trying to oust from power? I call hypocrite! I get it, I really do, it’s probably a lot to fit in so explaining this storyline through a fleeing couple might be easier seeing as there is so much going on but it may have helped to make the argument stronger for Branson’s resolve. But, all in all, Sybil and Branson are back at Downton, and really, that’s where we want them, don’t we?
As for the rest of the episode, we get to see the plight of women in the 1920s through the two contrasts of Lady Edith and Ethel. Lady Edith, fresh off being jilted at the altar, is frustrated at her prospects of being a lonely spinster who just helps to entertain around the house and do what she is told. She whines to her grandmother, who wisely tells her to “stop whining and find something to do.” As news of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States and the adoption of the 19th amendment reaches British shores, it is evident that Britain is still far behind in women’s rights. At Matthew’s encouragement, Edith writes to The Times to express her opinion, much to her father’s dismay. When it is printed, it seems Edith has found a calling fighting for women’s rights.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Crawley continues to help the downtrodden women of England, especially Ethel Parks, a former maid at Downton. You may remember that Ethel had an affair with one of the soldiers who came to stay at Downton during World War I. Ethel became pregnant and the soldier refused to acknowledge her. When the soldier died, his family tried to offer to help raise the child but Ethel refused. As a ruined woman, she eventually turns to prostitution to make ends meet and raise her son. When she meets Mrs. Crawley again, she has fallen so low she turns to Mrs. Crawley and Mrs. Hughes for help, ultimately giving up her son to his grandparents, much to the disappointment of Mrs. Crawley, who wanted Ethel to raise her son and change her life around. But, as Mrs. Hughes so aptly puts it, “She did the right thing, until we live in a very different world than this one.”
Downstairs, Anna is heartsick after not hearing from Bates for weeks. It seems Bates had fallen out of favor with the prison guards and all letter and visiting privileges have been revoked. It turns out that Bates’ cellmate is on the take with one of the guards and after Bates foiled the raid last week, they took revenge on him. So, what else is there for Bates to do but exact revenge on them? They really just need to free Bates already because these Prison Break-like shenanigans are getting old for me.
With Matthew’s new inheritance, Mr. Carson is able to get the staff back in full working order. This means a new footman and a new kitchen maid. The new footman is easy on the eyes, and it’s not just the maids who take a shine to him. It seems Thomas is a bit enamored with him too, and O’Brien’s wise to this of course, a new plan to destroy Thomas hatching in her head (cue sneaky music). Poor Daisy is crushing on Alfred but her hopes are dashed when new kitchen maid Ivy arrives.
The episode comes to a close with Matthew’s discovery of the mismanagement of the estate. He can’t seem to talk to Lord Grantham about it, as Robert dismisses him when he tries to talk about new ideas and change that is needed to keep the estate on more solid footing for the future. Matthew’s last resort is to consult the Dowager Countess, who agrees with Matthew’s sense that “a great many noses will be out of joint” once the need to change is revealed.
So, how is Downton Abbey going to survive all of this transition? Only time will tell.