We find ourselves at the midway point of this latest season of the Decline and Fall of the English Aristocracy — also known as Downton Abbey — looking at our empty hands, wondering if Julian Fellowes is going to take pity on us and breathe some life into the stagnant estate we all love. Things have been moving slowly in this fourth season, and throughout the first few episodes, I’ve wondered how the show could change but suspected it might not. Last night’s episode, however, gave me some hope.
Thomas had an opportunity to be one of the best characters on the show. The halcyon days of he and O’Brien scheming, scowling, and smoking gave us identifiable antagonists. We tried our best to figure out their motivations and their goals. Thomas serves as the show’s Byronic foil: he’s arrogant, cunning, disrespectful, and could support an interesting backstory if Fellowes ever decided to tell us more. He’s gay and has to hide his passion or risk termination from the job he’s schemed his way into. He’s difficult to read, hard to like, and used increasingly poorly on the show. But last night we finally got something interesting out of him again, when he let Baxter know that he only got her the job with Lady Cora because she’s likable and can get Thomas all of the upstairs and downstairs information since he’s so unpopular that no one else will tell him. What will he do with all this information if Baxter plays along, and how can he use it to his advantage? Thomas has always been bad, but his new role as the devil whispering in the ear of the new lady’s maid could provide for some overdue twists.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Patmore — who one of the servants observes “is not what you’d call a “futurist” — continues to serve as the resident Jonathan Franzen; this time, a refrigerator looks to her like the beginning of the end. She wonders what’s next in these rapidly changing times, and while it might seem insignificant, Mrs. Patmore always boo-hissing the new technology that’s coming through the door really does sum up a lot of what the show is all about: change. There are those who are willing to accept it, those who aren’t, and those who will be trampled by it no matter what side they’re on.
There are other things we could focus on: how obvious it is that Edith is about to suffer another heartbreak, the bond between Lady Mary and Tom, and the new gardener working for the Dowager Countess who might be stealing from her. But like the last few episodes of the show, the thing we must continue to discuss is Anna’s rape its ramifications. Bates knows that something is terribly wrong, and is at his breaking point. He threatens Mrs. Hughes with resignation if she doesn’t tell him the truth about what happened to his wife, leaving her no choice but to relent and tell him. She changes the story so it sounds like a random act of violence committed by a stranger, but Bates knows better. He tells Anna that her attack makes him love her even more, and that he’s there for her no matter what, but when she’s not around, Bates tells Hughes he has different plans.
This episode wasn’t exactly a turning point, but it was a brighter spot than we’ve seen in the last few Sunday nights spent at Downton. Hey: maybe, just maybe, things could pick back up and the rest of the season can be salvaged.