"Downton Abbey" recap: The world isn’t going your way, not anymore

In the aftermath of last week's tragedy, Cora and Robert are at painful odds

Published February 4, 2013 3:00AM (EST)

                 (Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)
(Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)

Honoring the gravity of last week’s events, this episode of “Downton” picks up pretty much where we left off, with Sybil’s sad, sad, sad death casting a pall over everything and everyone. The residents of Downton are reeling, wearing black, and in desperate need of cheering up, none more so than Cora. Cora, bereft and at an understandable loss to explain how her beautiful, healthy 24-year-old daughter up and died, has channeled much of her grief into anger at her husband. There was a chance Sybil could be saved, but Robert believed Sir Philip because “He’s knighted and fashionable” and he “let all that nonsense weigh against saving our daughter’s life.” Cora cannot bear even the sight of him, in her bed and outside of it.

Robert doesn’t know how to deal with Cora’s anger, in part because he feels he deserves it and in part because, British as he is, he’s terrified of it. This is perhaps the stiffest upper-lipped episode of “Downton” ever, with everyone struggling mightily to keep a straight face, and the Dowager and Robert going so far as to discuss sending Cora off to America because, less than a week after her daughter’s death, she has not calmed down sufficiently. (Just because when these Brits panic, they talk very calmly about shipping someone overseas, it does not mean it’s not panic.)

Because Robert most fully embodies Julian Fellowes and the ideology of “Downton Abbey” — that of the benevolent aristocrat — this storyline about the ramifications of Sybil’s death on Robert and Cora’s marriage ends up unduly focusing on Robert. As the episode begins, Cora is furious and bereaved. As it ends, she is just bereaved, and we have skipped over any of the emotions in between these poles. Meanwhile Robert has gotten to occupy the much more interesting, wobbly territory between pure rage and pure sadness. (Another reason Robert seemed to get all the juicy stuff: Elizabeth McGovern doesn’t make her material look juicy. One of the dirty secrets of “Downton Abbey” is that McGovern is not a very good actress. I’m sure there are those of you who will disagree, but she fails what I think of as the Julie Taylor test — named for the daughter on “Friday Night Lights,” a secretly terrible performance. The test is as follows: Is it possible to imagine the inner life of this character? If no, is it possible to imagine the inner life of the characters surrounding him or her? Compared to nearly everyone else in the Abbey, Cora’s mind is an opaque, dimly illuminated place, and that falls on McGovern.)

“The world isn’t going your way, not anymore,” Mary tells her father. For the whole episode, Robert has put on a pretty awesome display of incompetence and rigidity and temper tantrums, sniping at Tom about the christening, chastising Edith about writing, yelling at Matthew for wanting to run the Abbey into the ground, insisting that his family not be served dinner by an ex-prostitute. (Or “prost-i-tute.” Everyone on "Downton" really likes to enunciate this word.) Robert doesn’t get his way about any of these things, but he does not seem as cowed by being wrong about them as he should be. “A fool and his money are easily parted, and since I have been parted from my money, I must be a fool,” he says, though he does not really believe it. Robert’s self-confidence is irritatingly implacable.

And then at the end of the episode he receives absolution for his biggest error, the event about which he was also wrong but got his way — Sybil’s death. At the behest of the Dowager, the doctor explains to Robert and Cora that there was only an “infinitesimal” possibility that Sybil would have survived even with a C-section: Cora and Robert fall into each other’s arms, sobbing, finally united in their sadness.

It was a nice moment, but it reminded me of a far more absurd storyline from “Downton’s” past, the arc about Matthew’s magically dissipating paralysis. In both cases, “Downton” wrung pathos out of a seemingly complex situation that, a few episodes later, was shown to be totally uncomplicated. Matthew was paralyzed — and then he wasn’t. Sybil’s death was an avoidable tragedy — and then it wasn’t. “Downton” only wants to deal with knotty situations for exactly as long as it wants to deal with them. Instead of long-term ramifications, doctors are conveniently wrong: end arc. It’s not that I wanted Cora and Robert at each other’s throats, but this was a much more meaningful obstacle in their relationship than, say, Robert’s cheap dalliance with the maid last season. And, by bringing Cora and Robert back together, the show wiggles out of exploring the unbecoming fact that Robert — yes, absolutely — let position and reputation dictate decisions about his daughter’s health.

Circling back to another one of Robert’s boneheaded moves: I thoroughly enjoyed the female members of his family completely ignoring his demand that they abandon Isobel's luncheon. I love, love, that the only people in a tizzy about Ethel’s former occupation are men, and that every single woman on the show (except for Isobel’s former cook) are, like, “Sigh, it’s not that great, but let’s all move on, OK?” It seems exactly right that the men would be so prudish and judgmental and pretend their prudery and judgement was based on propriety and on trying to shield the "good" women around them from scandal while even the Dowager Countess is rolling her eyes, not to be kept from a good pudding because of Ethel’s past.

Another thing to like, as always, was Daisy, who I think is the most underrated character on "Downton," both in the world of the show — Alfred, what do you see in Ivy? — and by the show itself. Daisy deserves a really big storyline, not just to be teaching Alfred how to fox-trot (though that was cute). If I had what was in Daisy’s best interest at heart, I would hope she'd take William’s father up on his offer to leave Downton But like Ms. Patmore, it would pain me to see her go. I wish for her a life that contains more than another 40 years in service, but if she could just see it through for another two seasons, I would be ever so grateful.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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