Throughout the history of Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley has consistently been the least interesting character. It makes sense. With a show rooted in traditions, he’s an anchor of sorts, but stuff that weighs your ship down can be pretty dull. Maybe they toss out a neutered love affair to tempt him, maybe another thing happens with the estate, maybe something at dinner causes him to harumph, but ultimately he’s a one-trick dressage pony no matter how alive Hugh Bonneville makes him feel.
This isn’t a normal season, though, and episode four proved that the Earl of Grantham is next on the list for a true evolution.
That change of character came disguised as the usual power play involving the estate as an older tenant died with a heavy burden of debts behind. Lady Mary and Tom have one idea about what has to happen to the land, but since the tenant’s son wants to return, Robert’s sense of tradition puffs out its chest. Normally his secret loan would be the setup for the dozenth polite-fight about how to run the property, but the deceitful good deed becomes a powerful moment where Mary realizes fully how good a man her father truly is. His heart is almost always in the right place even as he’s stuck in the mud, drowning with grace along the bottom while the sea of change pushes ahead.
This small but important focal shift comes at the heels of Mr. Bates and Anna (the Niles and Daphne of Downton) finding renewed purity in their boundless love for one another. The moment he takes her face in his hands and reiterates her perfection in his eyes is the kind of thing we all wish for in life. Not that Brendan Coyle will cradle our faces in his hands, but that another human being could learn of something we’re deeply ashamed of and not only explain that they still love us, but that we’re still pristine. This is Mr. Bates holding a boombox over his shoulders for the woman whose heart he’s already one.
It’s a booming solace for all that’s happened to Anna. It’s also, as Bates says, just the beginning. And, wow, few people can shift between lovable lug with stars in his eyes to terrifying human destroyer with revenge in his heart better than Coyle. Joyous and frightening.
Downton Abbey is a place of perpetual beginnings. There’s always hand wringing (and pearl-clutching) over the old ways and proper civility, but if most households were like it, modernity would have come with the industrial revolution.
On the lighter side of things, the show has borrowed from the real world by having Alfred train to become a chef under the Ritzy tutelage of Auguste Escoffier (the father of modern French cuisine). Plus, there’s another new appliance to worry about in the kitchen, Mr. Molesley continues to play Eeyore without gloves and the DC is back to butting heads over a gardener.
Speaking of which, when we decided to review this season, we thought it would be fun to judge it directly on the scale of how many times the Dowager Countess might proclaim, “Well, I never!” in an episode, but the revolution has proven powerful even on that front. She remains snarky and as pleasant as biting down hard into a bit of rock candy, but the show’s tone has pivoted in order to confront the dark issue of sexual assault, and the DC herself seems to have given in when it comes to the next new thing. At least deep down. Fortunately, the delightfully snide remarks continue to flow. She has revealed herself over the years to be a champion of people over routines.
So here are the pearl-clutching moments of episode four:
- Alfred not excelling at the pop quiz — embarrassing, not surprising, but the proof is in the pudding.
- Mr. Molesley acts above his station because he’s above the station — tiresome, the inertia continues.
- Mrs. Patmore on Team Icebox — the show will never tire of goofing on the reluctance to adopt new technology.
- A thief among us — enough to raise the DC’s eyebrow, but this fight is like Rocky going up against Bieber.
See you next week. Wear your best because there’s going to be a birthday party.