As late as 2011, 23% of Mississippi voters thought that interracial relationships should be illegal. That’s an important (and disturbing) number to remember on the heels of last night’s Downton Abbey, where the attraction between Lady Rose (Lily James) and bandleader Jack Ross (Gary Carr) found a spotlight during a party before finding a dark corner downstairs. Essentially, a quarter of viewers in Mississippi might have had the same venomous response to Ross’ presence as a few characters who are meant to portray attitudes from ninety years ago. Probably not too surprising considering the invective that’s hurled online toward our President on a daily basis. If the leader of the free world can’t catch a break regarding his skin color, why should a croony jazz man trying to woo a ward of Downton get one?
Knowing that Britain and the United States have different timelines regarding slavery and suffrage, it’s also interesting that this fourth season has featured so many side jokes that could be called “Mrs. Patmore versus The Machine.” Here’s a woman most likely born in the 1860s having to deal with electric sewing machines and the end of ice block delivery while the tuxedo-bound upstairs have to learn to react to a dark-skinned man. It’s also an episode that — through the lens of a century past –briefly explored animal rights and nodding yet again toward income inequality, proving dramatically how long the curve of history can be.
To that end, it was thematically appropriate for all of this to take place on Robert’s birthday. Last week’s episode hinted that we were seeing his character evolve from fuddy duddy dad to open participant in modernity. This week confirmed that, as he took his birthday surprise in graceful stride (despite an initial look of shock and awe) and reinforced the change in a bedroom conversation with Cora later on. Now he’s the one jabbing people for not being of the times. Theoretically, that means that no one is safe from progress.
A side note here: maybe that’s why they had Edith awkwardly comment on whether Ross’ stepping foot inside the house was appropriate. It made no sense considering her nature, but who else were they going to get to push back? Everyone else has, by this point, accepted the change that’s a’gonna come. Future episodes will probably have characters taking up the anti-equality torch at random.
Despite not occupying a lot of screen time, Lady Rose has been a significant marker for how strong this season is. Introduced as a flake at the end of season 3, the prospect of her as a regular threatened a vapid burst of youth meant only to keep everyone on their toes. She could have been jet ski leaping over a shark, but instead she’s been a small, yet active agent for shifts in attitude. An intelligent, calm mover.
And it’s also clever that Rose is falling for someone named Jack. How soon until they end up in a boat together?
Beyond Ross’ presence shaking things up (and Carson suggesting a trip to Africa…), Downton continues to develop the sweet friendship between Tom and Lady Mary while allowing them some time to reminiscence along with Isobel about their respective spouses. “Aren’t we the lucky ones?” was a standout scene this episode for wholly different reasons than the standout scenes of weeks past — ones that were filled with difficult, yet deft conversations about victimhood and sexual abuse. Now, amid the rubble, fond memories and gratitude are lifelines.
Generally speaking, things are beginning to return to a familiar stasis. Not without challenges, but even while Mr. Bates and Anna shared a shadowed night out, the show wanted to use the situation as a cheeky wink to snobbery — having Cora drop the mic on a maitre d’ who “lost” the Bates’ reservation once he saw how they were dressed. They also built an entire storyline around proving that the Dowager Countess wasn’t so stubborn that she’d leave a man to the unemployment line instead of admitting she was wrong. In a second mic drop moment, she has the shoeless new gardener echo her vulnerability after Isobel rages. It felt slightly bizarre, as if the show has been angling for another Isobel/DC slug fest, but hadn’t recognized how Odd Couple sweet their relationship has become. The DC effectively saying, “I gave a guy his job back! What’s up now?” felt like an anticlimactic statement to puff up; Dr. Clarkson saying “Oh, snap!” afterward made it even weirder.
But oddly enough, it was an episode full of pearl-clutching. As the show and the characters evolve, shocking things are still happening all around them:
Here are the pearl-clutching moments from episode 5:
- Edith is pregnant, probably — What? After a storyline where Tom explains that it’s not easy for a woman to get pregnant, Edith and her editor nail it on the first try. This could put a fetus-shaped wrench into the works.
- And the father is still missing — Fingers crossed that this is the fake out of the season, offering tragic news that will soon work out (finally) okay.
- A black man in the house — a large shift handled well by a father smart enough to start dancing.
- Rose and Jack kissing in the dark — this probably won’t go over quite as well.
- Blake irritates Lady Mary — this is undoubtedly a new romance, but the show is going to have to work hard to make it enjoyable. Antagonistic meet-cutes only work if there’s at least a hint of chemistry.
- Alfred moves to the big, terrifying city — hopefully we’ll get to see more of him, but it seems unlikely
- Cora’s brother Harold is in trouble — Hinted at this week, it looks like Uncle Harold is involved with the Teapot Dome scandal.
On that last plot point, have your milkshakes ready to drink next week when Robert heads to America to help out with some busted oil futures.