The centerpiece was, of course, the explosion of the feud between O'Brien and Thomas. All of O'Brien's careful scheming finally paid dividends, landing Thomas in a world of trouble. But let's get to that in a moment. The hour was already off to a great start with Mr. Bates being released from prison and returning to Downton. PRAISE BE!! And so ends one of the most pointless, infuriating subplots to ever be featured on such an otherwise good show. Even this happy event, though, spelled early doom for Thomas, since he'd been filling in for Bates during his imprisonment and would now be sent on his way.
Meanwhile, Notorious DCG was quietly making plans to get
Matthew and Robert quarrel over the best way to manage the estate under their new dual (duel?) partnership. Keeping with this season's themes, Robert wants things to stay pretty much the same and resists any attempts at change. But Matthew gains an unlikely ally--Branson! Branson has been such a worthless character for so long, I wasn't sure he could be redeemed. But beginning with Sybil's death and continuing tonight, the writers have pulled off a magic trick--getting me to like him again.
How to make Branson likable? Step one: introduce someone worse. Enter Branson's brother, who arrives at Downton wanting to eat with the servants and play up his poor Irish bonafides. Branson insists they eat with his in-laws, which doesn't stop the lout from ordering a beer after dinner. (Gasp!) The Crawleys are horrified to learn that their granddaughter may grow up living over a garage. Thankfully, the exit of indignant caretaker Jarvis leaves his position available and Branson the most suitable candidate. Notorious DCG helpfully points that because he'll be employed at Downton once more, "We can call him Branson again, thank heaven!"
Which brings us to the business of Thomas. Here again we have a character who has behaved pretty despicably in the past. Yet I cannot deny that I found myself incredibly moved by his plight during tonight's episode. At first, I thought he was a bit naive to not suspect O'Brien's scheming. She'd all but promised to get her revenge, hadn't she? Yet the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that Thomas would want to believe her lies, even if deep down he should know better. It becomes obvious later in the episode that everyone at Downton knows Thomas is gay but never speak of it. How terribly lonely and isolated he must feel. The hope that the dashing new footman Jimmy (that all the girls fancy) might like him just proves to be too irresistible.
That said, there are very few circumstances I can think of where kissing someone while they're asleep is a good idea. Even someone you're dating might find it to be odd behavior. I do not advise it. Alas, the rules of soap opera timing dictate that Alfred (returning from his failed date with Ivy) walks in at the very moment when lips meet. After all that, I was surprised that it took until the next morning for Carson to discover what happened.
Oh, Carson. The show was in a very tricky place with his reaction to this scandal. On the one hand, it was absolutely in keeping for him to be disgusted by Thomas' actions. But go too far in that direction and Carson becomes a villain. This is someone we've grown to like and if his reaction is too extreme, the audience would turn on him. I think the show modulated it well. He referred to Thomas as "revolting" twice and also "twisted by nature". Later, especially after his talk with Mrs. Hughes (seriously, who doesn't LOVE Mrs. Hughes after this episode?), he was able to show some compassion, seeking to resolve the matter quietly by letting Bates' return be the excuse for Thomas' exit while providing him with a good reference.
O'Brien, for all intents and purposes, had won. But she wasn't content to see Thomas leave so easily. She needed to twist the knife in his side, a decision that would come back to bite her. She urged Jimmy to insist that Thomas be let go without a reference or else take the matter to the police. (Yes, homosexuality was very much a crime in this time and place. Sigh.) Upon hearing he would receive no reference, Thomas broke down and it was at this point that I began to suspect he would not survive the episode. Had he taken his own life, it would've made tremendously effective drama but ultimately, I'm glad the show pivoted away from that possibility. Even in 1920, it gets better.
The final scene between Thomas and Carson was very moving. "I'm not foul. I'm not the same as you but I'm not foul." I never thought I would feel such empathy for Thomas. Rob James-Collier, here is your Emmy submission episode.
Thomas was able to get the upper hand once more with the aid of Mr. Bates, of all people. He informs Bates (at Bates' insistence) of the soap incident, though doesn't give all the details and the fear of discovery is enough to back O'Brien off, lest the Crawleys discover she is responsible for Cora's miscarriage. Writing all this out just reinforces how very soapy all this sounds but I don't care! I was enthralled with this entire storyline from start to finish. Soap opera need not be a dirty term when done well. And this was done extremely well.
The second half of tonight's installment focused heavily on the upcoming cricket match. Cricket is apparently the most elitist sport in existence, so naturally Branson had no interest in playing. I don't know much about cricket but from what I've been able to surmise, it is a needlessly complicated version of baseball where a match can last up to three months. So I sympathized with Branson's lack of enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Matthew and Robert continued to argue about how to run the estate. The moment Branson, on Matthew's side, began arguing for the need for Downton to turn a profit, I was fully converted to liking him again. Some Socialist--talking about profits for this aristocratic estate! At this rate, he'll be reading Ayn Rand in his golden years.
Robert, for his part, continued to be a terrible character. First, he didn't want to attend his own granddaughter's christening due to his prejudiced views of Catholics. (I am a stone-cold atheist and I've been to mass plenty of times. It ain't that bad, dude.) And of course he objected to Edith becoming a newspaper columnist. (Side note: is there no end to Edith's romantic misery? Jesus.) And he resisted all sensible notions of future investments for Matthew's magically inherited fortune. Well, he's heard about this Ponzi fellow who promises a return in 90 days! Crap on a cracker, Robert is the worst.
But he did get a few redeeming moments by showing decency for poor Thomas. But being Robert, he had to ruin that too, not only insisting Thomas stay around to help win the cricket match (success in sports cures all scandals, just ask Ray Lewis) but then deciding he should stick around for good. That is sure to cause all sorts of drama, as it seems he'll now be Mr. Bates' superior. Bates was immediately second-guessing his earlier charity towards Thomas but maybe he's learned some humility. Here's hoping.
Tonight may have been a very strong episode but it wasn't all perfect. If there was a point to the subplot about rebellious cousin Rose sneaking off to a jazz club with a married man, I definitely missed it. It was the definition of "filler", though it did provide DCG an opportunity to eavesdrop and scheme. So bonus. As for Mary and Matthew's baby-making woes, at least it didn't take up too much airtime (and from the sneak preview, appears to be really over).
Overall, I was delighted to see DOWNTON firing (mostly) on all cylinders, tapping into some very rich thematic material and giving this great cast some really juicy moments to play. It went to some very emotional places but still found room for some good wit. (My favorite line of course was Notorious DCG noting to Isobel: "You've been reading those Communist newspapers again.")
What did everyone else think?