By Meredith Blake
12:05 PM CST, February 11, 2013
Is Thomas the luckiest valet in all of England, or is Lord Grantham simply the dumbest aristocrat?
That’s what I’m left wondering at the end of a two-hour installment of “Downton Abbey,” double-stuffed with all the dishy twists and turns that make this series both so enjoyable and so vexing at the same time.
Of course the big news this week revolves around Thomas, the valet with nine lives. Spurred on by O’Brien, a woman with a boundless appetite for vengeance but far less abundant motives -- someone please remind me why she’s so mad at Thomas again? -- he slips into Jimmy’s room in the middle of the night and steals a kiss.
Needless to say, it does not go well. Jimmy violently rejects Thomas, just as Alfred returns from his date with Ivy. Here’s where I confess that I wish things had turned out differently, even though I knew "Downton Abbey" was never going to turn into "Brokeback Manor." One of the great things about Thomas is that, despite being such a delectable, over-the-top villain, he does have a vulnerable side, one that’s actually quite convincing.
He’s a gay man living at a time when living an honest life required breaking the law, and when someone like Carson could say, “You have been twisted by nature into something foul” and mean it sympathetically. He’s also a working-class lad with higher aspirations that will never be realized, thanks to a ludicrously unfair economic system. Yes, he channels his frustrations in unproductive ways, but Thomas’ motives are often more understandable than those of his peers.
His late-night high jinks immediately send shockwaves through the house. Carson, desperately afraid of scandal, allows Thomas to resign and promises him a good letter of recommendation, but when O’Brien pulls one of her Jedi mind tricks on Jimmy, Thomas is pretty much doomed. Bates, sensitive to unjust persecution and also eager to be rid of Thomas forever, decides to intervene and with three little words – “her ladyship’s soap” – gets O’Brien to back down. (Just wondering, was anyone else surprised that neither Bates nor Anna remembered the soap incident? Also, "Her Ladyship's Soap" is a great band name.)
In one last amusing twist, Alfred, angered by Jimmy's promotion, calls up the police who arrive in the middle of the cricket match. Grantham explains it all away by saying Alfred was a little “squiffy” from cider and misinterpreted the whole thing, an excuse I am definitely going to use the next time my valet is accused of committing lewd acts with the first footman.
As complicated as the entire chain of events is, nearly everyone’s motives are clear: Either they want to avoid the taint of scandal, move up the ladder, or both. The one glaring exception is Grantham’s decision to not only keep Thomas at Downton, but to give him a plum gig as Carson’s under-butler. Would someone like Grantham – who can’t tolerate Catholics or suffragettes or socialists – really be OK having a gay man and known thief in such a position of power?
Of all the inconsistent characterizations on this series (and we all know there are quite a few), Grantham might be the most egregious. One minute, he’s an unrepentant bigot making fun of all that Catholic “bobbing and weaving,” the next he’s angling for the GLAAD image award of 1920, lecturing Bates about how boarding school taught him to be tolerant (His exact words: “If I shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I’d have gone hoarse in a month.”) It must be so confusing to live inside his brain.
Of course, I probably shouldn’t scrutinize the decision too much, because the whole point is to keep Thomas on “Downton Abbey” because really, can you imagine the show without him? And yes, it will also be fun to see Thomas in a permanent position of power. Giving the audience what they want is one thing, but sometimes I wish Julian Fellowes would bother to cover his tracks a bit more.
Thomas isn’t the only servant facing exile thanks to sexual misbehavior. Despite Isobel’s best efforts, Ethel isn’t quite able to live down her past. Violet hatches a scheme to have her placed in a new home, far away from Downton, so that she can start over with a clean slate. It’s quite inspired, really, even if Violet’s motivations are almost entirely selfish. After some twists and turns, Ethel winds up at a house near the town where the Bryants live. It’s a nice resolution to the storyline, and one that somehow feels a bit more plausible than Thomas’ 90 millionth last-minute redemption.
After all those years walking in circles in prison, Bates is finally back and, to no one’s surprise, it’s completely anti-climactic. I will go to my grave without knowing what was going on with Bates and that cellmate of his, just as I have no idea what, exactly, Matthew and Grantham disagree about regarding the management of the estate. Judging from the hilariously imprecise dialogue -- “All I’m talking about is investment, increasing productivity and reducing waste,” says Matthew -- I'm not even sure Fellowes knows. Whatever the exact argument is, it’s almost certain that Grantham is in the wrong because 1) he always is and 2) he says things like “There’s a chap in America, Charles Ponzi, offers a huge return after 90 days.”
Things are looking up for Edith this week, at least for a while. She accepts the newspaper job and starts wearing all kinds of jaunty little outfits – even a tie! – that catch the eye of her boss. They flirt! Edith being Edith, she immediately goes into stalker mode, ringing up some kind of private detective to see what she can find out about her editor’s private life. (Stalkers had it really rough before Facebook.)
It turns out he’s married to a mad woman who’s locked up in an asylum. (If I had a nickel for every time I heard that excuse…) It’s all very “Jane Eyre,” and makes me wonder how Edith is going to get herself out of this latest romantic jam. She really has a thing for damaged men, doesn’t she? Whatever you do, Edith, just don’t let that crazy wife near the attic.
The subplot involving Violet’s great niece Rose is a bit of an afterthought – it’s hard to invest in a character so obviously manufactured out of thin air, especially this late in the season. But it does provide a great excuse to see some daring jazz age fashions and to demonstrate once again that Violet’s always three steps ahead of everyone else. And, well, surely that's enough?
--We’ve only got one more episode to go. It’s the Christmas special, which means we’ll leap forward a few months. Will Mary, with her lady plumbing all fixed up, finally be pregnant?
--I think Mrs. Hughes wins the MVP award this week. The scene between her and Carson, where she reacts so nonchalantly to the revelation about Thomas’ sexuality, was utterly priceless, as was her quip, “Shock and disgust, my my. I think I have to hear it now.”
--I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Is Shirley MacLaine really not going to be on the show again this season? What a waste!
--I was also hoping we’d get to see a bit more of Kieran, Branson’s beer-swilling “drunken gorilla” of a brother.
--Molesley really is the most pathetic creature on this series, isn’t he?
--This week got me wondering which villain is more essential to the series, Thomas or O’Brien? I say Thomas, because he’s more fun.
--So many great lines this week: “Get back in the knife box, Miss Sharp.” “Mister Stick-it-up-your-jumper.” “That is an easy caveat to accept because I’m never wrong.” "Have you changed your pills?"