Downton Abbey Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (We're Looking at You, Robert)
UGH. FUNERAL TIME. Kinda glad Julian Fellowes didn’t make us sit through that. This episode already felt like a wake, complete with the family drama and the awkward lunch spread of resentment. I don’t mean that in a negative way at all; we’re all still reeling from losing Sybil (WHYYYY?) and to simply skip a few months ahead would have been a slap in the face to her memory. However, we didn’t really need the full-blown funeral treatment that Lavinia got because unlike Lavinia—who was very awesome in her own right—Sybil’s absence is a void that won’t be easily filled. Funerals are a means for the living to theoretically find closure after a loss, but with Tom widowed, his child motherless, Cora and Robert on the verge of the closest thing to divorce that isn’t actually divorce, and the household as a whole continuing to feel Sybil's absence on a daily basis, closure isn’t something that can be attained simply by sticking a box in the ground.
Robert was still exiled to sleeping in the dressing room when we tuned in this week and you’d think that he would have at least paused to think about how the ego trip he’s been on all season long has alienated his family and even kinda sorta killed one of its members, but no. Tom decided to name the wee baby Branson after her mother, and Robert freaked out because he found it ”ghoulish.” Tom said he was looking for work, Robert seemed down with the idea until Tom mentioned taking the fruit of his loins with him and OMG I thought Robert was going to have a stroke when Tom said Baby Sybil would be raised Catholic. THE HORROR.
Robert, of course, only had his grandchild’s best interest at heart. Or something. “The only chance that child will have at achieving anything in life is because of the blood of her mother.” In a cynical way, sure, it was a brutally honest assessment of class divides, but given the Earl’s tone and the fact that the outburst was largely in response to Tom’s stance on Catholicism, it was more likely meant as yet more classist blather. Tell us how you REALLY feel, Bob.
While the destructive consequences of Robert’s rigid stances on, well, pretty much everything these days, came to a head last week with Sybil’s death, the most frustrating aspect of him actually, for me, concerns the prelude and the aftermath of what happened to Sybil. Robert wasn’t always like this, was he? In the past, I always found him generally likeable. The characters of Downton Abbey are all products of their period, and we have to cut them a little slack from time to time. It’s unfair to and unrealistic to expect their social mores to mesh perfectly with ours here in 2013 because they just don’t—and if we’re being sticklers for realism, they shouldn’t! Still, in the context of the world as it was, the Crawleys are a pretty freaking progressive family. Robert has always been traditional, but he hasn’t always been unreasonable. When—and why—did he become a dick this season? I think it’s a combination of several things.
His over-the-top response to anything that even slightly threatens the social structure that has allowed him and his family to enjoy their lavish lifestyle is the result of a lifelong fight against failure that Robert has repeatedly lost. The first time the fortune was lost, Cora saved it. “Cursed” with three daughters and no son, the family title—the one thing that Robert can unquestionably call his own—was never going to stay in his direct line unless Mary wed conveniently... a situation that, even though it was eventually resolved in his favor, he ultimately had little control over. It’s not like he MADE Mary and Matthew tie the knot. He was deemed too old for active service in the Great War and his business decisions have generally been mistakes. The post-war years have seen Robert experience a further loss of authority as the influence of the nobility has eroded across the board. The second time the fortune dried up, it was by Robert’s hand, and it was only saved due to Matthew’s luck and generosity—which, though fortunate, is now leading to further angst as Matthew’s middle-class values clash with Robert’s aristocratic beliefs.
Matthew tried to explain his drive to modernize Downton to Mary by emphasizing the practical business aspect of it: tenants work the land, money is made, everyone is happy. The problem with Downton is that through either neglect or mismanagement or simply not knowing any better, the estate not only doesn’t make the money required to fund the Crawleys' lifestyle, it can't even cover the more modest lives of the staff. After all, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy don’t cook for free. Dead Lavinia’s fortune saved Downton by way of Matthew, but—and I’m willing to bet that Mary never really had to learn this—money isn’t an infinite resource. Even obnoxious fortunes will run out if not maintained.
The thing is, I don’t think Robert ever REALLY had to learn that lesson either—or many other lessons, given Violet’s interactions with Dr. Clarkson this week. Frustrated, Matthew told Mary that her father “...wasn’t given Downton by God’s decree...,” but isn’t that pretty much EXACTLY what monarchs and nobles and other influential classes believed to be the case? How do you reason with a man who sincerely believes that everything good in his life has happened just because Jesus loves him the most-est? It certainly doesn’t help that time and again, Robert’s approach to life has never REALLY failed him. There has always been some last-minute stroke of luck bailing him out of actual consequences. Except with Sybil, and he has to live with that.
But lest he feel too guilty about it, Dowager Countess Mommy was there to get Dr. Clarkson to tell the miserable couple who recently lost their daughter that even though he SAID he could save her, he was mistaken. So essentially, Robert was right all along. “Robert frequently makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore,” said Cora, which is true, but ultimately a meaningless statement if he is regularly absolved of any responsibility for those decisions.
Yeah yeah, Violet did it to save the marriage. Fine. But good intentions don’t really change the implications of her actions. She gets brownie points for sticking around Isobel’s luncheon even after Robert busted the door down to drag his wife and daughters out of that “whore house,” though. RUDE, Robert. SCANDALOUSLY RUDE. He’s like a child, sitting in the corner going “lalala I can’t hear you!” every time something doesn’t go his way—from Matthew getting involved with the estate to Branson wanting to, heaven forbid, be involved in his own child’s life to Edith getting over her epic Strallan sadness by using her fancy upper-class educated brain to write thoughtful newspaper columns. Something has to give. I thought something had given last week, but I guess Robert’s paranoid masculinity needs more.
It’s because we STILL don’t have any #FreeBates in our lives, isn’t it. The dude just exudes calm. Even when he’s THIS close to shanking his sucky roommate during inmate playtime out in the yard, he’s the portrait of calm, composed, and considerate.
Soon, kids. SOON.
What did you think of this episode?
– Dowager Countess Sass of the Night: On ex-prostitute Ethel’s cook uniform, “I suppose she has an appropriate costume for every activity.” Lol. U SO MEAN, VIOLET.
– Shameless leering at the wardrobe time: Who knew mourning attire could be so sexy and chic?
– I like how when Travis implied that it was “un-English” to belong to the Catholic church, Branson just ran with it and was basically like “YUP. TEAM IRELAND REPRESENT!” <3
– Edith: “I sometimes wonder if I should learn to cook.” Mary: “Why?” It’s funny because she wasn’t being snarky; she was genuinely confused. Oh, Mary. You’re really adorable sometimes.
– The Adventures of Detective Anna, Super Sleuth: In the most exciting part of this entire storyline, Bates found out that his sucky roommate and one of the sucky guards bribed Mrs. Bartlett to keep quiet about Vera poisoning herself, so he dragged Sucky Roommate into the shadows while I screamed “SHANK HIM! SHANK HIM!” at the TV. He didn’t, and the excitement level returned to its usual comatose state, but sure enough, Mrs. Bartlett eventually told the truth. I THINK IT’S ALMOST #FREEBATES TIME, YA’LL!
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