Downton Abbey Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (We're Looking at You, Robert)

By MaryAnn Sleasman

Feb 04, 2013

Downton Abbey S03E06: “Episode 6” (or S03E05/“Episode 5,” according to PBS)

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.


I hope.

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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  • TQB Feb 06, 2013

    I will join #FREEBATES now that it looks like it will actually happen. I find the whole saga of Bates-in-Prison tiresome and boring. It's like they sent him off and immediately realized they needed him back, but felt the need to make it "realistic" (which it isn't anyway, so what's the point).

    We're all sitting here watching the behavior of Robert and Carson and chiding them for being so patriarchal and old fashioned. Perhaps the point of this show, which is mostly watched by women, is to remind us of what the not-so-distant past was really like. If Daddy says you don't write for the paper or marry the old dude, you don't. If Daddy says you can't come home or have any money if you marry the chauffeur, you can't. If Daddy says you can't eat pudding cooked by a former whore, you can't. The idea that Robert is somehow getting "out voted" on some of these things is what's fictional.

  • graindesable Feb 05, 2013

    I think Robert's character is suffuring from something that's been growing for the last two seasons of the show : the characters don't evolve : they stay prisonner of their time or of the writing.
    As nothing has happened this season for now (except Sybill dying), the authors of the show take ages to show us how childlike Robert or Matthew is. (why does Matthew suddenly want to take care of the estate ? It never interested him before ! )... If the estate is so important, show us how it's run ! Bring in the lawers, the architects, the builders and everything ! Afterall, I would be interested, as I've never learned that in school and it would add depth to a TV show that looks more and more like a soap opera.

  • meee223 Feb 04, 2013

    Every season I only get to watch the first episode then have to wait until the dvd comes out to watch the remainder of the season. That's because I always go overseas for 2 weeks and can't catch up on missed episodes because PBS doesn't allow Canadians to view the show on it's website. Oh well, enjoy this show as a marathon viewing anyway.

  • gwendolynmr Feb 04, 2013

    I would have subtitled this episode: Grumpy Old Men. Between Robert and Carson, I was shaking my head through a lot of the show. Granted that, yes, they are the products of their time, but it was interesting to see how the rest of the Downton population have started to slowly adjust to changing mores and morals. (After all, witness that lovely scene at Crawley House.)

    As grumpy and old as Robert was, though, I agree that his behaviour in some ways is more like petulant child; you can practically see him stamping his feet when someone suggests doing something other than what has been done for decades. What I don't understand, though, is how he's so willfully blind to the need for change -- at least in terms of running the estate. Why would you let the farms rot away when they could be bringing in money?

    Luckily, all that grumpiness was counteracted with some great lines, especially from the Dowager.

    And Yay for Bates, though is it just me or does it seem that that all happened a little too easily? Wonder if he's not quite out of the woods yet (though, yes, I did see the promo for next week).

  • radiumgirl Staff Feb 04, 2013

    Baaates! It did seem like a really simple solution, ultimately. I think the problem there is that the whole prison thing dragged for so much of the season, and then, POOF, he's free! I'm still glad he's out though. Totally.

    Hehe, Grumpy Old Men is so appropriate. The utter neglect of the estate is mind-boggling though. I mean, it IS his inheritance and his life and EVERYTHING and he just let it SIT there, falling apart. :/

  • ElizabethDeMe1 Feb 04, 2013

    The darling Dowager gets all the best lines. I love how she stayed for pudding even though she looked and sounded shocked that a former ho was the one serving them.

    Carson and Robert really show the old world butting heads with the new. When Tom said the baby was to be Catholic the look Carson got was like oh no you didn't just say that. The things the dear man most overhear at dinner. When Carson told Miss. Hughes she had no standards the look she gave him made me giggle. Where Robert is being annoying Carson is kind of endearing. How did that happen?

    Poor Tom. He lost the woman he loves and now Robert is like you must do this and this and hiss. Tom is like, but I'm Irish and Robert is like hiss. At least Matthew seems to be kind to him. The other girls seem to be trying as well and I think that's nice.

    Robert really needs to chill out. It's obvious he misses his daughter and he has every right to. The thing is he's just shoving his weight around and alienating people who really want to help. If he'd told Cora he was sorry I think Mummy Dearest wouldn't have had to step in. The man feels his control slipping and he's trying to hang on, but he's being a dick about it. Matthew wants to help, that's all.

    Bates is coming home soon! That's so awesome.

  • radiumgirl Staff Feb 04, 2013

    Bates! So excited for Bates to come back. He should have come back a long time ago.

    It's true, Carson and Robert make a lot of the same points, but somehow Carson ends up being endearing about it. I think a lot of it is even though Carson may complain about the new, he eventually begrudgingly accepts it. I also think that even Carson knows that he's being kind of silly, he just feels obligated to uphold the old guard. Mrs. Hughes' facial expression was amazing!

  • angeleys151 Feb 04, 2013

    All while reading your review I was thinking "Robert's acting this way as a push back to how little control he feels over his life" and you came right up and hit the nail on the head. He's changed so drastically because he's slowly losing his place in the world (and knows it) and desperately trying to hold on to it. The number of failures he's experienced has lead to paranoia that everyone trying to help him are really out to get him. Add that to the fact that, as you pointed out, he's never had any consequences for bad decision making and you have to perfect recipe for a jack-a$$.

    I thought this episode was a little dull compared to others this season but still enjoyable. I like the direction Edith is taking, getting out of the house and doing something other than husband hunting. She can be little text book middle child ("I'm always a failure in this family") so it will be nice to see her find an identity with something she excels at.

  • radiumgirl Staff Feb 04, 2013

    I'm really excited for Edith's storyline too! I agree about the textbook middle child vibe she can give off from time to time, and with Mary's storyline being largely domestic in its concerns, and even Sybil's big one revolving around her marriage, it's kind of nice to see Edith step away from that particular conflict.

  • apostrofa Feb 04, 2013

    Hey, did you notice that Robert's dickishness came (or at least increased significantly) right around the time of Bates' arrest? I think it's the valet who had a, well, reasonable influence over the Earl.

  • radiumgirl Staff Feb 04, 2013

    I did! He is a wise sage, who just so happens to know how to dress a nobleman as well.

  • apostrofa Feb 04, 2013

    Everybody Loves Bates! :D

  • apostrofa Feb 04, 2013

    (except his first wife, I guess ;P)

  • LucaMaltaglia Feb 04, 2013

    I think that Fellowes wanted to represent in Robert's behavior this season the big earthquake that hit the aristocracy class as aftermath of the first world war (that in many senses shook the bases of European society more than the second). This was a social class that passed more or less unscathed centuries and centuries of England's history and was basically complacent for long. Who of them could suspect that the 1st ww would have been different?

    Robert has been forced to change perspective thanks to the loss of Cora's money at the beginning of the season and to the presence of Matthew and Branson, but changing the habits of centuries was not meant to be easy. Robert being a dick is the way Fellowes found to externalize this painful process.

  • radiumgirl Staff Feb 04, 2013


  • Akyriel Feb 04, 2013

    Would have been nice to see Cora, who should know her mother-in-law better by now, look at her and suspect that the good Dr. was not speaking the full truth and that she was possibly influencing him to say Sybil's chances were "infinitesimal". That end was too easy. A glance at the Dowager and a knowing look while hugging Robert, I think, would have been more interesting. However, it may still be interesting if it comes out her daughter may have survived being given treatment on time and the doctor lied on her mother-in-law's behalf. That could be fun, but I have a feeling they won't go there.

  • radiumgirl Staff Feb 04, 2013

    Word. I suspect that storyline is over, but the way it ended just doesn't sit right with me. I'm glad the marriage was saved and all (really!) but the fact that it was done in such a deceitful way, with even the Dowager acknowledging the "lying" aspect of her plan, is just rather upsetting.

  • TheGrimAriel Feb 04, 2013

    COMPLETELY fed up with Robert...Oh, so now Robert is saved from feeling ANY guilt whatsoever, we can't have dear Papa feeling bad after all, he's our savior! Srsly. I hope he never dies, because I want him to be the one "survivor" of the series, ending with him so poor and alone...he makes me THAT mad...

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