This post discusses plot points from the February 3 episode of Downton Abbey.
This is one of the few times that Downton Abbey has picked up almost exactly where the previous episode left off, but despite the attention that the hour pays to how Sybil’s death is resonating through her family, it’s one that raises a more interesting question: how do you wrench yourself out of the station you’ve spent your entire life occupying? For the most part, the show answers that question in a rather old-fashioned way, by suggesting that good intentions and concern for others can provide you with a path forward, but only if you’re brave enough to take it.
Ethel, struck anew by the loss of her own child after Sybil’s death, is determined to do right by her patroness by improving the cooking that Isobel finds inedible, even correcting for her grief. She enlists Mrs. Patmore’s help, and the doughty cook defies Carson’s edict to avoid Crawley House as long as Ethel is present to help her with salmon mousse, pork chops, and a pudding. “You’ve done well, Ethel. Maybe you’ve also done yourself a favor,” Mrs. Patmore tells Ethel of her hard work.
And Ethel’s attempts to make a place for herself inspire other small rebellions among the Grantham women. When Robert storms in and demands that they leave lunch where Ethel is serving, Cora makes the subtext of her complaint against her husband clear, declaring “Robert frequently makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore.” And Violet’s response makes plain her strength, using the acid linguistic dexterity of the nobility to sneak hard truths into the conversation, and telling her son—while also affirming the quality of Ethel’s cooking—”It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.” And back at home, Mary identifies her father’s actual concern, and the reason he’s doing something he might never have done in another circumstance: humiliating someone in service. “You’re angry, but not with Isobel or Ethel,” Mary, always her father’s favorite, tells him. “I think you’re angry because the world isn’t going your way, at least not anymore.” Even the most conservative member of the Crawley family is willing to defend Edith’s reach for something better.
Then there’s Daisy, who has always been reluctant to benefit from William’s death. First, she was uncomfortable accepting his pension, even though marrying him on his deathbed, despite her ambivalent feelings for him, let him die with a measure of peace. Now, she’s offered an even more significant chance at independence than that small supplement to her income: William’s father wants to make her his heir. “There are widows who take on a tenancy. And you’re liked the in big house. They’ll not refuse you,” he tells her, encouraging her to strike out on her own. “My dream would be if you were to come here and live with me so I could teach you.” It’s not just that he’s telling her she can dream better of the life in service she just always assumed was her: she has to. “You’ve forty years of work ahead of you,” he cautions. “Do you think great houses like Downton Abbey are going to go on for forty years? Because I don’t.” It’s a fascinating opportunity: Daisy’s being presented with a rare chance to bolt for a higher class status. The question is whether she’s bold and ambitious enough to take it, overcoming her own anxieties about seeming greedy or grasping.
And then there’s Edith, still considering whether to take the offer of a column, and contemplating other small usefulness in the meantime. “I sometimes wonder if I should learn to cook,” she ponders. “You never know. It might come in handy someday.” And while she’s not an outspoken advocate in this matter, she sticks to her chair at lunch at Crawley House, refusing to abandon Edith, Isobel, or her mother. Hopefully she can be inspired by the women below her in station, who live on a narrower margin, and who are reaching for gains for smaller than anything she already possess. All Edith can grab for is her own happiness. But it’s no less valuable a goal.