Something was rotten in the halls of Downton last night. A footman did the butler’s job (and vice versa). A woman hugging a baby ran through the house during lunch. His Lordship got off with a maid. A man raised his voice in the dining room. The paralyzed walked. The valet went to jail. An ersatz aristocrat said “bastard” in the library. The chauffeur set foot in the drawing room. The Countess got sweaty in her finery. The ladies spoke about cutting their hair. The men didn’t wear white tie to dinner. And a ginger girl died in one of the bedrooms. Have you ever seen such debauchery? Or such tragedy?
Yet, we all knew it was coming. If there is one rule at Downton (besides changing for dinner, serving yourself at breakfast, or not marrying the chauffeur), it is that once you say something, the exact opposite will happen. Mrs. Hughes mentioned that things were getting “back to normal,” and then Carson was carrying a tea tray like a lowly footman. Dr. Clarkson warned the Earl that Lady Grantham’s illness might be terminal, and then she lived. Matthew told his mother that Lavinia’s bout with Spanish flu didn’t “seem so serious,” and then she died. And then there was all that talk about Matthew never walking again.
Those backwards portents were nearly the worst thing about this uneven two-hour episode. Nearly. The Dowager Countess and Edith had very little screen time. There was too much expository dialogue. Bates didn’t need to describe his legal situation to Anna every time he passed her in the hallway. The same thing goes for Thomas, the black market, and O’Brien. Most of all, Lord Grantham’s heavy petting with housemaid Jane was unbearable to sit through: (a) because he was suffering from an embarrassing midlife/post-war crisis (the perfect storm of male neuroses), (b) because he was cheating on Cora, and (c) because the Earl and Jane had zero sexual chemistry. They were like two cold fish that Baron Fellowes just kept smacking together. Nothing could have been less sexy.
It took me quite a few scenes to finally understand why Robert wanted Jane so badly (other than because Cora was blowing him off for lunch). The answer was hidden in something he said when the Crawleys were pining for their prewar lives. “Before the war my life had value,” he whined, “I suppose I should like to feel that again.” Jane, unlike Cora or his daughters, made Lord Grantham feel useful in the way he was before the war, when his social standing and his wealth mattered. His title helped her son gain admission to the fancy pants boys school Ripon Grammar. He gave her money to ensure the child would have more opportunities in the future. With Jane, Robert was valuable again. (She also listened to his endless moaning about “what was it all for?” How many times can a man look longingly into the distance, and then pensively down to the floor, before you punch him?)
With O’Brien upstairs dutifully nursing Cora, and Thomas in a shed mourning the loss of his life savings, Robert was last night’s baddie, whether he intended to be or not. When not groping Jane, he said hurtful things to Cora, yelled at Sybil, and did a terrible job of protecting Mary “with a ring of steel.” In what world does a caring father agree to let the man his daughter loves marry another woman in his house? I swear I heard a collective sigh of relief when Robert ended his dalliances with Jane — just as Mrs. Hughes and Carson started to catch on — because they were “unfair to everyone.” (And because Bates nearly caught them locking lips in His Lordship’s dressing room while Cora was practically dying in their bed.)
NEXT: Matthew gets up offa that thing, but doesn’t feel much better