Warning: This article contains spoiler about the third episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season.
Each week, Christ and Pop Culture will present an analysis of the latest Downton Abbey episode after it airs on PBS.
Episode One: Downton Abbey: A Job Well Done.
Episode Two: Downton Abbey: Things We’ve Lost.
The third episode of Downton Abbey to air on PBS this season introduced some new wrinkles but was primarily dedicated to resolving (or at least working through) some of the conflicts introduced in the premiere and the devastating second episode. Edith remains devoted to Gregson as he prepares to leave for Germany, while Mary is further courted by Lord Gillingham. Mrs. Hughes calls Edna out for her manipulative tryst with Tom Branson, and Anna now avoids Bates following her rape at the hands of Gillingham’s servant Green. Rose, meanwhile, earns the ire of Aunt Rosamund after dancing with Jack Ross, a black American singer, while at a party.
Downton Abbey has always been a melodramatic show, and there are few things so dramatic as secrets and lies. One of the major trajectories of this third episode is the deleterious effect on relationships of keeping secrets and the salutary benefits of exposing secrets to the light. This time around, some secrets have finally been revealed, while others remain covered.
Branson’s brief dalliance with the scheming Edna is the most obvious example of this theme. Indeed, the liaison was so secretive that its second episode occurrence was scarcely noticeable, a blink-and-you-miss-it moment when she snuck into his room after their earlier drink together. And while Branson finds himself unable to confide in Mary, he wisely follows her advice and confesses his action to Mrs. Hughes, who immediately sets about uncovering the truth behind Edna’s plot.
Indeed, Mrs. Hughes is clearly the moral center of this episode, precisely because of her ability to negotiate the difficult role of confidant while always advocating for greater honesty. Turning the tables on Edna represents the zenith of her quest for transparency, and though she doesn’t broadcast Edna’s doings to the entire household, she rewards Branson’s decision to trust her and hints later to Carson that she is not unwilling to divulge more at an opportune time. And it is Carson’s acknowledgment of his old love’s mutual affection that functions as another hard-won victory for Mrs. Hughes, who provides him with his old flame’s framed picture, saying, “It’s good for you to be reminded you once had a heart, and it’ll reassure the staff to know you belong to the human race.” Her emphasis on reminders, on memories (which Carson then echoes), figures as an assertion of her insistence on keeping personal knowledge open, in the light, rather than seeking for it to be hidden.
The one significant secret Mrs. Hughes keeps is of course her awareness of Anna’s rape. In keeping this secret, she remains true to her word, yet even as she remains faithful in this regard, she doesn’t cease in counseling Anna to reveal the truth to Bates. Anna’s coldness to her husband in the light of her experience is understandable, if baffling to Bates. In this matter, it is Lord Grantham (in a welcome departure from insufferable mode) who provides his friend Bates with the soundest advice:
There is no such thing as a marriage between two intelligent people that does not sometimes have to negotiate thin ice. I know. You must wait until things become clear, and they will. The damage cannot be irreparable when a man and a woman love each other as much as you do.
Robert here recognizes the need for honesty, but not at the cost of intrusiveness. He is advising patience until the ground of the discord can “become clear”—in other words, when the truth comes to light.
Of course, such counsel is easier to give than to take, for Lord Grantham has already hidden the secret of his gambling excursion from Cora this season. And Mary, who gave such recommended candor to Branson, is very capable of keeping her own secrets. After rejecting Lord Gillingham with a parting kiss, she tells Branson, “I’ve just done something I have a sneaking fear I may regret… for a long time to come.” Given the context, it is unclear if her regret may be the rejection or the implications of the final kiss — and she volunteers no further information to Branson.
Healthy relationships thrive of vulnerability, on a Christ-like love that demonstrates a willingness to be hurt for the sake of the beloved. Given how much loss and hurt the characters of Downton Abbey have experienced of late, it is not surprising to find many of them recoiling from such vulnerability. Thus far, however, Downton Abbey appears to be suggesting that whatever the short-term rewards of secrecy, bringing truth into the light will ultimately yield the greater results.
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