Downton is heating up! Last night's episode marked the arrival of a new servant to the Abbey crew, a fine-lookin' fella named Jimmy Kent who has caught the eye of everyone both upstairs and downstairs. He basically brings all the romantic promise that the other newbie, Alfred, hasn't really delivered on. It's a good shot in the arm for a season that was feeling a bit rudderless — or, if not rudderless, certainly lacking the particular dramatic snap that initially drew us into the show. This Jimmy Kent probably means trouble, especially for shifty valet Thomas, who eyed Jimmy as hungrily as any of the scullery maids. The "next time on Downton Abbey" reel seemed to suggest that things get tetchy between the two gents, which is exciting but also a little nerve-wracking. Little about the time period's history suggests to us that Thomas will have any go of it, and even though he's essentially a mean villain, we don't really want to see his heart trampled on or his name tarnished forever, do we? Well, probably some people do. And they just might get their wish in the coming weeks.
So, that's a bit of sexy downstairs intrigue for you. Upstairs things are a lot grimmer, which Branson arriving suddenly from Ireland in the middle of the night, on the lam after being involved in the burning down of an aristocratic family's castle. The coppers were looking for him so he sought sanctuary — and the well-connected aid of Lord Grantham — at Downton. Everyone was furious with Branson for leaving a pregnant Sybil behind in Ireland, but when she finally did arrive safely, she insisted that it had been their contingency plan to split up should anything go wrong. The pair put on a good show of being a unified front, but in private it was clear that Branson had downplayed his involvement with certain radical parties to his wife, and that he was more involved in the Dromgoole castle fire than he initially let on. This story, like Thomas's likely doomed crush, does not seem to be heading in any good direction. And though it's all a bit big and issue-y for this domestic chamber piece, I do like it when the show has the guts to show us the more unseemly side of otherwise well-liked characters. Lord Grantham, for example, is by and large a respectable fellow, but true to his day and his status, he's got some dodgy thoughts on Catholics and, in a larger sense, the Irish. He may be a decent guy in lots of ways, but he is a wealthy aristocrat in early 1920s England. He's not exactly a progressive.
And actually, we saw a similar negative light shined on the fancy folks with the Jimmy Kent plot line, with Cora and the other ladies certainly recognizing his attractiveness, but registering it merely as a lark for the maids downstairs. There was a distinct air of condescension to their reaction to the Jimmy situation, as if the lad was simply a toy for the baser creatures toiling in the kitchens. That dynamic reminded me of the first season, when the rigid differences between nobility and the working class provided so much dramatic vim and vitality. The relationship has gotten a bit cozy or muddled at this point, so I appreciated that last night's episode made some distinct effort to remind us of the social inequities that thrum at the heart of this show. We saw this also in the Isobel storyline, as poor discarded Ethel reconnected with her baby's father's parents and decided to send her son off to live with them. It was a wrenching moment that perhaps came a bit abruptly, but still deftly illustrated the cold indifference of Britain's class system. Penelope Wilton has always played Isobel with a strain of dotty, patronizing cluelessness, and it worked well here. I'm eager to see where Isobel and Ethel's story takes them.
I'm also excited to see where poor, poor Edith winds up. She's now trying her hand at writing for a newspaper, taking up the simply radical idea of women's suffrage as a cause and ruffling Granny and Papa's feathers. I do so hope that this is when Edith's course starts to reverse itself. Maybe she'll move to London for some exciting job and run into Gwen from season one and they'll become roommates and smoke cigarettes and meet men together. Or they'll fall in love with each other! Who knows. Whatever happens with Edith's new career pursuit, it ought to be something good. She's due for a little kindness, isn't she?
All told, last night's installment felt like a crucial turning point in the season. The downstairs intrigue has suddenly gotten sharper and more urgent (and handsomer), while upstairs some ominous clouds are gathering above Sybil and Branson, while Edith points toward the bright future. Who knows where Mary and Matthew are going to end up, but we can guess that they'll be sour and bickering and kinda boring no matter when they get there. Man they've grown dull since they got together, haven't they? I suppose that was sort of inevitable, the old Moonlighting rule, but some of the tedium could have been avoided with a story arc more interesting than Matthew getting Downton's finances in order. Maybe Mary should start spending some time with young Jimmy. It could probably do her some good. And it wouldn't hurt the show, either.