Downton Abbey series five, episode two review: Cora flirts, Mary goes to Liverpool

Was this the most disgustingly lust-fuelled episode in Downton history? Our epic recap hints at it suggestively

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Mrs Patmore must have put too much nutmeg in her rice fool: everyone was sick with lust this week. Two potential couples were flirting, another two were almost indulging in outright verbal expressions of longterm affection, and somebody said “sex” in the library. Utter debasement.

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We began with lust smothered, however, as the disgraced Jimmy put on his cap and said goodbye to Barrow, who stood stiffly while his beloved explained that being followed around by a shifty, lurking villain had cured his previously raging homophobia.

“I never thought I’d be friends with… with a man like you,” said Jimmy, fondly recalling the day Barrow noticed he’d got drunk at the fair and tried to follow him home, and that other time when Barrow leapt into his room and tried to tongue him in his sleep. Touching memories. Barrow suggested Jimmy write to him. Jimmy said he wouldn’t.

This left Barrow even more pathetically vengeful than ever, so he tried again to punish Baxter for not helping him in his motiveless, season-three-throwback crusade against Bates. How would Molesley, a man who reports himself to the Archbishop of York if one of his socks is inside-out, react to the news that nice Baxter once stole her employer’s jewels for no good reason and did three years’ tough gristle for it? 

Molesley desperately pumped Baxter for an explanation, hoping to hear she’d run up a huge gin rummy debt, or her uncle had lost the family estate by investing everything in a Peruvian brass mine. But no: Baxter is remaining schtoom, at least until next week when Cora will fire her if she doesn’t spill. So Molesley will just have to love her for her, criminal insanity and all.

Lord Grantham opened his account with a fraught trip to the outside world, where Carson and the uppity woman from the war memorial committee told him he should rip up the cricket pitch and give the local Great War dead their own garden, instead of a poxy obelisk in the village. The uppity woman from the war memorial committee asked Lord G which was more important: hundreds of lives sacrificed for freedom, or the annual 40-over match against Woodhouse Grange, with high tea and marrow-judging to follow.

Realising that giving an honest answer to this would be a bit insensitive even for him, Lord G stalled and returned to Downton for a breathless infodump of a luncheon, starring several exotically named offscreen characters. Edith expressed her embarrassment at setting fire to the house last week, with a tart rejoinder from Mary indicating that the limitation period following the murder of Edith’s husband by Berlin proto-Nazis has now expired, and she will continue her lifelong campaign of frosty bullying.

Cora stepped in to announce that Mary’s rejected suitor, Charles Blake, was coming to stay and was bringing an art-loving friend “to inspect the Della Francesca”, whereupon Mary lied that her sordid week away with Tony Gillingham was in fact a girly sojourn with “Annabel Portsmouth”, and Rose reported that “Bella Davis” had rung up about her work with aristocratic Russian refugees in York, which gave Lord G and Branson a chance to argue about revolutionary massacres. Isobel, who lunches at Downton when the plot requires, chimed in with the news that “Mrs Henderson” had given a wireless to the ward. Rose was excited by this, but Lord G wasn’t. 

With the main strands of the story all safely in train, Carson cracked open a jar of glazed kidneys and some crusted port, and everyone relaxed.

Mary’s preparations for Gillingham’s erotic audition had one tricky stage left: Anna was despatched to the village to purchase birth control, on the grounds that she had no reputation to lose and was, in any case, married – sex out of wedlock being about as socially acceptable in the village as speaking German or setting fire to vicars.

Having scraped through the chemist’s quiz about why she and her husband wanted to kill their future children, Anna pointed to the appropriate etching in Mary’s Marie Stopes manual and purchased the necessary. One dreads to think what contraceptive devices were made from in 1924. The picture looked a bit like a doily, which was a little worrying when Mary had confidently instructed Anna to purchase one to last the week.

Back in the safety of Mary’s boudoir, Anna railed against the judgemental chemist. “I feel like going back tomorrow and ordering a baker’s dozen,” she said, forgetting that heatproof silicon rubber hadn’t been invented yet and in any case you can still only buy baker’s dozens from special websites.

Charles Blake had arrived and seemed to have guessed that Mary and Gillingham were on the verge of merging their estates. Either he’d detected a slight raising of Mary’s normally Arctic body temperature, or Gillingham had lost the run of himself and placed a boastful notice in The Times.

Whatever it was that led Blake to act, his final roll of the romantic dice was an attempt to nobble Mary psychologically. Surely she wasn’t going to have sex for the sake of it with that good-looking bloke when there was a more intelligent, politically aware guy available, he pleaded – a line that I can personally confirm didn’t work in the 90s and was weak beer in the 20s too. Mary smirked and told him to hop it.

Having more luck with the ladies was the art fancier, Simon Bricker, who was remarkably successful with some awful chat-up lines. At dinner, Cora asked him what he’d been doing in his recent base, Alexandria. “Looking at attractive things,” he said pointedly, hinting that he would like to inspect her Della Francesca. That was barely acceptable; later on as the two of them admired the painting, he replied to some chat about fussing mothers never changing by locking his gaze on her and saying, “LOTS of things never change.” Come on. That doesn’t even make sense.

Lord G thought, ludicrously, that the charming-ish Bricker was trying to steal the affections of Isis, the fundamentalist labrador. His Lordship made the error because his attention had been taken by more urgent crises. The prospect of Sarah Bunting the socialist teacher queering dinner again with her foul anti-establishment views reared its head when it emerged that she was in the kitchen, giving Daisy tuition. Letting women vote was one thing, but teaching the lower orders arithmetic? Downright reckless.

Fortunately Bunting was dressed as a teacher and thus unable to accept the last-minute invite from Branson, whom Lord G nevertheless suspects is once again a dangerous terrorist who will snatch away his grand-daughter and train her to poison the King’s horses.

The King was on the radio, an event that meant Rose won her battle and forced Lord G to relax his anti-wireless stance, since clearly the BBC wasn’t going to be entirely seditious. A set was hired and it is to remain, at least until Lord G catches Rose frugging drunkenly to jazz with the servants after dark.

Lord G’s other headache was solved by yet another exotically named offscreen character, who appeared onscreen: Mrs Elcot. Ah, Mrs Elcot. We’d been wondering how she was. At Lord G’s preferred site in the crazed hubbub of the village, Mrs E was with her son, who found his dad’s grave there to be conveniently situated. Having heard this, Carson and the uppity woman from the war memorial committee totally changed their minds, so that’s all sorted.

As Carson relayed his change of heart to Mrs Hughes, he suddenly took their relationship to a level it had not hitherto reached despite them having drunk sherry together in a small, dark cupboard every evening since 1894. “When you talk like that you make me want to check the looking-glass to see that my hair’s tidy,” flustered Hughesy adorably when Carson revealed how uncomfortable being in disagreement about the memorial had made him.

The moment was shattered, however, by incompetent-looking local bobby Sergeant Willis arriving to say, in essence, that the death of Anna’s rapist Green had become a murder investigation. Could Bates be limping back to prison after all?

Mrs Hughes added that to her list of heavy secrets, along with Edith’s illegitimate daughter, the existence of whom was confirmed when Hughesy and Anna found that cherished photograph under Edith’s fire-damaged pillow. Edith and Tim the kind pig-wrangler pressed on with their plan to make Edith little Marigold’s godmother, to the disgust of Tim the kind pig-wrangler’s wife, who nevertheless still has not twigged that Edith is the child’s mum. She is evidently as sharp as a swede and can surely be outwitted in any custody battle that develops.

Meanwhile, Mary was arriving at her hotel, in Liverpool. This isn’t just pre-marital sex. This is pre-marital sex in Liverpool. The sheer recklessness was intoxicating.

Having entered her room, she heard a knock at the connecting door and found Gillingham there, freshly Brylcreemed and raring to go. After a slap-up dinner nearby, he said, they would return to their room.

“And make love?” said Mary, thawing furiously.

“We’ll make love all night and in fact for as long as either of us has any stamina left,” purred Gillingham, although the stamina in question is surely that of the thing Anna bought from the chemist. Will it hold? Will Mary rue Anna’s failure to pick up an instruction manual, and her blasé advice that there wasn’t “anything too difficult to fasten”? With Mary’s reputation and potentially Gillingham’s life at stake – do prophylactics offer temporary protection from her lethally cursed nether regions? – we can only cross our fingers.

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>> Series five, episode one: Lord G blows up, Edith burns the house down