Downton Abbey series five, episode three review: Mary cools, the Dowager is caught out

Secrets, lies, moustaches and discarded contraceptive devices: it's all in Jack Seale's unreasonably comprehensive recap

Lady Mary awoke from a solid week of Scouse intercourse, still as pale and cold as frozen coley. This should have tipped Lord Gillingham off but he saw no danger, being as he was too busy remembering the sights he’d seen (“I’ve made a note of everything!”) and warbling on about how, now he and Mary had formally introduced their genitals, a marriage between their entire bodies should soon follow.  

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As soon as he’d tied up his silky robe and left Mary alone, however, we saw her smiling face return to factory settings: blank and listless, like a robot for whom killing all the humans has finally provoked its first emotion, boredom. Gillingham’s cheesy charm has slid right off Mary’s cracker, although he doesn’t know it yet.  

Before confronting the truth that she prefers either Charles Blake or simply staring contemptuously into the middle distance, Mary had to deal with the Dowager Countess, whose twitchy Geordie butler Spratt was improbably in Liverpool, on family business that entailed standing opposite hotels in the morning in a bowler hat, just in case. He saw Lady Mary and her cocky admirer emerge together and, on his return to Downtonshire, informed the D-C.  

The old pro remained impassive when hit with this moral howitzer, instantly concocting a smooth cover story about Mary and Gillingham being in Liverpool for a farming conference. That the Dowager Countess has never formed some kind of global espionage duo with Mrs Hughes is a lastingly tragic waste of expertise.

Mary has much to learn. Having been summoned by the D-C, she arrived in grandmama’s rooms to be greeted by Spratt, who fruitily asked if she’d enjoyed her holiday “IN LIVERPOOL” as he chiselled her out of her coat. Mary boggled with terror for several seconds, confirming to Spratt that her stay was nefarious. He looks like a man who knows what to do with explosive gossip.

The other path along which Mary’s indiscretion might leak is Anna, who is faithful but was tasked by her mistress with hiding the evidence, ie the equipment that had been employed to avoid what the Dowager termed an “unwanted epilogue”. Evidently, the contraption was more than equal to a week of Lord Gillingham’s best, since Mary thriftily deemed it and her Marie Stopes guidebook to be reusable. Anna was to squirrel them somewhere in her home, but first there was a fraught moment when her husband, Bates, caught her walking cap in hand down the corridor. His interest was pricked, although nothing came of it because he and Anna had more pressing problems.  

Anna’s rapist Green, who was shoved under a bus in London on a day when Bates claimed to have been visiting York unaccompanied, had put plans in place to cause further misery should his victim’s husband take revenge. The local police sergeant returned to Carson’s sherry cupboard, at first reporting that Green had put it about that he’d quarrelled with someone in the house and then confirming that the man in question was Bates.  

Bates thus faced an interrogation from the cop, with Carson glowering with concern in the corner. Carson was probably alarmed by the details of Bates’s wild day off in York as he described it, since it included visiting a shoe shop, drinking coffee and having a pub lunch, which constitutes a suicidal speedballs-on-the-Reeperbahn blowout by Carson’s standards.  

Mrs Hughes had the skills to spot the real danger, despite not having been present: after pumping Carson for the info she realised that Bates’s story only featured places near to York station and became vague in the middle of the day, still leaving him plenty of time to have got the train to London, found Green, killed him and returned home in time for Mrs Patmore’s grouse in the hole. It might take the police a couple of episodes to get up to speed with Hughesy, but the prospect hovers menacingly.    

M-Patz herself received a troubling letter from the mother of her nephew who was executed for cowardice during the war. His local memorial committee were refusing to include his name on their plinth – Mrs Patmore prevailed upon Mrs Hughes to cash in some of her romantic chips with Carson and get the boy’s name written on the one in the village instead.  

This revealed that the frisson between Carson and Mrs Hughes has been felt by the kitchen staff, but Hughesy’s reluctant intervention pushed her and Carson apart. He explained that the Downton memorial was to be exclusively for people shot by the Germans: anyone who tried to run away and was shot by their own generals had simply taken the whole pointless death thing too far and would be shunned.  

Mrs Hughes was irked and Mrs Patmore was livid, especially when Carson half-heartedly offered his sympathy for her family’s predicament. “Sympathy butters no parsnips,” snarled M-Patz, before storming off to literally butter some.  

Discord and disagreement was in the air this week, the acrid comedown after the previous episode’s galloping pheromones. Even Lord Grantham and Cora, who have up to now followed the classic marital formula of him prattling on endlessly and her very occasionally correcting him when she can be bothered, are in a rocky patch.

Lord G sowed the seeds when Branson advocated giving up a corner of the estate to an affordable housing scheme, under which the Abbey would receive a share of rents to be paid by uppity villagers, sundry members of the lower middle class, and extras for grand ball or village cricket scenes. Lord G dismissed this out of hand and later dismissed Cora’s enquiry, informing her that it was nothing for her to worry her pretty, vastly more intelligent head about.

As if sniffing his chance, randy art historian Simon Bricker whisked Cora round the National Gallery in London, inspecting the Della Francescas in the hope of something rubbing off. After dinner at the Ritz and a walk around some carefully filmed period streets, Cora was giddy with the lure of an alternative: Bricker bombards her with flattery, knows about culture and can plan a charming evening stroll without going past any buildings with satellite dishes on them.

She floated back to Aunt Rosamund’s house, only to find Lord G, fuming in black tie having unexpectedly followed her to London. He’d had to cancel the table at Claridge’s and didn’t for a second believe that Bricker could have been interested merely in Cora’s art criticism.  

“Nothing angers a lady more than a man who is both impertinent and correct,” as the Dowager Countess probably would have quipped had she been there. Cora reacted hotly. She grows tired of being patronised by a man who has the wit of a carpet.  

Back in the north, Lady Edith crushed the delicate flower of her godmotherhood, eagerly splashing down to the farm at all hours to “take an interest in” little Marigold. When Tim the kind pig-wrangler’s wife returned home from a hard day’s scrubbing to find the house empty, she panicked, thinking Edith had done a runner with the child. In fact Edith, Marigold and Tim the kind pig-wrangler were merely outside admiring pigs, but the damage was done. Tim’s wife snatched Marigold from Edith and, still without twigging that Edith is the girl’s real mother – the woman really is extraordinarily dense – forbade future contact.   

So it was that, having set a new personal best by being happy for two and half consecutive days, Edith was once again trotting upstairs for a cry as the week’s climactic social event gathered pace in the library. Rose had invited all her aristocratic refugees for tea and, to mark the occasion, Lord G instructed the mysterious, unseen slave “Pattinson” to forage in the attic for souvenirs from an old family visit to Russia in 1874, before the ghastly revolution.

After a brief debacle involving Sarah Bunting the socialist schoolteacher, who calmly told one of the old Rusky toffs that all his friends and family had deserved to be shot – she protested her innocence, but politically this was the gist of it – the trinkets were put on display, with the Dowager Countess explaining that it was she who had acquired the centrepiece, a decorative fan. She was in the middle of fudging exactly who the man who had given it to her was when he stepped forward to identify himself.  

Even the D-C’s epic sang-froid failed her: she nearly keeled over at the sight of the exotically moustachioed Russian prince. Dinner had to be brought forward by ten minutes to break the silence. Later on, Lady Mary gloated at the news that her gran’s displeasure at her erotic minibreak in Liverpool had been hypocritical: the Dowager’s reaction revealed that she not only once had sex, which is shocking enough, but did it extra-maritally in St Petersburg, at the risk of both chilblains and an international incident.

This could have ructions. Spratt will bust a button when he finds out, for starters.

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>> Episode two: Cora flirts, Mary goes to Liverpool