Lady Mary and her grandmother, the Dowager Countess (Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith), have so much in common – an unsentimental point of view, a disdain for frippery and a well-honed sense of propriety.
This is proven repeatedly in the third episode of the fifth season, as they demonstrate yet another way in that they are alike – lust outside of their marriages. The episode is bookended with such lust, though one is shown and one is but a memory of what could have been.
One is now, in the Jazz Age, with Mary and Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) in bed, during their stolen days and nights in Liverpool.
The other was in the Victorian Era so we hear but a whisper. But it was so powerful that the reverberations are still felt. It happened in Russia, long before the Revolution, during a days-long wedding festival. Lord Grantham, the current earl’s late father, and his wife, the Countess Dowager, visited.
There she met a prince, and lightning must have struck on that ballroom floor because five decades later, when they meet at a tea at Downtown Abbey, that spark, undimmed by time, is felt by everyone in the room.
Clearly Violet Grantham has a past, and a delicious one at that. Before we get there, though, the episode has some fall-out from Mary’s dalliance. The Dowager Countess’ incredibly haughty butler, Spratt (Jeremy Swift), saw Mary take leave of Gillingham and get into a carriage at the Liverpool hotel.
When Isobel Crawford visits the Dowager Countess she asks where Spratt is, and Violet explains he is in Liverpool, at his niece’s wedding.
“It seems rather unlikely to think of Spratt with a private life,” Isobel says.
“Unlikely and extremely inconvenient,” Violet says.
“But you can’t begrudge him that,” Isobel says. “Surely servants are human beings, too.”
“Yes, preferably only on their days off,” Violet concedes.
Spratt wants to tattle on Mary to his employer. The Dowager Countess has had a lifetime of handling awkward moments and pretends that the family knew Mary was in Liverpool. She invents a story on the spot, saying Mary was at a conference for northern landowners.
Spratt is deflated; he likely thought he had fodder for blackmail. The Dowager Countess summons her granddaughter for a heart-to-heart.
At home, developers want to build 50 houses on Downton land and the earl is against it. Toddlers Sybbie and George are brought in during tea, for the adults to have their obligatory daily few minutes of oohing over them. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) looks on longingly. The longing she feels, that ever-gnawing ache for her daughter, is palpable and we know her life cannot continue as it is.
The local police return for more questions about Mr. Bates and the dead footman who raped Anna Bates. There was a witness and though Bates seems to have satisfactorily answered questions about his doings the day the rapist Green was killed, everyone is uneasy that the cops are still investigating.
Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) plans a trip to London and invites her daughters and cousin, but everyone is busy. Cora goes anyway, and meets Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant), the art historian, to tour galleries.
When the Dowager Countess finally has Mary alone, she laces into her.
“Can we be confident there will be no unwanted epilogue?” Violet asks Mary.
“We can be quite sure,” Mary says.
Grandmother wants to know what on earth would possess a finely raised young widow to do something so idiotically scandalous, allowing herself to be seduced.
“I wasn’t seduced, granny,” Mary says plainly.
“A young woman of good family who finds herself in the bed of a man who is not her husband has invariably been seduced,” Violet says.
“She couldn’t have gone to bed with him of her own free will?” Mary asks.
“Not if she is the daughter of an earl,” Violet says with the finality of a woman who knows the ways of the world.
When Violet learns Tony had indeed proposed to Mary, Violet relaxes a bit – or as much as those stays in her corset allow her to relax.
We have Mary who has a lover, and Cora has the possibility of one. It is quite unlikely that Lady Grantham will follow through, but she has an admirer in Bricker. He listens to her, finds her interesting and charming whereas her husband is gruff and dismissive toward her, only making her vulnerable to Bricker’s advances.
Lady Grantham and Bricker admire paintings and share a lovely dinner. While Bricker walks Lady Grantham back to her hotel, she divulges a rare glimpse into her life before Downton.
“I remember when I first arrived,” Cora says. “London scared me at first. I had only been in a schoolroom a few months before, but my mother was eager. We weren’t really in the first rank in Cincinnati, still less when we moved to New York. My father was Jewish and the money was new, but there was a lot of it, and I was pretty. I suppose I can say that now that I am an old lady.”
She is then embarrassed for having shared so much, but he is even more enchanted. Bricker asks to see her again and Cora explains that won’t happen. She had a delightful evening and enters the London townhouse in a great mood, only to find her husband, waiting and furious.
He’s extremely unpleasant and says that Bricker could not possibly be interested in her opinion. Irate, Cora goes off to bed.
Back at Downton, the lovely friendship between Tom (Allen Leech) and Mary continues to flourish. He confesses he never believed she was on a sketching trip, and admits he’s considering moving. Mary acknowledges she couldn’t bear the thought of him moving to America.
As expected, it’s more bad news for Edith. (Note to Julian Fellowes: Please, master of the Downton universe, please can Edith have some joy?) Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) tells Edith that she needs to stay away from Marigold – at least for a little while. Edith’s agony spills out as sobs.
It’s time for another lavish tea at Downton. Rose (Lily James) has invited Russians she befriended and the servants, on the earl’s orders, laid out the mementoes his parents had acquired when they were in Russia in the 1870s. As the Dowager Countess gazes fondly at a fan, the man who had given it to her steps out of the shadows.
The bolt of electricity that shoots between them is undeniable. So what if she uses a cane and Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) looks like a man broken? Once she is in the carriage, they look at each knowingly. It’s clear something had happened, some flirtation with lust in the Victorian Age.
Courtesy of (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE