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Early-20th-century fictional characters named Jack and Rose find forbidden love on a boat, in an entirely original storyline. (Courtesy of ©Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE)

Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 6: Pig Poop, Right in the Kisser

‘Edgy’ plotlines about abortion and interracial romance are upstaged by pig feces.

BY Sady Doyle

Edith does what pregnant TV and/or movie characters always do, which is consider abortion for thirty seconds before abruptly deciding that it is wrong, wrong, wrong and fleeing from the very idea.

Friends, allow me to begin this recap of Downton Abbey’s latest episode by revealing one of my private theories. Somewhere, in the far lands of Great Britain, in the dark and intrigue-filled basement of what is no doubt a grand and luxurious manor, there is a bulletin board. Pinned to this bulletin board, you will find an Intro to Women’s Studies syllabus, pilfered from a nearby liberal arts university, which outlines the topics to be discussed each week in class. And once a week, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes goes down to the basement holding a blindfold and a bunch of darts. He throws these darts—manfully, but in a way befitting his station as a member of the House of Lords—at said bulletin. Whichever  topic he hits on that syllabus becomes the subject of that week’s episode of Downton Abbey.

This season, for example, Julian Fellowes’ darts landed—for several weeks in a row!—on “rape culture,” and so we got the horrifically upsetting plot line concerning Anna and Lord Gillingham’s valet. After that streak of misfortune, Julian Fellowes’ dart landed on “intersections of race and gender,” and since Julian Fellowes is pretty sure that “intersections” just means “one thing sort of running into the other thing,” we received the last episode’s forbidden love story portraying the clandestine affair between Rose the Jazz-Loving Cousin and her new soulmate, Jazz-Singing Jack. Now, finally, Julian Fellowes has hit the big one. For this week, we will be discussing the question of Abortion—specifically, whether Edith should get to have one.

And yet, for all Julian Fellowes’ many attempts at social and political relevance, I will still probably remember this episode as “the one where Lady Mary probably swallowed pig poop.”

So, let’s start there! In an episode that prominently features the hot-button political issues surrounding the younger Abbey ladies’ sex lives, Lady Mary is just stressing out because too many rich white dudes are totally into her, as always. Lady Mary is rich white dude catnip, and this week, she is trapped in a box full of frisky kittens. First, former suitor Evelyn Napier shows up with the news that he is working with the government on determining whether large, old estates—like, say, Downton—can survive into the 20th century. Also, to confirm that he is still into Mary. Then, Napier’s colleague Mr. Blake shows up, at which point he confirms that he does not believe Mary “deserves to survive,” because she is a big spoiled estate-owning brat and he is a staunch supporter of middle-class values, such as crashing at rich people's mansions for a few days with one's rich-white-dude buddies and disapproving loudly of everyone else in the room the entire time. Despite his fiery class-war rhetoric, he too is into Mary. And finally, we get the return of Lord Gillingham—whom viewers may remember from earlier this season as “the guy who took all of 24 hours to propose to Mary”—who seems, shockingly, to still be totally into Mary.

All of which leads us to the highly romantic scene in which Lady Mary probably swallows pig poop. Whilst touring the estates, and specifically the pigpens, Lady Mary and Mr. Blake discover that Downton’s pigs are perilously dehydrated, due to pig-related negligence. In the eyes of Mr. Blake, Lady Mary earns her “right to survive”—and his heart—by staying by his side and bringing the pigs water. This process involves the both of them falling down and wallowing about until they are completely covered in mud. And that mud, it is quite clear, has been strenuously and recently occupied by some pigs. Pigs who poop. Pigs who poop in that mud. Even when this horror has been endured, the two of them sit about in pig mud, laughing and teasing each other, at which point Mr. Blake—I am not kidding here—scoops up some of the pig mud and throws it right at Mary’s open mouth. I believe it’s meant to be sexy. I believe it’s meant to be playful. (Lady Mary certainly seems to agree.) But I also believe that, should Gillingham and Napier lose the battle for Mary’s affections, the next season of Downton Abbey may feature Lady Mary’s wedding to a guy who once accidentally fed her pig feces.

For now, let’s move on from that horror show, shall we? For, while Mary is hosting her old-timey equivalent of a dating competition reality show back at the Abbey, Rose and Edith are in London to pursue their separate interests. In Rose’s case, that interest is “making out with a cute boy,” which we shall discuss a bit later on. In Edith’s case, that interest is “getting an abortion.”

Yes, Mr. Gregson is still missing in action in Germany. Lady Cora, consoling Edith prior to her departure from the Abbey, even helpfully points out that “if he were attacked or set upon, they would have found him long ago,” which is the nicest way I’ve ever heard anyone say “he probably dumped you and joined the Nazi Party” to one of their relatives. And so, bereft and abandoned, Edith goes ahead and schedules the abortion. Somewhat less reasonably, she decides to confide her decision to Aunt Rosamund, who yells things like “HOW TERRIBLE IT IS TO HEAR THAT” and “IT IS QUITE ILLEGAL” and “YOU MIGHT DIE” (paraphrasing that last one) before affirming that it is, of course, Edith’s choice. Edith’s terrible, criminal, potentially lethal choice, as far as Rosamund is concerned, but I'm sure her constant yelling about how terrible abortions are detracts not one whit from her genuine and heartfelt support of Edith's abortion.

Nevertheless, Edith and Rosamund actually do make it to the World’s Most Depressing Abortion Clinic, which is farther than most pregnant TV and/or movie characters ever get. However, once she’s actually at the clinic, Edith runs away because a girl outside told her the baby had fingernails. Oops! I mean that she decides to get back together with Steve. Damn it! Wrong again. I mean that she hooks up with a guy in the bathroom of Tom & Jerry’s and gets her period. Or, no. No, wait, I’ve got it now: Edith decides to make a go of it with Seth Rogen. Right? Is Seth Rogen in this? No? Then I'm just lost.

Well, whatever Edith’s actual reasoning, the point is that she does what pregnant TV and/or movie characters always do, which is consider abortion for thirty seconds before abruptly deciding that it is wrong, wrong, wrong and fleeing from the very idea. Edith’s having a baby, everybody! Surprise.

Far be it from me to accuse this show of unoriginality, however. For example, elsewhere in London, we get to check in on its challenging and topical “interracial dating” plot line, which this week is furthered by the fact that Jack and Rose make out with each other in a boat.

No. No, I’m actually not kidding. That’s right: on Downtown Abbey, an upper-crust young woman with bohemian yearnings has fallen for an artist unfairly discriminated against due to society’s many prejudices. The name of that young man is “Jack.” The name of that young woman is “Rose.” First, Rose takes Jack to one of her family’s fancy parties, where their mutual attraction is frowned upon. Despite efforts to separate the two, they proceed to conduct a clandestine affair. During said clandestine affair, Jack and Rose make out with each other. On a boat.

You know what? To hell with it. I’m pretty sure Seth Rogen is in this thing somehow. Somebody had to think it was a good idea to include a scene of Lady Mary swallowing pig poop. That, or Julian Fellowes’ Basement Dartboard also just happens to contain a lot of posters for the movies he’s seen recently. Either way, I can’t wait for next week, when we learn how Rose managed to survive that boat ride. Something tells me that in the middle of a lake in London, there will be a floating door, and that clinging to the side of that door, we’re going to find one very wet, very unhappy jazz singer.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady inthesetimes.com.

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