This isn't one of the big, dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) moments of Downton Abbey, but it is a great example of one of my favorite things about period dramas: people finding clever ways to insult one another in polite company.
So, the set-up: Matthew Crawley, a young lawyer from Manchester, has recently learned that (for reasons too complicated to get into here), he will inherit the estate of Downton Abbey and the title of Earl of Grantham from a distant relative. The present Earl, a middle-aged man with three daughters, welcomes Matthew to Downton. However, other members of the family wish to alter the law so that the Earl's eldest daughter, Lady Mary, can inherit the estate.
If Mary cannot inherit, some people think that the next best thing would be for her to marry Matthew. But Mary is an aristocratic snob who has taken an instant dislike to this middle-class interloper. At a family dinner, she strikes up the following conversation:
MARY: I've been studying the story of Andromeda; do you know it?As the scene ended and I laughed with delight, I knew I'd be telling several of my friends about it. All right, so I hang out with people who are inordinately fond of British period pieces, people being bitchy to each other in polite company, and allusions to Greek mythology. This kind of thing is catnip to us. (As a bonus, the Dowager Countess is played by Maggie Smith, and she is awesome.)
MATTHEW: (suspiciously) Why?
MARY: Her father was King Cepheus, whose country was being ravaged by storms. And, in the end, he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock--
DOWAGER COUNTESS: (nervously laughs) Really! Mary! We'll all need our smelling salts in a minute!
MATTHEW: But the sea monster didn't get her, did he?
MARY: No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father's problems, she was rescued.
MATTHEW: By Perseus.
MARY: That's right. Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn't you say?
MATTHEW: That depends. I'd have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.
You can watch Downton Abbey for free on the Masterpiece Theatre website until February 22, which is how I re-watched and transcribed the above scene. If you're like me and my friends, and this excerpt has piqued your interest, go check it out.
Image: Publicity shot of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery).