Personal Best: A Paper Trail

AARP magazine, September 2018

"Why don’t you throw it out?” my 14-year-old asks. “Or digitize it or something?”

He’s referring to my address book, which is quite a few years older than he is. A dowdy, floppy thing, it was originally bought at a museum bookstore. Its front cover is a faded reproduction of The Scream, and its back cover is very close to coming off. At five by four inches, it is small enough to be chewed up by the dog or tossed out with the newspaper or simply stuffed into the back of some drawer, never to be seen again.

It is, in short, a terrible way to store important data. If I had any sense, I would long ago have wafted these names and coordinates up to the virtual cloud. Yet the book lingers, and my affection for it mysteriously grows. With each passing year, in fact, I find that what matters more to me than any address is the book itself.

If you opened it at random, you’d find mostly chaos. Out of every 10 addresses, nine have been edited. Sometimes there’s a zip code without a city; sometimes, the reverse. Here and there, in a burst of archival fervor, I’ve inked in the names of children whose parents I’ve long since lost touch with.

A few of my addressees I haven’t laid eyes on in more than 20 years. One I’ve never met: my late father’s first wife, who may still be living on the Via San Leonardo in Florence.

And some have their own peculiar narrative. The women friends who, upon marriage, traded in their last names and then, a few years later, reclaimed them. The couples who separated and then, after a pause, reunited. The straggling arc of my aging parents, from the four-bedroom suburban home in Dunn Loring, Virginia, to the ranch house in Arlington to the two-bedroom apartment in Falls Church. Next, a brief caesura, after which my mother reemerges as a solitary figure, soldiering from a Sunrise facility in Ballston to addresses in Alameda, California, and—ultimately, it would seem—Chicago.

In this sea of strike-throughs, the only thing that halts my pen is death. If you were to judge by my address book, my dear friend Bob is still alive and well in Atlanta. Pat, the funniest man I’ve ever met, is still camped in his Northern Virginia apartment. My beloved editor Marjorie is still gardening in upstate New York.

None of this is exactly a lie, because everyone who was ever added to these heavily thumbed pages is still with me—on paper that is as perishable as we are. I’m not throwing it out; I’m sure as hell not digitizing it. I’m only hoping to pass it on.

Louis Bayard, 54, writes historical novels, including the upcoming Courting Mr. Lincoln.

Do We Really Want Anything to Change?

New York Times, January 4, 2015

Another season, Abbots!

Another chance to revel in the details of death duties and animal husbandry. Another chance to ponder the holes left by departing domestics. Another chance to ask if the women of the Crawley family can look any thinner than they have and to learn that yes, they can.

But it wouldn't be another year at Downton if Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) weren't muttering darkly about winds of change. It's 1924, and the Labour Party has carjacked the chariot of power. (Marvelous tutorial on the history behind "Downton Abbey" here). Frowning over his newspaper, Lord G foresees "the destruction of us and everything we stand for."

In case we miss his point, the earl's ideological ally and butler, Carson, chimes in: "I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on," he declares. "Everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule."

I was reminded of Edna Turnblad's immortal words from the original "Hairspray": "It's the times. They are a-changin'. Something's blowing in the wind. Fetch me my diet pills, would you, hon?"

And who are we kidding? If the times really were a-changing, would we go on loving "Downton" as we do, through all its longueurs and contrivances and disquisitions on pig stewardship? Every Sunday, we gather for the simple purpose of seeing time stopped for an hour. We may be liberal in our daily living, but when it comes to this little corner of Albion, we're hidebound reactionaries. We'll allow a footman to jump into bed with a randy aristo (well, done, Jimmy) but we won't shed a single tear when that Lawrentian fantasy is aborted and both offenders are apparently banished. (So long, Jimmy?)

We may smile when the members of the war memorial committee ask Carson to be their chairman instead of Lord G—Robert's snits are kind of cute—but we smile more broadly when Carson realigns the social order by getting his boss appointed "patron" (whatever that means). For a few uncomfortable minutes, we worry that the ex-agitator Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is reverting to his "rebel and hater" days when he makes rude comments about the Great War during a dinner party—but then Tom reassures Lord G (and us) that he doesn't hate anyone, "least of all you."

Rebellion is routed. Downton rolls onward.

So if a pleasing stasis is woven into the heart of this show, why am I feeling the need for a little disorder?

Consider that the most entertaining "Downton Abbey" installment of the holiday season was not Episode 1 but the show's nine-minute-plus fund-raising video, an alternative universe in which Lord Grantham is replaced by Lord Hollywood (George Clooney, looking like a California Sun King). New worlds of Eros erupt in this funny and knowing send-up, which reminds us that every cast member in "Downton Abbey" is already a wink or two away from camp. (Thomas hiding behind the curtains in the video is not much different from Thomas skulking round the corner in every episode.)

We also get wistful glimpses of roads not taken. The ravenous Mrs. Hughes, growling through a round of strip poker, imposes herself more forcefully on the narrative in five seconds than her "real" character has done in four seasons. The prodigious tats on Faux Molesley make me want to rescue his PBS doppelgaenger from the prison of plot drabness that has him slathering on black hair dye in a misguided lunge at youth.

We know Molesley has more in him. They all do. One of my favorite memories of Season 4 was seeing mud-spattered Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) cackling with merriment and recognizing that her face actually has some bend in it. More of that Mary, please! And less of the gloomy, graven drudge who strings along Tony G (Tom Cullen) and receives his offer of premarital sex as if it were a revisionist theory on crop rotation. (Perhaps in her defense, Mr. Cullen has yet to rise to the quiet hotness of his gay lifeguard in "Weekend.")

As for Edith—dear, sweet, morose, abandoned, maddening Edith—what can we say about a gal who can't even properly set her own room on fire and has to be carried to safety like some silent-film ingenue? Imagine now an alternative reality: She gives up on the vanished Michael Gregson. She stops mooning over their love child (Marigold, really?). She uses her bathtub for gin and writes a scandalous piece of soft lesbian pornography and runs off with a sheik and maybe ignites a small war somewhere and then covers it for a lefty Parisian journal. Think Rebecca West, not Lillian Gish.

A fella can dream.

Briefly:

  • Who knew fire mitigation was so advanced in the 1920s? Hoses for days, and the volunteer fire brigade arriving in a couple of minutes. Assuming the role of chief water spewer: Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), better known as champion pig wrangler, charitable recipient of illegitimate, if aristocratic, infants, and altogether the hardest-working man in the estate business. (In other words, he needs a Dark Secret soon.)

  • Speaking of dark secrets: After months of trembling like a vole in Thomas's grip, Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) spills her own dirt! Turns out she stole jewelry from an old employer (under mysterious circumstances) and spent three years in the slammer. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the old softie, is O.K. with the stealing part but cross with Thomas until he saves Edith (Laura Carmichael) from the fire. At which point she's practically ready to turn him straight. Which makes Thomas...

  • The Luckiest Bastard on Television! Again! (But Julian Fellowes does write him a humanist interlude. Jimmy: "We all settle down one day." Thomas: "We don't all have the option.")

  • Lovely, tiny moment where Violet, the dowager countess, realizes that Isobel may marry Lord Merton and soon supplant her as the "great lady of the county." In the space of a half-second, Violet panics, rallies and sows the seeds of her next scheme. Dame Maggie? You're good. Penelope Wilton, you're good, too, for showing us a woman helpless to prevent her own future from being snatched away. Not many clothes operas give you these grace notes.

So what are your thoughts, Abbots? Liking things the way they are? Or longing for some apple carts to be upset?

Till next week!

If You Show Me Your Piero Della Francesca . . .

New York Times, January 11, 2015

Sex has broken out, Abbots. And not a moment too soon.

In a pivotal moment of Episode 2, a virile, hot-blooded stallion of a man gazes upon a cool but secretly passionate woman. The air swirls with the heat of their lust, and in their besotted eyes, all manner of filthy erotic possibilities swell and balloon. At last! The congress that has been theirs to seize trembles on the brink of fruition.

"When you talk like that," murmurs Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), "you make me want to check the looking glass to see that my hair's tidy."

"Get away with you," says Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) in his rumbling bass-baritone.

"I mean it," she insists.

And then Marvin Gaye's voice comes scorching into their ... O.K., I imagined the last part, but only because I was so tickled to see the World's Most Glacial Courtship advancing if not to first base, then at least out of the batter's box. Seems that little wade in the water at the end of Season 4 really was a harbinger. Here's hoping our butler and housekeeper actually see some remains to their days and don't have to gaze back misty-lashed at what might have been. Get away with you, indeed, Mrs. Hughes.

Sex and its unintended consequences were everywhere to be seen this week—most suspensefully in the visit by Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to the local chemist, where, just to procure a single contraceptive package, she has to flash her wedding ring, plead ill health and endure the slut-shaming questions of some 1920s drugstore employee version of Phyllis Schlafly, who suggests she try abstinence instead. Anna can't admit, of course, that she's loading up her boss Lady Mary for a Liverpool sexfest, but the whole experience has her inching toward Margaret Sanger.

"Suppose I was a working woman with eight children and I didn't want to have any more," she says. "Wouldn't I have the right?"

That's a principle that Mary (Michelle Dockery) heartily endorses, either out of feminist sisterhood or distaste for working-class children.

Or it could be that Mary is already preoccupied with the thought of Lord Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who, I admit, has a way of leaning in a doorway with his hip cantilevered just so.

"We'll make love all night," he promises, "and in fact, for as long as either of us has any stamina left."

Mary's wry reply: "And who can say fairer than that?"

Well, what was she expecting, Percy Shelley? There is, however, a tincture of rose in the white cliffs of Mary, and we can only hope that after a week of eating and shagging, she'll emerge as ruby-cheeked as a goddess of wind ... if not quite so tan as Simon Bricker (the always destabilizing Richard E. Grant), an art historian swinging over from Alexandria, Egypt, for the chance to check out Cora's, uh, Piero della Francesca. He likes Cora's Piero. A lot. Blazing with jealousy, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) demands that Bricker stop flirting with his—well, with his dog. Now if Dr. Freud were ever to dine at the Abbey, he might try to persuade Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) that her husband didn't mean "dog" at all, but heaven help us, I think he did. Look for things to heat up as much as they can.

And look for things to stay sexless and drear for Hissing Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who bids a bittersweet adieu to Jimmy (Ed Speleers) and, with that, any hope of a "Brokeback" breakthrough. Dear Julian Fellowes: Barrow needs some lovin', and if you can't get it for him, maybe E.M. Forster can. (I mean, the guy snorts cigarette smoke out his nostrils like a chained dragon. That's got to be hot in someone's eyes.)

Best scene: Baxter's anguished confession to Molesley. Raquel Cassidy is subtly superb, and Kevin Doyle, after seasons of script-enforced drabness, is giving us an actual reason to follow his character.

Other best scene: The entire Downton household listening to the King's Speech on the brand-new wireless. "I suppose he can't hear us?" asks Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). I especially loved the Pavlovian moment when Violet (Maggie Smith) lurches to her feet at the sound of her monarch's voice, and the rest of the aristos awkwardly follow suit. It conveys the hugger-mugger of old and new better than any of the dire pronouncements that keep tumbling out of Mr. Carson's mouth.

Best line: Although Violet's epigrams lacked their usual zip, the earl got off quite the corker when he called Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) a "tinpot Rosa Luxemburg." True, true. And when his wife said she'd like a wireless, he snapped, "That's because you're American." But easily the funniest line of the night was when Mary arrived at the hotel for her assignation and was greeted with "Welcome to Liverpool, my lady. I hope you enjoy your stay." Ha! Enjoy Liverpool! You're killing me! (Come on, I can joke. My people are from there.)

Drinking game: Pimm's No. 1 Cup for every time Tom Branson (Allen Leech) says something about not belonging.

Department of Other Stuff ...

  • Excellent shade-throwing from Mrs. Drewe (Emma Lowndes) when Edith (Laura Carmichael) gets too touchy-feely with Marigold. If it comes down to a mom-on-mom knock-down drag-out, my money's on Mrs. D. If—as I suspect—Michael Gregson still lives, and things devolve into a nasty custody battle... well, all bets are off.

  • Further developments in the Mysterious Death of Mr. Green. The police have found a witness! Look for Mrs. Hughes to channel her Miss Marple.

  • I believe that Lady Rose's (Lily James) plot lines this season, whether they involve impulsive matchmaking or pining for a radio, could actually be performed by the young Shirley Temple.

So what do you think? Is Bates (Brendan Coyle) done for? Will Lady Mary get caught trysting? Does Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) stand a ghost of a chance with her? Does Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) fancy Violet or Isobel (Penelope Wilton)? Does he fancy any woman at all? And does Isobel really think she has a sense of humor?

Till next week, Abbots!

What's That in Your Pocket?

New York Times, January 18, 2015

Oh, Abbots, a word to the wise. If Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) ever asks you to "hide the thing," please know she's referring to the more-than-gently-used diaphragm she took to Liverpool for her weeklong fling with Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen).

If she tells you, "There must be some corner cupboard in the cottage where nobody goes," don't believe her! As surely as Mrs. Patmore's sauces come to a hearty boil, somebody will go there, and it will almost certainly be your husband, who will want to know why you're blockading his boys, which will remind you that you'd like to know what he was doing in London with a certain Mr. Green (who, by this point, could be a character in "Clue").

Oh, I admit this last part is pure speculation—when last seen, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) was simply slipping the diaphragm into her pocket—but there's no way it can end well, can it, Abbots? And come to think of it, why doesn't Mary just throw the blasted thing away? Is she planning a week in Manchester, too? Nether Alderley?

Well, here's what we can say for sure by the end of Episode 3: Lord G is ripped in a way that 1920s men never were, and he can rip it in bed, too. The sex, to judge by the look on Lady Mary's face when they're together, is just fine. The aftersex, to judge by the look on her face when he leaves the room, is... not so much.

"He's a nice man," says Mary, "a very nice man, but not... I mean, of course, we talked about things...."

I think Mary is trying to say that his intellectual organ is a little on the small side. Which may explain the utter lack of voltage that has existed between these two characters from the get-go. Lord G. is trying to press his advantage, but I don't see Mary (or the audience) tolerating him for much more than another episode or two, barring some game-changing revelation. Ten to one she hightails it back to Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), at least until a character played by Matthew Goode—fresh from lighting a fire under "The Good Wife"—is introduced in the finale, called the "Christmas episode" (which, in the United States, will air in the thick of spring).

Speaking of Christmas and spring: Mere minutes after declaring, "In my day, a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she'd been instructed to do so by her mama," Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), is bum-rushed by an old Russian suitor, Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija). Seems the two of them seriously heated up the Winter Palace back in the day, and they've got the fan to prove it. (The Oscar Wilde nod is intentional, I'm guessing.)

"Granny has a past," murmurs Mary.

"Have you made plans to see your admirer again?" smirks Isobel (Penelope Wilton).

Violet is speechless, and who ever thought I'd type that?

Meanwhile, fires flicker beneath the limpid blue eyes of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) as she traipses off to London for a gallery tour with her admirer, Simon Bricker (Richard E. Grant). Alone and vulnerable and pleasantly piqued by another man's attention, Cora summons up memories of her London youth: "My father was Jewish, and the money was new. But there was a lot of it, and I was pretty."

Shorn of her usual simpering, Ms. McGovern is exceptionally touching here, and when Robert makes insinuating remarks about Bricker's motives, Cora's native reticence gives a special sting to her rebuke: "You're allowed to be cross, but you're not allowed to be unjust." It's an under-remarked aspect of this show that its moral compass is a middle-aged American woman.

Best scene: the Russian émigrés getting weepy-eyed over Downton's Czarist relics.

Best line: I'll suppress the urge to nominate Lord G,'s "Surely there are some delights of Liverpool we have yet to share" or that homey coinage of Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol): "Sympathy butters no parsnips." And I'll note with no small relief that Violet's back in business. Isobel lofts her usual straight line: "Servants are human beings, too." Violet spikes it: "Yes, but preferably only on their days off." Let's not kid ourselves, though. What was the line that had you howling on the floor? "That's enough, Daisy. Come and carry the spotted dick." (And if the people of England didn't want us to laugh, they wouldn't have given it that name.)

This week's drinking game: A glass of sherry for every time frustrated maternal longing wells in the eyes of Edith (Laura Carmichael).

Department of other stuff...

  • Is Bricker really the best name for a would-be cad and seducer? It sounds like something that goes wrong in cricket. "Hedgepeth bowled a real bricker that last innings...."

  • Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finally identifies the guy who talked her into stealing her mistress's jewels: a nasty footman named Coyle. She never wants to see him again, so it's too bad no one told her about the Downton Rule of Exposition: Once you have named a character, he or she will appear before the season is out.

  • Hissing Thomas (Rob James-Collier) answers some ad in a London magazine about "Choose Your Own Path." Which could mean sexual liberation or Dale Carnegie. Here's hoping he finds something to bring color to those chalky cheeks. And I assume his "dad" will make some miraculous "recovery." Maybe we can even hold out hope for a father-son smackdown in the Christmas episode?

  • If you didn't know that Baron Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton," was a Conservative M.P., you might guess it from his characterization of the firebrand Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis), who insults her hosts at every turn and then, for good measure, insults their Czarist guests. She's the most tiresome possible representative of the Socialist left—like the first half hour of "Ninotchka" on endless loop.

  • Completely random fact: Baron Fellowes once auditioned to replace Hervé Villechaize on "Fantasy Island." How might history have changed if he'd been Tattoo 2.

Talk it up, Abbots. Will Violet and the prince get it on? Will Carson allow the name of Mrs. Patmore's nephew to be inscribed on the war memorial? Will Pip's Corner get 50 ugly modern houses? Is "informal conference of northern landowners" some kind of sick slang?

Till next week ...

Thomas and the Heterosexual Household

New York Times, January 25, 2015

Oh, Abbots, what is going on with Thomas (Rob James-Collier)? First he answers some ad for "Choose Your Own Path." Then he disappears to pay respects to his dying father, only the aforementioned father makes a full recovery—as we expected!—and that's when things get really weird. A missing spoon, a chest of vials, a bandage on Thomas's wrist and a sheen of Dr. Jekyll sweat on his face. Something tells me he's trying to flay the gay away. Which makes me wish I could venture back in time and show him the cautionary examples of Roy Cohn and Rock Hudson, but we must obey the laws of physics, Abbots, and leave Thomas to the mercy of whatever homophobic snake oil he's pumping into his veins.

Thomas might not be going to such lengths if he ever took a hard look at the heterosexuals in his household.

Exhibit 1: Love-starved Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), stringing along her creepy art historian and hearkening to such endearments as "Everything about Downton is beautiful, including its mistress." Not the last word in suave, but since Robert (Hugh Bonneville) appears only to have eyes for Isis the pooch, this is about as good as Countess G is going to get.

Exhibit 2: Dreary, drippy Edith (Laura Carmichael), still longing for her absent boyfriend, who was last reported getting knocked about by brownshirts. In perhaps the most awkward bit of historical exposition ever squeezed into a "Downton" script, Edith declares, "There's a trial going on in Munich of the leader of a group of thugs there." Oh, right, what's the fella's name again? Bitler? Schmittler? Fortunately, the earl rushes in with needed context: "I'm afraid we're going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war." Which is awfully prescient for a guy who thinks the wireless is a passing fad.

Exhibit 3: The once-formidable Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who seems to have lost some of the ice in her veins. She's all set to lower the boom on poor Lord Tony (Tom Cullen), but he takes the wounded-vanity angle with "Am I a bad lover?" Then he seals off all further protest with "We will get through this together." A welcome bit of push-back from a previously tedious character, and I only hope that he can be nudged somehow into "Fatal Attraction" territory, whatever the implications for Downton's rabbits.

Exhibit 4: The parents of Lady Rose (Lily James), who are taking the drastic step of D-I-V-O-R-C-E. "Shrimpie hasn't got a bean," cries Robert, and one might argue that any fellow burdened with the name Shrimpie (Peter Egan) would be doomed to unhappiness. "Promise you won't force me into a suitable marriage," his daughter entreats, "like you were forced." (Only if you promise to learn the difference between "like" and "as," he should answer.)

Contemplating the wreckage of Shrimpie et alia, Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith), announces that she never takes sides in a broken marriage "because however much the couple may strive to be honest, no one is ever in possession of the facts."

If you think she's drifting toward autobiography, you're right. Turns out that, many moons ago, the dashing Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) asked her to run away with him, and she almost took him up on it, but then her husband gave her a Faberge photo frame with pics of the kids, and she realized Lord Grantham wasn't quite the jerk she thought.

"Like all Englishmen of his type," she explains, "he hid his qualities beneath a thick blanket of convention."

"It was lucky you found out in time," says Isobel (Penelope Wilton). "If it was in time."

And then a gorgeous cloud wafts over Maggie Smith's eyes.

"I forget."

An unexpected and really kind of beautiful moment. A useful reminder, too, that "Downton" can, at its infrequent best, rise above the swale of soap opera. Bravo.

Best scene: The love declaration of Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). Like Isobel, I had written him off as a sack of potatoes—until he knocked us both for a loop with that charming marriage proposal: "I state freely and proudly, Isobel, that I've fallen in love with you, and I want to spend what remains of my life in your company. I believe I could make you happy. At any rate, I should very much like the chance to try." (Pause while I brush away this piece of grit in my eye.) No word yet on whether Isobel's game, but I confess I'm a bit worried on Lord M.'s behalf. Those who consort with Crawley women have a way of dying or disappearing en avance.

Best line: Isobel: "You only say that to sound clever." Violet: "I know." (Beat) "You should try it." (And don't you wish Isobel would try it and give up this "Wallace and Gromit" character she seems intent on playing?)

This week's drinking game: a big, honking gin and tonic for every time the light of learning shines in the eyes of Daisy (Sophie McShera).

Department of Other Stuff...

  • Some extremely intelligent Abbots (as if there were any other kind) have pointed out that Lady Mary, during her Liverpool snogfest, was in all likelihood using a cervical cap, which was more widespread in 1920s Britain than the diaphragm. I am happy to be educated about the history of contraceptive devices and a little troubled that the plot device continues to dangle. Just who is going to stumble across the thingy in the Bateses' corner cupboard? Could it be...

  • Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward)? Oh, he may act like a dim local constable, stumbling into the Downton kitchen every day with fresh questions about the Green affair, but my hunch is he's the Lieutenant Columbo of Yorkshire, quietly circling a noose around the true killer. O.K., probably not, but isn't it pretty to think so? And by the way, when Anna said, "I just wish we could forget all about Mr. Green," didn't you find yourself wishing the same thing? Any juice left in this lemon?

  • Fascinating scene in which the Crawley dames pay a call on those destitute Czarists. "I never thought it would be like this," murmurs Violet. What she really means: There but for the innate British resistance to social upheaval go I.

  • And speaking of social upheaval: After once more being inexplicably invited to dinner with the Crawleys, that 24-7 agitator Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) declares that Lord G "would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave."

"Only one thing I would like," bellows Lord G, "and that I would like passionately! It is to see you leave this house and never come back!" So saying, he flings his napkin on the table and storms out. That puts this dinner only at the level of my third worst Thanksgiving, but neatly demarcates the political fault lines that have been rumbling beneath this show from the start. "Get out of my house" is pretty much the same message as "Get out of my country" and, at this point, equally futile. When last we checked, Sarah Bunting was still at the table.

** At the risk of incurring Miss Bunting's scorn, may I add how much I loved the completely gratuitous fashion show that popped up halfway through? It's the kind of sequence they used to drop into old Hollywood movies just to show off the studio's duds. ("You're lovely to look at/Delightful to knowww....")

We also got a nice glimpse of the Two Faces of Mary as, with one breath, she dismisses Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)—"He looks after the pigs"—and in the next instant squeals at a passing frock: "Oh, yummy!" La belle dame sans merci.

So am I wrong, Abbots, or are things starting to pick up? Will Bricker (Richard E. Grant) make his big move on Cora? Will the earl run for political office on the platform of "Expand but Don't Spoil"? Will Daisy take up rocket science? Will Thomas sprout a third eye? Will Prince Kuragin's missing wife confound expectations and turn up as a Hong Kong ... taxi driver?

Next week!

Rumble With Lord G!

New York Times, February 1, 2015

Who would have guessed, Abbots? Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, great man of Yorkshire, veteran of the Boer War, member of one of the most distinguished peerages in the land... knows how to pimp slap.

Now it may not get him much play time in the Super Bowl—or even a stint as backup dominatrix to Katy Perry. But it sure comes in handy when he enters his bedchamber to find his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) in some kind of intimate talking situation with her purring esthete suitor, Simon Bricker (the already-to-be-missed Richard E. Grant). Both Cora and Bricker are still standing and clothed and not noticeably perspiring, but Earl G. rightly surmises that the conversation has moved beyond Piero della Francesca.

But we knew it was coming, didn't we, Abbots? As soon as Robert said he was guest of honor at... some dinner for... officers... oh, I don't know—the point was he was going to be gone, definitively gone, on the night in question, and by the time he said that, Abbots—by the third time, I mean—didn't you grasp as clearly as Daisy (Sophie McShera) now grasps the basic facts of English history that he would come back a little bit early? And find his wife and Bricker in their dressing gowns?

Bricker, to his credit, doesn't back down. "When you chose to ignore a woman like Cora, you must have known that not every man would be as blind as you." No wonder Earl G. gives him the back of his hand! Before you know it, they're tussling all over the bed and floor. It's not exactly a saloon brawl; if anything, the Earl, in his regimental costume, resembles a very large red sofa that has unexpectedly tumbled on a guest and is slowly squeezing the life out of him.

Sanity prevails, and Bricker exits the next morning with as much dignity as he can muster. I wonder if he hasn't discovered a new career path: bringing the healing glow of flirtation to neglected aristo-wives. I could see women paying good money for that therapeutic service, but the therapy, unfortunately, has yet to kick in with the Crawleys. When last seen, Robert was giving Cora a cold shoulder perfected over centuries of English winters. Isis, you bitch, you've won.

Well, we're used to Robert and his epic sulks, aren't we? And if Episode 5 is about anything, it's the fragility of the male ego.

Just look at how far women have to bend to preserve the amour-propre of the house butler. When Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) gets a small inheritance from a dead aunt, Carson (Jim Carter) is the first one she turns to for investment advice. Of course, he does nothing more than pass on secondhand knowledge from Earl G. and pretend he knows the difference between publicly and privately held corporations, so why'd she even bother? "Because he's a man, I suppose."

And when she ultimately uses the money to buy a cottage, Carson gets very snippy indeed: "This is very small beer." "It's my kind of beer," retorts Mrs. P, "and I know how to drink it." But recognizing just how far she can push, she immediately relapses to "It's good to hear advice from a man of the world." In sidles that minx Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan): "We feel thoroughly protected."

Protected, yes. That's what Bates (Brendan Coyle) wants Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to feel. "Nothing bad is ever going to happen to you again," he declares. "We'll sit by the fire with all our children around us, and I'll make certain that you're safe." Anna, having had some hands-on experience with contraceptive packages, edges away from that Duggars-y vision: "I'm not sure about having children all around us." But let's be honest, what's she really thinking? Dude, I've been pulling your chestnuts out of the fire from the day we met. I'll be doing it till the day we die. Who's keeping whom safe here?

Meanwhile, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has been enjoying the ego-boosting and almost Hegelian experience of two historical forces vying for his soul. On one side: the prickly Tory gentility of Earl G. On the other: the hair-trigger Socialism of Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis). Once more I had to remind myself that Sarah and Tom were supposed to be warm for each other—there's never been much on-screen evidence—so I was in no way surprised to see Sarah get the Classic Male Brushoff. "Maybe we should call it a day," says Tom. "Before one of us gets hurt." Then, answering the silent prayers of a million viewers, he packs her off to Lancashire with a chaste kiss and four passionate, heart-thrumming words: "I'm glad we met." A gushing romantic soul to the end, our Tom.

Best scene: That richly realized encounter between Violet, the Dowager Countess, (Maggie Smith) and Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), in which she struggles to define the change that has come over her frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton). "I do not know who she is. I do not know what it is she wants."

"Are you saying you liked her better when she was more middle class?" the doctor asks.

"I wouldn't go that far," snaps Violet, before conjuring up the specter of Isobel's marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). "Do you wish to see her live a life devoid of industry and moral worth? A hollow existence in a large and drafty house with a man who bores her to death?"

Hard not to hear Violet describing her own marriage down to a tee, but thanks to the deft playing of Dame Maggie and Mr. Robb, the melancholy stays just beneath the surface—as does the curious possibility that Isobel is the best friend Violet has ever had.

Best line: So many to choose from, Abbots! I will admit to a giggle at Carson's "Now if you'll allow me, I will go up and ring the gong." (Is that what they're calling it these days?) And, yes, a gut-wrenching guffaw at Rose's "I give tea to some Russian refugees every Tuesday and Thursday. They love cake." (Is that what they're calling it these days?) But for me, time stopped in the most pleasant possible way when Violet, upon learning that someone has launched a nudist colony in Essex, exclaims: "In Essex? Isn't it terribly damp?" To be honest, she had me at Essex, that's how good Dame Maggie is. I never had the privilege of seeing her as Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell on the London stage, but I fully believe she would have brought the same killer inflection to "A handbag?"

This week's drinking game: A long swig of Guinness any time a character, upstairs or down, speaks of the difficulty and/or necessity of change. Who am I kidding? That's the Season 5 drinking game.

Department of other stuff....

  • Oh, Rose. Dear, sweet, vivacious, not-the-sharpest-arrow-in-the-quiver Rose (Lily James). When a young man tells you he has "a bit of Russian blood," it's not--well, it's really not the thing to squeal "How extraordinary!" Because, of course, it's not extraordinary, is it? Russia being a rather big country with millions of people. You—you do see that, don't you, Rose?

    Well, I suppose one benefit of having such an unfurnished head is that no prejudice can take root there, so off you go with your Jewish boyfriend. Spit spot! And may this transgressive love affair end more happily than the last one.


  • Are you not relishing the light note of savagery that Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) brings to the mix? And what a delightfully tense meal with Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery). Is it wrong to wish they both kicked their men to the curb and ran off together for a scandalous Sapphic weekend? In Essex? (At least they wouldn't have to worry about contraception.)


  • Under the influence of his mad-scientist drugs, Hissing Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is looking particularly Kabuki this week—or else he's auditioning for the Yorkshire Little Theater production of "Sweeney Todd." Ten to one he faceplants in somebody's soup.


  • Am I alone in being horrified by the plot to snatch Marigold from her adoptive mother and pop her in some French school? Last I checked, that was called kidnapping. "But what else are we to do?" asks Violet. I dunno ... leave the kid where she is and tell your granddaughter to get a life? Sheesh.

So speak, Abbots. Will the Marigold abduction come to pass? And just whom is Edith (Laura Carmichael) phoning at episode's end? Will the Russian refugees develop diabetic shock? Are Isobel and Violet ever going to finish that jigsaw puzzle? Will Mrs. Patmore's humble little cottage become the stepping stone to a hospitality empire that reduces Downton to luxury guest villas?

Most urgently, are we to believe recent tabloid reports that next season will be "Downton's" last? No confirmation as yet, but end times may be here before we know it. Tremble, Abbots.

Next week!

Prayers for Lord G's Truest, Furriest Love

New York Times, February 8, 2015

Isis? Isis, can you hear me?

It looks ominous, Abbots. The yellow lab with the perky haunches now lies prostrate on the Crawley rug. No pep in her step, no wag in her tail.

Now it may simply be that she's grasped how old she is. Some 70 dog years have elapsed, after all, since she came to the Abbey (succeeding Pharaoh) and Downton has always been much a tougher place on animals than humans.

By Julian Fellowes's own reckoning, the Earl of Grantham is now 65, yet he looks just as flinty and tweedy as when he was squandering his wife's money in Season 1 (and Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays him, is a mere 51).

Isis, by contrast, has spent all this time stalking vermin and lying round in drafty hallways and wagging her tail on cue—not to mention absorbing and filtering the human toxins of longing, loneliness, rage. No wonder

Time's winged chariot is flapping in her ears.

Not that anyone seems to care. The only Crawley who expresses concern at first is Isis's sometime romantic rival Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who wonders if maybe the dog has "picked up a germ," sweetly conjuring a world in which bacteria move singly.

"She's quite fat," observes that fount of solicitude, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). "Perhaps she's pregnant."

The only other diagnosis Mary brings to the table is that Isis has swallowed a dead squirrel. I think it more likely that she's swallowed Michael Gregson, so swiftly and completely has he vanished from the "Downton" plotline. And don't tell me about his "remains" turning up somewhere in Germany. After a year or so of moldering, one Englishman looks pretty much like the next.

Well, having finally received confirmation of her beloved's death, Edith (Laura Carmichael) bestirs herself to march over to the Drewe household and, brandishing Marigold's birth certificate and more than a hint of droit de seigneur, drags her little girl away to the haven of some dreary London flat.

Maybe she keeps a little Prozac in her bag, too, because Marigold makes nary a squawk at being lateraled, although she does look a little wary when Edith coos, "I'll order some ice cream and a glass of champagne, and we'll be as jolly as you like." I think we've just learned the two components of the Downton Abbey baby formula, and if indeed all the Crawley babies were weaned on it, so much would be explained.

(Crawley babies. Ha! Get it?)

In making sense of Episode 6's other plot threads, we might usefully borrow a categorization scheme from Alice Munro.

Loveship. Blink twice, and suddenly Lady Rose (Lily James) is on the brink of something permanent with Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber). The young man's Jewishness appears to be only the slightest of hitches—Cora's half-Jewish, after all—and all that remains to be seen is whether the two little Cheshire cats will ever stop flashing their perfect, white, un-Englishy teeth at each other.

But can loveship persevere at the Abbey? With Robert sulking in his dressing room over his wife's recent flirtation, Cora is the one who has to step up (again). "If you can honestly say you have never let a flirtation get out of hand since we married," she says, "if you have never given a woman the wrong impression, then by all means stay away. Otherwise I expect you back in my room tonight." Robert recalls, perhaps, the time he was snogging with a maid while his wife lay perilously ill with Spanish flu and hies himself back.

Hateship. Here I hope you'll permit me a moment of gloating. The thing is, Abbots, I never cheat and watch ahead, no matter what's happened on the other side of the pond, but as soon as Mary Crawley's contraceptive device was introduced, I knew in my heart of hearts that, like Chekhov's gun, it would "go off."

And so it has. Bates (Brendan Coyle) thinks Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is using birth control because she doesn't want to have babies with "a murderer." And with that, it all comes out—or at least some of it. Bates bought a ticket to London with the thought of killing Green but didn't go through with it because then he'd be sure to hang and he couldn't do that to Anna, so if they can just find the ticket he bought to London and show it wasn't torn, oh, but the ticket was in his coat and now it's missing and ... my aching head.

Abbots, the Death of Mr. Green has been investigated more thoroughly than the Iran-Contra scandal. The manpower alone: Scotland Yard detectives and local constables and plainclothes officers stationed just on the chance that someone will walk by. Was Mr. Green a Belgravian duke? A Prussian anarchist? What can explain this harnessing of the national-security apparatus?

More to come, of course.

Friendship. The snake oil that Hissing Thomas (Rob James-Collier) has been injecting in his veins turns out to be nothing more than unsterilized saline solution, which accounts for the fever and the seriously nasty abscess on the right buttock. Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) tells the underbutler there's no cure for what ails him and advises him to "accept the burden that chance has seen fit to lay upon you and to fashion as good a life as you're able."

And who should be there with a friendly clap on the shoulder but Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), who concludes that Thomas's course of electroshock and dubious chemicals and self-help literature is, on the whole, brave? Me, I'm still waiting for him to hook up with Noel Coward or the young John Gielgud. Choose your own path, indeed.

Courtship. Or, as Mary Crawley likes to call it: War.

She's trying to offload hot-but-dim Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), but rather than make herself mousy or dumpy, she descends on her hairdresser like Achilles strapping on armor and emerges with the most au courant of bobs. Even her competitor, the delicious and please-let-her-stay-forever Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman), is impressed enough to call Mary "a cross between a Vogue fashion plate and a case of dynamite."

Mabel and Mary are riding in some kind of point-to-point horse race, and what with the men in the mix, too, and all those armbands and steeplechases, didn't you assume that death or serious injury lay in wait? Surely one of those aristo necks would snap like melba toast? But no, they all get home safe and sound, and Tony is enamored enough of his ex's equestrian abilities to call her "a positive centaur." We will label that a compliment and hope that the romantic maneuverings of Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) come to some kind of fruition. For somebody.

Best scene: I can't remember having my heart quite so punched as when the stricken Mrs. Drewe hands Marigold's stuffed bear to Edith. "She won't sleep else." Kudos to Emma Lowndes for showing us a mother driven to extremes of rage and tenderness. Thomas Hardy would have written a whole book about this woman, and heaven help Edith as she tries to top this maternal gold standard.

Best line: I love how the bons mots of Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) are beginning to smack of senile free association. "All this endless thinking. It's very overrated. ... I blame the war. Before 1914, nobody thought about anything at all...."

This week's drinking game: A Dubonnet cocktail on ice for every time Spratt (Jeremy Swift) rolls his eyes.

I Google so you don't have to: Pola Negri. Polish-born silent-film star who flung herself on Rudolph Valentino's coffin. You're welcome.

Department of other stuff....

  • Didn't Earl G look cute with the grandkids?


  • Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) says, if his wife were dead, he'd ask Violet to run off with him right now. Uh, where? Give him credit, though, for being Violet's most perceptive critic: "You think to be unhappy in a marriage is ill bred."


  • Putting the cart before the horse, Carson (Jim Carter) asks Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) if she'd like to ... invest in a property together. "As a business venture," he quickly adds." "Go and ring that gong," advises Mrs. H, and if it gets any smuttier, I may have to get parental controls. (Have we ever once heard the gong?)


  • Isobel (Penelope Wilton) has confided that she plans to marry Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). Which, she should know, is the clearest sign it will never happen. Never, never, never.

So what do you think, Abbots? What's going to block Isobel's path to the altar? What's going to tumble out of Molesley's (Kevin Doyle) 5th volume of Cambridge Modern History? What's that gas-station tumbler that Prince K is serving tea out of? Will Isis be tumbling through Heaven's doggie door before season's end?

And when Violet says Spratt "rules us with a rod of iron," she doesn't ... I mean, it's not....

Next week!

The Crawleys Should Have Sent Their Regrets

New York Times, February 15, 2015

Abbots, nothing gets between the Crawleys and their dinner.

Not an absconded daughter. Not a dying dog. Certainly not common sense.

Consider the now irretrievable moment when Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) floats the idea of giving a dinner so that his sons can meet his fiancée, Isobel (Penelope Wilton). Now any reasonable person, upon hearing this idea, would have taken a bow and arrow and shot it straight through its silly heart and then danced on it until it was good and dead. As long-term viewers will recall, the last time Lord M's son Larry (Charlie Anson) dined with the Crawleys, he slipped a drug in Tom Branson's drink, called him "a grubbly little chauffeur chap" and left a trail of white-hot rancor.

But reason doesn't prevail at Downton, Abbots. Everybody in earshot thinks Lord M's idea is ripping, and why don't we host this doomed affair right here because no one does disastrous dinner parties quite like us?

Well, Larry, bless his dark soul, picks up right where he left off. "Mrs. Crawley, a decent middle-class woman with neither birth nor fortune, is expecting to fill our mother's shoes as one of the leaders of the county. Is she capable of it? Or will her inevitable failure prove a source of misery?" His dad suggests he leave, but nobody puts Larry in a corner, and out comes the C-word—"chauffeur"—and, for good measure, a slap at the Jewish Sinderbys, and Tom (Allen Leech), who apparently needs no drug to get his Irish up, springs to his feet. "Why don't you just get out, you bastard?" ("Suddenly we've slipped into a foreign tongue," murmurs Violet, the Dowager Countess.)

It all ends just as badly as anyone could've expected, and when

Lord M suggests, "We'll laugh about this one day," I confess I felt an urge to cuff him about his bony head. But in the next breath, he reveals that his sons "take after their mother in every possible way," and with that, the whole frosty expanse of Lord M's life revealed itself. Hard bitter words in drafty rooms: poor Dickie.

And, while we're on the subject of cold marriages, poor Princess Kuragin, stranded somewhere in Hong Kong and dangling like a sword over Violet's (Maggie Smith) future.

Is it any wonder Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) seems to view matrimony with the same horror she brings to sun exposure? Having failed to persuade Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) to drop his claim on her, she resorts to staging a public smooch outside a movie theater with Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden). Tony spots them, and before you know it, fists are flying and women are screaming and walls are spattered with blue blood....

Oh, wait, that doesn't happen at all. Tony casually concedes defeat, and Mary wishes him all the happiness in the world, and it's all so damn civil that Tony's once-and-future squeeze Mabel (Catherine Steadman) is moved to snap: "I don't want to hurry anyone, but can we bring this to an end?" God, how I will miss this woman, but now that this plot strand is at an end (or seems to be) does anyone share my feeling of anticlimax? I mean, I was expecting Tony G to go the full amour fou, but all it takes to send him on his way, apparently, is the gentlest of nudges.

As for Charles the orchestrator, I kept waiting for him to reveal his ulterior motive—i.e., he wants to drive his piton into the white cliffs of Mary—but then he confirms he's going off to Poland and won't be back for at least six months. So what was he going to all this trouble for? And what good is a love triangle that doesn't at least resolve into a line segment? Barring some last-minute twist, Abbots, I fear we've been spinning our wheels.

A sound that Tom Branson is well acquainted with. After an entire season of will-he-or-won't-he-get-the-hell-out, he announces that he has sent a letter to a "cousin in Boston." Now, if any other character had said that, I would smell spin-off, but given that my interest in Tom would die the moment his ship leaves Southampton, I have to wonder if the writers are just looking for some cargo hold to tuck him away in.

Best scene: Who am I kidding? Isis's sendoff. Oh, I held out hope, Abbots, that James Herriot, Yorkshire's most famous vet, could transport himself back a decade or two, but Isis spends what appear to be her final hours in the Granthams' bed—going to her end with, as Robert (Hugh Bonneville) describes it, "two people who love her and each other very much on either side."

No, I'm—I'm fine. Really, I'm fine.

Best line: I admit I giggled when Edith (Laura Carmichael) unveiled her scheme to immigrate to America and become "Mrs. Thing." (As someone needs to tell her, that would make her daughter Miss Thing. Or, even worse, Thing Two.) But the true Mrs. Thing is, of course, Violet, who shuts down any notion of bringing Robert up to speed on family business with "He's a man. Men don't have rights." Maybe you felt a twinge of pity for Robert's dad.

This week's drinking game: a swig of British oyster stout every time Mary says an unkind word about Edith. (It happens a lot, so pace yourself.)

I Google so you don't have to: The John Barrymore movie that Tony and Mabel were watching was most likely "Beau Brummel," a historical drama about the famous Regency dandy and bathing advocate (who actually spelled his name "Brummell." Hollywood).

Department of other stuff....

  • Marigold is now, thanks to some fast talking and a scramble or two on the railway platform, an official member of the Downton clan. God help her.


  • I could be wrong, but I don't believe we've ever seen Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Denker (Sue Johnston) in the same frame, have we? If so, that confirms my theory that Denker and Spratt ARE THE SAME PERSON. It's like a weird Golden Twenties "Fight Club," which totally explains why Violet is so calm in the face of Spratt's resignation. You'll be back. One way or another....


  • Oh, Rose (Lily James). Dear sweet Rose. How charming you look in robin's-egg blue! But here's the thing. When your boyfriend suggests that you look for Edith in—well, the place where she works—it's really not the thing to exclaim, "Of course! How clever you are." Because it's—it's not that clever, is it? As your boyfriend says, it's "rather obvious." You do see that, don't you, Rose?

    Well, never mind. The bloom is still on you, and I hope you and your handsome lawyer have lots of flawlessly complected children. And when he starts hungering for stimulating conversation, maybe that's time for a healing overture to Sarah Bunting. (But don't invite her to dinner.) And if you need any practice before the Big Day, there's a certain package in the Bates' cottage, nuff said.


  • Speaking of Sarah B, I swear I detected her ventriloquial cadences behind Daisy's (Sophie McShera) propaganda: "We're trapped, held fast in a system that gives us no value and no freedom." I was just about to retort, but Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) saved me the trouble: "Oh, speak for yourself."


  • The servant stories were a little drab this week, no? Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is getting less hissy, it's true, but Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) is still anguished, Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) are still pining for a family, Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) are still pooling their ... savings. But, like the answer to an unspoken prayer, we saw and heard the gong. Now we know how Mrs. H feels.


  • And finally, Abbots, I bow to your hive mind. Last week I misidentified which of Thomas' buttocks bore the offending abscess. Did you turn the other cheek? No! Did I wonder why you were scrutinizing the underbutler's tuchis quite so intently? Well, maybe. Point is that, at the risk of sounding insensitive to Thomas's plight, we've straightened it all out.

So congrats to us all. But what of the coming week? Will Barrow be able to sit for long stretches? Will little Sybbie ever speak beyond monosyllables? Will any child on "Downton Abbey" ever attain the status of actual character? Will Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) realize that "cancer" is not just a word but a thing? And just who bangs the gong in Representative Aaron Schock's office?

Only two more episodes!

Yes, It's Called the Hornby Hotel

New York Times, February 22, 2015

Abbots: Remember when your mother told you not to make a nasty face because a cold wind would come along and freeze it in place? And you didn't believe her? And then years went by, and you're staring into the face of Susan MacClare, Marchioness of Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls), and you realize your mother was right all along?

It was an ill wind indeed that fixed Lady F.'s features into that attitude of pouchy petulance, and it must have done a number on her soul, too. From the moment she turns up for her daughter's wedding, she exerts a kind of Dementor spell on the proceedings, draining joy from every pore. She kvetches about everything from the Bombay journey to the Southampton train; she insults her daughter's soon-to-be in-laws; she springs the news of her impending divorce at the worst possible time; and for good measure she frames the groom.

Of course, she had a little help with that last part. Didn't you feel a premonitory chill, Abbots, when you learned that Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber) was planning a stag party? At the Hornby Hotel? Sure enough, Atticus is inveigled by a call girl into what seem like compromising positions for a hidden photographer.

I would have expected some kind of camera flash, but maybe my attention was just waylaid by that alarmingly deep furrow in Atticus's abdomen. At any rate, I roused myself quickly enough to wonder if the framer-upper was Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner), who wants to keep his dynasty from absorbing "the same prejudices as everyone else who shops at Harrods" and who has scant patience for that "little shiksa" Rose (Lily James).

(Here is where I pause to consult the Abbot hive-mind. Wasn't "shiksa" a far more insulting term back in the 1920s—i.e., roughly synonymous with "slut"? Does Lord S. really think Rose hangs out in the same joints as the lady's maid, Denker (Sue Johnston)?

Well, Lord S. may have a distaste for cardsharps, undercooked fish and divorce (which he equates with "weakness, degradation, scandal, failure"), but he draws the line at sting operations. Which leaves only one other suspect, Abbots, and it may be that Susan's face has more give than I thought, because I could swear it grew even frownier when her stratagems failed to halt true love's course.

"Am I just expected to be a good loser?" she asks.

"It's too late for that, my dear," murmurs Aunt Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).

In other news, poor Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is languishing in jail, an accused murderess. And if you're wondering why I buried that lead sentence, it's because we're all in jail with her, too—the Penitentiary of Moribund Plot Lines. I'm weary, Abbots. Weary of Mr. Green and the pained, darting glances his name induces. Weary of the steady drip of police inquiry. And weary, too, of having our collective intelligence insulted. Even if we accept the notion that Scotland Yard has waged a massive two-year manhunt on behalf of a valet, why would the police wait so long to put Anna in the lineup? How would a witness be able to identify her after all that time? How could she be arrested simply because she was seen "on the pavement near Mr. Green just before he fell"? Wouldn't someone have to catch her in the act of shoving him? Doesn't anybody at Scotland Yard have better things to do?

Clearly, the Bateses are the characters whom Baron Fellowes most loves to torment, but suffering doesn't necessarily make people more interesting. Look at drippy, dreary Edith (Laura Carmichael), who, under plot duress, has reverted to a maternal cipher. All the more reason to treasure the moment when she catches her father pining over his son-in-law-never-to-be, Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen). "Give it up, Papa," she snaps. "It's a pipe dream."

Edith! You're alive!

Best scene: The Flintshire-Sinderby dinner. Susan comes armed for battle with an anti-Semitic barb for each member of the groom's family: "What a peculiar name. ...Do you have any English blood? ... I always think of you as nomads, drifting around the world." But then she makes the mistake of asking if they have trouble getting staff workers. "Not very," responds Lady Sinderby (Penny Downie). "But then, we're Jewish, so we pay well."

As my kids would say: You just got pwned, Susan. Indeed, after long and careful deliberation, I have concluded that Lady S. is my new Best Gal Pal. The deal was clinched the moment she cooed in her husband's ear: "If you do anything to stop this marriage, anything at all, I will leave you. And then you'll have a scandal worthy of the name." Lady S.? Let's you and me make a night of it with Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) and close down the Hornby bar.

Best line: I quite liked Mary's (Michelle Dockery) gibe at Edith: "Why does she have to carry on as if she'd invented motherhood?" That pretty much anatomizes the show's Edith Problem. Denker is also bringing it with Spratt (Jeremy Swift): "How else would you like to be summoned? By Joshua's trumpet?" But I must bow to Shrimpie (Peter Egan) and his economy of words. When Susan tries to wrest damning evidence from his grip, he need only snarl (and not for the first time, I'm guessing), "Get down, you cat!"

This week's drinking game: A bowl of Regent's Punch for every time Daisy (Sophie McShera) whines. Oh, what a little rain cloud she's become, Abbots! "Sometimes I think my life has no possibilities at all. ... I feel so resentful, so discontented. It's as if my whole life were a prison I have to go back to. ... How empty my life's been. ..." Hey, toots? Give it a rest.

I Google so you don't have to (part 1): The heiress Hannah Rothschild did indeed marry the 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1878 and remained devoted to him until her death at 39.

I Google so you don't have to (part 2): In the 1919 Amritsar massacre, British soldiers under the command of Brig. Gen. Reginald Dyer fired into a crowd of nonviolent Indian protesters, killing hundreds. It is considered a seminal event in the dismantling of British colonial rule.

Department of other stuff ...

  • Speaking of India ... was I wrong to hope Susan would bring O'Brien back with her? I still miss that soap-wielding monster with her aura of unappeasable rage. Alas, Baron Fellowes did some fancy footwork and got O'Brien reassigned to "the new governor's wife." And if that doesn't bring down the British Raj, nothing will.


  • With what agonizing slowness does the sun rise on Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville). Frowning over Marigold, he ponders: "There is something about her. ... I don't know, a sense of déjà vu. ... Can't quite put my finger on it. ..." But he finally does, bless him, and let's give him credit for admitting how rare that is and for looking so adorable as he Crawleys on the floor with his grandkids. "What would my father say?" he wonders.


  • It's nobody's fault, exactly, but I haven't been able to take Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) seriously ever since my friend Mary Kay pointed out his resemblance to the World's Most Interesting Man in the Dos Equis ad campaign. When he mutters things like "I know my own bearings" and "I don't seek scandal, only love," I keep imagining him doing photo shoots for premium vodka brands. It might help, I suppose, if I felt even a crackle of sumfin-sumfin with him and Violet, but I think she's got more going on with Spratt.


  • Denker turns out to be quite the good-time gal, stumbling back in a drunken haze from a place called the Velvet Violin and singing—what else?—"It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Denker tries to put her hooks into the temporary servant boy Andy (Michael Fox), but Thomas (Rob James-Collier), with his unerring eye for ingenuous jug-eared lads, comes to the rescue. And here's where I want to remind Baron Fellowes that Thomas is in London now—not too far from Bloomsbury—and could be hooking up with Lytton Strachey or E.M. Forster or, depending on the night, John Maynard Keynes. Is Andy really as good as it gets?


  • Daisy's father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), may be the most praiseworthy, least engrossing character in "Downton" history.


  • Gorgeous music as the Crawleys hit the road to London.


  • Some Abbots have theorized that Lady Mary and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) are being nudged toward the altar. Let's eavesdrop.

Mary: "You're about to leave and take Sybbie with you. It's too much to bear. ...It's a dagger in my heart. I don't know what I'll do without you."

Tom: "We have our memories, you and I."

Mary: "But now you'll take them away with you to Boston."

Tom: "And I'll cherish them when I get there."

Best-case scenario: Tom drags Mary to America and gets her to eat. They intermarry with the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Their great-grandkids shovel unholy amounts of snow.

So speak, Abbots. Will Tom ever leave? Ever? Will Daisy pass her exams and drop Downton like an old shoe? Will Andy somehow worm his way into her job? Will Michael Gregson's name be on Ripon's next war memorial? Will Lady Mary discover she is the Queen of the Upper Nile?

Already getting teary. Just one more!

In the Finale, Mary Meets Mr. Handsome

New York Times, March 1, 2015

Oh, Abbots. It can't be over, can it? Another season, gone as quickly as a grouse flying over Brancaster Castle.

So let us keep sorrow at bay by reminding ourselves: We've finally pulled abreast. Oh, sure, those viewers in Britain got their usual three-month head start on us (just as the Brits used to get first crack at the latest Dickens installment). Viewers in the United States who were too impatient to wait for the weekly drip of revelation snapped up their DVDs and sometimes blurted out key plot developments over a few too many Manhattans. They had us in their spoiler-alert grip, Abbots, but no longer. Democracy reigns.

So now that we're all on the same plane of knowledge, what can we say for sure about this fast-receding season? (For Baron Fellowes' thoughts, read this.)

Longstanding relationships (the Bateses, Robert and Cora) were tested and left standing. Longstanding plot lines were either resolved (Edith's daughter) or abruptly discarded (Mary Crawley's sort-of-not-really love triangle). Characters like Violet, the dowager countess, were enlarged with new layers and backstories; others showed clear signs of outliving their narrative usefulness. From all indications, we have seen the last of:

  1. Mary's dim suitor Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who gets a fine consolation prize in Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman).


  2. MBoston-bound Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who has taken longer to quit the scene than Cher.


  3. MRose (Lily James) and Atticus (Matt Barber), who are heading off to New York. (Synchronously, Ms. James has veered off toward "Cinderella," a part she seems genetically modified for.)

One way or another, the Downton family is fragmenting. Just like the Downton estate (headed for subdivision) and the Downton ethos, a victim to those winds of sociopolitical change that Carson (Jim Carter) keeps mumbling on about. As servants like Daisy (Sophie McShera) begin to imagine better lives, as Socialists like Sarah Bunting make scenes in fine dining rooms, as Edwardian ideals give way to harsh postwar realities (excellent historical timeline here), look for the Crawleys and their retinues to feel and fight their own anachronism.

We know they'll lose, but what's a historical drama without gallant fools engaged in rear-guard actions? So carry on, you lovely, maddening elitists, along with your lovely, maddening retinues. We'll be griping and grumbling, and we'll be watching.

In the meantime, may I suggest just one incremental reform? On the evidence of Episode 9, you need better legal counsel.

I'm sure the Earl of Grantham's lawyer, George Murray (Jonathan Coy), has a few gray cells poking around in there, but several years after botching the defense of Bates (Brendan Coyle), he seems bound and determined to do the same with Mrs. Bates (Joanne Froggatt), even going so far as to declare the police case against her airtight when—as we all know, Abbots—it has more holes than, well, a grouse flying over Brancaster Castle.

Turns out that, when Anna was a teenager, she cut her stepfather-molester with a knife, and while she was never charged, that mysteriously reconstructed incident has created some kind of—oh, I don't know, "pattern" of violence that will sweep Anna straight to the gallows, and in the name of Perry Mason, can't some fine lawyerly mind sweep this whole business to sea? Instead, it falls to Bates (Mr. Coyle) to confess to Mr. Green's murder and then vamoose to Ireland.

Now if Sarah Bunting were still around, I would point out to her that, even without benefit of a welfare state, no one enjoys better job security than the Bateses. It doesn't matter how much leave they take or how many heinous crimes they're accused of, their jobs are always kept open, their home fires are kept burning, and free (if incompetent) legal care abounds. Sweden could do no better.

At any rate, Anna is sprung on bail, and Murray declares, "We're going forward and not backward," but to me, it feels like we're on the same leaking story pontoon, which only stays afloat because Baron Fellowes' legs are kicking as madly as they can. By episode's end, even he must be a little fatigued because a York publican turns up to give Bates an alibi, and the witness who ID'd Anna sprouts "doubts," and lo and behold, it's Christmas, and who should pop out of the mistletoe, as it were, but Bates?

My first impulse was to wonder if he was a ghost. My second was to marvel at the freedom with which wanted felons limped about in that pre-TSA era. "We'll worry about everything else later," Bates croons to his missus. Which is maybe what Baron Fellowes murmurs to himself just before bed. Given the Bateses' amorous Noel clinch, it's hard to believe any contraceptive package will come into play tonight. (Twenty to one the resulting child is called Holly. Or Ivy.)

Love emerges when you least expect it, Abbots. Sometimes all it takes (and this will give aid and comfort to Freudians everywhere) is for a lot of men to pull out their big guns. The Sinderbys have rented Brancaster for a weeklong shooting party, and no one is immune. Even Edith (Laura Carmichael) loses a bit of her Mildred Pierce-y daughter fixation and dances a few rounds with agreeable castle agent Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton). We wish them both well. (And by the way, Edith needs to let that hair flow. With her locks down to her shoulders, she goes from librarian to licentious.)

But no one is more moved by the sight of men and their gauges than Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who finds herself unaccountably aroused by the marksmanship of a handsome stranger named Henry Talbot.

Now I don't mean to crow, but as soon as I heard Matthew Goode was signed up for the final episode, I immediately discerned that his plot function would be roughly the same as it was in "The Good Wife": to melt the froideur of a stern, ashen, erotically complicated brunette. Sure enough, he shows up on the Northumberland moors without even an establishing close-up but with enough swagger to remind us that Mary needs a chap who looks as good as Tony G but treats her as roughly as Inspector Vyner.

"Heavens," exclaims Mary, watching Talbot climb into his car. "What a snappy chariot." Now I would've thought she'd be a little skittish of automobiles, given how her late husband met his end, but she seems to be all over Henry T and his Bentley.

Amazing to think, Abbots, that after two seasons of arid flirtation and Liverpool lovefests, Our Miss Flint has found someone to spark off. And the secret to his allure? He doesn't give a damn if she likes him or not. Look for Talbot to stick around.

Love doesn't bloom for all the Downton-ites. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) briefly holds out hope that the sons of Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) will allow her marriage to go forward, but that's snuffed out by the arrival of Larry Grey's letter. "I suppose you'll take it lying down," mutters Violet. "I'll take it lying down," answers Isobel, "standing up or in a semi-recumbent posture." And if Lord M knew how kinky she was, he'd have proposed a lot sooner.

An even more illicit love lies squirreled away in the wormy soul of Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner). Through the machinations of Barrow (who has decided to use his powers for—well, a more acceptable evil) Lord S is confronted with his mistress and love child. The day is saved by Rose, of all people, who sallies in with the Crawleys to palisade the girlfriend in good manners, but why, may I ask, is Lord S ordering out for sex when he's got a wife who can make the act of reading a book look like foreplay?

Love's a tricky business, Abbots, and to Violet (Maggie Smith), it brings only the prospect of ruin. Years ago, she tried to elope with Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), only to be waylaid by the Princess Kuragin, who dragged her out of the carriage, flung her into a cab and sent her back to her husband. (Which sort of conflicts with how Violet previously portrayed the affair's end—remember the Faberge photo frames?—but never mind.) Violet is extremely grateful not to have become a Tolstoy heroine, and that's why she's worked so hard to reunite the prince with his long-lost wife (Jane Lapotaire).

Here is where I register my sadness that the producers couldn't find an actress of Dame Maggie's stature to play Princess K. (Imagine her squaring off with Helen Mirren, who's got Russian blood in those fire-and-ice veins.) Here is where I register my surprise that Prince K, in the course of putting on his borrowed tux, failed to wash his hair. Maybe it's just as well that Violet dispatches her old beau to Paris with a kiss-off that Garbo would have relished: "It's how it must be." In the aftermath, at any rate, a little Mae West creeps in. "I will never again receive an immoral proposition from a man. Was I so wrong to savor it?"

Best scene: Confess. Your eyes were more than a little damp by the time Carson got around to proposing to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). It's a well-written and superbly played moment, years in coming. And don't you love the vulnerability that wells out of Carson as he awaits his love's reply? I was figuring Mrs. H would put things off for another two or three seasons, but out she comes with "Of course I'll marry you, you old booby." We'll assume she's alluding to the adorable seabird, and we'll cross fingers that Baron Fellowes actually lets them kiss before too much longer.

Best line: Preparing to lay waste to the local grouse population, the enigmatic Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn) asks, "Would it be awful if I were left alone with my loader?" No, sir. And if Clint Eastwood ever makes the film of "British Sniper," we'll send him your way. But my favorite moment comes courtesy of, who else, Violet? When Robert (Hugh Bonneville) expresses surprise that she's come to the train station to see the family off, she snaps, "Why do you always talk of me as if I were a salmon who laid my eggs in the gravel and then swam back to the sea?" Extra credit to Lady Mary for chiming in: "You're very maternal, aren't you, Granny? When it suits you."

This week's drinking game: A glass of hard cider for every time the Sinderbys' butler Stowell (Alun Armstrong) disses Tom. And a dram of pity for Stowell, who can't help it if he has a heart two sizes too small.

I Google so you don't have to: A thieves' kitchen, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a slum or other area harboring thieves where children are easily led into crime." Think Oliver Twist.

Department of other stuff....

  • Kudos to the cinematographer Michael McDonough for the stunning moorland vistas.


  • Is it me or has Atticus's hair color lightened since his wedding? Is that what comes from rubbing against Rose?


  • Lots of "meta" lines tonight. "We're not having another crisis, are we?" (Mrs. Patmore) "There's a point, Spratt, when malice ceases to be amusing." (Violet) "Nothing is more tedious than other people's misfortunes." (Prince K) As for Lord Merton's dictum, it should be stamped onto the Crawley family crest: "If you're going to be miserable, you might as well do it in charming surroundings."


  • Robert was being so damned sweet and, at the same time, wincing so hard I was certain they were going to fell him before the last grouse dropped. Instead they gave him an ulcer. For no clear reason except to get him soused for Christmas.


  • More suspenseful even than Earl G's health is the question that hovers over each season's finale: Which actors will get bored in the interim and want out of their contracts? I'm just saying that if Sophie McShera decided to be one of them, I would support her 100 percent.

So one last time, Abbots ... speak. What are your fondest wishes for Season 6? Do you believe Mary has found the man to replace Matthew? Will the Bateses have junior Bateses? Will the junior Bateses be charged with murder? Will Barrow (Rob James-Collier) sow love instead of hate? Will Lady Flintshire be shot during the next grouse hunt? And when Denker (Sue Johnston) asks how she's supposed to get rid of the scum, are we certain she's talking about the broth?

Till the gong calls us back. ...

Warts and All

New York Times, January 3, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

"Right," says the Earl of Grantham, drawing back the reins of his steed. "We're off."

And with that, the final season of "Downton Abbey" comes charging out of the gate.

Well, maybe not charging, Abbots. We must first clear the hurdle of the World's Longest-Lasting Murder Investigation.

Mr. Green, who killed thee?

Dost thou know who killed thee?

Took thy life and made us spend

Endless months, wondering when the hell it would end?

It's true, my meter sprawled a bit at the finish, but that's nothing to how "Downton Abbey" has elongated this particular plotline. As the episode begins, Anna is still out on bail, and Mr. Bates is still "on tenterhooks," and when Bates asks, "Do you ever think of a time when we're told the whole Mr. Green business is over?" you will be pardoned for shrieking: "Yes! Yes! Devoutly yes!"

So it is with a song in my heart that I announce: Our long trans-Atlantic nightmare is over. Anna walks free when an unidentified mystery woman confesses to the crime, and loyal viewers, after all this time, may be inspired to follow the Downton example and break out the gramophone and Veuve Clicquot.

"Can this really be the end of it?" Lady Mary wonders. Mary knows from long roads. Her post-Matthew love life has been drawn out even longer than the Mr. Green thread and shows even less sign of resolution. Indeed, the only value of her past dalliances seems to be their ability to come back to haunt her.

Enter Miss Bevan, a saucy chambermaid who attended to Mary and Lord Gillingham during their Liverpool tryst and now wants a thousand pounds to keep quiet. "If I pay her," Mary reasons, "I have a bloodsucking vampire on my back for the rest of my life. If I refuse, I'm ruined."

By episode's end, she has opted for ruin—only to be saved at the last minute by Daddy, who sends the blackmailer on her way with just 50 quid and the threat of future prosecution. Somehow, Earl G. concludes from this experience that "my eldest child is a child no more and quite tough enough to run this estate. Indeed she could clearly run the kingdom should she be called upon to do so."

But we know that already, don't we, just from the rather terrifying way she commands little Georgie to "run to Mummy." If he's still got dry undies by the time he gets there, I'd be amazed.

Mary says she'd rather be alone than with the wrong man. Mrs. Hughes has a rather different problem: She's found the right man, but would he rather be alone? How conjugal does Mr. Carson want their relations to be? And will he still love her au naturel?

"I'm not sure I can let him see me as I am now," she frets. To which the supremely sensible Mrs. Patmore replies: "Then keep the lights off."

After some prodding, Carson sweetly spells out his intentions for his intended: "I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on Earth." "Well then," says Mrs. H. "If you want me, you can have me. To quote Oliver Cromwell, 'warts and all.'"

We will give her points for erudition even as we question the wisdom of bringing up warts at a time like this.

We will also cross fingers that the Carsons keep their jobs. Remember the old days when vacancies at Downton Abbey were determined by which actors had had their fill? (We still miss you, O'Brien.) Now it's a Hobbesian thinning of the ranks. Footmen reduced to a third of their original number. Two housemaids, one hall boy, not a kitchen maid in sight, and who keeps an underbutler anymore?

"These are days of uncertainty," intones Earl G., and lest we miss the point, the Crawleys are dispatched to a local estate auction, where the vacating squire informs them: "This life is over for us. It won't come back. ... I'm afraid we held on for far too long, and now there's nothing left. Learn from us!"

God, I'll miss Baron Fellowes and his subtle underscorings. The good news is that, as far as viewers are concerned, Downton has to hold on for only one more season. The bad news? Viewers can only hold on to "Downton Abbey" for one more season. Time to stiffen our sinews, Abbots.

Best scene: That delicious bit of marriage brokerage between Mrs. Patmore and Carson. Prudishness and discomfort blossom into gorgeous human comedy. Carson: "Well, that was an awkward mission for you, if you like." Mrs. P: "I'll say."

Best line: We can always count on Violet to score off Isobel, and Sunday night was no exception: "Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?" But for sheer hoots, I must salute the Earl's climactic toast: "To British justice, the envy of the world."

This week's drinking game: A mouthful of Carling Black Label for every time Denker and Spratt exchange basilisk gazes.

I Google so you don't have to

  1. Almoner: a hospital social worker (and apparently a road to power in 1920s Yorkshire).


  2. News of the World: a scandal sheet that managed to survive all the way to 2011 before being killed off by a scandal.

Things I'd plumb forgotten about

  1. Mrs. H's first name is Elsie.


  2. Despite her title, Mrs. Patmore has neither been married nor, if I read her correctly, deflowered. (Defloured, maybe.)

Department of other stuff ...

  • A doff of the top hat to cinematographer David Raedeker for his stunning vistas in the hunting sequence.


  • Earl G. being introduced to the refrigerator reminded me of the day George H.W. Bush met the supermarket scanner.


  • Your pulse surely began to pound at the news that the Downton Cottage Hospital might be taken over by the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital, which, depending on whom you ask, could mean a decline in local autonomy or else greater bureaucratic efficiency, not to mention enhanced fund-raising capacity and ... skyrrrxxjiklqrrxqv;wbimo (... sorry, that was my head nodding gently onto the keyboard. I recognize Violet and Isobel need some new excuse to go at it, but health care consolidation?)


  • Dear sweet cankerless Lady Rose is reportedly "hectic and happy" in New York. And if you think you've heard the last of her ... well, you may have.


  • Daisy is every bit as annoying as she was last season.


  • Either I've developed cataracts, or I actually saw Hissing Thomas giving piggyback rides to the Downton children. Is he quite all right?

Speak, Abbots. Will Earl G. next get acquainted with the mop? Will Thomas start rescuing kittens from wells? Will Mr. Mason keep his farm? Will Edith explain to the Bateses how adoption works? Will Dr. Clarkson declare his feelings for Isobel? Will Mary figure out that the guy she met at the end of last season is as good as it's going to get? (Return, Matthew Goode.) Which Downton staffers will be placed on the Do Not Resuscitate list?

And maybe the biggest question of all: What does a world without Downton even look like?

Onward ...

Of Pearls and Swine

New York Times, January 10, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

O, Abbots. She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And all that's best of dark and bright meets in her aspect and her eyes.

I'm referring, of course, to Golden Empress, that gorgeous 500-pound hunk of pig-flesh who became, I believe, the first member of the Downton Abbey estate to win a beauty contest. Long overdue, I say. Meanwhile, in other surprising developments, tenant farmers prove very nearly interchangeable; aristos turn out to be rather bad at child-minding; and an underbutler shows that he is, in his down time, a superbowler.

About that butler: Was I alone in pitying poor vampiric Barrow? Every friendly-or-otherwise overture he makes to Andy is rebuffed. ("I can, uh, show you the woods, if you like. No? How about I help you rewind the clocks? You sure? O.K. then, what say we check out Lady Mary's pigs?") He's getting no love from his supervisor. ("When do you need me, Mr. Carson?" "When indeed?") And his efforts at proactive job-hunting are rewarded with veiled insults and gay-baiting: "You're a delicate-looking fellow, aren't you?"

Now it's well known that Barrow is the Luckiest Bastard on Television. Remember how he won over Earl G with his cricket prowess? And somehow got rewarded for kidnapping Isis? And managed to save Edith from the fire? Each and every time his evil ways threaten to undo him, he finds a way to crawl back into the Crawleys' good graces.

So when Marigold went missing at the local fat stock show (normally a "pretty low key" affair, to hear Earl Grantham tell it), I fully expected Barrow would find a way to drag her golden locks to safety.

Instead, it's left to the hog farmer, Tim Drewe, to figure out that his missus—the girl's onetime adoptive mum—has run off with the child. He rushes back to the farm and finds Marigold cradled in Mrs. Drewe's lap. I confess that my heart did a little lurch, wondering if the child was dead, but then I remembered that, even alive, Marigold is not exactly a live wire.

Sure enough, Mrs. Drewe has only rescued the girl because "They were paying her no attention, none at all" and "No one was looking after her, not one of them," and yes, Mrs. Drewe, you're right, and no, Mrs. Drewe, it's not the thing to steal kids who aren't exactly legally yours.

This all culminates in one of those reifications of the class system that Baron Fellowes specializes in.

"I'll start looking for another tenancy in the morning," announces Drewe.

"God bless you, Drewe," says Earl G. "God bless you and your family."

"The same to you, my lord. The very same to you."

That's how you fold your cards when you're a Fellowes-shire farmer. No fuss, no rancor. None of that Daisy-ish railing against "the system." Shake hands and walk away, even if you have been there since before Waterloo.

At any rate, dear sweet (boring) Mr. Bates appears to have an ideal site for relocation, but dear evil Barrow is left swinging on the vine, just when he normally hauls himself to safety, and this isn't the only instance of thwarted narrative.

Take the Edith plotline. (Did you think I was going to add "please"?) Baron F makes a point of reminding us that Mary is still in the dark about Edith's love child, and he goes to great lengths to put the two sisters in London at the same time and even sends them home on the same train. Surely, one thinks, he's laying the groundwork for a teary Edith confession, but nothing of the sort happens, and Mary is no wiser at episode's end than at the beginning. (She is, however, wondering who will drive her home.)

And now consider the arrested plot development surrounding that middle-aged lovebird Carson. The Crawleys want him to celebrate his nuptials somewhere abovestairs. "You've worked at this house, man and boy, for half a century," says Mary. "If you've no right to be married here, who does?"

Only Mrs. Hughes sees things differently. "It's where we work, but it's not who we are," she says.

"I want my own wedding to be done in my own way."

When Carson grumbles that it's his wedding, too, the future Mrs. C snaps: "We'll be doing it your way for the next 30 years, I know that well enough, but the wedding day is mine."

Mary is having none of that. "You leave Mrs. Hughes to me," she says, confidently. And what a delightful chill ran down my back at the thought of those two formidable ladies duking it out ... except they don't.

Perhaps that's being saved for a future episode. Or perhaps Mary is too distracted by the fertility struggles of Anna, who learns that she's suffering from cervical incompetence. (If there's ever a medical term that needed a do-over.) One quite large stitch, we're told, should do the trick, and I confess I am rooting for a Bates kid only because I want to see Joanne Froggatt get through an entire episode of "Downton Abbey" without leaking around the eyes. I don't deny that she drips as simply and eloquently as Julianne Moore—yes, I'm going for the gold standard—but I simply can't stomach one more scene in which Anna accuses her husband of desperately wanting biological children, and he says (in effect) "No, I'm happy as I am," and she says (in effect) "See? You're unhappy!"

There's no winning for poor Mr. Bates, and it makes me long for the dark brooding character of Season 1 whose every limping step trailed mystery. Five years in, the mysteries have all been cleared away, and Bates is the guy who gets to say, "There there. It'll be all right."

Best scene: We'll break it down to a single beat: the moment when Mrs. Drewe asks her husband if he's angry with her. He gazes at her, and then, as the understanding of his own ruin washes over him, something softens behind his eyes. "No, my darling," he croons. "I'm not angry at all." Kudos to Andrew Scarborough and Emma Lowndes, between them, for deepening the "Downton" register into tragedy.

Best line: Violet's trumpet was muted tonight, but Edith had a nicely tart response to Mary's speculations about Rose's pregnancy: "As usual, you add two and two and make 53." Shockingly, though, the funniest line came when Bates urged his wife to "try to put your feet up" during her impending trip to London, and Anna, clearly envisioning the stirrups that awaited her in Dr. Ryder's office, murmured: "Yes, I'll be putting my feet up."

This week's drinking game: A swig of Harpoon oyster stout for every time someone utters the word "pig." As in "my goddaughter, the pig-breeder" or "George was aching to see the pigs" or Mary's straight-faced "Let me discuss it with our pigman." (I am the pigman ... they are the pigmen. ...)

I Google so you don't have to: "Wigs on the green" is an antique Irish phrase meaning a fight or brawl. It dates from the days when men actually wore perukes and the like, and now you will have to admit that some small part of you wishes Isobel and Violet really would tear off each other's wigs, "Valley of the Dolls"-style.

Department of other stuff:

  • Why in the name of all that's woolly would Tim Drewe bring his wife to the fat stock show? Was that his idea of managing the situation?


  • Why am I unable to say "fat stock show" without giggling?


  • It's always nice to have that minx Lady Rosamund on hand. And always exciting when a child on "Downton Abbey" gets to speak. Well done, Georgie!


  • The next time he argues with Edith, Mr. Skinner should explain that "in a bull ring with Attila the Hun" is a mixed metaphor.


  • That Fearful Dutch Thingamajig is the name of my next rock band.


  • In response to last week's recap, several learned Abbots (as if there were any other kind) have reminded me that senior female domestics regularly took the title of "Mrs." regardless of whether they were married. This has made me question the marital status of other purported matrons. What of Mrs. Dash? What of Mrs. Butterworth?

So speak up, Abbots. Will Edith ever come clean with Mary? Does Clarkson really not know how to use an X-ray machine? Do the Crawleys really not know how to cope with cut fingers? Does Mrs. Hughes really believe that walking on your own is "very liberating"? And what is Mrs. Patmore doing with all that horseradish?

May your newspapers be ever ironed. ...

So Nice to See Him Again?

New York Times, January 17, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

Dear Tom Branson,

My, what a ... what a nice surprise.

No, really. We thought you were gone for good but ... apparently not.

Oh, I know we should have guessed. That whole dream business in your letter about "walking with Sybbie under the great trees" and "listening to the pigeons cooing in their branches" and your eyes filling with tears. It was like getting an Instagram post from Wordsworth. And suddenly there you were, looking as hearty and plow-horsey as ever, and there was Sybbie, giving a sweet li'l hug to Georgie (and checking Marigold for signs of a pulse).

It's not that we weren't happy to see you. Or at least we weren't definitively, comprehensively unhappy to see you.

But here's the thing, Tom. We were pretty sure we'd quit you.

Now don't get me wrong. Allen Leech, the actor who plays you, appears to be quite the wit and card—he was a positive highlight of the "Downton" cast's recent press tour—but none of that humor seems to filter back to you. Which is so not your fault, it's just how you're written.

I mean, for what felt like half a century, you kept rattling on about how you didn't fit in at Downton Abbey. About how hard it was being trapped between "two worlds" and what a drag it was having to reconcile your leftist leanings with the beatific Tory example of your in-laws. And after a while, Tom, we got it, we really did, and finally there didn't seem anything to do with you but pack you on the next boat to Boston.

Of course, we didn't want to do it, but it was for the good of the show. Take Rose, for instance. (No, I'm not going to add "please.") That dear sweet girl knew enough—just barely enough—to recognize that her narrative arc had flatlined, so when they decided to banish her to the Hamptons, she went without a peep. Took one for the team, Tom.

But you, you lunkhead, you just wouldn't listen.

So you'll understand why we were a little nonplused to see you at the end of Episode 3. Especially because you were stealing focus from something truly momentous: the long-awaited consummation of The World's Most Glacial Courtship.

As you know, Tom, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes have been submerging their feelings for so long they make "Remains of the Day" look like hard-core porn. I can't say their nuptials were ever seriously imperiled, even if Mrs. H did at one point plan to walk down the aisle in a horse blanket. The day was sort-of-not-really saved when meddlesome Mary suggested they borrow one of Cora's embroidered evening coats. Only Cora caught them in the act and got all hissy about them rifling through her cupboards.

"I've never seen her so angry," said Anna, and I don't think I have, either. (I wonder if Elizabeth McGovern stuck a Post-it note on Baron Fellowes's computer: "Let me scream! Just once!")

Well, of course, Cora had good reason to be in such a bad mood. She had breakfasted on nothing but tea—a troubling window into the Crawley women's diet—and she had just come from a very contentious meeting with the board members of Downton Cottage Hospital, who have been debating whether to merge with the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital, a process that would mean consolidating fund-raising operations and enhancing technoxxck;j;kafdls2jt-b2n-jjjsddxxa ...

Sorry, Tom, that was my head nodding once more onto the keyboard; this story line just does that to me. The good news is Cora felt awful about losing her cool and wound up gifting the coat to Mrs. H.

So the wedding turned out to be just delightful—upstairs on one side of the aisle, downstairs on the other—and there were bagpipes, and Mr. Carson said, "That a woman of such grace and charm should entrust her life's happiness to my unworthy charge passeth all understanding."

I mean, it was lovely, Tom, and then you come barging in with that whole Dorothy-back-from-Oz business: "I learned that Downton is my home and that you are my family. If I didn't quite know that before I left, I know it now."

Fine, fine, but what narrative function do you have in mind, Tom? See, Mary's got the pigs covered. Violet and Isobel have cornered the health care market. Spratt is helping to rehabilitate escaped convicts. Had you come a week earlier, you might have helped to cheer up gloomy old Edith, but wouldn't you know? As soon as she announces she's "staring middle age in the face," out pops Bertie Pelham, the estate agent she met last season in Brancaster. (He's played by the equally fictional-sounding Harry Hadden-Paton.)

They had a pretty sexy evening together putting Edith's magazine to bed, and by the time they're done, Bertie's saying things like "You inspire me," and I don't know, he seems like the type of guy who might go through with his own wedding and not be so careless as to be slaughtered by Nazi thugs. So that's progress, isn't it?

I guess what it comes down to, Tom, is this: Once Sybbie's been lateraled to the nearest nanny, you're going to have start pulling some story freight. Weeping over pigeons isn't going to cut it.

Tough love, I know, but these are end times.

Signed,

The Abbots

Best scene: That tragicomic job interview between Barrow and Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup) in the mausoleum called Dryden Park. Even if you don't share Baron Fellowes's knee-jerk reverence for faded gentry, Sir Michael is a poignant old cuss, mourning his dead family and the days when women would go up at evening's end, "their faces lit from the flame from their candle ... their diamonds twinkling as they climbed up into the darkness." Kudos both to Mr. Pickup and to the "Downton" set designers, who are every bit as meticulous with aristocratic squalor as with aristocratic splendor.

Best lines: Violet was back on her game Sunday: "I know several couples who are perfectly happy who haven't spoken in years. ... In my experience, second thoughts are vastly overrated. ... A peer in favor of reform: like a turkey in favor of Christmas." But the line that tasted most of Wilde: "I know nothing of Spratt's friends. He has a great many relations who seem to get married and buried with numbing regularity. Usually on very inconvenient days."

This week's drinking game: A Daisy cocktail for every time Daisy puts in a plug for Mr. Mason. (And save some booze for Mr. Mason because, from the wary look in Cora's eyes, this tenancy transfer may not be the no-brainer we thought it was.)

I Google so you don't have to: Adrienne Bolland, a French pilot who became the first woman to fly over the Andes.

Department of other stuff

  • The much-anticipated showdown between Mrs. H and Lady Mary turned out to be no contest. "This is our day, my lady. It's about Charles Carson and Elsie Hughes and not about this glorious house and the glorious people that have lived in it. Just us, and that's the way I'd like to celebrate it." Way to bring it, Mrs. H.


  • What's that "little bit of indigestion" that Earl of G's got going on?


  • If I close my eyes while Dr. Clarkson is talking, I hear James Mason.


  • Delightful Miss Marple-ish moment when Denker lays it down on Spratt: "After you put him up in the potting shed, did he get away safely?" I see a limited "Mystery!" series in her future.

Ponder with me, Abbots. Is Barrow a republican? Is Anna pregnant for keeps? Does anyone have a sit-down wedding breakfast anymore? Would Carson really forgive Lady Mary if she attacked him with a brick? Is it really so wrong to race up to London in a swirling cloud of crisis and drama? Even if you're racing down from Yorkshire? Will Marigold ever speak? And will we ever get used to saying Mrs. Carson?

Only six to go!

The Engine Purrs

New York Times, January 24, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

Mary: "So! You really are a car man. I wasn't sure how much you meant it."

Henry: "Oh. I really am a car man."

Call it Goode timing, Abbots. Handsome Henry Talbot, having been dangled before us like some matrimonial worm at the end of last season, has come back to pick up where he left off. Indeed, he may be one of the few remaining bachelors in England whose entrance can prompt Mary to gasp, "Golly!"

What, exactly, do we know about this bobby dazzler? Worryingly little. He has "adequate but not overwhelming" prospects, according to his aunt, and if he is to inherit any kind of title, "40 strong men would have to drop dead." ("Well," answers Violet, "nothing is impossible.")

He could well be after Mary for her loot—car habits are expensive to maintain—but when you've been holed up in Yorkshire as long as Mary (where all the eligible men look like Sergeant Willis) and you've gone out to a fancy London restaurant in your aunt's dress (because you weren't planning to stay more than a day) and you're worried you look "rather shabby" (as if) and your date for the evening very conspicuously rolls his eyes up and down your body and declares that you're the "opposite of shabby" ... well, the hell with fiscal caution, I say.

Which is why, over dinner, Mary is inspired to drawl, "I hope this means you're boiling up to make a pass before we're done."

"Probably," he concedes. "But will you accept?"

"No, but I shall enjoy the process immensely."

All right, Abbots, it's not exactly Bogart and Bacall, but just when "Downtown" story lines seemed to have dwindled to an ember, Henry and Mary have pumped in a bellows-blast of oxygen. Here's Andy casting moo-cow eyes (I think?) at Daisy. Here are the Carsons staggering back to Downton in a daze of carnal knowledge. (Mr. C appears to have taken his new wife warts and all.)

Even Granny Violet—recalling, perhaps, her ancient affair with Prince Kuragin—is moved to declare that "Mary needs more than a handsome smile and a hand on the gear stick." And when her son expresses surprise that she knows what a gear stick is, she snaps, "I know more than you think!"

(What. A. Slut.)

Still, as "Downton Abbey" is always the first to remind us, sex has its unintended consequences. Just ask poor Baxter, seduced long ago into a ruinous crime and now trembling at the prospect of testifying against her corrupter. "All that is needed for evil to triumph," Molesley reminds her, "is for good men to do nothing." You or I might have smacked him upside the head for his sententiousness, but Baxter squares her jaw and resolves to do what's right, so other young women don't get ruined or, at the very least, "changed." (Me, I can't wait to get a load of this Peter Coyle character: the Rasputin of servant girls.)

Baxter also does her best to save Daisy from tasting the ripened fruit of her idiocy. Convinced that Cora is the one standing between Dad-in-Law and Yew Tree Farm, Daisy rushes up to have it out with her ladyship, only to learn that Mr. Mason is in like Flynn (and thanks in large part to Cora's urging). Stymied by yet another of Baron Fellowes's arrested plot developments, Daisy wanders back downstairs to ponder the pendulum swings of her fevered little brain. "Yesterday I thought I hated [Cora], and today she saved our lives." Daisy, if it helps to clarify your thinking, you'll still be annoying tomorrow.

We're left, then, with the triumphal tableau of Mr. Mason embracing his new tenancy. Given that his happiness is built on the ruins of the Drewe family—a tragedy that has never particularly interested Baron Fellowes—I couldn't quite bring my hands together. Although my ears did perk up when the old man said, "I know now where I can lay my bones."

And if Daisy ever tires of hanging out with the in-law, she might consider following the arc of Upwardly Mobile Gwen. Five seasons ago, Gwen was a mere housemaid, inching toward a non-service career under the benevolent eye of Lady Sibyl. Tonight, she returns with full bourgeois bona fides, having snagged some (not overly dynamic) guy named John Harding and given birth to a batch of little Hardings. Did I mention she's as cute and winsome and breathy as ever, even if most of the Crawleys don't recognize her? (As Daisy, in a rare lucid moment, points out, "They don't look us in the face.")

The example of Gwen's escape velocity leaves Daisy inspired and Barrow irked, and as for Mary ... well, hearing of her late sister's largess makes her realize she's not exactly Clara Barton. I feel fairly certain, for instance, that Sybil would never have snorted at the Carsons for honeymooning in Scarborough. (Perhaps the sin suite at the Royal Liverpool wasn't available?) Surely, though, Dead Sis was smiling when Mary swept Anna off to London to avert another miscarriage and even paid extra for Dr. Ryder's dawn patrol. To quote that clever Abbot Lcan in Austin, Tex., it was indeed a stitch in time, and we will cross our fingers in anticipation of a bouncing baby, or something close thereto, by the Christmas episode—even as we recall that, in the eyes of Baron Fellowes, the Bateses are as flies to wanton boys.

Best scene: I'll go with those final wordless moments when Carson surveys the windowless bed chamber that has been his domain all these years. We can only guess at the emotions that are roiling in him as he slides out his name card, but thanks to Jim Carter's delicate underplaying, we know they're there.

Best line: Mrs. Patmore was in her usual good form: "You couldn't be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying." Violet was almost manic with the comebacks. (When Lady Shackleton wonders how she can be an expert without knowing the facts, Violet cuts in with "That's never stopped me.") But I found myself disarmed by Mary's thumbnail description of her schooling—"French, prejudice and dance steps"—and altogether tickled by her explanation for being nice to Edith: "A monkey will type out the Bible if you leave it long enough." (Yes, and trained it to type. Sounds like a job for Gwen.)

This week's drinking game: A big gulp of gin punch for every time someone suggests an improvement in Barrow's moral character. Seriously, the guy's being so hounded I think he'll either enter the priesthood or poison the entire household.

I Google so you don't have to: Rosamund's pet cause, Hillcroft College, is an actual place and still in operation today, providing residential education for adult women.

Department of Other Stuff ....

  • Mrs. Hughes has decided to go by her old name, but dear Lord, could the Crawleys have been any crankier about having to address her as Mrs. Carson? You'd think they'd been forced to eat with their toes. Suck it up, aristos!


  • Lord G's gut pangs are coming so frequently now they need their own theme music. You'll recall that last season Baron Fellowes let him off lightly with an ulcer, but I can't help thinking some more dire fate is in the offing. Tremble.


  • What with Molesley invoking Edmund Burke and Mrs. Patmore likening Daisy to Madame Defarge and Mr. Bates casually tossing out the name of Diaghilev, it was quite a high-culture week for the downstairs staff. Not one to be outflanked intellectually, Violet made a funny allusion to Ariadne's thread and somehow got a glimpse into the future writings of Ayn Rand: "For years I've watched governments take control of our lives, and their argument is always the same—fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too. Less control by the people, more control by the state until the individual's own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist." And if you thought that would make the hospital plotline any more interesting, you were wrong.


  • In addition to playing Lady Shackleton, Harriet Walter can currently be seen in your local multiplex as the doctor ministering to Chewbacca's wounds. Funny business, an actor's career.


  • Speaking of "Star Wars," I've heard from several Abbots who thought the recent usage of "over to the dark side" was a bald anachronism. I confess I'm wondering the same thing about Dr. Ryder's "cautiously optimistic," even if it does hail from "medical novels." (Were there a great many medical novels in 1925? Was Dr. Arrowsmith ever cautiously optimistic?)

So share, Abbots! As we draw closer to the season's meridian, what are your hopes and dreams for the show's characters? Will Mary embrace the gear stick? Or will she choose the man who imports guinea pigs from Peru? Will Baxter bring the spark of hope back to Molesley's eyes? Will Violet become the first female pope? Will Robert make it to Christmas? Will Edith someday give birth to Pelhams 1, 2 and 3? Will Tom do anything? Anything at all?

Next week!

Banquet of Blood

New York Times, January 31, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

"Downton," meet "Alien."

I'm telling you, Abbots, when Lord Grantham staggered to his feet and started vomiting geysers of blood all over that exquisitely assembled dinner table, I fully expected some foreign life form to come bursting out of his chest. The long-absent Michael Gregson, perhaps, or the unquiet spirit of Kemal Pamuk or, heaven help us, Reanimated Isis.

I mean, who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? There he lay on his ruined rug, gasping to his beloved (seriously splattered) Cora, "If this is it, just know I have loved you very, very much."

And for all we knew, Abbots, this really was it. Wouldn't that have been squarely within the Fellowes m.o.? Whenever the narrative battery shows signs of stalling, he clamps on a pair of jumper cables and shocks the thing back into life. It happened with Mr. Bates' arrest, Matthew's death-by-car, Anna's rape, Sybil's pre-eclampsia. "Downton" never scruples to draw blood.

So even when Robert received the preliminary diagnosis of a burst ulcer—and not, say, extraterrestrial fertilization—I wasn't entirely sure he'd live to see another morrow. In fact, as he was carted away in the ambulance, I began to wonder if the whole business wasn't some bizarre dramatization of the health care debate that's been, well, let's just say raging over the past season. Would the Earl of G die for want of some far-off York technology? Or would he be saved by the bureaucratically unencumbered prowess of a local doctor?

All we can say for sure is that he's temporarily out of the woods. Although his close call has left a shadow of mortality across the Abbey. "Life is short," Carson broods. "Death is sure. That is all we know."

Mrs. Patmore, moonlighting as the show's dramaturge, divines in our butler "a man who's been shaken to the roots of his soul. Everything he's based his life on has proved mortal after all." But, as Mrs. Hughes says, enough with the pointy-headed philosophizing. There's coffee to be brought upstairs.

And an estate to run! Mary, I thought, had something of an Al Haig glint in her eye as she informed Tom that they would be taking "full responsibility" of Downton from now on and would involve his lordship only in the "big decisions."

"Long live our own Queen Mary," crooned Tom, who seems to be carving out a new role as Mary's maiden aunt, nudging her toward romance and twinkling out maxims like "There's no such thing as safe love. Real love means giving someone the power to hurt you."

"Which I won't concede easily," says Mary, any more than she'll throw herself headlong at that decidedly unsafe auto racer, Henry Talbot. Mary doesn't want to "marry down," you see, or be grander or richer than her husband. Her sister Edith has the opposite problem. She's got an adorable new boyfriend who, to quote the old tune, can't give her anything but love, and she's not sure she's even worthy of that. It looks like she'll have to come clean about her "sordid past," and if she's looking for any pointers on that score, she might check in with her sis, who had to run the same gantlet years back with Matthew (and who is meanwhile, with agonizing slowness, piecing together the Marigold puzzle).

Or maybe Edith won't have to say a blessed word. It's been that kind of start-and-stop season, and even the conspicuous bleeding at the Crawleys' dinner party can't conceal every instance of plot anemia. Consider poor Baxter, ginning up all her courage to testify against the hated Peter Coyle. (Name a character, he must appear.) And here's Sergeant Willis comparing Coyle to "a nasty fish" who's "bound to thrash about a bit" and catch Baxter in his spray, and off they go to York for the trial, and Baxter is in a "very frail frame of mind," and everything's building up to this cataclysmic confrontation of good and evil in the dock ...

And nada.

No Coyle sighting, no confrontation. The guilty man cops a plea; the trial fizzles out; everybody goes home; and even Baxter has to acknowledge that the entire experience has been "a bit anticlimactic." Which we can add to a list of meta-lines that includes "I have a clarity of vision that allows me to resist a housemaid's trap of sentimentality" and "A day of racing cars and pigs: who could better that?" and "Do other butlers have to contend with the police arriving every 10 minutes?" (On "Masterpiece Mystery," maybe.)

The question, really, is not why Baxter bothered but why we did. Then again, who are we kidding? When we look back on Sunday night's episode, all we'll recall is that Banquet of Blood. Somewhere, just off screen, I see Baron Fellowes' gargoyle grin.

Best scene: Violet dressing down Denker for insulting Dr. Clarkson: "It is not your place even to have opinions of my acquaintance, let alone express them ... If I withdrew my friendship from everyone who had spoken ill of me, my address book would be empty For a ladies' maid to insult a physician in the open street! You've read too many novels, Denker. You've seen too many moving pictures."

Best line: Pick any of the lines from the aforementioned scene or just pat Robert on the back for reviving the old idiom: "You have no more chance than a cat in hell without claws."

This week's drinking game: What else? An Alka-Seltzer cocktail for every time Lord G complains about his tummy.

I Google so you don't have to: Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936), Neville Chamberlain's brother-in-law and a notorious prankster whose mischief-making did extend to building a trench across Piccadilly and possibly to the Piltdown Man hoax.

Department of other stuff:

  • Ammon Shea of Merriam-Webster has very helpfully waded into last week's queries about anachronisms.


  • Uh, Mrs. Carson? If my husband was constantly complaining that I didn't "cook like his mother" and started signing me up for kitchen tutorials, I'd clobber him with one of my old patty pans. (Interesting insight, though, into the specialization of the old service life.)


  • Baron Fellowes can sometimes be ham-handed with his historical foreshadowing, so it's worth saluting him when he does it right. "Don't you enjoy a good fight?" asks Violet, proud inheritor of the Marlborough and Wellington tradition. Future peace-for-our-time appeaser Neville Chamberlain: "I'm not sure I do, really."


  • What the hell did Violet whisper to Robert during that business with the seating cards? Sounded French.


  • Did you have any idea that Spratt's first name was Septimus? Now we have a better handle on the size of his family (recall Violet's displeasure at all those relations) and on the odds of future convict-nephews coming a-knocking.


  • I find I am haunted by the words "You must make do with Granny and Donk."


  • Mrs. Patmore has clearly set her cap for Mr. Mason. "He's a lovely chap ... kind and considerate ... He must be lonely." Trust Daisy to stomp that dream flat, but let's cross fingers that love will soon break into the larder of Mrs. P's heart.


  • Barrow seems to have found a new gig helping young Andy with his book larnin', but personally, I think a better berth awaits with Lord Hexham of Brancaster, who is "more art than sport, if you know what I mean" and who likes to paint the young men of Tangiers and "hasn't a nasty bone in his body." That's got to beat waiting up all night to get lucky in Yorkshire.

So, Abbots. Now that the trauma is fading ... Which "Downton" characters will be married by season's end? Which way will the Minister of Health tend? Will Mary confront Edith? Will Denker keep putting the squeeze on Spratt? Will someone ever explain to Carson what a gastrectomy is? Will Miss Edmunds become the Tina Brown of the Bright Young Things? What experience does Mr. Mason have "on top of pigs"?

Bad harvest, bad harvest!

Does Lady Mary Have a Heart?

New York Times, February 7, 2016

WANTED: Docent/Tour Guide

PURPOSE OF JOB: To provide an interactive but non-larcenous educational experience for visitors to a venerable Yorkshire estate.

DUTIES MAY INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO:

  • Conducting estate tours of 10 people—and no more—from the small library to the big library to the drawing room to the smoking room to ... you get the idea.


  • Positioning a servant in each room to keep peasants from walking off with "the odd first edition."


  • Pretending that the house in question is genuinely cozy. (At night, maybe.)


  • Devising new security strategies to prevent cheeky rascals from slipping upstairs and disturbing the ulcerous lord of the manor with troublesome questions about his place in the social order.


  • Coping with distraught grandmothers who react to their charitable disenfranchisement by screaming things like "I do not wish to see her face until I am used to seeing a traitor in the family."


  • Pointing out to aforementioned grandmother that she might have phrased that last bit better.


  • Reassuring occupants of said house that they are not Belgians waiting for the invasion or monkeys in a zoo and most definitely not fat ladies in a circus.

QUALIFICATIONS:

  • Must be able to string velvet rope across staircases in back wing.


  • Must have a better handle on the estate's history than its current owners. For instance, candidate must know more about the architect than "He built lots of lovely big buildings," and if the estate is called, let us say, an abbey, candidate must grasp why it is so called.

TO APPLY:

Please present your qualifications to Mr. Bertie Pelham, late of Brancaster. Do not—repeat, do not—approach the butler, who will tell you that you are "a dangerous precedent" and "a guillotine in Trafalgar Square" and "an affront to the law of property, which is the cornerstone of any" ... you get the idea.

Oh, who am I kidding, Abbots? We are the docents of Downton Abbey, each and every one of us. We have walked its halls. We have shadowed its residents—dined with them, died with them. We have overheard their arguments, eavesdropped on their secrets, endured their arid stretches, weathered their short sharp shocks. We know fully as much about the Crawleys as they do themselves, if not more.

So it seems entirely fitting that, in the show's final episodes, "Downton Abbey" should turn its gaze back on us.

"There's a curiosity about these places," suggests the tourism impresario Tom Branson. "About this way of life." The Crawleys, though, are baffled by the idea of opening their doors to the curious. "Why should anyone pay to see a perfectly ordinary house?" wonders the dowager countess.

"To charge money so people can snoop around our home," sniffs Robert. "What a revolting suggestion." The Crawleys can't grasp that they have graduated—or devolved—from power to spectacle.

And what better confirmation than that little boy ("Bring all the family!") blundering into the Earl's bedroom as though Lord G. were the second half of a double feature. The Grantham dynasty has become the Grantham show, and we pay our sixpence every week.

And with it, we bring certain expectations, which Baron Fellowes is taking a perverse 11th-hour pleasure in flouting. Remember dear sweet Carson? Downstairs patriarch? Second father to Lady Mary? Flustered, endearing suitor of Mrs. Hughes? It seems we must now accept an alternative reality in which he is a prat and a schmuck and very possibly the worst late-in-life husband that a sensible woman could find herself saddled with.

No satisfying the man! The coffee's not up to snuff. The smoked salmon doesn't have lemon or horseradish. Let's bring in a hall boy for polishing and a maid for the beds because "I do like those sharp corners." (I have just the sharp corners in mind.) Oh, and let's not drink wine with dinner because "somehow it feels disloyal" to the master of the house. It won't be too long, I fear, before Mrs. H. explodes like one of the Earl's ulcers.

The most surprising consequence of Carson's smugness and complacency is to make—and who would have imagined?—a martyr of Hissing Thomas. "You are the under-butler," declares Carson, "a post that is fragrant with memories of a lost world, and no one is sorrier to say that than I am. But you're not a creature of today."

Thing is, Barrow is awfully sweet with little Georgie and the girls (creatures of tomorrow) and he's awfully unhappy about leaving Downton, so is it too much to ask that he become the world's first manny? Or else an English as a first language instructor for the likes of Andy? Oh, I know Barrow has sown evil in his day, but, to borrow a phrase from Jessica Rabbit, he's not bad, he's just drawn that way.

As for Lady Mary, just which way is she drawn? She has made a conquest of Henry Talbot, who, under the impetus of London's most sudden rainstorm ever, admits: "I know I'm not what you're after. My prospects are modest at best, and you, well, you're a great catch. But you're also a woman that I happen to be falling in love with. Gosh, that sounds rather feeble doesn't it?"

"No, not at all," answers Mary. "As an argument, I think it's rather compelling."

And in case you think that her dissertation-defense-committee response belies a heart that thrums beneath, I refer you to: 1) the look of zero-Kelvin triumph in Mary's eyes as she steers Henry T. out of that restaurant (under the chagrined gaze of Evelyn Napier); 2) the slightly incredulous "I thought I was going to have to dress myself" when Anna returns late from a doctor's appointment; and 3) the Vince Lombardi bark of "This is weakling talk" when her mother raises the possibility of the Crawleys one day leaving the Abbey.

I fully expected Cora to drop and do 50, but I'm still not sure what to expect of Lady Mary. She may have found the man of her dreams, but what if she's a woman of no dreams? Is there anything in that heart but sharp corners?

Best scene: It's always rather easy to overlook Cora's contribution to the proceedings, but I was touched by her quiet feminist throwdown with Lord G.

"I didn't say you were," he remonstrates.

"Didn't you?" she answers.

Elizabeth McGovern has made no secret of how constricting she's found the part of Cora, but I continue to believe she's essential to the show: the root note of the chord.

Best line: Violet, for once, was unintentionally funny: "The patients are my priority. As president, I am their representative on Earth." And while I don't share Mary's sentiment that Bertie is "boring to an Olympic degree," I admire her phrasing. Still, I must award this week's crown to poor Mrs. Hughes, who, upon learning that Carson is "expecting a delicious dinner prepared by the fair hands of my beautiful wife," mutters: "There's a threat in there somewhere." (I myself heard, "There's a flirt in there somewhere," which I actually prefer.)

This week's drinking game: A gulp of whiskey sour for every time the Crawley sisters snipe at each other. Seriously, is there some 1920s version of Dr. Phil who can set these ladies straight?

I Google so you don't have to: 1) Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873): fashionable European court painter who carried out dozens of portraits of Queen Victoria and her family. 2) "Steady the Buffs!": a catchphrase popularized by Rudyard Kipling that means staying calm in the face of adversity. Something to do with the British Army's East Kent regiment and their buff-colored uniforms.

Department of other stuff ...

  • If Edith doesn't have her own maid, who does her hair?


  • For those Abbots who missed it: a fascinating look into the mechanics behind last week's Bravura Blood Barf. (And yes, Cora's dress was ruined.)


  • I didn't think I could be any more done with Daisy, and yet it seems I can. What a bee-yotch she's being to Mrs. Patmore! Slandering the good woman's name and hiding Mr. Mason's letter and doing everything she can to stand in the way of love. I pray that she will be pelted with farm-fresh vegetables.


  • Abbots, didn't we just stick a fork in the Peter Coyle plotline? Baxter can't really be planning to visit him in jail? The only consolation is that this case can't possibly drag out as long as Mr. Green's.


  • Awfully creepy moment when Lord G. suggested giving visitors a gander at Lady Mary in her bath. Even Carson was thrown for a loop. I did love the bit, though, where the Earl, reclining in the baronial splendor of his bedchamber, intones, "Sometimes in life sacrifices have to be made." P. G. Wodehouse, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

So what do you think, Abbots? Will Barrow really be kicked to the curb? Will Edith come clean with Bertie? Will Miss Cruikshank get Dickie and Isobel back on track? Will Carson be getting to know the downstairs couch? Will Henry emerge intact from his next auto race? Will Mary jump out of a cake if he does? Were ligaments truly not invented when she had George? Will Marigold ever speak?

Three to go!

Crash and Burn

New York Times, February 14, 2016

Send in the puppies!

Oh, I know, Abbots, there was only one flesh-and-blood pooch on view: an aww-inspiring yellow lab who will henceforth bear the name Tiaa in the hope that no terrorist group lays claim to it. (As any imbecile could tell you, Tiaa was the wife of Amenhotep II.) But I couldn't escape the feeling that tonight's episode was devoted to bringing out the puppy in everyone.

We know, of course, that these shows are written months in advance of our ever seeing them, so we must credit Baron Fellowes with grasping how thoroughly he had poisoned the Downton well—either turning us against once-popular characters ( Carson) or inspiring homicidal thoughts about long-term irritants ( Daisy). With only three episodes left to get his characters galloping to a Jane Austen photo-finish, Mr. Fellowes knew he was going to have to start inciting a little fellowship. And pronto.

And if that means humiliating a certain fussy and inflexible middle-aged butler, well, so be it. With his domestic tyranny, Carson has been getting on everyone's last nerve, anyway, so we were all presumably on board when Mrs. Hughes feigned injury and forced her newlywed to fend for himself in the kitchen. "You mean, I'm going to cook?" he gasps, in the manner of the Last Emperor handed his first trowel. The to-and-froing leaves him so spent that he's already nodding off in the middle of dinner, and if the whole sequence has the feeling of an "I Love Lucy" rerun, maybe it will prompt Carson to 'splain why he's been such a putz. Or get busy inventing the microwave.

And what of Downton Abbey's squeakiest wheel, Daisy? The character who, judging from the Abbot commentariat, is most in danger of being boiled in the Cauldron of Viewer Rage? Now, thanks to Baron Fellowes, she gets to explain why she's been so possessive of her dad-in-law: "I've never had much that was my own, you know." Let's hope she will heed the wise counsel of Mrs. Patmore: "Love isn't finite. If Mr. Mason makes new friends, it doesn't mean he has any less love for you. NOW QUIT YOUR WHINING BEFORE I STOP YOUR MOUTH WITH A DISH TOWEL." O.K., I added that last part, but surely that was the subtext?

As for the underbutler formerly known as Hissing Thomas, his martyrdom now seems virtually complete. Andy doesn't need his tutelage anymore, and Carson is badgering him every day to get a new position, and Downton is the only place where he's been able to lay down roots, so what's a formerly evil guy to do?

Soon, though, a wonder comes to light! Mr. Molesley demonstrates a level of general knowledge that surpasses even Oxford and Cambridge graduates, and his reward is not a game show but a gig at the village school. Which, assuming Molesley accepts, just happens to leave a footman job for the taking.

Of course, even if Barrow gets offered the position, it would count as a demotion. Fortunately, Molesley himself knows all about downward job mobility and can surely demonstrate the proper technique for swallowing one's pride.

Yes, Abbots, I think it's going to be the equivalent of puppies all around for the downstairs staff. What with Andy mooning over Daisy and Mr. Mason inching toward something like an understanding with Mrs. Patmore and Molesley carrying his stubborn torch for Baxter, the only staffer who could remain unattached by season's end is Barrow himself—and surely that will change the moment the Crawleys invite Noël Coward to dinner.

But maybe the most problematic puppy in the Downton cast of characters is Lady Mary, the Frigidaire who serves as the show's de jure heroine and its de facto antiheroine. How to get her back in our good graces?

By making her love a little too well and a little too unwisely. Which is to say, putting her in the path of Henry T, a penniless, danger-courting professional driver. Mary may be warm for the guy, but she's also understandably a little shy around fast-moving hunks of steel. As a natural consequence, things come to a head at the Brooklands auto race, which starts with the drivers actually sprinting to their cars and continues with ... well, I can't say I had the feeling of G-forces actually whipping my face to the other side of my head, Abbots, but apparently there was enough speed for one of the cars to crash and burn.

Whose, though? The parallels with Season 3 were not lost on Mary, who went sprinting in the direction of the accident ... only to find Henry safe and his bestest pal dead.

Thus Charlie Rogers joins the long scroll of secondary characters who are sacrificed for the moral awakening of primary characters. "His death has made me realize we don't have a minute to waste," says Henry. "This is my carpe diem moment." Mary has a different takeaway: "We're not meant to be together, Henry. We're not right."

Will she change her mind? All we know for sure is that the experience of loving and fearing has left cracks in her chalky facade. Torment, it turns out, looks rather good on Mary Crawley—maybe because, for the first time in many moons, we can feel the pulse of a human heart.

(Now if we can just get Tom to put a cork in his Leo Buscaglia act: "You will be hurt again, and so will I. Because being hurt is part of being alive. But that is no reason to...." Where's that dish towel, Mrs. Patmore?)

Best scene: The absolutely delicious sheathed-claws encounter between Violet and Miss Cruikshank. Skeptical that Larry Grey's fiancee can be as friendly as she seems, Violet quickly grasps what the young woman is after—"a free nurse to take a tiresome old man off your hands." In a voice that nearly smacks of admiration, Violet adds: "You're a cool little miss, aren't you? I'd feel sorry for Larry if I didn't dislike him so much."

Miss Cruikshank: "I shall forget you said that. But you should go now. Much more and we may feel awkward when we meet. Which we are bound to do."

Violet: "I think not, Miss Cruikshank. Not if I see you first."

Best line: When Isobel suggests that Miss C is "quite a tough nut," Violet's reply—"And I am quite a tough nutcracker"—is both apt and a little ribald. But I'll vote for another Dowager Countess moment: "My reason for traveling is to make myself eager to come home. A month among the French should manage it."

Best meta line: "I wish there was something more I could do to be useful." (Tom Branson)

This week's drinking game: A chug of Newcastle Brown Ale for every time Lord G expostulates. I particularly enjoyed the 180-degree swivel of his opinion on auto racing, from "something gallant and daring" to "a bloody awful business, a bloody, bloody awful business." And when his sister teases him about his English, he responds with an even more eloquent "Oh, shut up!" (I do like my Earl grumpy.)

Department of other stuff...

  • Who's the mysterious fellow monitoring Mrs. Patmore's new B&B? The world's first TripAdvisor commenter?

  • Lovely moment where the Carsons, safe in the knowledge that the Crawleys are out of town, treat themselves to a seat on the sofa. I figured they would start snogging, but it turns out they were after something subtler: the air over there. "They don't live badly, you have to concede," says Mrs. H. "They live as they're supposed to live," says Carson.

  • Some Abbots have rightly hailed Rob James-Collier for evoking Barrow's anguish so movingly. May I also salute Kevin Doyle for unearthing, in a few deft strokes, the hopes that have lain buried deep in Molesley's heart? "I never think I deserve anything. Perhaps I've been wrong all along."

So speak up, Abbots! Will Barrow get to stay on, after all? Will Edith say yes to Bertie? Will Bertie say no to Marigold? Will saucy Miss Edmunds exercise her ink-stained wiles on Tom Branson? (She's got to have some plot function, doesn't she?) Will Isobel abandon Dickie to his selfish and greedy children? Will Violet get herself into some Mrs. Stone-ish scandale with a French gigolo? Does H. Rider Haggard really have a lock on the whole "best friend" concept? And who's the lucky staffer who gets to clean up Tiaa's piddles?

Tick ... tick....

Lady Mary, That Skinny You-Know-What

New York Times, February 21, 2016

Oh, Abbots. It seems love and marriage do go together like a horse and carriage. That at least was the conveyance last seen carrying Lady Mary Crawley and Henry Talbot into the Vale of Marital Bliss.

For some reason, that old-fashioned spectacle translated for Lord G as "a new couple in a new world," but all I could see, Abbots, was the past dragging behind them like tin cans. And a trail that looks an awful lot like blood.

Some of it was Mary's. For roughly four-fifths of tonight's episode, she was adamant that her world had no room in it for a car mechanic. Under pressure from her pathologically meddlesome brother-in-law, she once more cycled through her reasons: Henry lacks money, he lacks position, they're not right for each other, etc. It was up to Granny to tease out the real deal-breaker: "I can't be a crash widow again! I can't! I'd live in terror, dreading every race, every practice, every trial. I cannot do it!" (In the next breath: "Oh, can't you find me a duke? There must be one to spare.")

Granny, somewhat surprisingly, plumps for love over "rules and tradition and playing our part," and by now, the riven Mary is ready to take the plunge. She has one last stop, though, on her way back to the altar. Standing in the graveyard that houses her first husband, she confesses to the departed Matthew: "The truth is, I love him. I believe we are right together. But I so very much want to feel that you're happy for me. As I'd be happy for you, my darling. Remember: However much I love him, I will always love you."

(Michelle Dockery was so touching in this scene that I almost didn't notice how perfectly her off-white ensemble coordinated with Matthew's headstone and the surrounding church. It was like an issue of Martha Stewart Grieving.)

Turns out Henry's uncle is a bishop ("Good old England," Mary deadpans) and pretty soon, in what must be the speediest wedding in "Downton" history, the bells are ringing for the lady and her scamp. But if you're like me, your congratulatory telegram may have been halted in midsentence by the thought of Mary's sister.

Oh, Abbots, if there are two words more tightly yoked than "love" and "marriage," it's "poor" and "Edith." According to her patronizing papa, the wretched gal couldn't even make her dolls do what she wanted. At first it seems like things are looking up for our little sad sack when, thanks to an untimely case of malaria, her man, Bertie, inherits the title of Marquess of Hexham. That new title could widen his matrimonial field to include every eligible woman in England, but Bertie only wants to double down. It's Edith or nobody.

"Won't you send me to bed happy?" he asks. Which does indeed sound like an indecent proposal, but Edith sort of says yes, and it's pretty clear she relishes the chance to outrank her sis in the peerage hierarchy—until Mary, in a truly chilling act of sabotage, blurts out the news about Marigold.

Bertie's plenty bummed, all right: "I don't feel like I could spend my life with someone I didn't trust, that didn't trust me." He leaves on the next train, and Edith's wedding dress goes right back into mothballs.

And yeah, O.K., Edith should have had the cojones to tell Bertie herself, but I still wasn't in the mood for throwing rice at Lady Mary, unless it was sticky. Edith at least got to finish the episode on a bright note, beaming down on her love child (who, in an act of questionable taste, was cavorting with her two cousins around Sybil's headstone). The honor of shedding real blood fell to one Thomas Barrow.

Unloved, unwanted, soon to be unemployed, Barrow draws himself a bath and takes a straight edge to his wrists. The scene had an eerie visual parallel to "The Death of Marat," but the dramaturgy felt like something out of Lillian Hellman—that bygone era when suicide was the only face-saving outcome for gay characters.

At any rate, Barrow doesn't actually die, thanks to the quick thinking of Baxter, although his near-end does usefully shake the ground beneath Downton's two most complacent citizens: the Earl, who regarded Barrow's dismissal as merely "a useful saving," and Carson, who assumed his underbutler was "a man without a heart."

If anything, the title of Most Heartless Man has now passed to Carson himself. Note, please, how he insults Molesley on the eve of the footman's new schoolteaching career: "There are plenty of little boys who want to be famous cricketers. It's not enough to make them champions." Then note his truly churlish treatment of Mrs. Patmore, whose B & B has been mistaken for Ye Olde House of Strumpetry. (Isn't there some part of you that wishes she would rise to the challenge and become Yorkshire's wealthiest madam?)

Upstairs and down alike have a good deal of not very becoming fun at Mrs. P's expense, but Carson is the one who can't stop needling the poor woman. "I did wonder about the whole idea from the beginning," he says with a sniff. And when the Crawleys hit on the idea of rescuing her reputation by taking a very public tea at her establishment, Carson can't stop shooting holes in it: "I wouldn't like to see this family dragged into a tawdry local brouhaha." Carson? I got your tawdry local brouhaha right here.

Here's the problem: We only have one more episode left to salvage our butler, and I'm not sure it can be done—no, not even by Mrs. H's referring to him dotingly as "my curmudgeon." (And, Mrs. H, I hope for your sake he's tearing it up in the bedroom.)

Best scenes: What a pugilistic thrill to see Edith and Mary take off their white gloves. "I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch!" cries Edith. "Now listen," says a snarling Mary, "you pathetic—" "You're a bitch!" shouts Edith.

Yes, Abbots, it was an upper-case moment, nicely counterbalanced by the tentative semi-rapprochement that welled up at episode's end. "In the end, you're my sister," Edith says with a shrug. "And one day, only we will remember Sybil. Or Mama or Papa. Or Matthew or Michael. Or Granny or Carson. Or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike." That—along with Miss Edmunds's "Who invented families? That's what I'd like to know"—may be the most complicated statement this show has allowed itself to make about the ties that bind.

Best line: I did enjoy Violet's "Oh, I am glad. So climbing all those stairs wasn't wasted." Hugh Bonneville, bless him, can make an ejaculation like "Golly gumdrops, what a turn-up!" sound like something a human would say. (Shave a quarter-century off him, he'd be the perfect Bertie Wooster.) But I must say I got a real kick out of Isobel's exchange with the devious Miss Cruikshank.

"I'm not sure I do, as it happens," answers the cool-as-a-cucumber Isobel. "Tell me about them."

This week's drinking game: A draft of Fuller's London Porter for every time somebody urges Edith to make a clean breast of things with Bertie. (And much good it did her, Rosamund.)

I Google so you don't have to: Mr. Wackford Squeers, the villainous one-eyed headmaster in Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby." (And if Bertie's mum is such a fright, maybe Edith is better off in the long run?)

Department of other stuff...

  • The agony aunt Cassandra Jones is really Septimus Spratt! Bananas, indeed, and maybe the most cunningly sprung surprise in the show's history. Well done, Baron Fellowes.

  • Our local police sergeant has become such an annoyingly frequent visitor to the Abbey I think it's time for someone to channel the spirit of Gary Coleman and ask what you're talking about, Willis.

  • Clumsy Historical Foreshadowing No. 29: "Now that commercial airlines are starting to operate, I daresay we'll all be flying hither and thither before too long." That's crazy talk, Lord G!

  • I loved the screaming full-page headline in the Daily Mirror: ENGLISH MARQUESS DIES IN TANGIERS. Uh ... slow news day?

  • "Kings are like anyone else," Molesley tells his working-class pupils. Which is either the thesis or the anti-thesis of "Downton Abbey," I can't decide which.

The finish line is nearly in sight, Abbots, so place your bets now. Will Bertie come to his senses? Will Tom recall he has a sex drive of his own? Will Larry Grey grovel at Isobel's feet? Will Mary finally do right by her sister—even to the point of sharing Henry? Will the adulterous Mr. McKidd and Mrs. Dorrit produce a little Dorrit? Would Barrow really not care if you threw coconuts at him?

One. More.

'Downton Abbey,' the Good, the Bad and the Forgotten

New York Times, March 3, 2016

YOU didn't stay the course.

Oh, you enjoyed the Crawleys of Downton Abbey when they were the hot new thing. You hung on when the menfolk went off to fight the Great War. You saw Matthew miraculously walk again; you blessed his marriage to Lady Mary; you shed a tear for dear Sybil.

But then you drifted.

Maybe, from time to time, some of the doings filtered back to you. A downstairs rape. An upstairs blood barf. Bateses in and out of jail. And what about that evil servant who ended a dynasty with a bar of soap? Is she still there? If you're honest, all that filters back to you now is a swirl of headbands and cloche hats and drop-waist tea dresses and evening jackets ... and Maggie Smith, sailing in at some pregnant juncture to crack wise.

Truth is, you're no longer down with "Downton." But now with end times approaching, you're thinking you want to be there when Lord Grantham takes one last stroll across the sward (even if it's not the same yellow lab trailing in his wake). And you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of the hard-core Abbots who've been watching the whole time. With that in mind, a crash course in Downtonology.

Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham

Should Know The dream Tory—loyal to his family, benevolent to his servants, resistant to change but ready to excuse his daughters when they step outside the bounds. Has been known to say things like, "Golly gumdrops, what a turn-up!" Might not be the chap you trust with an inheritance.

Doesn't Matter So Much Loves his dogs more than his daughters. Can be grumpy, especially when ulcerous.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "God, how old is he by now?"

Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham

Should Know She's the nice one.

Doesn't Matter So Much She's the nice one.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "There's Cora."

Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Should Know Lord G's bullheaded but lovable Gorgon-mom. Traffics in ripostes. Most famous for asking, "What is a weekend?"

Doesn't Matter So Much Enjoyed a wintry flirtation with an old Russian beau who never washed his hair.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "I didn't think she was going to go there, but she did." "What would this show be without her?"

Mr. Carson, the Butler

Should Know Has been working at Downton for something like a half-century and is now further to the right than Ted Cruz. Rules the downstairs with a basso profundo and a scowl of iron. Capable of softening for Lady Mary and his new bride, but has spent most of the past season being a prat. Last seen harassing his underbutler to the brink of suicide.

Doesn't Matter So Much Long ago—before the Great Flood, maybe—he was a song-and-dance man.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "He's like the prisoner who thinks he's the warden."

Mrs. Hughes, Housekeeper

Should Know Eminently practical Scottish housekeeper who, perhaps unwisely, has embarked on a late-in-life marriage to the rigid Carson. Confidante, sounding board and good egg.

Doesn't Matter So Much Had a cancer scare.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "I can't always make out what she's saying, but I love hearing her say it."

Mary Crawley, eldest daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham

Should Know A beautiful ice cube that melts every two or three years. Love history boasts two key fatalities: 1) the hot young Turk whose coitus was interrupted in the most permanent way; 2) the beloved first husband (and sorta cousin) who met his demise in a car crash. Which made things a little ticklish when Mary fell for a racecar driver. She got over her squeamishness and tied the knot in what felt like minutes. Mary has been a total bitch to her sister.

Doesn't Matter So Much She has a son. (You never see him.) Before settling down with the driver, she messed around with Lord Gillingham and flirted with Charles Blake and... I forget who else.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "I've never really warmed to her." "What does she/he see in him/her?" "She can wear clothes, that one."

Edith Crawley, second daughter of the Granthams

Should Know The "ugly duckling" of the Crawley sisters was a) abandoned at the altar, and then b) abandoned by her married lover, who c) thoughtlessly (and, in a weird way, presciently) got himself killed by Nazi thugs, but d) left her with the love child Marigold, who has e) shown few signs of animate life. A more recent romance with Bertie, now Marquess of Someplace, was torpedoed by Evil Mary. Will Bertie come back or will Edith resign herself to a life of being "fearfully modern"?

Doesn't Matter So Much She initially placed Marigold with local tenant farmers, then brusquely snatched her back. (Farmer's wife went a little cuckoo, family had to move.) (Actually, this kind of does matter.)

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "Poor Edith." "Poor, poor Edith." "Well, I don't know, who says she needs a man to feel fulfilled, anyway?"

Isobel Crawley, mother of Matthew

Should Know Every bit as high-minded as when the show began, she remains Violet's best foil and frenemy even as she devotes herself to a relentless succession of Good Works. Her marriage plans with the sweet but dim Dickie (a.k.a. Lord Merton) were scotched by Dickie's truly vile son Larry but may be revived by the machinations of Larry's scheming fiancee.

Doesn't Matter So Much Pretty much every improvement project she has undertaken. (Don't get me started on the hospital merger.)

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "Does she ever have an ugly thought?" "So what's wrong with Dr. Clarkson?"

Anna, Lady's Maid; and John Bates, Valet

Should Know The most luckless pair of domestic servants ever, they have both, at various times, been charged with murder and have spent more combined time in jail than Al Capone but nevertheless enjoy ironclad job security. Have conceived a baby Bates, whose life can only go up from here.

Doesn't Matter So Much Mr. Bates got his limp in the Boer War, serving as Lord Grantham's batman.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "If I hear Mr. Green's name one more time, I'll scream."

Thomas Barrow, Underbutler

Should Know Gay outlier-servant, formerly evil and conniving, now engaged in a protracted martyrdom, which recently culminated in slashing his wrists. A seether, but surprisingly good with kids.

Doesn't Matter So Much Once kidnapped Lord Grantham's dog so he could be rewarded for "finding" it.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "Run to London, Thomas! Your subculture awaits you!"

Mrs. Patmore, Cook

Should Know Salty, bossy, eternally pink-cheeked Empress of the Kitchen, who may be Downton Abbey's only remaining virgin but seems to be getting her groove on with a local pig farmer.

Doesn't Matter So Much Her nephew was a war deserter.

Will Make You Sound Intelligent "Has she learned how to use the refrigerator?"

Characters who may be safely ignored Tom, Daisy, Baxter, Molesley, Andy, any child.

Characters you're allowed to be wistful for Matthew, Sybil, O'Brien.

What life will look like without 'Downton Abbey' Anybody's guess.

'Downton Abbey' Finale: A Grand British Story With an American Finish

New York Times, March 6, 2016

We felt it from the opening credits, didn't we, Abbots?

We heard the familiar chords. We watched Lord Grantham and his yellow lab (Isis? Tiaa?) take their last stroll together across the green. We registered the final iterations of the ringing bell, the simmering pot, the lamp, the chandelier. One last time, we thought. And no more.

And the whole while Baron Fellowes seemed to be thinking: Right. Let's clean this up, shall we?

Indeed, from a certain angle, the final episode of "Downton Abbey" was just about getting people out of the fine messes their creator had gotten them into, and hustling them with all due celerity toward the finish line.

In some cases, it required only a little nudge. Take that eminently decent Bertie fellow, who's still crazy for Edith but doesn't know what to do about it. Thanks to a timely (and surprising) (and not surprising) intervention by Mary, he's all "I want you back" and "Would you believe me if I said I couldn't live without you?" and "The only thing I'm not ready for is a life without you."

There's only one problem, and her name is Mum, or Mrs. Pelham, a puritanical figure who wants to rebuild Brancaster Castle as "a moral center for the area" and wants her son to be "a moral man leading by example." Ruh-roh. What's she going to say when she learns that her son is marrying Hester Prynne?

I'm guessing that, if Baron Fellowes had his druthers, he would have drawn out this plot line till the days go by, wrapping it up only when Edith was well past her reproductive window. But time was a-wasting, so Mummy Pelham, after blanching a little at Edith's "sordid revelations," quickly rallied.

"Should I turn down a daughter-in-law who, in addition to having birth and brains, is entirely and unimpeachably honest?" she asked. "She was prepared to deny herself a great position, to say nothing of happiness, rather than claim it by deceit. We must applaud her."

And so the second Crawley daughter finally gets the wedding of her dreams—and, as an added bonus, a higher rank than her sister. The only question that need trouble her now: How does one avoid going slowly and irrevocably insane in a drafty castle the size of an Italian hill town? Daphne du Maurier could conjure great things out of Brancaster.

Right, says Baron Fellowes. We can strike Edith off the list. Now what to do with Henry?

He's as handsome and velvet-voiced as ever but getting a little bored living off his wife's money. Seems the fiery automotive death of his pal Charlie has "taken all the fun out of driving," as well it might. But he still wants to keep his hand in the biz, so he hits on the idea of selling previously used vehicles with his new brother-in-law. Mary, after some demurral, declares she's "as proud as anyone living," which I interpreted as "I could use a little me time." ("For better or for worse," my grandmother used to say, "but not for lunch.")

Mary then proceeds to one-up Henry by announcing that another crawling Crawley—oh, very well, Talbot—is on its way. We will take it as a sign of her newfound emotional maturity that she asks Henry to sit on the news—"I don't want to steal Edith's thunder"—but she must have forgotten to share that intention with Anna, whose water inconveniently breaks before the newlyweds have even made it out the door.

Never mind, Dr. Clarkson is on the spot, and Lady Mary's bedchamber will make a fine delivery room—won't it, Carson?—and, in something like record time, out pops Baby Boy Bates, whose life, we can only hope, will be easier than his parents'. At the very least, he should steer clear of the slammer and anyone named Green. There's nothing we can do about World War II.

(Anna, by the way, may be the only mother ever to emerge from an unexpected and epidural-free labor looking like a Pre-Raphaelite nymph. Makes you wonder what Clarkson was slipping her during the contractions.)

Right, says Baron Fellowes. We've steered the Bateses to safety. Now what are we to do with Isobel?

Make her an avenging angel, that's what. When she learns that her onetime fiancé, Lord Merton, is dying of pernicious anemia and kept prisoner in his own home, she barges in with Violet and practically airlifts the poor fellow out. She offers to marry him for good measure, which means that Lord M, in addition to shacking up with his honey, gets to (1) tell his son what a loser he is ("I've tried and failed to like you"); (2) bear up manfully under a terminal diagnosis ("I'm not too downcast. I've had a good innings"); and then (3) rejoice when the diagnosis is amended (by none other than his romantic rival, Dr. Clarkson). I call that Dickiepalooza.

And it's fully in keeping with tonight's modus operandi, which is to banish all hint of tragedy or discord. Violet buries the hatchet with her daughter-in-law. Robert accepts the fact that he's married to a high-powered health care chief executive. Molesley leaves service behind to mold-sley the next generation of Yorkshire minds. Mrs. Patmore is ready, it seems, to cast off a lifetime of maidenhood for the pig farmer of her heart.

And Andy ... well, he gets the dubious pleasure of Daisy.

Let's credit Baron Fellowes for at least trying to make the wretched girl endearing by putting her through that whole business of massacring her hair. And let's credit Daisy herself with recognizing that Andy looks plenty all right on a ladder in his undershirt. She "could do worse," indeed, and after enough back-and-forthing and cold-shouldering to set the corridors of a high school ablaze, the two appear to be on track to cofounding a Mason pork-products empire. (Which will, of course, be supplying the Mrs. Patmore bed-and-breakfast empire.)

Right, says Baron Fellowes. Now what of Carson?

As you know, Abbots, this needs the heaviest lift because, in a very short space, Downton's second paterfamilias has become Downton's Mussolini. (You mistreat Mrs. Hughes at your own peril.) So what's the Fellowes strategy? Break the man down at a cellular level.

Thus, out of nowhere, Charlie Carson, like his father and grandfather before him, develops a palsy, as ruinous for a butler as for a neurosurgeon. Having spilled a little too much water and a little too much wine, Carson is ready to ship himself off to the glue factory when an unexpected solution presents itself: Mr. Barrow! He's hating life at the Stiles Mausoleum ("This is not 1850, you know") and jumps at the chance to put on the old livery.

So before the new year has even arrived, Carson is relegated to the role of "elder statesman," "seeing eye," manager of "grand events and so on." Everybody thinks it's a capital idea except Carson, whose welling eyes suggest that the glue factory might have been a more humane outcome.

There, says Baron Fellowes, audibly dusting his hands. That's that.

And so end all the wild guesses, conspiracy theories and fan-fiction scenarios that have been circumnavigating the Internet all these months. Mary and Tom will not wed. Michael Gregson will not come staggering back from whatever German hellhole he's supposedly been moldering in to reclaim the mother of his child. (Although Baron Fellowes did lean rather hard on that "If any man can show just cause" moment. Surely he was giving us a tweak?)

Baxter will not hook up again with her old seducer, Peter Coyle, belatedly and blessedly severing one of the show's least rewarding narrative threads. And Barrow will be no closer to getting lucky than he was four seasons ago.

In fact, poor Thomas is pretty much the only character who doesn't find or keep his heart's desire, so rampant is the general happiness. And yes, if this were a grittier program (closer in spirit, say, to the Fellowes-scripted "Gosford Park"), Edith would have remained single, Dickie Grey would have gone to his maker, Henry would have run screaming back to London, and Spratt, in the act of impersonating a woman, would have come to some new understanding of himself. But that's not the show we signed up for.

A fact that Baron Fellowes seems to acknowledge when, in the minutes leading up to Edith's wedding, Violet proffers her definition of an English happy ending: "There's a lot of risk, but with any luck they'll be happy enough."

I think it's fair to say that Julian Fellowes has given us an American happy ending. And why shouldn't he? Haven't we loved these foolish Granthams with all the fervor of their countrymen? Don't we have the operational tear ducts to prove it? And when that Scottish songstress Mrs. H launched into Bobby Burns's old lyric "Auld Lang Syne," didn't we ache at the thought of leaving behind these silly, maddening, wonderful people?

Downton Abbey and its residents were no more real than Middle-earth and, in the end, how little that mattered. We asked them into our homes, and when their time was done, we sent them on their way.

Best scene: The granny-commando raid on Lord Merton's house, which climaxes in this delicious exchange.

Amelia: "Mrs. Crawley wants to take you away from your son and your family and kidnap you into marriage. What do you say?"

Lord M: "How perfectly marvelous."

Best line: Violet was in her usual good form: "Never let tenderness be a bar to a bit of snooping"; "If reason fails, try force"; "I never answer any question more incriminating than whether or not I need a rug." But I must particularly salute her arresting comparison of Denker to Salome, "dancing rings around Spratt's Herod." (And didn't Sue Johnston kind of live up to that billing?)

This week's drinking game: A gulp of White Lady for every time the eyes of Amelia Grey (née Cruikshank) gleam with homicidal intent.

I Google so you don't have to: Bulldog Drummond was a popular detective hero from a series of novels by Sapper. (I can still hear Ronald Colman's cadences from the movie: "I'm too rich to work, too intelligent to play—much.") Clara Bow was, of course, the sexy American "It Girl" whom Daisy only wishes she resembled.

Department of other stuff....

  • Shrimpie's back! That means nothing, I just wanted to say "Shrimpie" one last time.

  • Tom and Miss Edmunds are indeed getting it on. Because who else is left for either of them?

  • Meanwhile, the reciprocal man-crush between Tom and Henry has reached quite bizarre heights ("It can be hard for a woman to understand that a man is what he does") and only gets more ridiculous when Atticus enters the mix and tells the boys they needn't reinvent themselves because "I rather like the old models." Get a room, you three.

  • Speaking of Atticus, he had far and away the most dreadful lines in tonight's episode. I hope Matt Barber got combat pay.

  • Shampoo comes from India. Who knew?

  • Patricia Hodge (Mrs. Pelham) does things with her mouth that haven't been done since the silent era. (Some Abbots may recall Ms. Hodge from the 1983 film adaptation of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal.")

  • Loved the bit where Andy asks if Daisy is "interested in men" and Mrs. P snaps, "What on earth are you implying?" (That's a story for Sarah Waters to tell.)

  • Also loved Lady Rose's encouraging words for the heavily pregnant Anna: "But it's such fun after." Spoken like a parent with a full-time nanny. A nanny who, uh, "won't let" Rose and Atticus cross the ocean with their child.

  • Didn't it seem like the servants were more interested in seeing off the newlyweds than checking on Anna? Whatever.

Here, I normally pose questions about the show's future, but with that avenue closed, I fall back on remembrance. We've all been together a long time, as Mrs. Patmore said—a couple of years, at any rate—and from my side, I can only say how much I've relished your company, your commentary and your camaraderie. The show may be finished, but the spirit of Abbotry follows me wherever I go.

Till the gong calls us back....