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 ...
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!