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....