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!