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.