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.


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!