The Engine Purrs

New York Times, January 24, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

Mary: "So! You really are a car man. I wasn't sure how much you meant it."

Henry: "Oh. I really am a car man."

Call it Goode timing, Abbots. Handsome Henry Talbot, having been dangled before us like some matrimonial worm at the end of last season, has come back to pick up where he left off. Indeed, he may be one of the few remaining bachelors in England whose entrance can prompt Mary to gasp, "Golly!"

What, exactly, do we know about this bobby dazzler? Worryingly little. He has "adequate but not overwhelming" prospects, according to his aunt, and if he is to inherit any kind of title, "40 strong men would have to drop dead." ("Well," answers Violet, "nothing is impossible.")

He could well be after Mary for her loot—car habits are expensive to maintain—but when you've been holed up in Yorkshire as long as Mary (where all the eligible men look like Sergeant Willis) and you've gone out to a fancy London restaurant in your aunt's dress (because you weren't planning to stay more than a day) and you're worried you look "rather shabby" (as if) and your date for the evening very conspicuously rolls his eyes up and down your body and declares that you're the "opposite of shabby" ... well, the hell with fiscal caution, I say.

Which is why, over dinner, Mary is inspired to drawl, "I hope this means you're boiling up to make a pass before we're done."

"Probably," he concedes. "But will you accept?"

"No, but I shall enjoy the process immensely."

All right, Abbots, it's not exactly Bogart and Bacall, but just when "Downtown" story lines seemed to have dwindled to an ember, Henry and Mary have pumped in a bellows-blast of oxygen. Here's Andy casting moo-cow eyes (I think?) at Daisy. Here are the Carsons staggering back to Downton in a daze of carnal knowledge. (Mr. C appears to have taken his new wife warts and all.)

Even Granny Violet—recalling, perhaps, her ancient affair with Prince Kuragin—is moved to declare that "Mary needs more than a handsome smile and a hand on the gear stick." And when her son expresses surprise that she knows what a gear stick is, she snaps, "I know more than you think!"

(What. A. Slut.)

Still, as "Downton Abbey" is always the first to remind us, sex has its unintended consequences. Just ask poor Baxter, seduced long ago into a ruinous crime and now trembling at the prospect of testifying against her corrupter. "All that is needed for evil to triumph," Molesley reminds her, "is for good men to do nothing." You or I might have smacked him upside the head for his sententiousness, but Baxter squares her jaw and resolves to do what's right, so other young women don't get ruined or, at the very least, "changed." (Me, I can't wait to get a load of this Peter Coyle character: the Rasputin of servant girls.)

Baxter also does her best to save Daisy from tasting the ripened fruit of her idiocy. Convinced that Cora is the one standing between Dad-in-Law and Yew Tree Farm, Daisy rushes up to have it out with her ladyship, only to learn that Mr. Mason is in like Flynn (and thanks in large part to Cora's urging). Stymied by yet another of Baron Fellowes's arrested plot developments, Daisy wanders back downstairs to ponder the pendulum swings of her fevered little brain. "Yesterday I thought I hated [Cora], and today she saved our lives." Daisy, if it helps to clarify your thinking, you'll still be annoying tomorrow.

We're left, then, with the triumphal tableau of Mr. Mason embracing his new tenancy. Given that his happiness is built on the ruins of the Drewe family—a tragedy that has never particularly interested Baron Fellowes—I couldn't quite bring my hands together. Although my ears did perk up when the old man said, "I know now where I can lay my bones."

And if Daisy ever tires of hanging out with the in-law, she might consider following the arc of Upwardly Mobile Gwen. Five seasons ago, Gwen was a mere housemaid, inching toward a non-service career under the benevolent eye of Lady Sibyl. Tonight, she returns with full bourgeois bona fides, having snagged some (not overly dynamic) guy named John Harding and given birth to a batch of little Hardings. Did I mention she's as cute and winsome and breathy as ever, even if most of the Crawleys don't recognize her? (As Daisy, in a rare lucid moment, points out, "They don't look us in the face.")

The example of Gwen's escape velocity leaves Daisy inspired and Barrow irked, and as for Mary ... well, hearing of her late sister's largess makes her realize she's not exactly Clara Barton. I feel fairly certain, for instance, that Sybil would never have snorted at the Carsons for honeymooning in Scarborough. (Perhaps the sin suite at the Royal Liverpool wasn't available?) Surely, though, Dead Sis was smiling when Mary swept Anna off to London to avert another miscarriage and even paid extra for Dr. Ryder's dawn patrol. To quote that clever Abbot Lcan in Austin, Tex., it was indeed a stitch in time, and we will cross our fingers in anticipation of a bouncing baby, or something close thereto, by the Christmas episode—even as we recall that, in the eyes of Baron Fellowes, the Bateses are as flies to wanton boys.

Best scene: I'll go with those final wordless moments when Carson surveys the windowless bed chamber that has been his domain all these years. We can only guess at the emotions that are roiling in him as he slides out his name card, but thanks to Jim Carter's delicate underplaying, we know they're there.

Best line: Mrs. Patmore was in her usual good form: "You couldn't be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying." Violet was almost manic with the comebacks. (When Lady Shackleton wonders how she can be an expert without knowing the facts, Violet cuts in with "That's never stopped me.") But I found myself disarmed by Mary's thumbnail description of her schooling—"French, prejudice and dance steps"—and altogether tickled by her explanation for being nice to Edith: "A monkey will type out the Bible if you leave it long enough." (Yes, and trained it to type. Sounds like a job for Gwen.)

This week's drinking game: A big gulp of gin punch for every time someone suggests an improvement in Barrow's moral character. Seriously, the guy's being so hounded I think he'll either enter the priesthood or poison the entire household.

I Google so you don't have to: Rosamund's pet cause, Hillcroft College, is an actual place and still in operation today, providing residential education for adult women.

Department of Other Stuff ....

  • Mrs. Hughes has decided to go by her old name, but dear Lord, could the Crawleys have been any crankier about having to address her as Mrs. Carson? You'd think they'd been forced to eat with their toes. Suck it up, aristos!

  • Lord G's gut pangs are coming so frequently now they need their own theme music. You'll recall that last season Baron Fellowes let him off lightly with an ulcer, but I can't help thinking some more dire fate is in the offing. Tremble.

  • What with Molesley invoking Edmund Burke and Mrs. Patmore likening Daisy to Madame Defarge and Mr. Bates casually tossing out the name of Diaghilev, it was quite a high-culture week for the downstairs staff. Not one to be outflanked intellectually, Violet made a funny allusion to Ariadne's thread and somehow got a glimpse into the future writings of Ayn Rand: "For years I've watched governments take control of our lives, and their argument is always the same—fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too. Less control by the people, more control by the state until the individual's own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist." And if you thought that would make the hospital plotline any more interesting, you were wrong.

  • In addition to playing Lady Shackleton, Harriet Walter can currently be seen in your local multiplex as the doctor ministering to Chewbacca's wounds. Funny business, an actor's career.

  • Speaking of "Star Wars," I've heard from several Abbots who thought the recent usage of "over to the dark side" was a bald anachronism. I confess I'm wondering the same thing about Dr. Ryder's "cautiously optimistic," even if it does hail from "medical novels." (Were there a great many medical novels in 1925? Was Dr. Arrowsmith ever cautiously optimistic?)

So share, Abbots! As we draw closer to the season's meridian, what are your hopes and dreams for the show's characters? Will Mary embrace the gear stick? Or will she choose the man who imports guinea pigs from Peru? Will Baxter bring the spark of hope back to Molesley's eyes? Will Violet become the first female pope? Will Robert make it to Christmas? Will Edith someday give birth to Pelhams 1, 2 and 3? Will Tom do anything? Anything at all?

Next week!