Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
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Novels

The Crawleys Should Have Sent Their Regrets
New York Times, February 15, 2015

Abbots, nothing gets between the Crawleys and their dinner.

Not an absconded daughter. Not a dying dog. Certainly not common sense.

Consider the now irretrievable moment when Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) floats the idea of giving a dinner so that his sons can meet his fiancée, Isobel (Penelope Wilton). Now any reasonable person, upon hearing this idea, would have taken a bow and arrow and shot it straight through its silly heart and then danced on it until it was good and dead. As long-term viewers will recall, the last time Lord M's son Larry (Charlie Anson) dined with the Crawleys, he slipped a drug in Tom Branson's drink, called him "a grubbly little chauffeur chap" and left a trail of white-hot rancor.

But reason doesn't prevail at Downton, Abbots. Everybody in earshot thinks Lord M's idea is ripping, and why don't we host this doomed affair right here because no one does disastrous dinner parties quite like us?

Well, Larry, bless his dark soul, picks up right where he left off. "Mrs. Crawley, a decent middle-class woman with neither birth nor fortune, is expecting to fill our mother's shoes as one of the leaders of the county. Is she capable of it? Or will her inevitable failure prove a source of misery?" His dad suggests he leave, but nobody puts Larry in a corner, and out comes the C-word—"chauffeur"—and, for good measure, a slap at the Jewish Sinderbys, and Tom (Allen Leech), who apparently needs no drug to get his Irish up, springs to his feet. "Why don't you just get out, you bastard?" ("Suddenly we've slipped into a foreign tongue," murmurs Violet, the Dowager Countess.)

It all ends just as badly as anyone could've expected, and when

Lord M suggests, "We'll laugh about this one day," I confess I felt an urge to cuff him about his bony head. But in the next breath, he reveals that his sons "take after their mother in every possible way," and with that, the whole frosty expanse of Lord M's life revealed itself. Hard bitter words in drafty rooms: poor Dickie.

And, while we're on the subject of cold marriages, poor Princess Kuragin, stranded somewhere in Hong Kong and dangling like a sword over Violet's (Maggie Smith) future.

Is it any wonder Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) seems to view matrimony with the same horror she brings to sun exposure? Having failed to persuade Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) to drop his claim on her, she resorts to staging a public smooch outside a movie theater with Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden). Tony spots them, and before you know it, fists are flying and women are screaming and walls are spattered with blue blood....

Oh, wait, that doesn't happen at all. Tony casually concedes defeat, and Mary wishes him all the happiness in the world, and it's all so damn civil that Tony's once-and-future squeeze Mabel (Catherine Steadman) is moved to snap: "I don't want to hurry anyone, but can we bring this to an end?" God, how I will miss this woman, but now that this plot strand is at an end (or seems to be) does anyone share my feeling of anticlimax? I mean, I was expecting Tony G to go the full amour fou, but all it takes to send him on his way, apparently, is the gentlest of nudges.

As for Charles the orchestrator, I kept waiting for him to reveal his ulterior motive—i.e., he wants to drive his piton into the white cliffs of Mary—but then he confirms he's going off to Poland and won't be back for at least six months. So what was he going to all this trouble for? And what good is a love triangle that doesn't at least resolve into a line segment? Barring some last-minute twist, Abbots, I fear we've been spinning our wheels.

A sound that Tom Branson is well acquainted with. After an entire season of will-he-or-won't-he-get-the-hell-out, he announces that he has sent a letter to a "cousin in Boston." Now, if any other character had said that, I would smell spin-off, but given that my interest in Tom would die the moment his ship leaves Southampton, I have to wonder if the writers are just looking for some cargo hold to tuck him away in.

Best scene: Who am I kidding? Isis's sendoff. Oh, I held out hope, Abbots, that James Herriot, Yorkshire's most famous vet, could transport himself back a decade or two, but Isis spends what appear to be her final hours in the Granthams' bed—going to her end with, as Robert (Hugh Bonneville) describes it, "two people who love her and each other very much on either side."

No, I'm—I'm fine. Really, I'm fine.

Best line: I admit I giggled when Edith (Laura Carmichael) unveiled her scheme to immigrate to America and become "Mrs. Thing." (As someone needs to tell her, that would make her daughter Miss Thing. Or, even worse, Thing Two.) But the true Mrs. Thing is, of course, Violet, who shuts down any notion of bringing Robert up to speed on family business with "He's a man. Men don't have rights." Maybe you felt a twinge of pity for Robert's dad.

This week's drinking game: a swig of British oyster stout every time Mary says an unkind word about Edith. (It happens a lot, so pace yourself.)

I Google so you don't have to: The John Barrymore movie that Tony and Mabel were watching was most likely "Beau Brummel," a historical drama about the famous Regency dandy and bathing advocate (who actually spelled his name "Brummell." Hollywood).

Department of other stuff....

  • Marigold is now, thanks to some fast talking and a scramble or two on the railway platform, an official member of the Downton clan. God help her.

  • I could be wrong, but I don't believe we've ever seen Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Denker (Sue Johnston) in the same frame, have we? If so, that confirms my theory that Denker and Spratt ARE THE SAME PERSON. It's like a weird Golden Twenties "Fight Club," which totally explains why Violet is so calm in the face of Spratt's resignation. You'll be back. One way or another....

  • Oh, Rose (Lily James). Dear sweet Rose. How charming you look in robin's-egg blue! But here's the thing. When your boyfriend suggests that you look for Edith in—well, the place where she works—it's really not the thing to exclaim, "Of course! How clever you are." Because it's—it's not that clever, is it? As your boyfriend says, it's "rather obvious." You do see that, don't you, Rose?

    Well, never mind. The bloom is still on you, and I hope you and your handsome lawyer have lots of flawlessly complected children. And when he starts hungering for stimulating conversation, maybe that's time for a healing overture to Sarah Bunting. (But don't invite her to dinner.) And if you need any practice before the Big Day, there's a certain package in the Bates' cottage, nuff said.

  • Speaking of Sarah B, I swear I detected her ventriloquial cadences behind Daisy's (Sophie McShera) propaganda: "We're trapped, held fast in a system that gives us no value and no freedom." I was just about to retort, but Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) saved me the trouble: "Oh, speak for yourself."

  • The servant stories were a little drab this week, no? Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is getting less hissy, it's true, but Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) is still anguished, Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) are still pining for a family, Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) are still pooling their ... savings. But, like the answer to an unspoken prayer, we saw and heard the gong. Now we know how Mrs. H feels.

  • And finally, Abbots, I bow to your hive mind. Last week I misidentified which of Thomas' buttocks bore the offending abscess. Did you turn the other cheek? No! Did I wonder why you were scrutinizing the underbutler's tuchis quite so intently? Well, maybe. Point is that, at the risk of sounding insensitive to Thomas's plight, we've straightened it all out.

So congrats to us all. But what of the coming week? Will Barrow be able to sit for long stretches? Will little Sybbie ever speak beyond monosyllables? Will any child on "Downton Abbey" ever attain the status of actual character? Will Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) realize that "cancer" is not just a word but a thing? And just who bangs the gong in Representative Aaron Schock's office?

Only two more episodes!



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Louis Bayard