Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
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Novels

In the Finale, Mary Meets Mr. Handsome
New York Times, March 1, 2015

Oh, Abbots. It can't be over, can it? Another season, gone as quickly as a grouse flying over Brancaster Castle.

So let us keep sorrow at bay by reminding ourselves: We've finally pulled abreast. Oh, sure, those viewers in Britain got their usual three-month head start on us (just as the Brits used to get first crack at the latest Dickens installment). Viewers in the United States who were too impatient to wait for the weekly drip of revelation snapped up their DVDs and sometimes blurted out key plot developments over a few too many Manhattans. They had us in their spoiler-alert grip, Abbots, but no longer. Democracy reigns.

So now that we're all on the same plane of knowledge, what can we say for sure about this fast-receding season? (For Baron Fellowes' thoughts, read this.)

Longstanding relationships (the Bateses, Robert and Cora) were tested and left standing. Longstanding plot lines were either resolved (Edith's daughter) or abruptly discarded (Mary Crawley's sort-of-not-really love triangle). Characters like Violet, the dowager countess, were enlarged with new layers and backstories; others showed clear signs of outliving their narrative usefulness. From all indications, we have seen the last of:

  1. Mary's dim suitor Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who gets a fine consolation prize in Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman).

  2. MBoston-bound Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who has taken longer to quit the scene than Cher.

  3. MRose (Lily James) and Atticus (Matt Barber), who are heading off to New York. (Synchronously, Ms. James has veered off toward "Cinderella," a part she seems genetically modified for.)

One way or another, the Downton family is fragmenting. Just like the Downton estate (headed for subdivision) and the Downton ethos, a victim to those winds of sociopolitical change that Carson (Jim Carter) keeps mumbling on about. As servants like Daisy (Sophie McShera) begin to imagine better lives, as Socialists like Sarah Bunting make scenes in fine dining rooms, as Edwardian ideals give way to harsh postwar realities (excellent historical timeline here), look for the Crawleys and their retinues to feel and fight their own anachronism.

We know they'll lose, but what's a historical drama without gallant fools engaged in rear-guard actions? So carry on, you lovely, maddening elitists, along with your lovely, maddening retinues. We'll be griping and grumbling, and we'll be watching.

In the meantime, may I suggest just one incremental reform? On the evidence of Episode 9, you need better legal counsel.

I'm sure the Earl of Grantham's lawyer, George Murray (Jonathan Coy), has a few gray cells poking around in there, but several years after botching the defense of Bates (Brendan Coyle), he seems bound and determined to do the same with Mrs. Bates (Joanne Froggatt), even going so far as to declare the police case against her airtight when—as we all know, Abbots—it has more holes than, well, a grouse flying over Brancaster Castle.

Turns out that, when Anna was a teenager, she cut her stepfather-molester with a knife, and while she was never charged, that mysteriously reconstructed incident has created some kind of—oh, I don't know, "pattern" of violence that will sweep Anna straight to the gallows, and in the name of Perry Mason, can't some fine lawyerly mind sweep this whole business to sea? Instead, it falls to Bates (Mr. Coyle) to confess to Mr. Green's murder and then vamoose to Ireland.

Now if Sarah Bunting were still around, I would point out to her that, even without benefit of a welfare state, no one enjoys better job security than the Bateses. It doesn't matter how much leave they take or how many heinous crimes they're accused of, their jobs are always kept open, their home fires are kept burning, and free (if incompetent) legal care abounds. Sweden could do no better.

At any rate, Anna is sprung on bail, and Murray declares, "We're going forward and not backward," but to me, it feels like we're on the same leaking story pontoon, which only stays afloat because Baron Fellowes' legs are kicking as madly as they can. By episode's end, even he must be a little fatigued because a York publican turns up to give Bates an alibi, and the witness who ID'd Anna sprouts "doubts," and lo and behold, it's Christmas, and who should pop out of the mistletoe, as it were, but Bates?

My first impulse was to wonder if he was a ghost. My second was to marvel at the freedom with which wanted felons limped about in that pre-TSA era. "We'll worry about everything else later," Bates croons to his missus. Which is maybe what Baron Fellowes murmurs to himself just before bed. Given the Bateses' amorous Noel clinch, it's hard to believe any contraceptive package will come into play tonight. (Twenty to one the resulting child is called Holly. Or Ivy.)

Love emerges when you least expect it, Abbots. Sometimes all it takes (and this will give aid and comfort to Freudians everywhere) is for a lot of men to pull out their big guns. The Sinderbys have rented Brancaster for a weeklong shooting party, and no one is immune. Even Edith (Laura Carmichael) loses a bit of her Mildred Pierce-y daughter fixation and dances a few rounds with agreeable castle agent Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton). We wish them both well. (And by the way, Edith needs to let that hair flow. With her locks down to her shoulders, she goes from librarian to licentious.)

But no one is more moved by the sight of men and their gauges than Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who finds herself unaccountably aroused by the marksmanship of a handsome stranger named Henry Talbot.

Now I don't mean to crow, but as soon as I heard Matthew Goode was signed up for the final episode, I immediately discerned that his plot function would be roughly the same as it was in "The Good Wife": to melt the froideur of a stern, ashen, erotically complicated brunette. Sure enough, he shows up on the Northumberland moors without even an establishing close-up but with enough swagger to remind us that Mary needs a chap who looks as good as Tony G but treats her as roughly as Inspector Vyner.

"Heavens," exclaims Mary, watching Talbot climb into his car. "What a snappy chariot." Now I would've thought she'd be a little skittish of automobiles, given how her late husband met his end, but she seems to be all over Henry T and his Bentley.

Amazing to think, Abbots, that after two seasons of arid flirtation and Liverpool lovefests, Our Miss Flint has found someone to spark off. And the secret to his allure? He doesn't give a damn if she likes him or not. Look for Talbot to stick around.

Love doesn't bloom for all the Downton-ites. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) briefly holds out hope that the sons of Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) will allow her marriage to go forward, but that's snuffed out by the arrival of Larry Grey's letter. "I suppose you'll take it lying down," mutters Violet. "I'll take it lying down," answers Isobel, "standing up or in a semi-recumbent posture." And if Lord M knew how kinky she was, he'd have proposed a lot sooner.

An even more illicit love lies squirreled away in the wormy soul of Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner). Through the machinations of Barrow (who has decided to use his powers for—well, a more acceptable evil) Lord S is confronted with his mistress and love child. The day is saved by Rose, of all people, who sallies in with the Crawleys to palisade the girlfriend in good manners, but why, may I ask, is Lord S ordering out for sex when he's got a wife who can make the act of reading a book look like foreplay?

Love's a tricky business, Abbots, and to Violet (Maggie Smith), it brings only the prospect of ruin. Years ago, she tried to elope with Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), only to be waylaid by the Princess Kuragin, who dragged her out of the carriage, flung her into a cab and sent her back to her husband. (Which sort of conflicts with how Violet previously portrayed the affair's end—remember the Faberge photo frames?—but never mind.) Violet is extremely grateful not to have become a Tolstoy heroine, and that's why she's worked so hard to reunite the prince with his long-lost wife (Jane Lapotaire).

Here is where I register my sadness that the producers couldn't find an actress of Dame Maggie's stature to play Princess K. (Imagine her squaring off with Helen Mirren, who's got Russian blood in those fire-and-ice veins.) Here is where I register my surprise that Prince K, in the course of putting on his borrowed tux, failed to wash his hair. Maybe it's just as well that Violet dispatches her old beau to Paris with a kiss-off that Garbo would have relished: "It's how it must be." In the aftermath, at any rate, a little Mae West creeps in. "I will never again receive an immoral proposition from a man. Was I so wrong to savor it?"

Best scene: Confess. Your eyes were more than a little damp by the time Carson got around to proposing to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). It's a well-written and superbly played moment, years in coming. And don't you love the vulnerability that wells out of Carson as he awaits his love's reply? I was figuring Mrs. H would put things off for another two or three seasons, but out she comes with "Of course I'll marry you, you old booby." We'll assume she's alluding to the adorable seabird, and we'll cross fingers that Baron Fellowes actually lets them kiss before too much longer.

Best line: Preparing to lay waste to the local grouse population, the enigmatic Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn) asks, "Would it be awful if I were left alone with my loader?" No, sir. And if Clint Eastwood ever makes the film of "British Sniper," we'll send him your way. But my favorite moment comes courtesy of, who else, Violet? When Robert (Hugh Bonneville) expresses surprise that she's come to the train station to see the family off, she snaps, "Why do you always talk of me as if I were a salmon who laid my eggs in the gravel and then swam back to the sea?" Extra credit to Lady Mary for chiming in: "You're very maternal, aren't you, Granny? When it suits you."

This week's drinking game: A glass of hard cider for every time the Sinderbys' butler Stowell (Alun Armstrong) disses Tom. And a dram of pity for Stowell, who can't help it if he has a heart two sizes too small.

I Google so you don't have to: A thieves' kitchen, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a slum or other area harboring thieves where children are easily led into crime." Think Oliver Twist.

Department of other stuff....

  • Kudos to the cinematographer Michael McDonough for the stunning moorland vistas.

  • Is it me or has Atticus's hair color lightened since his wedding? Is that what comes from rubbing against Rose?

  • Lots of "meta" lines tonight. "We're not having another crisis, are we?" (Mrs. Patmore) "There's a point, Spratt, when malice ceases to be amusing." (Violet) "Nothing is more tedious than other people's misfortunes." (Prince K) As for Lord Merton's dictum, it should be stamped onto the Crawley family crest: "If you're going to be miserable, you might as well do it in charming surroundings."

  • Robert was being so damned sweet and, at the same time, wincing so hard I was certain they were going to fell him before the last grouse dropped. Instead they gave him an ulcer. For no clear reason except to get him soused for Christmas.

  • More suspenseful even than Earl G's health is the question that hovers over each season's finale: Which actors will get bored in the interim and want out of their contracts? I'm just saying that if Sophie McShera decided to be one of them, I would support her 100 percent.

So one last time, Abbots ... speak. What are your fondest wishes for Season 6? Do you believe Mary has found the man to replace Matthew? Will the Bateses have junior Bateses? Will the junior Bateses be charged with murder? Will Barrow (Rob James-Collier) sow love instead of hate? Will Lady Flintshire be shot during the next grouse hunt? And when Denker (Sue Johnston) asks how she's supposed to get rid of the scum, are we certain she's talking about the broth?

Till the gong calls us back. ...



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Louis Bayard