Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
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Novels

Rumble With Lord G!
New York Times, February 1, 2015

Who would have guessed, Abbots? Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, great man of Yorkshire, veteran of the Boer War, member of one of the most distinguished peerages in the land... knows how to pimp slap.

Now it may not get him much play time in the Super Bowl—or even a stint as backup dominatrix to Katy Perry. But it sure comes in handy when he enters his bedchamber to find his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) in some kind of intimate talking situation with her purring esthete suitor, Simon Bricker (the already-to-be-missed Richard E. Grant). Both Cora and Bricker are still standing and clothed and not noticeably perspiring, but Earl G. rightly surmises that the conversation has moved beyond Piero della Francesca.

But we knew it was coming, didn't we, Abbots? As soon as Robert said he was guest of honor at... some dinner for... officers... oh, I don't know—the point was he was going to be gone, definitively gone, on the night in question, and by the time he said that, Abbots—by the third time, I mean—didn't you grasp as clearly as Daisy (Sophie McShera) now grasps the basic facts of English history that he would come back a little bit early? And find his wife and Bricker in their dressing gowns?

Bricker, to his credit, doesn't back down. "When you chose to ignore a woman like Cora, you must have known that not every man would be as blind as you." No wonder Earl G. gives him the back of his hand! Before you know it, they're tussling all over the bed and floor. It's not exactly a saloon brawl; if anything, the Earl, in his regimental costume, resembles a very large red sofa that has unexpectedly tumbled on a guest and is slowly squeezing the life out of him.

Sanity prevails, and Bricker exits the next morning with as much dignity as he can muster. I wonder if he hasn't discovered a new career path: bringing the healing glow of flirtation to neglected aristo-wives. I could see women paying good money for that therapeutic service, but the therapy, unfortunately, has yet to kick in with the Crawleys. When last seen, Robert was giving Cora a cold shoulder perfected over centuries of English winters. Isis, you bitch, you've won.

Well, we're used to Robert and his epic sulks, aren't we? And if Episode 5 is about anything, it's the fragility of the male ego.

Just look at how far women have to bend to preserve the amour-propre of the house butler. When Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) gets a small inheritance from a dead aunt, Carson (Jim Carter) is the first one she turns to for investment advice. Of course, he does nothing more than pass on secondhand knowledge from Earl G. and pretend he knows the difference between publicly and privately held corporations, so why'd she even bother? "Because he's a man, I suppose."

And when she ultimately uses the money to buy a cottage, Carson gets very snippy indeed: "This is very small beer." "It's my kind of beer," retorts Mrs. P, "and I know how to drink it." But recognizing just how far she can push, she immediately relapses to "It's good to hear advice from a man of the world." In sidles that minx Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan): "We feel thoroughly protected."

Protected, yes. That's what Bates (Brendan Coyle) wants Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to feel. "Nothing bad is ever going to happen to you again," he declares. "We'll sit by the fire with all our children around us, and I'll make certain that you're safe." Anna, having had some hands-on experience with contraceptive packages, edges away from that Duggars-y vision: "I'm not sure about having children all around us." But let's be honest, what's she really thinking? Dude, I've been pulling your chestnuts out of the fire from the day we met. I'll be doing it till the day we die. Who's keeping whom safe here?

Meanwhile, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has been enjoying the ego-boosting and almost Hegelian experience of two historical forces vying for his soul. On one side: the prickly Tory gentility of Earl G. On the other: the hair-trigger Socialism of Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis). Once more I had to remind myself that Sarah and Tom were supposed to be warm for each other—there's never been much on-screen evidence—so I was in no way surprised to see Sarah get the Classic Male Brushoff. "Maybe we should call it a day," says Tom. "Before one of us gets hurt." Then, answering the silent prayers of a million viewers, he packs her off to Lancashire with a chaste kiss and four passionate, heart-thrumming words: "I'm glad we met." A gushing romantic soul to the end, our Tom.

Best scene: That richly realized encounter between Violet, the Dowager Countess, (Maggie Smith) and Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), in which she struggles to define the change that has come over her frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton). "I do not know who she is. I do not know what it is she wants."

"Are you saying you liked her better when she was more middle class?" the doctor asks.

"I wouldn't go that far," snaps Violet, before conjuring up the specter of Isobel's marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). "Do you wish to see her live a life devoid of industry and moral worth? A hollow existence in a large and drafty house with a man who bores her to death?"

Hard not to hear Violet describing her own marriage down to a tee, but thanks to the deft playing of Dame Maggie and Mr. Robb, the melancholy stays just beneath the surface—as does the curious possibility that Isobel is the best friend Violet has ever had.

Best line: So many to choose from, Abbots! I will admit to a giggle at Carson's "Now if you'll allow me, I will go up and ring the gong." (Is that what they're calling it these days?) And, yes, a gut-wrenching guffaw at Rose's "I give tea to some Russian refugees every Tuesday and Thursday. They love cake." (Is that what they're calling it these days?) But for me, time stopped in the most pleasant possible way when Violet, upon learning that someone has launched a nudist colony in Essex, exclaims: "In Essex? Isn't it terribly damp?" To be honest, she had me at Essex, that's how good Dame Maggie is. I never had the privilege of seeing her as Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell on the London stage, but I fully believe she would have brought the same killer inflection to "A handbag?"

This week's drinking game: A long swig of Guinness any time a character, upstairs or down, speaks of the difficulty and/or necessity of change. Who am I kidding? That's the Season 5 drinking game.

Department of other stuff....

  • Oh, Rose. Dear, sweet, vivacious, not-the-sharpest-arrow-in-the-quiver Rose (Lily James). When a young man tells you he has "a bit of Russian blood," it's not--well, it's really not the thing to squeal "How extraordinary!" Because, of course, it's not extraordinary, is it? Russia being a rather big country with millions of people. You—you do see that, don't you, Rose?

    Well, I suppose one benefit of having such an unfurnished head is that no prejudice can take root there, so off you go with your Jewish boyfriend. Spit spot! And may this transgressive love affair end more happily than the last one.

  • Are you not relishing the light note of savagery that Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) brings to the mix? And what a delightfully tense meal with Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery). Is it wrong to wish they both kicked their men to the curb and ran off together for a scandalous Sapphic weekend? In Essex? (At least they wouldn't have to worry about contraception.)

  • Under the influence of his mad-scientist drugs, Hissing Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is looking particularly Kabuki this week—or else he's auditioning for the Yorkshire Little Theater production of "Sweeney Todd." Ten to one he faceplants in somebody's soup.

  • Am I alone in being horrified by the plot to snatch Marigold from her adoptive mother and pop her in some French school? Last I checked, that was called kidnapping. "But what else are we to do?" asks Violet. I dunno ... leave the kid where she is and tell your granddaughter to get a life? Sheesh.

So speak, Abbots. Will the Marigold abduction come to pass? And just whom is Edith (Laura Carmichael) phoning at episode's end? Will the Russian refugees develop diabetic shock? Are Isobel and Violet ever going to finish that jigsaw puzzle? Will Mrs. Patmore's humble little cottage become the stepping stone to a hospitality empire that reduces Downton to luxury guest villas?

Most urgently, are we to believe recent tabloid reports that next season will be "Downton's" last? No confirmation as yet, but end times may be here before we know it. Tremble, Abbots.

Next week!



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Louis Bayard