Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
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Novels

Thomas and the Heterosexual Household
New York Times, January 25, 2015

Oh, Abbots, what is going on with Thomas (Rob James-Collier)? First he answers some ad for "Choose Your Own Path." Then he disappears to pay respects to his dying father, only the aforementioned father makes a full recovery—as we expected!—and that's when things get really weird. A missing spoon, a chest of vials, a bandage on Thomas's wrist and a sheen of Dr. Jekyll sweat on his face. Something tells me he's trying to flay the gay away. Which makes me wish I could venture back in time and show him the cautionary examples of Roy Cohn and Rock Hudson, but we must obey the laws of physics, Abbots, and leave Thomas to the mercy of whatever homophobic snake oil he's pumping into his veins.

Thomas might not be going to such lengths if he ever took a hard look at the heterosexuals in his household.

Exhibit 1: Love-starved Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), stringing along her creepy art historian and hearkening to such endearments as "Everything about Downton is beautiful, including its mistress." Not the last word in suave, but since Robert (Hugh Bonneville) appears only to have eyes for Isis the pooch, this is about as good as Countess G is going to get.

Exhibit 2: Dreary, drippy Edith (Laura Carmichael), still longing for her absent boyfriend, who was last reported getting knocked about by brownshirts. In perhaps the most awkward bit of historical exposition ever squeezed into a "Downton" script, Edith declares, "There's a trial going on in Munich of the leader of a group of thugs there." Oh, right, what's the fella's name again? Bitler? Schmittler? Fortunately, the earl rushes in with needed context: "I'm afraid we're going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war." Which is awfully prescient for a guy who thinks the wireless is a passing fad.

Exhibit 3: The once-formidable Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who seems to have lost some of the ice in her veins. She's all set to lower the boom on poor Lord Tony (Tom Cullen), but he takes the wounded-vanity angle with "Am I a bad lover?" Then he seals off all further protest with "We will get through this together." A welcome bit of push-back from a previously tedious character, and I only hope that he can be nudged somehow into "Fatal Attraction" territory, whatever the implications for Downton's rabbits.

Exhibit 4: The parents of Lady Rose (Lily James), who are taking the drastic step of D-I-V-O-R-C-E. "Shrimpie hasn't got a bean," cries Robert, and one might argue that any fellow burdened with the name Shrimpie (Peter Egan) would be doomed to unhappiness. "Promise you won't force me into a suitable marriage," his daughter entreats, "like you were forced." (Only if you promise to learn the difference between "like" and "as," he should answer.)

Contemplating the wreckage of Shrimpie et alia, Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith), announces that she never takes sides in a broken marriage "because however much the couple may strive to be honest, no one is ever in possession of the facts."

If you think she's drifting toward autobiography, you're right. Turns out that, many moons ago, the dashing Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) asked her to run away with him, and she almost took him up on it, but then her husband gave her a Faberge photo frame with pics of the kids, and she realized Lord Grantham wasn't quite the jerk she thought.

"Like all Englishmen of his type," she explains, "he hid his qualities beneath a thick blanket of convention."

"It was lucky you found out in time," says Isobel (Penelope Wilton). "If it was in time."

And then a gorgeous cloud wafts over Maggie Smith's eyes.

"I forget."

An unexpected and really kind of beautiful moment. A useful reminder, too, that "Downton" can, at its infrequent best, rise above the swale of soap opera. Bravo.

Best scene: The love declaration of Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). Like Isobel, I had written him off as a sack of potatoes—until he knocked us both for a loop with that charming marriage proposal: "I state freely and proudly, Isobel, that I've fallen in love with you, and I want to spend what remains of my life in your company. I believe I could make you happy. At any rate, I should very much like the chance to try." (Pause while I brush away this piece of grit in my eye.) No word yet on whether Isobel's game, but I confess I'm a bit worried on Lord M.'s behalf. Those who consort with Crawley women have a way of dying or disappearing en avance.

Best line: Isobel: "You only say that to sound clever." Violet: "I know." (Beat) "You should try it." (And don't you wish Isobel would try it and give up this "Wallace and Gromit" character she seems intent on playing?)

This week's drinking game: a big, honking gin and tonic for every time the light of learning shines in the eyes of Daisy (Sophie McShera).

Department of Other Stuff...

  • Some extremely intelligent Abbots (as if there were any other kind) have pointed out that Lady Mary, during her Liverpool snogfest, was in all likelihood using a cervical cap, which was more widespread in 1920s Britain than the diaphragm. I am happy to be educated about the history of contraceptive devices and a little troubled that the plot device continues to dangle. Just who is going to stumble across the thingy in the Bateses' corner cupboard? Could it be...
  • Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward)? Oh, he may act like a dim local constable, stumbling into the Downton kitchen every day with fresh questions about the Green affair, but my hunch is he's the Lieutenant Columbo of Yorkshire, quietly circling a noose around the true killer. O.K., probably not, but isn't it pretty to think so? And by the way, when Anna said, "I just wish we could forget all about Mr. Green," didn't you find yourself wishing the same thing? Any juice left in this lemon?
  • Fascinating scene in which the Crawley dames pay a call on those destitute Czarists. "I never thought it would be like this," murmurs Violet. What she really means: There but for the innate British resistance to social upheaval go I.
  • And speaking of social upheaval: After once more being inexplicably invited to dinner with the Crawleys, that 24-7 agitator Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) declares that Lord G "would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave."

"Only one thing I would like," bellows Lord G, "and that I would like passionately! It is to see you leave this house and never come back!" So saying, he flings his napkin on the table and storms out. That puts this dinner only at the level of my third worst Thanksgiving, but neatly demarcates the political fault lines that have been rumbling beneath this show from the start. "Get out of my house" is pretty much the same message as "Get out of my country" and, at this point, equally futile. When last we checked, Sarah Bunting was still at the table.

** At the risk of incurring Miss Bunting's scorn, may I add how much I loved the completely gratuitous fashion show that popped up halfway through? It's the kind of sequence they used to drop into old Hollywood movies just to show off the studio's duds. ("You're lovely to look at/Delightful to knowww....")

We also got a nice glimpse of the Two Faces of Mary as, with one breath, she dismisses Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)—"He looks after the pigs"—and in the next instant squeals at a passing frock: "Oh, yummy!" La belle dame sans merci.

So am I wrong, Abbots, or are things starting to pick up? Will Bricker (Richard E. Grant) make his big move on Cora? Will the earl run for political office on the platform of "Expand but Don't Spoil"? Will Daisy take up rocket science? Will Thomas sprout a third eye? Will Prince Kuragin's missing wife confound expectations and turn up as a Hong Kong ... taxi driver?

Next week!



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Louis Bayard