Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
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Novels

Do We Really Want Anything to Change?
New York Times, January 4, 2015

Another season, Abbots!

Another chance to revel in the details of death duties and animal husbandry. Another chance to ponder the holes left by departing domestics. Another chance to ask if the women of the Crawley family can look any thinner than they have and to learn that yes, they can.

But it wouldn't be another year at Downton if Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) weren't muttering darkly about winds of change. It's 1924, and the Labour Party has carjacked the chariot of power. (Marvelous tutorial on the history behind "Downton Abbey" here). Frowning over his newspaper, Lord G foresees "the destruction of us and everything we stand for."

In case we miss his point, the earl's ideological ally and butler, Carson, chimes in: "I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on," he declares. "Everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule."

I was reminded of Edna Turnblad's immortal words from the original "Hairspray": "It's the times. They are a-changin'. Something's blowing in the wind. Fetch me my diet pills, would you, hon?"

And who are we kidding? If the times really were a-changing, would we go on loving "Downton" as we do, through all its longueurs and contrivances and disquisitions on pig stewardship? Every Sunday, we gather for the simple purpose of seeing time stopped for an hour. We may be liberal in our daily living, but when it comes to this little corner of Albion, we're hidebound reactionaries. We'll allow a footman to jump into bed with a randy aristo (well, done, Jimmy) but we won't shed a single tear when that Lawrentian fantasy is aborted and both offenders are apparently banished. (So long, Jimmy?)

We may smile when the members of the war memorial committee ask Carson to be their chairman instead of Lord G—Robert's snits are kind of cute—but we smile more broadly when Carson realigns the social order by getting his boss appointed "patron" (whatever that means). For a few uncomfortable minutes, we worry that the ex-agitator Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is reverting to his "rebel and hater" days when he makes rude comments about the Great War during a dinner party—but then Tom reassures Lord G (and us) that he doesn't hate anyone, "least of all you."

Rebellion is routed. Downton rolls onward.

So if a pleasing stasis is woven into the heart of this show, why am I feeling the need for a little disorder?

Consider that the most entertaining "Downton Abbey" installment of the holiday season was not Episode 1 but the show's nine-minute-plus fund-raising video, an alternative universe in which Lord Grantham is replaced by Lord Hollywood (George Clooney, looking like a California Sun King). New worlds of Eros erupt in this funny and knowing send-up, which reminds us that every cast member in "Downton Abbey" is already a wink or two away from camp. (Thomas hiding behind the curtains in the video is not much different from Thomas skulking round the corner in every episode.)

We also get wistful glimpses of roads not taken. The ravenous Mrs. Hughes, growling through a round of strip poker, imposes herself more forcefully on the narrative in five seconds than her "real" character has done in four seasons. The prodigious tats on Faux Molesley make me want to rescue his PBS doppelgaenger from the prison of plot drabness that has him slathering on black hair dye in a misguided lunge at youth.

We know Molesley has more in him. They all do. One of my favorite memories of Season 4 was seeing mud-spattered Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) cackling with merriment and recognizing that her face actually has some bend in it. More of that Mary, please! And less of the gloomy, graven drudge who strings along Tony G (Tom Cullen) and receives his offer of premarital sex as if it were a revisionist theory on crop rotation. (Perhaps in her defense, Mr. Cullen has yet to rise to the quiet hotness of his gay lifeguard in "Weekend.")

As for Edith—dear, sweet, morose, abandoned, maddening Edith—what can we say about a gal who can't even properly set her own room on fire and has to be carried to safety like some silent-film ingenue? Imagine now an alternative reality: She gives up on the vanished Michael Gregson. She stops mooning over their love child (Marigold, really?). She uses her bathtub for gin and writes a scandalous piece of soft lesbian pornography and runs off with a sheik and maybe ignites a small war somewhere and then covers it for a lefty Parisian journal. Think Rebecca West, not Lillian Gish.

A fella can dream.

Briefly:

  • Who knew fire mitigation was so advanced in the 1920s? Hoses for days, and the volunteer fire brigade arriving in a couple of minutes. Assuming the role of chief water spewer: Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), better known as champion pig wrangler, charitable recipient of illegitimate, if aristocratic, infants, and altogether the hardest-working man in the estate business. (In other words, he needs a Dark Secret soon.)
  • Speaking of dark secrets: After months of trembling like a vole in Thomas's grip, Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) spills her own dirt! Turns out she stole jewelry from an old employer (under mysterious circumstances) and spent three years in the slammer. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the old softie, is O.K. with the stealing part but cross with Thomas until he saves Edith (Laura Carmichael) from the fire. At which point she's practically ready to turn him straight. Which makes Thomas...
  • The Luckiest Bastard on Television! Again! (But Julian Fellowes does write him a humanist interlude. Jimmy: "We all settle down one day." Thomas: "We don't all have the option.")
  • Lovely, tiny moment where Violet, the dowager countess, realizes that Isobel may marry Lord Merton and soon supplant her as the "great lady of the county." In the space of a half-second, Violet panics, rallies and sows the seeds of her next scheme. Dame Maggie? You're good. Penelope Wilton, you're good, too, for showing us a woman helpless to prevent her own future from being snatched away. Not many clothes operas give you these grace notes.

So what are your thoughts, Abbots? Liking things the way they are? Or longing for some apple carts to be upset?

Till next week!



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Louis Bayard