Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard Louis Bayard
Novels

Yes, It's Called the Hornby Hotel
New York Times, February 22, 2015

Abbots: Remember when your mother told you not to make a nasty face because a cold wind would come along and freeze it in place? And you didn't believe her? And then years went by, and you're staring into the face of Susan MacClare, Marchioness of Flintshire (Phoebe Nicholls), and you realize your mother was right all along?

It was an ill wind indeed that fixed Lady F.'s features into that attitude of pouchy petulance, and it must have done a number on her soul, too. From the moment she turns up for her daughter's wedding, she exerts a kind of Dementor spell on the proceedings, draining joy from every pore. She kvetches about everything from the Bombay journey to the Southampton train; she insults her daughter's soon-to-be in-laws; she springs the news of her impending divorce at the worst possible time; and for good measure she frames the groom.

Of course, she had a little help with that last part. Didn't you feel a premonitory chill, Abbots, when you learned that Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber) was planning a stag party? At the Hornby Hotel? Sure enough, Atticus is inveigled by a call girl into what seem like compromising positions for a hidden photographer.

I would have expected some kind of camera flash, but maybe my attention was just waylaid by that alarmingly deep furrow in Atticus's abdomen. At any rate, I roused myself quickly enough to wonder if the framer-upper was Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner), who wants to keep his dynasty from absorbing "the same prejudices as everyone else who shops at Harrods" and who has scant patience for that "little shiksa" Rose (Lily James).

(Here is where I pause to consult the Abbot hive-mind. Wasn't "shiksa" a far more insulting term back in the 1920s—i.e., roughly synonymous with "slut"? Does Lord S. really think Rose hangs out in the same joints as the lady's maid, Denker (Sue Johnston)?

Well, Lord S. may have a distaste for cardsharps, undercooked fish and divorce (which he equates with "weakness, degradation, scandal, failure"), but he draws the line at sting operations. Which leaves only one other suspect, Abbots, and it may be that Susan's face has more give than I thought, because I could swear it grew even frownier when her stratagems failed to halt true love's course.

"Am I just expected to be a good loser?" she asks.

"It's too late for that, my dear," murmurs Aunt Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).

In other news, poor Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is languishing in jail, an accused murderess. And if you're wondering why I buried that lead sentence, it's because we're all in jail with her, too—the Penitentiary of Moribund Plot Lines. I'm weary, Abbots. Weary of Mr. Green and the pained, darting glances his name induces. Weary of the steady drip of police inquiry. And weary, too, of having our collective intelligence insulted. Even if we accept the notion that Scotland Yard has waged a massive two-year manhunt on behalf of a valet, why would the police wait so long to put Anna in the lineup? How would a witness be able to identify her after all that time? How could she be arrested simply because she was seen "on the pavement near Mr. Green just before he fell"? Wouldn't someone have to catch her in the act of shoving him? Doesn't anybody at Scotland Yard have better things to do?

Clearly, the Bateses are the characters whom Baron Fellowes most loves to torment, but suffering doesn't necessarily make people more interesting. Look at drippy, dreary Edith (Laura Carmichael), who, under plot duress, has reverted to a maternal cipher. All the more reason to treasure the moment when she catches her father pining over his son-in-law-never-to-be, Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen). "Give it up, Papa," she snaps. "It's a pipe dream."

Edith! You're alive!

Best scene: The Flintshire-Sinderby dinner. Susan comes armed for battle with an anti-Semitic barb for each member of the groom's family: "What a peculiar name. ...Do you have any English blood? ... I always think of you as nomads, drifting around the world." But then she makes the mistake of asking if they have trouble getting staff workers. "Not very," responds Lady Sinderby (Penny Downie). "But then, we're Jewish, so we pay well."

As my kids would say: You just got pwned, Susan. Indeed, after long and careful deliberation, I have concluded that Lady S. is my new Best Gal Pal. The deal was clinched the moment she cooed in her husband's ear: "If you do anything to stop this marriage, anything at all, I will leave you. And then you'll have a scandal worthy of the name." Lady S.? Let's you and me make a night of it with Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman) and close down the Hornby bar.

Best line: I quite liked Mary's (Michelle Dockery) gibe at Edith: "Why does she have to carry on as if she'd invented motherhood?" That pretty much anatomizes the show's Edith Problem. Denker is also bringing it with Spratt (Jeremy Swift): "How else would you like to be summoned? By Joshua's trumpet?" But I must bow to Shrimpie (Peter Egan) and his economy of words. When Susan tries to wrest damning evidence from his grip, he need only snarl (and not for the first time, I'm guessing), "Get down, you cat!"

This week's drinking game: A bowl of Regent's Punch for every time Daisy (Sophie McShera) whines. Oh, what a little rain cloud she's become, Abbots! "Sometimes I think my life has no possibilities at all. ... I feel so resentful, so discontented. It's as if my whole life were a prison I have to go back to. ... How empty my life's been. ..." Hey, toots? Give it a rest.

I Google so you don't have to (part 1): The heiress Hannah Rothschild did indeed marry the 5th Earl of Rosebery in 1878 and remained devoted to him until her death at 39.

I Google so you don't have to (part 2): In the 1919 Amritsar massacre, British soldiers under the command of Brig. Gen. Reginald Dyer fired into a crowd of nonviolent Indian protesters, killing hundreds. It is considered a seminal event in the dismantling of British colonial rule.

Department of other stuff ...

  • Speaking of India ... was I wrong to hope Susan would bring O'Brien back with her? I still miss that soap-wielding monster with her aura of unappeasable rage. Alas, Baron Fellowes did some fancy footwork and got O'Brien reassigned to "the new governor's wife." And if that doesn't bring down the British Raj, nothing will.

  • With what agonizing slowness does the sun rise on Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville). Frowning over Marigold, he ponders: "There is something about her. ... I don't know, a sense of déjà vu. ... Can't quite put my finger on it. ..." But he finally does, bless him, and let's give him credit for admitting how rare that is and for looking so adorable as he Crawleys on the floor with his grandkids. "What would my father say?" he wonders.

  • It's nobody's fault, exactly, but I haven't been able to take Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija) seriously ever since my friend Mary Kay pointed out his resemblance to the World's Most Interesting Man in the Dos Equis ad campaign. When he mutters things like "I know my own bearings" and "I don't seek scandal, only love," I keep imagining him doing photo shoots for premium vodka brands. It might help, I suppose, if I felt even a crackle of sumfin-sumfin with him and Violet, but I think she's got more going on with Spratt.

  • Denker turns out to be quite the good-time gal, stumbling back in a drunken haze from a place called the Velvet Violin and singing—what else?—"It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Denker tries to put her hooks into the temporary servant boy Andy (Michael Fox), but Thomas (Rob James-Collier), with his unerring eye for ingenuous jug-eared lads, comes to the rescue. And here's where I want to remind Baron Fellowes that Thomas is in London now—not too far from Bloomsbury—and could be hooking up with Lytton Strachey or E.M. Forster or, depending on the night, John Maynard Keynes. Is Andy really as good as it gets?

  • Daisy's father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), may be the most praiseworthy, least engrossing character in "Downton" history.

  • Gorgeous music as the Crawleys hit the road to London.

  • Some Abbots have theorized that Lady Mary and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) are being nudged toward the altar. Let's eavesdrop.

Mary: "You're about to leave and take Sybbie with you. It's too much to bear. ...It's a dagger in my heart. I don't know what I'll do without you."

Tom: "We have our memories, you and I."

Mary: "But now you'll take them away with you to Boston."

Tom: "And I'll cherish them when I get there."

Best-case scenario: Tom drags Mary to America and gets her to eat. They intermarry with the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Their great-grandkids shovel unholy amounts of snow.

So speak, Abbots. Will Tom ever leave? Ever? Will Daisy pass her exams and drop Downton like an old shoe? Will Andy somehow worm his way into her job? Will Michael Gregson's name be on Ripon's next war memorial? Will Lady Mary discover she is the Queen of the Upper Nile?

Already getting teary. Just one more!



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Louis Bayard