The ill portents were there right from the beginning of this week’s Downton Abbey episode, with Henry Talbot and Charlie Rogers racing their damned cars in preparation for their big race at Brooklands, which was a real-life English motor racing venue back in the day.
In the opening race, Charlie beat Henry by 3½ seconds, and Lady Mary was both psyching herself up to support Henry for the big race, psyching herself up to be OK with him racing cars, and really psyching herself up into believing they could be a couple.
But we, the audience, has always been—as Mrs. Bates put it gently—not of the opinion these two were a good match for each other. Mrs. Bates said they came from different worlds. It was more that Lady Mary just doesn’t fancy him, or care enough about him, and the whole race-car driving thing made it worse as dear Matthew died in a car accident.
Around the big race, intrigues big and small, funny and not-so-funny hubbled and bubbled. Lives are most definitely not only moving forward, but also quickly, with only two episodes of the show left—and endings to be quickly sketched for all our buddies upstairs and down.
Mrs. Patmore, the cook, has opened her bed and breakfast, and was proud to serve her two first guests their breakfast. She had slaved over it more than she had over meals for Lord G and co, she said. All seemed rosy, except for the unknown fellow watching her come and go from behind some bushes.
Could another Downton servant end up in jail before the series is done? Won’t Anna and Mr. Bates feel frightfully aggrieved that it is not one of them, for old times’ sake. (They entered another sixth week of relative happiness unscathed by fate’s cruel blows—what on earth is going on?)
Quite what sadistic dislike Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of Downton, has when he comes to write for poor old Barrow is a mystery. We have established that the once-evil gay footman is no longer evil.
Now, episode in, episode out, Mr. Carson keeps telling Barrow he’s not welcome any more, that he needs to hurry up and find a job, and he does this really meanly.
This week’s Barrow’s secret reading lessons for the cute-servant Andy came to light when Andy couldn’t read Daisy’s exam questions. Barrow leapt in, trying to save him from blushes, and for his pains was told by Mr. Molesley that he would take control of Andy’s reading lessons from now on.
Only Mrs. Carson (we will not call her Mrs. Hughes, it’s ridiculous) attempted some words of sympathy, but otherwise Barrow was a man rejected.
“You haven't found the right person yet, Mr. Barrow. I’m sure there are friends out there,” said Mrs. Carson.
“This is the first place I’ve found where I’ve laid down some roots,” said Barrow.
Sigh. Hugs for Barrow.
The Dowager Countess was also making herself absent, disapproving nose put well out of joint by being shunted from her position of head of the local hospital by Cora.
She was planning a cruise to France: A month among the French, she said, would be enough to convince her to come home.
But first she wanted to find out why Amelia Cruikshank—intended bride of Larry, the awful son of Isobel’s ex, Lord Merton—was courting Isobel’s favor.
One of my favorite lines:
“She’s a tough nut,” Isobel said of Amelia.
“And I’m quite a tough nut cracker,” said the Downton OG. Brilliant.
Under the DC’s brilliant and withering investigation, Miss Cruikshank revealed she wanted Isobel to play nursemaid to Lord Merton, so she and her husband would not have the responsibility, and get to live in his big house.
As the Dowager Countess told Amelia, in my new favorite insult, “You’re a cool little miss.”
Amelia’s overtures of friendship were all about getting Lord Merton off her hands—and, as the DC told Isobel before setting sail, is it now up to Isobel to save Lord Merton from his awful sons, and now awful daughter-in-law?
Another menacing influence, in search of a full storyline, is the weird, off-screen presence of Mr. Coyle, still tormenting Miss Baxter, whose sole other function seems to be to smile tightly at everyone in passing.
At Brooklands, for the big day’s racing, Lord G was liberated from his sickbed, and joined the family and Lady Mary—in the coolest 1920s-meets-the-Beatniks sunglasses—who was trying to be supportive and fall in love.
Cora noted how contrary Mary was, which is an understatement.
Also in attendance was Edith, with the lovely Bertie Pelham, who proposed marriage. Edith said a tentative yes, as long as she could bring little Marigold, who she still hasn’t ’fessed up is her daughter.
Edith’s gung-ho editor also came along. Her times-are-a-changing job was to confirm it was indeed unusual to be a female editor on Fleet Street, or indeed a female-anything, other than something domestic.
Lord G insisted he was no traditionalist, but a leopard who had changed some of his spots.
In this bizarrely paced and written episode—like a slightly duffed-up car, it progressed in fits and spurts—the motor racing started off rather spiffingly: the ancient chuggers racing around, and Downton doing its own Top Gear best to make it look perilous.
Off-screen, an unseen orchestra was in demented overdrive as around and around the track the cars went, with Talbot and Rogers racing each other for victory.
Mary’s sense of foreboding—that she was the subject of “a witch’s curse, trapped in all eternity”—was proven right: There was a car crash. Rogers was killed. Mary thought it was Talbot and felt awful for being relieved that it wasn’t.
As Rogers’s car went up in flames, so did Mary and Talbot’s relationship—and really, not before time. This was a pairing without both point and passion.
Branson, whose manic matchmaking is another odd, discordant note in this storyline, told her this was the wrong moment to make such a dramatic decision. But Lady Mary was right. And now, will she end up with Branson, or—radical idea—on her own?
A happier ending beckoned for Mr. Molesley, who will now be a teacher at the village school, having thought he wasn’t deserving of anything. As sweet as that sounded, you’d think the empathy embedded within it might make its way to Barrow in his obvious pain. Not so. Molesley perhaps can never forgive him for his villainy.
It was also timely and welcome to see Mrs. Carson repay Mr. Carson for all his insensitive, sexist grumblings about her cooking, by fake-spraining her wrist and watching as he flailed over preparing cauliflower, apple crumble, and then the washing up. He had, Mrs. Carson told Mrs. Patmore, “discovered a new respect for the role of cook and bottle washer.”
Revenge here was a dish best served very hot indeed.
We cheered, especially as Mrs. Carson—after replying “Life, just life,” to her husband when he enquired what she and Mrs. Patmore were laughing about—kind of broke the fourth wall by smiling at the camera a little too directly.
That too-intimate glance underscored we are two episodes away from saying farewell to our strange group of friends. For the Downton-dedicated, that fourth wall was pretty wafer-thin in the first place.