This review contains spoilers.
“Julian! Come in, have a seat. First of all, Mr Fellowes, let me just say that everyone here at ITV is such a fan of the series four scripts. All this stuff on rural economics and tenant farming? Just golden. And the taxation bill storyline? Wowee. There is one thing though. We’d like to do something to really shake things up. Put Downton back on the front pages, so to speak. It’s a bit delicate, so I’ll just come out and say it: we want to do a…
And lo, off went country mouse Alfred to The Ritz this week, where a tiny French John Torode quizzed him on potato and leek trivia.
Having got through to trunk Camp, Alfred’s nerves (and inability to read, seeing as the words ‘Vichyssoise’ and ‘chill thoroughly before serving’ were written on the blackboard directly in front of him) lost him a place at Judges’ Houses. He shouldn’t snap his béchamel whisk in half just yet though; everyone knows there’s always a last-minute twist inclusion before the live shows.
Good enough for The Ritz they may not be, but Alfred’s bouchées au fromage had the Abbey all a lather, as well they might in a week when the most exciting storyline was the imaginary hurricane that flattened Miss Sybbie’s toy farm. (Foreshadowing, do we think? Between that and the Dowager Countess’ allusion to Lord Byron’s fate, I’m beginning to think Paul Giamatti may arrive Sharknado-style, riding an oceanic twister that drowns the whole lot of them).
This week’s smattering of inconsequentialities is no doubt stage-setting for more dramatic times ahead.
Edith – displaying a great deal more mystery than a bucket – told her family she was off to Michael’s London office, but in fact went to see a doctor. After last week’s monkeyshines, her visit can only mean one thing: another unwed pregnancy scandal is about to be stuffed into the Crawley family closet along with that dead diplomat, Ethel the prozzie, and the housemaid Robert got off with in series two.
Poor Edith, one night of pre-marital fun and it looks like it’s curtains for her reputation. Perhaps that camel-maiming straw of misfortune will be enough to muster up some amity between the Crawley sisters (though seeing as a dead sibling, an altar-jilting, and a dead husband weren’t enough to stem the tide of Lady Mary’s snark, it’s unlikely).
How episode five’s other limp adventures will translate into more captivating fare is less easy to predict. The case of Young Pegg and the Dowager Countess’ missing paper knife (a sequel to that episode of Father Ted with the stolen whistle) doesn’t hold a great deal of initial promise. Nor does the imminent arrival of a refrigerator, or Barrow’s latest attempt to do… what exactly? Be an unspecific baddy in otherwise quiet episodes, presumably.
Least riveting of all is the continuation of Tom, Mary and Robert’s adventures in foreclosures, leases and arrears. This week we met Mr Drewe, whose family had been tenants of the Crawleys since the reign of George the Third. His story pulled a Downton Tory double-whammy, by not only serving to remind us what gentle patricians aristocrats are, but how important it is to maintain the status quo.
Though ambition in Downton Abbey’s lower classes is permissible only when accompanied by a donkey’s work ethic and the proper humility of their station (unlike the ‘baddies’ below stairs, our Alfred’s a striver, not a skiver), the drama happily legitimises the status of those who do nothing to earn their positions save emerge wriggling from the right, privileged orifice. Its upper classes are – the odd boorish drunk aside – munificent patriarchs and matriarchs, marshalling their means to ensure the livelihoods of the hard-working people who depend on them. Lord Grantham’s dealings with Mr Drewe – whose family has been farming Crawley land since the the days of Chaucer, remember – illustrate just this world view. “If we don’t respect our past, we’ll find it harder to build our future”, the Earl declared, as well might a man who’s just seen his Russian counterparts set on fire by Bolsheviks.
You can sort of see his point though. Traditions are nice, aren’t they? Like mince pies at Christmas, bunnies at Easter, and a social system that prioritises the privilege of the few over the well-being of the many. After all, the Drewe family have been tenants of the Crawleys since all life on Earth was primordial soup (served chilled, Alfred, in case you were wondering).
The real drama of course, was left to the much-discussed rape storyline. Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle’s reunion scene was – as ever – beautifully played, though for me, the plot has yet to justify itself as anything more than a cynical ratings-grab.
Unlikely to bolster ratings are the continuing travails of Mr Molesley, a Pooter-esque sad sack who could talk the hind leg off any number of comedy lit windbags by whom his character was inspired. Though to the untrained eye, the only discernible difference between a butler and a footman is the application of snooker referee gloves, Molesley took Carson’s offer that he step into Alfred’s shoes as a great insult. Never mind, he’ll bounce back.
Speaking of bouncing back, series one’s Evelyn Napier has returned to the Abbey to have another crack of Mary’s whip after “the whole ghastly business” with that “splendid pal” she married. Mary’s fan club really is shameless; another week, another potential beau. Just make us all happy Mary, be a dear and take Branson to bed before he emigrates. This ship can’t afford to lose any more of its rats.