Monday, March 2, 2015

(SPOILER ALERT) ‘Downton Abbey’ Recap: In the Finale, Mary Meets Mr. Handsome, With a Who Could-Care-Less Attitude (SPOILER ALERT)

By LOUIS BAYARD  MARCH 1, 2015 10:37 PM

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary with  one of the twin Barkers portraying Lady Mary's son, Master George Crawley.
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary with  one of the twin Barkers portraying Lady Mary's son, Master George Crawley.Credit Nick Briggs/Carnival Films for Masterpiece

Season 5, Episode 9

Oh, Abbots. It can’t be over, can it? Another season, gone as quickly as a grouse flying over Brancaster Castle.

So let us keep sorrow at bay by reminding ourselves: We’ve finally pulled abreast. Oh, sure, those viewers in Britain got their usual three-month head start on us (just as the Brits used to get first crack at the latest Dickens installment). Viewers in the United States who were too impatient to wait for the weekly drip of revelation snapped up their DVDs and sometimes blurted out key plot developments over a few too many Manhattans. They had us in their spoiler-alert grip, Abbots, but no longer. Democracy reigns.

So now that we’re all on the same plane of knowledge, what can we say for sure about this fast-receding season? (For Baron Fellowes’ thoughts, read this.)

Longstanding relationships (the Bateses, Robert and Cora) were tested and left standing. Longstanding plot lines were either resolved (Edith’s daughter) or abruptly discarded (Mary Crowley’s sort-of-not-really love triangle). Characters like Violet, the dowager countess, were enlarged with new layers and backstories; others showed clear signs of outliving their narrative usefulness. From all indications, we have seen the last of:

1) Mary’s dim suitor Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who gets a fine consolation prize in Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman).

2) Boston-bound Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who has taken longer to quit the scene than Cher.

3) Rose (Lily James) and Atticus (Matt Barber), who are heading off to New York. (Synchronously, Ms. James has veered off toward “Cinderella,” a part she seems genetically modified for.)

One way or another, the Downton family is fragmenting. Just like the Downton estate (headed for subdivision) and the Downton ethos, a victim to those winds of sociopolitical change that Carson (Jim Carter) keeps mumbling on about. As servants like Daisy (Sophie McShera) begin to imagine better lives, as Socialists like Sarah Bunting make scenes in fine dining rooms, as Edwardian ideals give way to harsh postwar realities (excellent historical timeline here), look for the Crawleys and their retinues to feel and fight their own anachronism.

We know they’ll lose, but what’s a historical drama without gallant fools engaged in rear-guard actions? So carry on, you lovely, maddening elitists, along with your lovely, maddening retinues. We’ll be griping and grumbling, and we’ll be watching.

In the meantime, may I suggest just one incremental reform? On the evidence of Episode 9, you need better legal counsel.

I’m sure the Earl of Grantham’s lawyer, George Murray (Jonathan Coy), has a few gray cells poking around in there, but several years after botching the defense of Bates (Brendan Coyle), he seems bound and determined to do the same with Mrs. Bates (Joanne Froggatt), even going so far as to declare the police case against her airtight when — as we all know, Abbots — it has more holes than, well, a grouse flying over Brancaster Castle.

Turns out that, when Anna was a teenager, she cut her stepfather-molester with a knife, and while she was never charged, that mysteriously reconstructed incident has created some kind of — oh, I don’t know, “pattern” of violence that will sweep Anna straight to the gallows, and in the name of Perry Mason, can’t some fine lawyerly mind sweep this whole business to sea? Instead, it falls to Bates (Mr. Coyle) to confess to Mr. Green’s murder and then vamoose to Ireland.

Now if Sarah Bunting were still around, I would point out to her that, even without benefit of a welfare state, no one enjoys better job security than the Bateses. It doesn’t matter how much leave they take or how many heinous crimes they’re accused of, their jobs are always kept open, their home fires are kept burning, and free (if incompetent) legal care abounds. Sweden could do no better.

At any rate, Anna is sprung on bail, and Murray declares, “We’re going forward and not backward,” but to me, it feels like we’re on the same leaking story pontoon, which only stays afloat because Baron Fellowes’ legs are kicking as madly as they can. By episode’s end, even he must be a little fatigued because a York publican turns up to give Bates an alibi, and the witness who ID’d Anna sprouts “doubts,” and lo and behold, it’s Christmas, and who should pop out of the mistletoe, as it were, but Bates?

Love emerges when you least expect it, Abbots. Sometimes all it takes (and this will give aid and comfort to Freudians everywhere) is for a lot of men to pull out their big guns. The Sinderbys have rented Brancaster for a weeklong shooting party, and no one is immune. Even Edith (Laura Carmichael) loses a bit of her Mildred Pierce-y daughter fixation and dances a few rounds with agreeable castle agent Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton). We wish them both well. (And by the way, Edith needs to let that hair flow. With her locks down to her shoulders, she goes from librarian to licentious.)

But no one is more moved by the sight of men and their gauges than Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who finds herself unaccountably aroused by the marksmanship of a handsome stranger named Henry Talbot. Now I don’t mean to crow, but as soon as I heard Matthew Goode was signed up for the final episode, I immediately discerned that his plot function would be roughly the same as it was in “The Good Wife”: to melt the froideur of a stern, ashen, erotically complicated brunette. Sure enough, he shows up on the Northumberland moors without even an establishing close-up but with enough swagger to remind us that Mary needs a chap who looks as good as Tony G but treats her as roughly as Inspector Vyner. “Heavens,” exclaims Mary, watching Talbot climb into his car. “What a snappy chariot.” Now I would’ve thought she’d be a little skittish of automobiles, given how her late husband met his end, but she seems to be all over Henry T and his Bentley.

Amazing to think, Abbots, that after two seasons of arid flirtation and Liverpool lovefests, Our Miss Flint has found someone to spark off. And the secret to his allure? He doesn’t give a damn if she likes him or not. Look for Talbot to stick around.

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