Despite the fact that she carries with her all the accoutrements of modernity, being suspiciously welded to a sewing machine that – gasp! – you have to plug in, Baxter easily wins over her colleagues and employers, and soon Lady Cora is happily drinking orange juice quicker than you can say ‘Ocado order’. But it is the first rule of Downton Abbey that whomever is lady’s maid to Lady Cora must be a bitch, and this bitch has existing ties, as yet unclarified, to Thomas.
Would that anyone had noticed this; but, these days, it’s only Mrs Patmore who realises that, ever since that Titanic went down, new technology can never come to good – and besides, everyone is too distracted by the news that Alfred has got through to cookery boot camp at the Ritz Hotel in that London.
Alfred is not a character we’ve ever had much cause to feel excited about before. At the centre of a perpetual love triangle – or is it a square? – with the other below-stairs young’uns, his primary role, like William before him, has been to receive smirks and slights from sassier characters, with the crumpled incomprehension of one who expects everyone to play fair. So putting him inside a post-war version of Masterchef was a masterstroke.
Alfred may always give it 110%, but if there is any character in the world of Downton who is less well equipped to deal with the emotional rollercoaster that is trial by flambé pan, we have yet to meet them. As he stood there, questions fired at him by an adherent of ‘the grrreat Monsieur Escoffier’, the look was more than ever of a lugubrious, oversized puppy. Vichyssoise? Served cold? How can Alfred be expected to know any of this? Only last season he didn’t know what a bouillon spoon was!
Still, it is an exciting prospect to think that Downton may now be ploughing a furrow of reality spin-off shows: Mrs Patmore in Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook Without My Glasses; Thomas in Playing it Straight, and Miss Baxter in a cross between Project Runway and The Mole. Even Lady Edith could join in the fun, because surely if anybody needs the benefit of The Sex Inspectors, it’s her.
Last seen tiptoeing not-so-surreptitiously out of Gregon’s city pad, Edith now finds herself stonewalled by Gregson, and in need of the consultancy of a London medic, proving once again that she is the most Chekhovian of the Crawleys. Call us naïve, but, despite his attachment to Weimar Germany, we’d rather liked Gregson for being one of the few characters to recognise Edith’s chutzpah and general period hotness.
Still, such things are sparrow-feed compared to the ongoing drama that has plunged Downton, in Mrs Hughes’ words, into a ‘vale of shadows’. When the moment of reconciliation between Anna and Bates comes, it is a moment of tenderness in a series that has not always been so keen to promote kindness lately. When Bates exalts Anna as an angel for having endured her suffering, it feels exactly right – an acknowledgement that Anna, more than anyone, has always been the angel of the house.
It is all the more the shame, then, that, in the final moments of the episode, Bates turns into Charles Bronson and everything becomes a bit period Death Wish as he broods on thoughts of revenge. We know that there are many viewers who still harbour suspicions over Bates for his role in his first wife’s death, and there was, in addition, that portentous line a few weeks ago when he spoke of how prison had been ‘an education’. But Bates is not a vigilante and, while Downton is unashamedly a melodrama, to make rape the focus of a revenge plot feels tonally jarring for a programme that has hitherto milked the dramatic potential of a torn apron.
We shall see what becomes of this plot strand in future weeks; but while, of course, we want Green to face justice, is it so wrong, like Anna, to wish that this was left in the past?
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 20 October 2013 on ITV.
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