Oh man, you guys. I don’t know about this. It’s not very good. Some aspects of it remind me disturbingly of those absolutely horrible made-for-tv costume dramas that were churned out in the US back in the late 80’s and early 90’s and were just atrociously bad. You know the ones I’m talking about: awful soap operas with ridiculous costumes. Yeah, this reminds me of those, and that starts right at the beginning, with a chyron and credits in that buttercup yellow that was so popular in those days, and a font that I’m fairly sure is actually called ‘Saloon Sign.’ Strap yourselves in, this is gonna be rough.
We begin in Barchester in 1836. Ian McShane, whose never really managed to find a role to out-awesome Al Swerengen, heads into the local pub, looks around, and locates his quarry: Dr Thorne. Thorne laughs at something a buddy says, then heads out into the night, trailed by Ian.
Ian (Roger, actually): Avast!
Thorne: Hey! What’s up?
Roger: What’s up? You’ll be making my sister an honest woman, that’s what’s up!
Thorne: I’m a stereotypical douchebag, so all I’m going to do here is call your sister a whore.
Roger: That’ll get you a good hard shove into a concrete pillar! Wait, why aren’t you moving? Oh…shit.
And that’s how Dr Thorne died. What a shame, he seemed like such a pillar of the community.
Twenty years later, a bunch of rich girls with wreaths of ridiculously fake flowers in their hair are relaxing on the lawn of their immense house and discussing the wedding plans of one of them, Augusta. She reels off some bridesmaids and her sister, Beatrice, points out she’s forgotten her friend, Mary. Their cousin, Alexandrina, who’s so uptight she’s nearly choking on the stick shoved up her rear, explains that Mary simply isn’t of the proper calibre to be a bridesmaid at this wedding. There follows some talk of the bridegroom, Moffatt, who’s very new money.
And here comes Mary. Everyone plasters on smiles and then breaks the news that Mary will not be a bridesmaid. Mary brushes off the slap in the face she’s just received and then Alexandrina, being a bitch, says that Mary is too sensible to have imagined she’d ever be a bridesmaid.
Mary’s face: Say what, now?
Beatrice distracts them with talk of honeymoons (Paris is suggested), and then Alexandrina sweeps off, dragging Augusta with her. Beatrice asks Mary if she’s sad not to be a bridesmaid, but Mary just wants to know what Alexandrina meant by insinuating Mary wasn’t up to snuff.
Beatrice’s mother, Arabella, approaches and sends Mary on her way. Once she’s out of earshot, Beatrice tries to pitch Mary as a bridesmaid, but Arabella won’t have it. They clumsily inform us that Mary’s been friends with the daughters of the house since childhood and now it’s a bit late to sever the tie, but since her parentage is a big question mark, she’s not really viewed as a terribly appropriate companion.
On her way home, Mary runs into Beatrice’s brother, Frank, who’s sweet and asks what’s bothering her and offers to walk her home. There’s a cute warmth between them, and as they laugh over a little joke, Augusta watches them from a distance. He says, not quite jokingly, that he wants to marry Mary, but she brushes that off and goes on her way.
She returns home, to the house she shares with her uncle, another Doctor Thorne, but this one apparently received all the decency genes in the family. He’s played by Tom Hollander, and it’s always nice to see him as something other than a bad guy or a buffoonish type. Though he is putting in an excellently creepy turn over on The Night Manager. Mary asks him what he thinks of Augusta’s marriage and says she doesn’t think this one is going to work out. She thinks Augusta’s tying herself to a man she doesn’t love, purely for the sake of money. Yeah, well, lots of young women did back then, and still do.
This is Mary’s roundabout way of asking her uncle about her own history, which you’d think she would have been curious about earlier than now. Thorne confirms that she is, indeed, his niece, the daughter of his late brother, but he reluctantly tells her that her mother was a village girl, and not his brother’s wife. She married and moved to Australia after Mary’s birth. Apparently her douchebag husband forced her to leave Mary behind, as a condition of their marriage. This woman really knew how to pick ‘em, didn’t she? Thorne gently tells her that her father died before she was born. He finishes by saying that Mary’s made him very happy and is just as a daughter to him. Aww.
Augusta thrusts out her bosom and tattles to her mother about Mary flirting with Frank. Arabella snuggles her pug and thanks her daughter, then sends her back upstairs so she can make an entrance after Moffatt comes down.
Arabella sweeps into the drawing room, where a family party has gathered. Her husband, Mr Gresham, is loudly arguing about money with her sister-in-law, Lady de Courcy. Money is to this programme as chaaaaaange was to Downton: it’s something nobody can seem to shut up about, because apparently the audience is so stupid we can’t remember themes at all, so must be constantly reminded of them. But this is one of my biggest peeves with this programme: people at this social level simply didn’t talk publicly about money. Ever. A husband and wife might—might—whisper about such things in the privacy of a bedroom late at night, when nobody else could hear, but they certainly wouldn’t be discussing it loudly in the drawing room, or on the lawn with their cousins. It was considered extremely vulgar. The new money characters could talk about money all they liked, but not these people. It just seems ridiculous.
[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]People at this social level simply didn’t talk publicly about money. Ever.[/cryout-pullquote]
Anyway, what Gresham’s upset about is Lady deC’s plan to set Frank up with an American heiress. Arabella tells her husband to button it up and he sweeps away to join Arabella’s brother at the window and tell him all about the land around the estate he’s had to sell off. Lady deC spitefully reminds him that he sold some of it to ‘the railway man’, Sir Roger Scatcherd. It’s only taken a decade to spend all the money. Incidentally, we soon come to learn that a decade is all the time Scatcherd’s had to even build up that fortune in the first place, so there’s no way that math works out at all, unless Scatcherd basically struck it rich on day one, which he almost certainly didn’t.
In comes Moffatt, accompanied by the oboe music of total buffoonery and preceded by a stomach that would have made President Taft proud. Arabella introduces him to her brother and Lady deC. Lady deC tries quoting poetry to the guy, which just confuses him. And he’s kind of a dick about it, which apparently is a departure from the novel–he’s not a jerk in the book, just, well, probably gay, from what I understand. She changes the subject to the upcoming election, in which Moffatt hopes to be elected to the seat around the de Courcy estate. He rather rudely corrects her but she still invites him to stay with them while he’s electioneering, offering to invite Frank and Augusta as well. Moffatt softens a little at the thought of staying at Courcy Castle.
After dinner, Lady deC has a word with Frank, who’s no more pleased by this plan than his father was. Lady deC still talks up the prospective bride, who’s going to stay with her, so she wants Frank there as well. Frank agrees to come to the castle, but he’s not terribly keen on taking a bride who’s—gasp!—in her 30’s!
As they get ready for bed, Arabella tells her husband they really need to keep Frank and Mary apart for a while. Gresham doesn’t like any of that, because he really likes Mary. He further reminds her that Sir Roger has made Thorne his sort of emissary to the Greshams and Thorne has negotiated the terms of all their land sales and loans, so if they upset him by slamming the door in his niece’s face, it may come back and bite them. But she’s a short-sighted bitch and just says she’ll take care of this herself. Her husband simply must content himself with ordering her not to spoil Frank’s party the following night.
Thorne goes to Boxall Hall, the home of Sir Roger. He’s met by Roger’s wife, a kindly but not terribly assertive or useful woman who tells Thorne that her husband’s legs are bothering him, so he’s in bed, drinking. That should help. She begs Thorne to send away some bad influence who’s up there with him and he offers to do so if she’ll take control of the brandy bottle every now and again. She adds that the Liberals came by to ask Sir Roger to stand for the election.
Thorne goes up to Roger’s bedroom. It’s the Roger who killed Thorne’s brother, and it’s nice to see that Thorne doesn’t hold a grudge (but then, his brother was a dick). I would really love to know how this guy went from what appeared to be a labourer of some kind to absurdly wealthy baronet in only 20 years (10 of which he spent in prison), but it seems I’m going to die waiting for that little titbit of information.
Roger sharply sends his wife away and she leaves, weeping. Thorne checks his patient out, clearly used to this guy’s temper, and asks for another loan on Gresham’s behalf. Roger chuckles that he’s amazed there’s any part of that estate left he doesn’t own. Thorne tells him to lay off the drink and forget about standing for election, because he’d never make it. Roger laughs and takes a swig of brandy as Thorne leaves.
As Thorne is riding away from the house, he’s summoned back and Roger tells him he’s made a new will, with Thorne now as sole executor. Everything will pass to Roger’s son, Louis Philippe (named after a Bourbon monarch? How appropriate). Roger pouts a bit about how the Greshams keep snubbing him and his family, despite the fact he basically owns their house. Thorne passes over that and asks if there’s anything else he should know. Only this: if Louis dies before he turns 30, everything goes to Roger’s sister’s eldest child. Thorne freezes, then starts asking if he’s specified which child this is—has he named a name? Roger shrugs that he doesn’t know the names of his sister’s kids, since they all live so far away, so all the will says is ‘the eldest child of my sister’s body.’ Well, that may make some things interesting.
A ball! Drink! The reverend, Oriel, arrives with his sister. They’re both on the young and decent-looking side. Arabella comments to her husband that it’s nice to have a gentleman vicar again. ‘I never felt that poor Trump was quite up to the mark.’ I know this is based on a Trollope novel that was written more than a century ago, but I’m still going to take that as a pointed joke. Hee!
Gresham and Arabella eye the Oriels and she says it seems the sister has money, but not as much as they need. Too bad.
Frank very obviously eagerly waits for Mary to arrive. His cousin, Lord Porlock, hangs out with him, looking bored. Gresham brings Thorne over to say hello to them both and Frank asks where Mary is. When he hears she’s outside, he excuses himself to go speak with her.
He finds her, looking a bit down, and asks her to come in and dance. She tells him it wouldn’t be appropriate. He says it would be totally appropriate to dance with the woman he plans to marry. She nearly bursts into tears.
Augusta come out to summon Frank back inside to open the ball. He still wants to dance with Mary, but she basically forces him to dance with Miss Oriel instead.
Once the dancing has begun, Mary slips inside and joins her uncle. They talk about his visit with Sir Roger and Thorne says he and Roger go way back, so he’s used to his prickly behaviour. As the dance ends, Oriel and Frank both try to claim dances with Mary. She picks Oriel. Frank watches them dance, sadly.
Later, as they’re walking home, Thorne asks Mary if she ever wishes they were rich. She cheerfully says it’d be nice not to see him having to work so hard, and she wouldn’t mind a pretty new bonnet. He asks why she wouldn’t dance with Frank and she says she’s not worthy of Frank. He refuses to hear any such thing but Mary knows how things work in this society.
Thorne goes to see Gresham the next day and says that Roger will probably give him the loan, but he really needs to stop asking, because he’s basically about to lose his estate. Also, he should probably stop snubbing these people.
Arabella steals up to the door and listens in on their conversation. As Thorne goes to leave, she calls him into the drawing room, sits him down and says they really need Frank to marry money, so could he maybe keep his niece away from her son? She puts a foot very wrong by telling Thorne that ‘words’ have passed between Frank and Mary that should never have been said, and there have been ‘lovemakings of a very advanced kind’.
Thorne’s face: Excuse me, but are you calling my beloved niece a slut?
He demands details and she admits that Frank has been imprudent and there’s been fault on both sides. Bizarrely, she goes on to say none of this must impact the friendliness between the two families. Lady, are you crazy? You just insulted this man and his niece—you basically called her a golddigger. Thorne barely manages to remain civil as he informs the woman that he will never again enter a house that his blameless niece has been turned out of. Way to fix things, Arabella.
At Courcy castle, the rich people play croquet, because that’s what rich people do in programmes like this. Drink! Frank discusses the upcoming election with Augusta, who is clearly disgusted by her own fiancé, which bodes really well for that marriage. She tells Frank that Moffatt is confident he’ll win the election.
Their aunt comes over to introduce Miss Dunstable, who’s played by the always delightful Alison Brie, lately of Mad Men. And she’s by far my favourite character in this programme. Lady deC collects her son and Augusta so Frank and Miss D can have some time alone together. Frank tries to make small talk, but Miss D is a pretty plainspoken, brash American who makes it clear she knows she’s invited to these house parties in the hope that the young men will propose to her and secure her fortune. And she’s just amused by it, because sh’s cool and clearly plans to live her life on her own terms. Frank has absolutely no idea how to interact with someone like this, but he seems entertained and even charmed.
At Boxall, Thorne and Lady Scatcherd discuss Roger’s plan to stand for election, and what a terrible idea that is, considering his poor state of health. She says this is entirely because he wants to put the Greshams’ noses out of joint. Before Thorne goes up to see her husband, she asks after Frank, who used to be her charge, back when she was a lowly nurse. Thorne tells her Frank’s well and urges her to talk her husband out of standing for election, like she could possibly manage that.
Thorne goes upstairs and tells Roger he may win the election at the cost of his life. Roger doesn’t seem to care. Thorne turns to the matter of the will and reveals that Roger’s sister’s and the other Thorne’s child was not dead, as Roger was told, but is quite alive and known to Thorne. Thorne thought Roger ought to know. Roger eagerly asks after the girl and asks if Thorne’s niece, Mary, knows her too. This man can amass an immense fortune in record time but he can’t put two-and-two together and figure out that Mary is actually his niece? Right. Thorne says that she does know her, quite well, and adds that she’s a wonderful person. Roger asks to meet this niece, but Thorne’s reluctant to promise that. Roger tells him that, now he knows the girl lives, he’ll track her down and meet her, if he wants. Thorne refuses to be bullied and leaves.
Courcy. Moffatt and Porlock talk about the election. Moffatt’s not worried about Roger because, again, poor health. Porlock tells Moffatt not to leave off canvassing, then eyes Frank, who’s chatting happily with Martha Dunstable on the other side of the room and pouts a little. Augusta comes in and suggests she and Moffatt discuss wedding plans, but he puts her off so he can work on his speech. But then Alexandrina comes floating over and rather flirtatiously invites him to join the whist game, and he readily agrees. What a bitch, and what a jerk.
Frank and Martha have clearly placed each other right in the friend zone, because they’re talking about Mary and how she’s begun freezing Frank out. He’s befuddled by it. Martha urges him to stand fast and remain true to Mary, if he really loves her. These two are fun together—I’m glad they’re friends.
Thorne sits Mary down for another Important Talk and tells her that her mother’s brother accidentally killed her father. Mary drops heavily into a chair in shock and wonders if her birth just encompassed every sin. Seems like it, Mary. Thorne reassures her that the death was an accident, but her uncle served ten years for it. She asks if this uncle is still alive. Thorne says that he heard the man might be returning to the neighbourhood and may want to seek her out. He warns her that the man can be quite rough and if he tries to contact her she’s to tell Thorne immediately. She agrees, then sadly says that she’s clearly no match for Frank and never could be. Oh, Mary! Thorne looks super sad. She kisses him goodnight and goes to bed.