And we’re off! The introductions have been made, the secrets and schemes have been outlined for you, and now comes Julian Fellowes, to set them all apace in the manner in which you should come to expect from him if you’ve ever watched more than a couple hours of Downton Abbey.
Lady Brockenhurst continues to parade her very public fascination with Mr. Charles Pope around, setting off alarm bells and forcing questions all up and down the length and breadth of London society. Everyone wants to know what her damage is – everyone, that is, except her husband, the Earl of Brockenhurst, who finds it only mildly curious before spending the rest of the episode humiliating his no-good brother, Reverend Bellasis. Meanwhile, the not-so-good Reverend’s son Adam (who never seems to be hurting for money, for some reason) is off at his secret house violating a few of the Commandments with the Trenchards’ social-climbing daughter-in-law Susan, helped along tremendously by her devious ladies maid, Speer. Downstairs, the rest of the Trenchard household servants have all manner of opinion on the goings-on upstairs, debating the pros and cons of various family dynamics as if they were betting on their favorite teams. Mr. and Mrs. Trenchard continue to fret over their family secrets and how said secrets could be the Ruin Of Them All if they ever got out. Anne occasionally remembers to be angry at her husband for keeping a lifelong secret from her, but then he snaps at her for going against his wishes and then she cries a little looking at the portrait of her long-dead, sainted daughter. We keep waiting for her to put arsenic in his tea or something. Also, they have a pouty failson who helpfully serves to illustrate both why his wife is off with other men and also that her taste in men is rather uniformly terrible.
Outside the rather dreary walls of the Trenchard household, Mr. Charles Pope laughs and skips his way through life, charming everyone he meets and shrugging at the piles of money that keep falling into his lap from curiously interested wealthy people old enough to be his grandparents. He barely takes a moment to question why such things keep happening, but then again, why should he? Free money, good looks and a rising star on the London social scene. No wonder he’s skipping. Unfortunately, Lady Maria Grey will not be falling into his lap any time soon, since she rather unthinkingly blurted out the fact of her engagement to Adam Bellasis, leaving Mr. Pope a bit crushed. Mr. Trenchard finally receives his membership in the Athenaeum Club, only to spew his boorish middle class ways all over the walls and draperies. He invites Mr. Pope, forgetting that he has a son (and also that he’s not supposed to do that for his first luncheon). Word, of course, gets round.
The not-so-good Reverend, meanwhile, is not skipping through London society but instead having his face violently introduced to the London underground – and we don’t mean the subway. His desperation increasing, he starts to form an idea about how to use Lady Trenchard’s fascination with the mysterious Charles Pope against her, resulting in more money for him to piss away and less likelihood of his face being smashed into tables. While this is all happening, his horny, no-good, sleeping-with-another-man’s-wife son enlists the help of the Trenchard’s suspicious butler to spy on the family for him.
This is, of course, when it all went straight to soap opera. But before you soap fans harrumph and reach for your torches, that’s a good thing. Fellowes is excellent at unfolding these soapy plots — in the short term. He’s not very good about wrapping them up, but since this is based on his own novel, we have a little more faith this time. Yes, every single plot element is a return to a favorite of his, but then again, all of his most favorite plot elements – upper classes violating social norms, lower classes getting their revenge on upper classes, out of wedlock babies, scandalous assignations, questions of inheritance, addictions, blackmail, adultery – are all soap opera standards. And yes, it is ridiculously easy to figure out not only how this is all going to play out, but exactly how it’s going to get resolved. We haven’t read the book or even a summary of it, but we would bet cash money that one of the assumptions made in the first episode – the one upon which the entire story hinges – will turn out to be miraculously wrong, like Matthew Crawley conquering spinal paralysis because his betrothed dropped a tea tray. And you know? We’ll probably laugh and roll our eyes a little, but we also almost certainly clap at the audacity of it – just like we did when Matthew leapt out of that chair. Let him play with his Victorian dolls. We don’t mind it a bit.