Part of the reason the third episode of Belgravia feels a bit lackluster is simply the fact that the series’ two best characters are largely absent from it. It’s not that Caroline and Anne are particularly heroic or good people. But they’re at least complex enough to make good television.
Lady Brockenhurst only appears for the briefest of moments, having tea with Charles and providing grist for the high society rumor mill about who exactly this random cotton merchant might happen to be. Any episode in which Harriet Walters only gets roughly two scenes is offensive to me, particularly when she plays the character that holds a large piece of this plot together.
Anne Trenchard also gets very little to do this week, save give her husband a small fraction of the dressing down he deserves for keeping his relationship with their grandson a secret. It’s a moment that’s intensely satisfying to watch, though it doesn’t go on quite long enough for my taste, so hopefully that is something we’ll get to come back to at some point. Specifically, because James still has yet to apologize for what may be up to a decade’s worth of lying to his wife, or even admit that seeking out and befriending Charles was maybe something he shouldn’t have done and was, at its heart, a deeply selfish action.
Maybe it’s just me but watching him throw the potential ruin of Sophia’s reputation in his wife’s face is utterly infuriating, as is his “a relationship with our grandchild for me, but not for thee” attitude. Shut up, James. You’re only saved from being the worst character on this show by the fact that John Bellasis exists.
The thing is, on paper, James’ behavior should be at least somewhat understandable, if not sympathetic. His remaining child, Oliver, is an idiot, who shares few interests with his father. He’s deeply uninterested in business, has no identifiable skills and a wife who clearly hates her life. Charles, on the surface at least, appears to be the son James never had – a smart, saavy, likeable young man who’s ambitious, capable and is already making a name for himself professionally. Of course he loves this kid.
John, unfortunately, gets a ton of screentime in this episode and remains terrible and generally unredeemable throughout. Not only is he sleeping with the younger Mrs. Trenchard within 48 hours of meeting her (more on that in a moment), he’s bribing servants for information about her family and their history, and plotting to blackmail Lady Caroline as soon as he has any information about Charles that’s worth holding over her head. (A move which his debt-laden, gambling addict father is happily willing to encourage.)
It’s unclear whether Susan Trenchard – Mrs. Oliver to nearly everyone on the show – actually likes John in any real way or if she’s merely using him to try and gain access to the higher levels of society that she’s so desperate to meet. But she throws herself at him with a speed that is, quite frankly, astonishing, and is in his bed before we’ve reached the halfway point of the episode. It’s very unclear why she thinks that committing adultery with a trash person who already owns his own secret sex apartment is going to advance her socially, but here we are. (It does beg the question of how many women, exactly, that John has had affairs with, but also I sort of never want to know. I guess at least he’s rich?)
Susan, in theory, should be an interesting force in this story. She’s calculating, self-serving, and determined – and married to an idiot with little ability or ambition. For whatever reason, she can’t seem to have children, so she’s attempting to fashion a different sort of life on her own terms. It isn’t what anyone would call a hero’s journey and, frankly, all seems destined to blow up in her face once someone inevitably blackmails her, but there’s something at least innately interesting about a woman who refuses to accept the life she’s been handed quietly, no matter how irritating she might be otherwise.
Anyway, Susan must rely on the discretion of her overtly sinister ladies’ maid, Speer, to help cover up her new affair, which will surely end well. The overt misery and barely concealed hatred of literally every servant on this show is surely more realistic than the let’s all pull together and work even harder for the big house family harmony that Downton Abbey loved to promote. But it also means that every member of the downstairs crew is dour and unlikable, without any of the over the top ridiculousness that the equally unlikable upstairs folk tend to exhibit. Speer, axs it turns out, appears to be playing everyone against everyone, even as she – somehow, wildly – believes that her married mistress banging a rich heir will help them all move up in the world.
At least Charles and Lady Mary Gray remain adorable puppies in the world of the greedy and selfish elite, and Belgravia couldn’t telegraph their inevitable endgame status any louder than if it literally wreathed them in lights whenever they’re together. Of course, Charles’ discovery that Maria is engaged to Dreadful John is a downer, but that’s a problem that’s eventually solved by the revelation that he isn’t in fact the heir to an earldom.
A moment which honestly can’t come soon enough. Yes, I realize that this secret is the linchpin about which the entire story of Belgravia turns, but in all honesty, the most satisfying part of this story will inevitably happen once the backstabbing and betrayal begins, and that can’t take place until someone figures out the truth. Watching these awful people stab one another in the back will hopefully make all the rest of this worthwhile.