A Visit to Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey)

Ah, Downton Abbey. I think it’s safe to say that I am not alone in being slightly obsessed with this show (despite the fact that season three was rather lackluster). Given my love of the Crawley family, I decided to look into visiting Highclere Castle, the estate where much of the show is filmed. And when I learned that it was located only about an hour or so from London, that settled things: we were definitely going to have to pay a visit to Downton.

As we walked up the gravel path from the visitors’ entrance to the manor, we were greeted with this familiar site:

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Yep, it looks just as gorgeous in person as it does on television! We arrived first thing in the morning, so we were able to wander around the grounds for a bit while it was relatively quiet and uncrowded. The estate was peaceful and so beautiful!

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Since we hadn’t gotten the chance to eat a proper breakfast before leaving London, we grabbed some snacks at a little cafe tucked away in the back of the house. Even the sandwich boxes were emblazoned with the Castle’s image!

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Next, it was time to tour the house’s interior (of which, sadly, no photographs were allowed). As we made our way through the ornate, elegant rooms, signs indicated what each room was used for on the show. It was interesting to see the familiar sets up close and in person, but my mom and I both shared the same thought: many of the rooms were tiny! While the house is obviously quite nice, everything looks grander on television. We couldn’t help but feel the tiniest bit disappointed that reality didn’t exactly match up to the TV fantasy.

After exploring the house, we strolled down to the gardens, which were fascinating to poke around in. They contained a wide array of flowers, and many of them were unique varieties I hadn’t seen before.

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We left the garden, making our way through the wildflower meadow. As we climbed up the hill of the meadow, the splendid castle came back into view:

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1575 -Highclere Castle

After grabbing a quick lunch, we said goodbye to Highclere and made our way back to London town. While the castle’s interior hadn’t been quite as luxurious as I would have imagined, overall, I was happy to have visited the inspiration for one of my favorite shows. And when I watch the next season on TV, you can bet I will exclaim in excitement, at least once or twice, “I’ve been there!”

Practical Information:

  • If your heart is set on a visit Highclere, make sure to purchase your tickets well in advance, as some days will sell out. I checked the website regularly and snapped up tickets for our date as soon as they went on sale.
  • Unless you’re a huge fan of ancient Egypt, I wouldn’t shell out the extra pounds to include the Egyptian Exhibit, located in the castle’s basement, in your ticket package. We did, and we ultimately found the exhibit rather lackluster (there are a few genuine artifacts, but large portions of the exhibit are replicas).
  • Getting there: If you don’t have a rental car, don’t fear; it’s still an easy trip from London. From Paddington Station, grab a train to Newbury (the ride is about an hour long). From the Newbury train station, hop in a cab to Highclere (which will take about 15 minutes).
  • If you take a cab to Highclere, make sure to arrange a return trip with your cab driver when he drops you off. We gave ourselves about four hours before having our cabbie pick us up, which was probably more time than we needed – but make sure to budget ample time for touring the house, visiting the gardens, browsing the gift shop, and grabbing food, if you visit around lunch time.

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 88

The weekly(ish) roundup of internet awesomeness:

  1. A little bit of Mitten state pride: 27 Reasons the Great Lakes Are Actually the Greatest.
  2. I try not to get too political on here, and I’m honestly not sure what my opinion of the implications of these statistics is, but this is interesting to ponder: Here Is Every Foreign Country That Gets More Federal Aid Than Detroit.
  3. I know I’ve mentioned my love for RBG before, but it continues with this article. Sample quote: “I don’t water-ski anymore,” Justice Ginsburg said. “I haven’t gone horseback riding in four years. I haven’t ruled that out entirely. But water-skiing, those days are over.”
  4. Neat: Uncanny Aerial and Fashion Photography Mashups.
  5. A scary number of these apply to me: 22 Signs You’re Still Addicted to Friends.
  6. This Delia Ephron article has been making the rounds lately and, as it turns out, I love it too: You Can’t Have It All, but You Can Have Cake.
  7. A good article for tennis enthusiasts: Why Do Tennis Players Say “Come On” So Much? (and, I agree that this started with Lleyton Hewitt. How is that even a question??)
  8. Overwhelming and fascinating: Real Time Emoji Use on Twitter.
  9. Pretty sure I need to forward this article to all my uncles, aunts, and grandparents before the next family gathering: 26, Unmarried, and Childless. Money line: “So please, my dear friends, don’t ask me what’s next. Ask me what’s now.”
  10. Even after the awfulness that was season three, I’m still excited for season four of Downton Abbey. I don’t know how to quit you, Downton.

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 63

leslie and ben

The weekly roundup of internet fabulosity:

  1. After watching the Top Chef finale, I almost felt compelled to write something about it, but then I read this and realized there was no need: he sums up everything I felt perfectly. Love Kristen and Brooke, hate that they didn’t get a final challenge that really allowed them to shine.
  2. I’ve been feeling way too attached to my iPhone lately, so this post resonated: Are You Really as Busy as You Think You Are?
  3. I’ve never understood my generation’s obsession with The Notebook, so naturally I love its Honest Trailer. Best line: “It’s basically the Olive Garden of love stories.”
  4. Amazing piano mash-up: Game of Downton Abbey.
  5. If last season’s MVP of New Girl was Schmidt (by a mile), this year’s is Nick Miller. Here’s why.
  6. This kills me because I was a sophomore circa 2006 and so many things about this are accurate: A Typical Night Studying in 2006. For instance: lofted beds, listening to the Fray, the Dell laptop, and AOL instant messaging.
  7. Leslie and Ben’s wedding on Parks and Rec was one of the most adorable things ever televised. Here’s the story of her unique wedding dress, which could not have been more perfect. And I love that someone at NBC made a Pinterest board of the wedding.
  8. I can’t get over how cool Michelle Obama is: Evolution of Mom Dancing.
  9. This is a cool concept for a photography project: 14 photographers take one picture of their kids, every week for a year. Some great images here.
  10. Because I love Jennifer Lawrence and don’t enjoy Anne Hathaway so much, I thought this was pretty on point: Why Do Women Hate Anne Hathaway (and Love Jennifer Lawrence)?.

(Image via Vulture)

Why Can’t Television Shows Just Die Gracefully?

(Stop reading if you haven’t seen last night’s episode of Downton Abbey. Seriously. Stop.)

Back when I wrote this post about Arrested Development, it occurred to me that basically every single TV show I’ve ever loved has declined in quality over the years (the exception being Arrested Development itself, likely because it only lasted three short seasons – and even then, it had the debatable Charlize Theron arc). It seems all shows follow a familiar pattern: they tend to hit their creative peak around the second season, and then it’s just one long decline into mediocrity.

By way of illustration, let’s conduct a brief survey of the trajectory of some shows I have loved over the years:

  • Friends: For sentimental reasons, this is probably my all-time favorite show, but even I can concede that running ten seasons was excessive. The peak years were seasons 2-4 (season 4, in particular, stands out because of the trivia game and Chandler in a box). After that, the show became a never-ending series of increasingly implausible contrivances to keep Ross and Rachel apart. Sure, it was nice to see them finally get together at the end, but it would’ve been nicer still if I hadn’t had to wait ten damn years for that moment.
  • Alias: Seasons 1 & 2 were brilliant: the show was smart, fast-paced, exciting, and super-addictive. Then Alias went off the deep end by having Sydney “die” and Vaughn remarry the evil Lauren. I’m actually still not fully over that one. Vaughn, how could you?!?
  • The Office: Season 2 of The Office is, quite possibly, my all time favorite season of any TV show, ever. But the show declined in quality quickly, and I quit watching altogether sometime shortly after Pam and Jim got married. Now, the show is a shell of its former self, and I’m still baffled that they thought it was a good idea to continue after Steve Carrell left.
  • Lost: Much like Alias, this had a brilliant first two seasons. Then it delved into crazy mythology and became largely incomprehensible. I watched this through until the end, but by the time everyone reunited in that damn church, I had no freaking clue how we got there or what it all meant.
  • Grey’s Anatomy: Remember when this show was a perfect blend of medical ridiculousness and gut-wrenching melodrama? Those halcyon days when Izzie cut Denny’s LVAD wire, when Christina ran out on her wedding to Burke, and when Meredith did her “pick me, choose me, love me” speech? Then do you remember the days after that, when Izzie had sex with Denny’s ghost, Izzie and George “fell in love” (as if), and Izzie performed surgery on a deer in the Seattle Grace parking lot? Come to think of it, maybe we can blame this one entirely on Katherine Heigl.

Anyway, these are just a few examples – I can think of more (Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, Weeds, etc.). But all this is to say that it’s an obvious trend, and one that I know I’m not the first to point out. I get why it happens – if you’ve got a successful, money making show, I suppose any good TV executive would want to keep the money train rolling. I just wish it didn’t work that way. I wish TV shows were allowed to live out their natural creative lifespan and then die gracefully, well before we were treated to ridiculous spectacles like ghost sex on Grey’s and time jumping on Lost. Quite simply, I wish creativity trumped money. I mean, sure, I’d be bummed when an awesome show went off the air after just a few seasons, but in the long run, isn’t having a few great seasons more satisfying than watching something you once loved slowly devolve into really, really crappy television?

So, why am I talking about all this now? Well, recent developments on Downton Abbey have reinforced the idea to me. Namely, last night (or last December, if you watched it in the UK) Mary and Matthew had a baby, Matthew sped off in his fancy car to share the news with the family, and then you can guess what happened next: oopsies, he got in a car wreck, and before you know it, you’re watching the fake blood dripping down Dan Stevens’s face as a legion of Downton Abbey fans across the nation weeps. Womp womp:

dead matthew crawley

But here’s the thing: it didn’t have to play out this way. I remember, back when Downton first premiered, that there was talk of Julian Fellowes doing three seasons. Then the show’s popularity skyrocketed, and suddenly that plan went out the window. But what if it hadn’t? What if we had been treated to three well-plotted seasons, all working toward an endgame? The show might have been truly brilliant, but we’ll never know. Instead, the last two seasons have grown increasingly sloppy and haphazard, and now we have season four to look forward to, where we’ll watch the show cope with the loss of one-half of its defining couple. Plus, who knows how many more seasons we’ll have after that, and what crazy twists they’ll bring with them. (Note: This is not to say I’m above watching all of this unfold. I’m too invested now, so I’ll stick with the show to the end. Plus, even at its worst, I love Downton more than most things on TV).

I’ve read criticisms from outraged fans who actually blame Dan Stevens for leaving the show. This makes zero sense to me. In fact, I think he’s figured out something that most of the other folks involved with the production have not: that sometimes, it’s best just to call it a day. Maybe Stevens is the smart one for getting out now, while the show is still culturally relevant, as opposed to several years from now, when the magic will have worn off.

Did you watch last night’s episode of Downton? If so, what did you think of the loss of Matthew Crawley? And do you agree that it’s about time to wrap this show up?

(Image via The Daily Mirror)

Downton Abbey: S3, E2

edith & anthony

Last week on Downton Abbey, we saw the Crawley house abuzz with preparations for Matthew and Mary’s wedding. This week, Lady Edith finally got her turn as the staff prepared for her wedding with Sir Anthony Strallan. Further reminding us that all she wants is to be loved (by somebody, anybody, for the love of God!), Edith said, “Something happening in this house is actually about me.” Pathetic, to be sure, but you can’t deny that the girl is self-aware.

Everyone in the family – but particularly Lord Grantham and the Dowager – was down on the planned marriage. Funnily enough, however, they didn’t seem to have any qualms about Sir Anthony when they invited him over for dinner in Season 1 and encouraged Lady Mary to get friendly with him. Is this a sign of the fickle nature of the Crawley family? Naw, I’m going to go with the hypothesis that it’s some sloppy writing on the part of Julian Fellowes. In any case, the wedding day arrived and nobody except Edith – not even Sir Anthony – seemed very pumped about it. Edith got ready, donning a sweeter gown than Mary wore (a rare victory for Edith). Speaking of Mary, she made one of the meanest “nice” statements ever, telling Edith that she was very happy for her today – but that she knew they’d probably go back to hating each other tomorrow. Sisterly love!

Edith made it to the church and down the aisle but, alas, no further. Anthony got cold feet, telling her that he wanted more for her than to be chained to an old man like himself for the rest of her life. Noble, perhaps, but wouldn’t it have been more gallant of him to come to this realization before she got all dressed up and was humiliated in front of her family and friends? In any case, Edith (understandably devastated) returned home and ran up the stairs with her gown’s train trailing behind her, pausing to dramatically throw her veil over the balcony (symbolism, guys!). And the next day, while refusing Anna’s offer to bring her breakfast in bed, Edith delivered one of the saddest lines of the series: “Spinsters have to go down to breakfast.” Womp, womp.

In other upstairs news, the Crawley family also had to deal with their impending poverty. For them, this meant donning their spiffiest picnic wear (seriously, they all looked damn good) and heading to one of their smaller estates, which Mary dubbed “cramped” (of course she did). To me, it looked like they’d simply be settling for living in a mansion instead of the mega-mansion they currently live in, but for the Crawleys, this was clearly devastating. I mean, they would have to downsize to only eight servants! Oh, the shame.

picnic time!

However, due to one of the show’s most contrived plot contrivances ever (and, though I love this show, that’s really saying something), the family was saved from the simple life. Matthew conveniently received a letter from the late Mr. Swire, indicating that he wanted Matthew to have his fortune even though he knew Matthew wasn’t going to marry Lavinia. Matthew, being Matthew and therefore infuriatingly noble, refused to read the letter. After some sneakiness by Mary, however, he finally came to terms with his new windfall and decided to save Downton. Hurrah!

Meanwhile, downstairs, the Thomas/O’Brien war was in full force. As I mentioned last week, I still don’t understand why these two are mad at each other, but their feud is pretty fun to watch. This week, they continued plotting against each other, dragging poor, hapless Molesly into the battle for this round.

And in other downstairs news, Daisy appeared to have quite the developing crush on Alfred, the super tall butler. Also, Anna continued to play detective and something happened to Mr. Bates in prison but, honestly, I’m so bored with this storyline that I can’t even bring myself to care about what exactly went down.

And, finally, after months of waiting for her test results, Mrs. Hughes went to the doctor, who (apparently) told her she’s cancer free. She looked understandably happy about this development, but it was good old Carson who seemed the most elated, cheerfully singing as he polished the silver. Seriously, when are those two crazy kids going to get together?!

Dowager Countess Quip of the Night:


Fashion Moment of the Night: The Crawley sisters at Edith’s wedding & Mary at the Downton Place “picnic”:

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As mentioned above, I thought Edith’s wedding dress was prettier than Mary’s wedding dress – the train in back and the veil/headband were especially nice. However, Mary and Sybil also looked great for Edith’s wedding, getting their pastel on to fabulous effect. Their dresses were lovely, but I’m super obsessed with their hats.

Downton Abbey Series 3

Mary’s picnic wear was also awesome – I loved the brown dress and, once again, the hat totally made the outfit. I want to picnic with the Crawleys!

Acting MVP of the Night: Laura Carmichael as Edith. Girl totally sold Edith’s despair and made (yet another) cheesy plot twist into something poignant.

Best Moment: Cora’s Awesomeness


Is it just me, or has Cora become one of the – if not the – most likeable characters on this show by far? From the way she immediately promised to take care of Mrs. Hughes to her comforting Edith, Cora provided two of the sweetest moments last night.

Worst Moment: Look, we all know Downton’s bread and butter is ridiculous plot turns and twists and improbable contrivances. But Matthew receiving a letter from the beyond has got to be the all time most ridiculous of ridiculous coincidences on this show. Plus, his never-ending sanctimonious attitude toward not taking Lavinia’s “tainted” money is just so old. Yes, Matthew, we know – you have such noble principles and ideals. Vom.

Burning Questions for Next Week: Would life really have been so bad at “tiny” Downton Place? Will Edith stay a “spinster” forever? And are we sure Mrs. Hughes doesn’t have cancer? Something about the way she had Mrs. Pattmore deliver the news to Mr. Carson makes me suspect she’s not out of the woods yet.

(Images via Huffington Post UK, Radio Times, and Rickey)

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 56

edith with googly eyes

This week’s roundup of all that is awesome on the internets:

  1. The 50 Funniest Tweets of 2012. So, so good.
  2. I wish more people watched Happy Endings. Maybe this Happy Endings’ Happy Wordplay video will convince you to do just that.
  3. I marathon watched Homeland over my break (which I’m still on, grad school for the win!), and this article is on point: The Stages of Getting Addicted to Homeland. The Carrie/Brody relationship is when I began to become disenchanted with the show too, but nonetheless it’s still completely addictive and I understand why everyone’s hooked (including myself). And Saul is just the best, so naturally this line from the article was my favorite: “Love Saul. Think Saul is the best character on TV and you want to nuzzle in his beard.”
  4. I know this video is kind of old, but I’ve had the link in my inbox forever and just got around to watching now – and it was as amazing as I thought it would be: Look at This Instagram.
  5. Even though I don’t think I’m quite fancy enough to pull off a list like this, I still love Kate Spade’s list of New Year’s Resolutions.
  6. I’m sure there will be many more Downton-related tumblrs over the course of the season, so here’s to the first of many: Edith with Googly Eyes. As per usual, poor Edith.
  7. This sounds fascinating: Frida Kahlo’s closet, which was locked for 58 years, is now on display. Who wants to go to Mexico City with me?
  8. My excitement over Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting the Golden Globes is no secret. In preparation for the awesomeness of tomorrow night, you should probably review their best onscreen moments together.
  9. Vogue UK’s study of Kate Middleton’s style. I want everything in her wardrobe.
  10. Celebrities Read Mean Tweets About Themselves. Lots of gems here, but I liked the Christina Applegate one the best.

(Image via Edith with Googly Eyes)

Downton Abbey: S3, E1

matthew & mary

Before I start this recap, full disclosure is required: I’ve seen all of Downton Abbey’s third season, having watched it online last fall. But, I held off on writing these recaps until the show started airing here in the US, and I promise not to spoil anything with my knowledge of what’s to come. And though I must admit that I don’t think Season 2 or 3 lived up to the brilliance of Season 1, there’s still a lot to love about this show. So let’s get down to business…

Last night, we met our first new major character of the season, Alfred, the nephew of everyone’s favorite scheming ladies maid, O’Brien. In typical O’Brien fashion, she secures a position for Alfred by tricking Cora who is, as ever, completely oblivious to the fact that O’Brien is manipulating her. Alfred arrives at Downton and promptly displays his defining character trait thus far: he’s tall. Like way tall. Per the Dowager: “I thought you might have been walking on stilts.” Anyway…something about Alfred’s arrival seems to anger Thomas, who decides to start a feud with O’Brien, his former BFF. I was unclear why exactly Thomas and O’Brien suddenly decided to be so mad at each other, but the idea of the show’s two biggest schemers turning on each other is intriguing nonetheless.

Meanwhile, Downton is aflutter with preparations for Mary and Matthew’s wedding. One minor hitch: Sybil and Tom can’t afford to come home for the wedding. Robert (ever the pompous tool) suggests that this development is for the best. After all, who would want all their children present at their daughter’s wedding? Despite this, Sybil and Tom soon arrive, with mystery surrounding who exactly paid for their journey (it’s later revealed that the Dowager, never one to resist intrigue, sent them the money). After a hella awkward family dinner (seriously, Robert, shut up), Tom and Sybil head to bed and look super adorable while doing so. That is, super adorable until Tom says, “Don’t disappoint me, Sybil,” which seems a wee bit harsh. I get that Tom has to be true to all his grand, principled ideals but maybe he could also try being sympathetic to how awkward the situation is for his wife, right? Or maybe not. Freedom for Ireland!

We also learn that Robert, Earl of Stupidity, lost all the estate’s (aka, his wife’s) money in a single bad investment. When he tells Cora that her fortune is gone, her reaction is pretty zen, which is…not how I would react if I were married to Lord Douchenozzle. Meanwhile, in a not-at-all-coincidental turn of events, Matthew finds out that Lavinia’s father left him a huge sum of money. Rather than gleefully pocketing the cash (like a normal person), Matthew continues to be far too noble to handle, claiming he won’t accept the money as it’s “tainted” by his betrayal of Lavinia. Lady Mary is none too pleased, leading to a fight on the eve of their wedding. Ever-wise Anna (as if she doesn’t have enough problems of her own!) and newly-minted best man Branson work their magic and convince Matthew and Mary to forgive each other. The wedding of the twentieth century is ON!


But before we get to the grand event, a few other recent developments to report. Edith repeatedly runs into Sir Anthony Strallan, positively throwing herself at him on each occasion. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, will someone (anyone!) love Edith already?!…Cora’s mother, Martha (aka Shirley MacLaine), arrives, bringing her sassy American ways with her. Guess who’s not a fan? The Dowager Countess, naturally. Pointed, yet oh-so-civilized, sparring ensues…Daisy, meanwhile, is super cranky because she wants a kitchen maid to work under her. She decides to go on some sort of silent protest, which Mrs. Pattmore quickly squashes…And Matthew, to everyone’s chagrin, continues to not-so-subtly hint that he’s ready for some wedding night sexytimes.

Luckily for Matthew, the wedding day arrives. Edith seethes with barely concealed jealousy as Mary gets ready for her big day, while good old Carson beams with pride when Mary descends the staircase in her wedding gown. We get to see approximately two seconds of the ceremony (seriously?!? I feel cheated) before flashing forward several weeks to Mary & Matthew returning from their honeymoon in a fancy new car. They’re greeted by the family, including Robert, who makes a comment about enjoying the honeymoon that is FAR too creepy when the honeymoon in question is your freaking daughter’s.

Last night’s episode was two hours long and jam-packed, so even after the climactic wedding, a ton of other stuff happens. Namely…Mrs. Hughes has a cancer scare. Dr. Clarkson tells her that her initial test is inconclusive but that he “doesn’t think” it’s cancer (Then again, this is the guy who “didn’t think” Matthew would ever walk again, so I wouldn’t hang all your hopes on his fine diagnostic skills, Mrs. H)…Robert encourages Strallan to ditch Edith. Strallan dumps Edith via snail mail, crushing her. Granny Martha (she’s a progressive American, did you notice?!) takes Edith’s side, and the two eventually convince Robert to allow Strallan to resume his courtship with Edith….Thomas sabotages Alfred, giving Alfred his first lesson to working at Downton: Never trust Thomas. Ever. O’Brien responds by sabotaging Thomas right back…Ethel, who we learn has been pulling a Pretty Woman, visits Isobel’s charity to ask for help but chickens out before she can ask for it…Anna, aka British Nancy Drew, compiles a list of people to talk to in the hopes of proving her husband’s innocence. Meanwhile, Mr. Bates meets his new cellmate, who’s a jerk and also kind of terrifying…And finally, during a dinner party, the oven dies, providing an opportunity for Martha to save the day by suggesting an impromptu “picnic” instead (she’s a plucky American, remember?). The evening is a huge success, and we leave Downton…until next week.

Dowager Countess Quip of the Night:

i thought you were a waiter

Fashion Moment of the Night (tie): Sybil’s New Haircut & Mary’s Wedding Dress:

sybil + mary

I really wanted to give this award to Sybil, because her new haircut was awesome (very 1920s, sensible-nurse-in-Ireland chic), but it seemed wrong not to mention Mary’s wedding gown, since that was clearly intended to be the episode’s big statement piece. My verdict? I was a tad disappointed. I adored the veil, but the dress itself was so plain. I know Mary is a proper lady, but would a little bedazzling on the bodice really hurt her?

Acting MVP of the Night: This week’s MVP award goes to Maggie Smith (as almost all of them surely will). In the battle of cranky old ladies, her wit beat out Shirley MacLaine’s…by a mile. Or a kilometer, I guess, since we’re in England and all.

Best Moment: I’m a sucker for romance, so I’ve got to go with Mary and Matthew’s pre-wedding kiss. Don’t we all just want those kids to be happy?!

Worst Moment: Everything involving Anna and Mr. Bates. This whole prison plotline is DULL like whoa. Wake me up when Mr. Bates inevitably regains his freeeeedom.

Tweets of the Night:

dan stevens tweet

seth meyers tweet

patton oswalt

sklar brothers


patton oswalt

Burning Questions for Next Week: Why do O’Brien and Thomas suddenly hate each other? Is Mrs. Hughes going to be okay? Wouldn’t the Anna/Bates storyline be a hell of a lot more interesting if Bates actually were the murderer? Now that Mary and Matthew are doing it, will they finally stop talking about doing it in the creepiest possible terms? Will Edith ever find love? And when will Robert get a clue and stop being a jerk?

(Images via Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and Nina Garcia’s Twitter Feed)