We’re already at the penultimate episode of the fourth season—because of PBS and Masterpiece’s perpetually confusing method for adapting Downton, tonight’s episode was the fourth-season finale in the U.K., and next week’s episode was their Christmas special, which will be our season finale. (By now I’m sure most of you know the drill, but it does make finding the plot arcs in these few episodes particularly difficult.) Tonight’s episode made a bit more sense once I realized that it was the last glimpse U.K. viewers got of Downton Abbey for about six weeks—it’s an episode with a sense of tying up certain stray threads, while also rather inelegantly leaving a few around so there’s something to talk about at Christmas.
Tonight’s episode follows a pattern that Downton Abbey’s seasons often end with: an episode capped by an outdoor party on the estate’s grounds, where both members of the family and the downstairs staff get a chance to wander around and mingle together. (Last year, the season ended with three outdoor parties: the town cricket match, the shooting party in Duneagle, and the county fair the servants all went to together.) Downton Abbey does very well in these moments when our normally housebound cast gets a chance to shed off their dark clothes for summer whites and walk around in the sunlight. The setting is fertile ground for inappropriate but exciting mixing to occur, as characters from all over the social map mingle in the same place (and, as happens tonight, challenge each other to feats of strength). It allows, for example, Molesley to extend the hand of friendship and also maybe flirting to Baxter, even when Thomas gives him his meanest face. It gives Blake an excuse to come back to Downton to see Mary. It gives Branson the opportunity to show off his cool aristocratic in-laws to the socialist teacher whom he’s flirting with. It offers Cora something to do (which, hey, Cora doesn’t have a purpose, huh?). In short, it is a generally fine way to let these characters foment with each other in the space of a few scenes and has the added effect of showcasing the gorgeous landscapes around Highclere Castle.
But more than anything, this device reminded me not of last season’s outdoor farewells but the very first season’s finale—the garden party on the grounds, which is where everyone is when they hear that Britain has entered World War I. Downton Abbey isn’t the show it used to be. It can’t pull off the chilling force of Lord Grantham’s announcement, once he gets the telegram, because little else will matter as much to this world as the Great War. And by now, the drama of all the personal stories that converge on that event (Mary and Matthew on the rocks, Edith being stood up by Lord Anthony, Cora recovering from her miscarriage, Sybil and Branson celebrating that Gwen got a job) are small potatoes compared to the cavalcade of scandals and deaths that have since rocked the show.
But in certain ways that count, Downton Abbey has successfully hit the reset button back to the atmosphere and clout that the show had in season one. The church bazaar is, as the garden party was, an opportunity for Mary to stage some of her romantic adventures while Edith mourns over her problems in the shade of a tent. It’s an opportunity for Branson to do some flirting again, as it happens. It’s a chance for Robert and Cora to demonstrate how much they care about each other (even if, this time around, it felt a little too treacly). The last two seasons were a tall order for Downton Abbey—the show had to attempt to get through the war and past it while losing cast members left and right, and the show failed as much as it succeeded. But now, with Matthew and Sybil’s deaths firmly behind the family, this bright summer day feels like the dawning of a new era for the show, one that once again flirts with the romance and tragedy of the upper-class, privileged life. More than once in this episode, the group of well-dressed women that make up the Crawley family looked like a tableau from the opening scenes of a Noël Coward play or an Evelyn Waugh novel—poised at the beginning of a stylish story and looking fabulous.
And almost everything that happened in this week’s episode put the show on the right track for that stylish story to unfold. Chiefly, we’re looking at a future where Edith goes to Switzerland and has a baby, while Mary juggles at least two suitors who are openly vying for her hand. Meanwhile, Alfred has really and truly left this time, which hereby ends the Downstairs Love Quadrangle Of Doom (DLQOD). There’s always a little bit more drama about to happen, but they’re all stories that the show looks ready to invest in fully, to make them excellent—it’s astonishing how much this season has gotten me to care about the internal sufferings of Molesley, Daisy, and Baxter, who have all been annoying or unknown at various other points. And as next week’s episode will show us Rose’s coming-out party at Buckingham Palace (!), there is much to look forward to on Downton—enough to believe that the third season was an anomaly and not a sign of things to come.
The main obstacle to my theory of continued success is a certain dumb homicdal valet named Bates. How both predictable and disappointing that he would “disappear” the same day that Green mysteriously died—the same day that Mary asked Tony Gillingham to dismiss him, in case you hadn’t had your daily dose of dramatic irony. I am hoping against hope that what is being so broadly telegraphed is instead a feint to make us believe Bates killed Green, when instead Bates was really in York buying Anna a three-tiered layer cake and a new dress and a puppy. Even Downton would surely not inflict us with another murder plot, another trial plot, another prison plot? But that would require the character of Bates to grow or change in some way, and I have my doubts—the show has always been a bit blind about him. What’s especially frustrating is that Anna, despite terrible circumstances, had really found a way to handle it—she’d gone to her nearest source of power, and Mary conferred with Anna before deciding to act on the information. Between the three of them, Anna, Mary, and Mrs. Hughes had this under control. Then (potentially) Bates threw him under a bus anyway. It’s an interesting illustration of the blunt instrument that male power can be in this society, versus the delicate scalpel that female power has to be, because it can’t be anything else. Anyway: If, as I fear we are being led to believe, Bates instead went out of his way to kill Mr. Green, I hope Anna divorces him. Murder is not a healthy way to solve problems.
The last thing I have to say is that this episode was a really fantastic one for Lady Mary. She has rather elegantly insinuated herself into the position of trusted authority that last was held by Robert (and before that by the Dowager Countess). She is self-possessed enough to ask Tony for favors without explaining why; to walk into a nightclub and have tea with a “colored” man; to run over facts and figures with Branson in the morning, hear Rose’s confessions at lunch, fend off advances at teatime, and then comfort Rose again the next morning. It’s telling, I think, that this flowering of assertiveness comes along with Robert’s absence—he’s off in America, tending to the Teapot Dome scandal, for most of the episode. Mary is not technically the heir to Downton, but she’s certainly Lord Grantham’s spiritual successor—at the end of the day (and this episode), it’s her word that matters most. Mary is a controversial and hard to love character, but she is central to the conception of this show. When Downton Abbey makes her story work, it means the whole show is working, too.
- There were a few romantic developments I didn’t have a lot to say anything about: Rose and Jack’s short engagement comes to a graceful end, and though I liked them both, I wasn’t too invested in them together. Also, Mary’s godfather is flirting with Isobel, so I don’t know, that is a thing that is also happening.
- This week in Carson Disapproves: Babies in the parlor during tea! What on earth is the world coming to? Violet does not approve either, of course.
- Ages and ages ago, Saturday Night Live spoofed Downton in a video you have probably already seen a million times (I know I have). This episode is an excellent reminder of that sketch’s fundamental truth: The Dowager Countess looks and acts like a chicken. Maggie Smith is trolling us all in this performance, which I imagine will go down in history as one of the finest eviscerations of the viewing audience our era has ever seen.
- Shag, Marry, Shove: It looks that Evelyn Napier has been shoved properly—even though Mary likes him, I don’t think that he’s ever been a serious prospect in her eyes. Charles Blake and Mary went from hating each other to crushing on each other a bit too fast for my taste (and my tastes are poor, so that is a shock), but they are cute together, though if you squint a bit it becomes very hard to distinguish Blake from Gillingham, who both looks and sounds rather similar. Gillingham has ended his engagement, but isn’t pressing Mary for more than that, except that he sort of is; in the process, he and Blake are becoming good frenemies. And correct me if I’m wrong, but did Lord Grantham casually refer to the three of them as a “menage,” with the implication that it’s a “menage à trois”? Heavens! Pass the smelling salts; I’m about to faint.