Downton Abbey: “Christmas Special”
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Downton Abbey: “Christmas Special”

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Downton Abbey

“Christmas Special”

Season 2.5, Episode 1

American televisions audiences are, generally speaking, a spoiled lot. We get most of the good shows long before everybody else, and we rarely have to make a huge effort to avoid spoilers, unless abstaining from Twitter for a few hours while catching up on our DVR qualifies as a huge effort. But Downton Abbey is a series that does things in reverse, making American fans wait until the middle of February to (legally) watch a Christmas special, a state of affairs that would no doubt please the Dowager Countess. For stateside Downton enthusiasts, the Internet is a bit like a Christmas tree loaded up with gifts that we have to wait two whole months to open. 

So, readers, was the wait worth it? If, like me, you haven’t been able to entirely drown out the Internet noise about season two, you’ll know that tonight’s Christmas special was polarizing. Depending on who you ask, it either absolved Downton Abbey of its second-season sins—the excessive soapiness, the breakneck pacing, the sloppy plotting—or it epitomized these problems in the extreme. At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, I’d say it does both.

The most glaring problem is that it’s now 1920 and there is no end in sight to the ongoing saga of Anna and Bates—a.k.a. by far the worst storyline on Downton Abbey. The courtroom scenes are good, hokey fun, and if anything, I wish we’d gotten a little more information about the case against Bates, which is based on evidence so circumstantial—a few vaguely incriminating quotes and an old bag of rat poison—it probably wouldn’t even get someone convicted in Texas. The bitter irony for Bates, who got into this whole mess because he was trying to salvage the Crawley family reputation, is that it’s Lord Grantham’s testimony that ultimately does him in.

For a while there, the specter of Bates’s death by hanging looms over the household, but in a not-terribly-surprising last-minute twist, the world’s most loyal valet learns that his sentence has been reduced to life in prison. I assume that next season Anna will fight to clear her husband’s name, which is good news for Joanne Froggatt, who really shines when she’s being plucky and proactive, but bad news for Brendan Coyle, who seems destined to spend another season quietly suffering. 

The most notable development of the evening is that, after years of secret (and not-so-secret) longing, Mary and Matthew finally get engaged. (Cue the fireworks!) Somehow, this ought to feel more satisfying than it does, especially given the tremendous amount of buildup throughout the 90-minute special. Sir Richard continues to reveal his ugly side—he doesn’t even like charades!—and Mary is increasingly open about her disdain for her quasi-fiancé. In what is apparently a huge diss, she decides to “stand with” Matthew while out on the hunt. Since I am not a subscriber to Horse And Hound, I have no idea what this means, but from what I can gather it’s a little like the English aristrocracy’s equivalent of wearing someone’s varsity jacket.

Later on, Richard once again presses Mary to set a date for their wedding—which, last time I checked, was supposed to be in August, but apparently that didn’t happen and/or Julian Fellowes just forgot about that detail. Mary’s all, “What’s the hurry?”, which is pretty funny given that Mary is pushing 30 and they’ve been pseudo-engaged for oh, say, four years now. (Speaking of which, can anyone think of a clever portmanteau to describe their relationship status? Fi-non-cé? Un-gaged?)

Grantham notices the spat and once again asks Cora if there’s something up with Mary. Cora finally spills the beans about Mr. Pamuk, but we don’t actually witness the reveal. Frankly, this feels like a bit of a cheat, not because I don’t know what happened (we all do), but because it would have been highly entertaining to hear Cora explain how a Turkish diplomat died in her daughter’s bed, and how she helped carry his lifeless body across the house. That, my friends, would have been spectacular. Fellowes is nothing if not an expedient writer, but this isn’t always a good thing: Sometimes he barrels forward so rapidly that the big reveals don’t have the impact they should.

For instance, last week Sybil finally told her family about Branson, but we only witnessed the aftermath of the confession. I know this is an impossibly crowded show with a lot going on, but it would be nice if Fellowes just slowed down a bit to let us enjoy these big dramatic moments. Unfortunately, Fellowes does this cutaway business two other times in tonight’s episode. When Mary finally breaks it off with Sir Richard and, later, when she finally tells Matthew about Mr. Pamuk. The pattern of avoidance suggests that Fellowes isn’t merely being expedient, but that he’s not entirely sure how to write these scenes in the first place.

Even with all the hasty writing, there’s still plenty of fun to be had. I love Grantham’s relationship advice for Mary (“Find a cowboy in the Middle West and bring him back to shake us up a bit”), even if his capacity for forgiveness seems unusually large. Sir Richard’s farewell to Mary is also surprisingly moving; you almost feel sorry for the guy when he says, “I loved you, you know. More than you knew, and much more than you loved me.” And when Mary explains her motivation for sleeping (or whatever-ing) with Mr. Pamuk to Matthew, I’m once again convinced that Michelle Dockery deserves to win a zillion Emmys. I mean, the woman can sell the heck out of lines like “I’m Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I have fallen, I am impure!”

So, with just minutes to go until the episode is over, the last obstacle to Matthew and Mary’s eternal happiness is Matthew himself. As he arrives at Downton for the servants’ ball, Matthew is adamant that they should both suffer for betraying Lavinia. Even self-righteous Isobel thinks this is a bunch of hogwash. Approximately five minutes later, Matthew wanders outside to join Mary in the midst of a digitally contrived snowstorm, and begs her to stay at Downton and be his bride. “I don’t think she wants us to be sad,” he says of Lavinia. They embrace, and—boom!—it’s over.

Again, it’s not the outcome I object to, so much as the total lack of any explanation for Matthew’s change of heart—unless, of course, you think that Lavinia’s ghost was communicating her approval via the Ouija board. It’s the ultimate “Just Kidding!” moment of the episode; it’s like Fellowes looked up, realized he only had another 30 seconds left on the clock, and decided to wrap things up.

Worst of all, we don’t get much in the way of a speech or a proposal. Yes, yes, Matthew gets down on one knee, but that’s it. Where’s the passionate declaration of undying love we’ve been waiting on for two seasons now? Matthew’s proposal doesn’t feel as triumphant or as swooningly romantic as it should, and that’s a shame. Given how liberally Fellowes borrows from British literature, it’s too bad he didn’t aim for something a little more like this. But enough complaining: Matthew and Mary are together at last! Hurrah! I just hope that next season doesn’t pick up years after this one. If we don’t at least get a big, lavish Downton Abbey wedding, I’m gonna be pissed.

Before I go, and bid my beloved Downton Abbey farewell until 2013—oh, the agony!—I need to briefly address the other developments in this episode. After years of moaning about her deception of William, Daisy finally seems to realize that she did the right thing by marrying him on his deathbed. Thank God, because, as much as I love Daisy’s accent, I don’t think I could have taken another “Buh eees naaaaah riiyeeeet!” Mrs. Patmore has been trying for years now to convince Daisy she was doing the right thing, but leave it to series M.V.P. Violet to say the one thing—“You married him to keep his spirits up at the end. That sounds as if you loved him a great deal”—that changes Daisy’s mind in an instant. Having finally forgiven herself, Daisy’s now able to accept when Mr. Mason asks her to “be his daughter,” a request that I’d find creepy if I were in a more cynical state of mind. But hey, it’s Christmas! (Sort of!) The best thing about Daisy’s storyline is that she’s finally asking for a promotion from Mrs. Patmore. It’s nice to finally see a little upward mobility among the folks downstairs.

Speaking of which, Thomas finally appears to be on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming Grantham’s valet. While I’m generally averse to animal cruelty, I find myself in the strange position of actually rooting for Thomas this week, if only because it’s so clear how badly he wants to move up in the world. I think Fellowes has done a good job explaining the motives behind Thomas’ constant scheming this season: He’s ambitious. I’m curious to see how Thomas would behave if he finally got what he wanted. Not too nice, I hope.

See you in 2013!

Stray observations:

  • How jarring are the Christmas-themed opening credits? I don’t know about you, but Downton doesn’t feel quite right unless it opens with a shot of a dog’s bum. (I’m also partial to the delicately falling petal.) 
  • It’s a bummer that we didn’t get to see Sybil and Branson interacting with the family and making everyone uncomfortable in this episode, but I cannot wait for next season, when we get to meet their wee Fenian baby.
  • Let’s talk baby names! I suggest something unmistakably Irish and hard to spell, like Padraig, Malachy, and Seamus (for a boy) or Siobhan and Soairse (for a girl).
  • Cora on Branson: “Come the revolution it may be useful to have a contact on the outside.”
  • For once things appear to be looking up for Edith, who reconnects with Sir Anthony Strallan and lets him know she didn’t say those terrible things about him way back when. Now she just needs to convince him he’s not too old and withered for her. You can do it, girl!
  • While I’m glad Mary ends up with Matthew, I was excited about the prospect of her spending some time with all those crass arrivistes in New York and Newport.
  • Violet is mystified by the nutcracker she receives as a gift. Isobel helpfully explains, “It’s nutcracker. For cracking nuts.”
  • The costumes tonight were amazing, no? I just adore that gold dress of Mary’s and her little plaid hunting ensemble. I am so ready for the ’20s.
  • Truth be told, my favorite thing about this episode might have been all the lifestyle porn. The dinner during the hunt also looked like something straight out of Martha Stewart Living, didn’t it?
  • Grantham gives Carson a book about the royal families of Europe for Christmas. Of course, he loves it.
  • Violet’s kiss-off to Sir Richard was an all-time classic (“I’m leaving in the morning Lady Grantham, I doubt we’ll meet again.” “Do you promise?”) I half-expected “Respect” to start playing on the soundtrack.
  • The scheming/affair between Hepworth and Rosamund’s maid, Miss Shaw, was a little too reminiscent of Thomas and the Duke of Crowborough from season one, no?
  • Daisy tells Mr. Mason she hasn’t got parents, “not like that.” What does this mean, exactly? The lack of backstory on this show can be maddening.
  • I remain convinced that O’Brien was somehow involved with Vera’s death.
  • Best part of the servants’ ball: Thomas dancing with Violet. The man would make a great society walker, wouldn’t he?
  • Any bets as to when season three will pick up? I hope Fellowes slows things down next time.
  • Who has season three predictions? Sound off in the comments!