I can forgive Downton Abbey a lot of flaws when it delivers pomp and circumstance. This fourth-season finale is a delightful episode, even though it’s narratively loose and comes to some frightening conclusions about its characters. I expect to be a little bored in a two-hour episode of Downton—I certainly was a little bored during the premiere—but this episode is surprisingly light on its feet. There’s a lot of flair thrown into the story to keep it moving, including the royal family and a purloined letter. It’s absolute nonsense, but it (mostly) works.
Primarily, what holds this episode together for me is the grandeur of the coming-out at Buckingham Palace—along with the supper afterwards and the ball at Grantham House a few days later. Not just because it’s well-shot and sumptuously appointed, though. It’s essentially a big party—the London season is essentially one big party—and the result is that the characters in the show get to be shaken up and tossed about. I talked about this a little last week—Downton loves its outdoor fairs and shooting parties because it creates excitement. The show has proven to be very good at demonstrating the slow drama of the quotidian in a big house; for its season finale, it’s allowed to let its hair down a bit and flirt with strangers.
Speaking of strangers: In the past, Downton has used episodes like this to introduce characters that are clearly just floating plot devices. There have been too many characters who have dropped in just for an episode to prove some kind of point—even the mysterious and doomed Pamuk from season one was essentially just a plot device. The worst of all is when a character is introduced to make an obvious point and then doesn’t go away, like Sir Richard Carlisle from season two, or Bates’ wife Vera, or the fallen housemaid Ethel.
If there’s one thing that Downton Abbey has really learned to do this season, it’s how to flesh out characters that deserve being fleshed out. There was a bit of trouble with the ladies’ maid Braithwaite in the beginning of this season, but on the whole, the show has managed to both discard of characters who are hopelessly two-dimensional and invest further in the characters who have stuck around.
The best example of this last item is Daisy—a character who had been jerked around quite a bit by the plot in the opening of season four. The end of season three did a great deal toward giving her a bit more of a voice in the house; this season has been devoted to giving her an inner life. It’s a humane act for a show that is largely obsessed with the aristocracy—most of the members of the Crawley family could not name Daisy or any particulars of her life. But her feelings matter to the show, and to the people around her, and even assistant cooks peeling potatoes in the kitchen have romantic aspirations. The Alfred storyline was interminable, but I found tonight’s adventure with the talkative American fun and a little tragic (but not too much). It’s good that Daisy got some attention, but more, it’s good that Daisy got to make a decision of her own, and speak her mind a little bit. It’s an old trope of English novels that the only power women wielded for a very long time was the right of refusal, and while Daisy is just exercising that one power, at least she can claim that for herself.
There are a lot of other characters in this finale that are, if not precisely drawn, at least well-sketched. Chiefly, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed the subplot with Paul Giamatti’s Harold Levinson and his courtship with Rose’s friend Madeleine Allsopp (played by Poppy Drayton, whom I’ve never heard of, but does a great job in the role). It’s not entirely original, but it provides for an interesting layer of commentary alongside the drama of the episode. And unlike Downton’s usual tactics, the introduction of the dynamics between Lord Aysgarth and Mrs. Levinson and their children offers a (sort of) subtle look at the social and economic realities of the time, where certain British aristocrats are willing to talk about money, and certain American aristocrats have grown cynical about money. I am now convinced that Paul Giamatti can sell practically any role, because he took on what could have been a rather clichéd position and made it something real.
In fact, Harold and Madeleine’s conversations reminded me a little of Mary and Matthew’s conversations in season one—those sudden moments of honesty that cut through what is otherwise the omnipresent artifice of polite society. It’s a style of romance that Julian Fellowes is particularly invested in—possibly because it’s a style of romance that speaks to real life, though most of us don’t live in high society. Romance and love—which is what so much of courtly life revolves around, with its obsession with marriage, bloodlines, children, and debutante balls—pull in the exact opposite direction from courtly life. Instead of artifice, relationships demand honesty. Instead of decorum, they demand intimacy. And British living (as Edith points out in this episode) is even more artificial and decorous than most. Finding a connection in this environment—one that is able to express something real during a life that feels like an ongoing charade—is a monumental task. Which is why perhaps the other relationship of this season that is most pleasantly surprising is whatever’s happening with Baxter and Molesley, who have forged an unexpected friendship in their ability to name their weaknesses to each other. (Fellowes is always interested in romance above all else. I point you to The Young Victoria, which is essentially marriage porn for strong-minded women, if you desire proof.)
Obviously, I’m a romantic as well, which is why Downton continues to work for me. At the end of the day, the show is most committed to the way characters relate to each other. Even though I can’t stand Bates (still, and probably always), the way that the truth of the matter ricochets through the house and landed in Mary’s lap felt true to the show, just as Carson and Hughes’ adorable interactions over the servants’ outing speaks to the long history of their relationship in mutual (and affectionate) manipulation. I’m not as sold on some of the show’s other pairings: Branson and the young teacher don’t really interest me, and Robert and Cora seem thrown together randomly much of the time. But on the other hand, the interplay between Branson and Thomas does interest me, and I suppose when you’ve been married for as long as Robert and Cora have been married, there are times where a marriage leans less toward romance and more toward cohabitation (and then it swings back, hopefully).
This season, Downton Abbey has moved from a show that was limping off of a few bad seasons into a show that is reliably enchanting, if not as relevant or as powerful as it used to be. I have to hold back from giving this episode a wholehearted A, because there was still too much that went wrong. Why is Shirley MacLaine even in the episode, if she was asked to overact the whole time? Why on earth did Mary and Rose really think that breaking and entering in the name of the Crown was a good idea? Does the show really think that Bates was right to kill Mr. Green? Or that Mr. Samson deserves to have a letter stolen, because the monarchy must be protected at all costs? As fun as the show is, it does need to sort out exactly what it’s trying to say. But when it can pull together an episode as beautiful as this—with the King and Queen and Prince of Wales all present—it’s succeeding at what it does best.
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: B+
- There was no obvious way to incorporate Edith into the review, but her storyline was handled very gracefully by the show, and I am looking forward to what the next season brings for her. (I’m also very grateful no one made her say the word “Nazi.”) Having to leave her daughter after months must have been devastating, and I’m glad the show is following through with the implications of it. It will be a disaster, but I also am glad she’s standing up for herself. She’s particularly interesting right now because where most characters are inextricably linked to many others, she stands alone. It is clearly not easy, but it also makes her hard to discuss along with everyone else. As to exactly why Edith ends up standing alone? That’s another, and better, question that I don’t wholly know how to answer.
- Though Mrs. Freda Dudley Ward was in fact one of the future Edward VIII’s paramours, her relationship with him ended a tad before 1924. But we’ll still take the nod to history—and she is a well-acted, well-sketched side character, as is Edward himself, who clearly did not inspire much confidence as the future king. Do you think Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II watches Downton Abbey? Because if so, she might have opinions on how her grandparents and uncle are being represented. (I doubt she watches it. But I feel like Kate Middleton does, right?)
- Elizabeth McGovern’s crazy eyes have gotten even crazier than usual. And that veil/train Cora had to wear made the crazy eyes worse.
- Shag, marry, shove: I have determined that I am one of exactly three people on the planet that prefers Tony Gillingham to Charles Blake, which is new for me—I almost always have the most boring and canon choices for ’ships. (Even Harry/Hermione seemed a bit too outré for me.) I don’t know if this means that you all see something I don’t, or if I am just now the most boring person in the world. Regardless, I thought Mary had nice moments with both of her suitors in this episode—and it was sort of touching that she sought out private time with both of them. Now that Blake has money it seems likely that she’ll choose him, yes?
- “I don’t mind lying.” Yes, dear. We know.
- Thank you all for following along with this season with me! It has been so much fun writing about this show this season, as it’s found its voice. See you next year, when season five brings us more suitors, more babies, and Lady Rose MacClare, friend to the Royal House of Windsor.