Downton Abbey: Having a Ball


Last night’s season finale of “Downton Abbey” takes place almost a full year after the events of the  previous episode, and it seems like nothing has happened in the intervening year. What is the time-space continuum on this show anyway?  Things either move too fast or too slow. Oh sure, Edith had her baby, but everything else is just as we left it.  No progress has been made on the various romances (Mary, Tom, Isobel, etc.) that were launched earlier this season, Thomas is still pestering Baxter for gossip, Bates is still under suspicion for murder and the Dowager Countess is still dropping snark bombs on poor Isobel.

The episode could have been called “Jaws” because almost everyone on the show is either prey or preying.  Not only is there an actual card shark, but we have the spectacle of the doddering and impecunious Lord Aysgarth chasing after Cora’s mother and her fortune; the Lord’s daughter stalking Cora’s brother;  two suitors in pursuit of Mary; the American valet pulling strings to chase Daisy; and Lord Merton head over heels for Isobel. We also have the spectacle of the stolen and re-stolen letter from HRH.  Even Mr. Carson can’t go to the beach without Mrs. Hughes grabbing his hand and making double entendres, the vixen!

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the 1923 London high season, where cousin Rose is going to be a debutante. She is to be presented to a somnambulant King and Queen at Buckingham Palace and will then be the focus of a ball, so all the Downtonites travel to the Crawley’s heretofore unmentioned London house for the festivities.  Why, even Cora’s American mother and brother are coming for the event.

As usual, Mary is at the heart of the plot machinations and I have to ask: is she deliberately obtuse or does it just come naturally?  Because what do you know, Charles Blake is Matthew Crawley reincarnated and she treats him the same way she treated her former husband when first they met.   To Mary’s surprise, but not mine since I’ve seen an episode or two of “Downton Abbey,” Blake turns out to be the heir of a distant earldom in Ulster and the richest of all Mary’s suitors.  Well, well, well, this changes everything doesn’t it?  Of course we all remember that Mary fell in love with Matthew when he was the “Downton” heir and then hesitated when her mother was pregnant and it appeared he might remain just a middle class lawyer after all.  After Cora slipped on that baby-killing bar of soap, Mary wanted to resume the relationship but by then he’d gotten on his high horse and broken up with her.

This time around, she claims that Blake’s assumed lack of fortune was not the issue; no, what was really holding her back was the question of whether he was on the “same side” as far as the aristocracy is concerned.    She has, perhaps willfully, misperceived him as a Trotskyite because of his excellent pig handling skills and a few stray comments about the poor land-management practices of the big estate holders.  When did he ever say he wanted to do away with the aristocracy? For his part, why Blake is so taken with her is beyond me.  Who wants to be married to someone who so consistently misunderstands you, jumps to conclusions, doesn’t try to figure out what you really think and generally acts like a spoiled brat?

Besides, I don’t think anyone has thought through the implications of what it would mean for the heiress of Downton to marry another rich dude with his own estate.  All three of those guys are going to want to live in their own palaces, not at “Downton.”   How is Mary going to run “Downton” and protect little George’s interests if she’s off at Ulster?  I guess that’s a problem to be addressed a few seasons from now.

In any event, now that Mary knows that Blake is loaded, all the suitors are acknowledged to be on an even playing field. “Let battle commence,” she proclaims.  Let it commence?  What have we been doing for the last year?  It’s only now that we commence the battle for Mary’s heart?

And what about the battle for Mary’s soul, since she’s in a moral quandary about Mr. Bates, who clearly murdered the Mr. Green, the raping valet.  I thought we were finally finished with the story of Anna’s rape last week, but no, there’s one last plot twist, because Bates, despite being a master criminal, can’t seem to dispose of incriminating evidence.  Mrs. Hughes has found a ticket stub in the jacket of his overcoat that shows he was in London the day Mr. Green fortuitously “fell” in front of a cab in Piccadilly Circus.  Mrs. Hughes goes running to Mary, saying in effect, this is above my pay grade, and leaves it up to Mary to decide whether to turn Mr. Bates over to the police.

Mary, Mary, Mary.  Why is this an issue now?  Last episode you suspected Bates of murder but decided that it was a higher moral good to let it slide, since it was justifiable homicide.   Why does the appearance of a ticket stub change anything?  Yet you’re thrown into a panic and seem to be leaning toward going to the police once your suspicion is confirmed by hard proof. That is, until Bates extricates the Crawley family from a pickle through his forgery and pickpocketing skills.  You see, Rose is buddy buddy with Freda Dudley Ward, the mistress of Edward, the Prince of Wales (the very same fellow who will later abdicate for Wallis Simpson) and when a love letter from the Prince to Mrs. Dudley Ward is stolen by a Crawley acquaintance Bates is the only one with the skills to get it back.  It’s almost like Mary decides, well, he’s a murderer and he does have a lot of dodgy underworld skills, but he’s our murderer so we’ll keep him. And besides, one good turn deserves another.  You get us the letter and we won’t turn you in.

For the first time in the series I understand why Tom, Isobel, Sarah Bunting and all the other aristo-skeptics feel the way they do about the British class system.  At the top there’s a very dull king and queen and the heir to the throne is the appalling Prince of Wales.  The highlight of the season is a royal presentation – at Buckingham Palace no less – where a group of rich teenage girls curtsy in front of the throne and are nodded at by the bored monarch. As the commonsensical Mrs. Hughes notes, “Seems odd to me that a curtsy and a nod from the throne turns a girl into a woman, but that’s the way they do it so who are we to argue.”   After this event (which is very spectacularly shot),  they all attend each other’s parties and scheme about money and how to hold onto their social status.  Assembling these folks en masse and letting them loose in London makes them seem like unproductive parasites.  No wonder the masses are rising.

And in keeping with the “Downton Law of Three,” we are told repeatedly that the system is doomed and unsustainable.  Agriculture alone will not be enough to support these giant houses and massive staffs.  Isobel and Mary may look with disdain on their American relations, but the Yanks are not tied down by tradition and caste and can look more clearly at the future.

The Americans are clearly here to serve as thematic counterpoints to the Downton residents.  There’s no plot reason for them to be in this episode.  Why should Martha, Cora’s mother, care about attending  Rose’s debut?  Why does her brother Harold need to take a breather from the U.S. a full year after the Teapot Dome scandal is over?  No, the real reason for the Americans’ arrival is to speak some truths, offer some comic relief and provide some contrast to the hide-bound Brits.

Martha is given some of the smartest and insightful lines in the episode.  She rejects a marriage proposal that would make her a countess, observing that she wouldn’t fit into British society because she’d be seen as loud, opinionated and common, which she is.  She also tells the Dowager Countess that at least she’s “a woman who’s not afraid of the future,” unlike the Granthams, who see their world “slipping further and further away.”  Unfortunately Martha is portrayed by the once-vibrant, but now worn-out Shirley MacLaine, so  many of the best zingers they fall flat.

Paul Giamatti, who plays Cora’s brother Harold, seems similarly miscast as a tough American businessman and playboy. Playboy?  Really?? Like MacLaine, he doesn’t have the necessary energy to pull off the role.  Nor is it plausible to believe he would be so gauche as to approach the Prince of Wales with an outstretched hand and say, simply, “Harold Levinson.” Funny, yes, but plausible, no.  His Royal Highness is totally a jerk about it, stalking away in disgust.  Harold seems to have the last laugh – literally.  When the Prince harrumphs away all, Why-I-Never, Harold smiles to himself, knowing he has a great story to tell back home.

No, the best American in the cast is Harold’s valet Ethan Slade.  He’s got energy and ambition in spades.  Open-faced, optimistic and direct, he is a breath of fresh air in the stodgy servants’ chambers.  Hilariously he almost gives Mr. Carson an aneurysm by serving canapés and too-eagerly trying to get the guests to partake, like a barker at a carnival.  He’s also on the make, in his own winsome way.  After (inexplicably) taking a shine to Daisy, he manipulates his boss into sponsoring a picnic at which Daisy and he will work together.  Then he convinces Harold to hire her as his cook and take her to America (an offer she declines).   Good for Ethan, doing his best to exhibit the American spirit.  We probably won’t see him again, but if we do, I doubt he’ll still be a valet.

Some other thoughts about last night’s show:

— Once again, Edith’s travails get relegated to a bullet because her story is so poorly integrated into the overall arc of the episode.  She’s back from eight months in Geneva, where she had her baby and gave it up for adoption.  But now she’s changing her mind and wants the baby back.  Her ostensible reason is that if the father – who’s missing in Germany and presumed dead – leaves a sizable estate, the baby should inherit half of it.  Why half?  I guess she’s assuming she’s going to keep half for herself.  In any event, Aunt Rosamund advocates the more traditional approach to single parenthood – give the baby up and never look back – but Edith is stuck on her original idea to get Mr. Drewe, the tenant farmer and pig man, to raise the girl.  There does seem something inherently unfair in her decision to return to Geneva to get the baby she placed with a Swiss family, who took it in good faith. Nor does it seem smart to have the child raised in the immediate vicinity of Downton, where she can always be showing up to see how things are going.  My guess is that next year Mr. Greggson will miraculously return from German with a divorce and when they get married they will take the baby back once and for all.

— So Mr. Greggson went to Munich and immediately got into a fight with a bunch of brown shirts (i.e, Nazis)?  It’s a historical fact that in November 1923 Hitler launched the “Beer Hall Putsch,”  his attempt to overthrow the Weimer government in Munich.  It will not surprise me if Greggson turns out to be a spy for the British government with a mandate to keep an eye on Hitler; once der future Fuhrer is in jail, as he was in 1924, Greggson will be able to return to Britain (you heard it here first!!)

— The episode we saw last night was the annual “Downton Abbey” Christmas special in the UK, meaning that previous episode – the one that ended with the church bazaar on the Downton lawn – was actually the concluding episode of the season.  This is a helpful reminder, as if we needed it, that the show is written by and for Brits.

— Mary is rightfully aggrieved that no one told her that Charles Blake was a super-rich heir, but she should really be annoyed at herself.  She’s been seeing this guy for a year and never bothers to probe him about where he grew up, went to school, how he supports himself or any of the little details that someone should bother to inquire about a potential romantic partner. Nor does she  have anyone else check him out.  She’s a bad dater.

— Regarding Bates’ overcoat, when will wives learn not to give away their husbands clothing without first checking with them?  And if Bates is so concerned about cleaning out his pockets, why didn’t he do so during the past year?

— There really was a Freda Dudley Ward, who was in fact the Prince of Wales’ mistress until 1923.  Apparently the foreign press knew all about the affair, given Martha’s insight into the matter, which makes you wonder why Lord Grantham is in such a lather to retrieve the letter.  Who cares if the foreign press already know?

— I keep asking this question but never get a good answer: why does Lord Grantham continue to put stock in anything that Thomas says?  Last week he evidenced clear dislike for the guy, yet when Thomas comes tattling about Tom having a lady friend in the “bedroom level” of Downton while everyone else is away, he actually listens and quizzes Tom about it.  But there are no consequences.  What was Thomas’s strategy with this gambit?

— Of course Tom kind of deserves it.  He continues to be spineless, letting his teacher friend bully him into showing her the empty house on the night night when everyone is away.  His one redeeming act was asking the Dowager Countess to dance at the ball. That was sweet.  And what is this alliance he’s apparently fallen into with Edith?

— I saw part of a documentary about the Royal National Theatre in London and noticed that Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton (who play Violet and Isobel, respectively) are both longtime cast members.  They must have known each other for years.  I wonder if they like acting together on “Downton”? I can’t imagine that Penelope Wilton is truly happy with her character Isobel, although in a rare moment of self-insight Isobel does concede that was she being “smug and intolerant” in originally planning to avoid the ball.

–So Mosely gives Baxter the strength to stand up to Thomas?  Even he seems surprised at that news.  I’m getting a little tired of Baxter’s secret, whatever it is.  Seriously, how bad can it be after all we’ve seen these past four years?

Finally, I’m glad the season ended on a high note, with Mrs. Hughes putting the moves on Mr. Carson, although he only dimly perceives that’s what’s going on.  When he says he’s afraid of falling into the water at the beach, she says, “You can hold my hand.  You can always hold my hand if you want to feel steady.” When he wonders at her meaning she adds, “We’re getting on in age, Mr. Carson.  You and I, we can afford to live a little.”  Amen.

  1. I always look forward to your recap Gary. In fact, last night bored me a little as the story seems to have gotten nowhere this season. Yet, I knew your post would amuse me. I was right!

  2. Thanks, this was a hard post to write because it was such a mish-mash of plots. Sometimesd I think Julian Fellowes just throws ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

  3. Carole said:

    Loved reading this Gary. Thank you~

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