Downton Abbey — Mazel Tov

rose photo

When last we saw Isis, she was expiring of cancer (“I hate that word”) on the Crawley’s marital bed and I wondered if this was the last we’d seen or heard of her. But no, as per tradition, the very first image in this week’s opening credits was Isis’s cute little wagging behind. She might have been cast off the show like O’Brien, Sybil and Mathew Crawley, but unlike them she lives in our hearts and in our opening credits.

Furthermore, she plays an important role in the culmination of a season-long plot-line. When Lord Grantham summons the family’s dog monument builder (yes, you read that right), he glimpses a design for a memorial plaque and devises a cunning plan to satisfy Mrs. Patmore’s request to have her dead nephew honored even though he was executed for desertion. So well-done Isis. Now, if you could only inspire an ending to the Bates family drama.

In the U.S., Sunday’s episode is considered to be the penultimate one (e.g. next-to-last for you non-English majors) of the season. But in the U.K., this was actually the season ender and next week’s episode is the “Christmas Special,” which appears on Christmas Day, well after the season has ended. Consequently, as in any season-ender, this episode displayed a mad dash to wrap up as many plot points as possible.

The need to bring so many narratives to a satisfying conclusion leads to more problems than usual with Downton’s Time/Space Continuum management. It looks to me as if Downton has jumped ahead at least six months, if not more. First of all, the kids look a lot older. More important, the wedding of Rose and Atticus, which was just a gleam in their eye last episode is now on the verge of culmination. We also learn that the return of Rose’s parents from India was delayed by the change in government, which as you recall was anticipated last week by that astute political prognosticator Daisy Mason. A quick Google search shows that Ramsay MacDonald’s government fell in November 1924 so at the very least, this episode occurs in the spring of 1925.

Despite the passage of time, nothing seems to have happened in the intervening months. Isobel hasn’t decided what to do about her marriage to Lord Merton; Tom hasn’t emigrated to Boston despite talking about it endlessly; there has been no progress in the nation-wide hunt for the killer of Mr. Green the raping valet; Mary has no new suitors; there’s no news on the fate of the Princess Kuragin; Daisy’s still disgruntled about her fate in life. And then, after months and months of apparent inaction, events come hurtling to a close.

From a plot perspective, the most important concluding narrative is Rose’s wedding. Last year’s season-ender was set in London around Rose’s presentation at court and this year, we have a London episode about her getting married. I have to say that Atticus (aka Ephraim) and Rose do make a sweet, albeit feather-headed, couple. In fact, they might make the only happy couple in Downton history, assuming one of them doesn’t die immediately after the birth of a child, as is the Downton tradition.

The wedding brings together the parents for the episode’s only legitimate plot tension. Atticus’ folks are rich Jews. She’s nice but he’s sour and opposed to the marriage because he’s against Jewish assimilation in general. Rose’s parents we know from several seasons ago as the poor but titled Scottish nobility. He’s nice but he blew all his money through poor crop rotation or some such thing – the fate that Matthew Crawley helped Lord Grantham avoid. She’s sour and opposed to the marriage because she’s anti-Semitic. So you see, we have this reverse parallel: One nice parent on each side, and one sour prejudiced one. This sets off some interesting dynamics as Lady Susan tries to zing her new in-laws. “Tell me, do you find it difficult these days to get staff?” she asks.  Mrs. Atticus’ Mom replies, ““Not very, but then we’re Jewish, so we pay well,” which shuts her up, especially since the Shrimpies don’t have two pennies to rub together. Not able to head off the wedding through her personal obnoxiousness, Lady Susan tries to set up Atticus by having a prostitute photographed emerging from his room and then sending Susan the photos (btw, not to harp on details, but how does Atticus not notice the big flash that would have accompanies a 1920’s camera, and how was said camera able to take so many different photos in that five-second span? I’m not sure I could get my digital camera to take as many photos.)

Fortunately, it’s Shrimpy to the rescue. Suspecting the worst from Susan, he finds evidence that she hired the photographer. When she tries to grab the evidence away he utters one of the great Downton lines: “Get down you cat!” Gosh, how I’d love to work that into a conversation sometime! Almost defeated, she tries to kibosh the whole wedding one last time by announcing that she and Shrimpy are divorcing, which Mr. Atticus’ Dad disapproves of. But here, it’s Lady Sinderby to the rescue, announcing that if Dad objects now she will leave him and cause a real scandal. At which point Susan asks, “Am I just supposed to be a sore loser?” giving the Dowager Countess another great line, “Oh my dear, it’s far too late for that.”

It’s worth noting that the parallelism between the two objecting parents is not morally equivalent. Susan is driven by her fear of shame in an anti-Semitic world, but Lord Sinderby is worried that if his son marries a “shiksa” (kind of an offensive thing to say about your own daughter-in-law) his grandchildren will be completely assimilated and look down on their Jewish heritage. Not an entirely unwarranted concern. Lady Grantham’s father was Jewish and her surviving children are quite snobby and not particularly in touch with their roots.

Also, to the finer points of Jewish tradition, Judaism is a matriarchal system and “Jewishness” passes down through the mother. So Lady Grantham is not technically Jewish, nor will Rose’s be. This is probably only relevant today if you want to apply for Israeli citizenship, but it’s important in some traditions. Also, Rose and Atticus need to get married in a Registry Office because they can’t get married in a church or Synagogue, which is why there’s all the chatter about a Registry Wedding and also why it’s so brief. They then went to the church for a blessing, but alas, couldn’t go to the Synagogue to have a triple play of marriage ceremonies.

The Rose/Atticus wedding brings to a close one of the season’s subplots. Another one that finally comes to an end is the memorial for Mrs. Patmore’s poor shot-for-desertion nephew, Archie. Granted, Lord Grantham probably spent more on his statue for Isis than he did on Archie but it was still a nice gesture. See, the poor kid couldn’t be listed among the honored dead on the official monument. It seems like an elegant solution to have this separate plaque but it doesn’t get at the original problem, does it? As you recall, Archie is from another village, where it is not generally know he was executed for desertion, and Mrs. Patmore’s sister wanted to be able to say that his name wasn’t listed in that village’s town memorial because he was listed in the Downton memorial. How are they going to explain that he has his own separate plaque on the wall? Still, I shouldn’t kvetch about this because it was one of the most heart-felt plots of the season.

In fact, the scene at the dedication was probably the most moving event in the entire Downton series. Even during season two, when the war was underway, they never effectively dealt with the catastrophic consequences of the war, but this short sequence at the dedication, which lingered on the drawn and sorrowful faces of the participants, was legitimately moving.

The poem they recited, “For the Fallen,” was written by Lawrence Binyon in September 1914, at the very beginning of the war, and was recited by generations of school children in the years afterwards. The stanza recited in this episode was:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Here’s a video of the whole poem.

Another narrative that seems to be at an end is the whole issue of Daisy’s consciousness-raising. First Sarah Bunting was going to teach her math and somehow learning to add and subtract resulted in her becoming politically radicalized, and then almost immediately demoralized by the inability of the MacDonald government to introduce a socialist paradise. Then, on this trip to London, she goes to a museum, sees a few paintings and decides she’s been down a “corn hole” her entire life. She decides to chuck her career as an assistant cook and strike out on her own in London, where she will experience art, theater, poetry and bad fish and chips. Of course millions of young people have swarmed to metropolises from time immemorial so the desire to live in the big city is not new, but Daisy must be one of the few cooks to be brought to that point by a visit to an art museum. And doesn’t she already live in an art museum? After all, there’s a della Francesca painting right upstairs at Downton (or there was).

Having abruptly decided to move to London, she just as abruptly decides to stay when she sees Mrs. Patmore crying. So I guess it’s back to baking wedding cakes for other people’s marriages.

One final narrative that also seems wrapped up – thankfully — is the whole Edith/Marigold situation. Oh, Mary’s irritated that Edith’s so happy (“She thinks she invented motherhood”) but everything seems to be going her way for once. There have been no repercussions from her stealing the baby away from the Drewes and no one seems to care that she’s not minding the store at that newspaper she owns. Even Lord Grantham takes it in stride when he finally deduces that Marigold looks a lot like Michael Gregson . What’s interesting is that the never had a funeral for Gregson – they said they identified his remains but apparently they weren’t returned to the UK. I also wonder how it was even possible for her Edith to inherit the newspaper when his wife is still alive. If this were the “Downton” of a few years ago, I’d expect him to pop up as alive again as a British spy who’d infiltrated the Nazis. I think Julian Fellowes is keeping his options open because that discussion about his identification was pretty sketchy.

There are a few plot points that didn’t get resolved this episode. First, and most obviously, and most preposterously, is the Death-by-Traffic case of the raping valet. The guy is now known to be a serial rapist and he died two years ago, but Scotland Yard is treating it like the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby. Personally, I think Anna’s arrest is the police’s attempt to break Bates. When they first visited the Bateses and told them that Mr. Bates was no longer a suspect because the murderer was smaller, I think they were trying to get him to say “Whew, and all this time I thought you knew about the ticket to London I bought.” When that didn’t happen, it seems like they ratcheted up the pressure by arresting Anna. It looks like it might work because Bates now ominously says he won’t let her be tried for the murder, which I presume means he’ll confess to a crime he didn’t commit, at which point I will gouge my eyes out like Oedipus.

This plot has been unanimously condemned by bloggers, recappers and podcasters from the beginning, but it did result in one hilarious line. When the police started to take Anna away in the middle of the night and an officer called Mary “Miss,” she responded, “I am Lady Mary Crawley,” to which inspector Javert responded “I don’t care if you’re the queen of the Upper Nile, she’s coming to the police station.”

I have to say, I don’t understand why the Crawleys weren’t able to get Anna out on bail the next morning – what’s the point of having expensive attorneys if they can’t manage that? Anyway, I can only hope and pray that this plot will be relieved next week and doesn’t carry on to next year.

Two other narratives that were left open were the romances of the two elder women – the Dowager Countess and Cousin Isobel. How convenient that they have each found a love interest so late in life. Apparently Isobel’s been chewing on her pending engagement to Lord Merton these many months (it’s amazing how long the men on this series are willing to hang around while the objects of their affection make up their minds.)

The Dowager Countess’s reconnection with Count Vronsky seems a little soap operish to me, but there was moment of real truth in the episode when we saw her in bed in her PJs and without make-up. It was pretty brave of Maggie Smith to let herself look so old; she never looks less than her age, but that brief scene of her lying in bed exposed as an 80-year-old woman was quite a reminder that this romance is coming quite late in life. Her Russian admirer is much younger (only a few years older than me!) and it made me squirm to see him state his intentions to be her friend AND her lover. Of course when he compared the slum he was living in to sweet house that she lives in, I’m sure he’d have been willing to say anything for a permanent invitation.

The Dowager Countess seemed so charmed by Count Vronsky’s overtures that she advised Isobel to marry Lord Merton after all, even with his miserable sons. If they get married, I hope we see more of the Lord – he’s evolved into one of the more charming characters on the show.

The other unresolved plot is whether Tom and Sybbie will move to Boston and open an auto dealership.  And who knows, maybe Sybbie will eventually get a job as a bar maid at “Cheers.” This is another one of those prolonged and extremely boring “Downton” plots. Rose and Atticus could have met and gotten married five times during the period that Tom has been threatening to leave Downton. Just make up your mind, man!

Some other observations:

— There were two references to the end of the year so maybe the Christmas special (also known in the U.S. as the season finale) will be set at Christmas. First, Tom said he wouldn’t leave Downton until the end of the year and second, Mabel Lane Fox and Lord Gillingham are getting married at Christmas. If this is the case, then the year 1925 will be covered in a mere two episodes.

— Why does Miss Baxter continue to offer to testify that she saw Mr. Bates’s untorn train ticket, which would supposedly prove that he’d never made the round-trip? First of all, she’s already told the police that she wasn’t employed at Downton when the raping valet died, so why would she even notice it later. But more important, there are three women (Anna, Mrs. Hughes and Mary) who actually did see the ticket as they passed it around like a hot potato last year. Wouldn’t one of them be better suited to testify to it (although, I have to ask now, why none of them realized at the time that if it was untorn, it meant not used.)

— Now that Mr. Mosely, with his sympathetic back story, has ceased to be a figure of ridicule, the mantle of preposterous servant has been passed to Spratt. How hilariously over the top he is. Too bad he doesn’t work in the government because he has the soul of a petty bureaucrat. And what kind of name is Denker? Is she German ? Maybe she can find out what really happened to Gregson.

— Thomas Barrow has become a different person – competent, helpful and even willing to extricate his new jug-eared friend (who has an ambition to be a footman, of all things) from the Denker’s clutches. Those phony injections didn’t change his sexuality, but they seem to have changed his character.

— Atticus’s father, trying to be more British than the British, argues that the Indian Massacre of Amritsar of 1919, was justified. This is like arguing that the residents of My Lie or the protesters of Tiananmen Square were responsible for their own deaths. Shrimpy and Lord Grantham set him right. Btw, here’s a depiction of that massacre from the movie “Ghandi”

Finally, after several years of misjudgment, ill-temper and overall idiocy, Lord Grantham seems to have regained his equilibrium. He didn’t do anything particularly stupid this episode and did three nice things: 1) the memorial for Archie the deserter; 2) Selling the della Francesca to pay for improvements to the town’s housing; 3) figuring out that he has another granddaughter (and being proud that for once he’s privy to a secret that no one else knows).

So, as we head into the final episode, can this era of good feelings last?  You’d hardly think so.  Otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a drama.

  1. Still, I shouldn’t kvetch about this because it was one of the most heart-felt plots of the season.

    In fact, the scene at the dedication was probably the most moving event in the entire Downton series. Even during season two, when the war was underway, they never effectively dealt with the catastrophic consequences of the war, but this short sequence at the dedication, which lingered on the drawn and sorrowful faces of the participants, was legitimately moving.

    Sorry, I have to disagree. This is one of the few story lines in Downton that has actually enraged me. Even now in Britain debate goes on as to whether men who were shot for cowardice should be commemorated on war memorials, and Fellowes has performed one of his spectacular character reboots in making Robert place this memorial to a man whom pretty much everyone in 1924 would have regarded as a traitor and a coward and not worthy of being remembered. Perhaps its Fellowes inability to think himself into the way people in 1924 thought, but whatever we think now about those men, that memorial would have been regarded as a mortal insult to the men who didn’t run away and died doing their duty, and it’s a disgrace to the character of Robert – decent, dutiful, a soldier – that he was shown condoning it.

    • Hi, appreciate the perspective. What I meant to say was that the ceremony itself was moving, not the surprise reveal for the nephew. I agree with you that this is another example of Fellowes’ cultural relativism, where he takes common opinions today and ascribes them to characters in the past. I wouldn’t know for sure, but I’m guessing their equanimity about Thomas being homosexual falls within that same category. And I’m sure the anti-Semitism was even worse than depicted.

      • The anti-Semitism was more or less the only thing that Fellowes got relatively right. Contemporary sources show that Britain was one of the more tolerant countries for Jews and when the novelty for marrying American heiresses wore off, daughters of homegrown industrialists (which included Jews) were preferable and seen as patriotic. In fact the Russian Imperial family were said to be shocked over the relaxed attitude of the British royal family and elite over British Jews.

  2. And the characters grieving were tricked into thinking that honouring their dead was the point of the ceremony, when in fact it was Mrs P’s nephew who ended up as the focal point. Downton has had many low points and this was probably the lowest.

  3. Gary, I was waiting for this! Loved you commentary!

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