Downton Abbey — Merry Flipping Christmas

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We’ve come to the end of another season of “Downton Abbey,” with a season finale that was about as crammed full of morsels – some appetizing, some not – as a Christmas fruit cake. What a strange concoction. It was really two episodes crammed into one, with snobby butlers, surprise love children, the departure of the younger cast members, some immoral propositions, a marriage proposal rejected, a marriage proposal accepted, some lame plot resolutions and an overall feeling that Julian Fellowes is back to throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

This season-ender was the “Christmas Special” in the UK, a tradition in which popular British series produce one more episode to show on Christmas Day after the figgy pudding and spotted dick have been consumed. Unfortunately, a Christmas show is about as welcome in March as Denker’s broth. The charms of Christmas toasts and carols are completely lost on us in America when all we really want is a hint of spring.

For me, the biggest surprise of the show was the discovery that we were still in 1924, especially after I had confidently explained last week that we’d skipped ahead to 1925, given the clues about the fall of the Ramsay MacDonald government and the amount of time that would have needed to pass between Rose and Atticus’ engagement and their wedding. It’s probably churlish and small-minded to complain about time continuity on a show like this, but they bring it on themselves by constantly referring to real-world events. I’m not the one who was talking about Ramsay MacDonald all year long.

In any event, in a 93-minute episode like this, where to start? Let’s start at the very conclusion. Remember that plot about Anna and Bates that began last year with Anna’s rape, progressed with the death of her rapist, morphed into a Javert-like investigation by Scotland Yard, and culminated last week in the arrest of Anna herself? Remember that? Well, forget it. Anna’s still in jail when we open the episode, but as expected, Bates falsely confesses to the crime to exonerate her then escapes to Ireland. Mosely and Baxter subsequently dedicate all their days off to visiting 60 or 70 pubs in York to exonerate him (which in the logic of the show means they will be throwing the blame back onto Anna).  Somehow they find a bar-keep who remembers serving Bates on the day of the murder (this guy’s ability to recall one patron from two years ago on the very day of the murder is very impressive!)  But if Bates is innocent, the police have to conclude again that Anna is guilty, right? Nope. It turns out that the witness against Anna is now having doubts, so both of them are in the clear. So this whole two-season narrative arc, in which we are dragged through so much sturm und drang, basically boils down to “Never mind.” Whatever.

To the extent there are any overarching themes this episode there are two: the swatting down of snobs and the resolution of romantic entanglements.

First the snobs: Atticus and Rose are back from their Venetian honeymoon and his parents have rented a Scottish estate for some grouse hunting. Off go the Crawleys to shoot small birds and wear white tie in a cold drafty castle. Lord Sinderby himself is a terrible snob, and unpleasant to boot. I suppose we are supposed to assume that, like Shylock, he’s been warped by years of anti-Semitism, or maybe he’s just naturally sour. In any event, he won’t invite Rose’s parents because they’re divorced; he’s also very particular about the respect that is due him as a wealthy banker and Lord and consequently makes the near fatal mistake of calling Barrow a stupid fool.

As snobby as Sinderby is, though, his butler Stowell is even worse. He too treats Barrow shabbily and then is outright rude to Tom Branson; his disgust at serving a former chauffer is so extreme that he falls just short of calling Branson a “mudblood.” Mary is appalled by the treatment of her brother-in-law and unleashes Barrow, her weaponized servant. Now we know why the Crawleys have never fired Barrow: he’s kept on staff in case they they ever need to sic a Doberman on their enemies.  Barrow’s been on his best behavior since giving up the anti-homosexual treatments, but once set loose his thirst for revenge is nearly boundless. He not only schemes to humiliate Stowell, as Mary had wanted, but to bring down Sinderby too, which was definitely more than she bargained for.

After Barrow manipulates the humiliation of Stowell, he worms it out of a the drunken butler that Lord Sourpuss has an illegitimate son, so the next thing you know telegrams are sent to London and the mother and child materialize at a Sinderby family soiree. Ooops. Rose sizes up the situation immediately, and claims that the mother is her old friend, and gets Mary and Grantham to play along so that Lady Sinderby doesn’t get wind of that fact that Atticus isn’t the only one who’s been cavorting with shiksas. Saved from his shame, Sinderby has an immediate personality change, recognizing that Rose is “clever, kind, and resourceful.” He even agrees to break out the gramophone so the young people can dance, and further promises to invite Rose’s divorced parents to visit. Well, the little bump in that marriage subplot wrapped up nicely, didn’t it?

The other snob is Spratt, who makes Mr. Carson look positively modern. His feud with Denker continues, in what must be one of the lowest-stakes plots of all time. Will Denker be able to prepare broth that the Dowager Countess likes? Seriously? Anna’s in jail, Sinderby’s nearly exposed as an adulterer and we’re worrying about broth? Well, not surprisingly it transpires that Denker cannot make decent broth (and how hard is that, really?) But the Dowager Countess doesn’t really care that much anyway. She finally tells the two of them to cut it out and to stop their feuding. So Spratt and Sowell end up as two butlers who are, as Mary remarks, “put back in a box.” Because that’s where servants should be.

The other great theme of the episode was romantic entanglement. First, Isobel definitively declines Lord Merton’s marriage proposal because she doesn’t want to spend her declining days in trench warfare with his God-awful sons. Too bad, because Merty is quite a good character. I have to say, though, I didn’t really see how Fellowes could have swung this marriage because if Isobel had married Merton, she wouldn’t be living in the Downton neighborhood any longer and would have been forced into a reduced role on the show. (That’s the problem with marriages for any of the female characters – once they marry they’ll almost certainly have to move away.)

With Isobel out of the way, we then resolve the question of whether the Dowager Countess will resume sexual relations with her former lover Prince Kuragin. Will everyone who thought that was going to happen please raise his or her hand? I thought so. The Dowager Countess has tracked down Princess Kuragin in Shanghai and transported her to England so she can be reunited with her husband. And here we have yet another sourpuss, who’s neither grateful nor cordial to the Dowager Countess for reuniting her with her husband and literally putting the clothes on her back. She sounds a lot like Greta Garbo in her “I vant to be alone” phase. So exeunt the Kuragins, off to the refugee community in Paris.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The Dowager Countess later explains to Isobel that she and Kuragin had tried to elope fifty years earlier when they were in St. Petersburg for the royal wedding, but that Princess Kurgain had chased them down, physically yanked her out of the carriage and sent her back to her won husband, who suspected nothing. Sometimes I wonder if Julian Fellowes watches his own show because several episodes back the Dowager Countess claimed that she didn’t actually elope because her husband gave her a Faberge egg with the children’s photos. Regardless, the Dowager Countess now thinks that she owes a debt to the princess for preventing her from ruining her life on a mad passion. Not to keep mentioning Tolstoy, but Anna Karenina and Vronsky actually did elope to disastrous results, so the Dowager Countess is almost certainly right to assume that her life turned out better with a stodgy husband than with a passionate Russian lover.

The other romantic entanglement that gets resolved in this episode is the engagement of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, which everyone has expected since the 2014 season-ender when Mrs. Hughes grabbed Mr. Carson’s hand as they were cavorting at the beach. Mr. Carson has gone about this task obliquely, as he is wont to do, first couching this as real estate investment until Mrs. Hughes revealed that she was nearly impoverished from paying for her sister’s medical care over the years. Learning of her predicament, he then (somewhat presumptuously I think) puts her name on the deed anyway and then proposes in the most eloquent way: “I do want to be stuck with you.” Her response was equally passionate: “Of course I’ll marry you, you old boobie.” This is what comes of drinking the Lord’s Chateau Margaux while he’s away. Naturally, there’s been no hanky panky between the two of them; I doubt they’ve even hugged yet, never mind kissed. But charming nevertheless, because so heart-felt.

The final romantic entanglement plot line involves embryonic romances for Mary and Edith. Both of them seem turned on by the way their potential swains handle they guns, something both Freud and the NRA would understand. Edith’s guy is the agent, or estate manager, at Brancaster Castle in Scotland, and he’s the third cousin of the current earl so he’s close enough to nobility for her purposes.

As for Mary, her new love interest is a Mr. Henry Talbot, who in addition to being good with a loaded gun is also the owner of a powerful car. Mary is apparently turned on by danger and phallic symbols, although if I were the widow of a man who liked to drive too fast, I might seek out someone who’s not an automotive enthusiast. Mary’s also attracted to Mr. Talbot because he’s quick-witted enough to deduce that something’s up with Lord Sinderby and the woman who showed up at the door. More than anything, though, she’s probably turned on by the way he can take her acerbic barbs and turn them back on her. We don’t know anything about him except that he’s the friend of a friend and has enough money to afford a fast car. We’ve probably not seen the last of this guy but I can’t help but feel cheated from last year, when we were promised a face-off between Gillingham and Blake. For someone who was so hot for Mary and who worked so hard to extricate her from her engagement with Gillingham, Blake didn’t seem too sad about leaving her for Poland for a year.

Some other observations:

—  This episode sees the departure of numerous characters for America. Tom and Sybbie are headed to Boston. This has been one of the most protracted departures in TV history. Rose and Atticus, on the other hand, just up and announced, hey, we’re going to New York, which is one of the most abrupt departures in TV history. You have to wonder if Lily James, who plays Rose, decided late in the season that she wanted to pursue a movie career since she’s going to star in the upcoming Cinderella movie. (Btw, Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, is one of the evil step-sisters, which shows once again that the downstairs staff never gets any respect.) Here’s the trailer.

—  What exactly was the point of Robert’s angina-turned-ulcer? Whenever they start discussing medical issues on this show MY stomach starts to hurt. This angina misdirection is another example of plotting for its own sake, especially when Fellowes seems to snap his fingers and rearrange plot elements without earning them. Robert has angina and after we worry about him a bit he doesn’t. Whatever.

—  I wasn’t exactly sure where we landed on the plot about Daisy’s education. It looks like she’s giving it up since it’s not going to get her anywhere. Whatever happened to knowledge being valuable for its own sake?

— Hmm. A pretty grim view of wives on this show. Three characters – Lord Merton, Shrimpy and Prince Kuragin – were married to and immiserated by shrewish women. Julian Fellowes himself appears to be happily married, so he’s apparently not acting out any personal issues.

— There was one moment of actual, earned emotion in the show: the small remembrance of Sybil in the nursery by Tom, Edith and Mary and the emotional awkwardness of Lord Grantham when he stumbles upon them. I never really liked Sybil that much but I’m glad that Branson keeps her memory alive.

— Another moment of some subtlety: the scene where the servants sit down to a small dinner in the kitchen, dressed in ordinary clothes instead of their uniforms is juxtaposed immediately with the grander white collar dinner with the toffs in Scotland. Which dinner looks like more fun?

— I’m having confused feelings. Lord Grantham hasn’t been an idiot for two straight episodes and his handling of the Marigold/Edith issue was sensitive (but probably a-historical).  I’m beginning to question all my assumptions about existence.

— Naturally the grouse hunting scenes in Scotland reminded me of the hunting weekend in 2001’s“Gosford Park,” Julian Fellowes first big writing gig as a depicter of the landed classes at leisure. Here’s the trailer, featuring a somewhat younger Maggie Smith.

Now we’re on to season six and possibly season seven? I’m exhausted just thinking about it and glad we’ve got ten months to recuperate.

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4 comments
  1. Mike Tschebull said:

    Shooting the grise: it seems to me, for all the talk about good shooting, I didn’t see any birds bite he dust, or get retrieved.

  2. Wow! You’re pretty harsh in much of your critique here! I thoroughly enjoyed the finale and was glad that I was not left hanging on the character’s endings and where things were ultimately heading.
    I count myself as, one among many, that probably would not share your agony over every nuanced piece of historical data that might not have fallen into its correct place; that would absolutely ruin this splendid show for me.
    I just enjoy the story as it unfolds each week but then again, I still have my hair.

    • The history does bug me, but what actually does spoil it for me are plots like the Bateses which go on and on and then are suddenly resolved because a witness changes his mind. What put us through that if you don’t have a satisfactory resolution worked out?

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