Downton Abbey S04E09: “2013 Christmas Special”

…an episode reminding us all the importance of “spending the evening trapped in the cast of a whodunit.”

I’ll admit it: going into tonight’s season (or series for those who prefer the British parlance) finale, expectations ran high.  Paul Giamatti, perhaps my all-time favorite actor, would play Harold Levinson! We would finally put to bed this ludicrous idea of Bates as a killer!  We would never hear another mention of pig farming again!  Yet, the finale took some strange detours, resulting in a Christmas special narrative that felt sloppy, bloated, and stagnant.  What I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I didn’t actually watch this episode at Christmas, or I might have tracked down Julian Fellowes and chucked a piece of coal at his head.  Jingle this all the way!

Downton is certainly no stranger to the time jump, and that is exactly what we found ourselves treated to last night.  The majority of the action takes place in or around Grantham House (the Crawley’s London-based homestead) in 1923 as both the upstairs and downstairs prepare for Lady Rose’s presentation to high society.  This functioned as a fine narrative framing device, though I found myself far less enthused with the subplots crowded beneath its umbrella.

The best part about Rose’s presentation plotline was that Mrs. Hughes had the opportunity to say the word buffet several times.  Seriously, when she demanded Daisy help set up a delicious boo-fay, I think I fell in love.  We’re not talking Patmore levels of infatuation, but if Mrs. Hughes keeps up that dirty talk, I might need to take a walk around her boo-fay if you catch my drift.  I guess this plot also meant the reappearance of Cora’s mother Martha (Shirley MacLaine, who you may have heard of) and the introduction of her brother Harold (Paul Giamatti, fitting right in because he is amazing) fresh off the Teapot Dome Scandal, which made me lol each time it received a mention because silly name much?  Harold’s a surly curmudgeon when the episode beings, scoffing at all things British and treating family and acquaintance alike with the utmost disdain.  In other words, he’s a gem.  I dug it.  It’s just a shame that Fellowes wrangled such a powerhouse actor and tossed him into a completely underwhelming story involving an awkward multi-generational courtship ritual.  I’d detail the nuances of that arc for you, but I didn’t like it then, and I don’t want to relive it.  Sorry, but it’s true.  What a waste of Giamatti’s talent and a real snoozer storywise.  Pass.**

**Fortunately, Giamatti had one of the two best scenes of the night: befuddling the Prince of Wales after introducing himself.  Harold laughing off the Prince’s confounding rebuke just played perfectly.

Speaking of the Prince of Wales, dude’s a straight up horn dog!  Apparently, he’s been having something of a dalliance with Rose’s friend Dudley Ward.  Two things about Dudley: madam, your name is atrocious and conjures the image of a frumpy, middle aged man working in IT.  Also, WHO ARE YOU?  Downton really wants us to care about this little temptress, though for the life of me, I couldn’t.  But wait!  Evidently, the Prince of Wales has been sending some pretty risqué copies of his erotic Harry Potter fanfiction to Dudley or something because when Samson (the annoying card sharp from earlier in the season) filches a letter he sent to Dudley in confidence, the Crawleys find themselves in the centre (#BritishSpelling) of an impending national crisis because obvs.  Samson might sell that letter to the highest bidder and cast a pall over the crown!  *Collective gasp interrupted by Moseley dropping something.  Classic Moseley!*

Fear not, stalwart monarchists!  For faster than you can say “strangest discarded plot for Ocean’s Fourteen ever,” Robert concocts a plan.  He will host a poker game, using his brother-in-law’s notable coffers to bait Samson, who cannot–bless his scheming little heart–resist the opportunity to fleece someone.  But Robert’s going to need a little help from his friends.  Bates will put his prison skills to the test, putting a temporary stop to his burgeoning toilet wine business long enough to forge a copy of the Prince’s letter.  The e’re reliable #Gillinghammer will join the game, along with Branson and Harold, while Mary, Rose, and #BlaketheSnake will break into Samson’s room and snatch the hidden letter, even if that means rifling through his sock drawer.  OH THE HUMANITY!***

***A Danny Ocean Robert Crawley is not, so despite the best laid plans, they cannot find the letter.  Worst letter heist in history!

Fortunately for the Crawleys, Mr. Bates was up to his elbows in coats this episode.  For real, #CoatGate.  When he wasn’t unwittingly donating his overcoat to Russian orphans before emptying his pockets of potentially incriminating evidence of a murder, he pulled a fast one, removing the letter from Samson’s coat pocket and handing it off to Robert.  Thank goodness for those Crawleys; otherwise England would literally flounder in ruins.  And yes, please read that last sentence as Chris Traegger would say it.

While we’re on the topic of Bates, wtf?  I mean Downton really went out of its way to paint Bates as, what, a serial killer in the making?  Bizarre lighting and shadows seemed to frame him when he appeared on screen as he leered at the camera and lied about the train ticket.  And dear God that beach hat was chilling.  Seriously what’s going on here? Enough already.  Though Mary’s decision to burn the ticket seems to put the plot to rest for now, I hate the way Fellowes left it open as if it doesn’t matter whether he killed or not because Greene totes deserved it.  Of course he did, but what a cheap ploy and a complete disregard of this character.  Bates deserves so much better than this.

You know who else deserves better?  #SadEdith.  With the time jump, she’s returned from her sabbatical abroad, a few pounds lighter around the waist but significantly weighted around the heart.  Since leaving her baby daughter with the Schroeder family in Switzerland, Edith has been unable to come to terms with the decision.  Because it sounds like Gregson found himself in a kerfuffle with some hateful dudes in brown shirts*** before disappearing, it seems like he’s dead now, and Edith feels that, should she inherit from Gregson, she should pass on some of that to their daughter.  What’s a gal to do?

****Um, so those were Nazis that beat Gregson down, right?  Just to be clear, Gregson went straight up fisticuffs with Nazis, leading to his likely death.  BEST. CHARACTER. DEATH. EVER.  Certified bad ass. 

After shutting down Aunt Rosamund’s Negative Nelly ‘tude by calling into question her childless existence, Edith decided to track down Mr. Drew, world-renowned pig farmer, and ask him and his wife to raise her daughter as their own.  What a sad state of affairs when this resolution felt like a win for #SadEdith!  Girl, take the break in between seasons, hit up the spa, just make it all about you because, hell, no one in the Downton writers room is, that’s fo’ sho’.

I’m sorry; I’ve held back long enough into the recap now, but I can no longer contain my excitement because #MoseleyWatch.  His bond with Baxter has been a highlight of the back-half of this season, and I loved watching Moseley emerge as a pillar of inspiration for her, encouraging his lady friend to stand up to uber-bully Thomas.  Also, Moseley played soccer on the beach in this episode, and as I watched, the world seemed like a brighter, more vibrant version of itself.  Thanks, Moseley.  You single-handedly kept this season from completely flying off the rails.*****

*****Best scene of the night: Harold Levinson flops down on a chair in the sitting room and asks Moseley for a cup of tea with milk in it.  The dawning horror on Moseley’s face made it clear that milk in tea trumps the myriad agonies of wearing a footman’s gloves any day of the week.  Hilarious.

I’d like to close this review with a look at #TheBickersons: Isobel and Violet Crawley.  I could watch these two exchanging witty barbs to one another for this rest of my life; without fail, this is just one thing the show just does right time and time again.  In fact, Fellowes gained a great amount of mileage out of pairing Isobel off with characters, most notably Violet and Branson (though can we agree his whiney “I don’t belong here” shtick has grown INCREDIBLY tiresome and needs discarding?).  More of this next year, please!

Elswhere, #Gillinghammer and #BlaketheSnake gear up to vie for Mary’s affections, Daisy finds herself rejuvenated when an American valet openly fancies her, Ivy takes a job with Harold and leaves for America (who cares?), and Carson struggles to pick a day trip location for the downstairs staff before settling on a trip to the beach.******

******The scene of Hughes and Carson holding hands in the ocean, while its subtext felt about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, ended the season on such a wistful, sweet, and pleasant note.  Finally addressing the bond these two share feels so right.

In the end, I didn’t feel as if the Christmas Special accomplished all that much narratively speaking.  It did its best to show us that high drama lurked around every corridor (the swelling score when Samson realizes his letter gone had me laughing out loud at its overwrought usage), but this episode didn’t change a great deal.  In that way, it felt more like Robert than Mary, content with familiar beats and traditions rather than an exploration of new terrain.  Four years in, we expect more from a show than for it to settle into its well-worn narrative grooves.  I’m not saying I’m giving up on this show (bestill my heart, I would never), but too many of the goings-on this year felt recycled from earlier, more compelling installments of this high society soap.  Without reservation, I consider this Downton‘s weakest season, though–like Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes strolling toward the sunset–I’m hopeful for a brighter future.

Until next time, Downtonites!  Thanks so much for reading!


Snippets of Intrigue

– Mary: “Your niece is a flapper.  Accept it.”

– Carson: “You’re a footman, not a traveling salesman!  Please keep your opinions on the catering to yourself.”

– Edith: “Sometimes, I think we should make more scenes about the things that matter to us.”

– Isobel: “Fear not.  I’ve never traveled with a maid.  You can share my knowledge of the jungle.”

– Carson: “I’m afraid that boy’s interest in her may not be entirely proper.”

Patmore: “Mr. Carson, all women need someone to show them a bit of interest every now and then.  Preferably in a manner that’s not entirely proper.” #PatmoreWisdom #Patmore4Life

– Harold: “I would find it hard to respect any woman who wanted to marry me.”

– Dowager: “Oh no, I don’t think so.  I’m too tired for an evening of secondhand emotion.”

– Dowager: “How curious these phrases are!”

– Hughes: “You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady.”

Carson: “I don’t know how, but you managed to make that sound a little risqué.”

Hughes: “And if I did?  We’re getting on, Mr. Carson, you and I.  We can afford to live a little.”

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