We’re closing in on the end of “Downton Abbey” (the Christmas episode airs next week!), so it’s no surprise that many story lines are getting wrapped up in tonight’s two-hour episode before the show leaps forward in time by a full year. The result? Some are grand, some are jarring, and some really don’t make a lot of sense. More than any other episode, I think this one is a mixed bag and sometimes seems slapdash (and soapy) in its execution. But for the lows (and there are quite a few), some of the big moments give our stars moments to truly shine. It’s always great when someone other than Maggie Smith (not that we don’t love her, by the way) gets a pithy line or an unexpected character flaw, and that’s definitely in evidence this week. I can’t overlook the stinkers, but there’s enough good stuff here that I might soon forget them.
Bates is freed from prison
It’s a huge relief to see Bates walk out of the clink a free man, in no small part because the prison storyline featuring his bitter cellmate Craig and a dirty guard was so one-note and, bluntly, silly. Given that everyone and their dog seemed determined to stand between Bates and Anna (next season: keep an eye out for the dog), it had started to seem less like Greek tragedy and more like camp.
But that takes nothing away from the charged moment between Bates and Anna embracing for the first time after he’s freed. More than Matthew and Mary (despite every effort the writers make to convince us that they’re passionately in love and not, in fact, a little boring as a married couple), Bates and Anna are the romantic heart of the show. I would have liked to see a little more of a reunion before the two start scurrying around, painting their cottage and worrying about other people. But hey, there was a lot of ground to cover, so no time for lollygagging !
What almost came as a surprise was that Bates, who had a much greater villain in the ghost of Vera, still seems to hold a grudge against Thomas. Of course, he hasn’t seen Thomas the way we have of late, conflicted and lost and oddly sympathetic, so it’s jarring when Bates claims to feel just fine with displacing him as Robert’s valet. “Revenge is sweet,” he says, in a way that sounds more like jailhouse Bates than Downton Bates, and, though it’s not a side we like to see of him, it makes sense. Being married to a monster made him hard and, despite regular visits from Anna to soften him up, prison took him back to that adversarial headspace.
Bates isn’t a tough guy for long, though, and it’s his willingness to go to bat for Thomas — in fact, get so involved he offers to “be the weapon” to break O’Brien — that reminds us of why we like him so much. I’m curious to see whether Thomas, who’s a little low on allies in the house anyway, becomes loyal to Bates. He probably won’t, but he should.
Edith likes a boy
Yes, Edith finally gives in and agrees to meet the newspaper editor Michael Gregson in London — and look! Could they have cast anyone who looks more like Sir Anthony in the role? You knew this would be a love match before he even flips his floppy hair.
While she may be the ugly sister at Downton, Edith is just what Gregson ordered, and after a great deal of flirting she not only accepts the job writing for him, but, we can assume, starts wondering about whether or not she can recycle her last wedding dress. Hey, that was a beautiful dress; it would be a shame for it to go to waste.
But, because this is Edith, and things are never easy or simple for Edith, she discovers that Gregson is married. The cad! Well, not exactly — he says his wife is in an asylum, a blithering nut job who doesn’t even know him. He can’t divorce her, because lunatics are incapable of giving consent. I’m pretty sure Edith is going to be hurtling down the path of other-womanhood, which, if the choice is living in spinsterhood for the rest of her days, doesn’t seem so awful, although I’m sure her family will think it is.
Ethel gets an offer
This storyline is wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow, but I can’t complain too much when that means poor Ethel finally gets a semi-happy ending.
In short, the Dowager Countess (I’m just going to call her DC — I can’t bring myself to refer to her as Violet, can you?) decides to meddle in Mrs. Crawley’s affairs, has Edith place an ad in the paper so that Ethel might get a new job somewhere where she isn’t seen as the town prostitute, and voila! Job offers appear! But wait!
The only suitable gig is close to where the Bryants live with little Charlie (what are the chances?), and to be so close and unable to see her little boy would simply break Ethel’s heart. Of course, The DC takes care of that, too, and soon Mrs. Bryant and Ethel are excitedly plotting out who Ethel can pretend to be (“I’ll be his former nanny!”) and all is well in the world, even if Mrs. Crawley is going to have to make her own tea for a while. I am now thinking the Dowager Countess needs to meddle in a lot more problems than she does, because she seems able to perform some kind of magic others can only dream of possessing (and in this episode, she fixes almost every problem she sees).
Yes, it’s all wrapped up a little neatly, but it’s great to see Mrs. Crawley forced to wrangle with her inherent stubbornness and the realization that, while The DC may only be trying to protect her family’s reputation, her plan is actually what’s best for Ethel as well. Though she pouts to The DC, “If you would have had to sell Charlie to the butcher and chopped him up for stew to achieve the same ends, you would have done so,” the truth is that, for all her efforts to “save” Ethel, Mrs. Crawley was more interested in forcing the world to change than in realizing that letting her poor maid be battered with a scarlet letter A was simply cruel.
Matthew mans up
After a few episodes of mewling and worrying, Matthew suddenly gets his business on and decides it’s time to shake things up at Downton. There is some stomping around and feelings are hurt (and yes, Mr. Jarvis quits in a huff), but it all seems entirely necessary if things are going to hell in a hand basket the way Matthew suggests. When Robert starts babbling about money-making schemes (like the one that American, Charles Ponzi, has going), it’s actually a relief when Matthew tells him to, in a sense, sit the hell down and shut up. Yes, Ponzi was a real guy, and they don’t call pyramid scams Ponzi schemes for nothing. The sooner someone rips Robert’s hands off the till, the better.
Ironically, while Matthew stirs things up, it’s Branson and (yet again) The DC who get things ironed out. Robert feels as if his family is ganging up on him, and poutily suggests he’ll just sit back and watch them ruin Downton. After The DC suggests Branson to replace Jarvis, in part to keep him nearby (“You cannot want your only granddaughter to grow up over a garage with that drunken gorilla,” she says of Branson’s oafish brother Kieran), it’s Branson who manages to smooth things over with his grouchy father-in-law. I’m not sure if it’s entirely in character with who Branson was that he’s now become the balanced voice of reason when it comes to Downton (though we can definitely credit Sybil’s death with softening his feelings toward his in-laws), but it’s been an interesting twist to the former chauffeur’s character.
He explains to Robert that his knowledge of the village and the people in it has value, and once he joins forces, Wonder Twins style, with Matthew and himself, the trio will be unstoppable. It’s hard not to feel as if things are taking a turn for the better, and the fact that Robert ins moved by Branson’s inclusive attitude gives me reason to think Downton might not be for sale anytime soon.
The Peach Pit is still churning
Alfred likes Ivy and Ivy likes Jimmy and Daisy likes Alfred. All of this gets shoved to the background pretty quickly, though, when Thomas decides to make a play for Jimmy. And really, that’s just fine by me.
Thomas has a very bad day, followed by a happy twist
The core of this episode revolves around O’Brien finally manipulating the ugly demise of Thomas. The problem, of course, is that she overplays her hand. If she had simply been willing to let Thomas go with a letter of recommendation, he might have left Downton forever. It’s her need to grind him into the dirt that comes back to bite her. Seeing her face after her secret is whispered in her ear is worth every less-than-logical bump in this storyline.
I’m still not sure why Thomas would ever listen to O’Brien’s suggestion that Jimmy has been saying “silly, sloppy stuff” about his affection for Thomas. I suppose Thomas so badly wants to believe that his ex-friend is telling the truth, he overlooks the potential consequences of his actions. But not only does Jimmy have no interest in Thomas’ bedtime kisses, Alfred just happens to pop in to see the whole thing. It’s a horrible moment, but what’s most crushing is how hurt Thomas looks, bewildered and heartbroken and almost childlike. If you loathed Thomas in season one, it’s impossible not to feel at least some sympathy watching his world crumble around him.
What follows is, I think, a mixture of actual 1920s attitudes and some modern revisionism. While homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. until 1967, attitudes toward homosexuality were much more open-minded in the 1920s than they were after the Great Depression. Were they open enough, though, that stuck-in-tradition Robert would simply shrug, “If I’d shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton I’d have gone hoarse in a month,”? Is it entirely realistic that Carson would toss in the nature-vs.-nurture debate and declare that Thomas was “twisted by nature into something foul, and even I can see that you did not ask for it,”? Does it make sense that it seems as if the only people (at least, of those who know what happened) who seem to mind are Alfred and Jimmy? Really, in a world where Ethel is so scandalized for having a bastard child she has no choice but to turn to prostitution to put food on the table, does it make sense that everyone’s pretty okay with Robert trying to climb into Jimmy’s bed while he was sleeping? Heck does it even make sense that Thomas has a gay power moment, turning to Carson and saying, “I’m not foul, Mr. Carson. I’m not the same as you, but I’m not foul,”? Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great moment and a moving moment, but is that even likely to be period-accurate?
I’m guessing that’s a big, fat no. But I would hate for Rob James Collier to leave the show, so if logic and accurateness has to be tossed on the floor, stomped on and scraped away, fine. This turn also gives Bates an opportunity to return to compassionate, pre-prison Bates, determined to do the right thing even though that ultimately not only saves Thomas from prison, but lands him a promotion. Again, this makes no sense whatsoever, but I’ll be interested to see how Thomas and Bates’ relationship develops from here.
Matthew and Mary are fine, thanks for asking
So, Matthew goes to the fertility doctor (is that what they called them in the 1920s?) and who does he see there? Why, Mary! How wacky! Anyway, Mary had a problem, had an operation, and they can start having babies forthwith. The idea that her bout of infertility is so easily tied up is, again, ridiculous, and I definitely could have seen this being dragged out a little longer. I am suspecting it might have if not for Circumstances Outside The Show, which we will not discuss here.
Cousin Rose visits and then goes away
This storyline served almost no purpose I could see. Anyway, The DC lets her great-niece Rose visit. Rose is basically using her visit as a ruse to hang out with a married man at hotels and jazz clubs in London. The DC tricks Rosamond into revealing what Rose was up to, and Rose is sent to Scotland as punishment. I really can’t think of any reason for this stupid waste of time to be included on the show except to show us the interior of a 1920s jazz club. That’s fun, I guess.
In other news, baby Sybil is christened a Catholic, Branson’s brother likes the downstairs staff, and Branson catches the ball at the cricket game Robert tricks him into playing in despite a lack of knowledge about cricket. Also, EVERYONE REPEATEDLY USES THE WORD STUFF. Gotta take care of stuff. That’s his stuff. What stuff is this? Maybe they’ve used the word in past episodes, but stuff wasn’t a huge part of the vernacular, from what I can tell, until the late 1920s. It’s jarring. Stop it, “Downton.”
What did you think of Thomas’ storyline? Are you glad Bates is out? Are you excited for Mary and Matthew to have a baby? Oh, and by the way, don’t post ANY spoilers about the Christmas episode below! I hate to delete anything, but I will.
So, what did you