Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 8
Directed by Jon East
Written by Julian Fellowes
Aired Sunday at 9 pm on PBS
Downton Abbey concludes yet another season of ups and downs with a pretty even-keeled finale. Like the end of Season 3, the events of this special happen mostly away from the titular residence, but this time, Scotland is exchanged for London and ballrooms and Jazz clubs take the place of horseback rides and hunts. And this time, everybody can just relax and enjoy the show. There’s nothing to fear for fans who have become accustomed to the risks of loving the show’s characters. Julian Fellowes has allowed the festivities to proceed without interruption from sudden deaths or acts of violence.
The reason for the move to London is Rose’s coming out ceremony, where she will be presented to the King and Queen and thereafter be considered an eligible young woman in the eyes of high society. Not only is she the center of the Crawleys’ celebrations, but she also inadvertently becomes the cause of a scandal involving a purloined letter and an amorous member of the royal family. There’s a very manufactured feel to the subtle blackmail threat that looms over the Prince of Wales and the Crawleys’ superficial entanglement, which they predictably take all too seriously. Implausibility aside, there’s some very definite amusement derived from the hijinks that ensue in the heist hatched by none other than Lord Grantham to retrieve the offensive missive. The dubious operation so obviously clashes with the Lord’s sense of propriety that he can’t even bring himself to say the word “forger” or to mention directly Bates’ time in prison when he turns to his valet for help in the planning. So while the Crawleys’ conspiracy is problematic (but funny) to begin with, their inevitable failure comes as no surprise. Leave it to dependable (and more worldly) Bates to come to the rescue.
But what else has the crafty valet been up to? A train ticket surfaces that places him in London on the same day his wife’s rapist perished in an apparent accident. By one of those suspect twists of fates that viewers are never meant to question, the evidence winds up in the hands of Mrs. Hughes, who takes it to Lady Mary and washes said hands of the predicament as quickly as possible. Mary’s momentary attack of conscience might indeed be more a contrivance to tell a neat story rather than an intrinsic trait in keeping with her character. Keep in mind, she has engaged in cover-ups before, and she boasts proudly at one point in the episode that she doesn’t mind lying. Nevertheless, her final decision to stand by Bates and burn the damning train ticket makes for a fulfilling moment enhanced only by the moral deliberation that preceded it.
Bates’ intervention in the flaccid schemes of the Crawley clan, if nothing else, proves that the downstairs staff makes better schemers than their upstairs counterparts. Sadly though, Thomas, once Downton’s premier plotter, has suffered a tragic attenuation since the loss of his coconspirator. In this episode, he sets out to destroy Tom for having the nerve to outrank him by benefit of his marriage into the family, but the under butler’s machinations are as passive as they have been all season. He might hiss the odd manipulated truth into his employers’ ears, but there’s nothing of the good old days when he’d kidnap the family dog or swipe a priceless snuffbox. He’s lording some tantalizing bit of blackmail over Mrs. Baxter to get her to collect valuable information for him, but nothing has come of that arrangement so far other than the most cursory tidbits.
And speaking of once great characters not getting their due, Cora’s innocuous contributions this season were regulated to a mix of inane commentary that alternated from worried fussing to overly effusive compliments. The finale doesn’t offer her much of a chance to recover either, but the arrival of her mother (Shirley MacLaine) and brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) manages to steal some of the spotlight. At first glance, Uncle Harold puts up a perfect front as a boorish American, concerned with very little else besides food and money. But his cynicism conceals a deeper level of very human self-consciousness. It takes the innocent, and initially reluctant, intervention of Madeleine Allsopp (Poppy Drayton) to cut through Harold’s gruffness. It’s just another Downton relationship founded on misconceptions and happenstance, but the tone of their interactions and the slow progression of their affections are tender and worthwhile.
Normally, Shirley MacLaine is a welcomed addition to the Downton goings-on, and her shameless toying with her gold-digging suitor is priceless in so many ways. But her ultimate scene with Maggie Smith feels tacked on purely for the purpose of watching two acting greats go at it. Generally, this kind of altercation would inject vigor into an otherwise slow burning script if the sentiments expressed here weren’t so expected. This isn’t the first time Downton’s writer has broadcasted the eventual demise of England’s class system. It’s not even the first time this episode. MacLaine’s character has the last word, which is fitting considering the historical figures her arguments represent had the last word in reality as well, but it’s a word set on constant repeat.
The real emotional power of the episode, as usual, originates in the subplots. Daisy’s redemptive flirtation with the American valet gives the long-suffering and much beloved character a vital personal victory. Edith, with some guidance from her brother-in-law, finally discovers her spine, and even if it is done in secret, her self-assertive decision to handle her child’s adoption in her own way marks her greatest spurt of character growth since the show’s inception. And lastly, Carson’s struggle to arrange a perfect day off for the house staff and Mrs. Hughes’ gentle nudging epitomize the understated beauty of the show’s most effective couple. Floating somewhere between romantic and platonic, the ease with which their interplay has developed over the seasons reached full bloom in this finale, and its quiet culmination happened so naturally it was as if the actors, the writers, the viewers, and the fictional characters fully realized the potential implications of their long-standing cooperation in the same stunning instant. No more affecting vista could have ended the episode (and the season) on a higher note than these two aging servants wading hand in hand into the tide of an English sea.