DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON TWO FINALE RECAP
Among those reviews that have sung Downton's praises this season, there's been several grouchy pieces dismissing the show as nothing more than a dressed up soap opera to which I say: what's your point? Of course Downton Abbey is a soap opera if, by that you mean a drama set in a fantastical place with multiple characters whose lives intersect in dramatic and sometimes over the top ways and whose love lives pale in comparison to those of mere mortals. The difference is that Downton is a brilliant and satisfying soap opera. Many episodes, this one in particular, could function as a stand alone movie. Fellowes' nimble handling of story and character development set against what is surely the most lush cinematography on television has made watching the show a transporting experience.
Much has been made about why Downton is so popular here in the United States. Why are six million people tuning into a show about British aristocrats and their servants at the twilight of the British empire? What is it about his lordship's benevolent interactions with his servants (arguably Lord Grantham has two long standing bromances with both Bates and Carson) that makes us care? How can Americans, in the age of The Jersey Shore and other hit reality show vulgarities, find a show sexy that waited six episodes in to give viewers the first kiss between its most attractive characters? Maybe the answer is that culturally we're not going to hell in a handbasket after all. There are enough of us that actually want to watch something that is good -- well written, well acted with some history lessons sprinkled in. (Admit it, you feel smarter just watching this show!) There's just so much of watching idiots make fools of themselves to make one feel better about oneself that we can take.
And, of course, we tell ourselves that Downton Abbey brings us back to a simpler time when the world's problems were not as overwhelming as they are now. But, on that score, we are dead wrong. Think back to that quaint battle scene where Matthew and William are gravely injured at the front. 20,000 men were killed on the first day at the battle of the Somme. The Spanish flu, which mainly struck the already decimated population of young people after the war was the most destructive pandemic of all time killing 250,000 in Britain. And women had no rights at all (Well, now that you mention it, the more things change, the more they stay the same) How can a show about a world of inherited privilege be so popular when our real lives are filled with stories of Occupy protesters and a presidential race where one party's front runner happily admits he doesn't worry about the poor? Sure the lavish sets and costumes help, but I believe our attraction to Downton lies in its appeal as a fable of sorts -- a fairy tale where handsome princes come to the rescue and women are worth fighting for at a time when everywhere we look goodness does not win out, bad people don't pay for their sins -- they get paid more to sell their stories.
The sum of Downton's appeal can be found in the season's final scene. Matthew and Mary, the show's hero and heroine are together at last and all is right with the world. We can forgive Julian Fellowes for giving us too much Ethel, Daisy and Patrick/Peter the burn victim this season because he wrote an absolute perfect ending. Matthew and Mary together at last! I actually screamed when I knew Matthew was going to propose. (My husband, who has become used to my devotion to the series, left the house when it came on so I could enjoy a good cry in peace) Never looking more gorgeous than they both did at that moment, the couple stand together in their evening finery as the snow falls lightly around them. (There's a reason Ralph Lauren sent his models down the runway last week to the strains of Downton's soundtrack) Matthew, having finally overcome his guilt over Lavinia's death, asks Mary if she will stay at Downton rather than run off to America to wait out the period of scandal that is sure to hit once Sir Richard, her scorned ex-fiance, puts the story of Mr. Pamuk dying in her bed in all the papers he owns. As an aside I will tell you I sobbed during the scene where Mary learns her father knows of her misdeeds and he tells her to "go to America, find a cowboy in middle America and bring him back to shakes us up a bit." Lord Grantham, the father every girl would love to have (except maybe Sybil), is back in fine form. I was a puddle! Matthew's request to have her stay at Downton surprises Mary because when she told Matthew of her ill-fated night of passion with Pamuk earlier, he seemed so hurt. ("Was it love?" he asks sounding close to tears. No, she tells him, it was lust! "I am impure!" Mary cries having hurt the man she loves.)
My favorite Grantham daughter, who has grown much more worldly and weary through the season, replies they've had their chance and lost it. "We carry more baggage than the porters at King's Crossing" then asks "You've forgiven me?" No, says Matthew pausing for effect. "I don't believe you need my forgiveness." Then, the big payoff: "You've lived your life and I've lived mine and now it's time we lived them together." Mary so wants to let herself believe what she's hearing, but says, "Don't take me there unless you're sure." Matthew, who just last week -- and earlier in the episode -- was committed to living a life of misery that he thought he justly deserved having caused Lavinia to die of a broken heart (helped along by the Spanish flu of course)-- has had his own change of heart. He tells Mary he now believes Lavinia would not have wanted him to be sad. (And he doesn't even know about the Ouija Board!) and says,"Then will you?" Mary, to her infinite credit, doesn't let being the fallen woman of Downton get in the way of being proposed to properly. "I won't answer unless you kneel down and ask me." A smiling Matthew now knows the "uppity minx" (Mrs. Hughes' apt description of Mary) is back having broken free of the dastardly Sir Richard and is ready to give him her heart. "Lady Mary Crawley will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?" Of course she tells him yes and the couple joyfully embrace as the camera cuts away to a shot of Downton Abbey standing majestically in the snow with a few lights left on beckoning the faithful to return next season. The End. Sigh.
Notes on other plot developments After hearing damning testimony from O'Brien, Mrs. Hughes and Lord Grantham, Bates is found guilty of the "willful murder" of his ex-wife Vera and is sentenced to hang. I used to love Bates, but his martyrdom got on my nerves in the end. The only way the prosecution could have known of those conversations offered in testimony is if Bates himself recounted them. Sorry, but no one is that noble. And poor Anna. What will become of her? Bates sentence is commuted to life in prison and Anna, together with Lord Grantham, Mr. Murray and Matthew are going to work to overturn the verdict. The continuation of this storyline threatens to veer into truly sudsy territory. As much as I've loved 'Banna' and Brendon Coyle as Bates, I fear that Fellowes has painted himself in a bit of corner here and it might be best to say good-bye to this story and give Anna a new chapter. "Promise me you'll make new friends and live life," Bates tells Anna when we last see them together. Anna, please listen to him.
Lord and Lady Grantham's marriage is seemingly back on track although they are still at odds over Sybil's decision to run off and marry Branson (in a letter from Ireland she tells her parents she's pregnant but asks them not to tell her sisters). "We're to have a Fenian grandchild?" says Robert referring to Branson's support of Irish nationalism which is sure to cause problems next season. Cora, who is far more pragmatic about her daughter's marriage says if there is a revolution, "It might be helpful to have a contact from the other side." Later, after the Servants Ball (How priceless was it to see Matthew dancing with O'Brien ("Crikey!") and Mrs. Patmore?!?), the subject of Sybil comes up again and Cora tells her husband: "I won't be kept from my first grandchild. It isn't what I wanted for her, but we must accept it." Cora wants to go to Ireland to visit (they skipped the wedding) and invite them to come to Downton. "And the chauffeur?" asks Robert. "Him too." Branson grew on me as the season progressed. Allen Leech's scenes with Hugh Bonneville were terrific so more of that would be welcome.
Speaking of the daughters of Downton, Lady Edith briefly reunites -- if only to be rejected -- with Sir Anthony who has been wounded in the war. He tells her he's too old for her and that he'd never let someone as "young and lovely" as she be saddled with being his nursemaid for life. Those crumbs of a compliment are enough to make her want to hang on to him. Poor Edith, I hope she gets a real shot at romance next season. She's had some interesting story lines this season, now it's her turn to have a relationship that last beyond two episodes.
Downstairs, Carson is chagrined to have to be forced to deal with the prospect that Thomas may become his lordship's new valet now that conniving footman has once again schemed his way into a better position. His stunt to steal Isis and then recover her had me very nervous. We have forgiven Thomas a lot of things, but if that dog had disappeared or died that would have been it for him. On the flip side, we can't say we're immune to his charms. I loved the way he asked the Dowager Countess to waltz at the servant's ball. O'Brien, who was shown to have a little more of a conscience over her reluctance to testify against Bates, continues to intrigue. (Does she know something about Vera's death? We're not sure about this one. Could be) She's still Downton's wicked stepmother, but it seems as if the weight of carrying around her secret about causing Cora's miscarriage is starting to get to her. I suspect that the arrival of Lady Cora's mother (Shirley Maclaine) next season will offer all sorts of interesting confrontations. The Daisy-Mrs. Patmore storyline got a little too much screen time in the finale, but served its purpose of moving the story out of the annoying place it had been in for too many episodes. Daisy's protestations over her deathbed marriage to William had grown tiresome. By choosing to show another side of the kitchen maid (who is sure to have been promoted to assistant cook when we next see her) with William's father as his new 'daughter' gave the story a new poignancy that was, in the end, quite moving.
Sir Richard got his walking papers in quite dramatic fashion. After verbally abusing Mary in front of the family one too many times and telling Matthew Lavinia knew he never loved her, Matthew loses it. "You bastard!" he cries and punches him out. The scrum is broken up by Lord Grantham. When the Dowager Countess comes in to see what all the fuss is about Sir Richard tells her they likely won't meet again she says, "Do you promise?" Priceless. The morning after, Mary tells Sir Richard she didn't want their last words to be angry ones. Really? She has a soft spot for the man that basically blackmailed her into marrying him? A little perplexing, but we'll let it slide. "I'm sorry if I used you," she tells him. I wouldn't worry, Mary. I think you were pretty evenly matched on that score. Will he publish the story of Mr. Pamuk? I think he will, but it will have blown over by the time season three rolls around. And what of Haxby Park? Even though Sir Richard bragged to Mary that he would sell the estate at a profit, it might be far more interesting to have him inhabit that house and become the Crawleys new neighbor married to a vengeful and jealous bride.
Isobel went from one of the season's most annoying characters to one of my favorites in this episode. No longer the wartime harpie, she was shown to be the smart, compassionate woman once again that we met in season one. Not surprisingly, she asked Robert if she could attend Bates' trial with the family to offer her support and proved helpful in her motherly role. But her best scene came just before the servants' ball when she told Matthew to "fight for" Mary. I loved when she uttered the line, "Please don't invoke the name of that sweet dead girl again!" Mother did indeed know best. We can expect good things to come, I'm sure, when Isobel becomes mother in law to Mary.
I thought the story line about Lady Rosamund, her snotty maid and that loser lord who wanted to marry Rosemund for her money while sleeping with the help was extraneous and very predictable. There's something about Rosamund I find quite creepy. Ever notice her brother, the otherwise affable Lord Grantham, has virtually nothing to do with her? I think we should all follow his lead and ignore her.
So what can we look forward to next season? A beautiful wedding for Matthew and Mary that will either kick off or end that season. I can't wait for the costumes for that! More gorgeous cinematography (yes please), more great lines delivered by Maggie Smith, fresh plotting by Thomas and O'Brien and more harrumphing from Carson. We can hardly wait.
Photo credit: London Evening Standard