Tuesday, February 25, 2014

DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON FOUR FINALE RECAP: LIFE'S A BEACH!


Everyone at Downton had a ball (except nasty Thomas) in the season finale
Who would have thought that Downton Abbey would have ended this season on – dare we say it – a happy note? Everything was positively funereal when we returned to the Abbey in episode one to find Mary mired in grief, Isobel grappling with how to deal with watching her daughter’s in-law return to the land of the living and the rest of the family move on from the death of her only son. Evil lurked in dark corners in the form of hateful nannies (“You wicked half-breed!”) and slithery valets (Green, of course, and also, inexplicably, Thomas who seems to have suffered from amnesia remembering nothing of the kindness shown to him by virtually everyone at the close of last season) And while the toffs did their best to carry on upstairs, the unthinkable happened to the house’s most virtuous resident downstairs. Anna’s rape shook her – and her already emotionally damaged husband to the core.

And it’s precisely because of what has come before, that the developments (and there were many) in this seasons’ finale were supremely satisfying. An amazing amount of things happened: Mary discovers her true destiny, Edith decides she must follow her heart which led her right to the pig farm(er), Tom gets Violet’s seal of approval (“These are your people!”) and while Bates may not be a murderer (the jury will forever be out on that one), he’s a forgerer and pick pocket – but that’s okay because he saved the monarchy! 

Wrapped around what was unquestionably the series’ most lavish and visually stunning episode, Julian Fellowes devised a caper worthy of an Agatha Christie novel that involved a love letter written by Prince of Wales to a married woman, Mrs. Dudley Ward, that falls into the hands of(or rather is taken by) that scoundrel card sharp Mr. Sampson because of Rose’s (who else?) carelessness. When a search for the missive that could take down the monarchy orchestrated by an apoplectic monarchist Robert (“This family is responsible for the whole ghastly debacle!) and carried out by Mary, Rose and Charles (I am SO Team Blake!), comes up short, Bates relies on a handy skill he learned in prison and lifts the letter out of the inside breast pocket of Sampson’s overcoat  at the end of Rose’s ball. The number one lesson of the episode: For the love of God, don’t put anything important in your coat pockets (More on that later)

Besides being inordinately well written, it was so clever of Fellowes to put the Prince of Wales at the center of a thwarted fictional royal scandal since this is the same heir to the throne who went on to become King Edward VIII and famously abdicated a few years later because of his affair with that American temptress Wallis Simpson. The reason Fellowes was so cheeky about his story is because the real Prince of Wales was involved with the real unhappily Mrs. Freda Dudley Ward. (Martha Levinson, if she were real, would have absolutely read about her in American tabloids of that era). In reality, the prince did write Dudley Ward many love letters but their correspondence abruptly ceased when he met Mrs. Simpson in 1934. It turns out Mary was right about him after all. Sorry, Robert.

 Finale bonus points: Nobody died!

In fact, I would say that many of Downton’s long suffering characters have finally begun to live – or live again. If the sight of Mrs. Hughes and Carson holding hands as they dipped their toe into the vast ocean waters while on a seaside outing with the staff (In case you were sleeping: heavy metaphor alert!) didn’t put a smile on your face, check your pulse. And while we’re at it, we have to say old Charlie did have some spritely looking ankles, didn’t he?

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

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

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

Finally!

The show isn’t gone a day yet and I’m already missing it.

It’s a testament to the wonderful performances of Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter that with all that happened in the finale, I’m willing to bet most die-hard fans were particularly delighted about seeing these two characters take their first real steps towards a romantic relationship.

In the surface, the episode had the earmarks of past ‘Christmas specials’ (which is what this show originally aired as in Britain) – with most of the characters transported to a different locale with ample opportunity to swan around on even swankier sets and have multiple costume changes.

The show’s costume Caroline McCall certainly worked overtime this season giving the ladies of Downton exquisite wardrobes upstairs and subtle but noticeable changes downstairs that reflected the change times but for this episode, set in the summer of 1923 she most certainly earned herself an Emmy Award.

The main story line revolved around the presentation of Lady Rose at court (who was, for the first time this season, not annoying but rather charming) in London. (Loved that fabulous crowd scene outside Buckingham Palace. Well done!)  Most of the family along with Mrs. Hughes, Carson, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, Ivy and assorted others made the trip to London where they were joined by Cora’s mother (Shirley MacLaine – I still can’t decide whether she is a distraction or an enhancement) and the excellent Paul Giamatti, well cast as her self-aware playboy brother Harold.

In a subplot that started out annoying but wound up quite charming, Martha and Harold were the subject of an all-out charm offensive by the fortune hunting father daughter duo Lord Aysgarth and his daughter, Madeleine, a friend of Rose's. Of course, Martha was on to the old coot immediately but enjoyed the game and after refusing his marriage proposal, even offered to introduce him to some ‘rich widows’ the next time he’s in Newport. Harold, who at first did his best to scare Madeleine away, wound up falling for her (but not enough to allow him to be taken in). She developed feelings for him that had nothing to do with money while deciding this was the last time she’s go along with her father’s scheme.

I was less enamored of those scenes where Violet and Martha squared off. MacLaine delivered her zingers with all the grace of a sledgehammer and Maggie Smith did her dowager thing as brilliantly as ever. Alas, the verbal sparring felt a bit forced; the only really resonant moment came when Violet, sagging a bit against her bedroom door, registered the slightest hint of defeat upon receipt of Martha’s absolutely poisonous parting shot: “I don’t mind looking in the mirror because what I see is a woman who’s not afraid of the future. My world is coming nearer and nearer and your world is slipping further and further away.” I hated seeing Violet being treated so roughly -- her crestfallen face said it all.

I much prefer the repartee between Violet and Isobel perhaps because beneath the jabs there is an underlying respect between the characters. In this episode, Isobel was too busy fending off the affections of Lord Merton. My prediction: by the series end Isobel will be Lady Merton. Sorry, Dr. Clarkson, we were rooting for you but it seems you’ve been outclassed, old chap.

As if all this wasn’t enough ….
Edith, this season’s unsung heroine, tries to elicit the same kind of reassurance she sought from Cora by telling her father she’s never do anything to hurt him without telling him anything about what’s happened. After walking around miserable since she returned from Geneva where she, accompanied by Rosamund, gave birth to a daughter, nursed her (sob!) and then gave up her daughter for adoption to a Swiss couple although (conveniently) there was “no formal arrangement,” she decides to go ahead with her original plan to ask the handsome and compassionate pig farmer, Tim Drew to raise the child as his own. While Edith tried to keep the truth from Drew telling him that the baby was the child of a friend, he immediately sees through her story, tells her he’ll concoct a tale for his wife by writing a letter to himself (another squidgy letter !) asking them to take in the baby was the daughter of his friend. It will be our secret, he told her.

I predict Edith, after her London adventure of this season, becomes Downton's own Dorothy and discovers all she ever needed was in her own backyard when she has an affair with Drew which winds up as a marriage. We all know how dispensable unnecessary love interests are in Julian Fellowes world. I predict Drew's yet to be seen wife dies next season of swine flu! Remember that funny looking farmer with the tractor that Edith flirted with (and kissed!) eons ago? This guy  a)is much better looking  b)has ties to the estate and then some c)now that Michael Gregson has likely been killed by thugs in brown shirts espousing hateful rhetoric (shiver), she’ll need some ‘cherishing.’

I cheered when it was clear Edith had made the bold and brave choice to keep her daughter (sort of, but still) when Tom encouraged her to not be done in by the family: “We may love them .. but we need to stand up to them you and I.” Undoubtedly more changes are store for Mama and Papa when they inevitably find out about the baby as evidenced by what she said to Mary and Tony at Rose's dinner: "I sometimes feel we should make more scenes about things that really matter to us." Uh oh.

And speaking of Tom, I love the guy,but he really is helpless with women. That annoying Sarah Bunting (Go away!) who seems to have picked up shaming Tom about his family ties where Edna left off, managed to wrangle an invitation to the house while everyone was away. Unfortunately, Thomas (that’s Mr. Barrow to you) doing his best imitation of Bela Lugosi throughout this episode seems to find waiting on Tom particularly galling all of a sudden. First, he complains  about having to take orders from a former chauffeur to Ivy and then surprises Tom while lurking in the wings when Sarah high tailed it upstairs steps away from the bedroom gallery. Tom felt guilty even though nothing happened. He only made manners worse when he tried to explain himself to Thomas who enjoyed watching him squirm (“I am your servant but I was not aware I was under orders as to what to think …”). Then, of course, ever the dutiful servant, Thomas made sure to tell Robert that Tom was entertaining a lady upstairs late at night. Lord Grantham was not amused.

Even with yet another ill-advised ‘friendship’ with a woman who seems hell bent on embarrassing him, Tom seems to have shaken off his feelings of inadequacy around the family first standing up to Thomas when he tries to shame Tom into sitting beside him on their trip up to London and later going so far as to ask Violet to dance at the ball. For her part, she finally gave him her unqualified seal of approval telling him, “This is your family … these are your people now.” Hopefully, all that talk of heading to America will be put on the backburner – until a Downton spin off comes to pass!

I am, however, more than happy to see Ivy pack her bags and head across the ocean as Harold Levinson’s new cook. Buh bye. Jimmy’s emotional female counterpart, having overheard Daisy’s polite refusal to join Harold’s lovesick valet Ethan Slade as a member of his staff back in New York, boldly threw her hat into the ring as a willing substitute. Ethan, having been rejected by Daisy, decides why not? Earlier in the episode’s Ethan’s attempts at ferreting out intel on Daisy provided plenty of levity as illustrated by some great comedic scenes with Carson (this episode's MVP) who replied, eyes bulging, when asked if there had been anything going on between the assistant cook and “the fellow working at the Ritz” - -Alfred got the job, by the way – “Going on? Nothing goes on in any house where I’m in authority!”

Something definitely, maybe, might go on in the future with Molesley and Baxter. The ladies maid seems to have found the strength to break free of Thomas’ hold over her with the unlikely help of her hero, Molesley. Does he butler-turned-valet-turned footman really know who he’s tangling with here? We hope he doesn’t become Thomas’ new whipping boy because that wouldn’t be a fair fight. Or would it? Thomas, by the way, seems to be the only person at Downton who has not evolved but rather regressed into a borderline caricature. I would have thought between Sybil’s death and the compassion shown to him by the family and Bates (of all people!) when they learned about his homosexuality he’d not have reverted to such a one dimensional figure. Get this guy a boyfriend!

Okay, on to Bates. When do-gooder Anna gives his old overcoat to Mrs. Hughes (without checking with her husband first) for the Russian refugees, the housekeeper discovers a train ticket stub for a trip to London on the day Green died, Bates’ alibi is blown. When Mrs. Hughes finds the ticket she takes it to Mary, but noting while things don’t look good, it’s not proof Bates pushed him in front of a moving bus into Piccadilly traffic. But if he did, she tells Mary, she wouldn’t “condemn him for defending his wife’s honor.” Mary, however, feels wrong about being a part of a potential cover up (but interestingly enough in another scene tells her father she’s completely comfortable lying) and holds on to the ticket. She changes her mind once Bates saves the Prince of Wales and by extension the Crawleys from the taint of yet another dodged scandal and tosses the stub into the fire. So that’s that. I doubt we'll ever discover what really happened.

And so we end the season where we began: with Mary. She is no longer in mourning and is clear about her future. “My destiny is to save Downton for George.” And that looks as if it’s going to mean marrying someone she loves but who undoubtedly will have deep with deep pockets and will help keep the lights on. Mary tells Tony as much when she says “A year ago I thought I’d be alone forever and mourn Matthew for the rest of my days. Now I know that isn't true.  There will be a new life for me someday.” But with who?  The big surprise: Charles is heir to an even bigger fortune than Tony. And both men are poised to do battle over her no matter what it takes. (I’m curious to find out what Charles’ relationship is to the Prince of Wales married ladylove which will undoubtedly prove to be an interesting complication)

And so, says Downton’s worldly wise but newly hopeful heiress, “Let the royal battle commence.”

Only eleven months until season five!

Thanks so much for reading my recaps and following along with me throughout the season. I’ll be recapping Mad Men next when it returns in April. Don Draper isn’t Tom Branson, but perhaps they’re distant cousins ….

Photos: Masterpiece/Carnival Films

 

 

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