This week’s episode of Downton Abbey — episode 7 by the PBS reckoning — corresponds to the 2012 Christmas special in the U.K. release. (Last week’s double-sized installment contained U.K. episodes 7 and 8, if you’re catching up via the recently released Season 3 DVD/Blu-ray available from PBS.) That explains the year-long time gap between last week and this week. Lots to talk about, so consider yourself spoiler warned and let’s dive in, shall we?
I’m being all chirpy here to cover my dejection. Here’s the truth: I feared it was coming, but I hate the way the episode (and with it, our season) ended. Must have been even worse for you U.K. viewers out there, wooing you with the cozy, heartening words “Christmas Special” and then pulling a Grinch on you in the final moments.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We open “one year later” — a year after Sybil’s death, a year after Robert has reluctantly come on board with Matthew’s plan to save the estate, including the Dowager Countess’s obvious/genius recommendation to install Tom as agent. Did it feel to you as though a year had passed? Mary’s eight months pregnant, but with one small exception, everything else seemed to be picking up right where we’d left it. Daisy, for example — nary a mention was made of her having considered or rejected her father-in-law’s offer to move to the farm he plans to leave her one day. A year later, and she’s still trotting about in Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen. What’s the deal, Daisy?
Journey to Duneagle
The house is a-bustle with last-minute preparations for the family’s trip to visit relatives at Duneagle Castle in Scotland. “Shrimpy,” aka Hugh MacClare, the Marquess of Flintshire, is the father of last week’s flighty flapper, Rose. This excursion used to be an annual affair, but first the War and then Sybil’s death have back-burnered it for several years. The footmen are looking forward to a bit of down time while the Upstairs folk are away, but Mr. Carson soon quashes those dreams: while the cats are away, the mice will polish the silver.
Tom and Edna
There’s a new housemaid, pretty Edna (because Edith and Ethel weren’t enough…), who’s got eyes for Tom Branson. That Tom spares her a glance is the only other sign there’s been some passage of time. It isn’t much of a glance, though; he’s still deep in mourning for Sybil, along with the rest of us. Tom wasn’t included in the Duneagle invitation, but that’s fine with him. He’d rather stay at Downton with baby Sybie anyhow. Tom is still caught between worlds, adrift without Sybil to anchor him, and so very lonely. Edna, evidently one of those bold modern women Daisy admires, is quite unabashed in her pursuit of Tom, quizzing him at his solitary meals, pressuring him to join the servants at their dinner. Eventually she manages to catch him with his shirt off and kisses him while he stares in helpless confusion. Poor Tom. Mrs. Hughes soon sets everyone straight, though: gently chiding Tom for “letting Edna make you ashamed of your new life.” Sybil would be proud of him, she adds — that is, proud of the fine job Tom is doing as estate agent. “Be your own master,” she urges him, “call your own tune.”
Edna, of course, is sent packing. Housemaids are the redshirts of Downton Abbey.
Tom’s character arc has been one of this season’s most interesting. Wasn’t long ago he was outraging us with his bullying comments to Sybil. Her death, and his humbling experience as an exile from his homeland, have stripped away the bullheadedness that made him frustrating earlier in the season. He’s seen his enemies humanized and his worldview challenged. His new identity as a member of the family still doesn’t fit quite comfortably across the shoulders and probably never will, and that’s on the whole a good thing. I’d hate to see him become complacent. When I think ahead to next season, he’s one of the people whose story I’m most interested in.
The Duneagle House Party
Meanwhile, the Crawley clan is up at Duneagle, enjoying its largess — or trying to. Good old Shrimpy is at odds with his pursed-lips wife, Susan. And Susan and Rose, now nineteen (but still not yet out? which puzzled me), can’t say a civil word to each other. Mary, who insisted on making the trip against the urgings of her understandably protective family, manages to work the words “shaken up” and “rattled around” into just about every sentence, but goes right on participating in shaky, rattly activities like bumpy wagon rides. I kept wishing someone would beg her to come, and then she’d be sure to stay home.
Matthew must be taught to shoot properly, because there’s a lot of Noble Stag around waiting to be bagged. Edith’s editor BY SHOCKING COINCIDENCE just happens to be in the area, and he’s invited to dinner to meet the family, which everyone knows is the whole reason he’s on a walking tour of this remote bit of the Highlands — with white tie and tails in his knapsack, no less — in the first place. His Regrettably Insane Wife hasn’t burned down the attic yet, so Edith rebuffs his proclamations of love. But then she discovers the family agrees with her private opinion that there’s no good prospect for a relationship with this man, and suddenly he’s much more interesting to her. That’s how you get a Crawley girl on your side.
Anna and Bates
…are just plain happy, and that’s a breath of fresh air. They go on a picnic, she sneaks in some dance lessons to surprise him, he beams at her with a look so loving I got a little worried — on this show, it’s a dangerous thing to be too in love with one’s spouse. But no, tragedy was reserved for our other happy couple, and Anna and Bates finished the season with their happy ending intact.
O’Brien and Wilkins
It would be easy to bust on O’Brien for making enemies wherever she goes, but for once she can’t be blamed for instigating a conflict. Wilkins, lady’s maid to Shrimpy’s wife, Susan, gets her nose out of joint because Susan likes the way O’Brien does hair. Cue jealous rivalry, cue attempt to sabotage, cue O’Brien seeing right through the plot. I mean, really, she probably outgrew the old spiked-drink trick before she lost all her baby teeth. Mosely gulps down O’Brien’s rejected drink and spends the rest of the night dancing with drunken abandon, to the amusement of the family. Lucky for him Carson wasn’t there to see, or there would have been some Serious Eyebrow Bristling in store.
Anyway, before the feud started, O’Brien and Wilkins converse about the Shrimpy family’s impending move to India, which sounds kind of appealing to O’Brien. After Wilkins’s foiled drink-spiking attempt, O’Brien makes a jab about no longer having to be bound by loyalty and is shortly thereafter seen chatting it up with Lady Susan. Is it possible there’s a trip to Bombay in O’Brien’s future?
The Plight of the Shrimpies
Ah, yes, Shrimpy’s heading out to a post in Bombay. After confessing to Robert over hunting that his marriage stinks — “We just don’t like each other” — he confesses to Robert over billiards that he’s broke. “If only I’d modernized like you,” he sighs, whacking Robert over the head with the message Cora et al have spent the entire season trying to get across. Shrimpy poured all his funds down the Duneagle sinkhole and must now sell the place and try to salvage his self-respect by making a new life in India.
Susan’s equally miserable and equally committed to pressing forward in misery. But she worries about her daughter. She can’t say a non-critical word to Rose, and Rose pretty much hates her, but Cora understands. “Better than anyone else here,” she comforts Susan, having been through several different kinds of wringer with her own daughters. Cora and Susan arrange for Rose to go and live at Downton when the India move happens, thus paving the way for more flapper hijinks next season.
Robert, having had a year to see his estate prosper under the Tom-and-Matthew plan, now realizes what an idiot he was and is thankful he had Matthew to save him, and Cora as a supportive partner. In Shrimpy and Susan we’re given a look at the fate Robert and Cora might have had, had Violet not interfered to repair their relationship (via Dr. Clarkson’s admission that Sybil might have died no matter what) and had Matthew not been Matthew in all possible wonderful, thoughtful, sensitive, underdog-championing, persistent Matthewish ways.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Meanwhile, Back at Downton
But before we get to Matthew, there’s still the belowstairs gang to visit. It may be a year later, but Thomas is still making sad eyes at Jimmy, Jimmy’s still making wary eyes at Thomas, and Alfred’s still making resentful eyes at everyone. There’s a fair in town, and bit by bit the staff wrangles permission to attend, including Mrs. Patmore, who’s got a fancy man in tow — a new salesman who tastes her cooking and falls in love at first bite. Of course he’s a terrible flirt, probably a philanderer, and Mrs. Hughes has to break it to her friend that her new beau, who proposes in less time than you could make a pie, isn’t such a nice guy. Turns out Mrs. P. is relieved. She’d rather be queen of the Downton kitchen, and who can blame her?
Jimmy, all confidence and beauty, makes a killing on a tug-of-war win at the fair, and then finds that pretty face in danger of being smashed at the hands of the village toughs he semi-scammed. Enter Thomas, who takes the beating for him. Jimmy visits the bashed and bloodied Thomas in his room to thank him, a bit cautiously, for saving him. Their conversation tiptoes toward a cautious kind of friendship and understanding. It was a nice scene, the first time we’ve ever seen Jimmy think about someone other than himself.
Dr. Clarkson and the Non-Proposal Proposal
We’ve come a long way since Isobel was driving the good doctor up a wall with her early (and fortuitous) hospital meddling. Over the years he has come to respect her, and he realizes that as a former doctor’s wife, she understands him and his work in a way few others do. Not to mention her keen understanding of the challenges posed by regular interactions with the rest of the Crawley family. Clarkson’s thinking about proposing, braces himself with a drink, dances around the topic, and is ever-so-gently let down. That makes three proposals (of sorts; Edith’s editor is proposing a relationship, not marriage) in this episode, and no rings on fingers. Isobel doesn’t give us much indication of her real feelings here; she speaks airily of not ever being able to go down that road again, but I’d have liked to see a bit more from her point of view. Is it because she treasures her independence too much? Or is she just not into Dr. Clarkson?
An Heir at Last
And now I can put it off no longer: Matthew and Mary. Mary shook and rattled enough that she felt alarming baby-twinges and decided, naturally, that the best thing to do was travel by bumpy, rattly train back to Downton, leaving Matthew behind. I mean, OBVIOUSLY. By the time she gets off the train, she’s in labor. It’s a month early, but no one seems alarmed (except Matthew, and possibly Sybil’s ghost). The Duneagle party breaks up, everyone begins heading home, and Mary delivers a healthy baby without so much as a drop of on-camera sweat.
A healthy baby boy — so Robert can breathe easily at last. His dynasty will continue.
The problem with Downton, the best and worst thing about it at once, is that it keeps forgetting it’s a soap opera, beguiling me into forgetting as well, and then it remembers suddenly and with a vengeance. It was pretty clear the early-labor thing was a red herring; after Sybil, another childbirth-related death (of either mother or child) seemed unlikely. And of course it was hard to escape the news that actor Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley, was not planning to return to the show next season. But there are lots of ways to explain a character’s absence. You don’t always have to kill them off.
Unless you’re Julian Fellowes, who — as I read this morning, having assiduously avoided all Downton-related press until now — felt he had “no option” but to kill off Matthew, given the actor’s decision to depart the show. No choice? Please. There are any number of ways to write a character’s absence or departure. A car accident on the way home from the hospital? As plot twists go, this one is obvious to the point of cliché — and totally infuriating. Matthew deserved better. At least Sybil got to spark an international discussion about pre-eclampsia.
I knew it was curtains for Matthew when I heard his rhapsodic speech at the sight of his son — his outpouring of love for Mary, his tearful expression of joy. And even in that tender moment, I kind of wanted to smack Mary. “I wish I could be your version of Mary for all eternity and not Edith’s” — this after taking every opportunity to make snarky comments about Edith’s job and her editor and pretty much anything else Edith said in her presence, all episode.
Tom, without Sybil, has become his best self, exhibiting all the qualities she cherished in him, without the abrasiveness that made even Sybil wince sometimes. Will Mary, too, muster the grace to be the person Matthew saw in her?
Truth is, right now I don’t want to think ahead to next season. About halfway through this one, Downton stopped being entirely fun. We saw plenty of drama last year, but the losses were tolerable. This year, they just hurt. The estate is saved, but it’s the people we care about.
Thank goodness for Bates and Anna’s happy ending.
What did you think? Are you as deflated as I am?
I’ll leave the Best Line nominees to you this week. Instead, I’ll nominate Sweetest Moment: Carson holding baby Sybil.
Previous Season 3 recaps:
• Episode 1 (DVD episodes 1 & 2)
• Episode 2 (DVD episode 3)
• Episode 3 (DVD episode 4)
• Episode 4 (DVD episode 5)
• Episode 5 (DVD episode 6)
• Episode 6 (DVD episodes 7 & 8)