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Downton Abbey – Christmas Special 2013 – Recap: The Purloined Letter

This is a review of the American airing of Downton Abbey – Season 4, Episode 5. There will be slight differences from the original UK airing, necessitating a different approach. However, reviews for the original episodes can be found by clicking the “Downton Abbey” tag. Episodes from UK airings are tagged as “Series 4,” while American airings will be listed as “Season 4.”

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Christmas Special 2013:

A feature-length Downton Abbey isn’t always a good idea, as Julian Fellowes is often overcome by his tendency to try and service every character and plotline to an even larger extent than he does when simply given an hour each week to tell the story. The Downton Abbey Christmas Special 2013 plays like a very restrained film about the nuances of high society, and how easily the threat of scandal can ruin those both high and low. It’s far more interesting in concept than in execution, but even when Downton Abbey is weighed down by the inertia of its plot, and just how infrequently anything of consequence actually happens, there’s still a lot to be said for how well-acted this show is, in addition to just how sumptuous its production continues to be. But this is incredibly far from ideal for a Christmas special. Of course, at least nobody died this time.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

Attempting to recap this entire thing is a fruitless endeavor, not only because there were nearly too many plots to follow, but also because some of the plots defy explanation. For example, we continue the interminable business between Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), and the intercession by Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who attempts to convince her that she’s a good person and she doesn’t have to take any of his crap. Of course, the show continues to keep Baxter’s identity a mystery: we have no idea how she knows Thomas or why she’s beholden to him. Presumably, he has something on her, but we went through the entirety of series four without ever knowing what it is, and so it is here.

It results in some of the big moments falling flat, such as Baxter thanking Molesley for his support, telling the incredulous footman that his strength made her strong. It’s a sweet moment, but it isn’t really anything more. Nor is the flirtation between Daisy (Sophie McShera) and the visiting valet of Cora’s brother, Harold Levinson (Paul Giamatti). She briefly considers accepting Levinson’s offer to cook for him back in the States, but we know Daisy isn’t going to take the position. It would be too steep and radical a change for her character to up and leave Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mr. Mason just to satiate her curiosity about what’s across the Atlantic. Not that she can’t eventually leave Downton Abbey, but it would have been too sudden a change for her to do it now, just as she’s gotten the hang of running the kitchen. But hey, it’s not too soon for Ivy (Cara Theobold), as she takes the offer after Daisy turns it down. So farewell, sweet Ivy. I wish we’d known you a bit better, but alas…

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

But I’m kind of burying the lede here, as the episode isn’t really about what goes on downstairs: Lady Rose (Lily James) is being inducted into high society, and that includes an appearance before the aristocracy, His Majesty King George V (Guy Williams), the Queen, and Edward VIII, the Prince of Wales (Oliver Dimsdale). Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is presenting Rose before the court, and the entire presentation is remarkably ostentatious. Seriously, I’m not sure there’s a more handsome-looking show on TV right now, and I suppose that’s kind of the point. The facade of high society masks a seedier underbelly that suggests even the monarchy isn’t as far removed from the everyday scandals of their subjects. As becomes clear during the gala at Buckingham Palace, Prince Edward has a mistress in the form of Ms. Freda Dudley-Ward (Janet Montgomery), whose dalliance with the Prince becomes apparent from a letter that finds its way into Rose and her friends’ hands. Matters are quickly complicated when that very same letter is stolen by card sharp/kleptomaniac Terence Sampson (Patrick Kennedy). And so we come to our main plot of the episode: a heist movie of manners, as the house comes together in an attempt to find and retrieve the letter, a story that involves the combined efforts of Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Michelle Dockery), Rose and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), coming together like Fellowes’ Eleven or something.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

It’s not as elegant a breaking-and-entering heist plot as it would be from a writer who excels at the form, but it’s keenly amusing to see characters like Robert and Mary break so completely from convention in the service of preserving the honor of their family and, more importantly, that of the monarchy. Although rummaging through Sampson’s rooms and going through his socks for evidence of the letter leads nowhere, it’s ultimately Bates who saves the day, as only an ex-con could. Bates, who was called upon by Robert to forge a letter to help with the ruse, recognizes that the most likely place a person would keep a letter of such great importance is on his person. And so, while helping Sampson put on his coat after a late night game of poker, Bates swipes the letter and saves the Crawley family’s bacon…and the bacon of the monarchy, naturally. And it’s this act that prompts Mary to forget all about what Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) has discovered from a ticket stub she found: that Bates was in London on the day of Mr. Green’s death. In one of the more ridiculous subplots of the episode, Mary flirts with turning Bates in for murder, as she has a conflict of conscience about allowing him to get away with the crime, even if Green was a horrid man himself. But it’s only once Bates comes through for the family in retrieving the letter that he wins Mary’s support. She burns the ticket, destroying all evidence that could be used against Bates in a court of law, and essentially putting the ugly business of Mr. Green to bed once and for all. Hopefully. (PLEASE let this ugly thing be over with already)

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

We also get the ongoing baby subplot with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), who has returned after eight months in Geneva, where she’s given her baby away to a well-off husband and wife known as the Schroeders. The length of her absence is explained to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), as Edith felt it was best for her daughter to “be weaned by her real mother.” It’s clear from the moment we see her that the decision to give the child up continues to plague Edith, and it’s hardly the only thing on her mind either. It’s been over a year since Gregson (Charles Edwards) disappeared, and though she’s heard word that he got into a fight with a gang of ruffians on his first night in Germany, there’s been no word from him ever since. And now, with Gregson presumed dead and Edith having been given power of attorney, she stands to inherit his entire fortune. It’s this knowledge that compels her to try and track down her daughter in order to make certain she gets at least half of her birth father’s inheritance.

Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) attempts to dissuade her from this path, but a pep talk from Branson (Allen Leech), of all people, in which he tells her that they need to start standing up to their family, inspires Edith to an entirely new (well, old) plan: she decides to secretly give her daughter to the Drewe family, the tenants of Downton whose series four plot seemed to serve no other purpose than to lead to exactly this moment. The patriarch, Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough), agrees to take Edith’s child in as his own, with Edith providing for her, and visiting when possible in order to watch her little girl as she grows up. This all leaves Edith marveling at how goodness continues to reside in the world, and has me marveling at how good all these people are at keeping secrets from the rest of the Crawleys, as she and Mr. Drewe come to the agreement not to speak a word about their arrangement to anyone else. Well, duh.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

But naturally, Branson’s pep talk to Edith is reflective of his own troubles, as he asks Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) out on a dinner date at the local pub, only to then get caught by Thomas when he brings her back to Downton for a grand tour of the upstairs quarters. Thomas narcs on Branson at the first opportunity, raising Robert’s concerns about just what Branson is up to, but it’s a plotline that doesn’t really come to a head. Sure, Branson and Robert talk it out over whispers at the poker game, but nothing is really resolved, nor brought to much of a head. It feels like it should be more of a substantive storyline than it is, much like the business with the Levinsons: Cora’s mother Martha (Shirley MacLaine) and brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) make a big impact in terms of sheer presence, but not really in narrative terms. Harold has a chip on his shoulder about how wealthy he is, and spends damn near the entire episode pushing away Rose’s sweet, beautiful friend Madeline (Poppy Drayton), fearing she only wants him for his money, since her father — Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) — hasn’t exactly been subtle about tossing his daughter at the American at every opportunity.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

It’s a sweet, if insubstantial story, and it does more to highlight the vast chasm between the wealthy and those who wish to be, than it does to actually add any substantial intrigue to the episode. But I really enjoyed Paul Giamatti, as he was a considerable departure from the kind of character I expected him to play. Harold is an instantly endearing man, and not at all self-absorbed, which is a different impression than the one I received from the constant references of how Harold’s financial dealings threatened to ruin the family. Poppy Drayton is also utterly winning in her relatively ancillary role as Madeline, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of her — or Giamatti, although that goes without saying. As for Martha, she does get to have a bit of sparring match with the Dowager Countess, as she taunts Violet about the encroaching modernity that threatens to banish the traditions of her world. It’s a splendidly-acted scene that plays to Violet’s recognition that perhaps the time of her society and traditions is coming to a close. Maggie Smith is terrific, and MacLaine makes for a wonderful little villain as she rubs salt in the wound. It really makes me hope for many more such encounters in series five.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

Of course, this wouldn’t really be a Christmas special without addressing Mary’s love life, and so we have Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) continuing their internecine war for her affections. Mary, naturally, feels a bit guilty that these men are continuing to hold out for her, on the vague hope that she’ll someday be over Matthew. Mary feels that Blake wouldn’t be a good match for her since he seems so disdainful of the upper class, yet Gillingham reveals that Charles is actually the heir to one of England’s greatest estates, and is, in fact, far more eligible than Gillingham himself. But that doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much to Mary as one would think, particularly considering how she’s stated that her destiny is to preserve Downton for baby George. Mary closes things out by telling Gillingham that although she isn’t ready now, it’s kind of incredible to think that there’s at least the hope of a future, whereas a year earlier there seemed to be no hope at all. It’s a sweet bit of punctuation on a storyline and romance on which I’m still not entirely sold. But hey, it’s far more interesting than the continued flirtation between Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). I’m sorry, but I ship Isobel and Dr. Clarkson. All day, every day.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

But I’m not sure I’m as big on any relationship in Downton as I am on Hughes and Carson (Jim Carter). The stuffy Carson arranges a beach outing with the rest of the staff after Lady Cora gives them a day off in thanks for all their hard work in London during Rose’s coming out. It took the suggestion of people more knowledgeable in the ways of fun before Carson came to the conclusion that the beach was the way to go, and not, as he initially suggested, a series of museums. And so we end the often-gloomy series four on a beautiful scene of idyllic beauty, with Hughes leading Carson out into the ocean to tread along the water, and her telling him that she’ll always be here for him to hold onto. It’s a moment you could practically freeze, frame, and hang on a wall. Just lovely stuff, and though it’s a complete anticlimax, I’ll take it over the grim alternative. Not that it necessarily has to be a choice between “somebody dies/gets raped/is blackmailed” or “everybody goes to the beach,” but with Julian Fellowes, I sometimes wonder.

Downton Abbey

Credit: Carnival/Masterpiece

The Downton Abbey Christmas Special 2013 is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a nice way to spend a Christmas evening, but it’s a completely ephemeral experience, gone before the credits have even stopped rolling. I don’t know that I was necessarily expecting much of substance, but I know I expected something worth remembering once the two hours were up, and I’m not sure I got that. At least not in the narrative sense. I do know that so many of these images will stick with me, because man, this is just such a gorgeous show to look at, even when it’s not as compelling to actually watch.

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