Downton Abbey – Recap: Let It Go
This is a review of the American airing of Downton Abbey – Season 4, Episode 7. 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.”
In the States, the episode promoted as the “season finale” of Downton Abbey is simply the annual Christmas special to UK viewers. It’s a double-sized installment that exists as part of the canon of the show, but is less an “episode” than a “movie” unto itself. Sure, the final episode of the regular season is still an episode of the show, but it’s promoted as a finale in much the same way a midseason hiatus would be promoted here — except instead of another half season waiting on the other side, it’s just one TV movie. And so tonight’s episode was functionally the season finale for the UK, an episode of extended length and greater narrative import. It’s basically an appetizer before the main course of the Christmas special, which serves as a bridge between this season and the next. So why am I telling you all this? I suppose it’s to make a bit of a statement on the nature of season finales themselves. We’ve come to expect a certain measure of bombast from finales; barring that, momentousness. Had there been no 2013 Christmas Special, this is how season 4 would have ended in both the UK and abroad. So to what extent does this episode meet the criteria for what we expect from season finales? Ultimately, I feel this would have been a fairly satisfying close. This is not to say that the episode is in any way perfect, but rather that it feels like the culmination of everything the series had been building towards throughout the season. Whether or not it resolved every loose end, or featured some cataclysmic event, this felt like an ending. An ending with cliffhangers, sure. But an ending, nonetheless. And that’s all I really ask of a good finale.
But luckily for us Yanks, this isn’t the finale. It’s the penultimate episode of the season. And so this is simply a fun, eventful 60+ minutes of television. Like many episodes of Downton Abbey, this episode is all over the map in terms of both narrative and tone, but because this is an extended episode, it didn’t feel as obstructive as previous episodes. In fact, the added runtime did wonders for the pacing, as each plot gets more room to breathe. And there’s a lot worth diving into here.
The big news this week is Mary (Michelle Dockery) learning from Anna (Joanne Froggatt) that she was raped by Green (Nigel Harman). I’m a bit ashamed at how quick I am to forget just how good Dockery is, or Froggatt for that matter, as this was the most riveting scene in an episode filled with a lot to commend. Mary’s reaction is one of nauseated horror and revulsion, and she’s intent on springing into action to keep Green from ever coming to Downton Abbey again, even if that means the termination of her flirtations with Gillingham (Tom Cullen). Mary plans on discussing the matter with Gillingham personally, intending to have Green fired for his misconduct. But Anna has understandable concerns, primarily that Bates (Brendan Coyle) will quickly infer why Green was fired. Of course, Anna’s concerns seem to ignore just how sketchy Bates has been acting, of late. He asks Carson (Jim Carter) for time off to go into town on business, and then disappears from the narrative completely, with nary a word nor indication of just what his “business” entails.
So, while he’s gone, Mary decides to confront Gillingham (Tom Cullen) to ask him to fire Green, no questions asked, and it’s a crucial moment. I’ve long been of the mind that Gillingham’s response to learning of his valet’s treachery would ultimately be the action that would decide whether viewers on-the-fence about the character would like him or not. Much of Downton Abbey centers on an unspoken code of honor, every bit as much as it centers on the codes of class and status that often govern the lives of these characters. In deciding to sack Green without knowing why Mary is asking him to do so, Gillingham holds fast to his sense of ethics and honor, taking Mary at her word that Green has done something worthy of scorn, because he respects Mary and her opinions. Of course, he never actually gets the chance to fire Green, as the rapist turns up dead as the result of a mysterious accident involving an oncoming tram. But it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Green was pushed. Anna doesn’t know, one way or the other, as Bates is characteristically evasive when questioned, saying he does nothing without cause. Once again, Brendan Coyle has a talent for being friendly yet imposing, a quiet intensity that’s matched by Froggatt’s pensive performance.
As for Gillingham, there’s more to what he does than just honor, as he still clearly carries a torch for Mary, going as far as to declare his intentions to break off his engagement. But she’s still not over Matthew, even expressing that she sometimes wishes she could be available. Her grief is still too raw, and even if it weren’t, she’d still have to face the challenge of picking between her many suitors. While Evelyn Napier pretty much has no choice, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) steps up to the plate by formally making his intentions known. And so Mary’s love life is once again the cause of gossip, even while the love lives of others are far more interesting.
Take Rose (Lily James), for example. Her relationship with Jack Ross (Gary Carr) is heating up, and the possibility of marriage even comes up. But Jack seems somewhat reticent, and it’s just as well, since Tom (Allen Leech) spies the two at a a cafe and relays the news to Mary, who confronts Rose about her new love. Rose enthusiastically declare that not only is she in love with Jack, she’s looking forward to seeing her mother’s world fall to pieces when she marries him. The show has never really portrayed Rose as anything more than a flighty young thing of changeable temperament, so it’s difficult to believe she’s sincere in her love. Sure, she might believe she’s in love, as Mary surmises, but it’s far more likely that she’s lashing out against her mother, and the strict, sheltered life she was forced to lead. Even after Rose announces her engagement to Jack, it doesn’t feel entirely sincere, and this prompts Mary to take matters into her own hands by visiting Jack in London to talk with him. Mary isn’t cruel, but merely pragmatic, saying that marriage is hard enough when all parties actually accept the union, much less when two people of different races and social statuses are wed. One of the things I love about this episode is just how proactive Mary is, discarding the passivity of her character in past seasons, and taking a more active role not only in her own love life or the managing of the estate, but in the lives of Anna and Rose. And these are intrusions that aren’t exactly unwelcome, from a narrative standpoint, as Mary acts in the best interest of those whom she loves. The scene with Jack is, itself, a wonderful little thing, as Jack acknowledges the difficulties of his relationship, and admits he intends to break things off with Rose to protect her reputation. Jack explains that he loves Rose too much to see her become the subject of ridicule, a choice that, while overwrought, feels authentic to the character. He says that he would still do this even if they lived in a better world, prompting Mary to touchingly respond, “If we lived in a better world, I wouldn’t want you to.” Just a wonderful scene.
Also wonderful, but for different reasons, was the business with Edith (Laura Carmichael), who comes to a decision on how best to keep the inevitable birth of her secret child just that: a secret. Edith realizes that raising the child alone isn’t exactly a possibility, and so she has two choices: give the child away to a nearby couple, so that she could remain in the child’s life; or put the baby up for adoption and take the possible discovery of the child’s true parentage out of the equation altogether. Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) wants to take Edith to Switzerland for several months, under the pretense of learning French (just roll with it), so they can go through the entire pregnancy in secret and dispatch with the child once it’s born.
But the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) quickly deduces the nature of the situation from a combination of Edith’s depression, Rosamund’s instructions to “cherish” Edith, and the reveal that they’ll be leaving for Switzerland. She wants to hear the truth of it from Edith, but she’s too nervous, saying that if she told her granny the truth, she’d never speak to her again. “You’ve already told me the truth then,” Violet says, having her suspicions confirmed. “I just want to hear it enunciated.” Which is exactly what she does, prompting Violet to offer Edith whatever aid she can, freeing her from any potential debt to Lady Rosamund. Violet will pay for Edith’s trip to Switzerland, and that’s that. The question of dignity in high society circles remains at the forefront, as well as concern over the public and private actions of the young women of landed lords. Edith worries about being the source of all gossip, and movingly speculates that God doesn’t mean for her to be happy (not God, honey. Just Julian Fellowes), prompting a startlingly poignant turn of phrase from the Dowager Countess, who says that life is a series of challenges that are to be met one after the other, until inevitably, we die. It’s an outlook that is as grim as it is pragmatic, and informed by Violet’s considerable life experience.
Yet with solid storylines, in an episode this crowded, come the inevitable clunkers: Robert (Hugh Bonneville) returns from America and has a loving reunion with Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), revealing that he was able to help her brother resolve his troubles; meanwhile, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) returns to discover that he’s losing his hold over Baxter after Molesley (Kevin Doyle) gives her a poignant pep talk; and Tom is apparently getting a new love interest in the form of schoolteacher Miss Bunting, whose car he helps fix on the side of the road. In addition, there’s a blossoming romance between Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Mary’s long-estranged godfather, Lord Merton, which is cute, but a complete non-starter of a storyline. The only interesting bit from this hodge-podge of subplots is Daisy (Sophie McShera) finally letting go of Alfred (Matt Milne), who returns to Downton Abbey for father’s funeral. Daisy quickly learns that Alfred is not only here to pay his respects to his father, but also to learn Ivy’s (Cara Theobold) answer to his marriage proposal, which he offered in a letter. But that’s not even the worst thing Daisy learns, as she finds out that Ivy plans to reject him again. So Daisy decides she doesn’t want to be around for the fallout, and plans a day trip to visit Mr. Mason (Paul Copley) during the Church bazaar Cora is planning. Mr. Mason gives her a touching motivational speech, telling her it will be impossible to get closure unless she confronts Alfred and parts with him as a friend. He says that while he hopes Daisy will someday come and live with him as a daughter, he understands that she has a life she needs to live first, and decisions she has to make.
And so Mr. Mason puts her on a bus back to Downton Abbey, and she makes it just in time to say goodbye to Alfred, who will not be returning again, since his father is dead and his mother is leaving the area. In this moment, Alfred shows twinges of regret at having overlooked Daisy all this time, saying that he never realized what was right under his nose until just now. But Daisy has moved on, explaining that what she felt for Alfred was love, but that feeling is gone and she can’t get it back. However, she wants them to part as friends. “Friends forever,” Alfred avows, and they say their goodbyes. As Daisy sulks alone outside, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) approaches and reveals that she couldn’t have been more proud of Daisy if she’d been her own daughter. It’s a story of small scale, but one of the most affecting of the entire episode, which I never would have expected, going in. Sophie McShera is far better than she ever gets the chance to show, and Lesley Nicol continues to be undervalued as Mrs. Patmore.
Was this a perfect episode of Downton Abbey? Probably not. But if this was to be the season finale, I don’t think I would have complained one bit.