Downton Abbey – Season 5 Finale – Recap: All’s Well That Ends Well
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 5 Finale:
As with many season finales for Downton Abbey, this was a momentous occasion. It wasn’t just a story of endings and exits, but one of hopeful, new beginnings.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that this wasn’t an overstuffed episode, but saying so would be a bit unfair at this point. Hell, that’s what this show just is, a series that relies on careful, patient plotting. It might not always payoff, or it might take longer for the payoff to come than you’d like, but when that payoff comes, it’s usually pretty fantastic. Case in point, tonight’s two biggest moments. In the first, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is basically cleared of having murdered Green due to lack of evidence, while Bates (Brendan Coyle) is similarly exonerated thanks to the diligent work of Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), of all people. In short, they travel to every pub in York to try and find someone who can corroborate Bates’s assertion that he was having lunch in a pub at the time of Green’s death, painstakingly traveling to some 60-odd pubs before finding the right one.
How no one on the police force thought to do this before shows just how committed law enforcement was to the narrative of the Bates’ guilt. The police had their sights set on Bates and Anna, and were dead set on ignoring all evidence to the contrary, despite the lack of definitive proof that Green’s death was even a murder in the first place. While it wouldn’t really surprise me if Julian Fellowes came back to the Green storyline at some point, since legal exoneration isn’t the same as being declared innocent, I’m really hoping we can just move on from here. Anna and Bates feel like a punching bag for the series, and not in the “root for the underdog” way that Fellowes is probably going for. This entire plot felt cruel after a while, and I’m not sure this payoff was ultimately worth the narrative cul-de-sac Anna and Bates have been trapped in for the past year. But then again, I’d be lying if I said the happy end didn’t stir my feelings at least a little bit. So I suppose there was some merit to the story after all — or at least merit in how it was ended.
But with endings come new beginnings, and so it is with the other huge story coming out of this finale. Considering how much I’ve loved the friendship aspect of the relationship between these two characters, and how worried I’ve been that Fellowes might ruin it by introducing romance into the equation, I found myself absolutely thrilled at the engagement of Carson (Jim Carter) and Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Yes, Carson FINALLY popped the question, although part of it seemed every bit as pragmatic as romantic. When Hughes reveals that she’s pretty much broke due to a lifetime spent providing for a mentally ill sister, Carson is disappointed that she’ll no longer be able to go in on the proposed real estate business venture with him. But it speaks to the great affection he has for Hughes that he’s so eager to link their fortunes, regardless of their standing as individuals. It’s an absolutely beautiful scene, as Carson speaks in circles before just coming out and saying he’s asking Hughes to marry him. Completely and utterly stunned, halfway between joy, shock, and tears, Hughes declares, “You could knock me over with a feather.” Then, in a terrific moment for Logan, Hughes makes a toast in honor of her ability to still receive marriage proposals at her age. This results in a fairly humorous response, as Carson has no idea whether Hughes is accepting his proposal or not. But Hughes breaks the tension by stating, “Of course I’ll marry you, you old booby.” It’s a moment of rare, pure joy from this show, and I didn’t know I could be as happy for two fictional characters as I was for Carson and Hughes. This was a scene and a pairing I didn’t even know I wanted until I got it. Really, it was a moment five years in the making, and I’m glad it all came together the way it did. It would have been enough to make the entire episode an enormous victory, even if the rest hadn’t been as solid as it ended up being.
The majority of what remained centered on stories that are likely to carry into next year, such as Branson (Allen Leech) resolving to leave for Boston with Sybie. It’s a storyline that has several poignant moments scattered throughout, and even while I don’t believe Leech is leaving the series, it was still hard not to be moved by the scene in which he, Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) gather in the nursery and hold hands for a prayer to the late Sybil. It’s a beautiful moment that humanizes Mary after she’s spent far too much of this season being insufferable (but hey, at least we got a drop-in from guest star/Mary suitor Matthew Goode, whom I’d love to see return as a suitor in the future, now that the unpleasantness with Gillingham has passed). Just as lovely is the scene in which Robert (Hugh Bonneville) tries one last time to convince Branson to let Sybie stay with them while he gets situated in America, to which Branson tearfully responds that he can’t. However, he does commend his father-in-law, saying, “I love the way you love her.” And it’s a sentiment returned by Robert, who says he’s truly grown fond of his son-in-law, and will miss him quite a bit. Robert and Branson have had one of the more understated relationships in the series, so to see them openly acknowledge just how far they’ve come together is poignant to watch, and has me hoping this isn’t the end for Leech. If nothing else, I could easily see the show allowing us to skip all the years without Tom by having Season 6 start some time in the 1930s, allowing us to simply get to the vague point in the future at which Branson promises to return. Perhaps he’ll come back a changed man, or maybe he’ll come to recognize how badly he needs his family, as the Crawleys have become a key support structure for him, more so than his blood relations. But for now, Branson will be departing, and it’s unknown if/when he’ll return, which adds a bit of a somber note to the finale.
The great thing about the Branson story is that it reminds us that, while it’s easy to forget amid all the drama, these people are family. And that connection never becomes more pronounced than in times of crisis and possible separation. One of my favorite moments of the episode is when Robert tells Edith that he knows about Marigold. She expects reprimand, but instead, she finds a surprising amount of warmth from her father, who seems accepting of the entire situation, even going as far as to note that Michael Gregson was an honorable man whom he believed would have done right by Edith. It’s a touching father/daughter scene that we don’t get nearly enough of between these two, and it prompts me to wonder why we don’t get to see the warmer side of Robert more often. It allows us to feel a greater sense of connection to the character, and see just how vital he is to the other characters in his orbit. Although Robert sort of shrugs it off, I thought it was very stirring to see how worried Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) becomes when she learns that Robert has been diagnosed with angina, particularly considering everything they’ve been through this season with Bricker. Whether it’s Branson, Edith, Mary or the Bricker problem, all these issues link the Crawleys and make them feel like a cohesive unit in ways they haven’t always felt before.
Speaking of the Crawleys feeling like a cohesive unit, some of my favorite bits of this finale centered on the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton), whose relationship has blossomed into one of the best aspects of the series. Here, they essentially serve as support structures to one another as their respective love lives are in full collapse. Violet reunites Prince Kuragin (Rade Sherbedgia) with his long-lost wife (Jane Lapotaire), a spiteful woman who can hardly stand to be in the presence of Violet, much less her own husband. Yet even with the Kuragins reunited, the Prince still wishes to be with Violet — a proposal she ultimately feels she cannot accept. Similarly, Isobel is plagued by what she can/cannot accept in the twilight of her life, as she comes to the decision that she simply cannot marry Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) unless his son Larry can make peace with the union. Naturally, because he’s a massive jerk, Larry can’t accept the marriage, resulting in Isobel breaking up with Merton for good. She does her best to be diplomatic about it, but she really can’t do much to salve Merton’s pain. But it’s a lot about mitigating damage for Isobel, since she can’t allow herself to become the subject of derision. But more than that, she doesn’t want to come between a man and his sons. Of course, Isobel fails to realize that by breaking up with Merton over his sons’ disapproval, coming between them is exactly what she’s going to end up doing. I found myself far more compelled by these two stories than I expected to be, and it speaks to the overall strength of the episode, and of the performances of Smith and Wilton, that Violet and Isobel’s respective and shared plights ended up being as memorable as they were, in light of everything that happened in this episode.
With that said, not every storyline landed. It looks like Rose (Lily James) is off to America with Atticus (Matt Barber), probably so Lily James can pursue the movie career she’s probably going to have after Cinderella hits theaters. And if that is the end, she got a solid farewell, winning the admiration and respect of her future father-in-law by rescuing him from potential embarrassment when his former mistress arrives with his illegitimate son. I love any storyline that puts Rose’s magnanimity to good use. In fact, it’s a shame that none of the other minor subplots proved as amusing. I just don’t enjoy Spratt (Jeremy Swift) at all, so his attempts to get Denker (Sue Johnston) sacked fell flat, to me. And poor Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) are just treading water, as are other characters the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with at the moment, such as Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who is implicated in the attempt to blackmail Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner). It all sounds a lot more interesting than it ends up being, ultimately, although I suppose it was cathartic to see Sinderby’s crooked servant Stowell get his comeuppance. Similarly, I do like the resolution to Patmore’s attempts to get her nephew memorialized. Even if these weren’t riveting stories, they didn’t detract at all from the episode, so I didn’t have a problem with any of them, really.
For me, this was one of the better Downton Abbey season finales of the show’s run. It brought a warm, fuzzy, festive mood, which I suppose makes sense since this originally aired in the UK as the Christmas special. But, really, I don’t ask for anything more from a Downton Abbey finale than to be entertained, and this finale did quite a bit more than just that. Until next season, thanks for reading!