Downton Abbey – Series 4 Finale – Recap: Beasts of Burden
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Series 4 Finale:
I’ve had kind of a love hate relationship with Series 4 of Downton Abbey. I’ve frequently been among the biggest proponents for an increased focus on the quotidian aspects of the series: the simple, almost rustic nature of life at the Abbey, where the big occurrences in life could be something as unremarkable as a downstairs romance, or as random as an upstairs concert from a world-renowned singer. But while I’ve generally enjoyed all the smaller stories that have freckled the narrative of Downton Abbey this year, I feel as though the overarching narrative of the season wasn’t really all that compelling. The Series 4 finale thankfully managed to bring all of the disparate plotlines of the season together in an engaging fashion, almost making it feel as though the entirety of the season had been this engrossing. It wasn’t, but at least Series Four leaves an aftertaste that’s a little less bitter than Series Three.
Like many episodes of Downton Abbey, this finale is all over the place in terms of both narrative and tone. But because it was an extended episode, it didn’t feel as obstructive as previous episodes. The extended length really did wonders for the pacing and overall feeling of involvement in a world in which each of these characters have their own, very separate lives. There are plenty of significant developments, but I found the business with Edith (Laura Carmichael) particularly engrossing. Sure, it might be a bit of a soap opera cliche to have a character with a secret pregnancy, who then must decide how best to keep the inevitable birth a secret, yet the added threat of the damage Edith’s pregnancy could do to the Crawley name among high society types made this a far more interesting storyline than it might otherwise have been.
Edith is conflicted, torn between wanting to give up the baby in a way that will allow her to remain in the child’s life, and giving up the child altogether so as to preserve the Crawley reputation. 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.” And enunciate 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.
There’s a lot more to this storyline than there would appear to be on the surface, such as the question of dignity in high society circles, and what it means for young women to make mistakes that are both public and private, but it’s mostly hidden beneath Edith’s concern that she’ll never see Gregson again. And that’s okay, because it feels germane to what the character is going through. Edith worries about what being the source of gossip will mean for her own happiness, but she also worries that God doesn’t mean for her to be happy, 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 equal parts grim and pragmatic, and informed by Violet’s considerable life experience. All three of the principals in this storyline do tremendous work, as Carmichael, Bond and Smith buoy what could have been a real clunker of a storyline.
Yet Edith isn’t the only person whose reputation is in jeopardy, as Mary (Michelle Dockery) learns from Tom (Allen Leech) that Lady Rose (Lily James) has been cavorting around London with jazz singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr), as Brandon spotted the two in a cafe. Mary confronts Rose about this, and she reveals that not only is she in love with Jack, but she’s looking forward to seeing her mother’s world crumble when she marries him. The show has never portrayed Rose as anything more than a flighty young girl, so it’s almost impossible to believe she’s all that sincere in her affections, as Mary astutely surmises that Rose may think she’s in love, yet she’s really only doing this to get back at her mother for forcing her to lead a strict, sheltered life. When Rose later announces that she and Jack are engaged, Mary takes it upon herself to visit Jack to discuss what life has in store for him and Rose. Mary isn’t cruel in her assessment, but merely pragmatic, saying that marriage is hard enough when all parties actually are accepting of the union, much less when two people of different races and social statuses are wed. One thing that I don’t think I’ve really mentioned this season — though I really should have — is just how good Michelle Dockery is in making Mary a warm, relatable figure. There’s tenderness in everything she does, a likability that makes her a more compelling series lead than even Dan Stevens had been. She’s extremely proactive in this episode, and it’s a choice I wish the series had made sooner, as Mary has been far too passive in recent weeks. The scene with Jack is, itself, a wonderful bit of business, as Jack reveals he’s breaking things off with Rose to protect her reputation, because he loves her too much to see her become the subject of ridicule. 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.”
Of course, Mary has other matters to attend to: in one of the best scenes in the episode, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) confesses to Mary that it was Green (Nigel Harman) who raped her. Mary’s reaction is one of nauseated horror and revulsion, and she immediately wants to spring into action to make certain Green never sets foot in Downton Abbey again. But Anna worries that Green’s dismissal will lead to Bates (Brendan Coyle) piecing together why he was sacked, which would then lead to Bates murdering the rapist. Naturally, this presumption overlooks the obvious fact that Bates has already put it together, a realization that causes Anna grave concern when Bates spends the entire afternoon acting suspicious and evasive. He asks Carson (Jim Carter) for time off to go into town on business, though he doesn’t tell anyone what that business is. So, while he’s gone, Mary decides to confront Gillingham (Tom Cullen) to ask him the favor of firing Green, no questions asked. Gillingham has serious reservations about sacking Green, even if he doesn’t particularly care for the guy himself, but he decides to take Mary at her word that he’s done something reprehensible. Yet there’s more to it than just honor, as Gillingham still carries a torch for Mary, going as far as to claim he intends to break off his engagement. Mary says she sometimes wishes she could be available, but she’s still not over Matthew. Grief is an ongoing process with her, and it would be far too simple to just throw herself into a romance and hope for her emotional turmoil to work itself out. With that said, Mary’s reticence towards a new relationship doesn’t mean she lacks for suitors, as Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) declares his intentions, and Gillingham reiterates his love for Mary, creating a love triangle that sets tongues wagging as the episode comes to a close.
Oh, but a bit of backtracking first. It turns out that Gillingham can’t fire Green: when Gillingham went to meet with the man, he found that Green had died under mysterious circumstances. He asks Mary if she’ll now tell him what it is Green had done, but she refuses to come clean. Mary asks Blake for advice on whether one should turn in a friend who’d committed a crime if they’d been in the right to do so, and Blake responds that if he were in her position, he’d keep mum. With that in mind, she takes the news to Anna, who shows an understandable sense of relief, particularly when she learns that it was apparently just an accident that killed Green, witnessed by many bystanders and confirming, to her, that Bates had no involvement. Although it remains uncertain just what happened: did Green fall out into the street, where he was eventually hit by an oncoming truck? Or was he pushed? Was it really an accident, or a calculated crime? Anna can’t know for sure, as she asks Bates if he’s done something wrong, and Bates ambiguously responds that he doesn’t do anything unless he has a good reason for it. Brendan Coyle is really the only actor I could imagine pulling this off, as Bates’s warm, inviting facade can turn on a dime, to where he’s suddenly the most imposing, mysterious, possibly even sinister figure on the series. It’s a wonderfully dynamic portrayal, and Froggatt matches him by counterbalancing Coyle with Anna’s penetrating sense of uncertainty about her own husband.
These were the main storylines, though I can’t say the rest of the episode was half as compelling: Robert (Hugh Bonneville) returned from America and has a loving reunion with Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), revealing that he was able to help her brother resolve his troubles; we also had Thomas (Rob James-Collier) returning to find that he’s gradually losing control over Baxter after Molesley (Kevin Doyle) had a heart-to-heart with her, revealing that although most of the staff hates Thomas, she should trust them to be able to make up their own minds about her, and not simply condemn her by association; it also looks like Tom is getting a new love interest in the form of schoolteacher Miss Bunting, whose car he helps fix on the side of the road (and who later refers to him as a “beast of burden” at the bazaar Cora is throwing, with Tom referring to Cora as a “beast of burden” the same as himself — presumably because they’re both put-upon to do a lot of work at the festival, but also because they’re perhaps the two people who miss Sybil the most); in addition, there’s a blossoming romance between Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Mary’s long-estranged godfather, Lord Merton — a story that doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere just yet, though I suppose we’ll see about that come Christmas time.
But the most successful of these smaller stories comes in the form of Daisy (Sophie McShera), surprisingly enough. Alfred (Matt Milne) is returning for his father’s funeral, and plans to stop by Downton Abbey to see Ivy (Cara Theobold), to whom he’s proposed marriage via a letter. Despite the best efforts of Ivy and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy learns that Ivy intends to reject him again, and 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. Yet it’s during her picnic with Mr. Mason that Daisy learns from her father-in-law just what she’s missing out on. As Mr. Mason explains, it will be impossible for Daisy to get closure unless she confronts Alfred and parts with him as a friend. He says that although he hopes Daisy will come and live with him someday as a daughter, he understands that she has a life she needs to live first, and decisions she has to make. And so he 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 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. All in all, this just might have been my favorite subplot of the episode.
Ultimately, Series 4 of Downton Abbey was uneven, but the moments of genuinely enthralling storytelling proved worth all the trouble. I still wish Julian Fellowes hadn’t done the rape storyline, since it too often became about Bates’s reaction instead of how the victim herself was dealing (or not dealing) with what happened. And I’m still not sure any subsequent story direction will end up justifying having gone to that well in the first place. But I’m willing to give Fellowes a chance, just as I’ve always been willing to be happily proven wrong about Downton Abbey. It’s always been a show of authentic interest, even in its more unremarkable moments. Hopefully, Series 5 will provide a more consistent experience over the course of the season. Until then, see you at Christmas!
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