Recap and Review of Downton Abbey – Series 3 Episode 8 – Season Finale
Well that was kind of anticlimactic, wasn’t it? Of course, it usually feels as though each finale of Downton Abbey is utilized as a denouement before we veer headlong into whatever fantastic business the Christmas Special has in store. With this in mind, the finale becomes less disappointing. But it doesn’t make the finale an out-and-out triumph, by any means. I suppose the lackadaisical pacing and exposition is a means by which to set up the fourth series of the show. But there are an awful lot of turns in this episode alone, to where it feels less like a series carefully laying the foundation for its next season than it does an exercise in killing time. For as good (and as soapy, let’s be real) a show as Downton Abbey frequently is, a finale like this is always going to fall short of expectations. But I came to realize that, ignoring the relative lack of substantive plot movement, there really wasn’t much going on in here at a thematic level. It’s not a bad episode. Not at all. It’s just dreadfully boring. And Downton should never be as dry as all this.
It looks like, after last week’s bombshell business with Thomas (Rob James-Collier), that Mr. Barrow will be cast off from Downton. Carson (Jim Carter) intends to at least see Thomas off with a reference, but the scheming of O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) means that Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers) isn’t going to be so quick to let the stolen kiss go. The storyline is probably the most engaging of the episode, even in spite of the fact that it asks us to invest in whether Thomas Barrow, of all people, stays at Downton Abbey. For a character who’d ostensibly been one of the show’s chief antagonists in its early goings, that’s a tall order. That said, much like last week, it works here, owing to Rob James-Collier, whose performance strips Thomas of his customary smug self-assurance, playing him instead as a defeated man, opting to just take his lumps and go, as opposed to making a big scene and fighting back against O’Brien. Nearly as awkward as seeing Thomas so dejected is the fact that it’s Bates (Brendan Coyle) who takes up his cause. Given their previous animosity towards one another, it would be only natural for Bates to relish in Thomas’ downfall. But prison has changed our Bates. He knows what it’s like to feel powerless against the forces that would seek to make ruin of your life, and so he implores Thomas to give him some kind of information by which he can blackmail O’Brien. If the past eight episodes have accomplished nothing else with Bates, it’s shown us that he at least has the capacity for a certain darkness of character, when it came be used to help the downtrodden, lest we forget how easily he held a blade to the throat of his crooked cellmate.
The information Thomas gives Bates is little more than a phrase, but one that holds great import with both O’Brien and the viewer: “Her ladyship’s soap.” Bates doesn’t understand it, nor does Anna (Joanne Froggatt) when he tells her, but the ploy works. O’Brien folds quicker than the XFL, and goes out of her way to convince Jimmy to let the matter with Thomas go, insisting that he speak with Carson and recant his objection to Thomas receiving a reference. It’s hard to believe that O’Brien will ever truly get over having spitefully placed a bar of soap just below Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) bath tub, causing her to slip and fall, resulting in the miscarriage of a boy whose birth could have settled the succession of Downton Abbey, once and for all. In her desperation to get Jimmy to change his mind, we can see how heavily the guilt weighs upon O’Brien, and it’s to Siobhan Finneran’s credit that we almost feel something akin to sympathy for her, in spite of all that she’s done.
Of course, in an unexpected domino effect, Jimmy removing opposition to Thomas receiving a reference leads to Robert (Hugh Bonneville) deciding to keep Thomas on, under the assumption that it can’t be that big of a deal if Jimmy is relenting. The lack of a position for Thomas to fill leads to Robert promoting him to under-butler, a position that would ironically place him above Bates. Meanwhile, in return for not making a big stink about the misunderstanding, Robert promotes Jimmy to first footman. Things would appear to be set to rights, except that Alfred (Matt Milne) decides that now would be the time to adopt a sense of scruples, and calls the cops on Thomas. Robert sufficiently defuses the situation, chalking the matter up to Alfred being drunk, and although the Inspector is supremely annoyed at having his time wasted (and perhaps more than a little suspicious at how quickly the tables turned on Alfred’s story), it seems that the matter is settled. Except for one confusing revelation. In one of the weirdest discoveries of the episode, it turns out that most of the people at Downton Abbey know about Thomas’ sexuality, and have known for a very long time. Stranger still, they all seem to share a progressive, 21st century mindset about Thomas’ right to be with whom he chooses, or, at the very least, his right to privacy, in that matter. I suppose it’s not that outrageous for one or two people in the household to be understanding of Thomas’ plight, but it strains credulity a bit that it would be so widely accepted. As terrible a thing as intolerance and hate can be, their absence borders on anachronism. It’s not that the denizens of Downton Abbey can’t be progressive in this respect, but it’s very unlikely given how conservative they are about other matters, from Robert’s repugnance at Edith marrying the elderly and infirm Sir Anthony Strallan, to his obstinacy concerning a more modern approach to running Downton.
In particular, he seems opposed to how Tom (Allen Leech) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) seem intent on giving the farmers the option of selling. Robert is very much invested in tradition, and also in respect towards the people who’ve helped to maintain Downton throughout the years. Tom recognizes this talent in Robert, and, calling upon his own talents as an orator, finally convinces Robert to get over himself and join up with he and Matthew in contributing their considerable skills to the maintenance of the estate. The desire is for Downton to be self-sustaining, to generate an income of its own. Even Cora and Mary (Michelle Dockery) seem to realize that Robert’s plans for maintaining Downton consists of simply delaying the inevitable, as opposed to taking a shot at improving their lot. It should be interesting to see the Crawley men (plus Branson) working together to bring Downton properly into the 20th century.
These two storylines make up the bulk of the episode, though there is the continued issue of Matthew and Mary’s attempts to have a child, with Matthew visiting a doctor, and discovering Mary arriving for an appointment as he’s leaving. Mary is visiting for a follow-up to a mysterious operation she’s had for an even vaguer condition, and it’s particularly puzzling that Matthew doesn’t delve deeper for answers, but he’s just so stoked at the prospect of finally getting on with the business of making babies that he doesn’t seem to care all that much that there’s a secret underneath it all. It’s really weird how Matthew and Mary became exponentially less interesting once we couldn’t root for them anymore, since they’d finally gotten together. The presence of the baby-makin’ plot at least makes them a compelling romance once more, owing in large part to the presence of something to root for. Maybe they can give baby Sybil a set of twin cousins to grow up with. At the very least, baby Sybil will be sticking around for the duration of her youth, as Tom has decided to stay at Downton so that his daughter can be close to her family. If there was a theme for this finale, it’s that of family, whether through the blood connections of the upstairs portion of Downton Abbey, to the piecemeal community downstairs, who have come to regard themselves, if not as family, then as a group of people compelled to look out for one another. This thematic line of pursuit is at least more engaging than the episode-long arc involving a cricket match, which provides us with such lighthearted fare as Branson admitting he doesn’t know how to play, to Molesley (Kevin Doyle) spending countless days in preparation for the big game, and ultimately making a botch of it all (though this at least has the benefit of being funny, in that same sad-sack way that everything Molesley does is funny).
Although these three primary issues account for the majority of the episode, there are other matters of note, from the continued flirtations between Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her editor, who turns out to be trapped in a Mr. Rochester-like marriage to an insane Bertha Mason surrogate, to Ethel’s (Amy Nuttall) continued search for employment outside of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) house. But the most confoundingly random development of the episode is the introduction of the youthful, vivacious Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), a great niece of Robert’s sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond). Rose is modern to a degree that proves frustrating to her family, as the girl cavorts around town with a married man, leading the trio of Matthew, Edith, and Lady Rosamund tracking her down to a hot jazz club called the Blue Dragon, where she’s dressed like a flapper and making out with her hitched suitor in full view.
It’s hard to know what the purpose of all this will be, going forward, but I suppose it at least provides insight into an oft-overlooked section of the family, with Violet (Maggie Smith) being provided ample opportunity to scheme, in service of preserving the integrity of the family. Her observations on parenting (“‘the on-and-on’-ness of it”) and her pride in having spent an hour with her children each day after tea belong in a future “S*** the Dowager Countess Says” video.
Series three of Downton Abbey, perhaps more so than the second, has changed the landscape of the show. We’ve seen births and deaths, loss and return, secrets revealed and withheld, and a changing of the guard at Downton. The Christmas Special should get the ball rolling towards next year’s series four, while also tying up some lingering threads from series three. I know I wouldn’t be surprised if Mary is pregnant by the time the credits roll. Or if Reggie Swire’s other heir somehow turns up alive and asking after his money. But until then, I have to just relay how much I enjoyed luxuriating in the atmosphere of Downton Abbey for another season, regardless of what happened from week-to-week. Sure, a lot of it felt like spinning wheels, but when the show decided to move at a full clip, it really let loose, from the triumphant highs to the tragic lows that a show like this is capable of delivering. Series four will have a tall order to match, and I’m more than excited to see it try.
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