Downton Abbey – Recap: Shipping Up to Boston
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 5 Episode 8:
So here’s the thing: I occasionally get frustrated with Downton Abbey for trying to do too damn much with not nearly enough runtime per week.
A lot of the episodes tend to feel overstuffed, because Julian Fellowes has this need to service everyone in the plot at all times. We have to know what everyone is up to, and it’s exceedingly rare that any character or storyline takes the week off, even if nothing of particular note is happening. This is a problem tonight’s episode would have faced if it didn’t have a slightly extended runtime. This week, each of the storylines were given the opportunity to breathe. Maybe some of the arcs feel a bit rushed, such as what’s going on with Rose (Lily James) and Atticus (Matt Barber), but it’s not representative of any issue with the episode, since this is an episode that takes its time. I’ve ragged on the languid pacing of Downton Abbey in the past, but with this extended runtime, it’s a strength rather than a weakness. On the one hand, this is an episode that is virtually bursting at the seams with plot. On the other hand, it’s also an episode that does an excellent job of wrapping up some of the overlapping storylines of the season. Or, at the very least, setting those stories up for conclusion in next week’s finale. Because, really, I see no way the show has Anna (Joanna Froggatt) getting arrested this episode unless she’s going to be exonerated next week.
Seriously, not even Julian Fellowes can be cruel enough to carry on this Mr. Green storyline into a THIRD season. I mean, it’s practically a running joke at this point how much Fellowes dumps on Anna and Bates (Brendan Coyle), the only two characters in the show who can give Edith a run for her money as the show’s go-to punching bag. Yet here we are, with Anna getting cuffed by the belligerent inspector in charge, who is eager to haul Anna away on the testimony of some random guy who claims to have seen her on the street corner moments before Green’s death, since this show apparently loves surprise, 11th-hour evidence coming to light. So now we begin the tiresome process of exonerating Anna, and while I’m not a huge fan of the story taking this turn, I can’t really say it hasn’t been set up by the preceding narrative. There’s a certain symmetry in what’s happening to Anna and what happened to Bates, who is no stranger to wrongful imprisonment. And yet, while it makes sense that the story would go in this direction, it’s also a pain in the ass to see these two get shafted again. It’s as if they exist for no other reason than for terrible things to happen to them, and while that can be compelling once in a while, it’s a continuous cycle with these two that is more off-putting than interesting. Luckily, some of the other storylines this week did a better job with scandals than this one.
While I did find the blackmail plot with Rose and Atticus groan-worthy at first, I admit that I found myself pretty wrapped up in it by the end. Atticus is framed for infidelity with staged pictures, and already I could see the entire story stretched out before me, with Rose calling off the wedding, and Downton becoming home to yet another heartbreak. But that’s not what ended up happening. Like, at all. In a genius move, the characters are immediately savvy to what’s happening. Yes, Rose gets upset when she sees the photos, but it doesn’t take long for Branson (Allen Leech), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) to deduce that Atticus is being setup by someone who doesn’t want the wedding to happen. Whereas before, a story like this would have been stretched out for damn near the entire season, with Atticus attempting to win Rose back, or their breakup serving to fuel a return to Rose’s former party-girl ways, this instead becomes a mystery tale centered around the identity of the person framing Atticus. Giving us a whodunnit as opposed to some long, drawn-out story in which Atticus tries to prove his innocence is a great move on the part of Fellowes, and it shows how far these characters have come that they no longer fall for the sorts of tricks their enemies are trying to pull on them. And as an added bonus, this plays out as a sort of inverse take on the Anna/Bates storyline, where Atticus’ innocence is assumed, and we focus instead on discovering the culprit as opposed to assigning culpability.
Ultimately, Atticus defends Rose against his father’s bitterness, assuming that it was he who staged the photos. This leads to a father-son argument that immediately made Atticus feel like a more fully-realized, three-dimensional character than the Ken doll he’d been presented as. Much of this has to do with Barber, who plays Atticus with a fierce conviction that makes him feel real, even as we might suspect he’s too-good-to-be-true. It’s an intriguing look at how some men are actually as good on the inside as they appear to be on the outside, for the most part. And it’s a point I feel Fellowes needed to make, eventually, lest this “here’s a hot guy, but whoops, turns out he’s a jerk” tactic lose all potency. Too often, the show will introduce a handsome guy and then peel back the layers to reveal he’s either rotten (Mr. Green) or entitled (Gillingham) or worse. But Atticus seems to be a break from that mold so far, thankfully. He is revealed to be a stand-up guy, in much the same way Shrimpie (Peter Egan) is once again illustrated to be a stand-up father: he discovers that it was Rose’s mother, Susan (Phoebe Nicholls), who set Atticus up. In a gripping scene, she explains she did it for love, claiming that by marrying a Jew, Rose would be made to feel an outcast. And this, after all she’s lost already, since the MacClare family fortune is gone, and a divorce is already under way. Nicholls is so good here that it’s almost possible to feel sympathy for Susan, but it’s hard to come all the way around on her, since she’s still a pretty lousy person the other 90% of the time. Even if her rationale makes a certain kind of sense, it’s as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) says, “Love is a far more dangerous motive than dislike.”
Of course, as crowded as this episode is, there was still room for other intrigue, namely the business with Edith. When revealing to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) that he had a private memorial commissioned on behalf of her late nephew, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) sees Edith playing with Marigold and finally deduces the truth. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is able to convince him to let Edith continue to have this secret to herself for a little while longer, although I’m not entirely sure what good that’s supposed to do, considering how much the status quo is already changing around Downton Abbey. For one, Branson has confirmed his decision to leave for Boston with Sybie, and it leaves Mary devastated, since she’ll now have one less friend on her side at Downton. While I don’t particularly love Mary this season, I can feel a bit of her heartache if this is really the end for Allen Leech on the show. Leech has really grown into the part, and has portrayed Branson as an honorable man trying his best to get by in a world where, for all intents and purposes, he doesn’t really belong. It’s one of the show’s more three-dimensional portrayals, and it’s deepened by his unexpectedly poignant friendship with Mary, which ends up making her more likable by association. For her part, she’s trying to move on from Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who runs into her at Rose’s wedding and wishes her the best for the future (although with a seeming hint of bitterness), prompting Mary to wonder if she’ll ever find happiness. This dovetails into one of the lovelier scenes of the episode, as Carson (Jim Carter) assures Mary that she’ll win out, in the end. It’s a moment that makes me wish Carson had a little more to do this season than argue with Mrs. Patmore about the war memorial.
In fact, a lot of the downstairs characters haven’t had a lot to do this season. On the one hand, it was really cool seeing Thomas (Rob James-Collier) help take down Denker (Sue Johnston), the shifty lady’s maid who extorted money from a footman hired for Rose’s wedding. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly the most vital addition to the episode, and I would have been fine without Thomas this week, believe it or not. At the very least, I would have liked to have seen him get a more substantial story, like what we get with Daisy (Sophie McShera), who contemplates handing in her notice in order to live in London. It’s a story that really illustrates how central the relationship between Daisy and Mrs. Patmore has been, as Mrs. Patmore breaks down, despite struggling not to make Daisy’s announcement about herself. Unfortunately, she fails in preventing Daisy from feeling guilt-tripped, and so Daisy agrees to temporarily stay. I found this bit of emotional manipulation (whether unintended or otherwise) to be one of the more fascinating aspects of the episode, since it implies a more complicated dynamic between Daisy and Mrs. Patmore. Will Daisy grow to resent her mentor? Will Mrs. Patmore feel any guilt about potentially holding Daisy back? It’s something that could color all of their interactions from here on out, and I find that to be an intriguing prospect. Similarly intriguing was the stuff with the Dowager Countess, who reverses her stance on Isobel’s engagement to Lord Merton. When Prince Kuragin (Rade Šerbedžija) proposes, Violet suddenly understands where her cousin is coming from, recognizing that you need to fight for happiness, particularly at their age, since it’s uncertain if happiness will ever find them again. Maggie Smith, for me, has been the absolute highlight of this season, even in small doses like this. I think she has an even better case for the Emmy this year than last, and I say that as someone who feels there have been more deserving nominees/winners in recent years.
So yeah, while this week had a lot going on, and took a long-ass time in getting to where it was going, I really enjoyed this episode. Sure, Downton Abbey is a drama series that occasionally suffers from not having a whole lot happen from week to week, or having much of what happens ultimately end up not mattering. It’s a show that seems more interested in worldbuilding than pure plot. And yet, when it does dig into more plot-driven stories, Downton Abbey is one of the better primetime soaps on TV. This episode pretty much firmed up the show’s status as a series that’s still well worth watching.