Downton Abbey 04:08

Previously on our recaps of Downton Abbey, we have seen…

The precariousness of a certain restaurant

The Dowager’s world flipped upside down

The house is under new management

A new attempt is made at revenue

Everyone’s world gets flipped upside down yet again

And some new faces join the staff

And now, on to the season finale of Downton Sixby

I’m so sorry. I meant the season finale of Downton Abbey (or as it was known in England, the Christmas special, since it aired on Christmas). So let’s gather the family, call in a few old friends, and get ready for a party or two.

Side Note: Before we begin, if I have to rank all of the Downton parodies that I’ve featured this season – and I hope, gentle reader, that you have enjoyed them as much as I have – I have to call a tie between the brilliant Fallon parody (thanks to the sharp performances of Fallon, Brooke Shields, Fred Armisen, Questlove, and the surprise cameos) and the British parody from Red Nose Day I featured last week because of the obscene amount of talent on it.


First off, we have everyone in London at the stunning London house for Rose’s presentation into society. What I thought was hilarious was that Rose would hang out with Freda Dudley Ward, who was having an affair with HRH Edward, The Prince of Wales (which actually did happen; the prince would eventually become King Edward VIII, who would eventually abdicate his throne for Wallis Simpson).  Of course Rose and her naughty, flapper ways would get her and her friend into trouble as a love letter from the Prince to his mistress would be snatched by that wretched card sharp Sampson. Thankfully, thanks to an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper led by Robert (and pulled off by Bates) the letter is saved and the family gets a hell of a reward, the Prince of Wales himself opens Rose’s cotillion ball.


As I mentioned everyone shows up at Rose’s coming out party (to society that is – coming out had a different meaning back then), which means that the American members of the family are visiting; Cora’s erstwhile mother Martha Levinson and the debut of her playboy (and Teapot Dome Scandal implicate) son Harold, played by Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti. On the one hand both MacLaine and Giamatti brought a lot of verve to glorified cameo roles. On the other hand, they felt like wasted cameos. And like Martha’s appearance last season, I have issues with the the way that show runner Julian Fellowes has depicted the Americans on show. I can understand why Cora would have some resistance from her mother-in-law and her daughters, but I am slack-jawed over how Cora’s family is portrayed. It’s clear that Fellowes is trying to show Americans as being brash at best and lacking in social graces at worst, but at the same time there has to be some level of class to their actions. In the ideal world, the Levinsons would be on par with the great American families at the time (think the Astors, the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Hearsts, the Rockerfellers, and so on) and would have enough breeding to go with their money to have their heiress daughter attract a British Earl. But Harold’s appearance did manage to shake up the downstairs staff with Ivy taking Daisy’s offer to go to America and become Harold’s new cook.

Meanwhile, Edith has returned from her “adventure” in Switzerland (read: she had Gregson’s baby) and it’s hinted that Gregson has been attacked by the Brown Shirts in Germany, but she manages to stand up to Violet and Rosamund’s wishes by having Mr. Daly take her daughter. On the one hand, it’s understandable that Edith wants to have some control of her daughter but there is a whiff that this could all blow up in her face. But there was one thing that I enjoyed at the end; that she and Tom are starting to form a bond as the rebels of the family. I would like to see more of this in the next season as they both could use a friend.


In other news, Mrs. Bates manages to figure out that Bates was indeed in London at the time that Rapey McRaperson had his unfortunate “accident,” but she and Mary manage to cover up that fact by destroying the incriminating train ticket that was in Bates’s jacket, especially in light of his help with resolving the letter issue for the family. But Mary has no time to fret too much about that, as she still has both Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake after her. That said, Mr. Blake has stepped up in Mary’s eyes, given his forthcoming inheritance. As she said, regarding the state of her love life, “Let The Games Begin!” Meanwhile, love is on the mind of others as well; from Tom and his chaste dalliance with Sarah (and Thomas’s attempts to get his former underling in trouble), to Baxter and Moseley (who helped her stand up to Thomas’s meddling), to the surprisingly sweet end for Carson and Mrs. Hughes (with a lovely moment of hand holding on the beach at the end of the episode).


Overall this season has been a marked improvement over the past few seasons. Now this could be because the 1920s are a fun and exciting period, but I think the big reason is that Julian Fellowes has actually stepped up and truly embraced the soapier elements of the series. Another thing that I’ve appreciated was that while Maggie Smith has been stellar as always as Violet, it’s been wonderful to see that she has a new sparring partner in Isobel and wonderful to see Penelope Wilton stepping up and giving Smith a run for her money. Take for example this wonderful exchange between Violet and Isobel…

Violet: “Cora insisted I come without a maid. I can’t believe she understood the implications.”
Isobel: “Which are?”
Violet: “How do I get a guard to take my luggage? And when we arrive in London, what happens then?”
Isobel: “Fear not. I’ve never traveled with a maid, you can share my knowledge of the jungle.”
Violet: “Can’t you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?”

Isobel: “And must you always sound like the sister of Marie Antoinette?”
Violet: “The queen of Naples was a stalwart figure. I take it as a compliment.”
Isobel: “You take everything as a compliment.”
Violet: “I advise you to do the same. It saves many an awkward moment!”

In the hand of Smith and Wilton it’s an electrifying and hilarious moment, expertly played. Here’s hoping that Season Five (which has been confirmed by ITV in England) will continue this trend.

And to end, I will leave you all with one last side note: If you are intrigued by Downton Abbey and the ins and outs of a Edwardian manor house, then hunt online for Manor House (as it was called on PBS, or The Edwardian Country House as it was called when it debuted on Channel 4 in England); a 2002 reality TV series from England where one family and twelve volunteers were the family and staff respectively of a Scottish Edwardian Manor House and were forced to live and work as a proper Edwardian house and staff. With a fantastic cast and fantastic production values it is probably one of my favorite reality TV shows of all time. It’s a fantastic series!

Photo & Video Credits: ITV, NBC

Originally Published on 24 February 2014 as part of “The Idiot Box,” my column for l’etoile


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