DOWNTON ABBEY: “The London Season”

Series four of Downton Abbey closed tonight for U.S. viewers — and though the episode was the highlight of the season — I fear the damage done to some characters is so outrageously final, the show might never recover.

LADY ROSE AND THE COMING OUT

Ivy begins the episode with this gem of exposition concerning the lesser Crawley gal: “Why does Lady Edith look so tired? She goes away to Geneva for eight months looking more tired than when she left.” With that, we know that eight months have passed since last week’s episode. The Crawley clan is in London preparing for Rose’s traditional entrance into society. Mrs. Hughes and Daisy are tasked to lead the London house, as all of the normal staff have taken ill.

Rose is in rare form seemingly over Jack Ross, mentioning him little and caring less. I am confused as to what we are supposed to feel about her. Rose purported to love a man but would cast him aside once their love was revealed without a second thought. I realize that it was Ross who called off the engagement, however, was there ever any protest from Rose? Does she have feelings? It’s not that I want to see the melodramatic pouting of this blonde aristocrat, but I expect some mention of the man. What was the purpose in that storyline, at all?  No one that could do real harm ever found out — Lady Mary saw to that. It did not exactly bond the two women. Was Jack Ross introduced simply to remind us that life sucked for anyone who was not a white Englishman in the 1920’s? Why not present a series regular to handle that task?

Rose, like an insufferable Oliver Twist constantly begging to go out with friends, is introduced to the Prince of Wales at a local club by her companion Madeline Allsopp’s father. She makes quite an impression on the man who would be king and his mistress Freda Dudley Ward. Taking a page out of history, we are privy to the details of the love affair Edward VIII shared long before he met Wallis Simpson.

This chance meeting aides Rose in becoming the talk of the season and lays the groundwork for the most fun plot of the whole episode.

THE PRINCE, THE LETTER, AND THE CAPER

At a spur-of-the-moment dinner party you know the kitchen staff just loves, cousin Rosemund brings Terence Sampson as her date, not knowing the truth about him. Freda and Rose are giggling over a letter the Prince gave to the former, his married mistress. Sampson, the card sharp and pickpocket, sees this letter as opportunity and a way to secure his fortune, and steals it away. When Freda discovers it missing, the Crawley family takes it upon themselves (as it is their fault for not exposing the man) to get the letter back. After all, the scandal would ruin all of the Crawleys by association for not protecting the Prince’s “good” name.

A plot is hatched to steal the letter back from Sampson’s hotel. A letter giving permission to enter the hotel will be given to the porter, but to whom should the Crawleys turn? Ah, the former prison inmate Bates is called to see if he knows of someone who might be able to take care of that…turns out, Bates himself is a forger. More on that later.

Mary and Rose are dispatched to the hotel to get into Sampson’s room and retrieve the love note. The whole thing is very cloak and dagger, a bit silly with all the players involved, but ultimately satisfying as I was on the edge of my seat with interest.

Speaking of Mary, she now truly has a love triangle on her hands. Tony Gillingham insists he’ll never give up stalking her loving her if Mary will just marry him, but she must dispatch with his friend Charles Blake. However, to make all things fair, even, and gentlemanly, Tony offers Mary a nugget of truth. Blake is not just some government official conducting research on the great families’ estates. He is, in fact, set to inherit a major title in addition to several riches and lands. So now the man really is a Matthew rip-off. A man who Mary thought had little money, knew nothing of the life of privilege, and constantly bickered with her until she fell madly in love. I’ve seen a better version of this story before. Please move on from Gillingham so that it might play out. We all know his only purpose was to bring a rapist into Downton and provide a major plot twist concerning the Bateses. The audience has had time to choose. Let’s knock Mary up already and stop with the parade o’suitor nonsense.

THE TALENTED MR BATES

Turns out, the plot to retrieve the letter fails miserably, but BATES is able to PICKPOCKET the Pickpocket. My darling Mr. Bates, I am starting to wonder if I ever knew you at all. It seems to me that the violation against Anna is effecting her husband far more than the victim herself; either that, or we are left to question whether this altruistic character has been playing us all along.

First, it seems Bates has been hiding a talent for forgery. Could he have forged a letter from his dear ex-wife to paint her the villain to Anna before she (may or may not have) committed suicide? And now that we know he was definitely in London (by way of a train ticket in his jacket pocket, with opportunity to kill Anna’s rapist, are we to root for this murderer, or believe there is a mystery at hand? Someone ELSE killed the former valet and planeted the ticket in Bates’ pocket? Is there a trick involved that would see Anna as the murderer? Another murder-mystery for the Bates family? What is with all the story-recycling? History does not repeat itself that much!

Basically, with this episode, everything we have been lead to believe about Bates is negated. If he is a forger, a pickpocket, a liar about his whereabouts — if he could really kill someone, what is he not capable of? And the whole idea that Mary could keep this information to herself out of loyalty is laughable.

As Anna and Mr. Bates close the season licking ice cream and walking along the beach, are we to assume everything is hunky-dory? Or is the perpetual black cloud that appears to hover over the couple poised to strike again?

THE AMERICANS!

Thank God for Paul Giamatti and Shirley MacClaine. Harold Levinson, Cora’s brother and playboy about town, complains bitterly about being forced by his mother to come to London to witness a bit of the season. When titled but virtually penniless Lord Aysgarth sniffs the money coming off of Martha and her son Harold, he hatches a plot for his family to link with the Levinsons.

He tasks his daughter Madeleine to lure Harold into a loveless marriage, but Cora’s brother is on to the scheme immediately. Giamatti is so charming in his scenes with Poppy Drayton’s Madeleine that you only want good things for the man. Even though he embarrasses her over and over, and Madeleine is not a willing participant in the plot, we still root for the pair to get to know each other better. After he rebuffs her advances, Harold offers Madeleine, and the viewers, a glimpse into his lifestyle. Ever the playboy, he sails the seas, spends his money, and beds women. And he likes it. He offers Madeleine a friendship instead of a proposal, and she eagerly accepts. The two are smitten in a sweet way, and I would love to see this develop more if Giamatti returns.

Madeleine’s father does not fare much better when he tries to sweep Martha off of her feet. It seems the Americans like their money to stay in their own pockets, thank you very much, and care little for titles or strong standings in English society. The look of chagrin upon learning this on Lord Aysgarth’s face is priceless.

Harold attempts to speak to the Prince, but is publically shamed by the man when Mr. Levinson knows little of English customs when address a member of royalty. Harold could care less and finds the encounter highly entertaining. As did I.

The episode was light on Martha/Violet snarkiness, save for a few lines on the ever-changing world (the overall theme of the season [Editor’s Note: EVERY SEASON!]), and I propose Martha Levinson as a series regular to go toe-to-toe with the Dowager Countess every episode.

THOMAS, TOM, AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING

After turning down Edith’s invitation to head to London ahead of the Ball, Tom spends time at the Abbey alone, save for some house staff. An embittered Thomas is dispatched in caring for Tom’s needs, though he finds the chore appalling. After all, if Tom had not ridden Lady Sybil up the ladder, he would be under Thomas, rank-wise.

Flying the bitterness all the way to his detriment, Thomas witnesses Tom showing Sarah Bunting (his politico-teacher lady friend) the Abbey from the upstairs quarters. Although everything was very proper and chaste, Thomas knows he has ammunition, and seeds are planted for a heavy showdown next season.

In addition, Thomas has taken to terrorizing poor Ms. Baxter from afar, wanting to hear all the salacious details and secrets happening in London while he has to waste away at Downton.

I guess the maturing Thomas has gone by the wayside, and the writers are determined to cast him as the villain.

LADY EDITH AND ALL THE REASONS I HATE HER

Edith suffers the whole episode, not completely content in her decision to allow her child to be raised in Switzerland. She mopes. She cries. She’s indignant when speaking to Rosamund and Violet about her choice. Finally, it’s all Edith can bare, and she arranges to have the child placed with a family that lives on the estate.

Tim Drewe, the man Lord Grantham saved from being evicted off of his land, agrees to take the child in secret, not even revealing to his wife the baby’s origin.

You selfish twit! You’re having this man lie to his wife, raise your daughter so that you can stay close and keep tabs on her, and never have to give up your life.  Banner idea, Edith, dear. Let’s raise your daughter down the block, and when everyone discovers her complete inability to excite, her Rosie Jetson downer attitude, and Crawley eyes, no one will be the wiser. (That was my sarcastic font.) You just know Michael Gregson will show up next season with a convoluted excuse for his absence and his secret spawn will be revealed to overly dramatic results. Oy!

YOU ARE THE MISTAKES YOU CONTINUE TO MAKE

Time for some tough love, Ms. Daisy. You deserve to be alone. Ever heard the axiom, “You should learn to love what is good for you”…? Our favorite weeping kitchen violet is tasked to go to London with Mrs. Hughes ahead of the other Downton staff in order to help out before Rose’s ball. After rejecting Alfred’s spur-of-the-moment proposal last week — although never really stated, boy was totally going to hedge his bets — Daisy is again alone. She catches the eye of Mr. Levinson‘s valet Ethan, but spurs his advances, choosing to string him along for a bit of fun. When the young man secures Daisy a job in America cooking for his boss, she turns down the chance for a new, better life, leading her own kitchen just because she does not instantly love this man.  Daisy is hopeless! What has she been training for all this time if not to run her own kitchen? She loses out, once again, to Ivy, who takes the job when discarded. Look, writers, if you intend to make us root for Daisy give her something resembling ambition and common sense beyond all this lovesick nonsense.

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL END TO A SEASON OF SLUDGE

It seems the first person that might move on after Matthew’s death is Isobel. Hoping to see her at Rose’s ball, Lord Merton stops by Isobel’s home unannounced in an effort to persuade her to come. Ever the pragmatic lady, she declines the lovely invitation, but surprises him later, and the two make doe eyes at each other through the night. At least we have more of this sweet relationship to look forward, in addition to the chance for the writers to explore how two widowed individuals move on after so long in the shadows.

Mr. Carson tries – and continuously stumbles – to plan an outing for the staff whilst their away from home. Constantly the teacher, he suggests museum trips or architecture viewing, much to the chagrin of the help. Mrs. Hughes comes to the rescue by planting the seed of a beach day, and all of the downstairs ends the fourth series by walking along the beach.

After Thomas once again threatens Baxter on the serene sands, Mr. Moseley, of all people, inspires her to grow a backbone. Whatever Thomas has on the Lady’s Maid, she isn’t telling for the moment, but she insists she will stand up to the man, and take her medicine. All with Mr. Moseley, the unlikely knight, at her side. I, for one, am excited at the possibilities this storyline presents. It could make for an interesting “A” story; however, I fear it will be regulated to a few moments every other episode.

This failure of a season is capped off by a lovely, surprisingly understated moment between stuffy Carson and practical Mrs. Hughes. The two stand in the water, discussing the changes that have come to Downton, and the prospects the future holds for everyone. Carson, with trousers rolled up to bare his ankles, stumbles a bit in the water, even admitting a little fright. Mrs. Hughes offers her hand, now and any time in the future he finds himself faltering, and the two lock hands sweetly.

Final Thoughts: As the curtain closes on a bit of a high note, re-watching this episode leaves me with the idea that I may have over-stated its value. I remembered the episode as a much better, possibly in comparison to the mire that had come before, or more likely, choosing only to remember the silly letter plot, Paul Giamatti’s magnificient performance, Moseley and Baxter love, and that tremendously satisfying final moment. I simply disregarded the entire negation of the character of Mr. Bates, the possibility that Rose is a completely vapid plot device, and the continuation of the soapy mess that is Lady Edith.

If this episode was stand-alone, I would grant it a “B+,” but the season’s “D” average drags the curve down with it. Get it together, Fellowes and Co. You’re on notice: More Moseley/Baxter/Thomas, Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Violet/Isobel; less Mary love-life; the matchmaking can go with Lady Edith to Timbuktu; I don’t care about Tom; I guess you need to give Lord and Lady Grantham something to do; give Rose a hobby; redeem Mr. Bates. And that’s just my short list.

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