I don’t understand why PBS’s Masterpiece Classics chose to air a two-hour penultimate episode of “Downton Abbey” this week instead of two separate individual episodes as it originally aired in Britain. Given the already much too-short season, why hurry the end? The overall effect diluted the strength of the second hour, which was one of the best of the season and the actual season finale in Britain. (Next week’s finale was actually the “Christmas” episode in Britain and aired on Christmas day.)
One of the true rewards of watching "Downton" has been the rich emotional payoff from the slow building storylines (Matthew and Mary, Sybil and Branson). The newer plotlines (Matthew's desire to modernize the estate, Edith's burgeoning feminism) are unfolding in same way and deserve the same time to come to fruition to truly be appreciated. Watching the whole season in seven weeks feels hurried and at odds with the pacing of the show. The sprawling plots are perfectly suited to the manor house. Everyone's stories are compelling (okay, with the exception of Alfred and Ivy, who are pale - literally - imitations of William and Ethel). The emotionally satisfying romances are made all the more so because of the chemistry between the actors. Unlike a true soap (and let's face it, that's what "Downton" is - a soap dressed up as a period drama), every couple is, in soap parlance, a "super couple" to segment of viewers: Anna and Bates, Matthew and Mary, Sybil and Branson, even Robert and Cora.
In its final act, the cinematic climax of Sunday night's two-hour installment offered an uplifting - and this time veddy British and "Chariots of Fire"-inspired ending - that had me tearing up for the umpteenth time this season. (As much as I love Ralph Lauren, I think Kleenex should be the lead sponsor of this show.) And oh how I wish that Julian Fellowes had left it at that. But that discussion is for next week when the U.S. season finale airs. All I can say is: buckle your seatbelts.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to this week's mega-episode. I'm going to recap the hours separately.
After the two very intense preceding episodes, this first hour is, as the Brits like to say, a bit dodgy. There were so many loose ends and dramatic changes in characters' behavior and attitudes (more on that later), the second hour promised to be absolutely epic.
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Bates, who has finally exchanged his sad sack prison uniform for his bowler and valet finery (his limp, which seems to have disappeared in jail, has returned once again), is finally let out of prison and is met by Anna, who is waiting at the gate in Lord Grantham's car. Upon embracing her husband, Downton's own Nancy Drew utters the words we've all been thinking, "Thank God!" Now let's forget this dreadful storyline once and for all.
The music swells as the couple gets their first glimpse of Downton from afar but soon enough they're back in the servant's hall receiving exuberant greetings from everyone but Thomas, who knows his job as Lord G's valet is now in jeopardy. When Bates says, "Thomas, still here I see," Thomas replies oddly: "It's Mr. Barrow now. I'm still here, busy as a bee." Okay then.
Upstairs, Edith "got up for breakfast" and once again finds herself in the middle of Matthew and Robert's tug-of-war over the past and future. When she tells them the editor of the paper has written to her reiterating his offer to write a column, Matthew tells her to go to London to meet him and "buy some new clothes," while Robert, who somehow never manages to say anything remotely encouraging to his middle daughter, derides her excitement about writing for the "horrible paper." When Edith leaves the room, Robert tells Matthew, "Please don't encourage her." Why not? Someone should.
Tom sits silently by as Robert and Matthew continue their verbal sparring over a meeting Matthew has set up with Jarvis, the estate agent, to discuss an overhaul of the estate's finance. When their none too pleased father in law stalks off, Tom (who will always be 'Branson' to me - in a good way) says, "Are you sure you wouldn't just want to cut and run like me?"
On his way out, Robert welcomes Bates back and tells him to "Stay in bed! Read books!" and reassures him he'll find him a cottage and will "sort out" the messy business of telling Thomas he's out of a job.
In one of my favorite scenes in the episode, Violet visits Isobel and tells her that she must do something about Ethel, even if she does make a good charlotte russe. "You have surrounded this house with a miasma of scandal," says Violet. But, sputters Isobel, you didn't leave when Robert commanded everyone do so. I was just supporting Cora, she explains. "It did not seem appropriate for the whole thing to end in chaos." When Ethel comes to serve the tea and is complimented by Isobel on her much improved cooking the servant tells her, "These days a working woman must have a skill."
The Dowager's retort: "You seem to have so many." Priceless.
Cora and Robert, still dressed in their mourning clothes, take a walk around the grounds when they spy the nursemaid wheeling baby Sybil in her pram. "Has Tom said anything about moving out?" says Lord G. "How can he when he hasn't found a job? He's our responsibility now. He and the baby. We owe that to Sybil."
That’s one expenditure Matthew is sure to approve.
At the meeting with Jarvis, Matthew and Robert square off on progress and profit versus the good old days of not worrying about such middle class concerns. Matthew gets so frustrated with Robert's clueless about money that he shouts at him, "Downton must be self supporting if it has a chance of survival." Shocked at such impertinence Robert gives him a withering look and if I thought bubble could have appeared over his head would have read, "Maybe Branson isn't so bad, after all."
Meanwhile, while on her way to the village, Violet spots Ethel crying at the side of the road. She looks genuinely concerned and gets an idea that might solve the problem. When she sees Edith for tea strikes a deal with her. I'll support you in this silly business about writing for that newspaper if you'll do me this one favor …
Mary, who, along with Matthew, has been Tom's true champion, visits the single father who spends a lot of time looking out windows holding his daughter, to ask about the christening. He tells her it's all been arranged with the Catholic Church in Rippon. "When were you going to tell us?" she asks. He says he was going to tell her and Matthew but he didn't think the others would want to know. "Please give them a chance to behave properly" she says. As they both loving look in at the gorgeous baby in her cradle, Tom asks her if she's be Sybil's godmother. Mary asks if she's allowed to be and Tom explains that only one godparent need be Catholic and his brother, "a bit of a rough diamond" is coming over for the occasion. That should be interesting.
On a tour of their new love nest, Bates worries about taking his old job back from Thomas. Sweet Anna, who was Thomas' greatest comfort when Sybil died, knows where her loyalties lie. 'Mr. Stick It Up Your Jumper' has to go," she tells her husband. "Revenge is sweet," gloats Bates. No so fast, old chap.
As Thomas, Rob James-Collier does excellent work in this episode even if it seems quite unbelievable that his character, with all his cunning and self-protectiveness, would risk everything by approaching Jimmy on the word of his sworn enemy, O’Brien (so perfectly witchy in this episode). The actor played his scenes brilliantly given the difficult material. Viewers got the sense that he couldn’t contain his feelings (of lust?) anymore and that’s what compelled him to finally act on them. My heart broke for him when rejected and humiliated, Thomas becomes terrified of the prospect of what will become of him when he is forced out of Downton without a reference the object of scorn and disgust by all.
As much as this week's turn of events gave us an interesting glimpse into the world of a gay man at a time when homosexuality was a crime, the actions of just about everyone in this story just did not ring true to me. All the parties that came to discover Thomas' secret seemed far more liberal and accepting of it than what I would have expected. Only Carson's reactions rang true for his character. ("Thomas was doing what?" ) "The world can be a shocking place," he tells Alfred who is also an unwitting pawn in O'Brien's scheme to banish Thomas from the house. I also felt that Thomas standing up to Carson sounded a bit too much like modern day activism rather than what you'd likely hear in a British country house circa 1920.
For the record, my theory is that Jimmy is gay but in denial. How could Thomas' gaydar be so far off? Also, Jimmy seems to overcompensate for every action with an over reaction that appears to be to a cover for what's really going on inside. His bitchy behavior in the kitchen and his complete lack of interest in Ivy (even if he doesn't have feelings for her she seems to easy a conquest to ignore for such an opportunist) also seems very telling.
In his depiction of Tom, Allen Leech has pretty much cemented his place as the 'other' heartthrob thanks to his fine performance in this season. In this episode, his character reveals how difficult it is for him living in limbo no longer being part of the below stairs world but not entirely comfortable upstairs although that is where he clearly belongs now. When he dresses down his brother for embarrassing him in front of the staff, even Carson is admiring of the former's chauffeur's sense of decorum.
Matthew takes Tom on as his wingman explaining all his plans for the future which seem to have less and less to do with Lord G. "He hates change," says Matthew over cocktails with Mary and Tom. You think? Overhearing Tom's musings how to approach the tenants about the changes, Lord G chimes in with "So says the Marxist!" Unbowed, Tom replies, "You seem to have a very narrow view of Socialism." Lord G: "You seem to have a very broad interpretation of it." Violet acts as referee. "Children! If Branson is watering down his revolutionary fervor, let us give thanks."
Later that night Robert is tossing and turning in bed and whining about how everyone is against him in picking sides about Matthew's plans and Edith's new career. If you ask me, he should thank his lucky stars Cora has forgiven him (I certainly wouldn't have or at least not that quickly).
The next day, Matthew and Murray goes up against Robert and Jarvis and the old estate manager resigns in a huff. "I am the old broom and you are the new," he tells Matthew. "I wish you luck in your sweeping." Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
Amidst all the fighting about the estate, Matthew and Mary spend much of their time together reassuring each other they will have children. Something dramatic is surely in store with all this foreshadowing, no?
Branson's brother's arrival gives Robert yet another opportunity to showcase his bigotry when he dines with the aristocrats. When the beer loving car mechanic tells the family that Tom and the baby would live in an apartment over the gar-age ("there's a bit of a park nearby") I thought he'd keel over. Much to Tom's delight, everyone is coming to the christening, but Lord G is the lone holdout. He tries to make a joke of it saying, "Tom doesn't want me there and with all that crossing and bobbing up and down, I wouldn't know what to do. I went to a mass in Rome and it was more like a gymnastic match." The only one who laughs is Tom's brother. Not content to let his father-in-law off the hook, Tom sincerely say, "All I know is that Sybil would want you there. She loved you with all her heart."
“Can you argue with that?” asks Cora. No, he can’t.
After dinner, the favor that Violet wanted from Edith in exchange for supporting her plans to be a journalist is revealed. Edith placed an advertisement in a women's magazine for Ethel so she may get another position far from Downton ostensibly to get her away from prying eyes but also to rid the family of the gossip magnet. Isobel is not amused but even Mrs. Hughes is on Violet's side. "In a new place where she can start again Ethel has far more chance of happiness than reacting her own version of The Scarlet Letter in Downton."
Violet, who seems to be on a quest to single handedly solve all the family's issues has another great idea. "Obviously the answer to a thousand different questions" is to give the position vacated by Jarvis to Branson." And more good news as she points out: "If he's the agent, we can go back to calling him Branson again, thank heaven." When Robert balks, she reminds him: "Think of the child. You cannot want your only granddaughter growing up in a garage with that drunken gorilla."
And now we know what Season 4 will be all about.
Fabulous soundtrack in every scene. I especially loved Edith’s spunky new ‘theme’ and I thought the bluesy horns and strings in the build up to Thomas’ nocturnal visit to Jimmy’s room was particularly inspired.
Welcome back Isis! Except for seeing his waging hind quarters every week in the show’s opening credits, Lord G’s best friend was MIA for much of the series. I loved seeing the dog as much as Robert did.
Hurray Edith! When she tells Violet she’s done with being “invisible” I nearly applauded. “I’ve had enough of it.” Indeed. She’s officially a journalist. No doubt her editor will be Edith’s next paramour and for once she is being pursued instead of the other way ‘round. Love it.
Isobel gets a good one off at Violet who surprises everyone at dinner when she cheers Edith on about this newspaper column business. “Have you changed your pills?” I laughed out loud at that one. Violet recovers nicely when she explains her support by saying perhaps Edith “isn’t cut out for domestic life” and just like that, Edith’s elation turns to deflation. I hope she runs away, has an affair and writes a best seller about the family that’s made into a movie in America.
“You’ll make me untidy” – the sexiest line Mary has ever uttered to Matthew.
Ivy and Alfred go to the movies. Alfred likes the English actors while Ivy (or Ethel-lite as I have come to think of her) prefers the Americans. “They’ve got more you-know-what.” Yawn.
The second hour felt like a sneak preview of season four with no cliff-hanger and the introduction of a new character who I’m not all that crazy about. Try as Julian Fellowes might to add another headstrong young woman with her own ideas into the mix, Rose, a defacto Sybil 2.0, just didn’t fit in. But we’ll have to get used to her because she’s not going anywhere. Maybe she’ll grow on me.
The hour focused mainly on a yearly cricket match where the 'house' plays against the 'village.' The set up reminded me very much of the first season when the centerpiece of the finale was the garden party.
There was quite a literary feel to the whole thing from O’Brien’s clever reference to Oscar Wilde to the “Brideshead Revisited” inspired costumes to Edith’s new love interest’s Jane Eyre-inspired storyline.
We find out that Carson wants Thomas to use Bates' return as a graceful exit after "the unfortunate incident" that occurred with James. "You have been twisted by nature into something foul," Carson tells Thomas. "I think it best you resign quietly." As shaken as he is by the whole thing, Thomas manages to stand his ground and before exiting says, "I'm not the same as you, but I'm not foul." Carson can take no more of this talk and goes off to ring the dressing gong.
Robert, captain of the house team, is obsessed with the cricket match spends much of the episode recruiting players for the match. He browbeats Tom about it but Tom tells him it's not that he won't play, he can't. "Oddly, it was never a part of my childhood." Downstairs, Moseley bores the staff to tears about his prowess on the cricket field.
O'Brien makes sure James gets wind that Thomas will get a good reference from Carson on his way out despite have made unwanted advances towards him. Then Downton's most sinister resident (I'd like to know why she is so damn angry about anyway) manipulates James into issuing an ultimatum to Carson: fire Thomas without a reference or he'll go to the police. "I won't turn a blind eye to sin," says O'Brien's puppet. Carson reluctantly tells Thomas he must go without a reference. (When Thomas mentions that he's worked at the house for ten years it dawns on me that these characters have barely aged at all.)
Mary rebuffs Matthew's advances (earlier that evening she's been talking to her mother about visiting a 'Dr. Ryder) after spending some time before bed talking about - what else? -- the cricket match. Matthew thinks that if it goes well Robert will be somewhat distracted by all the impending change when he sees some traditions can be upheld.
Bates and Anna begin refurbishing their cottage and have what passes for a steamy exchange when he half-growls, "You being in the room is enough to make it nice. Come here" before he pulls her towards him and they both fall into a dilapidated couch.
Rose, Violet's grand niece, arrives on the scene with her own theme music and quickly sucks up too much precious screen time. Matthew and Edith decide to accompany her to London to stay at Rosamund house when the young woman pleads to go with them.
Tom lobbies Cora to get her support for his and Matthew's plan to farm more of the estate. He's moved into Jarvis' old cottage who took his furniture with him. Mary promises to look in the attic for some priceless antiques for him. Cora tells him she misses 'Sybie.'
Mrs. Hughes finds Thomas sobbing outside in the rain. She thinks he's upset because he's leaving and Thomas tells her she doesn't know the whole story but if he tells her, "I'm afraid … it will shock and disgust you." The kindly housekeeper who is more open minded than anyone at the house tells him in that case, she wants to know everything. Later, when she tells Carson she knows the whole story and then drops this bombshell. "I think James may have led him on" Carson's eyebrows nearly jumped right off his face on that one. Not deliberately, she explains. "But he's a vain and silly flirt." Mrs. Hughes resolute about putting James in his place: "I will not sit by and let that young whippersnapper ruin a man for the rest of his life."
The real head scratcher is Bates, who decides to take up Thomas' cause as well. "I feel funny taking his job," he tells Anna. Really? In talking to Mrs. Hughes about Thomas' plight he attributes his change of heart to his time in prison.
When James asks Carson about Thomas' departure, Bates, who had been talking to the head butler about the young footman's role in all this can't help himself. "He made a mistake, you're still in one piece why do you have to be such a big girl's blouse about it?" he snarls.
James, angry to be dressed down by Bates, tells the rest of the servants that "he's got a mouth on him" and informs them he was sticking up for Thomas. Then James practically jumps down Ivy's throat when she unwittingly steps into it saying she doesn't think it's right that Thomas isn't getting a reference. "I bloody well think it's right!" he barks at her. "You know nothing about it."
Mary, who has managed to take care of her fertility problems off camera, asks Edith to keep Matthew from taking an earlier train back from London on their return trip without offering an explanation. "Why does everything have to be so complicated," asks Edith. What fun would it be if it wasn't? Speaking of complications, Matthew has his own doctor's appointment to check on his pipes and upon leaving runs into his wife checking in for her own appointment under the name of 'Mrs. Levinson.' What a clever girl, that Mary.
Over coffee (no tea?) Mary confesses "it was me" - she was the reason there was no Crawley heir on the way - and tells her husband she'd had to have a minor operation but all is well now. Mary can't bring herself to share the details with Matthew. Could Mr. Pamuk have left a calling card behind? Come on, you thought of that, too.
The most jarring aspect of this episode was the amount of time spent away from Downton. While I loved seeing Edith in London with her editor (and soon to be suitor I'm guessing), I hated the ones that took place in the Blue Dragon nightclub. The house is very much a key player in the drama and its inhabitants are diminished somewhat when taken out of its stately surroundings. When Matthew, Edith and Rosamund go off in search of the errant problem niece they look like characters that wandered on to the set of another movie. And really with only another hour left to the season did we really need that extended scene of dancing. "It's like the outer circle of Dante's Inferno," says Matthew as they spy Rose gyrating on the dance floor with her date. My my. Let's not have any more of these unnecessary scenes again, shall we?
Back at Downton, Violet, Cora and Isobel chat about the challenges of parenthood over tea. Isobel is surprised to learn that Violet was a 'hands on mother" with Robert and Rosamund. "I'd imagined them surrounded by governesses and nannies being starched and ironed to spend an hour with you after tea." To which Violet replies, "Yes, but it was an hour every day."
Isobel tells Violet that none of the responses from her ad yielded a suitable job for Ethel. There was one, says Isobel, but the house was too close to where the Bryants live and there would be too great a chance she’s run into her son which would, says Isobel, “only lead to more heartbreak.”
Bates tells Lord G about machinations behind Jimmy's campaign to get Thomas to leave and his lordship has his best line of the entire season in response, "If I shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I'd have gone hoarse within a month." Hilarious. Even with that priceless line, I must again say that the characters' casual acceptance of Thomas' "situation" seemed really false.
Even Thomas, who looks as beaten as we've ever seen him, can't figure out why Bates is on his side. "Prison has changed me" and then he tells Thomas O'Brien was behind this whole mess. Duh! Does that bother you that she'll get away with it?" Bates asks. "Not really," says Thomas. What the hell is going on here? Have these two men gone into some Jules Vern time machine and traded personalities? What were you thinking Julian Fellowes??
"There must be something you must know about Miss O'Brien you can use against her," urges Bates. And yes, it appears he does but not without some serious prodding of his memory. It truly stretches credulity of the whole shebang if someone as Machiavellian as Thomas somehow forgot he knew about the story of O'Brien causing Cora's miscarriage by leaving soap on the floor next to her bathtub. It also seems impossible that O'Brien would go after Thomas if she remembered he had that little bit of ammunition to use against her. Did someone else that hasn't watched the past two seasons write this episode?
In the library, Matthew finally explodes at Robert when he tells him for the hundredth time we need to make some money here and Lord G comes back with an idea to invest in a "scheme" he's just heard of "with a chap in America named Ponzi that offers a huge return in ninety days." Cora feels compelled to defend her husband when Matthew says his ineptitude "nearly ruined the family." But Cora and Mary gently encourage Robert to embrace change and let Matthew and Tom try out their new ideas.
Edith, who is lucky to be unencumbered by all the dreary talk of finances, does a bit of reporting on her editor by calling what information bureau dispenses bits of information and doesn't like what she finds out. Her editor is married and Edith tells him "I find the idea of a married man flirting with me whole repugnant." Oh really? What about farmer what's his name in season two? In any event, Mr. Editor tells her he's married to a mad woman locked up in an institution who under British law, he cannot divorce. I bet you didn't see that coming, did you?
O'Brien is summoned by Bates to the cottage he shares with Anna. Before she arrives Anna asks once more why her husband all of a sudden wants to help a man that tried to ruin him. "I know what's it's like to feel powerless. To stand there and see your whole life slip away" he tells her. Unaware of the real purpose of the visit, she tries to play nice but gets quite the surprise when Bates whispers something in her ear that sends her scurrying back to the big house.
Isobel and Ethel are summoned by Violet and discover that she's also invited Mrs. Bryant so that she may tell Ethel to take the job nearby and be involved - not as his mother - in her son's life. Don't worry about my horrible husband, says the former mousy missus who seems to have grown a spine since we last saw her.
Motivated primarily by Thomas' solid performance on the cricket team last year, Robert decides the decent thing to do for him would be to find him another position in the house. Right about now Bates begins to rethink his decision to help his one time (and future?) enemy. "Couldn't he stay until after the match and then go?" asks Bates. Of course not, says Robert that would be using him. Oh, for the love of cricket.
Now Alfred sticks his long neck into the whole Thomas mess which by now has more players involved than Murder on the Orient Express. He's sickened when he thinks James has gone soft on the whole affair by allowing him to stay for the match and get his reference.
In a last ditch effort to mend fences with Robert, Matthew asks him if he's like to accompany him on a tour of some old buildings on the property Matthew plans on turning into moneymakers. Sounds like fun but no, says Robert leaving Tom to deal with him. By now you'd think Tom would long for his days as a chauffeur when he didn't have to deal with all this in-fighting but instead he makes an impassioned plea to his father in law that makes Robert finally see a glimpse of why his daughter loved him. "Every man or woman who marries into this family every child born into it has to put their gifts at the family's disposal. I'm a hard worker and Matthew knows the law and the nature of business. You understand the responsibilities we have to the people 'round here. It seems to me if we can manage to pool all of that, if we each do what we can do, then Downton has a real chance."
"You're very eloquent," says Robert. "You're a good spokesperson for Matthew's vision. Better than he has been recently."
So you'll give us your backing? Asks Tom. On one condition (like mother like son) says Robert, "You play cricket for the house."
I absolutely love Allen Leech in this scene. “For God sake, if it means that much to you.”
Finally, the day of the cricket match arrives and everyone looks veddy British in their “Brideshead Revisited”-inspired attire (which is sure to find its way into Ralph Lauren’s next collection.
Thomas delivers big time in the match and his congratulated by Robert ("Well played, Barrow") while Bates, who is keeping score, rues his decision to intercede now that Thomas has been made "under butler" effectively his superior. But Thomas is sure to be grateful, isn't he? Not.
The match is briefly interrupted by a visit from the local police who have gotten a call from Alfred about Thomas. (This is after James' is both put in his place and promoted by Robert.) But Robert, who seems to have gotten his mojo back, handles the matter deftly getting Alfred to tell the investigators he was mistaken. "He was a bit squiffy," explains Robert.
Cue Sybil and Branson's theme as he wanders through a group of children playing to find Matthew and Mary cooing over baby Sybil. He leaves them and goes to Cora who is delighted when he tells her he's decided that he and the baby should live at Downton. "I know it's what Sybil would want."
Matthew and Mary share a kiss before the match resumes. "I didn't think it was possible to love as much as I love you," he tells her.
Robert finally gives Matthew the go-ahead for his new plans as they walk toward the field. Playing for the village, Dr. Clarkson hits an attacking shot and Tom catches the ball.
Julian Fellowes leaves us with a gorgeous final shot that has Tom, Matthew and Robert mid-field arms around each other united in victory.
Oh how I wish that was the end of season three. But it's not.