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Downton Abbey Finale Recap: Christmas Miracles

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, 1919, our beloved Dowager Countess takes a break from her eye-rolling long enough to share, "When I think what the last ten years has brought, God knows what we're in for now." She means historically, but this is an apt thesis for most of Downton's second season, an overly-sudsy, possibly-shark-jumping undertaking that leaves us wondering what on earth is possibly left for these characters to do in Season Three. By the numbers, this season has included one (1) World War, three (3) ill-advised marriages, two (2) funerals, four (4) illicit makeouts, one (1) unwanted sex scene, one (1) unwanted baby, one (1) amnesiac burn victim, one (1) murder trial and one (1) reverse-paralysis with bonus reverse-impotence. It was, generally, nuts. And amid the crazy ex-wives and Canadian cousins, with giant reveals happening every ten minutes, one particular plotline--the most crucial plotline--received almost no attention at all. The last five minutes of this Christmas Special (as it was aired in the UK) finally fixed that problem, allowing us to add one (1) perfect moonlit proposal to the above tally. 

Matthew and Mary are getting married! Can you stand it? We cannot! We are making embarrassing enthusiastic noises! We are willing to forgive almost every other failure this season, because they're twirling in the snow!

From our seats, abandoning the will-they-won't they device in the finale, rather than stretching it into an excruciating third season, is a smart call on the part of Julian Fellowes. Of course, we are biased (we just want to watch them make out), and we're also not so naive as to think Mary and Matthew will sail smoothly into wedded bliss. Still, at least the emotional charade is behind us. With Matthew and Mary together, Downton can (hopefully) get rid of some of the forced obstacles that weighed it down this season (Sorry, Lavinia! RIP!) and spend more time on what makes it so enjoyable (the double Ms, and the Dowager Countess, who will presumably get more screentime next year so that she can throw shade at Shirley MacLaine). The Christmas Special is promising, in this sense--Ethel, Sybil, and Lord Grantham's zombie maid are sent packing, and the show is more focused as a result. Fewer storylines, more Matthew and Mary twirling! Repeat this to yourself during hiatus, Sir Fellowes.

But hey, about that murder trial. Never before have we believed so strongly in the positive power of Law & Order and other legal procedurals. One episode of The Good Wife, and we are convinced that Lord Grantham, O'Brien, and Mrs. Hughes could have aced that testimony, but no: instead they all treat the witness stand like their own personal therapy session, spilling out secrets and damning evidence like a twelve-year-old at a slumber party. Good lord! Stop talking, Lord Grantham! Pro tip for anyone who is ever called to give evidence in support of his valet and BFF: do not mention the part about how the defendant once muttered something about wishing his wife were dead. Just pretend that you do not remember. You're a busy guy, probably, you read the newspaper and play ping pong and make out with robotic maids in the pantry, so just drop it. It's not like the prosecutor was recording your conversation with his 1919 eavesdropping technology (really, what was with that line of questioning, like Mr. Barrister there had been hiding in the closet and knew exactly what went down?).

Thanks to his three legally-inept "friends," Bates spends a sad twenty minutes on Death Row, and we have to hand it to Brendan Coyle: he has committed to the dirty sadsack prison look, and how. Poor, dehydrated Bates, with nothing but prison scenes in his future. Joanna Froggatt handles the visitation scenes well, trembling just enough for the both of them, but we were most moved by her honest, heartbroken bedroom scene with Mary. "I have to leave Downton, but I don't have to leave you." It's a shame, almost, that we won't get to see a Mary and Anna Coming To America spinoff (Downton Crossroads 2: the Crawleys Take New York)--the prospect is more exciting than endless scenes of Anna and Lord Grantham visiting angry old men in powdered wigs. Is anyone selling Free Bates t-shirts yet? Also, is it time to place bets on who actually did kill Vera Bates. We put fifty internet points on Bates's mother, because Lady Rosamund seems too busy running game on old penniless dudes. This is all based on the assumption that the killer had to be based in London, so if that's wrong, please chime in with your best Agatha Christie analysis.

Meanwhile, Daisy has made peace with her demons, and with William's father, who is clinging to the only shred of family he has left. This was nice, wholesome television. We'll even indulge the fake Ouija board, since it allowed for a truly hilarious and representative Matthew-Mary segue. ("May they be happy, with my love." Time to share whatever you're on, Writers Room. It looks fun.) Cheers to Lady Edith for growing a spine and a sense of self, though of course, after we spent all season fretting that neither Mary or Lavinia end up a nurse, hopeless E is the one desperately campaigning for an old guy with a useless arm. We assume his other, ahem, limbs work. And as for the Thomas/Isis story: uh, what? Don’t lock dogs in sheds, the end.

Now, to the season’s triumph. As a responsible recapper interested in providing you with all relevant information, I do feel it is my duty to make sure everyone has seen this off-screen photograph of one Iain Glen, sometimes known as Richard Carlisle. Take your time with that--really drink it in--and when you’re done let’s admit, once and for all, that Carlisle is a fox. In many ways, he and Mary are well-suited to each other: practical, calculating, image-obsessed. And creepily possessive though he is (that hunt scene does not bode well for married life), Carlisle isn’t totally in the wrong--he loves Mary, and she’s emotionally all over Matthew, and right in front of him. Matthew, for his part, has started dropping lines like “Would you like me to come with you, to explain what’s happening?” which is the Edwardian lawyer equivalent of “let’s go on an activity date so I can put my hands all over you and talk down to you while I teach you how to hit a golf ball/rock climb/paint a very delicate piece of pottery.” And that cemetery scene, oh boy. Could these two be any more infatuated with their own agony?

Still, Carlisle is a Charades-hating bully, and even Lord Grantham has wised up to the fact that Mary must have some ulterior motive for going through with this drag of a marriage. In retrospect, his affair with Jane the maid is an obvious setup, paving the way for forgiveness when he learns about Mary’s dalliance with Pamuk. We could have done without it; Lord Grantham, for all his bluster, is a sentimental man, and the “I’ve been through a war and a murder trial” line would still apply without the dressing room hanky panky. But no matter--the speech he gives to Mary about a cowboy “in the middle west” is still completely heartwarming and lovely. For a brief moment we wonder why Sybil doesn’t get a similar amount of acceptance, but then Michelle Dockery tears up, and we remember why Lady Mary gets away with everything: that face. Dockery slams it out of the park every. time.

With Lord Grantham down, only Matthew remains in the dark about Mary’s dead diplomat scandal. As Mary admitted her sins to Matthew, we started doing some light math and realized it has been six, or maybe even seven years, since Mary slept with Pamuk. This poor girl has been paying for approximately three minutes of presumable discomfort for six years. Matthew’s reaction, thankfully, is not the worst of it, and Dan Stevens does a masterful job, looking equal parts hurt and resentful, but never sanctimonious. (The Edgar Allen Poe Vampire is gone.) Then the bickering! “I’m Tess of the D’Urbervilles to your Angel Clare, I have fallen, I am impure.” Go on, go on, forever. And then, finally, Matthew’s shy side smile and that magic line: “I never would...I never could despise you.” Oh, when these two are really on, it is heart-stoppingly good.

So we bid goodbye to Carlisle with an awkward tuxedo-ed fistfight (check that hair, Matthew) and a perfect zinger from the Dowager Countess. (“I’m leaving in the morning, Lady Grantham. I doubt we’ll meet again.” ”Do you promise?”) What is left, but for Matthew and Mary to fall into each others arms as their loved ones, upstairs and downstairs, dance around them at the Servants Ball. This is really a charming way to end things, and not just because we believe a ball is the best place for climactic drama of any kind. Carson and Isobel, Mrs. Patmore and Matthew, Thomas and Edith--they’re adorable, and we do actually care about seeing them all together, interacting (dancing!) as humans. It’s half the reason we watch Downton. The other half is that Matthew and Mary twirl. With all due respect to Matthew’s very romantic speech, and the getting down on one knee move, it’s the grin-and-twirl that makes us ready to forgive this season’s every misstep. Matthew and Mary, together at last. Was it worth it? We think it was worth it.

Here now, as always, are your Lady Grantham quotables. Practice them in the interim, so you’re ready for the MacLaine invasion.

  • I knew his father in the late sixties. Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” (Translation: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
  • Lawyers are always confident before the verdict. It’s only afterwards they share their doubts.
  • Carlisle: Do you enjoy these games, in which the player must appear ridiculous?
    DC: Sir Richard, life is a game in which the player must appear ridiculous.
  • Sir Anthony Straland: So, does he shoot?
    Edith: I’m sure he does.
    DC: But I don’t think pheasants.
  • 1920, is it to be believed? I feel as old as Methusala.
  • And while we’re on the subject of unsuitable spouses...[Lord Hepworth]’s hardly the consummation devoutly to be wished.
  • No fortune? He’s lucky not to playing the violin in Leicester Square.
  • Lord Grantham: What was she doing?
    DC: Mending the fire. And suffering.
  • Matthew: Sorry about the vase.
    DC: Oh don’t be, don’t be. It was a wedding present from a frightful aunt. I have hated it for half a century.
    Just keep me upright, and we’ll try to avoid it.

One final note: thanks to all of you for reading and sharing your very witty observations all season long. It's been a pleasure (even during the burn victim episode).