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Downton Abbey Season 4 Finale Recap: Life’s a Beach

The fourth season of Downton Abbey has ended on a note that seemed inconceivable when it started: a happy one.

In the first episode that aired on PBS eight weeks ago, it felt like everything at Downton was shrouded in grief and shadows: Mary was still mourning Matthew, the management of the estate was a question mark, and nannies were referring to small babies as “wicked little half-breeds.” But as we closed the Summer of 1923 chapter in the book of Downton, our story was swimming in new beginnings: coming-out parties for Rose; squabbling suitors, as well as a renewed sense of purpose, for Mary; a new lease on motherhood for Lady Edith; and even rays of actual Brighton sunshine for the entire downstairs staff, who luxuriated in their afternoon at the shore even though they were dressed for a church service held outdoors on a 45-degree day. Basically, Downton Abbey went from life’s a bitch to life’s a beach.

Plus, it ended with — Oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve held this in for a whole paragraph and a half — Carson and Mrs. Hughes, To-ge-ther. Like, totally drunk in love! Okay, fine — definitely not drunk, probably not in love, but still: holding hands, barefoot, while walking into the ocean. This is major.

“You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady,” “Hughes told him. “I don’t know how, but you managed to make that sound a little risqué,” Carson replied. “And if I did?” she said right back, clearly coming on to him hard-CORE. “We’re getting on, Mr. Carson, you and I. We can afford to live a little.” And then they pressed on, butler and head housekeeper against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward the future … or something. The point is, it was lovely and, hopefully, a sign of a Carson/Hughes romance to come.

It also made me already start missing Downton Abbey even though this season just ended, and even though I have aired many, many complaints about the way things were handled in this run of episodes. As noted in last week’s recap, there’s no question that Julian Fellowes mishandled a number of key plot lines this season, including, but not limited to, ones involving interracial romance and brutal rapes. I can neither forgive nor forget those sins, but I can balance them out on some level with the abiding love that I — and surely many other fans — still have for these characters. During the ten Dowager Countess-less, Patmore-deprived months ahead of us, we’ll all miss these fictional, uppity, secret-keeping fictional creations, won’t we? Sigh. We will. Even if we really want to stay mad at Downton Abbey — and honestly, the Bates stuff really did continue to be maddening, even in the finale — we can’t hold that grudge for too long. Especially not when we’re so happy about something really important, which will be covered right now.

She made up her mind — Lady Edith’s keeping her baby!
Okay, technically, she’s not keeping it exactly. But she is doing what she initially proposed: leaving the child in the charge of Mr. Drew and his wife, who will raise the girl on the Downton campus with regular visits/guidance from Edith. (Yes, the baby turned out to be a girl, who will undoubtedly fight with her cousin George constantly.)

It was incredibly satisfying to see Edith bravely make this choice, which she was clearly agonizing over throughout this episode. That agonizing began the instant she returned from Switzerland, where she’d delivered the baby, nursed the child for a short time (that detail was particularly heartbreaking), and given her up to a family named Schroeder. Edith had done the infant hand-off without entering a formal, written adoption agreement, which didn’t make a lot of sense but made it possible for Edith to have a change of heart. That change was foreshadowed repeatedly -- when Edith, coldly but rightly, told Aunt Rosamund that she’d never had children and therefore, didn’t know how Edith would feel long-term about surrendering her baby; when she made the vague statement to her father that “whatever I do is not meant to hurt you”; and in the way she responded when Tom encouraged her to help him maintain their Crawley-family-contrarian status.

“We need to stand up to them, you and I,” he told her at the ball that commemorated Rose’s official entrance into societal womanhood. “We may love them, but if we don’t fight our corner, they’ll roll us out flat.” That was the final kick in the maternal bum she needed to return home, talk to Mr. Drew, then go and get her girl.

During that conversation with Drew, the farmer vowed to keep the child’s connection to Edith a secret, even from the rest of the Crawleys. (Edith told him that the baby was the daughter of a friend, a woman of whom her parents did not approve. But Mr. Drew clearly knew better, because Mr. Drew is a pig man who was not born yesterday.) Now, does it seem improbable that said secret will stay secret forever? Does it also seem likely that season five will involve multiple scenes in which Edith and her daughter romp happily across the Downton fields while the Dowager Countess watches suspiciously from a distant walking path? Yes and yes. But at least, in her quiet way, Edith is taking a stand for a woman’s right to be a mother, even when society frowns on the path she took to get there. Which is pretty awesome, and makes Mary’s whiny “I’d rather sleep on the roof than share with Edith” comment seem childish and totally out-of-touch with who Edith has become. For the record, there’s still no sign of Michael Gregson, although we now know he was accosted by a gang of “well-known toughs” when he first arrived in Munich. First the ruffian who broke into Downton, now the toughs? Well, the good news is that it shouldn’t be hard to track down those guys. As I understand it, most street-toughs look just like this.

Moving on … seriously, move on we must because, in the name of the randy-letter-writing Prince of Wales, a crushing ton of things happened in this extended, 90-minute Downton Abbey episode, so many that it’s going to be challenging to cover them all here. But let’s try to hit the highlights in this (sort of) speed round of Downton season-four narrative resolution-analysis.

The return of the Americans
The much-touted return of Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson and the debut of Paul Giamatti as Harold Levinson gave Downton another round of opportunities to point out how crass and clueless those silly Americans are. It also demonstrated how easily certain Brits — specifically Lord Aysgarth and his daughter, Madeleine Allsopp — can overlook those alleged flaws when they’re trying to milk money out of a cash-flush family.

Yes, Aysgarth and Allsopp tried to pull a father-daughter, double-whammy romantic con job on Martha and Harold, but it didn’t work. Martha rebuffed Aysgarth entirely, while Allsopp and Harold began to kinda like each other for completely non-monetary reasons. Does this mean Giamatti will be back in season five? I hope so, because neither he nor MacLaine got a chance to shine much in this episode. Giamatti was just fine, with his bemused chuckling at the Brits and his robust glad to know yas and ain’ts. But he never got to do what he does best: go off on a tirade at someone. Any Giamatti is great, but everyone knows that the best Giamatti is fired-up, irrationally angry Giamatti.

As for MacLaine’s Martha, she did an encore presentation of her brash-and-judgmental-of-England routine from last season, which eventually led to a mini-showdown with the Dowager Countess, as required by PBS law.

Martha: “Violet, forgive me, and I don’t mean to be offensive, but are you always this stuck-up?”
Violet: “Do tell me, do tell me: is the new Lady Aysgarth all set to hold London enthralled with tales of how the West was won?”
Martha: “I turned him down. You see, I have no wish to be a great lady.”
Violet: “A decision that must be reinforced whenever you look in the glass.”
Martha: “Violet, I don’t mind looking in the mirror because what I see is a woman who’s not afraid of the future. My world is coming nearer and your world is slipping further and further away.

The whole confrontation felt forced and less deliciously sour than it could have been. Violet was much better when she was sparring with her usual partner, the divine Miss Isobel Crawley, and when she dropped this incredibly well-phrased objection to going to the theater: “I’m too tired for an evening of secondhand emotion.” Please remind me to use that one the next time I need an excuse not to file my Parenthood recap. (Just kidding, Vulture editors, I would never do that!)

Perhaps the most enthusiastic American turned out to be Ethan Slade, Harold’s valet, who was basically just one twangy accent away from turning into Jack McBrayer. Ethan had the audacity to encourage guests at Downton House to sample the hors d’oeuvre, and the even greater cojones to ask Carson if anything was going on between Daisy and “the fellow working at the Ritz,” otherwise known as Alfred. That question made Carson look like he had just swallowed 87 pickles marinated in lemon juice, then rolled in a crust of Kosher salt spiked with vinegar.

“Going on?” he dripped. “Nothing goes on in any house where I’m in authority.” Which is total b.s. But of course, that’s typical of an American like me to point out, isn’t it?

Despite all obstacles in his way, Ethan, who also once worked as a valet on the Island of Misfit Toys, made it clear he was interested in Daisy and even scored her a job as a cook for Harold Levinson back in New York. Just imagine: Daisy Mason, exulting in the bright lights of Broadway … can’t really imagine it, can you? Neither could Daisy, which is why she tossed the job over to Ivy, who is hotter to get out of her English village than a small town Jersey girl in a Springsteen song. Advantage on all that goes to Daisy, who was delighted to be the object of affection for once, and who also will be right there in Yorkshire when Alfred eventually comes to his senses, returns to Downton, sweeps Daisy off her feet, steals her away from that dastardly electric mixer, and carries her off to a London life filled with sampling coq au vin and slurping up a certain soup du jour the ladies like to call Alfred Bisque.

Bates and his stupid train ticket
You know, leave it to some inconveniently needy Russian refugees to almost blow Bates’s alibi for the day Lord Gillingham’s valet died. Here’s what happened: Mrs. Hughes asked Anna if she had any clothes to donate to a drive for Russian refugees (the poor: always giving to the poorer), so Anna generously offered a ragged coat that belonged to her husband. Of course, she offered it before checking the pockets or permitting John to do so, which led to Mrs. Hughes finding, in one of those pockets, a train ticket that confirmed Bates traveled to London on the fateful day of the valet-rapist’s death.

Mrs. Hughes took the ticket to Mary, noting that while the ticket was damning evidence, it didn’t prove that Bates shoved that valet into oncoming Piccadilly traffic while wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and cackling with maniacal glee. I mean, he probably did, but they didn’t know it. And furthermore, Mrs. Hughes said that “if he was there to avenge his wife’s honor, I won’t condemn him for it.” Mary at first agreed, then disagreed — “Whatever the man, whatever the motive, it’s wrong” — and then apparently said to herself, “You know what? Eff this whole situation. I’m sick of this story line and so are Downton Abbey viewers,” and then threw the ticket into a fire until it burned up forever.

Question, and I apologize in advance, but this has to be written in all caps: WHY THE HELL IS BATES STILL WALKING AROUND WITH THAT TICKET, SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER THE DEATH OCCURRED? Actually, if anything proves he’s innocent, it’s the fact that he kept the ticket. If he had killed the valet, surely John would have been smart enough to destroy anything that could implicate him. Although, when Bates discovered that scandalous royal letter Sampson snagged (more on that in a moment), he made a point of noting that he knew it would be in Sampson’s inside coat pocket because a man would keep a “sensitive document” with him wherever he went. Which made sense in the case of that letter, because Sampson planned to do something with it later, but no sense in the case of that ticket, because all it could do was ruin Bates’s life. All I know is, I was very glad to see that thing go up in smoke along with, hopefully, all talk of Bates potentially serving time for the death of a weasely rapist.

The coming out of Rose MacClare and the case of the Prince’s saucy letter
Rose finally was proclaimed an eligible high-society female in a ceremony that involved as much pomp and circumstance as the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But of course, this elite occasion could not come and go smoothly. Because of Rose, a love letter written by the Prince of Wales to Mrs. Dudley Ward came to the attention of the devious Mr. Sampson, who stole it out of the woman’s purse so he could sell it to the press and cause a good, old-fashioned, royal-family media mess. And that meant: time for a caper!

After consulting with the writers of Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen, Robert devised a plan: Sampson would get invited over for poker; Bates’s “friend” (who is actually Bates) would forge a letter that would allow Mary, Charles, and Rose to access to his flat; and then Mary, Charles, and Rose would search that flat to search for the original, problematic letter, coming up with … absolutely nothing! Actually, that last part wasn’t part of the plan, but neither was Bates swiping the letter back from Sampson, which resolved the whole matter anyway. In summary, this entire silly trifle of a plot line existed for three reasons: (1) to give Rose the chance to do something else that made her seem careless and immature; (2) to dovetail with the Great Burning of the Bates Train Ticket; and (3) to give Lady Mary a reason to say the ironic line about how the Prince of Wales would likely confront another scandal before he was finished. (Of course, he would: That’s the same prince who would later cut short his reign as king due to the controversial nature of his relationship with an American — always those awful Americans! — named Wallis Simpson. Thanks to that decision, his brother, George, would take over and, years later, we’d get to see an Academy Award-winning movie called The King’s Speech.)

Lady Mary and the battle royale
Tony Gillingham and Charles Blake made it clear that they’re game to continue scrapping over Mary. And Mary made it clear she’s game to sit prettily and watch them scrap: “Let the royal battle begin,” she declared. She can’t really fall in love with either of them, can she? If she could, there would be no need for a battle because she’d know which one she wanted, without hesitation. One thing we do know regarding Mary’s future  is that she now has a firm, active grasp on her mission in life: to preserve Downton for her son, George, whom she obviously cares about deeply and is currently being supervised, somewhere, by the nanny … wait, someone told the nanny to keep looking after Sybbie and George after everyone took off for London, right?  

How Isobel Crawley got her groove back
Isobel’s relationship with Lord Merton continued to blossom, which was lovely to see in light of the pain she has endured, with her trademark dignity, following the death of Matthew. Prediction: She’ll either be married to Lord Merton or about to marry him when season five returns.

Thomas and the (possible) end of the Baxter-Stabbing
If I were Robert James-Collier, I’d be pretty ticked off at Julian Fellowes. After giving Thomas some new layers last season, and even making him an almost sympathetic character, his role during season four was reduced to two things: tattle-taling on other people; and trying to boss around the two B’s, Braithwaite and Baxter. Well, Baxter — bolstered by the strength of Molesley, of all people — finally decided to stop playing Thomas’s game. Hopefully, that means Thomas can play a different kind of game in season five, because this one is about as boring as a round of half-hearted poker at Grantham House.

Tom Branson and the Sarah Bunting Incident
Last but not least, another random Tom and Sarah run-in led to the two having dinner together, and then Tom showing Sarah around Downton while no one was home. Which was not a good idea because Mom and Dad were totally going to find out! Actually, that’s exactly what happened thanks to tattling Thomas, which led to a disapproving glare, directed at Tom by Robert, and intense feelings of guilt on Tom’s part, even though he did nothing wrong.

Yet, despite all that, Tom feels more confident than ever that he belongs at Downton, so confident that he even asked the Dowager Countess to dance. To dance! As noted earlier, he also encouraged Edith to “fight their corner” within the family, which spoke to how much he now considers himself part of that family. Even if he disagrees with some of their core values, it’s obvious Tom Branson now sees these people as his people. After all, what is being a family if not sitting through dinners together while secretly not being able to abide anything that anyone is saying?

It’s unclear whether Tom and Sarah are meant to be, but it’s clear that Tom now sees himself as someone who is as deserving as anyone else of living an aristocratic life. The message of that transformation is that anyone -- a chauffeur who married well and became a widower too early; a footman-turned-hotel-chef; an innocent cook tapped to go to New York and whip up meals for Paul Giamatti; or a boy named George who’s barely two but has already lost his father and inherited a legacy of estatehood — can stumble into the good life. That’s an idea that, dare I say it, sounds awfully American. Yep. Definitely American. You betcha.

Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films