Downton Abbey Recap: A Modest Proposal

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The Crawleys go to a shooting party at a castle in Northumberland and return to Downton for a joyful Christmas holiday. L-R: Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary and Oliver/Zac Barker as Master George Crawley. Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Ltd
Downton Abbey
Episode Title
Part 9
Season
5
Episode
9
Editor’s Rating
4/5

I can’t stay mad at you, Downton Abbey. I really want to, because you sent Anna Bates to prison for no good reason, and you keep enabling Mary to be totally rude to Edith, and during large chunks of season five, you’ve revisited more familiar territory than a GPS that’s unable to recalculate.

But my commitment to Crawley family fury has been rendered futile by the satisfying moments in this year’s Christmas episode (that’s the season five finale to us PBS-watching Yanks), especially this totally satisfying, amazing thing: Carson and Mrs. Hughes are getting married! Never mind that they’ve never gone on a proper date, let alone kissed, let alone referred to each other by their first names on any kind of regular basis. (Question: Do they even know each other’s first names?) Nevertheless, we’ve all been well aware for multiple seasons that their passion for each other simmers, hot and bubbly, beneath the starched tuxedo shirts and de-sexualizing black dresses they respectively wear while overseeing Downton business. Now their feelings can finally be acknowledged and celebrated. At the risk of getting overexcited and offending Carson’s sense of propriety: Hu-fucking-ZAH!

There were so many things I loved about the moment when they got engaged, a moment born out of Mrs. Hughes’s confession that she couldn’t buy a house with Carson because, apparently, she’s been secretly taking care of a mentally challenged sister named Becky for her entire life. (Really? This never came up before?) That revelation forces Carson to reflect on a future without his partner in Downton decisions, a prospect apparently too depressing for him to handle. It’s proposal time.

I loved how alternately pathetic and polite Carson’s attempt to ask for Mrs. Hughes’s hand was. After she says she can’t possibly be hearing him correctly, he says, “You are if you think I’m asking you to marry me,” then squeaks out a, "well?” and follows up with the real clincher, the words every woman longs to hear: “You’re not offended?” Then he tells Mrs. Hughes to take as long as she likes to give him an answer, because apparently there’s never any urgency to marriage proposals on this show. But Mrs. Hughes doesn’t make him wait, uttering those eight words that have defined true love since the beginning of time: “Of course I’ll marry you, you old booby!”

No rings are exchanged, and they don’t even kiss or hug. But Carson — such a stickler for etiquette that he will probably ask Mrs. Hughes to consummate their marriage by writing a formal letter and having it properly notarized — actually starts crying a little. That basically killed me. Between their bliss and the sight of Robert blasted off his ass on Christmas Eve (Drunk Donk!), suddenly all the warmth toward Downton Abbey that had cooled during Mr. Vyner’s 800th pointless police interrogation came flooding back, along with renewed affection for these characters.

To be clear: This finale is hardly the perfect cap to this uneven season. With a 93-minute running time programmed into a two-hour PBS block, the episode goes on for a little longer than it needs to, and there are still a few story lines whose details are laid out lazily. (Most notably, yet again: everything related to Anna Bates’s imprisonment for the alleged murder of Mr. Green.)

Still, several developments are worthy of relishing in what may be, at least in the post–Matthew Crawley era, the most quintessentially Downton Abbey episode of Downton Abbey. Truly it is chock-full of all the things that, over the course of five seasons, have become tropes of the Downton experience: long-held secrets revealed at ridiculously convenient moments; suitors for Mary practically popping out of the soil to replace the ones that have either died or been dismissed; visual illustrations of the discrepancy between downstairs and up; everything going wrong for people with the last name Bates; shenanigans that involve Thomas Barrow, deceit, and letter-writing mix-ups; and, of course, shenanigans involving food. Ladies, gentlemen, I ask you: What other show on television could devote such a large chunk of its season finale to an argument over chicken broth? With the exception of maybe Top Chef, I say none. For better or worse, only Downton Abbey could find drama in blandly seasoned soup liquid.

But enough about Denker’s steamy vat of slop. Let’s pay homage to the things in this episode, in addition to the Carson-Hughes engagement and a buzzed Lord Grantham, that are pretty darn delightful.

1. The Thomas/Stowell Affair: Just when you thought there could not be a worse downstairs staffer than Thomas Barrow, along comes Lord Sinderby’s butler Stowell, a man whose name literally rhymes with asshole. Even if the rhyme were not in effect, it’s pretty clear that’s exactly what Stowell is, given the rudeness he unleashes upon Tom during the Crawleys’ stay at Brancaster (which, in real life, is actually this place) as well as the way he regards everyone other than himself as a trash person. Lady Mary can’t tolerate the butler’s lack of manners (you know, because she’s always super nice), so she enlists Baxter to convince Thomas to work his dastardly magic and get Stowell fired, or at least in trouble. Before anyone can even say mission, that’s already been accomplished.

We’ve seen Thomas connive and manipulate others for personal gain a million times. What makes this round of shiftiness more satisfying is that he’s not personally gaining anything long-term from this, other than the satisfaction that comes from publicly shaming a man who insulted him, which, to be fair, should not be underestimated. The fact that Mary immediately knows that Thomas is the go-to guy for butler-ruining also suggests that Thomas has worked his way up to becoming the Crawley family’s secret weapon. “Oh, you have a total nightmare of a human being on your staff? Good for you. He’s still no match for our nightmare.” Thomas is simply doing his deceitful duty here, and doing it like a true master.

The way Thomas immediately knows exactly how to give Stowell his comeuppance — both by messing up Sinderby’s dinner and inviting his apparent mistress and out-of-wedlock child to Brancaster — is both crazy and kind of delicious. All Baxter has to say to get both balls rolling is that something must be done about Stowell. Immediately, our Barrow springs right into action. “We need a piece of paper and a pencil,” he mysteriously and confidently announces. At which point I shouted: “MacGruber!” That’s what Thomas is. He’s the MacGruber/MacGyver of British under butlers determined to undermine anyone who dares to make him look like a fool. Normally that’s tedious. But during this episode, all I could think was Long may he reign.

2. Everything Mary, Edith, and Rose were wearing in this episode. I covet every frock Mary slips on in this episode, but am especially in love with the glamorous low dip in the back of Edith’s Christmas party gown. Edith gets to look glowing, pretty, and happy in this episode, and it’s nice to see. I also adore all those flapper-style headbands on Mary, Edith, and Rose, all of which shimmer with the possibility that either a Charleston or a scene from The Great Gatsby could break out at any moment.

But the big fashion highlight in this episode comes early on, when Mary wears that exquisite burgundy coat and regal hat while visiting Anna in jail. Only Lady Mary Crawley would walk into a prison looking like she’s dressed to attend Easter services at the Church of Anna Wintour. (By the way, my cockamamie theory that Mary could be the one who shove-murdered Mr. Green, as outlined in last week’s recap, seems pretty much out of the question at this point. I don’t think she did it. But I still think she’s capable of doing it.)

3. Henry Talbot. The role of the next Matthew in Mary’s life has previously been reduced to an either/or proposition: Will it be either (a) Tony Gillingham or (b) Charles Blake? It turns out the right answer is (c) none of the above, because: Henry Talbot.

As soon as Henry, as played by Matthew Goode, shows up semi-uninvited at Brancaster to shoot at all those poor birdies, the electricity between him and Mary crackles with such a staticky charge that Tony and Charles immediately cement their places in the archive of Mary Crawley almost-husbands. We know next to nothing about Henry at this point, other than the fact that he’s handsome and observant, has fine taste in motor vehicles, and seems perfectly equipped to take Mary’s shit. But Goode — who you may recognize from The Imitation Game, The Good Wife, as well as many other films and TV shows — has such presence that it’s obvious he’s the one for our Lady C. The moment that really seals the deal: when Henry leaps into his “snappy chariot,” his trenchcoat billowing triumphantly in the wind, and then speeds off so that, presumably, he can get back to his day job of helping Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Batman fight crime. As Mary watches him leave, her knees seemingly go weak and you can tell from the look on her face exactly what she’s thinking: “Oh my God. I need to find that diaphragm.”

4. Roberts reconciliation with Edith: After walking around looking like he’s suffering from a bowel obstruction during much of this episode, Robert finally tells Cora that he may have angina. So, in an attempt at carpe-ing some diem before he succumbs to a potential heart attack, he finally confesses to Edith that he knows Marigold is her child, and assures her he’s fine with it.

Even though Robert doesn’t have heart troubles after all — turns out it’s just an ulcer — there’s something undeniably moving about this moment between him and Edith, who still desperately needs her father’s approval and now finally feels she has it. I previously complained that Edith should have jetted off to the U.S. with Marigold as she originally planned, but with everyone except Mary now in on the Marigold secret and actually making a real effort to embrace her, I’m pleased that she’s staying right where she is. She’s also a devoted mom, which should bug the hell out of Mary when she realizes, as she inevitably will sometime in season six, that she’s actually not “the only mother around here.”

5. The Sybil remembrance. Any tears that may have wet our eyelids during the Carson–Mrs. Hughes engagement were revved up when Tom (who’s on the verge of departing for Massachusetts), Edith, and Mary join hands to say some words in remembrance of Sybil. Downton Abbey often seems to be recycling previously used plot threads, without actually honoring that history. This small moment, though, is a heartfelt, effective effort to honor the Crawley family of yesteryear. It also feels like confirmation that Allen Leech — who, for the record, also appears in The Imitation Game with Matthew Goode — may not be as much of a presence in season six. Time will tell.

And now, the things that really bored or bugged me in this season-five finale:

1. The dullness of the Isobel–Lord Merton and Violet–Prince Kuragin relationships. As much as I like the idea of Isobel marrying Lord Merton, once she decided she wasn’t sure she could go through with it because of his sons, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dick, I felt that should have been the end of it. The fact that Isobel continues to hem and haw only drags out a story line for the sake of keeping it alive long enough to be resolved in the finale. Same goes for the Dowager Countess’s effort to find Princess Kuragin, which finally resulted in a reunion for Prince Kuragin and his wife, and confirmed that Violet would never try, as she evidently once did, to have a romance with him again. I’m not sure that anyone was sitting on pins, needles, or misplaced letter openers over that one.

It is weirdly touching, though, when Violet says, “I will never again receive an immoral proposal from a man. Was I so wrong to savor it?” Downton Abbey usually treats the passage of time as a means to comment on the increasing irrelevance of the aristocracy. With Isobel and Violet, we also see that time’s passage means giving up certain things and knowing that some last chances will come and go without being seized. That said, I’m not particularly sad to see Prince Kuragin go on his way, unseized.

2. Lord Sinderby suddenly turns nice. Lord Sinderby seems like the most disagreeable human being on Earth. Then the potential outing of Sinderby’s extramarital dalliance rears its head and, thanks to Rose’s saving-of-the-day, he becomes the nicest guy ever. Suddenly, Rose is lovely! And her divorced parents should totally come and visit! Lord Sinderby realizes that people who live in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones, which is something that struck him while he was listening to Billy Joel’s Glass Houses album on the wonderful gramophone in the library! Everything is just fine!

Mary, Robert, and Rose, the ones who know how Rose’s fake friend Diana and her son are really connected to Sinderby, seemingly accept all this and move on, as if Sinderby isn’t a flagrant hypocrite, doesn’t lack patience with all of humanity, and he didn’t cheat on his wife and ask them to become accomplices in his ongoing web of scowly lies. I know: It’s easier to just smile and politely move on, because that’s what upper-crusty Brits do.

3. The chicken-broth plot. This whole thing was so silly — does anyone care at all about the dynamics between Spratt and Denker?? — that I won’t even dignify it with further analysis. Well, except for this: It’s so obvious that the Dowager Countess thinks the broth tastes putrid, but fakes it so that Spratt will be forced to eat crow. Which raises the question: Why doesn’t she fire him?

4. The Anna Bates murder case. This is the most undeniable problem with this episode. When the finale begins, Anna’s still in jail, and even though Mary repeats the obvious — that there’s no evidence to convict her of killing anyone — she still sits in a cell, mainly so Mr. Bates can also visit and echo the hopeful words Anna spoke to him when he got stuck in the pokey. Look, I’m no expert on the law in Great Britain circa 1924, but I feel like people can’t be charged with murder without concrete evidence to support it. This whole thing didn’t make sense last week, when Anna got arrested, and it makes even less sense this week, when they get Murray involved and he still can’t get her out of jail.

But wait, it gets worse, because Anna, out of nowhere, confesses that she was abused by her stepfather and once threatened him with a knife when he tried to attack her, which could be used as evidence against her because she has a history of being horribly abused. (Yes! Great evidence!) So to summarize: Anna is a child of abuse who was raped, again, as an adult, which makes it all the more illogical that, after being raped by Green, she was so focused on how the whole thing would affect Bates. It seems like she might have been more concerned that she’d pull a knife on Green, because she already knows she has that impulse in her. But Anna didn’t try to hurt Green or even have debilitating flashbacks regarding her past abuse, mainly because Julian Fellowes didn’t come up with all this stuff about her stepfather until it was time to write this episode.

Anyway, in order to demonstrate the love between the Bateses, John decides that he’ll write a letter confessing to the crime and then disappear in Ireland. (Exact wording of letter: “Hi! I did the murder. Please release my wife from jail. I’ll be hiding at a pub somewhere in Dublin so you can’t arrest me. Don’t even ask me where, because I’m not telling. Fine, I’ll give you a hint: They serve beer there. Love, Bates.”) As absolutely stupid as this sounds, the plan works, at least for the time being. Anna gets out, Bates sneaks back to Downton in time for Christmas, and it’s a happy holiday for all, at least until one of them finds out it’s time to go to jail again!

You know what the worst part about all of this is, which is hard to gauge since there are so many bad parts? We still don’t know who shove-murdered that damn valet! Which means this will still be a topic of conversation in season six.

Honestly, that’s almost enough reason to make me swear off Downton Abbey from this moment forward. But then I think about all the pretty drop-waisted dresses, and the promise of more Matthew Goode on the horizon, and, of course, the prospect of watching Carson and Mrs. Hughes in comfortable, totally non-sexual wedded bliss. And I know I’ll be back next season. Time marches on, as we well know by now. But it always brings us back to Downton.