Last night PBS decided to air the final two episodes of the original "Downton" season together in a two-hour block (with some editing) saving the Christmas Special for next week to act as the de facto finale. The reasoning for this strangely compacted schedule may have to do with the Academy Awards airing the Sunday after what is now the finale. But would it have been so terrible to skip one week and air the finale the weekend after? ("What is a weekend?")
What combining the two episodes gave us was a whirlwind of chaotic storytelling at a frenzied pace that, to be fair, might have proved far less palatable had we been forced to view it at a slower trot. It pains me to see so many people jump on the "Downton" bandwagon this year just in time for some of the worst plot lines the show has yet to confuse us with (and many of these viewers have not seen the vastly superior first season). There have been many who have called "Downton Abbey" out as a "costumed soap opera," and that is clearly part of the reason it has had such mass appeal. But there are elements of true soap operas - like, say, the return of an evil twin who supposedly died fifteen years before - that should be left un-mined by the "Downton" writers. Unfortunately, they have already come perilously close to parody and camp with scenes like the one where Matthew Crawley, who has been confined to a wheelchair for at least weeks, if not months, and recently felt "a tingle," is able to not only stand up and support himself but also have the strength to catch his falling fiancee. Then, near the end of the episode, with very little time passing in between, Matthew was able to dance gracefully with Mary. For comparison: I sprained my ankle pretty badly about a month ago, and though I won't be "carrying a bruise" for the rest of my life like (that quack) Dr. Clarkson says of Matthew's spine, and I've been hobbling for about a month. Matthew was paralyzed from the waist down, his muscles probably so weak and beginning to atrophy that for his recovery to be so casual ... well, it's a disgrace to the quality and intelligence this show delighted us with originally.
Probably one of the best arcs of the dual episode starred Thomas, who had bullied and put on airs all throughout the season, making everyone so aware he was no longer a servant that, as Carson said, "our ears are still ringing from it." Hoping to make some quick cash, Thomas gets involved in the Black Market, but despite his Ultimate Troll status at Downton, Thomas is definitely a small fish in the ocean of nefarious sorts in the wider world. Not sampling the wares beforehand, or being had if he did, Thomas smugly sets up his Black Market Shop without realizing all of his stock is inedible. Instead of asking for money from Ms. Patmore upfront, he allows her to (smartly, on her part) taste the goods. Upon realizing their uselessness, Thomas destroys everything that he has left, having squandered his savings and being left without any plan for the future, not even a place to live. Fear, doing wonders for his disposition, drives him back to Downton, where he sweetly and competently takes over tasks from the drunk Molesley (a hilarious side-note in the episode) and an ill Carson, who resigns himself to the notion by the end of the episode that Thomas, who has put away his smart suits for his old footman coattails, will never be gotten rid of. And perhaps now that the balance of power has been restored, that may not be such a bad thing.
In between the best and worst bits of storytelling, there were
Four Weddings One Wedding and a Funeral, and one partial elopement. After what has been a rather chaste season, there was plenty of smooching throughout last night's combo episode as well, which may well have lead, as any college student knows, to pandemic (be it Mono or, in this case, Spanish Influenza). Yet, some of these events lacked almost any of the emotional impact we would have hoped for at this point in the story. Bates and Anna's wedding would have made me faint in Season One. This season it was more a question of "do you not realize how guilty this makes you look in your wife's death?" Furthermore, the Sybil and Branson kiss was utterly overshadowed by Matthew and Mary, no matter how illicit the latter. I will use my patented Lady Violet Scale of Approval (and some of her quotes of out context) instead of writing another 1500 words about each:
More than anything, last night's episode was about comeuppance, at nearly a Magnificent Ambersons levels. Robert has a dalliance with Jane and is brought back to reality when Cora starts hemorrhaging through her nose (which also leads O'Brien to confront her own demons). Thomas' Black Market plot goes sour almost instantly, Sir Richard attempts to spy on Mary but loses Carson and nearly Mary in the process, and Bates falls on so many swords that one might actually pierce him. Finally, Matthew and Mary kiss, which is observed by Lavinia, who then dies of a broken heart, making Matthew's "Little Matthew" inoperable again (at least, as far as Mary's concerned). No deed good or bad goes unpunished at Downton, yet somehow Dr. Clarkson is still allowed to practice medicine.
It would be easy, despite some very fine acting amid some truly horrid storylines, to get disillusioned with "Downton." I know the feeling completely, I experienced it too when I watched this season. But there is one saving grace that will make the entire endeavor worthwhile: The Christmas Special (airing next week as the finale). For all of the mess of Season Two, where Sybil and Anna both lost their independence and chose to moon over their men instead, where Edith's desperation was dragged out time and time again in increasingly unfortunate displays, where an awful lot of time was wasted on a whiney and petulant maid we hardly knew (Ethel or Jane or both!) and where a paralyzed man stands up and catches a woman ... the Christmas Special is an utter joy. Stick around. You may still carry a bruise from this season, but you will be able to dance in Downton's arms again.
Next Week: Bates is put on trial, Sir Richard fights Matthew, ghosts, more fights, and it's Christmas!
Musings and Miscellanea:
— There was a rather pedantic video that came out last week focusing on "Downton's " anachronisms. None have bothered me so much as Lavinia and Matthew both using the phrase "suck up." The verb "to suck?" Definitely not something that would be so casually and gleefully thrown around in that era. My mother won't even say it to this day! Surely the upper class sentiment in 1919 was closer to that than what was displayed.
— Bates was a swoony figure in Season One, but I didn't realize how much the opposite has been true in Season Two until I saw him half naked in bed with Anna. No thanks. How about a naked Thomas instead?
— We all knew Lavinia had to go, and she did have a fantastically guilt-inducing death scene that will haunt Matthew for a long time. I also like the twist that her death didn't automatically mean a Matthew-Mary hookup. She's still engaged to Sir Richard, who can still ruin her and her family, and Matthew is too destroyed by Lavinia's death to even consider his feelings for Mary. For now.
— Last night also marked, I believe, the only times we've seen Branson outside of the garage since 1917.
— The repetition of dresses from Mary and Cora's wardrobe seem a little inconsistent with a family of their wealth.
— "Would I ever admit to loving a man who preferred someone else over me?" - Lady Mary, speaking truth!
— Carson: "I always thought I would die here ... and haunt here ..."
— Mrs. Hughes on Mary: "She's an uppity minx who is the author of her own misfortune." I agree with this until the last few episodes, where Mary has certainly shown us her other side (despite a relapse into being cold and cruel because of her continued alliance with Sir Richard).
— My favorite Violet quote of all time: "Don't be defeatist, dear. It's very middle class."
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