PBS aired two hours of "Downton Abbey" back to back last night - click here for my recap of the first hour.
What a marvelous ending for what was a truly great third season. True, the season is not technically over - there's still next week's grand finale, which finished up as the Christmas Special episode in England - but even if it had ended right here with that slow-motion bounding and bounding, I would have been completely satisfied.
To air these two episodes together was a strange choice, as I mentioned in my recap of the first hour, because while that first hour spent a lot of time on setup, the second hour was like a freight train of plot. The oddest abutment of the two would have to be Mary's sudden announcement that she had just been to London. When did that happen? In the last fifteen minutes? It's easy to forgive those weird bits of editing, though, when the finale gave everyone (save Edith, of course) a more or less happy ending.
As happy as I was about Mary and Matthew's talk and Anna and Bates setting up house and the three men who have been at odds all season - Robert, Branson and Matthew - all coming together in the end to help the estate move forward, the two biggest stories were the advent of Rose, which I'll get to in a bit, and the immense payoff of years of watching the series with how things ended for Thomas.
PBS aired two hours of "Downton Abbey" back to back last night - click here for my recap of the second hour.
A trusted friend and TV advisor informed me this week that PBS is combining (and therefore editing down) so many episodes of "Downton Abbey" for February sweeps, but I still can't see why they would want to burn off so many episodes so quickly when there are, in the end, so few. Even during last year's embarrassment of a season, the world that series creator Julian Fellowes has conceived is one that should be lingered in and appreciated for its resplendent beauty (if not always for its storytelling). On that note, every hour of the series is so jam-packed with plot that to run two hours together is really overwhelming. How is one to process all of the Dowager Countess' one-liners before the next episode is shoehorned in??
Last week, I praised the series for slowing down and giving us the emotion and nuance that we both deserve and crave - the show is not a sweeping epic, it's a soap opera, and it's the relationships between the characters that really make things interesting. Having said that, this week's first hour was the closest the show has ever come to a filler episode. Old ideas were rehashed, major events (Branson's brother Kieran's arrival, Thomas' inexplicably bold action toward Jimmy) were glossed over and solved pretty quickly. That is, of course, the show's way. As one commenter pointed out, "Shirley MacLaine's character didn't even return for the funeral?" Indeed, I had nearly forgotten she existed.
What this episode really solidified was the show's eternal struggle between tradition and modernity. Battles were won and lost on both sides. Edith triumphed by being allowed to go to London and meet with an editor (more on that in a minute), and received her grandmother's support. But to get that support, she had to help scheme against Isobel, who won out slightly in making Ethel's life better by bringing her back into society, but needed to let go of her to let her truly blossom. Robert and Jarvis fought against Matthew and Murray (and everyone else) regarding the future of Downton, which wrapped up nicely (and obviously) with the running of the estate's farm going to Branson.
I continue to be impressed by how much "Downton Abbey" has settled down this year and returned to what made its first season so great: family moments. Family, in this case, extends Upstairs and Down. Season Two seemed to fashion itself as a sweeping war epic, and while it was sweeping, in terms of epic or having much to do with war ... not so much. This current season has slowed down, both narratively and with its crazy time jumps (where no one ages - they should all be about 10 years older now, and yet...), and has benefitted immensely.
The plots remain sprawling (if not particularly scandalous), which is exactly what we want from the manor house. At this point in the series, I would think most viewers would just enjoy spending time in this world and with these characters - we don't need hyped-up drama (Branson helping to burn down a house) and ridiculously shoehorned affairs (Robert and Jane from last season, blech). The payoff will presumably be much more emotionally satisfying now for some of the slowly building story lines, like Matthew wishing to modernize the estate, Ethel becoming a real cook, the love triangle downstairs, Thomas and Jimmy's flirtation, Bates' return home, etc.
Though episodes like this one can feel fractured, with everyone going in different directions and doing their own thing, the main theme remains unshaken: It's Robert against the world. Upstairs, the Earl (like Carson Downstairs) cannot come to terms with a progressing world. The world changed hugely and forever after the Second World War, but after the First, things also really began to pick up speed, as industrialization began to bowl over the agrarian lifestyle of so many European nations, particularly England. As we are constantly reminded in the show, Downton's way of life won't last for much longer.
Well, after my jolly assertions about "Downton Abbey" last week, we were given an exceptionally sad follow-up. But, to keep spoilers hidden, I will instead talk about some of the other things this jam-packed hour gave us.
There were a lot of subplots scattered throughout the episode that portend interesting things to come, from Edith's column to Isobel taking on Ethel as her latest do-gooder project, to the love triangles (squares? hexagons?) forming in the Downstairs kitchen as well as
Sherlock, Jr Anna getting her big break on the case.
Matthew also stealthily begins talking about "middle class values" (the very idea!) and ideas for running Downton in a way that might actually make it a profit, or at the very least break even. He's found an ally in Murray, and the two politely scheme to try and wrestle away control from Robert (it won't be easy, and Mary doesn't seem to like the idea of it, naturally). Mary has been particularly surly of late, and the questions as to why she and Matthew have not yet produced an heir have seemed to set the couple of edge, particularly when compared to Sybil's pregnancy.
Another fantastic week for "The Good Wife." "The Seven Day Rule" was an episode that probably worked ok on its own, but seemed designed specifically to benefit long-time fans with a complex narrative (not seen all too often on network procedurals). It incorporated familiar aspects and faces (particularly the appearance of Neil Gross, the CEO of ChumHum, one of the show's favorite Google-esque targets), but it also played upon old rivalries and set up plenty to come.
The Case of the Week mostly took a back seat to the emotional arc, which dealt with Alicia's sudden promotion to equity partner. Alicia's feelings on the matter - from initial confusion, accepting revelry, further confusions, disappointment and eventual cynicism (ending with acceptance, if not revelry) - were felt alongside those watching. "A fourth year, made partner you say?" Well it is St. Alicia. But "The Good Wife" tends to not be so transparent in its fan service, so surely something was up? Oh, indeed.
The first blow came from David Lee, who loves to spoil a party, that the equity part of the partnership means that a $600,000 buy-in is required. Later, he slips in, in front of Alicia, that Cary was also made partner, truly souring her day (despite their alliance). Later, on the stand, she finds out that all five fourth-years were made partner. By the hammer of Thor! Pout time!
Many TV shows make the mistake of thinking that their series need to be packed full of plot points ("Downton Abbey" being among them - I refer you to Season Two for all the evidence you need). But when you've created a rich world populated by characters we have grown to care about, sometimes there's pleasure to be found in the simplest of things. This week, conversations between Matthew and Violet, Mrs. Hughes and Isobel, Matthew and Carson, were a few examples of how something so seemingly non-dramatic as an exchange can be great, rich storytelling.
Still, "Downton" loves to blow through its plots, which keeps the stakes low and very enjoyable, though not challenging. One of the reasons most of us probably like the show to begin with is that it's lush and lovely and, well, simple. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, people don't change and anything unpleasant is dealt with quickly. Take Bates and Anna for example. There are few things so painful as not hearing from someone you care about and not knowing why. Even on the simplest modern level, think of that unfortunate feeling of "but they haven't texted me back!"
But we knew why Bates and Anna weren't in communication even if they didn't, and within one hour the problem was solved for everyone. Anna didn't even have time to properly be upset over the lack of correspondence from her husband, and Bates surely didn't seem to bothered by it (just another chapter in "prison sucks" for him, I guess). It all tied up a little too neatly with quite a lot of conveniences, but is that a bad thing? Narratively it's not very interesting, but it also doesn't cause any stress (and writing this after that incredibly upsetting Falcon's playoff loss, I can say that sometimes a lack of tension is a really, really welcomed relief).
"The Good Wife" saved their best guest star for last. After last week's glut of guest stars, this week had only one, but she was a good one: Elsbeth Tascioni, played by Carrie Preston. Elsbeth has an amazing combination of qualities, from excessive exuberance to sharp mental acuity to extreme good nature. In fact, everything about Elsbeth is extreme, but in all of the best possible ways. She may be overwhelming, but she gets things done. And are we meant to take away from Will and Diane's interest in her that they are hoping to collect her into their fold? (I feel the topic has been broached before, but that she prefers to work on her own. Building up good will though would be a good start to winning her over).
Overall, it was another great week for "The Good Wife," with an entertaining Case of the Week in which the snooty French are undone by Rambo! America! Somehow, the show actually managed to pull that off without it seeming purposefully obtuse about world culture and America's reluctance to really be a part of it in any meaningful way. When Will admits he can't speak French (the first time he's been likable in awhile, because he couldn't be arrogant), his opponent sneers something about the American school system. A dig, but also a fair point, because I also took many years of French and only caught a few passing phrases last night.
Of course, the tricks didn't end there, since it turns out Diane is fluent in la langue française (of course she is - I also loved how she kept an accent even when speaking English). And while the case seemed very straight-forward to start (the athlete was being set up by the athletic company so they wouldn't have to pay out her fee), it turns out that her proof of innocence made her feel exceptionally guilty, and asked Will and Diane to win without it.
Does any other show burn through plots as quickly as "Downton Abbey?" There was the good, the better and the worst at the manor this week, and while the episode was high on drama, it lacked any real risk. This was our third hour spent contemplating Downton's ruin because, without Bates around, somebody has to fall on their sword unnecessarily, so it might as well be Matthew. No one ever really thought Downton would be sold though, did they? After all, the servants didn't even know that it was a possibility, and the show isn't called The Crawleys.
It was always a question of timing for when the manor would be saved, and there was no other option (after Mrs. Levinson said she was unable to access her fortune - she was whisked away quickly after that, wasn't she?) but for Matthew to accept Reggie Swire's money and gift it to Robert. While Matthew pouted and sighed, Mary actually read the letter about the money in question, and found it to be so exceptionally explicit that Matthew should accept the money without feeling guilty that even Matthew believed it was a forgery.
Thank heavens for Daisy and coincidence though, which allowed for Lavinia to somehow post a letter to her father while she was on her death bed without anyone knowing. Why would Lavinia have been left alone for long enough to compose a letter? And why ask Daisy of all people to post it? Why am I looking for logic with this show though. Ooo aren't Cora's dresses lovely!
The thing about "Downton Abbey" though is that even when it's ridiculous, it's wonderful. Matthew accepts the money, Downton is saved, and he and Robert are business partners (that seems like a bad idea), and that was the least interesting part of the episode (minus Shawshank Bates, of course).
Quietly, "The Good Wife" returned last night, smothered per usual by more hyped shows on networks who care about them (in this case, "Downton Abbey" on PBS). But "Boom De Ya Da" (one of the laziest non-sequitur titles they've ever come up with) was a great way to pick up after the mid-season break and come back fresh, even if they did resurrect almost every character that has ever been on the show (guest stars!)
The Case of the Week, which has been a low point for this show this season, was really a sterling display in "Boom De Ya Da," taking us out of the courtroom and into the lodge, with a reappearance by Michael J. Fox's excellent Alicia-nemesis Louis Canning. The specifics of the COTW were even marginally interesting, focusing on the dilapidated foreclosure properties left to rot by banks who should care a little more about their investments.
Louis Canning was not the only surprise on opposing counsel, Martha was back as well (from the infamous "Marthas and Caitlins" episode). Clearly doing well for herself, the sharp Martha didn't have a single misstep or falter in the deposition, and lost the case only because in a bizarre, "Law & Order"-esque turn, the client wanted to keep his own illness under wraps from investors. Still, despite the nepotism of the Caitlin hire, the firm would have been better off with Martha, who surely would have helped them with their debts more than the briefly employed Caitlin.
Speaking of the debt, what a squirrely issue. Was Hayden wrong to suggest Diane and Will be removed for botching the merger that would have paid off their creditors?
PBS aired the first two episodes of "Downton Abbey" back to back. Here's my review of the first hour.
Hardly a pause for breath, was there? The second hour of "Downton" swept through with as many swirling plots as the first, spending far more time Downstairs than Up this time (or so it seemed), and culling a few stories (Branson and Sybil) while cultivate some new, heartbreaking ones (Mrs. Hughes). Still, the night belonged to Mrs. Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), and her saving the day, but not the estate.
As I mentioned in my review of the first hour, though Mary and Matthew are no longer a "will they / won't they" couple, their uses have not been diminished. For one thing, they make a much better couple in bed than Bates and Anna (and I am very sorry to bring that image back to your mind). How perfectly adorable for Matthew to worry about being caught in Mary's bed (at least he survived it!) and for her to turn his "shut up and kiss me" entreaty from before to wedding to the even more delightful "now stop talking and kiss me before I get cross." Oh, you two!
But the newlyweds have more to deal with than just getting to know one another in intimate settings - Mary spent much of the episode scheming with her Crawley grandmother to "fleece" (as Matthew put it) her Levinson grandmother. Despite decent performances from the former, the latter was not fooled for even a minute. She knew they were after her money and she let the pantomime continue until she ultimately revealed that even if she wanted to save the estate she couldn't. The money was tied up and going to Cora's never aforementioned or seen brother Harold. So that is that. However ...
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