If I enjoyed screencapping more, I would turn this into a fashion blog and do nothing but rhapsodize about this week’s costumes. What an eyeful we got! Alas, I lack the vocabulary, not to mention the fortitude.
In lieu of gown-swooning, then, let’s talk plot. This is the supersized Christmas special, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. Here we are in June 1923, with the gang heading to London for Rose’s long-awaited presentation at Court. All season we’ve seen Rose chafing to be free to be out and about in London society—you know, as opposed to the dull life she’s been leading up till now, going to jazz clubs and sneaking off to float down rivers with her secret boyfriend—and all season Cora has chirped at her to be patient. Well, it looks like Rose has survived the wait without scandal, despite the way the season has pretended her reckless disregard for social norms was bound to lead to catastrophe. Not only do we have nary a whiff of scandal, there is absolutely no mention of her erstwhile fiancé, Jack Ross, nor the broken heart she might have been supposed to suffer when he, for her own good, broke off the brief engagement last episode.
Eight months have passed since the Jack Ross adventure, during which interval Edith and Rosamund disappeared to Geneva and Edith has “come back looking more tired than when she left,” in the kitchen staff’s opinion. Of course we know what the staff does not: Edith has had her baby and is now sadder than ever, wishing she could have kept her little girl. She is not exactly enthusiastic about the London trip, envying Tom who gets to stay behind for a couple of days—he has an estate to run. He’s expected to show up at Rose’s ball, though. I mean, someone has to bring Lord Grantham his dog.
The staff flap around in a frenzy of preparations. Mrs. Hughes is going up to London to run the house there, and Daisy will join Mrs. Patmore and Ivy, who went up early to prepare for the eleventy-thousand people they’ll be cooking for all week. This means Daisy has been left in charge of Downton meals for a few days already, a nicely subtle reminder of how competent she has become these past few years—skills that will take center stage later in the episode.
Nearly all our main belowstairs players will join us in London; only Thomas is left behind to boss the assorted unnamed housemaids and underservants. A bit boring for him, really; what’s a conniving villain to do without anyone to scheme about? He sends a not-very-cryptic and completely unnecessary message to Miss Baxter via Daisy (“Tell her I’m looking forward to her stories”), for which Daisy rewards him with her best are-you-daft look; and then I’m afraid it would have been a dull week for Thomas if he hadn’t suddenly remembered that he passionately hates Tom and resents his unwarranted rise to “Sir” status. WHEW. For a moment there I thought Thomas might actually have nothing to do but enjoy some down time. If an evil underbutler snarls in the forest where there’s no one to hear him, does he make a sound?
Daisy, a volcano of excitement about going to London: “I don’t care where I peel potatoes.”
Edith visits Violet, who attempts sympathy for Edith’s feelings, trying with what I thought was rather endearing forthrightness to talk about the baby. Edith snaps at her for saying “it,” not “she” and smacks her down for Violet’s feeble attempt at cheering her up. Edith, listen, I’ve been in your corner for a really long time, and your situation is genuinely tragic, but here’s the one person at Downton who knows why you’re in pain, and you’re biting her head off. She’s trying, which is more than you might have expected her to do.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family is demonstrating equally charming manners. Robert whines about having to go to London; Mary sighs over the impending arrival of the “American contingent” (Cora’s like, Hey, that’s my mother you’re talking about); and then Cora completely loses her mind and suggests that Edith and Mary might have to share a room in London. Mary: “You’re joking. I’d rather sleep on the roof.” I’d give anything if only Cora could call in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle at this point. Chapter 12, The Insufferable Sister Cure. “Oh, I know just the thing,” Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle said. “Take a blanket and pillow up to the roof, and make up a nice little bed for Mary and my pig, Lester. He has the loveliest manners.” After all, we know how inspired Mary is by Pigs.
Well, I’m with Cora. All this kerfuffle! Get out the door to London, already! They haven’t even made it to the car yet, and already Rose is pestering to go out to a club that night. “Your niece is a flapper. Accept it.” This from Mary, that famous progressive.
But at last, they’re off, and the stragglers can quiet down—except for Isobel, who is surprised by a visit from Lord Merton, hinting that he’d like to be her date to Rose’s ball. Isobel doesn’t plan to go—”not my natural habitat”—but we can make short work of this plotline. She’ll decide to go after all, because it’s tradition. Not her tradition, but the Downton Granthams are her people now, etc. I’m feeling a little sad about Isobel this season. She’s a wonderful character, somewhat wasted. All season we’ve seen a penduluming relationship between Isobel and Violet—they exasperate each other, but they look out for each other nonetheless; and since neither one of them seems inclined to be a hands-on grandmother, they’re left without much to do except keep each other’s blood pressure up. But since Violet’s other foil, Cora’s mother Martha, will promenade into the scene as soon as we hit London, Isobel becomes something of a shadow again. You’d think Martha—so loud! so vulgar! so American!—would make Violet appreciate Isobel’s merits, but we’re denied the fun of seeing a three-way snipe-fest between them.
LONDON AT LAST. The flappers head to the Embassy Club—Rose and her friend Madeleine Allsopp—and immediately bump into Madeleine’s father, an impoverished baron, hanging out with his good buddy the Prince of Wales. This is the future King Edward VIII (David to his family and friends), and he’s here at the club with his mistress, Mrs. Dudley Ward—Freda to her friends, and “My vewy vewy own precious darling beloved little Freddie” to the Prince. No, seriously. You see why it was so imperative that his letter not get into the wrong hands. Freda Dudley Ward and the Prince had an affair from 1918-1923 and remained close even after it ended, right up until he started seeing Wallis Simpson in 1934 (for whom he abdicated the throne in 1936).
Well, it turns out the Prince is fond of Rose’s father, good old Shrimpy, who hosted him in Bombay last year. Freda thanks Rose for perking up her grouchy date, and just like that Rose has some new friends.
BACK AT DOWNTON, Tom doesn’t want to make any trouble for the servants, which irritates Thomas no end. I mean, obviously, them’s fightin’ words. Gloves OFF. Or they would be, if Thomas wore gloves—what do you think he is, a footman? You want to be on his hit list, too?
Tom bumps into his new friend Sarah Bunting again, just in time to introduce her to Violet, whom I absolutely love to see peering from a car window. You can totally picture her peering from carriage windows with the same lofty distractedness, fifty years earlier. She takes little notice of Sarah and calls Tom “Branson” again by mistake, catching herself with an endearingly fluttery, “Oh, I mean Tom!” Sarah decides to take Tom up on his offer of dinner, and then all but goads him into giving her a tour of the house. Tom is terribly uncomfortable about it, feeling that it isn’t entirely appropriate, but he can’t take Sarah’s teasing. He does live in the house, after all; isn’t he allowed to have his friends over? HELLO, not when there’s an Evil Underbutler out to get you. Of course Sarah wants to see the view of the gallery from the top of the stairs—the bedroom stairs, Thomas will make a point of calling them to Lord Grantham later, when he rats Tom out.
LONDON. Edith arrives at the same time as her grandmama and Uncle Harold. Uncle Harold is Paul Giamatti! This ensures I will love him even if he’s despicable. But it seems he is not despicable, that Teapot Dome business notwithstanding. “It should’ve worked.” Uncle Harold is cynical, picky about his food, wary of fathers on the prowl for rich sons-in-law, and inclined to take a dim view of his own charms. But he’s got a sweetly sad manner and is frank without being embarrassing (unlike his mother). Of course if Martha’s on screen, we hardly notice anyone else. It’s obvious Shirley MacLaine is having a blast with this role, and I’m glad, because playing it with that kind of over-the-top relish is the only way Martha’s character is made tolerable—otherwise she’d be such a cardboard stereotype of the Pushy American with Terrible Taste. MacLaine imbues her with a sense of humor and self-awareness: yes I know I’m ridiculous, I like it that way.
Uncle Harold has a chatty valet, Ethan Slade, whose American accent will make you wince. (It’s even worse than Jack Ross’s.) And boy howdy is he American! Pronto! You bet! He meets Daisy and is instantly smitten, for no reason at all. Well, he did mention that you have to have skin like a rhinoceros to work for the Levinsons. Daisy’s cold stare doesn’t faze him a bit. (“Are you excited?” “I’m never excited.”)
Carson has been charged with thinking up a nice outing to reward the harried staff at the end of their London stay. His ideas—visiting the “new science museum” or Madame Tussauds—exasperate Mrs. Hughes, because they’re apparently all boring from top to bottom. Rather than just come out and tell him what everyone will like (a visit to the seaside), she sticks a picture postcard at his eye-level and waits for him to be struck with the winning idea. After trotting out all sorts of eager suggestions to an unimpressed staff, he finally suggests the beach trip, at which point Mrs. Hughes jabs that it took him long enough to get there. Okay, this makes no sense at all. If it’s so important that he come up with the idea on his own (as suggested by her postcard ruse), why let him know she had something in mind all along? I love Mrs. Hughes, I really do, but this is not the first time this season her behavior has perplexed me.
And it happens again in the Bates plot. Anna donates Bates’s old coat to a cause Mrs. Hughes is collecting for. Mrs. H. finds an incriminating ticket stub in the pocket: York to London on the day Anna’s attacker, Mr. Green, was killed. EIGHT MONTHS AGO, remember. Let’s not linger too long on what it says about Bates that he has hung on to a damning piece of evidence all this time, like a trophy. He knows it was in the pocket because he’s very upset when he learns Anna gave the coat away without letting him go through the pockets first. He fixes his Sinister Gaze upon Mrs. Hughes, clearly suspecting that she suspects something. And here’s where Mrs. Hughes confounded me again: she shows the ticket to Mary, then gets very distressed when Mary contemplates turning Bates in. Then why tell her in the first place?
Robert’s all glum that Tom hasn’t arrived, and Cora coos because she thinks that’s sweet, and Robert’s baffled: “No, I mean he’s bringing Isis. I miss her.” HIS DOG. Best laugh of the night.
Another night at the Embassy Club. Rose is “tiddly,” to potentially disastrous effect: she blabs about a secret letter Freda has in her handbag, a tender missive from the Prince. Naturally the scoundrel Sampson (the card shark from earlier in the season) takes the opportunity to filch it. It’ll make him a tidy sum with the foreign press. When the news ripples back to the Grantham clan in the days following, they spring into action. Robert is a monarchist, for Pete’s sake! No relative of his shall be a party to bringing scandal upon the Royal Family! A very elaborate plan is hatched, involving a decoy poker game, a decoy theater outing, a forged letter (good old Bates!), and a secret search party in Sampson’s flat. Both of Mary’s fellas are in on the plot, and Charles is just so pleased that Mary reached out to him in a time of need.
Alas, the search is a bust: the letter isn’t in the flat. Back at the house, Bates puts two and two together and pickpockets the letter from Sampson’s coat right under everyone’s nose, because he is a master criminal. Brilliant forger (who sits brazenly in the servants’ hall doing the forgery he’s supposed to have contracted out to a friend), silken touch, can bump a man into traffic in front of hundreds of witnesses—is there nothing he can’t do? I’m starting to have second thoughts about Vera’s arsenic pie.
His pickpocketry saves his bacon, because Mary is so grateful for his loyalty to the family that she tosses the incriminating train ticket into the fire. All’s well that ends well.
In between the letter’s loss and its recovery, we had that tiny little diversion of Rose’s Presentation at Court. Gowns to die for. The King makes conversation with Rose—good old Shrimpy again—and Rose acquits herself admirably. But that is just a shadow compared to her success at her coming-out ball. With the dangerous letter safely back in Freda’s beaded purse, the Prince of Wales is in Rose’s debt. He crashes her ball and asks for the first dance. “If she’s not the belle of London society after this,” remarks Robert, it’s not his fault.
All week, Madeleine’s father has been pushing her at Uncle Harold, while daddy himself is making a play for Martha. Both Americans see right through the ploys and rebuff them with good humor. Harold actually winds up connecting with Madeleine, and they become friends of sorts. Meanwhile, Harold’s valet has made his own play for Daisy, offering her the chance to come to America and be Harold’s cook—after all, he adores her delicious fish mousse. Daisy declines, but is tickled by Slade’s interest. Ivy jumps at the opportunity since Daisy doesn’t want it, and everyone winds up happy. Daisy even smiles, which is how you can tell this is a season finale.
The season ends with a reason for Edith to smile, too. All along she’s been pushing back at Aunt Rosamund, regretting giving her baby away to that nice Swiss couple. And now that news has come at last of Michael—it seems he clashed with some Nazis in Munich (a “gang of toughs” who “wear brown shirts and go around preaching most horrible things”). We still don’t know if he’s dead or imprisoned. Edith has power of attorney over the magazine, and she may inherit his personal property as well. She feels very strongly that his daughter ought to have a share of that, and while the London crew is still recovering from the ball, she slips home to Downton and makes arrangements with Mr. Drew, the reliable farmer and new pig man. Drew agrees to raise the baby (her “friend’s” baby, but he susses out exactly what the situation is) as his own. Edith will get to watch her little girl grow up. This was the bit that made me feel most eager for next season.
I’m afraid Mary’s double romance, which is supposed to have been the dominant arc of this season—What Will Mary Do?—has left me rather flat. I like Tony, I like Charles, I don’t like watching Mary string them both along. I know she keeps trying to shoo them off, but never very convincingly. And now she’s got them fighting for her—”Let battle commence”—and, well, I keep thinking of the day one of my daughters complained about another: “Mom, she’s smugging again.”
What else is left to wrap up? Thomas bullies Baxter for more sssssecrets, but Baxter has drawn strength from Molesley’s kindness and decides to take her chances with whatever leverage Thomas has over her. Listen, look at Bates and Thomas—at this point a shady past is practically a requirement for new Downton hires.
And so the tide goes out on Season 4 at the seaside, with Carson and Mrs. Hughes holding hands and wading into uncertain waters. “We’re getting on, you and I,” she tells him companionably. “We can afford to live a little.”
The primary task of every character this season was to decide what world to live in: the old pre-War England, or the new. Robert has clung to the past like a toddler clutching his mother’s leg. Even Carson has accepted change with more dignity than his employer. Thomas, too, seems stuck in a past built on pecking order and rank. I wondered if his trip to America would open up new prospects for him, but it seems he came back more hidebound and bitter than ever. He wants esteem in the old order, and it’s fading away before he can climb to the top of his ladder. Cora seems to be fading away right along with it; she’s much less vital a person than she was during the war. Violet may not approve of all the ways in which society is changing, but she’s rolling with the change much more amiably than might have been expected, and I didn’t think Martha’s barbs about “your world is ending, mine is beginning” were entirely fair or accurate. Violet is accepting social change tolerably well; it’s Martha’s style she objects to, and her idiom. And her personality. And her face.
Mary has decided to orient herself toward the future for the sake of keeping Downton intact for her son—and that’s an interesting twist on progressivism. She’s open to new ideas only because she wants to maintain the status quo. It’s a nice little paradox and I’d like to see Mary grapple with that problem rather than her question of whom to marry whenever she feels like marrying again. But in the end, it’s the outliers I care about—Edith and Tom.
Downton Abbey Season 4, Episode 1: Don’t Mess with Thomas. But Please, Please, Do Mess with Mary.
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