Downton Abbey: A Very Crawley Christmas

Posted on February 19, 2012

“Life is a game in which the player must appear ridiculous.”

Given how poorly the previous season was paced – so badly that “poorly paced” serves quite well as a primary descriptor for the season – it’s a bit astonishing that so much happened in these two hours and yet very little of it felt rushed or un-earned. In fact, everything was so earned that it wound up being the best two hours of the entire series so far. A truly enjoyable wrapup of most of the storylines to date, giving the fans pretty much exactly what they wanted and still leaving enough dangling to keep them coming back. Julian Fellowes, how the hell did you manage that one? Were you drunk while you wrote the previous season and only sobered up in time to bang this one out? Did you finally recover from your Canadian-causing blow to the head? Did you feel a tingle down there while you were writing this? Whatever the secret to your sudden and unforeseen scripting success, do consider replicating it when it comes time to write series 3, won’t you?

If it wasn’t for scores of people saying, for weeks ahead of time, “Just wait until the Christmas Special,” we probably would have gone into this episode without high hopes at all. Oh sure, we’ve managed to laugh our way through some of the more ludicrous aspects of the season, but there was a distinct impression that this ship was sinking, and if it were to continue making the mistakes it’s been routinely making, the show’s big moment as an international hit would likely be extremely short-lived. In short, a LOT was riding on these two hours and Fellowes stuck the dismount, against all reasonable expectations.

First and foremost in everyone’s minds is the (seeming) resolution to the Matthew and Mary saga. With a trail of dead bodies, scandal, miraculous cures and unlikely singing duets behind them, their coming together couldn’t have been handled in a better way. That scene was just romantic enough (If they don’t put out Downton snow globes within the next year, they’re utter fools) to be sweetly satisfying, but it was also perfectly acted by both performers, giving the scene an unexpected light touch when it could have easily gotten heavy with the weight of past storylines. It just felt right. Mary’s acted far less than admirably throughout this story and plenty will say she doesn’t deserve a happy ending, given all the people she’s hurt, but as Matthew said, “You lived your life and I lived mine.” It’ll be interesting to see where they take Mary now that she’s achieved and acquired everything she ever wanted. Without that longing and frustration defining her, that’s a tough row to hoe, both for the actress and the writer. Of course, this being a soap opera, there’s no guarantee that one long-awaited proposal will mean an instant Happily Ever After, so there’s plenty of wiggle room down the road, in terms of giving Mary something to complain about do.

We still had to be treated to the two of them acting quite stupidly before they got to that kiss, though. Even though it looked like every other character under that roof, upstairs and down, was treating their eventual coming together as an inevitability (including the increasingly frantic and wild-eyed Sir Richard, we had to watch these two idiots stumble through almost 2 hours of delaying; an extended foreplay that lasted throughout the entire twelve days of the Christmas.  We had yet another morose scene around a grave, as Mary and Matthew whipped themselves over Lavinia’s corpse while Isobel looked on with a “What the fuck is wrong with these two?” look on her face. At least we got a bit of the old Isobel for a second; the one who’s pushy, but usually for a good reason and usually because she’s right. We got the previously mentioned frantic Sir Richard all but slapping her at the dinner table, which brought Matthew to her side and the ghost of Mr. Pamuk to the surface once again. And we almost got Mary fleeing Europe altogether, to get away from all her problems. But thankfully, in the end, we got to see Matthew, bruised spine and all, hand Sir Richard the beating we all wanted to see. Well, maybe a little blood would have been nice. Still, when she FINALLY said “Yes,” it felt as earned as a payoff could possibly be.

But the story wasn’t restricted to Mary and Matthew. The downstairs version of their rocky romance hit the biggest snag of all as Mr. Bates gets pronounced guilty and sentence to death in high melodrama fashion, complete with weeping wife calling out in the courtroom. Considering the testimony that most damned him was apparently his own, as he told the prosecutors every single incriminating thing he ever said so they could haul half the household onto the stand and force them into repeating it, we once again wanted to wash our hands of this tiresome, self-sabotaging raincloud of a man. Why on earth would he TELL prosecutors that Mrs. Hughes heard him call her a bitch (and how would he know that, anyway)? Why would he tell them that he referred to her as “the late” Mrs. Bates to Lord Grantham? Why didn’t Anna just throw up her hands and walk out of that courtroom in disgust? Interesting once again to note how concerned O’Brien seems to be about the whole thing. She’s really feeling guilty about that testimony, but we wonder if there’s something she hasn’t admitted to; something that’s making her feel even more guilty than we know. The good news (we suppose) is that Bates only gets life imprisonment and everyone assures Anna that they’re going to work to get his sentence overturned. Frankly, we were a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see the adventures of Lady Mary and Anna in America, with (presumably) Shirley MacLaine.

But it looks like the journey of Robert, Earl of Grantham, has spared Mary the fate of running off to Newport with Grandmama. As dumb as all his moping and maid-groping was this season, even that was paid off here. Because the only way the Robert we met in the first episode of this show would ever get to the point where he could calmly ask his oldest daughter, “Do you stay with Carlisle because he’s threatened to expose the story of Mr. Pamuk dying in your bed?” was to put him through the wringer, morally and emotionally. Talk about a BOMB DROP, though. Even after the scene with Cora prepared us for it, we were still open-mouthed when he said that line. And teary-eyed when he told her with great affection that he didn’t want her to spend her life with a man who threatened her with ruin and that she should “go and find a cowboy from the middle west” to shake up the family. Only a Robert who lost his heir, saw his other heir mangled and crippled, sat through a war that made him feel worthless, almost broke his marriage vows even as his wife lay dying, and watched his youngest daughter choose the worst possible husband could have uttered those lines. It made sense in retrospect to put him through all that, but we sure wish Fellowes had settled on a more artful way of doing it.

In other Crawley sister news, Edith has HAD IT with being the Jan Brady in this family and she makes her play for Sir Anthony, who tries his best to rebuff it. But Lady Edith’s been through way too much shit herself in the past few years and as she watches her two sisters stumble toward love, she utters her life’s creed to the flustered man: “If you think I’m going to give up on a man who calls me ‘lovely…'” She didn’t get to finish the thought, so we’ll say it, “…THEN YOU DON’T KNOW LADY EDITH, WHO ROLLED IN THE MUD WITH AN UGLY FARMER AND BRIEFLY CONSIDERED A MUPPET WITH ANGER ISSUES, BUDDY. What’s a useless arm after all that? Also, I’ll make babies for you so someone can inherit this fabulous house of yours.” Of all the Crawley sisters, Edith is the one most in need of a pushy gay to get her to say these things. Too bad Thomas can’t be her ladies’ maid.

Oh, and speaking of Thomas, he’s an idiot, but the lucky bastard managed to come out on top. Looks like he’s gonna be Lord Grantham’s valet after all. At least for now. Once you work up the nerve to waltz with the Dowager Countess, we suppose you’re capable of just about anything and probably deserve to be recognized for it.

How cute was that servants’ ball, anyway? And how funny was Matthew’s response to the news he’d be dancing with O’Brien: A heartfelt and desperate “Crikey.” Oh, and the fabulous shooting party with the outdoor luncheon that looked like a Ralph Lauren ad in Town & Country? To DIE. Never before have we wanted so badly to wear tweeds and carry a gun. Credit must be paid to the eye candy this episode, which was stunningly shot and gave the proceedings a highly cinematic feel; even more so than usual.

Daisy got a lovely wrapup as well, finally coming to terms with her relationship with William and gaining a loveable hobbit of a father in the process. “Will you be my daughter? Let me take you into my heart and make you special?” Now WHO could say no to an offer like that? Even we were all, “We’ll be your daughters, Mr. Mason!” through our Kleenex. It was adorable seeing him immediately start to give her advice, slipping right into the father role without another word about it being uttered. It was as emotionally satisfying as Daisy’s story could have been. Credit must be paid to Violet, who seemed to be the one person to punch through Daisy’s wall of stubborness about the whole affair, in a scene that was both adorable and thrilling to watch, just to see two characters who never speak to each other open up like that.  “Well pardon me, but that doesn’t sound very unloving. To me that sounds as if you loved him a great deal.” EXACTLY, VIOLET. But Mr. Mason had the final word, by reminding her that whatever else she was feeling for him, his feelings for her were as genuine as they could have been. “That’s right, I were only ever special to William. Never thought about it like that before.” And just like that, Daisy has a home to go to. Thank Mrs. Patmore and her wily way with a ouija board, which impressed even O’Brien.

Aunt Rosamund got a little story of her own, and the poor dear was made a fool of by the slimy Lord Hepworth and her obnoxious ladies maid. We don’t blame her for hating that her mother was proved right, but we did so love the delicious scene of the Dowager Countess batting him around like a bored cat with a frightened mouse.  And we love how Anna just isn’t putting up with anyone’s bullshit, leading Lady Mary and Lady Rosamunde right to the bedroom door and opening it. Girl’s got no time for other people’s shit while her man’s doing time.

We couldn’t have gotten a better wrapup to the sometimes-slog of this increasingly silly season. But just when we thought we’d managed the entire two hours without one belly laugh at something ludicrous, Julian came through for us again, having Saint Lavinia descend from heaven, her dying words of “Isn’t this better?” just not self-sacrificing and doormat-y enough, to bestow her blessing on Mary & Matthew.

To two maids, for some reason. That girl never was too bright.

[Photo Credit: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE]

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