Friday, February 28, 2014

Downton Abbey, S4, E8: The Abdication Caper

It's the Christmas Special, which means a super-sized Downton episode!  This one was both less tedious and less morbid than the previous one.  While there was threat of a scandal, at least no one died this time.

Plot Synopsis

So we jump ahead an entire year to the summer of 1923, and as expected, virtually nothing has changed.  Nothing except Edith going to Switzerland for eight months, having a baby girl, breastfeeding her herself, then giving her away to a Swiss family before heading home.  Nope, nothing other than that.

Since apparently even Rose's brother and sister in England hate her, the Crawleys will be overseeing her presentation at court and the subsequent festivities.  The entire family heads down to London, save Branson, Isobel, and Violet, to the never-before-seen Grantham House.  The servants are all flustered, and Mrs. Hughes and Daisy make a late trip down because the housekeeper at Grantham House is ill and there will be a lot of guests for dinner.  That leaves essentially Thomas and Ivy behind to look after Branson, and Thomas is none too pleased about it.

Sooo let's get some frivolous plot lines out of the way.  Despite not being officially "out" in society, Rose rushes off to a jazz club on her first night, where she meets David, the Prince of Wales and his current mistress, Freda Dudley Ward.  Hmm, I guess if you squint hard enough, he kind of, sort of, maybe looks a bit like the real Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.  Anyway, the Prince of Wales takes an unusual interest in Rose, somehow remembering her father, "Shrimpie Flintshire," above all the other aristocrats he must mingle with on a daily basis.  Freda practically becomes Rose's new best friend.  Then after Rose's presentation -- more on that later -- Rose joins Freda at one of countless parties and who should be there but the shady card shark from Episode 2?  But he's not just a shady card shark -- it turns out that he's just all-around bad news!  Rose somehow lets it slip that Freda has a love letter to the Prince of Wales on her person, and Shade Card Shark Man steals it from her purse when Rose and Freda are off dancing.

Rose tells Lord Grantham the next day, and Lord Grantham has a massive freakout about how he supports the monarchy and doesn't want a scandal to bring it down, especially if it can be traced back to the Crawleys.  So he concocts a plot worthy of Oceans 11 to get the letter back.  The plot involves a forged letter by Bates, and Mary and Rose visiting his hotel room pretending to retrieve something.  Stupidly, Shady Card Shark Man left the letter in his coat pocket, where all important, incriminating evidence is left, I guess.  So Mary and Rose retrieve the letter, Shady Card Shark Man is foiled, and the future Edward VIII's reputation is saved... or not.  But at least no one will blame the Crawleys now.

Let's see, what other frivolous plots are there?  Well half of the episode... but if I had to go for truly frivolous, I would say Thomas's boiling animosity towards Branson for being the servant that "made good."  The entire plot just underscores how badly Thomas needs something to do.  Last year he had a meaty plot line; this year, he's reduced to sulking about and demanding news from Baxter.  No, we never do find out what he has over her -- I might as well say it now.  Thomas resents having to wait on Branson and tries to take advantage at every turn, such as by trying to sit in the back of the car rather than the front, as servants should.  Thomas takes particular malevolent glee in Branson's situation with Sarah Bunting.  After running into her yet again, Branson is somehow persuaded to take Bunting on a tour of Downton Abbey.  He intends to restrict it to the downstairs, but she rushes upstairs, with Branson in pursuit, to see the view from the gallery.  She notes the coat of arms for each of the Countesses, and wonders where Cora's is with the dollar sign.  Just then, Thomas interrupts them like the ghoul he is.  Nyah-nyah, Thomas is gonna tell on you, Branson!  You took a ladyperson upstairs

Seriously, I hope Series Five finds Thomas getting fired and Molesley taking his place as under-butler.  Not only would it make sense, but it would also give Thomas a new storyline.  He doesn't have to be at Downton every second to be interesting.  In any event, when he finally joins the rest of the servants, Molesley convinces Baxter to stand up to him, and she later praises Molesley's strength for making her strong.  Molesley's like "my what?"  The Molesley and Baxter storyline has been the best surprise of Series Four.

Finally, Mary's men continue their very, very boring pursuit of her.  Mary likes Blake, but he's oh so common, you see, and heaven forbid Mary wed someone who isn't wealthy.  Then Mary learns from Lord Gillingham that Blake is set to inherit a massive estate in Ulster from a distant relative.  Shades of Matthew.  Which probably means Blake will be the one sticking around, and it will be a way for us to keep up with what's happening in Ireland even though Branson has been exiled.  I should mention that Mary is finally out of her mourning period, so it's now open season on winning her hand!  Though no matter which man she chooses, Mary's first love will always be Downton Abbey.

I think that gets all of the light, frivolous plot lines out of the way, though there is at least one frivolous plot that tries to be weighty.  For example, Anna collects an old coat of Bates's for a clothing drive, and Mrs. Hughes finds a ticket to London in the pocket marked on the same day that Green died.  Never mind that it makes no sense that Bates's winter coat would be at the Crawleys' summer house.  Never mind that it's insane that Bates, a crafty ex-con who could forge a letter, would keep potentially incriminating evidence on his person.  Never mind that Bates was not wearing that coat on the day he left for "York."  And never mind that Mrs. Hughes has handled worse things than this on her own.  In some bizarre fit of trust, she runs to Mary and shows her the ticket, and both conclude that it's irrefutable proof that Bates murdered Green.  Urm, yeah.  Mary is all morally conflicted, concerned about harming Anna, but not wanting to harbor a murderer.  But after Bates helps the family retrieve the Prince of Wales's letter, she's like "Oh well!" and tosses the ticket into the fire.  So have we seen the last of this storyline?

The meat of the episode is Rose's presentation at court, the "American contingent's" arrival, and Edith's dilemma over her daughter.  So Cora's mother Martha arrives with Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow.  Neither Martha nor Harold act thrilled to be there, even though Martha specifically wanted to come to England to see the season.  Harold has never been to England, at least not since Cora was married, and treats Edith like the person assigned to carry his coat.  Thanks, Uncle Harold.  I actually liked Paul Giamatti in this role and wouldn't mind seeing more of him.  However, I find it strange how... un-family-like the Crawleys and Levinsons behave.  No affection between Cora and Harold, or between Cora and Martha.  Mary treats her America relatives with disdain.  Cora just lets the Crawleys make snide remarks about the Levinsons with scarcely a harsh word.

Though Reed from Series Three is gone, the Levinsons have brought their "golly gosh!" valet, Slade.  Slade reminds me of the characters from The Book of Mormon, and also of a blonder Alfred.  In a reversal of that plot line, he takes an immediate shine to Daisy -- maybe because Ivy is not there initially to be competition?  Daisy cannot help being flattered, but Slade works the other servants' last nerve, especially Carson's, with his Americanness.  At one point he reminds Carson that his last name is Slade, not Levinson (as visiting servants are typically called by their employer's name) and Carson practically rips his throat out.  None of your silly independence here, boy!     

Presentation Day arrives, and Rose and all of the other debutantes ride down a glorious procession route to Buckingham Palace, where they ascend the stairs and wait their turn to be called.  Again, you would think that if Rose's mother couldn't make it from India, Rose's older sister would be there to sponsor her.  Instead it's Cora, who makes the appropriate deep bow along with Rose in front of King George V and Queen Mary look-alikes.  "David" is there as well, and makes sure to tell his papa that Rose is Shrimpie Flintshire's daughter.  George V is like "Oh, you're Shrimpie's daughter?  WOW!"  Something that I suspect the real George V would have never, ever done.  He seemed like the type who just wanted to get through this presentation nonsense as fast as he could.

Then later at Rose's ball, the Prince of Wales offers to lead her in the first dance.  Now she'll be the most popular girl in school!

During this time, Harold becomes friendly with Rose's friend, Madeleine, daughter of Lord Aysgarth (who, consequently, does look like Edward VIII -- at least an older version).  Harold quickly determines that Madeleine is after his money, if only because her father is sniffing Martha up and down like a police drug dog.  Madeleine is sincerely hurt -- apparently she really does like this portly, balding, sarcastic American for himself!  Harold softens, realizing that too often he puts up defenses to avoid being hurt.  Meanwhile, Martha dispenses of Lord Aysgarth, offering to take him to Newport, where he can meet bunches of rich widows who want a title much more than she.

Slade informs Daisy that Harold likes her cooking and wants her to come work as his personal cook in America.  Daisy considers it, but finally turns down the offer for whatever reason.  Actually, her reasons are decent: she has a widow's pension, is in line to inherit a tenancy, and all of her friends are at Downton.  Upon Daisy's rejection, Ivy (who is now in London) immediately asks if she can fill the role.  Daisy's like: "Yes, please, anything to prevent a new love quadrangle," and Slade agrees to let Ivy take Daisy's place.  Mrs. Patmore asks Daisy if she feels bad for turning Slade down, and Daisy responds that she just liked feeling desired for a change, but didn't need it to go any further.  So Ivy is off to America, and hopefully the actress will find another role that will, er, stretch her talents a bit more.  It shouldn't be too hard to find something that requires you be more than wallpaper.

Edith, meanwhile, has the one adult plot line of the episode.  Though she left her baby with the Swiss family, she is already having regrets.  She wants to take her baby back and have her raised by one of the Downton tenant farmers where Edith can keep an eye on her.  During the time lapse between episodes, Edith has learned that Gregson was attacked by German brownshirts in Munich on his first night, and now fears that he could be dead.  If so, the baby is the only piece of him she still has; since Gregson gave her power of attorney, that means she could inherit his estate and wants to leave part of it to the baby.  That doesn't make sense: wouldn't Gregson's wife inherit the estate, since she's still alive?  Since when is granting power of attorney the same as signing a new will?

Whatever.  Rosamund cautions Edith against her plan, and Edith responds that Rosamund can't understand what Edith is going through since Rosamund was never a mother.  Rosamund gives her a look, most likely remembering the two children Julian Fellowes gave her at the beginning of the series, only to strip them away later.  They must be swirling around in the same vortex that claimed Rose's siblings.

Edith decides to follow through with her plan, with the aid of Drewe, the tenant farmer whom Lord Grantham helped in an earlier episode.  They decide to pretend that Drewe's friend died unexpectedly and asked Drewe and his wife to raise her child.  Edith claims that it is a favor for a friend of hers, but Drewe appears to know the truth.  He agrees to keep things a secret, and seems kind hearted and sincere enough (I hope?) to do so.  This plan will likely blow up in Edith's face in Series Five, but for now, it's all she has.

Finally, the servants get the day off from their back-breaking labor for the past week or so.  Carson wants to take them someplace dull and educational, but Mrs. Hughes tricks him into agreeing to take them all to the beach.  I don't see why they all must go to the same place, but oh well.  Everyone has a good time, and Carson and Mrs. Hughes wade into the ocean together.


Other Observations

Martha Is Still Not Funny.  I will give the character credit for quickly recognizing and cutting down a gold-digging suitor, but otherwise, I feel like her appearances add nothing.  Except for more opportunities for Violet to be mean-witty -- like she doesn't have enough with Isobel?  And so Martha can say lines like: "You're part of the old.  I'm part of the new!"  Even if that's true in a broad sense, it just seems absurd coming from her crumbling visage.  In Series Three, Martha seemed kind of daffy, as if she were sampling her daughter's opiates, whereas here she just seems grouchy.  Maybe she remembered that she hates these people.

Yes, Isobel Was in This.  I didn't quite see where to fit her plot line in, as it was so slight.  Lord Merton is still pursuing her kind of, and she kind of likes him and kind of... doesn't?  Is that right?  This marks the second Christmas Episode in a row where Isobel existed outside of the main plot, though at least she got to be part of the main family gathering this time.  And she had a hilarious exchange with Violet, promising to guide her through the "jungle" of London without the use of a lady's maid.

Whither Jack Ross?  It might have been a nice character moment if Rose, instead of going to one party after another, had stopped to visit Ross to get some closure.  For her to just up and forget him makes her seem like every bit the spoiled party girl she's accused of being, rather than the person he believed her to be.

Goodbye, Matthew.  It seems odd that despite Matthew's death hovering over much of Series Four, there was so little reference to him in this episode.  The most heartfelt moment came when Branson and Edith quietly remembered him.  Yes, he was a good friend and ally to both of them, wasn't he?  Meanwhile, Mary seemed to care more about preserving Downton, and really, that's always been her major goal, even when Matthew was alive.  It might have been nice if she or Isobel had opened or closed the episode by paying him a silent tribute, maybe by the side of his grave.  

Next Time: I'll take a look at my Series Four predictions and see what came true and what really didn't, then make some more predictions for Series Five.

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