Downton Abbey Watch: Mastercheese Theater

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Carnival Film & Television for MASTERPIECE

Say what you will about Downton Abbey’s melodramatic, overwrought, this-is-just-Dallas-set-on-a-moor twists and turns, but you cannot say that this is a show where nothing ever happens. This week, Julian Fellowes and company gave us an epic two-hour symphony of histrionics (I hope you popped some corn before viewing; if not, please do before next week’s finale. It’s just as long) that included about 100 movements over four months, not limited to an almost-elopement, a secret wedding, a cancelled wedding, and a funeral. And all this without Hugh Grant or Andie MacDowell anywhere in sight.

I think if we can all get real for a moment, it’s time we faced some hard truths about the DA, and in turn, about ourselves. From a distance, watching Downton seems like a respectable use of one’s time. There is some historical merit to it, and all the manners and under-the-surface tension disguised as nicety has lulled us into the comforting sense that watching this show is something of a highbrow activity. It has to be fancy; the blood that pumps through its very veins is made of Earl Grey. Plus, all those meal courses! There is a separate glass entirely just for pudding wine. Just knowing the term pudding wine makes me feel classier than Lana Turner in a new fur coat.

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But here’s the deal: This isn’t a “good” show. Not in the way that awards and hype would have you believe, anyway. This isn’t The Wire with pearls on, and it’s not Mad Men’s fifty-year-old spiritual ancestor. Sir Richard Carlisle has neither the power nor the quiet grace of Tony Soprano. No one is as enigmatic or deeply tragic as Walter White. Comparing Downton Abbey to the best dramas in recent television (as many fans have done and continue to do) is a fool’s errand; it is an unwinnable debate. The acting is never subtle, the exposition often trite. The emotional payoffs in big moments — say, Matthew and Mary FINALLY waltz-snogging — are huge, but they are not elegant. This is a clumsy show with a lot of face-pulling and gasping and dying when it is convenient.

But just because this is Masterpiece Theater crossed with The Thorn Birds, that doesn’t mean Downton isn’t a soap opera at the height of its form. For what it is, and in this episode particularly, Downton Abbey is firing on all cylinders. It is so deeply satisfying, in the way that cheesecake is so deeply satisfying. And what would life be without cheesecake? So let’s dive in with a big ole’ spoon and see where this week has left our players. Some are dead, some are getting it on, some are just super bummed out. To the recaps!

1. Lord Grantham: It seems only fair to begin with Lord Granny this week, who sat out on the action for a few weeks but flung himself right back in by having one of the more hypocritical affairs this show has seen. I mean, yes, dude is “lost” after the war and goes around making woe-is-me comments like “before the war I believed my life had value, I should like to feel that again,” and there are a million tiny violins that follow him wherever he goes. He has been so good you see, so good to Cora and to his daughters and now the war is over and he feels so very “wretched” inside. Plus, it doesn’t help that his American wife (don’t you love how he brings up her Yankee status when he’s mad?) is being kind of a shrew who is trying to separate his eldest daughter from her one true love. Of course he would fall into the arms of the plain maid who we know basically nothing about!

Wait…what? The Jane affair, while thrilling (Hugh Bonneville making out with anyone behind a closed door is worth watching), is completely out of character for our Lord. It seems to pop up from nowhere. But as long as it is happening, one wishes the Earl might square his desire to grope the help with his absolute denial of Sybil’s right to run off with young Driving Miss Crawley. Instead, he never really clues into the double standard, though he does kindly offer to pay for Jane’s son’s education. Because there is no better way to walk away from a love affair with someone you really care about than paying her off like a hooker! Perhaps the backroom second-base action softened his heart towards his youngest, but Grantham’s “blessing” felt more like the result of almost losing Cora to the big America in the sky. That Spanish Flu was so convenient, wasn’t it?

2. Matthew (& Lavinia): And speaking of the world’s most timely pandemic, Matthew is single again! He is single, with a down-there tingle, and he is ready to mingle. Well, not until he can get over the whole heartbreaking guilt thing. This episode was one of Matthew’s best, with an arc that stretched from a miraculous spine recovery to the long-awaited declaration of love for Lady Mary to watching Lavinia sputter out in front of him while whispering the most passive-aggressive words ever to come out of an essentially good-hearted person.

Lavinia has always been an obstacle in this show (I imagine nuns singing “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lavinia?” whenever she appears), and she had to go. The chemistry between her and Matthew was weaker than under-steeped tea, and there are far too many fans whose very Twitter feeds depend on Matthew and Mary getting together for Lavinia to ever be anything but a nuisance. And as we know, she hated being a nuisance. It was her dying wish as a “little person” not to be! And her wish was halfway granted. She isn’t alive, but she is haunting our beloved couple all the same. Matthew can’t move on to Mary with the idea that Lavinia died with a broken heart over their hallway caress (never mind that she had a fatal disease that was more likely the cause), and so they remain unrequited. For now! Watch out, Lavvy’s ghost.

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