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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3. Lady Mary: When Mary hears Matthew’s preposterous rationalizing after the funeral and tells Sir Richard she is happy to walk with him back to the house, Michelle Dockery gave this amazing look — the kind she alone can pull off, that says ten things with one eyebrow lift. She was giving into Sir Richard at that moment, and in the same second, became hard again. An unhappy Mary is a mean Mary; we’ve seen it over and over. If she is not getting what she wants, she will make pithy remarks (“You’d be uncomfortable working for a spy master? How disappointing of you.” “I’m not sure how feminine I am”) and will ruin other’s happiness (see going after Sybil). And how could she be happy with a man who would hire someone to spy on her every move? The dancing scene was a lovely one, the culmination of all we’ve wished for this season. But Mary is still betrothed to an evil tycoon, and Matthew is walking better than ever but is still mentally crippled by sending his eager young bride to the emotional slaughter. We will have to wait. And until M&M get their own fantasy suite, we’re glad it was Mary to create the lovenest for Anna and Bates.

4. Banana: What a rollercoaster of an episode for our downstairs Romeo and Juliet, eh? Anna insists that she become Mrs. Bates even though Mr. Bates keeps pumping her full of small clues that he may have offed his ex-wife. Oh well, better to be married to a murderer than wind up alone with cats. And married they are, in a secret wedding that ends in a squeal-worthy naked scene between the two. Oh, to hear Mr. Bates say, “You’ve had your way with me” a million times. But there is this lingering problem of the rat poison and the dead wife and the fact that even though it takes them five months, the London police seem to be doing their jobs. So with Lavinia’s funeral comes Anna, dressed in black, blubbering at the funeral of her own happiness. Talk about a “case of the world on your shoulders.”

5. The Dowager Countess: The MVP of this episode, hands down. Maggie Smith is excellent at the one-liners, as we know (and none of us can wait for the tete-a-tete with Shirley MacLaine next season), but this episode, she proved herself a wise all-knowing oracle underneath the snark. Take her speech to Matthew about marriage: “Marriage is a long business. There’s no getting out of it for our kind of people. You may have forty, fifty years with one of these two women. Make sure you have selected the right one.” Or her clever reasoning to Grantham about how to cover up the Branson scandal. For every crack she makes about cholera wiping out an entire Paris party, she has five insightful things to say. She is winning.


  • Sybil and Branson did it! They are running away together. I wish I had more of an opinion about this. I mostly think it’s a shame for the show to lose Sybil to Ireland, though her character has been losing steam since the beginning of the season. When she was wearing pants and going to riots she was in the running for most-exciting Crawley sister. Now, even with her elopement, she is solidly in second place (SORRY EDITH). Good for her for being happy to be a poor journalist’s wife in Dublin, but I don’t have to like her for it.
  • Thomas failed as a small-time crook (did anyone else see echoes of Breaking Bad in his bad-flour tantrum?), but he succeeds, as always, as a big-time brownnoser in the house. The most convenient flu of all time helped him too — poor old nervous drunk Molesley couldn’t step up, but Thomas can. With Bates going to jail, who knows? He could get that valet job after all and O’Brien can finally stop plotting about it.
  • O’Brien was all set to confess Soapgate to Cora on her death bed. Maturity or self-indulgence?
  • Carson quitting his Haxby job over the spying thing was the most Carsonesque decision he has ever made. His consistency is startling. He also wins points for the first “have you no shame?” of the series.
  • The Hughes/Ethel plot has been grating on me for a while, but it was nice how it all tied up in a big ole’ maternal bow. Hughes played a surrogate mother to Ethel, who in the end chose her baby over the Bryant’s offer to Daddy Warbucks the child. Maybe a bad choice for little Charlie, but it shows a lot of growth from the girl who used to moon over Photoplay. It was like something out of a film with Theda Bara.

In past lives, Rachel Syme has been Books Editor of NPR and Culture Editor of The Daily Beast. She is currently at work on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years. You can find her on Twitter at @rachsyme.

MORE: Quiet on the Set. What It’s Like to Live at Highclere Castle—The Real Downton Abbey

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