Downton Abbey Watch: Life Is a Game

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Carnival for Masterpiece

All good things must come to an end — this season of Downton Abbey, Bates’ death sentence, our quickly dashed dreams of a flappery spin-off called Coming to A-Mary-Ca — but if we have to leave Downton until the fall (or possibly beyond; PBS has yet to set a U.S. premiere date), this is the way to do it. This week’s finale, which aired as a Christmas special in the U.K. and so was especially well timed for extreme wish fulfillment, was a gift to DA fans slathered in butter and cream. It was so deeply satisfying (at least for the Mary-Matthew shippers) that it almost felt like live-action fan fiction. We all knew that Mary and Matthew had to get together at some point (poor sacrificial Lamb-vinia and Sir Nouveau Richard were just parts of the obstacle course). What we didn’t know is how it would happen, and when it did, it was like something out of the Downton Nerd’s Fantasy Handbook. Snowy night with a roaring fire? Check. Mary in a gorgeous crimson gown and satin evening gloves, Matthew in a tux? Check. The rest of the clan cozied up inside, soaking up booze and foxtrotting the night away with the help? Check and check. Congratulations, Fellowes. You made thousands of viewers spit out their wine all at once and/or applaud loudly at the screen. Checkmate to you, sir.

The magical winter-wonderland proposal aside, Downton still isn’t off the hook for its devolution into convolution this season. Just because we got what we wanted in the end does not redeem the entire (highly inconsistent) journey. Though the finale did not veer into the high absurdity of the Peter-Patrick saga, it did feature a similarly ridiculous plot that didn’t add much to the action. I’m not trying to say I don’t love a good grifter plot, but the flimflam long con that Lord Hepworth and his Bonnie were trying to run on Rosamund was just an irritating distraction from the stories we care about. We haven’t been following Rosamund and her spinster adventures, and there is no real reason we should have to start caring about her plight as a lonely member of the 1% this late in the game. This is the finale for goodness’s sake. Finales should be for tying up frayed ends and dangling teasers for the season ahead. The open-and-closed Roz bamboozlement doesn’t fit into that framework.

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And as long as this is the section for being nitpicky, let’s all agree to agree that including a Ouija board as a story device is just plain laziness. As fun as it was to see Thomas spell out “too fat” and hear Mrs. Patmore clucking about finger strain, the idea that Lavinia’s ghost would offer her blessing through the planchette was a bit much, even for the soapiest of operas. Lavinia sure has a lot of power from the beyond, huh? First she keeps Matthew and Mary apart, then she reaches out her icy tentacles to pull her father into her grave and finally she whispers her permission for the M&M union through Daisy’s ditzy hands. At least … I think that was her! If the ghost was meant to be Mrs. Bates cackling from Hades, then I think the shark has left the tank altogether.

But enough griping. For the most part, this episode was wonderful, dognapping and all.  Onto the recap! Let’s see where our players have landed at the turn of the decade. Ring the dinner gong one last time.

1. Mary and Matthew Together at long last. Can I get a hallelujah? The mental roadblocks between the lovebirds have finally been vanquished. Matthew gets a stern talking-to from Isobel, who almost wins the role of “MVP Woman of a Certain Age” in this episode, if not for the Dowager’s amazing arc — but more on that soon. Isobel really comes through with her speech about Lavinia’s not wishing for Matthew’s unhappiness, and how Matthew isn’t taking the war seriously if he is choosing to wallow in his guilt soup forever. And if we know anything about Isobel, invoking that someone is flip about the war is as harsh a burn as she doles out. On Mary’s side, the Sir Richard relationship has grown so threadbare that it needs elbow patches. Her chaste flirting with Matthew in the hunting fields is the sexiest we’ve seen her in months. As Grantham laments, she just looks tired.

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Watching Mary cater to a man she clearly can’t stand is grim, but grimmer still is her refusal to come clean to Matthew about the Pamuk scandal for fear of topping the delicate virgin-whore seesaw into the harlot zone. Thanks to Cora and her watery eyes of truth, however, the secret is out to Lord Grantham, and soon Mary has no reason left to hide from Matthew. I was surprised by his initial reaction to the Turkish tale; I didn’t expect so much judgy bumbling. The awkward tension gave Mary the chance to spout a marvelous speech about being Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I was glad it was short-lived. Looking back, it’s easy to see why Matthew was taken aback by Mary’s sexual exploits. He doesn’t give a damn about the disgrace (thus the perfect “I don’t forgive you, because you didn’t do anything wrong” speech), but it’s always uncomfortable to hear that the girl you love screwed another man to death before you came along.

What is important is that Mary is engaged, Sir Richard has gone off somewhere to sell Haxby at a profit and find a new fiancée to manhandle after dinner, and Matthew is going to become Earl of Grantham with working legs and proper heir-siring equipment. Of course, this will all go to pieces in the new season. But let’s revel in it for now. The entail is wagging with joy!

2. Daisy The central romance of the show is nice and all, but this episode belongs to Daisy, fair and square. I’d been having trouble with Daisy’s self-pity for the last few episodes; it didn’t make sense why she couldn’t accept that she did a kind thing for a dying boy, with no real harm done. The finale makes everything crystal clear, and not in the way I expected. What the Daisy arc seemed to imply at first is that she knew something that no one else did; while everyone else was justifying her quickie marriage, she alone knew it was wrong. What the finale shows, and I mean this in the best way possible, is that Daisy is not so bright as we are led to believe. What made her uncomfortable was not seeing the situation clearly but the opposite. It never even occurred to her that William might have chosen her over anyone else, that she was doted upon and deeply loved. She felt that all the cards were in her hands, and she played them badly (or rather, the cards were in Mrs. Patmore’s hands, and Daisy let herself be a puppet).

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But in both her talk with the Dowager and the tender scene at the farm — one of the best from this or any episode — Daisy realizes she was handpicked to be part of her first and only real family. William gave her (and his father) the gift of companionship, and it is in accepting this gift that Daisy seems to fall in love with William for the first time. Seeing her moony eyes when she waxes about William after the ball is somehow comforting — we finally know that Daisy gets it, that she sees the point of being loved. What I worry about going into the third season is that her revelation came far too late. One can love a person posthumously only so long before going to the dark side.

Also, kudos to Mrs. Patmore for supporting Daisy’s promotion. While I’m sad not to see Daisy become a sous chef to the stars, I’m looking forward to some quality kitchen-buddy comedy next season.

3. Banana Where would we be if we didn’t discuss the trial of the century, the “If I Did It” by John Bates? The trial itself was tedious — save the wiglets with rattails; those were amazing — and there was far too much legalese for Matthew to explain. This isn’t Downton Abbey: Special Valet’s Unit. That said, Anna’s shriek of pain at the verdict was chilling, and it was worth it to see Bates out of formal wear and in prison garb (which looked a bit like Helmut Lang). After last week’s naked scene, the romantic whispers between those two felt less pure, and more hokey than ever. Next season, I hope that jail gives Bates an attitude adjustment. He has become passive to the point of almost not existing.

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Side notes (a.k.a., So much to cover, let’s breeze through the rest):

  • Lord Grantham rebounds faster than Jeremy Lin after his Jane affair and regains the title of Greatest Man Alive with his “I want a good man for you. A brave man. Find a cowboy in the Middle West” monologue.
  • No surprise that he gets his genes from the Greatest Woman Alive, who this week protects her daughter’s fortune, plays yenta for Edith and Anthony, validates Daisy’s marriage, delivers the best possible kiss-off line to Sir Richard and tells us that “life is a game in which one must appear ridiculous.” She knows everything.
  • Thomas loses Isis. It is such a Thomas thing to do.
  • No Sybil this week, because she is busy in Ireland being so revolutionary as to get knocked up right away. Edith, dressed in her best Virginia Woolf outfit, tries and fails to take another man with a broken wing into her convalescent home of one. Here’s hoping they send Edith to America in Mary’s place. If anyone can use a cowboy, it’s that girl.

See you next season. Until then, dream of Shirley MacLaine.

In past lives, 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.

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