Downton Abbey, Season 4, Ep. 8: Skullduggery! Gumption! The Beach!

The last episode of Season 4 was extra long and extra beautiful, with scene after scene taking place in grand settings and everyone looking even more amazing than they usually look. After taking its sweet time with multiple, lengthy settee-based conversations and convoluted subplots involving pieces of paper, the show comes to a close with a final scene that was pretty darn touching, leaving us with the image of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, holding hands and wading into the ocean together. Just seeing Carson’s bare feet was worth the price of a PBS pledge drive alone.

I grimace because I care.

I grimace because I care.

Everything seemed sort of topsy-turvy in this episode, with characters coming out on top that have been flailing around until now or, in some cases, that we’ve never laid eyes on before now. Rose, Lord G., Lady G., Mosely, Harold & Madeleine, just to name a few. And this episode was epic, epic! because we saw the family’s London house for the first time. Wow. That is one beautiful, big house, even if the family members kept complaining about being in everyone else’s pocket, as the house only had six rooms per family member instead of the usual twenty. Stupid Mary claimed she would rather sleep on the roof than share a room with Edith. I was hoping a member of the staff would take her up on it and set up a bed for her there. And then gently sneak up on the roof in the middle of the night and nudge her over the edge while she was sleeping. (*cough*Bates*cough*)

The Characters

Carson:  The regard between Carson and Mrs. H. is very touching and a highlight of every episode. Maybe Julian Fellowes should limit his writing to creating scenes and plots for characters of a certain age. The way older people are depicted in this show is a million times better than the way anyone under 40 is depicted. The older characters are more fully developed (except Mrs. Levinson — yikes!), much more nuanced and they get to deliver some great lines. It’s as though the younger the characters are, the less Fellowes knows what to do with them, which is probably why we rarely lay eyes on little George and Sybil, who must be getting ready to be shipped off to boarding school by now.

Mrs. Hughes: Once again, Our Mrs. Hughes is back to being the series fixer, making everything work for everybody else, not only at that massive gothic pile of bricks back in Yorkshire but also at the London house. Where there is a bulletin board in the kitchen. That bulletin board had more screen time than several of the regular characters, as Mrs. Hughes (and Carson) gave it a workout, pinning and re-pinning this and that. Bills of lading and postcards from Brighton, sent by nobody knows who, pinned up and taken down in good order. Also, in this episode Mrs. Hughes again teams up with Stupid Mary, this time to save Bates from the gallows by getting rid of that incriminating ticket stub. Yay Mrs. Hughes! You are the best. The BEST! And you deserve a holiday at the beach, free of that rattling ring of keys you’re weighed down with day and night. A holiday with salt water and penny ice cream cones and 12-shilling-there-and-back train rides paid for by Lady Grantham, with Mr. Carson’s big meaty paw wrapped around your work-hardened hand.

Mrs. Patmore: What a gal! She has really come out on the other side of menopause like a champ! Because only hormones could explain this character’s complete about-face. All those years of hot flashes and dizzy spells are now behind her and she can shine forth like the light she is. The new, improved Mrs. Patmore dishes out advice along with her sauces, beams at everyone she encounters, makes jokes about maggots to Lady Mary and Lady Rose, and sits on the beach eating ice cream while smiling approvingly at Carson and Hughes out there in the water, holding hands.

Daisy-Ivy-Jimmy-Alfred: After eight episodes, the verdict is finally in: Alfred is the Best Cook, Daisy is Second Best Cook, Ivy is Third Best Cook, Jimmy’s a three-time loser. Ivy got to stand around in Daisy’s shadow the entire episode except when she stayed back at Downton to make toast for Branson. She was feeling pretty down about her situation with grabby-hands Jimmy and Second Best Cook Daisy, when she got the idea to head to America, a land where cooks place the toast directly on the plate instead of in a little silver holder in which it is carefully divided by compartments so that one buttered side does not touch another. The toast of the future is in America. See you never, Jimmy! And Daisy, we could have been friends if only you hadn’t been so obsessed with loving Alfred until you didn’t.

Molesley Baxter & Barrow: It’s either a law firm or a situation comedy, and I’m going with the latter. Such hijinks! Molesley finds his courage and screws it to the sticking place, and Baxter tells him his strength has become her strength, which is a shock to us all, but especially to Molesley. We’re warming up to him, Ol’ Molesley, and hope that next season he is sporting Baxter on his arm and maybe, just maybe working as Lord Grantham’s valet, after Bates gets put away for good, this time for pig-murder. Yes, a major plot twist of Season 5 comes when the pigs are all finally murdered, one pig at a time, by Mr. Bates. It turns out it was Bates who knocked over the water trough the day the pigs came to Downton. It was Bates all along. Needless to say, Stupid Mary is devastated. In the meantime, Molesley and Baxter are gently enjoying one another’s company, leaving Thomas Barrow to scheme and smoke and skulk through the hallways of Downton even when there are just two people left to narrow his eyes at. Thomas has plans, big plans. And if Baxter doesn’t give him some dirt on Lady Grantham but soon, he’s going to have to do something so terrible, so nefarious, so unimaginably evil, that the script writer hasn’t even thought about what it could be yet. But it’s going to be a doozy when the script writer does think of it. And on that glorious day, this whole weird plot line will make sense.

Anna ‘n’ Bates 4-ever: Bates was missing during the first half of the show. It was pretty clear that he was off-stage, killing somebody, but he came back during the second half, when he was summoned by Lord Grantham to forge a letter. It is so handy to have an ex-con in the house, because, after you spend years and years working to exonerate him , protesting his innocence to all and sundry, you can then call upon his criminal experiences and every dark thing he has seen to get him to do unsavory things for you. And you can do all of this because you are a Monarchist, which is a line of reasoning so convoluted it takes a real blueblood like Lord Grantham to follow it. So now that Bates’ darker arts have been brought to light, the hierarchy of the house staff is: Carson the Butler, Hughes the Housekeeper, and Bates the Head Criminal. Still, it is nice to see Bates and Anna happy again, even if it means someone had to die to make it possible. Not that anyone will mourn Mr. Green, as, fictional or not, the world is a better place without him. But this whole business is pretty sordid, and it’s not fun to watch Bates turn into Dirty Harry. At this point I’m not even sure that the cane he carries around is actually a cane.

Tom & Isis: One of the best parts of the show was seeing Tom rattle around Downton with only Isis for company. They both looked at ease. Also, Tom and Edith have been bonding lately, which is raises all sorts of uncomfortable prospects. I think I would rather have him spend time with Isobel, driving her around as they chat aimlessly about this and that. Unfortunately, Tom seems a little befuddled when it comes to the ladies, and he had dinner with that tiresome school teacher from the village, who follows the meal up by aggressively demanding to see the house while making fun of Tom for “changing”. I’m with the Dowager Countess on this one: Tom needs to accept that he is now part of the family. He needs to tell that school teacher to get lost and take her socialist ideals with her. Take them somewhere where they belong, like the classroom.

The Dowager and Isobel and Lord Merton: Oh Golly! as Isobel would say. Lord Merton keeps coming around, and Isobel is a nervous wreck now that she’s realized he really does like her for her, and not just for that charmingly vague way she has of looking off into the distance when she makes conversation. Still, Isobel is determined to wear the same outfit every time he stops by the place so that he knows how serious she is about life. She is so serious she rarely changes her clothes. No time for it, what with Young Peg to find jobs for and the Doctor to ignore. She tells Merton she’s not going to the ball, but then changes her mind and sends him a note to say okay, I’ll go to the dance, and then, when Lord Merton shows up? Cuz Isobel’s there, and he thinks she’s super cute? Isobel just wants to die, she’s so embarrassed! The Dowager seems unconcerned with all these shenanigans. She has enough to worry about: Rose being presented, Edith to console, Mrs. Levinson to despise and random card games to suffer through. As usual, these two ladies outshine all their younger counterparts.

Lady Grantham. Lady G was back to form this week, completely off her meds, alert and ready for action. She only seemed bewildered once or twice, and seeing how awful her mother is reminded me that there is good reason for Lady G to be the way she is, and that striking a pose — sitting at her writing desk and looking decorative for hours, staring off into space while idly wondering what is for dinner —  is a fine way to spend a life compared to the way Lady G.’s mother has spent hers, sniping at everyone around her while wearing clown makeup. Also: Lady G presented Rose at court as though to the manor born. I felt real proud to know her.

Lord Grantham: Also back to fighting form. I thought he was going to kick the door down when he started ranting about the family taking responsibility for the Prince of Wales’ stolen letter. Lord G is an enigma. I guess the point of this very strange scenario and the announcement of his monarchist sympathies is to show that he feels keenly responsible to keep old England alive, tut tut. So Lord G emerges from his usual state of smiling inertia to assemble a strategy meeting and, once the ladies are gathered together on the couches, he comes up with a cracking plan to get the letter back. Bring in the family’s forger! Call a card game! Ring for Blake and Gillingham! There is no time to lose! In the middle of all of this hustle and bustle, Stupid Mary calmly announces she has no problem lying to get Granny and the others out of the way. But alas, in the end, the extensive planning and forging and burgling in order to regain the letter comes to nothing, and the Head Criminal had to be called in yet again to get inside the mind of the bad guy. Because as every bad guy knows: the best place to put an incriminating piece of paper is in your own coat pocket.

Harold Levinson & Madeleine Something-or-other. These two were great together. I want them to get married, pronto. Or maybe not pronto necessarily, but at some point in the not-too-distant future. I felt more invested in their romance, having never seen either of them before this episode and being confused about who she was much of the time, than I ever have in all of Stupid Mary’s romances put together. There was real pathos and warmth between them. And Paul Giamatti as Harold killed it in his guest role. I thought he would be awful, but he was really sympathetic, and he delivered all the usual Downton Abbey anti-aristocracy-Americans-are-the-future-I-like-plain-food-Howdy! drivel with real conviction and I, for one, believed every word that came out of his mouth. At the beginning of the show, when he is emerging from the car and before he goes into the house, he actually raises his eyebrows and rolls his eyes at the camera. It was really odd, as though he was saying I can’t believe I’m on this dumb fancy soap opera. But even if that is what he felt, he went on to bring fresh life to a very tired family dynamic. I can’t say the same for his mother. Shirley MacLaine toned down her performance this time, though it did look like she dipped her face in a pile of makeup, but she was still really irritating, and that line she delivers at the end, telling the Dowager Countess that she, Mrs. Levinson, is the future, so she doesn’t need to go to bed like the old lady does, or something like that — it was a rude and weird thing to say. And I’m not convinced that people in 1923 talked so knowingly about the past and the future the way these people (endlessly) talk about it.

Lady Edith: She looks more worried than ever, her big brown cow eyes wearing a perpetually pained expression. I would say it is the loss of her baby that has made her this way, but she has always looked like this. Like she has a hairshirt on under all those sleeveless silk dresses. Even Aunt Rosamund has given up on trying to put a smile on her face. But not the Pigman. He hasn’t given up, not ‘im, and as a result he is the new father of Edith’s baby. And it’s all going to be great, going forward. There’s no way this can go wrong at all. By the way, I was confused about that person who opened the scene between Edith and the Pigman, the boy carrying the tea tray. The camera lingered on him so long I thought he must be someone important. But it turns out he was just a kid bringing in the tea tray.

Lady Rose: What a difference a week makes! Rose has calmed down, and even though she is forced to wear bizarre drop-waist dresses with side bustles much of the time, she is bearing it all with good grace. She even succeeds in impressing the Prince of Wales and his mistress while calmly proceeding to help get her friend’s letter back. She doesn’t fall in love with anyone during the entire episode, not even the thief, which shows great improvement.

Mr. Slade: The enthusiastic American valet arrived with his boss Mr. Levinson, with a smile big enough to shove a plate full of hamburgers in. Some British actors can do a really great American accent, but the guy playing Mr. Slade is not one of them. As far as the character goes, it was nice that he fell for Daisy instead of Ivy, and it was nice to see Daisy so happy about it. She was especially happy with the fact that he was going to ship out of her life in a few days.

Click on the clip, below, to hear my version of Mr. Slade’s the American Valet’s crack accent, in case any British folks watching the show want to pick up some pointers on how to sound like a real, live American.

Stupid Mary: Our heroine spends this episode holding men in her thrall and saying nasty things to her only living sister, who only just got back after being gone for the last several months. Just the usual stuff. One of many low points for Stupid Mary came when Mrs. Hughes presented her with the ticket stub from Bates’ coat pocket. This put Stupid Mary in a real quandary, a total pickle and at a loss for what to do. Bates’ alleged ticket stub from his alleged coat pocket indicated that, on the day Green died, Bates went to London, not York as he claimed. Stupid Mary wonders if she can suppress this valuable piece of alleged evidence in good conscience. As far as I’m concerned, Stupid Mary is stupid indeed if she thinks Bates will be hanged because she has a ticket stub in her possession that allegedly used to belong to him. Stupid Mary thinks just because she races down to the police station waving a ticket stub that she was three degrees removed from finding in her lady’s maid’s husband’s coat pocket, that the police will open up a murder investigation.  Why would the police pursue Green’s death as a murder unless Stupid Mary tells them about Bates and his motive and his wife’s assault and a bunch of other sordid things?  Meanwhile Stupid Mary is sneaking around burgling and fondly remembering the night she dragged her lover’s dead body across the house and telling everyone in the family  how much she loves lying, when suddenly she has pangs of conscience about a ticket stub in Bates’ old coat pocket. A ticket stub that was discovered when he gave the coat away to the poor & destitute, which is more than Mary has ever done for anyone or anything other than pigs in her whole, privileged life. I’m sick of her and the horse she rode (sidesaddle) in on. I’m sick of her paramours and her nasty comments and her not taking Blake seriously as a suitor until it turns out that he’s not only a snob like her, but that he’s rich. The richest man in all the land!  She did the same thing with Matthew and it’s now totally clear: Stupid Mary is no good. It’s time the show revolved around someone else. Like the Pigman. Or Edith. Or Madeleine something-or-other. Or Lord Merton. Anybody but Stupid Mary.

That said, I can’t wait to see who Mary settles down with next year! Will it be Charles Blake? Lord Gillingham? Evelyn Napier? Tom? The Pigman? The boy carrying the tea tray? Let the games begin.

5 thoughts on “Downton Abbey, Season 4, Ep. 8: Skullduggery! Gumption! The Beach!

  1. HA! I knew, yes KNEW you would be just as infuriated at Mary’s sudden prick of conscious as I was. What an idiot. And doesn’t Mrs.Hughes or Anna know about the dead lover now? Why don’t they just say, “Hey, Lady Mary, sorry Bates didn’t ask you for help with Mr.Green. We know you’re aces at not only loving men to death, but moving around the carnage too. Next rapist, we’ll give you a call for sure.” And why can’t she tell Lord Gillingham that he was a rapist? Yes indeed, stupid Mary.
    My favorite person this episode was the snotty Prince of Wales. No time to do anything but stand in rooms full of people and look annoyed. Oh, and act like he doesn’t grasp the way an American would introduce himself. Apparently, the Prince skipped tutoring at the palace the day the talked about political etiquette.
    And yes, can Tom please stop allowing pushy women to make him look like the Irish red-neck of the grand house? How is he going to have enough gumption to overthrow the monarchy if he can’t tell a brazen teacher that no, no she will not go poking around the house. Ugh.
    On to the Christmas special, eh? ;)

  2. Thanks for the jolly good laugh again. I was trying to read this out loud to Scott this morning and I had to stop reading because of laughing. I will miss the show (in a way) until next season, but not nearly as much as I will miss reading your thoughts on it. How about amusing us all by going ahead and doing the recaps for season 5? There’s no question that your plots, subplots and scripts would be much better than that Fellowes fellow.

  3. Ah! Blessed Tuesday when you post your stellar reviews of DA! There weren’t enough snacks to sustain me through the whole episode this time, so I had to take an extended break and run to get some junk food. That helped a lot and I didn’t miss much of value. You are of course correct, that Mary is as stupid as ever, really wretched–making me immensely grateful for the young women in my life! Mary brings out the worst in me as a sometimes TV viewer–unexpected things come out of my mouth. Thanks once again, Sarah, for such marvelous writing!

  4. Hello Sarah,
    I saved this to read because I did not get to watch the final episodes until after the Olympics…. I like Amy enjoyed a good laugh & can’t wait to read your recaps for next season rather or not I actually watch the show or not. JF had better up his game if he wants to keep his job :)

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