'Downton Abbey' Season 4 Finale Recap: A Royal Affair
'Downton Abbey' Season 4 Finale Recap: A Royal Affair
Morgan Glennon
Morgan Glennon
Contributing Writer, BuddyTV
This week on the season 4 finale of Downton Abbey, Mr. Bates lurks around like a horror movie villain twirling his mustache, Paul Giamatti classes up the joint for no real reason and the Crawley family temporarily saves the monarchy.

Also, Edith makes a big decision about her baby and Mary still hasn't decided on a suitor, probably because they're all too boring to tell apart. 


An Empty Calorie Finale

The Downton Abbey Christmas special -- here in America working as the season finale -- is pretty much the equivalent of eating a Christmas cookie. It's delicious and sugary sweet, but at the end of the day it's still full of empty calories. And if you eat too many cookies, you're probably going to get sick of them. 

Season 4 of Downton Abbey has felt like nothing more than gorging on a bunch of sugar cookies, leaving me with a queasy feeling at the end of the season. I enjoy the episodes for the same reason I've always enjoyed the show: good performances, interesting period details and stunning scenery. This is all on display in the season finale, and then some, as the cast traipses to London for Rose's elaborate coming out into society ceremony. 

The problem is that so little this season has had any real weight, heft or repercussions when it comes to the storylines. With season 5 in the bag, Fellowes and the creative team leave so many plotlines dangling that the season as a whole barely feels like a complete story. 

We have no idea what will happen to Edith, Mary, Tom or even new maid Baxter. Before this season, every year of Downton Abbey has ended with some degree of resolution. It's hard to blame them, however, because there was precious little of substance to resolve in season 4. 

Storylines stopped and started with little impact on the overall season, while old characters were brought back and thrown away, and new characters were introduced but not explored. Every episode was enjoyable while watching, but left little impression moments after the credits rolled. The season was all empty calories with precious little meat. 

The season finale is no different, throwing Paul Giamatti and Shirley MacLaine in to spice things up for no apparent reason and with no chance of long-term repercussions in sight. At least the last time Martha Levinson showed up, it had a purpose. This time, we're being treated to a special guest star, an Oscar winner, some witty one-liners and not much else. 

Giamatti does a nice job as Harold, and watching him is always a pleasure, but there's no reason we're spending time with this character when nothing with our main cast feels resolved by episode's end. 

At the very least, Fellowes finally seems to remember he's writing a period piece and uses a few fun historical details to paint a fuller picture. To me, coming out into society means white dresses, choreographed dances, at least one giant fight and one scandalous hookup. I was weaned on the version of reality espoused by The OC and Gossip Girl, so seeing what a coming out really looks like is an interesting surprise. 

Also fun is the inclusion of Freda Dudley Ward, mistress to the Prince of Wales, who would later be crowned King Edward VIII and would eventually abdicate for the love of Wallis Simpson. Freda is not as commonly known a figure as the more controversial woman in his life, but it's still interesting to see the Crawleys band together to save this foolhardy prince. 

There are also mentions of Russian refugees and even possibly a first allusion to the Nazis. It's nice to have some period details after a season so insular it was possible to forget -- but for the clothes and jazz -- that any history was happening at all. 

The finale is ultimately big and bloated, with lots of glitz, glamour and scheming that somehow manage to feel like less than the sum of its parts. The characters are feeling lost in the hustle to move them endlessly and uselessly around the Downton chess board, and that's a real shame. 

Upstairs 

It's been eight months since the last episode, and Edith has popped out her baby and returned to the family. "Is it just me or is Edith acting strangely?" says no one in the family, walking past the human wallpaper that is Edith Crawley.

But Edith is having a tough time with her decision to leave her baby with an adopted family in Geneva. She wants to have the baby close at hand, but Aunt Rosamund and Violet caution against it. After learning she's the executor of Gregson's will, who was last seen being threatened by some toughs in "brown shirts" in Germany, Edith feels worse than ever about her decision.

After a talk with Tom, she decides to go reclaim her baby. "Awesome!" says the family in Geneva she left the baby with. "We definitely didn't want this baby anyway." 

First, however, she goes to Mr. Drewe the farmer to ask him to take in the child. Drewe immediately picks up what she's putting down about her "friend" and agrees to take the baby and keep it a secret from everyone.

I'd guess this is going to be a big storyline next season, but then again I had once upon a time hoped to see Edith as a sassy journalist who wore the best hats and asked hard-hitting questions, so what do I know? The only safe guess when it comes to Edith is that she'll remain forever miserable. 

Meanwhile, Mary is still being chased around by her two main squeezes, Blake and Gillingham. Or as I call them, "Pig Hero" and "Dude with the Face." Mary is as conflicted as someone could possibly be when presented with such bland, milquetoast options. Then she learns that Charles Blake, in addition to being handy with a pig and slightly more possessing of a discernible personality, is also super rich. 

The moment dollar signs popping up in Mary's eyes is a beauty to behold. Even stuck in these ridiculously soapy storylines, Mary remains one of Downton Abbey's shining jewels. I wanted more from her this season than an endless parade of love interests, but her brutal pragmatism has always made her concurrently hard to like and impossible to ignore. 

Elsewhere, Rose comes out into society and spends exactly zero time even mentioning band leader Jack Ross. What a powerful love they must have shared. 

Instead, she nearly takes down the monarch accidentally, which leads the Crawley crew to do a little Ocean's Eleven-type scheming in order to get an incriminating letter back. It's a fun storyline with a huge pinch of ridiculousness, and makes me want to see an alternate universe in which the Crawley family are all spies. 

Finally, Mama Levinson and Uncle Harold come for a grumpy visit. Why these two would ever visit England when they clearly hate it so much is beyond me. A rich man throws his attractive daughter at Uncle Harold, who is at first a total grump to her but eventually warms up. This storyline is saved, entirely, by the fine work of Paul Giamatti. I doubt Downton is ever getting him back again, so unfortunately the story of Harold and Madeline will likely end here. 

Downstairs

As per my constant complaints, once again the storyline about Anna's rape revolves solely around Mr. Bates. This time, it's a ticket stub in his coat pocket that confirms what everyone knew anyway, which is that Bates killed Green by pushing him into traffic. I'd wonder why Bates would keep the ticket in his coat pocket, but I watch enough Criminal Minds to know serial killers always like to keep mementos of their kills. 

Mary waffles back and forth about whether or not to turn Bates in, while Bates glares at her menacingly out of every dark corner while juggling knives and making the throat slitting motion across his neck. There's a brief moment when I actually thought the show might surprise us and take Bates into a very dark direction. Prior to this season, it's not something I would have particularly wished for, but at this point, why not? 

At the very least, Bates as a hardened criminal is hilarious. Not only does he spend all episode talking menacingly about coats, he also forges a letter and pickpockets. Prison was an education indeed. What skills didn't Bates learn in the slammer?

Next season on Downton Abbey

Carson: "We've run out of wine for the supper!"
Bates: "Don't worry, I just need a toilet and a couple of minutes."

Thankfully, we finally get to say goodbye to Ivy, as Harold's staff take her back to America with them in place of Daisy. Since Ivy was always a dud of a character, I can't say I'll miss her. I'm more interested in Baxter after a few episodes than I've ever been in Ivy after a few seasons. 

Speaking of Baxter, Thomas is still blackmailing her for some reason. Also in Thomas' crosshairs is Branson. Why? Apparently, it took Thomas several years to get mad about the fact that Branson married above his station and is now technically above Thomas in the pecking order. In the world of the show, this happened several years ago, but Thomas has just gotten around to getting upset about it now.

Lastly, Tom and his new lady love interest have a nice conversation in the pub, which gets awkward when she invites herself over to Downton. "Don't go upstairs!" Tom yells. "That's where we keep our children and no one wants to see them!" But Sarah runs upstairs anyway, causing Thomas to catch them and pass along the information to Lord Grantham. 

And in the best storyline of the episode, because it involves the best characters on the show, Mr. Carson takes the staff out for a day at the beach after some subliminal messaging. There, he and Mrs. Hughes wade out into the water hand-in-hand, causing my heart to expand five sizes. Next season, let's shift the focus onto power couple Carson and Mrs. Hughes, the best people on Downton

What did you think of the season 4 finale? Did you like it or were you left wanting more? What are your names for Mary's indistinguishable dudes? Sound off in the comments! 

(Image courtesy of PBS)



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