In this episode of Downton Abbey, things get dramatic during a shooting trip, everyone says farewell to Branson, Thomas schemes, Mary flirts, Edith is shocked that everyone knows her secret because of how painfully obvious it is and Mrs. Hughes finally makes an honest man out of Carson.
Also, Anna and Bates are finally reunited, with their legal troubles behind them. Hopefully, that storyline is good and dead, but at this point there’s really no guarantee that one or both of them won’t end up accused of murder again next season. It seems like nearly getting life in prison is all they’re good for on this show anymore.
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A Very Downton Christmas
Perhaps it’s because I was watching this episode hopped up on cold medication, but I found myself with actual tears in my eyes several times during this season finale. This isn’t a testament to the show’s storytelling prowess, which, I think we can all admit five seasons into this glorified soap opera, is pretty abysmal. It’s a testament to how real, multi-dimensional, flawed and ultimately lovable these characters are. That’s thanks in part to the writing, but it often comes through much more in the fine performances from a truly terrific cast.
After five seasons, these characters have come to feel like family, and even though you may sometimes want to leave them in jail forever, it’s hard not to care about them. It’s the people that power Downton Abbey, not the plot, and the season finale wisely keeps the focus on the characters and their growth over the course of the show.
Moments like Branson, Edith and Mary holding hands and remembering Sybil hit me right in the feels. It’s the small moments where Downton Abbey really steps up to the plate and hits it out of the park. Carson proposing to a shocked and happy Mrs. Hughes, or the way Robert tears up while wishing farewell to Branson. These are the kind of moments built over seasons, the moments we understand and value because we’ve spent so much time getting to know these characters and watching them change and grow.
The Robert in season 1 would have never accepted Edith’s “mistake” with such grace, nor would he have mourned Branson’s departure. All of the characters have grown so much over the course of the series, and it’s in the moments we see their progression that Downton Abbey really sings.
Of course, much of the show still hits a flat note because Downton Abbey also loves nothing more than to recycle horrible storylines that never even worked the first time around. To wit: everything with the Bates continues to be awful, not only because it’s not at all interesting, but also because we’ve literally seen it all before.
With the swinging world of the 1920s as a backdrop, I’ll never understand why showrunner Julian Fellowes chooses melodramatic wrongful imprisonment storylines, like anyone is coming to Downton Abbey to watch Anna Bates behind bars.
Thankfully, the Anna and Bates melodrama is kept to a blissful minimum, leaving time for plenty of great character moments. Branson takes his farewell tour, Violet and Isobel have better love lives than Edith, and Robert gets amazingly trashed at the Christmas party.
Next season might be the last for this show and it definitely feels like time for Downton to hang up its pearls and call it a day. At this point, Downton Abbey is what it is, recycled storylines and all, but I keep watching because these characters feel so comfortingly real, and I like spending time with them.
When the finale succeeds, and it does quite often, it’s because of great character moments. Hopefully, next season Downton will keep that in mind instead of overdosing on the soap opera histrionics.
The whole family is going to Lord Sinderby’s in order to take in the shooting and they’re all hoping Lord Sinderby will lose the stick planted firmly up his backside. No such luck, because Lord Sinderby still basically hates everyone and everything. He’s such a joy to be around. Rose is spinning her wheels as fast as she can to make him happy, but the joke is on her because it doesn’t seem like anything can make him happy.
To add insult to injury, Lord Sinderby’s butler is a real piece of work who is rude to Thomas and refuses to serve Branson because he used to be a chauffeur. As Branson’s best and meanest wing bro, Mary cannot let this stand. She and Baxter team up with Thomas in order to take the offending butler down a peg. What they didn’t expect was that Lord Sinderby would yell at both his butler and Thomas in front of the entire dinner table. No one puts Thomas in a corner!
Mary unwittingly released the kraken, and now Thomas is out for blood. He finds out Lord Sinderby’s deep, dark secret from the butler and then uses it against him. During their shooting party, a woman named Diane shows up with a child in tow; quite clearly, this is Lord Sinderby’s mistress and his lovechild. And this dude had moral reservations about divorce?
Rose, who knows an illicit affair when she sees one, quickly swoops in and saves the day with an assist from Mary and Robert. Lord Sinderby falls immediately in love with Rose for her quick thinking in the face of social disaster and officially embraces the Crawley family.
“Oh, don’t worry, man, we know how to hide mistresses. Also, we know how to hide dead bodies. Also, we know how to navigate the legal system. Also, we know how to pass off bastard children as orphan wards. Basically, if you’ve created a scandal, we know how to handle it. We are the Olivia Popes of 1920s England.”
On this hunting trip, Mary is paired with Henry Talbot, playing by Matthew Goode, who she archly informs has displaced Atticus from shooting. The horror! It’s amazing what these people get upset about. For his part, Talbot does seem genuinely sorry and also super interested in Mary. I don’t know what it is about Mary’s total lack of empathy or compassion that really gets the dudes in England all hot and bothered.
Obviously, one of the big story threads in the finale is Branson’s upcoming departure. Basically, no one wants him to go because Branson has, somehow, become the best character on this show. I’m still in shock over it. Edith, Mary and Robert all try to dissuade Branson from going, to no avail. He’s set on departing for Boston and he can’t be swayed, even though he is touched at how much the Crawley family has come to love him.
There are plenty of sweet, touching moments with Branson throughout the episode, including Robert’s drunken, loving speech about how much they owe Branson. He also has nice moments with his best bro Mary, and with Edith as well. On the eve of his leaving, it’s amazing to see how much he’s been embraced by the family and how sorely they’re going to miss their former chauffeur. As Branson says, Sybil would be amazed to see how much he’s become a part of the family.
In another touching moment, Robert’s worry over a suspected heart condition (which just turns out to be an ulcer) finally convinces him to drop the charade and talk to Edith. In a touching scene, he tells her that he’s not mad, he doesn’t blame her and he knows that Marigold is his grandchild. The relief on Edith’s face is heartbreakingly palatable, and I have to hope this portends good things for Edith next season for a change of pace.
Meanwhile, Violet and Isobel both have their own romantic dramas to untangle. After another rejection from the Grey boys, Isobel finally calls it off with Lord Merton once and for all. And Violet says goodbye to Prince Kuragin and his horrible wife, the Princess, even though Prince Kuragin looks like the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World. Get it, Violet, get it!
But Violet feels like she owes the Princess a debt, because she once bodily dragged her out of a carriage on the way to run off with the Prince. Had Violet gone, she would have lived her life in exile without her children or status, and she wouldn’t now be able to roll her eyes at the stupid disputes of her irritating household staff.
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Let’s start with the best stuff, shall we? Carson and Mrs. Hughes go to look at a bunch of future rental properties because Carson is obviously trying to trick Mrs. Hughes into moving in with him. I see right through you, Carson.
Mrs. Hughes is sad when she has to inform him that she can’t actually go in on the scheme with him because she doesn’t have any money. It turns out she has a mentally handicapped sister that she’s been paying to support, meaning she has no savings at all.
Carson, realizing his plan to trick Mrs. Hughes into domestic bliss with a “bed and breakfast” has failed, changes tack. Instead, he just directly tells her that he wants to marry her, and it’s the best and one of the more heartwarming moment of the episode. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are seriously the greatest.
I won’t even pretend like I didn’t start crying right at this moment in my medicated and vulnerable state. Carson and Mrs. Hughes get me every single time. Of course, Mrs. Hughes says yes because even she knows they’re perfect together. For some reason, we don’t get to see them kiss, and I want to go on record as feeling cheated.
Besides Thomas scheming as always, the big storyline of the night for the downstairs folk is the Anna and Bates of it all. I hate everything about this stupid storyline, so let’s just get through it fast.
Things are looking pretty bleak for Anna, especially when it comes to light that she once stabbed the step-father that molested her as a girl. I feel like Julian Fellowes thinks making Anna’s life as terrible as possible makes her more likable, but I feel like he is really wrong. Also, I’m so tired of this show using sexual violence for cheap plot mechanics.
Knowing Anna’s chances of winning are pretty poor, Mr. Bates writes a note confessing to the crime and then takes off on the lamb for Ireland. Anna returns home looking very defeated, and no one even hugs her when she gets out of the car because they’re either all very British or all very tired of this stupid storyline as well.
The hunt is now on for a way to clear the name of Mr. Bates, but the only people who actually seem to care are Mr. Molesley and Baxter, who go around to every pub in York until they can find someone who remembers interacting with a limping, surly man. Somehow, clearing Mr. Bates’ name doesn’t result in Anna going back to jail because apparently the person writing this stupid storyline got tired in the middle or started drinking the same booze as Robert and was just like, “Whatever, the end!” I can’t complain because I’m so tired of watching it.
Mr. Bates comes back from his time as a criminal on the run during the Christmas festivities at Downton, and he and Anna have a joyful reunion. I think I’m getting most of what happens. It’s very dramatic and very boring all at the same time.
When even the characters on the show start remarking upon how repetitious Anna and Bates’ stories are, you know you’re in trouble creatively. Hopefully, the show will find something non-miserable to do with these two characters next season. Remember when these two were likable and interesting? Me neither at this point.
Elsewhere Around Downton…
— In addition to Branson’s departure, it sounds like Rose is off to New York with Atticus and presumably off the show. I feel like next season really has to be the last season just because they’re running out of cast members.
— Mary’s long-running hatred of Edith is so misplaced, it’s basically comical now. Even Edith can’t seem to take it seriously anymore.
— Violet‘s household help are at war again, this time over the broth. I can’t imagine Denker’s broth could have been thinner than that storyline.
— Daisy is more indecisive with her education than Mary is about what dude she wants to sex-murder next. Read a book or don’t, Daisy, you don’t have to make it a whole production!
— I can’t decide what my favorite moment of the episode is: drunk Robert or the moment when Violet implies she’s had herself some crazy affairs. Isobel laughs at this because they are the best girlfriends of all time. I just want to hang out with Isobel and Violet, sipping tea and gossiping about boys and practicing my withering put-downs.
What did you think of the season 5 finale? Did you love it or hate it? Were you moved? What was your favorite part? Sound off in the comments!
(Image courtesy of PBS)