Downton Abbey, S05E9 – Christmas Special

Downton Abbey S05E09 Formal Cast

In the series three Christmas Special, Julian Fellowes wrote what has to be in the top ten worst death scenes in the history of television for Matthew Crawley, played by the departing Dan Stevens.  Ever since, Downton Abbey fans have cast a wary eye on the Christmas Special, afraid of their holiday being ruined by tragedy when they were hoping for snow and romance and snarky servants.  The series four Christmas Special was light as air but less like Downton.  It made for good television with scheming aristocrats, flirtation, and sumptuous costuming, but the downstairs was hardly seen and there were a lot of characters we’d never met who we were suddenly supposed to care about.  It was more like a Downton crossover film than an episode of the show.  The series five special has much more going for it in terms of an episode of Downton and it has none of the tragedy.  It’s not great, but it’s solid and it has a couple of great moments for much-beloved characters which makes it good viewing, especially for Christmas.

In the fall of 1924, the Crawleys join the Sinderbys (parents to Rose’s new husband, Atticus) at Brancaster Castle, which Lord Sinderby is renting.  This requires a merging of servant crews and Lord Sinderby is bringing in his own butler, Stowell, instead of allowing Carson to run the place while the aristocrats party and hunt grouse.  The most fun elements of the episode involve the villainous Stowell who is blatantly rude to Branson, knowing his history, and thinks no better of his own boss.  He runs afoul of Barrow early on, incurring the rath of a seasoned schemer.  Even better, Mary has no patience for Stowell either, especially if he’s going to be rude to Branson, and specifically requests Barrow’s assistance.  The idea of Mary recruiting Barrow for a caper is fantastic and should’ve happened years ago.  Of course, Thomas goes a dash too far, nearly ruining Sinderby on top of Stowell.  But Sinderby is rescued from scandal by Rose, who he now realizes is an ally and a loved one, not an enemy.  We’ll see what happens next time her mother visits.

Downton Abbey S05E09 Cast

 

Of course, Thomas as a schemer is old hat (even if it’s always enjoyable). The biggest Christmas surprise comes in the form of Downton’s sweetest romance. The working marriage of Charles Carson and Elsie Hughes has always been lovely to watch.  Finally, Fellowes allows a relationship which might normally remain implicit to become explicit.  Mrs. Hughes confesses to Carson that she cannot invest in a cottage with him after all because she is, in fact, a pauper who will likely never retire, as she has a mentally ill sister she has been taking care of all these years without his knowledge. Quite a reveal.  It’s the final push to make Carson reveal his own truth: he wants to marry Mrs. Hughes because of course, he’s in love with his Elsie.  While I’ve always been happy with their relationship remaining implicit, this long told romance between two older working class people is refreshing.

Meanwhile, two other romances for older folk do not fare so well.  Prince Kuragin’s wife, Princess Irina, has finally been found, and Violet lets go of her romance with the prince. She tells Isobel that while the princess is a difficult sort, she stopped Violet from ruining her future and running off with Kuragin when she was already a young wife and mother.  Now, Violet says, she will save Irina as Irina saved her. Isobel’s romance with Lord Merton also appears destined for the ashes.   She refuses to marry a man whose children despise her and ends their engagement.  It’s possible that Isobel and Violet will spend their golden years as each other’s companions after all, which is not so bad.

In terms of minor delights, the excellent Matthew Goode (The Imitation Game) is introduced as a possible new suitor for Lady Mary.  He’s charming in a way more reserved and mysterious than Charles Blake and not creepily desperate like Lord Gillingham. Maybe it’s because Goode seems like he’s just walked in from better material, but I do look forward to seeing more of him.

Robert, for no particular reason, has a minor health scare. The suspicion is heart trouble, but it turns out he’s just got an ulcer. It’s enough to push him into clearing things up with Edith, since he now knows the truth about Marigold.  It’s a good episode for Robert.  When Lord Grantham is on the ball, one forgets for a while that he’s often totally insufferable.  Forced to give up booze till Christmas, the episode ends on Christmas Eve with Robert cheerful, full of good will, and drunk as a skunk.

Downton Abbey S05E09 Mary

That’s all the good stuff. Thankfully, there is no baby swapping.  Unfortunately, there is still the interminable murder plot involving the Bateses to deal with.  Anna is in prison because of a mystery witness who we never see.  Now the cops have unearthed Anna’s past.  Apparently Greene was not the first man to sexually assault her.  She once threatened a man with a knife who attacked her when she was young and…it’s a terrible backstory to suddenly give a character just for a plot contrivance. It’s highly likely that this history will never come up again once it’s served its purpose.  Bates confesses to Greene’s murder and is then arrested.  But luckily for the Saints Bates, Molesley and Baxter are on the case.  They hop from pub to pub in York trying to find the place where Bates spent that dark day, showing his picture to barmen.  They strike gold and Bates is released on Christmas.  But the plot thread seems unresolved.  There may yet be a trial in series six.  I do not see the entertainment value in infinitely saintly and noble characters getting the story equivalent of sewage dumped over their heads all the time just so they can cry a lot but never get angry about it. Give me Thomas Barrow any day.

Finally, Tom Branson is off to America. Much to the Crawleys dismay, Branson is going to seek his fortune in Boston and he’s taking Sybbie with him.  Yet Tom says more than once that he’ll be back (most likely with an American wife in tow), and probably no later than the third episode of series six.  If not, I will miss his interactions with Mary and Isobel in particular, even if Fellowes never knew what to do with his character once he’d married Sybil.