There were various moments last night when Sir Richard Carlisle went out of his way to cluck disapprovingly about Crawley family traditions. Everything from allowing the maids and footmen to enjoy their own Christmas lunch to the annual Servant’s Ball, where the downstairs crew is invited to drink the upstairs liquor and dance above their station, got under his self-made skin. Not even the yearly charades contest by the fireside escaped his judgmental ire. Turning to the Dowager-Countess, he snooted, “You enjoy these games in which the player must appear ridiculous?” Deftly parrying the nouveau riche riposte, Lady Violet replied, “Sir Richard, life is a game in which the player must appear ridiculous.”
By episode’s end, when Carlisle is sent packing, perhaps to find himself another five-year engagement, the message was clear: It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not, if it’s accurate or ridiculous, if it happens slowly or fast. There’s a particular way of doing things in Downton. And if you don’t like it, you can lump it. Preferably straight back to London on the early-morning train.
It’s a good lesson for those of us in the audience as well. This second season of Downton Abbey has tested our credulity and the limits of our patience. As the burn victims and grievous back injuries came and went with little regard for pacing or logic, there were many times when it became difficult to remember just what had been so charming about this posh indulgence in the first place. Thankfully, the 90-minute Christmas Special, aired domestically as the season finale, was both a welcome return to form and a more subtle reminder that the soap on Downton will never be limited to Mrs. Hughes’ broom closet. Even on its best days, when class tension, romantic longing, and octogenarian zingers fill the hallways, it’s still a magical house where no one is ever fired and inconvenient lovers have the common courtesy to die or turn into sour cretins when they’re no longer needed. (In fact, the jilted suitors sometimes go even further, as we learned last night, when sweet-natured Ghost Lavinia piped up from beyond the grave to reveal herself as a Matthew/Mary ’shipper of the first order.)
Perhaps it was the stand-alone nature of the special — shown on Christmas Day in the UK, it was free of Downton’s usual opening credits and music (sadly, the split-second cameo from Toonces the Driving Cat was also absent) — but it appeared as if Julian Fellowes was more at ease managing the Crawleys’ affairs in this more focused setting. He certainly seemed to have gotten into the holiday spirit, or at least the spirits: December 25 at Downton was marked with a ribald humor rarely seen round these parts. Penelope Wilton practically starts humming the Benny Hill theme when she presents the ball-busting Maggie Smith with a celebratory nutcracker. “We thought you’d like it,” she declares. “To crack your nuts.” (Never one to be outdone, a few moments later Dame Maggie fires back about Sir Anthony’s lack of romantic ardor. “Perhaps he’s had enough banging for one life.” So much for your Yakety Sax life, Lady Edith!)
Of course, Fellowes also might have gained a second wind knowing that the great war was finally at an end. Not the conflict over on the continent, mind you, but his own violent slog against the realities of filling 10 and a half hours of television with class-mashing innuendo. With the end finally in sight, he was free to dispense with momentary diversions like Jane, the maid who carries a sprig of mistletoe around with her just in case, and Ethel’s ageless baby Charlie. Gone too were Sybil and Branson, the world’s least-interesting revolutionary, packed off to a new life and imminent motherhood in Dublin. Instead, we were finally able to focus on the only two storylines that truly matter: the love life of Auntie Rosamund and Daisy’s special relationship with her grieving father-in-law.
I kid. Obviously the meat of the episode concerned itself with Matthew and Mary and Bates and Anna, and rightly so. But perhaps I too have been struck by the Christmas spirit because I had no real beef with the secondary plot trimmings. Despite a lack of screen time, Rosamund is a welcome addition to the Real Housewidows of Yorkshire franchise, a catty mini-Violet who straddles the line between bitchy gentility and modern impropriety. Her near swindling at the hands (and lips) of an ardent, ruined suitor and his Manchurian Maid were entertaining, if inessential. (And in the cold light of New Year’s Day it also could be seen as a troubling sign for Season 3. If Fellowes is already reduced to strip-mining minor characters for plot, where will he go next? Perhaps Isis abandoned an illegitimate litter of puppies somewhere in the Midlands?) And while I still find Mrs. Patmore to be an insufferable meddler (which is really saying something in a house where minding your own business is about as popular as hosting Turkish diplomats), Daisy’s new-found desire for promotion and her kind resolution with William’s dad felt earned. (Quick question, though: Was Mr. Mason’s borderline creepy emotionalism — “Let me take you into my heart; make you special!” — a particularly English thing? Does every kitchen maid grow up hoping to be taken into the hearts of septuagenarian farmers?)
But despite all this, Downton, like Virginia, is really for lovers. And while only one half of our “core four” were granted their long-delayed bliss, both plots were brought to satisfyingly dramatic boils. Downstairs pair Bates and Anna are now separated by more than etiquette; since their one night of conjugal bliss the world’s most moral valet has been shackled in a York gaol, his wool onesie a far cry from his waistcoated days of yore. Throughout the season I’ve poked fun at the increasingly elaborate roadblocks thrown between these two, but, to their immense credit, the actors have at no point raised a single, distancing eyebrow. As Bates, Brendan Coyle wears his heavy suffering like a thousand-pound mackintosh, every burden added to his back confirmation of a lifelong lesson in pessimism. And Joanne Froggatt sells every scene she’s in, somehow making Anna’s limitless patience seem like a hard-earned byproduct of a frustrated, lower-class life, not the otherworldly behavior of a saint. Anna will wait and fight for Mr. Bates because she’s had no reason to expect anything better.
I found the trial of Mr. Bates — and the subsequent digression into Law & Order: Special Victorian Unit — to be rushed and more than a little silly (one rarely witnesses professional hubbubbing like that from a crowd outside of a Wimbledon final). And the near-instantaneous commuting of the death sentence was a Christmas miracle that would be laughed off 34th Street. But the lovebird/jailbird’s death row embrace could melt even the most cynical heart and the lack of further resolution provides a dramatic peg for Fellowes to build on in the season to come. (Let’s hope PBS agrees to raise his powdered wig budget, or at least lets him root around in the Rumpole of the Bailey storage locker.)
But really, who cares about all of that, because lovestruck cousins Matthew and Mary were finally united. It wasn’t all incest and giggles for the pair, though. First the dire, bizarrely patient Sir Richard needed to be sacked. The tabloid baron had become an irritable bully of late, making his ouster inevitable. Still, I was sorry to see him go. His craven, new-monied capitalism was a fascinating counterpoint to Lord Grantham’s practiced civility. (Let’s remember that the Earl was quite literally to the manor born.) And it was particularly interesting to note that the person most exercised about cross-class socializing was the man who scaled social spheres of his own. His desire to pull the scullery ladder up behind him was as damning as it was insightful. But the other reason I wished Sir Richard hadn’t fled on the morning train was because he kind of had a point: What more could he have done? He waited patiently throughout a global conflict, bought and buried salacious tales of familial scandal, and even indulged Lady Edith’s boring stories about changing a flat tire on the village road. To see Matthew and Mary play footsie over brandy snifters would have been legitimately enraging.
But ultimately not even Sir Richard’s vast fortune could block fate. When not seen through his jealous eyes, Matthew and Mary’s slow re-courtship this episode was a delight. Even director Brian Percival seemed inspired, shooting the foggy foxhunt and the delicate final snowstorm with breathtaking beauty. Michelle Dockery continues to be the best thing about Downton, her imperious humanity devastating as she admits her ruinous Turkish delight to Matthew (“I have fallen! I am impure!”) and, in the episode’s best scene, makes peace with her father. (Hugh Bonneville is equally excellent as he counsels his eldest daughter to follow the pilgrim’s progress and quit the U.K. for the more scandal-forgiving shores of America: “Find a cowboy in the Middle West and bring him back to shake us up a bit.” It’s almost enough to make me buy his idyll with Jane as a humbling prelude to this acceptance.) I actually would have loved to have seen a few Season 3 hours dedicated to Mary and Anna swanning around New York City, indulging in their own Edith Wharton-y misadventures and getting contemporary haircuts from Bill the Butcher. But Mary’s confession manages to burn away the last vestiges of Matthew’s extreme case of adult-onset emo (“I deserve to be unhappy. So does Mary!” Zip it, Morrissey!) and after a few twirls on the dance floor, the captain who relearned how to walk finally remembers how to kneel. And then, uh, it must have gotten awfully dusty in here. Someone tell Anna to fetch a mop!
That the final shot of this up-and-down second season was of the house, not the happy couple, made sense. Downton itself is the star of the show, and so while we may mourn the loss of Mary’s American tale and roll our eyes at Thomas’ never-ending array of professional second chances, we have to accept them. There are many things that make television shows successful, some more difficult than others. But making a strange house feel like a home week after week just might be the most impressive challenge of all. It may occasionally beggar belief the lengths these haves and have-nots will go to to stay at Downton. But it’s impossible to blame them for it when we’re willing to do the same ourselves.