I hate to say it, but they saved the best for last with the Downton Abbey Season 4 finale, which aired as a Christmas special in the UK. They took us away from the estate, and gave us a reason to remember what made the show so appealing early on, by featuring interesting subplots and plenty of great costumes.
The problem with this entire batch of episodes has been a stagnant feeling that’s been difficult to shake, and the dread surrounding how Julian Fellowes would close up the storyline involving Anna being raped by Mr. Green. Every episode was tied down by those two things, and it left me wondering if the carpet should just be rolled up, and Downton should close its doors for good after this fourth season.
I’m still not totally sure if I’ll come back for a fifth year, but if I don’t, last evening’s episode will have served as a fitting closing for a show that remains one of TV’s best-ever period dramas. I was happy with the way Downton resolved the Anna storyline, with everyone involved realizing that, if Bates really did kill Mr. Green, perhaps looking past that little fact wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Fellowes didn’t leave us much doubt that Bates did away with the man who assaulted his wife, but he also made anybody who thought of turning Bates in (namely: Mary) understand that the world needs more Bateses and less guys like Green.
This episode picks up almost exactly a year after the end of last week’s. Edith talks to her aunt about how she’s back to wearing her old dress size, but can’t forget about the baby she had to give up. Although the fate of the baby’s father is hinted at (he supposedly bumped into a handful of Germans wearing brown shirts and argued with them over their views), giving us a glimpse into Europe’s future with the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party, the story seems like an easy way out of this storyline. But now Edith has a plan to be closer to her baby, no matter how much the few family members who know about her child protest.
Rose’s presentation as a debutante introduces us to the future Edward VIII (the one who would eventually go on to abdicate his throne), but also brings back Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson. This time, she shows up with her mysterious playboy son, Harold Levinson (played by Paul Giamatti). Harold is — even more than his mother — the very ugly American: totally uncomfortable being away from his homeland and unaware of old English customs like being respectful to royalty. Obviously it’s odd to see Giamatti in this context, but he does play the part well, and gives us the occasional chuckle.
Of course, the unsavory elements of the show get to have their moments, too: Thomas walks in on Branson as the former chauffeur is showing his socialist teacher friend the upstairs of the main house. Clearly, Thomas is going to find any way he can to use this incident to his advantage, and hardly wastes any time telling Lord Grantham.
While we’re going to have to wait and see whether or not Lord Grantham will end up looking down on his son-in-law for looking for love after Sybil’s death, at least for the time being, all we know is that the head of the family knows who he can turn to when he needs a letter forged. Robert asks Bates to help him get a letter from the Prince of Wales to his ladyfriend that Sampson stole with the hopes of selling it the newspapers. He gets the letter, and Rose and co. search the room to no avail. The Crawley clan feel as if they let down the entire monarchy, because Sampson will no doubt embarrass the royal family with the news he possesses. Thankfully, Bates saves the day, retrieving the letter after Sampson gives the valet his coat.
It was all a joy to watch, and no matter what I, or anybody else, has thought of this season, this episode really shined brighter than anything else we’ve seen on the show this year. All the muddled storylines work themselves out, the servants continue to chatter, Mary has two men who love her, and the Crawleys will go on being oblivious to the changing world around them. We don’t know what the future holds, but for Downton, it will probably be more of the same. And if we don’t end up hanging on for Season 5? At least we’ll always have the image of Carson and Mrs. Hughes holding hands, walking into the sea together — one of the show’s sweetest and most memorable images yet.