February 24, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Downton Abbey”


By the time it reaches four seasons on the air, even a first-rate show can find it difficult to sustain its initial burst of energy and creativity, and the same holds true on the other side of the Atlantic as well, as this year’s helping of Julian Fellowes’ DOWNTON ABBEY confirmed.  The show was still highly watchable, beautifully produced and finely put together, but there was something a bit lackluster about it, a tinge of tarnish that Mr. Carson would never permit on the Crawley family silver.  That tendency, unfortunately, was even more strongly felt in tonight’s season finale.

The finale, written by Fellowes (he wrote all of this season’s scripts himself) and directed by Jon East, brought the usual lurch in continuity, brought about because in England, the series airs throughout the fall, then pauses for several weeks before resuming for a relatively self-contained holiday-season special; here, where that episode airs the week after the last regular installment, the shift tends to be somewhat dislocating.  This season’s finale brought us to mid-1923, and as is also often the case, most of the action took place away from Downton itself, set in London and built around the presentation of surrogate daughter Rose (Lily James) at court and her official entry into adult society.  Much of the plot was concerned with the Downton equivalent of a heist movie, as the Earl (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Rose and some confederates plotted to retake a scandalous letter written by the Prince of Wales that had been purloined by the unscrupulous cardsharp we’d met earlier in the season.

That silliness was better, though, than the fairly idiotic plotline that had Lady Mary seriously considering turning in Bates (Brendan Coyle) for what would probably have been a death sentence because he’d apparently killed the rapist of his wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), after a train ticket accidentally found in his pocket proved that he’d indeed been in London instead of York when the rapist fell/was pushed in front of a lorry.  Bates only escaped his fate (not that he knew that he was at risk) when he continued to prove that he’d been paying attention in prison by successfully forging a letter and picking the pocket of the cardsharp to get back the Prince’s letter.  Also disappointing:  the season-long story of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), her blossoming through romance with editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), his disappearance and her pregnancy, ended flatly when what appeared to be the set-up for her to daringly take public responsibility for her child (left with a family in Switzerland) turned out to a decision to keep the baby secret, just brought closer to Downton.  Bringing on special guest stars Shirley MacLaine (in a return appearance) and Paul Giamatti as the mother and brother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) yielded little beyond some loudmouth-American gags and a very unconvincing quasi-romance for Giamatti.

Even before this last episode, though, Downton had been at something of a low ebb this season.  The show was hurt even more than one would have expected by the departure of Dan Stevens and the loss of his character Matthew Crawley, which deprived Downton of both its leading man and the major plot engine of its first three seasons.  The latter was inadequately replaced by a running story about various noblemen vigorously courting the widowed Lady Mary, and even though it tried to get some erotic class conflict going with Blake (Julian Ovenden)–in one episode, he and Lady Mary had to get down and dirty with some sick pigs–there were little in the way of sparks among any of them, and the show even made the Blake story less interesting in the finale by confirming that while vaguely socialistic in his principles, he was super-rich and about to become an Earl–in other words, a perfect substitute for Matthew.  An arc in which Rose had a relationship with a black band singer was warmed-over Dancing On the Edge.  Meanwhile, Barrow (Rob James-Collier) was reduced to a bitchy gnat, hungry for any bit of gossip he could get about the goings-on in the house, and Daisy (Sophie McShera) spent most of the season mooning after aspiring chef Alfred (Matt Milne).

That’s not to say that Downton doesn’t still have its pleasures.  Fellowes marvelously developed the odd-couple frenemy-ship of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, still a treasure even if Fellowes relies on her too often for punchlines) and passionate do-gooder Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), when Isobel nursed the formidable old lady back to health.  The addition of Mrs. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) was a good one, especially her growing relationship with Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who had a particularly strong season.  The ambivalence that Tom Branson (Allen Leech) feels for his adopted family–and theirs for him–was sensitively drawn.  Even if the plotting was weak, Froggatt and Coyle couldn’t have played the rape storyline better, and it’s always a pleasure to watch Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) as they make the luxurious lives of the Crawleys possible.  Lady Mary spent much of the season being somber, but Dockery brings real star quality to the role.

And of course, there’s all that aristocracy porn that helps make Downton so addictive, with balls and dressing for dinner and organizing the village bazaar, gorgeously shot and designed.  There may always be an England, but it’s no longer the England of the 1920s, and rose-colored visits to that bygone place and time can be lovely.

So can Downton Abbey, although the loveliness was a bit faded this season.  The show continues to be a ratings phenomenon both in the UK and for PBS here, and with Season 5 on the way, the only thing likely to keep the series from going on and on are contract issues with the large cast.  Let’s raise a glass in a champagne toast to next season being more in keeping with the standards of the manor.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."