Aww, Downton Abbey Christmas Special. You sweet, pretty, dumb thing. As Erin so succinctly pointed out, the 90-minute episode has got us all sorted back to where we'd like to begin Series Three, if not in the most high-minded and subtle manner possible. But most of the silliness - well, except for Lavinia's contacting random maids from beyond the grave - was a necessity, resolving tiresome, protracted plotlines lingering from earlier in the season, and ushering the audience back to a cozy place where we can all warmly anticipate the next season.
As always, the women offer most of the strength and wisdom in this episode, and are actually even stronger and wiser than usual. Lady Mary is a tender and devoted friend to Anna and responds to the Carlisle messiness with composure and grace. Countess Grantham stands up for her daughter Sybil to the grouchy old Earl; the Dowager Countess tells off everyone in spectacular fashion ("Do you promise?") and responds kindly when she finds Daisy crying. Daisy grows up quite a bit in this episode, gaining confidence and wisdom through her dealings with William's father and meddling old Mrs. Patmore. Mrs. Hughes is typically wonderful; Anna is typically tediously flawless; Edith is typically adorably pitiable; and O'Brien has completely won me over through rather hasty means. But honestly, even all of the gentlemen are great this week. There is no villain in the Christmas Special of Downton Abbey. Not Thomas, who behaves rather pathetically with the dog but then dances quite sweetly with the DC and Edith; not Carlisle, who truly loved Mary and who will probably not retaliate despite being thrown over. Not even Hepworth and Ms. Shaw, who are, after all, simply broke, in love and enterprising.
Now, tomorrow Hulk is going to go into more detail regarding the insufferable absurdity of Bates' never-ending trial; both his trial at court and his trials in life seem ceaseless and terribly uninteresting at this point. I think we can all agree that Downton Abbey Series Two approached nowhere near the elegant and nuanced heights of Series One, but I still enjoy the show tremendously and prefer it to nearly everything else currently airing. But the fact that this season resulted in my rolling my eyes every time the great Brendan Coyle is onscreen, going so far as to wish death on my once-beloved Bates simply so we can all move on and pity something else, well, that's a problem. How can this problem be solved next season? Simple. By clearing Bates' name and sending him home and happy to Anna or by killing him off; either way, as long as the plot is resolved by the second episode. I cannot abide eight episodes of Anna's tearful visits to Bates in the slammer next year - although I wouldn't mind future periodic Arrested Development shout-outs. ("No touching!") And while we're discussing it, can we please give Anna a storyline that doesn't revolve around Bates? Joanne Froggatt has adequately proven her chops over the past two seasons by appearing weepy-eyed and bravely in love despite all obstacles in nearly every episode. Let's give her something else to do, shall we? Honestly! Anything else at all.
As for the other plotline that has been needlessly circuitous and excruciating...Matthew and Mary are finally doing away with fabricated encumbrances to their love and they're now happily engaged! Tess of the d'Urbervilles has won her Angel Clare, even as she freely admits to him that she sex-manslaughtered Pamuk out of common lust. Matthew's easy forgiveness is one more way in which he proves himself to be a decent person, a feminist and a man truly in love with Mary. Carlisle heads not-so-merrily on his way, but after a little tussle with Matthew, behaves quite gentlemanly. For a nouveau riche, that is. And Lavinia has given her blessing via painfully preposterous Ouija board message to two women who had nothing to do with her and therefore have no idea what her sweet, mealy-mouthed ghost is rattling on about. Honestly, if Matthew weren't going to be made aware of Lavinia's ghostly self-sacrifice (she even haunts altruistically), what was the point of it? But no matter! Mary and Matthew are in love, engaged and embracing in the snow. Next year had better not bring about any new challenges to their long-suffering love. Downton Abbey will simply have to give us a new star-crossed pair to root for. May I suggest Mrs. Hughes and Carson?
The honest truth is, Bates' trial aside, I loved this silly episode. I loved every minute of the servants' ball. I am so incredibly happy for Mary and Matthew. I'm so happy for Daisy, who has reconciled herself to her relationship with William, gained a loving new father and has asked for a well-earned promotion. I'm happy for Lady Edith, who was called "lovely" by the man she adores. I'm happy for Sybil, who's pregnant and happily married. I'm happy for O'Brien who has redeemed herself, and for Thomas, who hasn't. I'm happy for meddling old Mrs. Patmore, who looked tiny and adorable while dancing with Matthew. I'm happy for the Earl and Countess, who appear to have put behind them strife and exhaustingly abrupt plot points about pretty maids. I love the staff and family at Downton Abbey, and one mercurial season cannot change that - can only enforce it, in fact, as I now know that I can love them through murder trials, paralyzed penises, posturing burn victims, infidelities, wars and, occasionally, very bad writing.
The pacing of this season has been, frankly, abominable, with crisis followed rapidly by crisis, followed by lulls of nothingness, followed by more insupportable crises. Storylines were introduced and quickly abandoned or otherwise dwelt upon interminably. The first half of this season was especially ill-managed, but the last few episodes have mostly evened out the overwrought sentiment and volatile pacing. With this one grand, silly, lovely episode, I feel that S3 could begin on a strong note and stay there.
So what have we to look forward to next season? The roaring '20s, although the Dowager Countess can scarce believe it. "When I think what the last ten years has wrought...God knows what we're in for now." Well, I'll give you a quick rundown, DC: bare kneecaps, fringe for days, the Irish War of Independence, cocktail culture, the Irish Civil War, the General Strike, jazz music, women's suffrage and Stalin. I'm sure we'll be through all of that in the first four episodes or so, and then we'll have the Great Depression to keep us busy. As much as I adore your bone-dry delivery, stately snark and general delightfulness, I hope for your sake that you are dead by then, dear Violet Crawley.
You can read the rest of our TV Talk conversation on Downton Abbey here, and tune in tomorrow for Hulk's take on the finale and the season as a whole.