The second season of Downton Abbey came to a somewhat merry, certainly satisfying conclusion on Sunday night by wrapping up some subplots and leaving others dangling, tantalizingly. Abbey is, at bottom, a work of pastiche. Creator-writer Julian Fellowes is using literary models that have worked for a long time, freshening them with his vivid characterization and (most of the time) crisply precise dialogue. What Fellowes has done so cannily is to render the servant-master relationship in two distinct modes: His models are Charles Dickens melodrama downstairs, and Anthony Powell archness upstairs.
The night commenced with a 1919 Christmas celebration, with a tree arriving by car. The only thing missing was Tiny Tim tied to a fender shouting, “God bless us, one and all!” Alas, the Lord seemed to have averted His gaze from Mr. Bates, on trial for murdering his ex-wife. By New Year’s Eve (you can’t say writer Julian Fellowes doesn’t move things along briskly), Mary was confiding to Matthew, of Sir Richard Carlisle: “The awful truth is, he’s starting to get on my nerves.” And ours: Richard has been a character misstep for Fellowes, I believe. He could have been an interesting figure, a working-class lad who’d worked himself up the social ladder via a disreputable but influential profession (newspapers; remember them?). But Fellowes has no feeling for this sort of striver character – in his world, you’re either a ruler or an obeyer. Consequently, Sir Richard, who at the least ought to have displayed some personality traits that allowed us to believe Mary could be attracted to him: a bawdy sense of sarcasm, perhaps, or a slightly sympathetic aspect to his ruthlessness, born of a fundamental insecurity about his place in society. Instead, Richard just became more stiff, more unconvincingly rude to the entire Crawley clan.
The result was to make Mary’s split with him blithely inevitable, and in this episode, almost beside the point. Because the real source of Mary’s agony was that she was “damaged goods” to Matthew for having slept with that Turkish diplomat.
In other areas, this Downton was far more satisfying. The trial of Bates was wrung for every tear and well worth it. (Life imprisonment will be a piece of treacle, if it means he can still gaze adoringly at Anna on visitors’ days and mount a defense for early release.) The new maid Miss Shore was delightfully sniffy, our stand-in smirker for the ongoing, ridiculous innocence of Daisy. Nigel Havers turned in a very nice job indeed as “fortune hunter” Lord Hepworth, his character managing, unlike Carlisle, to exude just enough curiosity and charm to render it believable that Lady Rosamund would find him tolerable as possible marriage material.
One of the charming things about Julian Fellowes is that he’s shameless. Using the Ouiji board to trick the gullible and literally guide some of the action? Underscoring Thomas’ villainy by having him steal Robert’s dog? Oh, the cur! (Thomas, not Isis.)
Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess Violet continues to risk devolving into a cartoon toff; going forward, she needs to be brought into the action of the plot more frequently, as she was here in a touching little scene dispensing advice to Daisy.
The two most warming moments were probably the father-daughter talk between Lord Grantham and Mary, and the episode’s final moments, with Matthew proposing to Mary amidst what looked like a flurry of old soap-detergent snowflakes. The advice Dad gave Daughter was exactly what a girl wants to hear from her father: You’re a good girl, I’ll always be proud of you no matter what you do, now go to America and find a good cowpoke to poke. Phrased elegantly, to be sure.