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'Downton Abbey' recap: Wading into new waters

Downton Abbey (tv program)Television IndustryWriters Guild of AmericaPaul GiamattiJulian Fellowes

The most delightful moment in Sunday’s season finale of “Downton Abbey” comes at the very end, as Carson and Mrs. Hughes, throw caution to the wind, grasp each other's hands and wade barefoot into the cold salty ocean water together.

“You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady,” Mrs. Hughes assures a nervous Carson.

"I don’t know how, but you managed to make that sound a little risque,” he replies.

“And if I did? We’re getting on, you and I -- we can afford to live a little," Mrs. Hughes replies, as millions of "Downton Abbey" viewers across the country squealed with delight and no doubt inspiring reams of fan fiction. 

The image of Carson and Mrs. Hughes hand in hand is a wonderful, unexpected and quietly thrilling way to wind down the season, and it's certainly a more pleasant send-off than this. While it’s not exactly the sort of cliffhanger we’ve come to expect from this series, it also lays the groundwork for exciting developments next year. Will the relationship between Carson and Mrs. Hughes become romantic? Who knows? Everyone else seems to be falling in love, so why not these two? I’m not sure I even want them to pair up, but it’s exciting to see Julian Fellowes acknowledge what the rest of us have known for some time: that Carson and Mrs. Hughes -- henceforth known as "Hughson" -- are the heart and soul of “Downton Abbey.”

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Their seaside stroll is a dessert all the more delectable because it happens to follows an otherwise sparse 90-minute meal. The season finale, which aired on Christmas in the U.K., has all the ingredients to be great: an extravagant social ritual, royal scandal, fancy picnics, mischievous high jinks involving a stolen letter, comedic American-English culture clashes and, of course, lots of fabulous gowns. And yet by the time it’s over, it feels like Fellowes has spent the whole episode rearranging the place settings and in the process forgotten to serve up the main course. Put another way: Nothing really happens.

And though “Downton Abbey” fans are used to being led down long, circuitous and repetitive narrative pathways, this episode is still a slog. Heading into Sunday night, there were numerous story lines hanging in the balance: Did Bates kill Green? Would Mary pick Blake or Gillingham? What happened to poor old Gregson? Would the budding romances between Molesley and Baxter, Isobel and Lord Merton, or Branson and Sarah actually come to fruition?

But instead of getting answers, or significant developments of any kind, we are forced spend a, frankly, disconcerting amount of time in the finale with characters we’ve only just met. While I enjoy Paul Giamatti as much as the next sentient human, I do not care about Uncle Harold’s love life, or whether Madeline Allsopp may just be a gold digger like her father, and I suspect few other “Downton Abbey” fans do either.

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At least the subplot involving the Prince of Wales and his stolen love letter to (real-life) mistress Dudley Ward is a bit more amusing, involving a ridiculous, surreptitious search of Sampson’s sock drawer. It’s enjoyable enough to watch, but the scheme also underlines Lord Grantham’s warped world view in a way that nearly spoils the fun. Simply because he is a monarchist who wants to preserve the ludicrous idea that royals are inherently superior to the filthy masses (and even though the Prince of Wales himself can’t be bothered to disguise his relationship with Dudley Ward), Grantham is willing to involve his family and staff in criminal activity. Granted, it’s fairly minor stuff -- I don’t think forgery was a hanging offense, even in 1923 -- but imagine if it had gone wrong? There’s an apt metaphor in there, I think: Grantham is willing to jeopardize the reputation of his loved ones in order to preserve an increasingly outdated way of life. Sounds about right.

Speaking of criminals, one of the many matters left unresolved this season is Bates’ possible involvement in Green’s death. Mrs. Hughes discovers an incriminating train ticket in the pocket of his old coat, one purchased the very day that Green was killed and when Bates was supposedly on a day trip to York. Mrs. Hughes and Mary see it as sure evidence of guilt, not considering the fact that if Bates truly had something to hide, he’d probably have burned it long ago. Clearly Fellowes wants us to suspect that Downton’s kindly valet has a darker side: All of a sudden he’s a skilled forger and pickpocket, and then there’s the impossible-to-miss parallel between the stolen love letter and Bates’ mysterious train ticket. As he tells Lord Grantham, “Were I in a possession of a very sensitive document, I would not leave it unguarded in my home but, rather, I would take it with me wherever I went.” Case closed? I’m not convinced he’s guilty, but I am quite sure Green’s death is going to haunt us for longer than the ghost of Vera Bates.

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By far the most frustrating non-development in this finale is the one involving Mary’s love life. Nearly a year has passed since the last episode of “The Bachelorette: Yorkshire,” and yet both of Mary’s suitors continue to wait happily as she strings them along shamelessly. Yes, I know, it’s customary for story lines on “Downton Abbey” to drag on interminably, but frankly there is something unappealing about how both Blake and Gillingham have turned into her lap dogs -- Matthew never rolled over for Mary, and she loved him all the more for it. Fellowes also hasn’t done a good enough job distinguishing between the two men, who are both handsome in the same dark, pouty way, and who both seem to play by the same romantic playbook: Show up unannounced, tell Mary you’re not going to give up on her, repeat. Certainly Blake’s got more of a personality than Gillingham -- and, it turns out, a large fortune coming his way -- both of which give him the edge going into Season 5, but I think he’d be well advised to play harder to get.

I can’t help but feel as though Fellowes has strung us “Downton Abbey” fans along like one of Mary’s suitors, teasing us with promising story lines that have failed to develop in substantial ways. To use a metaphor Mr. Drew might appreciate, as a writer, Fellowes seems better at planting than harvesting. Look at all the potential relationships that have popped up this season and yet gone nowhere. I know these characters are reserved and English, but come on now. A little action never hurt anyone -- except Mr. Pamuk, that is. It’s nice to see Molesley, Isobel and Branson finally catching a break, but it’s time to move the ball forward.

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By contrast, Edith’s reckless behavior seems like a breath of fresh air. Yes, she is insane to go back on the adoption and ask Mr. Drew to play the role of foster father to her infant daughter. And no, there is no way that she’s going to be able to keep the baby’s true identity a secret, but at least her sad story is developing in an appreciable way. Now, if only we’d get an answer about Gregson’s fate. We learn that he was involved in a skirmish with a gang of brownshirts, possibly making him one of the Nazi party’s earliest victims. I just hope that Season 5 brings some definitive answers about his whereabouts and that Gregson isn’t forgotten the way that “Patrick Gordon” so conveniently was.

If I’ve spent a lot of time grumbling in this recap, it’s not because I didn’t enjoy this season -- quite the opposite. After the death and darkness of Seasons 2 and 3, it’s been nice to see “Downton Abbey” return to the gaiety and lightness that characterized its first season (Anna’s rape notwithstanding), even if the narrative at times has felt stunted. I only wish Fellowes would be more willing to make like Carson and Mrs. Hughes and tiptoe into uncharted waters rather than lingering safely onshore.

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Twitter: @MeredithBlake

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Downton Abbey (tv program)Television IndustryWriters Guild of AmericaPaul GiamattiJulian Fellowes
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