Downton Abbey: The Christmas Special

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Ahhh, now that’s what I want in a season-ender. The right blend of suspense, catharsis, and satisfaction.

Below this photo, there be spoilers…

How much would you love to see them on Dancing With the Stars?

As always, I hardly know where to begin. Let’s start with who was missing: Sybil and Branson. Sounds like things are going well for them in Ireland, and I’m glad Lady Cora made it clear to Lord Grantham that she will not be deprived of the joy of visits with her grandchild. But I missed Branson’s spark and Sybil’s velvety voice. I hope we’ll see more of them in Season 3. Because, yes, I am already counting the days.

Sir Richard just got nastier and nastier–all that grumbling over the servants getting a little down time. (Where down time = preparing a giant feast, cleaning and decorating the whole house, doing everything they always do plus more besides, BUT HEY!, after they’ve hauled all the food to the dining room THEY DON’T HAVE TO WALK AROUND THE TABLE PUTTING IT ON PLATES. Slackers.) And the constant babysitting of Mary, getting rough with her, berating her semi-publicly. It’s true she was cold and brusque with him. It would be hard not to be, with a man who’d informed you that one step out of line and he’d bring public disgrace upon your family.

And that was my one disappointment: in their break-up scene, I kept waiting for Mary to put it to him clearly. How could she love him, or even feel at ease with him, ever, after his threats and bullying? She actually apologized to him, for pete’s sake. He needed to hear it bluntly: he thought he’d purchased her, and although she was willing to go into business with him, essentially, merging their assets–her social position; his fortune–she was not willing to be owned. He tried to bribe her most trusted servants into spying on him. I think she should have spelled this out for him crystal-clear, sort of a grim version of Elizabeth Bennet’s “had you behaved in a more gentlemanly manner” speech to Darcy.

But the development and pace of the Mary-Matthew thread satisfied me immensely. What did you think?

Mary was hilarious in the game of charades–excuse me, “this isn’t charades, this is the game.” Her irritation at the others for failing to decipher her inscrutable gestures. And Dame Maggie was at her blistering best in that scene:

VIOLET: “Sir Richard, life is a game in which the player must appear ridiculous.”

RICHARD: “Not my life.”

CORA: “Sir Richard, your turn!”  

VIOLET: “How soon your your maxim will be tested.”

Having come to appreciate Edith, I was disappointed to see her backburnered once again. Loved her line: “Do you think I’m going to give up on someone who calls me lovely?” Even though the remark, and the relationship, were left hanging in a sorrowful silence, I think we haven’t seen the last of Sir Anthony. (Is he a Sir? I can’t remember.)

Okay, the Bates trial. NUMBER ONE: I’m glad Anna married him, glad she got those visits to prison. NUMBER TWO: Not impressed with Bates’s lawyers, nor with Lord Grantham, who fell apart the moment the questions got probing. Interesting that all the worst evidence against Bates seems to have come from Bates’s own statements: what O’Brien saw and heard, what Bates said to Lord Grantham about his horrible wife, the scratch on his head after his return from London. I was longing for a fiery William Garrow-style cross-examination by the defense. But I suppose we need to save some drama for season three…Well, Anna and Bates are certainly stoic enough to wait it out. I loved their sad, sweet parting.

I’m still wondering about the possibility that O’Brien’s the guilty party. Her eyes were black holes of pain during the whole episode, except the silly planchette board scenes, and she had a couple of cryptic remarks. Perhaps they were red herrings. Logistically, a case against her seems sketchy–did she sneak to London (no easy feat for a lady’s maid) and slip poison into Mrs. Bates’s tea or something? The m.o. actually fits O’Brien’s history; we’ve seen her act similarly before, plotting a somewhat impulsive crime–“the soapslip affair,” to quote a recent search hit in my blog stats. I realize “plotting an impulsive crime” is a self-contradicting phrase, but that’s what she did with the soap. Got all inflamed with rage and came up with a way to hurt Lady Cora that took a tiny bit of planning but was carried out still in that first flush of rage. And then she immediately regretted it, “This is not who you are,” and turned back to pick up the perilous soap, but alas, she was too late.

So I can believe that O’Brien might decide the only way to do penance for the pain she caused by vindictively meddling in Bates’s affairs was to remove the source of the problem. And I can imagine her whisking off to London on her half-day (does she get a half-day?) and pretending to have information for Mrs. Bates. I can picture a conversation between them, O’Brien speaking convincingly of her intense dislike of Bates and Anna, Mrs. Bates nodding with narrowed eyes, and when Mrs. Bates’s back is turned, O’Brien slips some poison into her cup. The arsenic Mr. Bates bought is a coincidence. That’s my theory. I don’t know if I buy it, myself, but I think I find it more plausible than Mrs. Bates actually suiciding….

But I digress.

I’ll leave Thomas to you in the comments (oh, Thomas!), and that very sweet scene between Daisy and her father-in-law. 🙂

Oh yes, and then there was the distraction-thread of Lady Rosamund’s betrayal. Have at it.

Episode Five recap.
Episode Six recap.

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22 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: The Christmas Special

  1. I too just can’t see where O’Brien would have had the time to jot down to London to do the deed. Especially if she was to be back before Bates. I think the timeline is that he went down one night and Vera’s body was found soon after. Therefore the assumption is that he did it on that trip. O’Brien was right there when he returned, hence her being called as a witness for the prosecution.

    Honestly I kept expecting some kind of tell-tale foreshadowing from Sir Richard during his and Mary’s parting that for some reason he might have had it done. I didn’t see any evidence of that. I DO think Vera is capable of it out of sheer spite. What seems even more out of character to me than her committing suicide was the letter she wrote to the friend saying that she was afraid of Bates and what he might do. She did not seem to me the kind of person to admit a weakness or fear. Maybe the letter was her way of casting suspicion on Bates, and then she was so enraged after the meeting she went through with the suicide.

    I think Anna will be sleuthing out the answer next season and can’t wait to see it!

  2. If O’Brien really is the guilty party, I hope her exposure as such will include a rebirth as her fiery Siobahn Finneran self, complete with Not That Hairdo.

  3. I adored the Christmas episode! I think my favorite moment of it all (aside from the end) was when Matthew apologized to the Dowager Countess about the lamp. “It was a present from a frightful aunt. I have hated it for half a century!”

  4. Oh, I think Bates’ wife totally killed herself simply to frame him. She wasn’t just spiteful, she was fairly mad. She had him buy the poison, wrote the letter to her friend, everything–to set him up. If she couldn’t have her way, she’d rather destroy herself just to take him down with her. Perfectly tragic, in that very very British way…

    1. Don’t know if I’m right, but still agree w/Vera doing herself in and for the above mentioned reasons.

  5. I’m so happy to see this discussion! I’ve been waiting for it with anxious glee since Sunday night. 😀 And yes, agreeing the wait for Season 3 is going to be way. too. long.(as bad as the wait for Series 7 of Doctor Who!)

    I too can appreciate Sir Richard getting an ear full, however I actually admired Mary’s handling of her ‘goodbye’ to Sir Richard on the morning of his leaving. I saw her as being wise and true in making sure she left things so she was in a respectable light and perfectly proper. She had made herself rather clear throughout the relationship on a few occations, esp when Sir Richard had gotten nasty at times, and she did not hesitate to confront him i.e. about his going to Anna. I did not see her reserve at the end motivated by love but rather propriety. Refusing to stoop to Sir Richard’s low, low level.
    Mary was (at the point of the morning goodbye) still facing so much unknown. Perhaps she just wanted to not have one more thing as a mark against her in any way and therefore avoided the telling off of Sir Richard.

    I did completely love Violet’s putting Sir Richard in his place in such an elegantly blunt way as only she can do. hee hee So enjoyable to watch and laugh out loud brilliant!

    Loved, loved, loved, LOVED the Mary & Matthew scene at the end. Loved that she required him to ask her properly. Loved his face as he did so. Loved their mutual joy and even relief to finally be together, and can not wait for next session. Of course this session ending on such a happy note made me say out loud as the credits rolled, “Oh PLEASE do not make a mess of Matthew and Mary! Please, PLEASE let them just be happy and have an easy go of it all, oh please!” Romantically hoping it will be so.

    Can not wait to see Branson and Sybil again, and their little wee one! 🙂 Joy! And so happy it sounds as if they will be brought into the family properly, if slowly. Oh for Branson to be accepting of that.

    Thomas….his grasping for a place. Oh for him to be found out. Don’t see him ever turning over a new leaf. O’Brian….oh the deep, stresses she carries. Daisy…..loved seeing her eyes light up at the revelation of William’s love making her special. I think she finally fell in love with him right then & there, if only enough for her to accept his father as her own family now. So sweet.

    Sigh! Okay, going to go and continue rewatching Seasons 1 & 2 to help pass the time until 3 arrives. Only Anna and Bates have it worse than all of us with the waiting! Golly!

    1. I agree with Maria about the Mary-Richard break-up. Mary took the high road. And to be honest, she entered into the engagement in the first place because Matthew was unavailable and she needed Sir Richard to save her reputation. So she’s not entirely blameless. Both of them were cold and calculating. It will be nice to see her with Matthew, who warms her up a bit and makes her human.

  6. Sir Richard certainly had opportunity and motive to kill Vera:

    Vera was angry because he had bamboozled her by making her sign the exclusivity agreement, but then didn’t publish her story, and she threatened to go to other papers with Mary’s story.

    Sir Richard needed Mary’s story to stay a secret, so that he had leverage over her, to ensure that she would go through with the marriage. If the story came out, he would lose his leverage over her. (Of course, he probably would want to walk away from the marriage anyway, due to her damaged reputation.)

    Now that their engagement is called off, it will be interesting to see if he makes good on his threats to publish the story anyway, or whether he lets it die. It would probably be in his best interest to keep quiet, so as not to draw attention to his dealings with Vera.

  7. Oh dear, I **am** in the minority. Ah well.

    I do feel that the writers and the actress have doen a brilliant job in creating Mary. I just don’t like her. **smile** I do of course like Matthew quite a lot, and so want for him … someone better. Mary is cold and calculating, bitter; she seems to love nothing more than to hear the sound of her own voice. Edith, now. Edith’s personality is more restrained. Yes, she too has made mistakes, taken missteps along the way. Don’t we all. I feel she has grown and become a better person for what she has learned from those missteps. Mary hasn’t learned anything it seems. She’s just as cold and controlling and high and mighty as ever.

    Likewise, with Bates, I think the writers have done a brilliant job. What we’re told is that he had been a raging alchoholic. Without the drink and the anger he has a distinctively shut down personality. Flat. This isn’t a criticism necessarily. I know addicts and alchoholics. It takes time and concerted effort to heal, to relearn how to live. Bates, to me, seems a man dulled from the effort of holding himself rigidly in check. His story, as written, is confusing, in terms of plot, his late wife, his past, etc. There is far too much we were never shown. I find his character a little creepy and not at all attractive. As the story unfolded oh how I wanted Anna to get away from him. It just didn’t seem like a healthy situation. I do love Anna. I feel bad for her.

    I worry for Sybil, in Ireland, with a feisty political husband, and the IRA battling the British (right now, in our story: 1919-1921 and then the civil war in 1922). I wonder if next season will see her return to Downton, alone with the baby.

    I really really hope that Edith and Anthony are able to marry.

    1. Oh I’ve had the same thoughts of concern for Sybil. I have felt she is settling for Branson. When she said “I am ready to travel” and refered to him as her ticket to do so, well that just sounded and felt wrong. I mean she could have persued her nursing or even gone onto study further in medicine if she wanted to travel. Travel to America even, she has relatives there. But to marry to travel to such an unstable situation as she did? I’ve just not been too keen on she and Branson at all. S
      However, seeing as she has chosen this path to Ireland, I am happy though that she will not be completely shunned from her family and there is hope for her to return to them to visit or for refuge if needed.

      Call me snooty but I think I’d pick a Downton life over the hard work and political climate of Ireland at that time.

      1. I was totally indifferent when Sybil ran off with Branson. I get it from a storytelling point of view, but I’ve never seen a spark of chemistry between them.

    2. I chat about Downton with some USAF friends and one of the guys pointed out a couple weeks ago the Easter Rising and IRA Revolution was coming and Sybil in Ireland could spell death for Branson — or even Sybil herself!

      I very much enjoy the merger of historical events into the lives of this fictitious community.

  8. LOVED this episode. So satisfying. My husband and I had a running debate over whether they would put Matthew and Mary together this season or draw it out to the next season. Good things:
    – Mary’s self esteem is back. She saw herself as “damaged goods” for so long that she believed she deserved a creep like Richard. With her father’s loving response, she sees that she can have a life again.
    – Lord Granthams character development. When he had the fling with the maid, I was literally yelling at the screen, but now I see that it was necessary in his evolution as a character. He needed to be reminded of his own clay feet so he could love the imperfect humans surrounding him.
    – Countess Violets exchange with Richard during charades- priceless.

    Bad things:
    – leaving poor Edith in the cold. Someday her prince will come, but does she have to go begging for him?
    – seeing Anna and Bates’ tears- heartbreaking.

    predictions/ ponderings
    – When Richard unleashes all the quiet he has kept about Downton scandals (Mary, Bates) someone or some evidence will come forward about the murder so that in some twisted way Richard’s meanness will end up helping Bates. The truth will set you free.
    – Cora’s mother coming (Shirley Mcclain) coming will be another game changer for the family. All that American brashness and optimism will make the stiff upper lips wobble. And it may bring the Canadian mystery man back as well.
    – The author has not touched up on religion hardly at all, but I can’t expect that Sybil and Branson going to Ireland wouldnt touch on the whole Catholic thing. But I am not sure how much of an issue it was in the soon-to-be Republic of Ireland in the 20’s. Any Irish scholars out there? I mean, this is the time of Joyce, right? So it would be culturually authentic for Catholicism to come up.

    1. Me too! I just knew the den door was going to open w/my husband standing there w/a “What’s going on?” look on his face. LOL
      It is a miracle that I’ve not woken my family with my own laughing out LOUD at the Dowager Countess on many occations. Dame Maggie Smith is a genius of an actress. Just love her in this role!

  9. @Ellie — I am with you about Mary, she irks. I am in complete agreement with Mrs. Hughes that Mary is “the author of her own misfortunes,” and I have little sympathy for her. However, I’m not completely made of stone, so I have to admit the proposal in the snow and the happiness on both their faces got to me. I just hope that if P. Gordon reappears with some better proof of his claim, Mary won’t drop Matthew again — I wouldn’t put it past her!!

    I got teariest over the scene with Daisy and William’s father — so sweet for both of them. I liked seeing Daisy grow up a bit and come into her own. I remember from watching “Manor House” that scullery maid is the roughest job, so I hope her life will be a little easier as Assistant Cook.

    I’m going to spend the rest of my life waiting for someone I dislike to tell me I’ll never see them again, just so I can use Violet’s awesome “Do you promise?” line!

    1. I gotta disagree with you guys about Mary 😉 I don’t think she’d throw Matthew over anytime soon. Even if that was the real Patrick (which I highly doubt). She even stated to her Aunt that she wanted to marry Matthew even if her mother did have a boy… and I believe she loves him very much. A lot of that proof was the way she treated Lavinia and I think that was out of the love she had for Matthew.

      …oh, and I did love the scenes with Daisy and Mr. Mason!! Those were really sweet.

  10. Loved the Christmas special. Our PBS station ran a 10 hour marathon Sunday, with pledge time included. My husband thought I was crazy. And, of course, while already a member, I sent in an extra donation.

    I think Patrick will be back but not as wedge between Mary and Matthew. Apparently she never cared much for him. But I think it will be a wedge between Mary and Edith who will be his supporter.

    Lastly, if you watched it on PBS, and you probably did, then become a member or make a little extra donation if you are already a member. That’s my PSA. Where else can you find a show like this.

  11. Thanks for the great recap, my favorite episode by far… actually, I hate to say it.. but I liked Season 2 more than Season 1 (I debated that one for awhile).

    Sir Richard was pretty evil and got worse as time went on. I hated that he was so “grabby” .. especially with the female characters (the male ones would just punch him, like Matthew — go Matthew!!).. just showed how aggressive he was towards all of them. Evidently, he didn’t believe in women’s rights much (Ok, I’m just guessing there). I’m so glad that Mary finally finally called it off.

    I looooooooved that Mary and Matthew finally worked it out. I also really liked that the writer brought up all the possible things that could tear them apart (the Pamuk incident, Lavinia, etc) and resolved them. I’m sure that they won’t agree on everything (hence the quote in Season 1 that if Mary wanted a good argument to see Matthew more..), but at least those two main issues that could do massive damage are resolved. I’m hoping they are still together or married in Season 3. Glad they broke the Ross/Rachel circle of romance of will they – won’t they… I don’t know if I would have been able to watch a whole new season with the same issues between them.

    I did miss Sybil and Branson, but I’m glad that Cora brought up those points with Robert and hopefully we see them quite a bit in Season 3!! …and it looks like everything is well between Lord and Lady Grantham again — which was nice to see.

    …Bates and Anna.. poor Anna, I’m so glad that they were able to marry though! I’m sure that in Season 3 Bates will get free and kick Thomas to the curb (I’m hoping).. it bugs me that the whole thing with Lord Grantham’s dog worked. I don’t hate Thomas as much as I did, but still not a fan of him at all. O’Brien, I’m sorta mixed. I’m sure that character will have it’s ups and downs.. she’s a bit of a mixture. Sometimes you like her.. and other times, aaaaaaaaaargh!

    Hopefully Lady Edith will have some romance in Season 3.. now that her sisters are all engaged/married. I liked her a lot better this season.. she had more of a purpose and her character seemed to thrive with it.

    1. I was WAITING for Matthew to punch Sir Richard the whole episode until he did. Every time they had any interaction at all, I kept thinking, “Matthew’s going to punch him. Matthew is DYING to punch him. Go on, Matthew, punch him already!” Very satisfying.

  12. My thoughts:

    I don’t think OBrien had anything to do with the death, I think Bate’s wife killed herself just to get her revenge as she said in the office something about taking him down with me!”

    I think in the next season the trial will go one of two ways. They will wrap it up quickly and have a happy reunion… um probably not… or they will draw it out for the drama. You see, Anna is too good of a person. She is about the only character in the series who doesn’t have a flaw they have exposed. Her flaw is loving Bates who carries enough baggage for both of them. I could easily see it getting worse before it gets better and him coming right to the point of execution, Tess of the d’urbervilles style.
    I also see them bringing in a child here. Anna will be pregnant and Bates will be faced with the possibility of never being able to meet his child.

    If they kill him, there will also be a baby involved and it will be a tragic scene.

    If he survives, it will drag Anna to her limits of sanity before they resolve the story.

    The series seems to be set on touching every aspect of life in at least one character. Marriage, death, temptation, greed, sacrifice, adultery, sickness, war, disability, etc.

    They haven’t yet had a birth scene though, there have been two weddings and a few death scenes, but the babies have just appeared, born. I think Sibyl and Branson are going to have a huge birth scene. The Strife in Ireland will reach a frenzy and Sibyl will likely flee back to Downton to have the baby, leaving Branson in some dangerous situation covering a story for the paper. She will entreat her father to help and he won’t. Everyone in the house will have an opinion, and then the baby will be born in an emotional scene. Branson will arrive at the end, alive.

    Something else I noticed. The writers kept mentioning the Grandmother in NY. This was for Mary’s benefit and now that Mary is staying, it seems unimportant, but I believe they introduced the idea of her for a reason. I originally thought Mary was going to go to NY and get caught up int he raging 20’s. I changed my mind. We were left very much unsure what will happen to Edith and now I am pretty sure that is where they are taking her character. She is both reserved and easily led by her emotions. She is going to go to NY and come back changed and possibly scandalized.

    I will likely be surprised, but that is where I see the next season heading.

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