Downton Abbey: A Journey to the Highlands

Lady Violet: “But then, we don’t always get our just deserts.”

Finally! A bit of a time jump. As we are helpfully told that we are a year later and because I know that the shooting season in Scotland starts in the middle of August, I am placing this episode in August or September 1921.

I will start by saying that I did not like this episode. I watched it for the first time Sunday evening, but I hadn’t had the greatest of weekends and was in a bit of snit. I placed the blame on myself and decided I would watch it again when I was in a better mood. I had a great day yesterday, so I watched it again last night. I still didn’t like it, but couldn’t really put my finger on what was wrong with it other than I was bored. So, I watched it again this morning and it struck me.

For eighty-nine minutes, nothing happens. We get no new plot or no new character development. What we do get is a series of stories, every single one of which has been told before. Then, we get that final minute. Unfortunately, like almost everyone else on this side of the Atlantic, I knew it was coming. I can imagine the shock value if I hadn’t known, but as I thought more about this episode, it struck me that I don’t care that Matthew is gone. Before we get to that, however, let’s begin with the other stories (re)told in this long episode.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on Shrimpie and Susan’s marital difficulties. As they are off to India, why should we care? I think it was to show us that earlier this season Robert and Cora could have gone that way, but were saved by Lady Violet. To sledgehammer home the point, Shrimpie has lost all of his money because he did not modernize his estate. Really? Are we as viewers so thick that we need to be reminded that Robert has been saved from himself by both his mother and his son-in-law? I think we got it -- and quite a while ago.

Speaking of the Flintshires, Rose is coming to live at Downton. Of course she is. We need a Sybil-like character for next season. Did her teaching Anna to dance remind anyone else of Sybil helping Gwen?

Speaking of season one, remember when Mrs. Hughes had that date who proposed to her at the fair? We had this story told not once, but twice and, each of them comes to a head at the fair. The Mrs. Patmore/Jos Tufton story was inevitable. The first time we meet the man he sticks his dirty fingers into a pot of soup. While I am not overly squeamish, that is just gross and Mrs. Patmore can do better. The Clarkson/Isobel story was better, but over before it began. Having said that, I thought the way that Isobel saved him from himself was inspired. She can read people extremely well.

Speaking of romance, Edith certainly has a type. The men she falls for are older than she, widowed (or may as well be) and disliked by her family. In this case, Edith doesn’t realize she is in love until the man in question attempts to break up with her. Once he does, she becomes determined to make him stay with her. We will move on from the fact that this new man is an editor, although not as successful as the last one we met.

To drive home the comparison with Sir Anthony, Mary is an absolute cow to her sister. Happily married and pregnant, it makes no sense to me to have Mary behave in such a fashion other than to remind us of the season one finale. The whole thing with the dinner dress made me crazy. Mary makes a snarky comment about Michael packing tails, yet if he had turned up for dinner without them, can you imagine how she would have behaved.

Matthew, like he was with Tom when he came into the family, is the one who tries to keep the peace. I did like the fact that Matthew is reluctant for his sister-in-law to become Michael’s mistress, but his role is unchanged. And, just in case we forgot that Matthew is a war hero, we discover that Michael crawled through the trenches as well.

Three separate times, we have to endure a conversation between Mary and Matthew about how awful she is and that, in spite of the fact that she is a horror and knows it, Matthew still loves her. The worst of the three was the final scene at the hospital. Mary is so unaware it borders on the frightening. I assume she loves her child, but what she rambles on about is how she has done her duty and how proud Papa will be. This woman has issues.

What struck me most about these conversations is that Matthew is continually telling Mary how much he loves her. Mary accepts these professions as her due, never once reciprocating. It makes me wonder if this is so next season she is either completely guilt-ridden about Matthew and is, therefore, a shrew; or else, she is bitter about the fact that the one person who cared about her is dead and she is, therefore, a shrew.

Unlike the snobbish, stubborn man we have seen all season, Carson seems to have reverted to his former self. He worries about Mary (although, forgetting to ask the sex of the baby was a step too far) and he fusses over Sybbie. He doesn’t go to the fair so that the boys may enjoy the time without him looking over their shoulders and his agreeing to stay at the house so that Tom could go to the fair was almost kind. The scene where Anna sorts out the arrival was great and I loved the fact that he thanked her.

Thomas is obviously still in love with Jimmy, and gets a truly horrific beating for his troubles. The scene in the bedroom was as contrived as it is possible to be. First of all, the bedroom? Seriously? Secondly, is it possible for these two to be friends when one of them is in love with the other? I hope so, but something tells me that this relationship is going to end badly.

The Anna/Bates story has not moved on at all. I believed her secret during the picnic was that she was pregnant, but no. She simply wanted to learn to dance. Sweet, but so what. There was a huge continuity error in this story. On the picnic, Anna has brought beer to drink and Bates is pleased. Remember back in the first season that the reason everyone believed Bates hadn’t stolen the wine was because he doesn’t drink. He doesn’t drink because, when he does, he gets violent. Unless this is very subtle foreshadowing for next season, it was a huge mistake.

While we’re on the subject of drink, Molesley was the comic relief again. Watching him dance was hilarious, but it is not the first time we have seen him drunk.

The story that should have been fascinating to watch was Tom’s. Not posh enough to be invited to Scotland; too posh for downstairs -- literally, caught between two worlds. He is struggling and lonely; but, he has been since Sybil died. Keeping in mind that he has been an agent on the estate for a year now, he hasn’t made much progress.

To emphasize his loneliness, we get Edna. Now, here’s a story that’s been told. A new housemaid makes a play for someone upstairs and gets the sack for it. Didn’t we just say goodbye to Ethel an episode ago? She certainly reappeared quickly. Even Edna’s attitude was a carbon copy of Ethel’s. She believes she is just as good as anyone else, has a smart mouth and is not at all deferential. She doesn’t stand up when Tom enters the room, but the final nail in her coffin is when she calls him by name. Stupid girl; it’s hard to believe that anyone in service would be that unaware of the rules or, worse, not think that there would be consequences for breaking them.

Two of my favorite scenes in the episode were this story. First, the talk Tom has with Isobel who may be many things, but genuinely does not see class issues the way many of those around her do. I loved the way she helped him to see that he has changed and that he does have a bit of a position outside of the family. Even better was his talk with Mrs. Hughes, again the mother hen. To see that Tom is still so in mourning for his wife a year later is heartbreaking to watch. Mrs. Hughes, as always, handled it beautifully.

And, so we reach the end. Matthew is dead, having held his baby a grand total of once. This seems to be the Grantham curse and it is the second time we have seen it in this season alone. But, the fact remains that he is dead. What startles me is that I genuinely don’t care. I loved the character of Matthew and I loved the will-they-won’t they story that culminated in one of the most romantic engagements I’ve seen in a while.

This season, however, the character has had nothing to do except almost turn down a fortune, worry about the fact that he can’t sire a child and fight with his father-in-law. It’s a dull character playing in a dull story. I don’t blame Dan Stevens for wanting something more.

Which brings me to the problem of this entire season. There have been some magnificent stories told (Edith’s wedding, Sybil’s death, Thomas and Jimmy), but overall the stories have either been ridiculous, boring or a combination thereof. A fair amount of this episode felt like set-up for next season. I hope that Fellowes finds his muse again.

I realize that this review is negative and, dare I say it, snarky. I am sure that many of you will disagree with my assessment and I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts. In the meantime, season four has started filming and there is a rumor that Fellowes is also writing a prequel that would tell the story of how Robert and Cora met and married. But, for the time being, we must bid farewell to Downton Abbey and keep our fingers crossed for next year.

Bits and Bobs:

-- Scotland, especially the Highlands, is a beautiful part of the world. One of my favorites. While the episode was bad, the camera work in the north was simply stunning.

-- I love bagpipes. Go ahead, laugh, but I do. Though, perhaps not as an alarm clock.

-- On viewing the episode again, I found the scene at the train station where Matthew blows a kiss to his mother as the train pulls out of the station sad. This is the last time she will see him alive.

-- The kitchen quadrangle didn’t really come into this, not that I’m complaining. I did enjoy the scene with the boys sitting on the furniture and Mrs. Hughes’ shock that they would be so presumptuous. Also, when did Daisy and Ivy become friends?

-- Thomas looked absolutely smashing (no pun intended) through most of this episode. He looks gorgeous in his butler’s suit and, wow, can the man wear a hat. Tom without his shirt was a close second.

Well Said:

Susan: “Aunt Violet. We feel so privileged to have lured you this far north.”
Lady Violet: “Oh, my dear, you flatter me, which is just as it should be.”

Robert: “It puzzles me why you choose to employ amateurs like my daughter.”
Ouch! He got both of them with that one.

Mrs. Hughes: “Oh, go on. You were young once.”
Carson: “I’m young now.” Mrs. Hughes just looks at him. “Well, I’m not old.”

Lady Violet: “That is the thing about nature. There’s so much of it.”

Dr. Clarkson: “I’d be interested to know if you’ve ever thought of marrying again.”
Isobel: “Are you thinking of getting married, Dr. Clarkson? Because, if you are, you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”

Lady Violet: “It’s bad enough parenting a child when you like each other.”

Shrimpie: “Love is like riding or speaking French. If you don’t learn it young, it’s hard to get the trick of it later.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.


Billie Doux said...

Totally agree. I knew what was coming, and by the end, I almost didn't care. DA is better than this!

Terrific review, Chris. You said everything I wanted to say.

CrazyCris said...

I saw this at Christmas, but also knew it was coming (happened upon the spoiler that he hadn't renewed his contract, so that left only one option for the character). I expected it much sooner in the episode though! I was sure he wouldn't get a chance to meet his child and thus was very thankful that he did! Ironic that he died in the same "new car" that he and Mary were driving back on their honeymoon...

Like you said in a comment for the previous episode Chris, the Christmas special is a bit "apart", so I guess it's normal for it to be an independent story that will just provide a bit of character development or plant the seeds for the next season. I quite enjoyed it! The whole Scotland part was fun!

Has anyone else done the Math on the new Downton heir? The family might have to go through the whole inheritance deal again in 20 years when this little baby dies in World War II... :o( What do you think? RAF pilot?

Poor Mary!!!

Suzanne said...

I was fortunate and miraculously had not bee spoiled about Matthew. I was in shock. I predicted it as he was driving along looking so happy and not watching the road, though. The show used to be subtle. What happened? I agree with most of your commentary, Chris B. I still get delight from watching the show because of the great acting, but the story lines are beginning to feel repetitive. Why does Edith always have a catch to her relationships? How many is this now? I am also not looking forward to Mary being mean to Edith again.

Josie Kafka said...

Great review, Chris! I agree with everything you said...but the beautiful shots of the Scottish highlands made me love this episode. They also made me want to go to Scotland. Damn, that was gorgeous.

bekswhoknits said...

I was fortunate enough to not be spoiled, but the last 5 minutes I was yelling at the screen "you're going to die!".

It was so heavily signposted it felt like there was no other option.

great review - lets see what silliness season 4 will bring.

Anonymous said...

To me Downton Abbey has never been this outstanding series a lot of people claim it to be. It´s good but there are series which are a lot better (all the acting award nominations still bug me) .

Especially this fourth season was disappointing in my opinion. And I think ChrisB`s review is accurate in all accounts.

I am not sure though if Matthew`s death is a good thing or not. On the one hand it will bring necessary development to the story but since they focused so much of the story on this M&M relationship that it is quite disappointing to end this. They could have developed more interesting stories with the other characters for example instead.

I hope the next season of Downton will be the last. Julian Fellowes already expanded Downton (I read somewhere that 3 seasons were originally planned) because of the raitings and critics and that bites him now in the ass with one of the main character´s leaving. I don´t what that to happen again.

My compliments to ChrisB fo the reviews. They have been a fun and interesting reading.

Anonymous said...

I saw what was coming as Matthew was bowling speedily along the road - and I was thrilled. Matthew and Mary's story was over - what else is there to say about a happily-married couple? Breaking that up gives the potential for much more interesting stories for Mary in the future.

I do think though, Chris, that you're being a little hard on Mary. She was indeed snappish but then again she was nine months pregnant - that would try the patience of a saint. Also in the counterbalance is the way she stuck with Matthew this season when he was being so stupid about the legacy - she was unhappy about what he was doing but she was still loving towards him (more than I could have managed!). And as for her comments about doing her duty, I think these were perfectly reasonable given her position - the pressure to produce an heir, even today, is absolutely enormous and always produces relief when the deed is accomplished. (We're going to see a lot of that when the Duchess of Cambridge gives birth.) I don't think anyone could think, looking at her holding her son, that she didn't also love him to distraction - the fact that he was the heir is an extra bonus.


sunbunny said...

I didn't realize how repetitive the whole thing was until I read this and I was like...oh...yeah. I did catch the Edna/Ethel similarities and the Edith unlucky in love thing.

I actually liked this one! I thought Thomas and Jimmy were sweet, and Bates and Anna were terrifically cute together (good catch about the beer, though!). I was so afraid Mary would go into labor at the ball and Anna wouldn't get to show off her little dance. That was such a sweet scene. I loved Rose teaching her as well.

Seeing Tom cry totally made me cry. He's still so in love with her...

sunbunny said...

Also, Matthew's death means Mary will never be Countess of Grantham, right? When Robert dies, her son will inherit the title and she'll be a Dowager Countess, just like her grandmother. Or am I wrong?

CrazyCris said...

I hadn't thought of that Sunbunny! But I'm sure people will call her the Countess anyway... or perhaps someone will finally find a way to repeal the entail... :p

ChrisB said...

Wow, sunbunny, you're right. I hadn't thought of that. With Matthew dead, the title will pass to his eldest son -- as yet unnamed.

I wasn't sure how the Dowager title worked, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, "A dowager is a widow who holds a title or property, or dower, derived from her deceased husband." It seems to me, therefore, that Cora, as the widow, will inherit the title of Dowager at Robert's death and Mary will never be able to use the title of Countess of Grantham. The part of me that strongly disliked Mary in this episode is appreciative of the irony.

Juliette said...

Watching this again, I really liked it. Stripped of Christmas expectations and ignoring the last two minutes, it was good fun. I especially love Branson's storyline, the way he's caught between two worlds - though I hate Edna, she's too pushy on someone still recovering from his wife's death and while it would very hypocritical of Tom to refuse someone because they're a servant, he and Sybil were a lot more subtle about it until he left downton. (also, Branson should always be shirtless. Yum.)

Juliette said...

Re the title, I think it depends whether Robert lives a few more years or not, as the internet tells me the entail laws changed not long after this, though they might apply just to the property, not the title