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MEEERRRRRYYY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY! Oh, sure, it’s the middle of February, but this episode represents the coveted Christmas Day Special, an honor bestowed upon only a select few Britsh TV series, usually ones called “Doctor Who.”
We begin with the Crawleys beneficently bestowing gifts upon their servants. Anna gets material for a frock (I seriously love the word "frock," because it sounds dirty but isn't), and a brooch too. I’m dying to know what’s in O’Brien’s gift (tools for forging hatred and bitterness, stolen from the garden shed of Satan himself?) but we don’t get to find out. Rosamund is visiting, and has brought alone Miss Shaw, her new maid, who is of course insufferable and irritating, because all maids not named Anna are miserable creatures.
Sir Richard is complaining again, this time about having to perform the hard work of shoveling his own food onto his own plate at lunch. When it is explained to him that this is “a Downton tradition” so that the servants can have their own Christmas feast at lunchtime, he is no less irritated by it. This is useful for the two or three viewers who just haven’t made up their mind about Sir Richard yet, and who need to see him be a jerk for the ten millionth time to decide he really is horrible.
Violet receives a bewildering gift from Isobel, who explains: “It’s a nutcracker. We thought you’d like it. To crack your nuts.”
AND THAT’S IT, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, GOODNIGHT!
Mary comes upon emo-kid Matthew hanging up the phone in the front hall. He explains that he has to go to London to see Lavinia’s dad die. And maybe to pick up a hairshirt while he’s in town; his current one is getting threadbare. But he'll be back for New Year's, just in case anyone was worried that the day might be cheerful and pleasant.
Downstairs, talk is of Bates’ impending trial for his wife’s murder, which will be happening nearby, in a sweet plot convenience. Anna looks exhausted, as one might expect. Daisy finds a ouija board inexplicably sitting on a kitchen shelf. Well, why not -- we’ve had every other soap opera convention, let’s throw some ghosts into the mix! Of course, the servants have a go at it immediately, like a bunch of 12-year-old girls at a slumber party.
Meanwhile, Bates is sad in a sad grey prison outfit sitting in a sad grey cell in a sad early-20th-century prison and it’s all very sad.
New Year’s Eve sees another social event; Rosamund has invited Lord Hepworth, some dude who’s macking on her fortune -- and ostensibly he likes her as a person too. In the library, Cora and Lord G receive a letter from the conspicuously absent Sybil, alerting them to the fact that she has a little revolutionary chauffeur on the way. Cora actually says, “She’s pregnant!” but I’m dubious as to whether that terminology was actually in use at the time; “pregnant” was sort of a distasteful expression in the late Victorian, like talking about one’s bowel movements. Possibly things have changed in the interim.
Everyone, upstairs and down, enjoys drinks at the turn of 1920. Preparing the Crawleys for bed, Anna spots Rosamund’s maid, Miss Shaw, and Lord Hepworth having a quiet conversation in the hall. Miss Shaw explains that Lord Hepworth is on her to put in a good word for him with Rosamund; Anna suspects Lord Hepworth is simply on Miss Shaw. Time will tell.
New Year’s Day sees a hunt. It seems the wealthy types would go walking through a field toward a stand of trees, while a bunch of dudes employed to walk around beating the foliage with sticks scare up the game for them to shoot at. Sporting! Matthew totally sucks at this, as Mary -- who’s agreed to walk with him on the first round of shooting -- witnesses.
Everyone else has a “loader,” i.e. a guy who reloads one gun while the other gun is being fired, but Matthew, ever the middle-class nice guy, does not. Conversation turns, as it always must, to Mary and Sir Richard, and Matthew says, “You’re still going to marry him,” his tone more a question than an observation. Could it be that Matthew is holding out hope? Mary says she must, and that she can’t tell him why.
Sir Anthony Strallan has reappeared on the horizon; for those who’ve forgotten, this is the middle-aged gent who was on the verge of proposing to Edith at the end of the last series, until Mary intervened, ostensibly as revenge for Edith having called her a slut. He’s back, now with a bad right arm, having been “shot in the wrong place.” Is there a right place to get shot?
Edith takes herself off to visit him at his home while everyone else is off shooting things. Sir Anthony barely lets her sit down before explaining that they can never “take up again” -- not because of Mary’s meddling, but because Sir Anthony believes he is too old for Edith, and now as an invalid, he needs a nurse more than a wife. He tells Edith, “I couldn’t bear to do that to someone as young and lovely as you.”
Edith, naturally, responds with “WHOA, DID YOU JUST CALL ME LOVELY?” They are totally going to get married, mark my words.
William’s dad has come to visit Daisy at Downton; he wants her to come out to his farm, but poor indecisive Daisy is still stooping under the burden of her guilty conscience. As they share tea in the servants’ dining room, she is on the verge of telling him that she never loved his son -- but when she sees how much it will hurt him, she backtracks and tells him she feels badly that she didn’t have more time with William. She then excuses herself to go get more hot water for the tea.
As Daisy passes Mrs. Patmore in the corridor outside, she whispers to her, her tone one of self-recrimination, “More lies!” Wise Mrs. Patmore says, quietly, “Were they?”
Sir Richard and Mary have reunited on the hunt, and Sir Richard’s all-important gun-loader-person has gone missing. He and Mary argue loudly in the woods over her having laughed at something Matthew said earlier. Matthew -- who is everywhere and hears everything when Mary is concerned! Like BATMAN! -- interrupts their fighting, and that only makes things worse.
At lunch, which seems to be happening in a barn, Isobel says she too would like to go to Bates’ trial with Matthew and the rest of the gang. All RIGHT, now that wild woman Isobel’s coming this thing is going to be a PARTY! Except depressing, and someone dies at the end.
Back at Downton, Violet and Lord Hepworth have skipped the hunt in favor of a quiet fireside chat. Violet already knows it, but she forces Lord Hepworth to admit he has lost his fortune and is primarily interested in Rosamund for her wealth. He claims to like her too, if that matters! Violet insists that he tell Rosamund the truth, and to let her arrive at her own decision with a full grasp of the facts. Lord Hepworth agrees.
Following dinner that evening, Lord Hepworth keeps his word. Meanwhile, Sir Richard is demanding that Mary set a wedding date, comparing the whole process thus far to the speed of a glacier. Sir Richard’s characteristic subtlety means no one present can miss the tension between them.
As a result, Matthew approaches Mary in the sitting room after dinner, and asks if he can help. “You don’t have to marry him. You don’t have to marry anyone. You will always have a home here, while I’m alive.” OH MATTHEW. Mary drops the ice-princess facade long enough to look touched at the offer, but advises him against making promises he cannot keep. When Matthew asks again why she insists on marrying Sir Richard, she says she can’t tell him, lest he "despise" her for it. I always forget that Matthew doesn’t know the Pamuk story.
Later that night, when everyone else has gone to bed, Lord Grantham is likewise wondering to his wife why Mary is willing to pledge her life to such a prick. Cora decides it’s a good time to spill, and she tells him, explicitly, that Mr. Pamuk didn't die in his own bed, but in Mary's. So now Lord G is clued in, at least.
At Bates’ trial, O’Brien, Mrs. Hughes, and Lord Grantham have all been called to testify -- for the prosecution. They’re bewildered by it until they’re actually on the stand, when it all becomes clear. O’Brien, who seems uncharacteristically reluctant to speak ill of Bates, is forced to recount her memory of his final return from London, with a scratch upon his cheek and telling Anna things went “worse than you can possibly imagine.”
Mrs. Hughes has to testify to having eavesdropped on one of Bates’ conversations with his wife when she came to visit Downton Abbey; when asked if Bates threatened to strike his wife, Mrs. Hughes must say yes. How did the prosecution know about this, though?
When Lord Grantham takes the stand, he speaks eloquently to the strength of Bates’ character, but when pressed on their conversation before Bates left for London the last time, he recalls that when he asked Bates about “the former Mrs. Bates” Bates himself said he wished she was “the former, or better still, the late” Mrs. Bates. NOW HOW DID THE PROSECUTION KNOW THAT? That was a private discussion in Lord G’s dressing room, folks. Does Downton Abbey have an evil house elf reporting on this stuff? With O’Brien softening, we can only hope he or she will become a regular character in the next series.
Bates is pronounced guilty and sentenced to hang. Everybody onscreen is shocked, but I’m not in the least. I’m actually a little disappointed that this show seems incapable of even imagining that Bates could be guilty; he’d be a lot more interesting as a character if this were so.
At an inn following the verdict, a shell-shocked Anna listens to explanations from the lawyer and Matthew, who state that the next step is to have Bates’ sentence commuted to life in prison. After that, they can work to overturn the ruling. Man, that judge made it sound like Bates was getting hanged in the next hour or so. Of course, they’re gonna drag it out some more.
Later that night, with everyone else in bed, Mary joins her father in the library to talk about the events of the day. Lord Grantham takes his opportunity to tell Mary that he knows about Pamuk, and that he still doesn’t want her to marry Sir Richard, scandal be damned. He wants Mary to be happy and loved by an awesome husband. Lord G has definitely been kind of a dick lately, but this more than makes up for it. He suggests Mary go stay with Cora’s mother in New York until the scandal passes. Mary cries with gratitude and relief and they hug and it’s very sweet.
Downstairs, Thomas is still gunning for Bates’ job, but Carson assures him that he has broached the subject with Lord Grantham, who decided against it. “He doesn’t trust me,” observes the incisive and brilliant Thomas, “because of the stealing.” DO YOU THINK?
Matthew has brought Lavinia’s dad’s ashes to her grave near Downton, and with Isobel and Mary present, they have a little mini-funeral. After Mary departs, Isobel tells Matthew, “She’s still in love with you, you know.” Man, Matthew must be so tired of hearing this! He whines to his mom that both he and Mary “deserve to be unhappy” because blah blah blah, whatever. Isobel doesn’t want to hear it either.
Back at Downton, Violet finds Daisy crying while tending to the fireplace. When she asks why, Daisy explains about William and getting married and his dad and everything. Violet wisely says that it sure sounds like Daisy loved William very much, if she was willing to go so far to make him happy in his final hours. Something to think about, Daisy.
Thomas, eager to show he’s seen to error of his ways and is TOTALLY a good non-theiving person now, has stolen Lord Grantham’s beloved dog and locked it in a shed in the woods. Seriously. His plan seems to be that he will wait until the dog is missed, and then “find” her and be a hero.
Meanwhile, Anna goes to visit her doomed husband in prison, and Bates nobly tells her to forgive everyone and have a great life without him. They kiss, in flagrant violation of prison rules! I don’t know folks, I understand lots of people are way into Anna/Bates but I am just over it.
At the house, Thomas and O’Brien are back in the servants’ hall, playing with the ouija board while an uncertain Daisy looks on. Mrs. Patmore sees her interest and withdrawing her earlier criticisms, sits down to participate. Mrs. P immediately pushes the planchette around to say that William wants Daisy to go to his dad’s farm, then gets up and goes back to work. Daisy, who probably also believes that “gullible” is not in the dictionary, is totally sold.
A search party has been mounted for the missing dog. On the walk back, Matthew pulls Mary aside and asks her to clarify her earlier comment that if he knew why she was marrying Sir Richard, he would “despise” her. It doesn’t take much for Mary to tell all, and Matthew’s expression at the end of it is PRICELESS. He wants to know, a little jealously, if she “loved” Pamuk and Mary assures him it was "lust." Nevertheless, Matthew, like Lord Grantham, still believes this is no good reason to marry the horrible Sir Richard. Also, he could never despise Mary, not ever.
The following morning, Thomas races out to the shed where he hid Lord Grantham's erstwhile dog to find her gone. He panics and runs around the woods calling for her, literally going face-first into the dirt at one point. Upon returning to Downton Abbey, defeated, he meets Lord Grantham on one of the paths, and Lord G is impressed to see that Thomas had run himself ragged looking for the dog. Oh, and the dog’s fine. One of the village kids found her. I think Lord Grantham’s got himself a new valet!
Next, in a truly sweet scene, Daisy finally visits William’s father at his farm, where he tells her that William once had three brothers and one sister, all of whom are also dead. He suspects that William married Daisy as much to be sure that his father would have a daughter to care about after he was gone. Daisy, who has no parents, is moved by this, and agrees to be his “daughter.” YAY DAISY.
On the way back to Downton, her new dad gives Daisy some good advice: just ASK Mrs. Patmore for a promotion, and make a clear case for why she deserves it.
Back at the house, Miss Shaw and Lord Hepworth are having another suggestive private conversation, and again Miss Shaw tells Anna that Lord H is all up in her grill to get Rosamund to marry him. Anna’s not buying it, but she’s given her notice -- in hopes of taking the Bates-is-a-murderer scandal with her -- and is hoping to follow Mary to America, so what does she care?
Mary has decided, finally, now with the backing of pretty much her whole family, to dump Sir Richard. It’s about time, and after all this misery it's almost anticlimactic. She breaks the news privately in the sitting room after dinner, and predicatably Sir Richard threatens her with ruin, again, because this is the only line anyone has ever written for him. Matthew hears the shouting and comes a-runnin’ to defend his love-cousin. When Sir Richard proceeds to insult Lavinia’s memory, Matthew slugs him and the two of them roll around on the floor and break some furniture.
Lord Grantham has to come in and shout at them to stop. Spoilsport. Sir Richard then insults Lord Grantham, and when Violet enters, he tells her that he’s leaving in the morning and he doubts they’ll meet again. “Do you promise?” inquires Violet.
Good news arrives via telegram the next day: Bates’ sentence has been successfully commuted to life! It’s a great big shiny Sir-Richard-free world!
Also this means the Servants’ Ball can go on; this is another dubious Downton tradition, in which the servants and the Crawleys fraternize and the rules of polite society crumble. They all dance together and have a lovely evening, and Daisy asks Mrs. Patmore point-blank for a promotion and a raise, and Mrs. P says she’ll try to make it happen.
Anna spies Miss Shaw and Lord Hepworth stealing upstairs together during the festivities. She fetches Mary, who fetches Rosamund, and the three of them barge in on the lovers in flagrante, sort of. Well, that’s the end of Lord Hepworth, and Rosamund can go back to being lonely and rich, minus one maid. Seems like a lot of build-up for very little payoff there.
Downstairs, after the ball, Anna and Daisy meet in the servants’ dining room, and Daisy seems as happy and unanxious as we've seen her in ages. The duo decides to try the ouija board together, as a lark. Inexplicably, the planchette spells out “May they be happy, with my love.” Anna and Daisy both accuse each other of pushing the planchette, and both deny doing so, eventually realizing that it must be A GHOOOOOST. Anna says, “I guess some spirit wants some couple to be happy.” OH MY GOD YOU GUYS IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE LAVINIA.
To prove the point, we cut to Matthew and Mary standing outside in the snow. Mary must be freezing, she doesn’t have a coat or a wrap or anything. Matthew, having gotten an earful from his mother about how stupid he’s been, asks Mary if she would stay, scandal notwithstanding, if he asked her to. Mary looks at him like she thinks she’s dreaming. She tells him he has to ask her "properly", and kneel in the freaking snow and everything, before she’ll answer. Matthew, sweetly, proposes the old-fashioned way, and an overcome Mary says yes. They embrace, and it’s like a million years of repressed romantic longing are satisfied!
And then a giant sandworm pops out of the ground and devours them. THE END.
No, not really. They just embrace, and the camera pulls back, and we’re left to wonder how things will pick up next year. At least we know something catastrophic will happen to threaten everyone’s happiness, because that’s how they roll in Downton Abbey. That’s just how they roll.
Follow Lesley on Twitter, where you'll see all the not-so-brilliant popcult commentary that doesn't get written here! She's currently planning on re-watching HBO's Deadwood from the beginning, which will probably result in more creative use of profanity, if you're into that sort of thing.