Downton Abbey series 4 episode 2 review
Below-stairs subterfuge, train station reconciliations and recycled plots in this week’s Downton Abbey…
This review contains spoilers.
Welcome back to Downton, a place where, like a D&D 'Jazz-Age Toffs' Expansion Pack, every character comes with their own alignment card: Good, Evil, or Gormless. This week saw kindly acts from the Good (Anna, Bates, Isobel, Mrs Hughes and Carson), dastardly plotting from the Evil (Edna and Thomas), and gullibility from the Gormless (Mr Molesley the Younger and Lady Cora, who really should have seen through Barrow by now, even if he did help her to oust wicked Nanny West last week).
It was an hour of tying up loose ends and stitching open wounds. Still making amends for ruining everybody’s Christmas, series four of the ITV drama is doing all it can to get back to rocking our collective cradle on a Sunday night by cooing reassuring things about luncheons and tenant farming. They'd even brought the dog’s bum intro back to usher us comfortingly into the status quo.
Not that there wasn’t dramatic incident this week - Mr Molesley got tar on his ear for a start - but on the whole, these past two episodes have seen Downton Abbey pull the shutters on the shock shop and return to the cosy blanket business.
To wit, the kitchen was abuzz when former under house maid Gwen (Rose Leslie, now numbering amongst Game of Thrones’ wildlings) sent them all a letter from Beyond the Wall. Not to be outdone, Cousin Matthew borrowed an idea from his dead fiancée last series by sending one from beyond the grave, and handily resolving a plot point into the bargain.
When the Earl began reading Cousin Matthew’s missive aloud, you’d have done well to remember we were watching Downton Abbey proper and not a Mitchell & Webb parody of the same. Here, unadulterated, is its content:
“My darling Mary, we are off to Duneagle in the morning and I have suddenly realised that I have never made a will or anything like one, which seems pretty feeble for a lawyer, and you being pregnant makes it even more irresponsible. I’ll do it properly when I get back and tear this up before you ever see it, but I’ll feel easier that I’ve recorded on paper that I wish you to be my sole heiress. I cannot know if our baby is a boy or a girl but I do know it will be a baby if anything happens to me before I have drawn up a will, and so you must take charge. And now I shall sign this and get off home for dinner with you, what a lovely, lovely thought. Matthew.”
“I have suddenly realised…?” For that, creator Julian Fellowes deserves to have his tuck privileges taken away at the House of Lords for a full week.
Now it’s been established - as astutely observed in said letter - that baby George is in fact a baby, the question of who should manage Matthew’s half of the estate has been resolved, but not before the Earl threw his silver rattle out of the pram. (On that - did anyone else find it a bit excitingly kinky when Lady Violet threatened to ring for Nanny and have Lord Grantham put to bed with no supper? No? Then me neither).
Part of the fun of Downton Abbey has always been its role as a safari park for observing the habits of old-fashioned rich-os, with all the ‘she doesn’t know what a weekend is!’, ‘he can’t boil a kettle!’ hilarity that entails (what is Lady Violet if not a class-inverted Jade Goody?). Showcased this week at the aristocracy zoo was the cold and business-like nature of Lord Grantham’s dealings with daughter Mary. When she drew him a picture as a child, he probably sent it off to Murray for appraisal before committing himself to a cheery pat on the head.
It wasn’t all snapshots of an endangered species though, some parts of the episode had contemporary relevancy, not least the sparseness of decent employment in the village as illustrated by Mr Molesley tamping down bitumen and Mr Grigg decamping to Belfast for a stagehand position. In another modern reflection, Fellowes took the opportunity to plant a swipe at how dreadfully unfair inheritance tax is on the rich with a short hillside skit entitled ‘Poor millionaire widows vs. Mrs Tiggywinkle’ performed by Mary and Branson, the latter of whom had come dressed as Toad of Toad Hall.
His politics may be on the right, but Fellowes evidently isn’t averse to sharing the Green Party’s enthusiasm for recycling. Not only was the ‘message from a corpse’ resolution (hereafter referred to as the Lavinia Swire get-out clause) used twice this week - once from Cousin Matthew, and once from Carson’s Alice, played in that photograph by Craig Roberts from Submarine - but an entire series one encounter was found to have enough life in it to be repurposed in series four. Remember when Lady Sybil snuck out to the Ripon by-election count, got involved in a brawl and was rescued by a passing Downton resident? You don’t have to, because it all happened again this week under the guise of Lady Rose’s Thé Dansant storyline.
Previous eco-friendly acts from Fellowes have included Mr Bates being framed, thrice, and the old faithful ‘how will we save Downton?’ conundrum (loads of ways as it turns out; the Abbey’s basically Kim Bauer from 24, just with slightly more range). More recycling came in this episode as Thomas (Evil) continued his campaign against the Bateses (Good). He’s to watch his back though. As John reminds Anna this week, “prison was an education” for him. An education in which he learnt to ask Maggie Smith for stuff, presumably.
In other news, the under-stairs love quadrangle continued (Daisy loves Alfred, but Alfred loves Ivy, but Ivy loves Jimmy, and Jimmy only loves himself). “I hope he doesn’t break her heart” said the cook, of Ivy and Jimmy. Woman to woman Mrs Patmore, it’s her hymen you want to be worrying about.
Meanwhile, Carson was being a right Charlie about former rival in love, Pooer Auld Mister Grigg, by refusing to reconcile with him until after the final ad break. The style of Carson’s eventual capitulation demonstrated that his theatre days aren’t that far behind him; the man clearly knows how to make an entrance - specifically, one from an eighties Bonnie Tyler video. After slowly emerging from the platform steam like an Easter Island statue on a skateboard, Carson re-enacted the final moments of Brief Encounter and sent his old pal on his way. The whole thing was actually quite touching. Just what is it about emotionally repressed emperor penguins that tugs at the heartstrings so?
Godspeed you Mr Grigg. With you go my hopes of seeing Carson jazz-hands his way through Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow, a sad farewell indeed.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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