To best understand the season four finale of Downton Abbey, perhaps we need to temporarily travel across the Atlantic and 40 years into the future: There’s a reason Mad Men will wrap before it gets into the 1970s. Like with most period dramas, its setting extends far beyond set pieces and fun costumes, seeping into the storylines and the characters’ attitudes and belief systems. It doesn’t make sense for us to see Don Draper in the disco era. The same is true for Downton Abbey; modernity has begun to set in as we close on 1923. That “changing world” we hear about so frequently on the show seems to have, well, changed, and if anything, the finale seemed to be an excellent set-up for what should be its final act.
There’s no word yet on whether season five will be Downton’s last, but if Julian Fellowes and his team of writers are smart, it will be. If the largely tiresome season four showed us anything, it was that there isn’t really anywhere else for the show to go. Scandals that would have been shocking two or three seasons ago are now simply dull—to the characters and viewers alike—and as we enter the modern age together, the stiff upper lips and hang-ups about class that were so compelling earlier on have begun to fade away. In short, there’s just no point anymore.
The finale tied up a lot of loose ends while introducing some new ones that will likely be focal points of season five. A week after we saw her get engaged to and subsequently get dumped by African-American bandleader Jack Ross, Rose is presented to the King and Queen at a fancy ball in London’s Buckingham Palace. She seems to have totally forgotten about Jack, which is both weird and convenient I guess, and most of her action this week centered around a damning note from the Prince of Wales to his mistress, Freda Dudley Ward, that was stolen as a result of Rose’s carelessness. She tells Lord Grantham, and he of course becomes frantic, horrified that his family could potentially bring shame and scandal to the monarchy. He gets Bates to forge a letter that will allow them into the thief’s apartment to recover the note, but their search turns up nothing—that is, until Bates picks the note out of the culprit’s pocket while putting his jacket on him. Crisis averted! Monarchy saved!
It’s interesting, this dramatic shift from daring interracial romance to stuffy society gossip for Rose. It seems like this plot exists almost solely for Lord Grantham’s benefit—it’s one last chance for him to hem and haw and obsess about what is proper before the bottom drops out and he’s forced to finally accept what the rest of us already know, that none of this really matters anymore. If you paid attention in history class, you know that this Prince of Wales—Prince Edward—doesn’t end his dalliances with “questionable” women after Freda Dudley Ward. He goes on to become King Edward VIII, most famous for abdicating the throne to marry Ms. Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, a huge blow for monarchists like Lord Grantham intent on maintaining the purity of the royal kingdom. In other words, all of Grantham’s efforts to recover the letter and save the royal family from scandal will wind up being for naught. Perhaps we’ll see some of this play out in season five; it’d be a nice capper to the series to watch Lord Grantham become disillusioned with everything he once believed.
The ball is also cause to trot Shirley MacLaine back out as Cora’s mother and introduce Paul Giamatti as her dishonorable brother, Harold, who is currently caught in the middle of the Teapot Dome Scandal. Their American presence is still mostly used to illustrate how far our beloved Brits still have to come and help mercy-kill a particularly weak storyline. Cora’s mother rejects a proposal from a potential English suitor because she doesn’t want a stuffy title. Harold does goofy American stuff like demand ice in his drinks, and he walks right up to the Prince of Wales and introduces himself. (Egads! How dare he!) His American butler dares to speak to the people he’s serving. Tsk tsk tsk. When Harold discovers, after much whining, that he actually likes British food, he asks his butler (who has the hots for Daisy) to offer her a position with them in America. Daisy, of course, declines (who else is gonna stare blankly at things in the kitchen and peel potatoes if she leaves?), but Ivy accepts, and we finally have an end to their dumb rivalry.
The storyline that refuses to die, however, remains Bates and Anna’s struggles in the aftermath of her rape. After finding out last week that Lord Gillingham’s valet (the man responsible for the awful crime) was killed after allegedly falling into traffic in London’s Piccadilly Circus, we learn this week that Bates was in fact in London that day when Mrs. Hughes finds a train ticket in the pocket of one of his old coats. We still don’t know for sure that he killed Gillingham’s valet—after all, there were witnesses who all apparently claimed the man slipped and fell, that he wasn’t pushed—but Mary seems to come to terms with the fact that he did, eventually deciding to burn the ticket out of loyalty to him. The last we see Bates and Anna, they’re happily strolling down the seaside, and that’s how I fully hope to see them next season. Happy. Frankly, I don’t care whether or not Bates killed Gillingham’s valet, and I’d like to toss this plot into the fireplace along with that ticket.
The best developments in the season finale did happen seaside. After Mrs. Hughes’ subliminal attempts to get Carson to agree that a day at the beach is the best option for a staff outing prove successful, we see buttoned-up Carson with bare feet, reluctantly wading into the water. Mrs. Hughes offers her hand—”You can always hold my hand if it makes you feel steady” (Hughes, you brazen hussy!)—and we even get a little flirtation between the two as Carson remarks that she managed to make that sound risque. The last image we see is the two of them, hand-in-hand, walking into the sea, happily letting their guard down, perhaps wordlessly acknowledging a mutual attraction, wandering off into this strange, new world. It was a lovely image to end the season on, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get an equally great one to end the series on next year. We don’t need to see Disco Don Draper, and we don’t need to see much else from Downton Abbey.
—Edith’s decision to go to Switzerland, recover her baby and give it to the farmer and his wife to raise so she can secretly visit it seems like it will eventually blow up in her face, but given how supportive Aunt Rosamund and the Dowager Countess have already been, maybe not?
—Tom’s “scandal” with his new love interest, Sarah Bunting, also seems like it probably won’t be that big of a deal, based on Lord Grantham’s restrained reaction to the news that Tom was caught upstairs with her.
—Nice to see Molesley and Baxter’s fledgling romance. Good to see poor Molesley finally have a shot at happiness, and it’ll be interesting to see what Baxter’s big secret that Thomas has been guarding turns out to be.
—”We Live in a Changing World” Watch: “Your niece is a flapper. Accept it.” “I believe in the future, and so should you.” “I’m a modern woman.” “My world is coming nearer, and your world is slipping further and further away.”
—Of course Mary chooses Charles over Gillingham when she finds out Charles is actually rich. Of course she does.
—”I feel as though I spent the whole evening trapped in the cast of a whodunit.” I see you, Julian Fellowes Gosford Park reference. I see you.
—”You English upper-classes don’t like talking about money? But you sure like thinking about it.”
—Carson’s look of horror when Harold’s American butler asks to talk to him “man-to-man” was pretty much the highlight of the season.