Period drama Downton Abbey had begun to show signs of wear and tear, particularly in its fourth season, where the creakiness of the subplots began to match that of the house’s ancient stairs.
It was, simply put, not the best year for the drama, which had come off the narrative highs of its third season, including the highly emotional deaths of two linchpin characters, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). But, in its fourth, Downton sagged into overt melodrama with storylines involving murder, blackmail, and the shocking and highly controversial rape of Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). For a series that once had such great promise and potential, it felt like the life had been sucked out of the show somewhat as it was forced to restructure in light of those two high-profile departures.
But rather than feel overwhelming, there’s a particularly pleasing rhythm to all of this narrative dance work, with scenes that are short on time but long on significance. Long-simmering plots come to the boil. The ongoing love triangle between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) twists in a most unexpected direction, at least by the standards of the time. (It’s 1924, after all.) The relationship between James (Ed Speleers) and Lady Anstruther (a particularly aptly cast Anna Chancellor) is explored with clarity, humor, and a potential resolution. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Violet (Maggie Smith) are once again at odds — their temporary cease-fire marred by a new twist in their rivalry, this time over Isobel’s romantic prospects.
Throughout it all, the spectre of Gillingham’s dead valet Mr. Green (Nigel Harman) hovers uneasily over the proceedings, threatening to destroy the fragile happiness of Anna and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), whose devotion to each other appears even stronger now, despite suspicious eyes turning toward the couple. And the dark secret harbored by the tremulous Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) — or at least part of it — is finally revealed after being teased out so thoroughly by both Fellowes and by the malevolent Thomas (Rob James-Collier), using it to gain a Svengali-like hold over the lady’s maid.
Then there’s poor Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), whose anguish over secretly giving up the child she conceived with missing paramour Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) becomes even more palpable with the baby — the adorably named Marigold — living on the estate, just out of her grasp. That Edith should still be able to check in on Marigold, as much as propriety might allow for, might help to assuage the loss that she feels, but the gravitational pull between mother and child may prove impossible for Edith to resist, even as she risks exposure.
Edith has, most remarkably, of late become an incredibly sympathetic figure, and even her more damning actions in this episode (I won’t spoil what they are exactly) don’t derail the character’s redemption. Carmichael infuses Edith with such pathos and barely restrained emotion — she appears to be perpetually on the verge of tears so far — that it’s difficult not to empathize with the character, even when Lady Mary deploys a typically cutting remark against her sister toward the end of the episode.
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