updated 02/21/2014 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 02/24/2014 AT 5:30 AM ET
Sunday’s Downton Abbey on PBS Masterpiece brought a nice, gentle close to a difficult, unsatisfactory season. At the end we got to see Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes on a rare day off, at the English seaside, wading into the water and holding hands like two children afraid of being carried off by a wave.
This may even have hinted at a growing, sunset intimacy between the two. Given all the misalliances on Downton, what could be better than the prospect of a romance between the two characters with the best hearts?
Considering last season’s brutal finale and the sometimes ridiculous swings of the show’s plot, this could very well mean that Carson winds up like poor Mr. Pamuk, smuggled out of a bedroom wrapped in a sheet. Not yet, anyway.
SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points to be revealed immediately.
The episode, which centered on young Rose’s presentation at court, was efficiently driven along by a lot of genial period-piece business about the Prince of Wales and a presumably amorous note he had written to his special lady friend, Mrs. Dudley Ward.
The note is stolen – Rose plays an innocent role in its purloining – and there are concerns that it will be used for blackmail or sold to the foreign (American) press.
Lord Grantham snarls and thunders about the urgency of preserving the dignity of the monarchy and the Prince of Wales’ future. But, as he tends to, Pa Crawley has grabbed the short end of the history stick. The Prince of Wales was indeed eventually crowned Edward VIII, but gave up the throne for the love of Mrs. Wallis Simpson and became Duke of Windsor. Supportive of Hitler in World War II, he remains one of the most disgraceful knuckleheads the royal family has ever produced.
However, the Crawley family’s scheme to steal back the letter was enjoyably elaborate. Lady Mary, who recovered her peculiarly sarcastic steel over the season and felt little compunction about helping the silly prince, nonetheless took a part in the intrigue. Her slender stealth lent an edge of glamour to the proceedings.
Bates, with his knowledge of the criminal underworld, proved key to the rescue operation. This, oddly but conveniently enough, gave creator Julian Fellowes the chance to wriggle free from the worst story arc in the show’s history: The rape of Bates’ wife, Anna, by a visiting valet who subsequently was run down and killed in a London street. We had been led to wonder: Was this death an accident – or the revenge of Bates, who was kept from full knowledge of the rape for a number of episodes because Anna feared that he would do precisely that, something violent and fatal?
Anna’s concerns about her husband never made much sense, given her courage and faith in championing his innocence in the suspicious death of his first wife, Vera, in the previous two seasons. The audience always presumed she was right, and she was proved so. And yet now we were supposed to worry that this grumpy but worthy man had gone to homicidal lengths. This sort of double jeopardy is unfair both to the character and the audience. What if Gollum changed his mind about the ring in alternate Tolkien novels?
Even more disturbing was the way Bates behaved when he sensed that Anna and others in her confidence were withholding something. He slowly, methodically hunted down the truth, savoring every further crumb of revelation with a smirk of perverse satisfaction. He looked like a shark with shoe-polish hair. He was repulsive.
The finale actually made it seem more likely than ever that he was guilty – a ticket stub placed him in London on the same date – but Lady Mary finally resolved the issue in a very bizarre example of noblesse oblige.
The only good thing about all this is that apparently we can now go back to imagining Bates as grumpy but worthy.
The episode also brought back Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother from the States, this time accompanied by Paul Giamatti as Cora’s brother, Harold Levinson. Both of them were hard-breathing boors who enjoyed teasing the British nobility about their eagerness to snuggle up to some of that New World cash – as Lord Grantham did by marrying Cora – but Harold turned out to have some real tenderness, and even said respectful things about British cuisine. Excellent work by Giamatti.
MacLaine’s old Mrs. Levinson, on the other hand, was so vigorously blunt, rude and unsentimental, she all but scraped the gold leaf off the ceiling whenever she entered a room. Her closing exchange with Lady Violet was probably meant as a delightful display of catty fireworks, but Lady Violet retired having been so roughly handled we might find out in Season 5 that her heart has exploded.
Lady Edith, who showed unexpected strength, depth and thoughtfulness this season, decided to bring back her infant daughter from an adoptive family in Geneva and have her raised under a false identity with a local family.
So there’ll also be that to deal with in season 5.