There’s nothing inherently wrong with soap opera. From the marriage plots of Jane Austen to the lurid plotzing of Jersey Shore, salacious societal high jinks have always been a staple of our entertainment, both upstairs and downstairs. So the problem isn’t that Downton Abbey is suddenly more soap operatic than Reneé Fleming in an Irish Spring factory. It’s that it hasn’t been particularly good soap opera. Introducing a disfigured heir who survived the Titanic on the strength of his Canadian accent? Fine. But introducing him and dismissing him in the course of a single hour only encourages us to take the entire storyline on face value. And that face was very burned and very, very silly. The key to selling us on suds is to take it as seriously as David Simon takes the sociopolitical degradation of Baltimore, or even as seriously as he takes himself. It’s not Lord Grantham suddenly deciding to pick up a housemaid’s spilled (forbidden) apples and then making a play for her melons, too. Sir Julian Fellowes is good at many things — class observations, withering witticisms, smirking archly — but wallowing in melodrama does not appear to be among them.
And so these last two hours of the season — British viewers had to wait two months for resolution in the form of a Christmas special; because there’s a war on, domestic fans will get it next week — bubbled over with foolishness like an all-night disco in Ibiza. The guns have barely fallen silent in France before all heck breaks loose at Downton. First, Matthew springs out of his chair like Janet Jackson in the “Pleasure Principle” video. It seems that the smug Dr. Clarkson is fallible after all: Matthew’s spine was only “bruised,” a rare malady usually found only in textbooks under the genus Plottwisticus ridiculum. Even better, his little solicitor is once again ready to approach the bench. And so, free of all impediments and impotence, he’s suddenly set to marry Lavinia in a few days' time.
Love is in the air out in the garage too — or is it merely exhaust? The ceasing of hostilities has lit an amorous spark in all corners of the great house. Free of her sexy nurse getup and back in her 1914 finery, Sybil is finally ready to drive away with Branson, the syrupy socialist. The plan is to sail to Ireland where Branson — Tom if you’re nasty, or, at least working class — will become a journalist and Sybil will become both Mrs. Branson and, once again, a nurse. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling spinsters! Mary and Edith join forces for an old-fashioned super-sister team-up and race to the local inn. There they find Tom and Sybil engaged in typical eloping behavior: her, fully dressed in bed while he sits patiently by her bedside. Move along, ladies! Nothing to see here! Mary, despite her own troubles (aspiring spymaster Sir Richard has gone from fascinating class warrior to mustache-twirling control freak in record time), makes a reasonable case for the two not beginning their new lives “under a black shadow.” And so Sybil dutifully returns to Downton, a place more difficult to escape than the magic island on Lost. (Has anyone checked if there’s a downstairs beneath the downstairs? Perhaps full of Scotsmen, creepy syringes, and obscure funk wax cylinders?)
As for the show’s most dedicated, chaste lovebirds, Bates and Anna, even they aren’t immune to the postbellum pheromones in the air. While Bates broods Bates-ily about how Vera killed herself with rat poison he purchased (when? On leave from the Boer War?), Anna, who at this point has been waiting seven long years for her gimpy beau to limp his way to the altar, finally delivers an ultimatum: Either put a ring on it or face gaol on your own. Bates, wisely, decides to make an honest housemaid of her. Then, in what I’m sure was totally normal behavior in 1919, Lady Mary takes time out from her own mounting worries to convert an upstairs bedroom into a sexytime lounge, replete with gauzy candlelight and velvet sheets — the hot oils, however, were docked from their wages.
And while it was gratifying to both the audience and Anna to learn that Mr. Bates’ downstairs can function perfectly well upstairs, the framing felt a bit odd. Not only does Anna’s declaration of, “I am now who I was meant to be,” seem a bit reductive for such a strong and confident character, it was also so obviously another classic feint at happiness before the inevitable end-of-episode arrest. (The leonine grin of shirtless, postcoital Bates did, however, suggest a new line of Edwardian romance novels: The Sexy Valet: Dressing the Lord, Undressing the Ladies. Just PayPal me the cash now, America.) Not to mention their Harlequin bliss was strangely removed from the insanity raging through the rest of the house.
To wit: Lavinia and Matthew’s wedding plan grips Downton like a fever — Mrs. Patmore is so unused to engagements actually lasting less than a decade that she starts baking a cake before a date has even been set. Also gripping Downton like a fever? The Spanish flu, which sweeps through the house with conveniently dramatic timing. First Carson is taken ill — leaving the pantry door wide open for a financially ruined Thomas to return to service — then Cora and, finally, meek little Lavinia succumb. Had Dr. Clarkson been wise enough to consult the case histories of noted surgeon Dr. Aaron Spelling, he would have known that only the latter was ever in any real danger. But even those not afflicted act rashly, as if sickness were able to tear down any vestiges of the old society still standing after the war and Sir Richard Carlisle’s interior decorator were through with them. First Lord Grantham, pouting ever since he had to take off his dress-up army costume, swings wildly out of character and nearly Dominique Strauss-Kahns the all-too-willing Jane. And while there were some weak attempts at justifying this unlikely pawing, it all felt as foolish as Burn Face. Grantham has always been a bedrock of nobility; his sudden irritation with Cora came on so suddenly that his behavior seemed peevish, not earned. Worse, with Jane ultimately packed away (her son generously provided for but her mantelpiece frustratingly undusted), the status quo is restored well before the alternative even had a chance to become interesting.
And then exeunt Lavinia, as expected, not only of a broken heart — while Lord Grantham was enjoying his room service, she caught Matthew and Mary in a dizzying, lip-locking waltz — but of a timely relapse of flu. She dies, like everyone in England: nobly and with a minimum of fuss and effluvia. (Kudos to Penelope Wilton in this scene. Cousin Isobel’s barely concealed horror at the absurdity of it all suggested an actress about to fire her agent.) But despite Lavinia’s eye-rolling insistence that her captain find a better-suited port to call his own, Matthew ends the episode paler and more melodramatic than a Cullen in an ice storm. “Let’s be strong, Mary, and let’s accept that this is the end,” he mutters, delaying the inevitable for at least another episode, if not another global conflict.
Despite the heavy-handedness, one has the sense that Fellowes could have juggled all this tumult better if only he’d had something as gauchely American as a writers' room to help him smooth out the rough edges and improve the pacing. Hell, even a semiliterate footman could have done the job; not even the heroic Carson could manage the affairs of such a great house all alone. Still, Fellowes is markedly more comfortable when the subject shifts from romance to class, as we saw when Thomas’ attempt to climb the social ladder by standing on tins of fake sugar fails just as Sybil finally manages to sweet-talk her grudging father into accepting her own downward mobility. And, surprisingly, the best beat of both hours came from a storyline that I had long ago written off as unnecessarily precious: Mrs. Hughes’ biweekly rides on the Fallen Woman’s Express to Ripon to visit Edith and little bastard Charlie. Whatever silliness it took to get Major Bryant’s parents over for luncheon were validated in the scene in which they gather to discuss the baby’s future. The mustachioed Mr. Bryant’s fury over his inability to bend newfangled reality to his old-fashioned will meet its match in Edith’s own postwar frustrations. “How will this work?” she sputters, keenly aware that the world is changing. But what sort of change, and is it happening fast enough? It’s a wonderfully messy question for such a determinedly soapy show.