The fourth season of Downton Abbey has ended on a note that seemed inconceivable when it started: a happy one.
In the first episode that aired on PBS eight weeks ago, it felt like everything at Downton was shrouded in grief and shadows: Mary was still mourning Matthew, the management of the estate was a question mark, and nannies were referring to small babies as “wicked little half-breeds.” But as we closed the Summer of 1923 chapter in the book of Downton, our story was swimming in new beginnings: coming-out parties for Rose; squabbling suitors, as well as a renewed sense of purpose, for Mary; a new lease on motherhood for Lady Edith; and even rays of actual Brighton sunshine for the entire downstairs staff, who luxuriated in their afternoon at the shore even though they were dressed for a church service held outdoors on a 45-degree day. Basically, Downton Abbey went from life’s a bitch to life’s a beach.
Plus, it ended with — Oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve held this in for a whole paragraph and a half — Carson and Mrs. Hughes, To-ge-ther. Like, totally drunk in love! Okay, fine — definitely not drunk, probably not in love, but still: holding hands, barefoot, while walking into the ocean. This is major.
“You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady,” “Hughes told him. “I don’t know how, but you managed to make that sound a little risqué,” Carson replied. “And if I did?” she said right back, clearly coming on to him hard-CORE. “We’re getting on, Mr. Carson, you and I. We can afford to live a little.” And then they pressed on, butler and head housekeeper against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward the future … or something. The point is, it was lovely and, hopefully, a sign of a Carson/Hughes romance to come.
It also made me already start missing Downton Abbey even though this season just ended, and even though I have aired many, many complaints about the way things were handled in this run of episodes. As noted in last week’s recap, there’s no question that Julian Fellowes mishandled a number of key plot lines this season, including, but not limited to, ones involving interracial romance and brutal rapes. I can neither forgive nor forget those sins, but I can balance them out on some level with the abiding love that I — and surely many other fans — still have for these characters. During the ten Dowager Countess-less, Patmore-deprived months ahead of us, we’ll all miss these fictional, uppity, secret-keeping fictional creations, won’t we? Sigh. We will. Even if we really want to stay mad at Downton Abbey — and honestly, the Bates stuff really did continue to be maddening, even in the finale — we can’t hold that grudge for too long. Especially not when we’re so happy about something really important, which will be covered right now.
She made up her mind — Lady Edith’s keeping her baby!
Okay, technically, she’s not keeping it exactly. But she is doing what she initially proposed: leaving the child in the charge of Mr. Drew and his wife, who will raise the girl on the Downton campus with regular visits/guidance from Edith. (Yes, the baby turned out to be a girl, who will undoubtedly fight with her cousin George constantly.)
It was incredibly satisfying to see Edith bravely make this choice, which she was clearly agonizing over throughout this episode. That agonizing began the instant she returned from Switzerland, where she’d delivered the baby, nursed the child for a short time (that detail was particularly heartbreaking), and given her up to a family named Schroeder. Edith had done the infant hand-off without entering a formal, written adoption agreement, which didn’t make a lot of sense but made it possible for Edith to have a change of heart. That change was foreshadowed repeatedly — when Edith, coldly but rightly, told Aunt Rosamund that she’d never had children and therefore, didn’t know how Edith would feel long-term about surrendering her baby; when she made the vague statement to her father that “whatever I do is not meant to hurt you”; and in the way she responded when Tom encouraged her to help him maintain their Crawley-family-contrarian status.
“We need to stand up to them, you and I,” he told her at the ball that commemorated Rose’s official entrance into societal womanhood. “We may love them, but if we don’t fight our corner, they’ll roll us out flat.” That was the final kick in the maternal bum she needed to return home, talk to Mr. Drew, then go and get her girl.
During that conversation with Drew, the farmer vowed to keep the child’s connection to Edith a secret, even from the rest of the Crawleys. (Edith told him that the baby was the daughter of a friend, a woman of whom her parents did not approve. But Mr. Drew clearly knew better, because Mr. Drew is a pig man who was not born yesterday.) Now, does it seem improbable that said secret will stay secret forever? Does it also seem likely that season five will involve multiple scenes in which Edith and her daughter romp happily across the Downton fields while the Dowager Countess watches suspiciously from a distant walking path? Yes and yes. But at least, in her quiet way, Edith is taking a stand for a woman’s right to be a mother, even when society frowns on the path she took to get there. Which is pretty awesome, and makes Mary’s whiny “I’d rather sleep on the roof than share with Edith” comment seem childish and totally out-of-touch with who Edith has become. For the record, there’s still no sign of Michael Gregson, although we now know he was accosted by a gang of “well-known toughs” when he first arrived in Munich. First the ruffian who broke into Downton, now the toughs? Well, the good news is that it shouldn’t be hard to track down those guys. As I understand it, most street-toughs look just like this.
Moving on … seriously, move on we must because, in the name of the randy-letter-writing Prince of Wales, a crushing ton of things happened in this extended, 90-minute Downton Abbey episode, so many that it’s going to be challenging to cover them all here. But let’s try to hit the highlights in this (sort of) speed round of Downton season-four narrative resolution-analysis.