Downton knows its strengths, and this episode determinedly played to them, replaying some of its greatest hits in a way that wasn’t so much in with the new as in with the old.
It was a chance to tick off favourite tropes from one’s mental Downton bingo card. A befuddling new electric item in the kitchen? Tick. A cross-tangle of servants in love with the wrong suitors? Yep, that too. Isobel Crawley indulging in a bit of social engineering? You’ve got it. There was even a return for a storyline we’d assumed long forgotten – Carson’s history as part of the music hall double act, The Two Charlies.
It is still the case that, every episode, at least one character is obliged to observe that ‘It’s a changing world.’ It wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without The Looming Threat of Change. But in all other respects, the episode steered a course from that muted opening title sequence to business cheerily as usual.
Mixing our metaphors, in a way that could only make writer Julian Fellowes proud, we would observe that there were a few grinding gear changes en route. It was a strange delight to watch the opening minutes of the episode as characters stand around to explain the absence of O’Brien following actress Siobhan Finneran’s exit between series. ‘And she really gave no clue?’ ‘Now I think of it, she had a telegram yesterday.’
Still, for all Downton has a tendency to dithering, when it wants to it can expedite change with brutal efficiency. It’s the difference between Molesley, all fingers and thumbs, and Lady Grantham – a lady who has now survived one granddaughter, one grandson-in-law, most of the bright young men of Flanders and half the Crimea.
At the start of the episode, the great Lady G is preoccupied with the village bring and buy sale, like a demented Biddy Baxter. But by the end, she has turned counsellor to Lady Mary, been patronised by Dame Harriet Walter and made a most unlikely declaration of love. She is also gifted a glorious putdown about the ill-advisedness of eating off a tray.
If there are surprises in all this, Fellowes chooses to keep them hidden, although it is a little unexpected when Nanny West is revealed to have a thing about crossbreeds, and not in a dog-loving way.
Still, that’s Downton for you. Every upstairs-downstairs exchange is a potential act of class warfare, which makes it so surprising that the servant class should be as involved as they are in counselling, and generally morale-boosting, their superiors.
Carson and Lady Mary’s surrogate father-daughter relationship we’ve long known about. It’s one of the programme’s trump cards. But now Mrs Hughes is in on the act, too, taking Lady Isobel under her wing in the manner of one who doesn’t much care about class boundaries as long as there’s stout common sense to be said.
The only reasons why this doesn’t look like the farce that it is are because (a) Phyllis Logan’s so good, and (b) in the other room with Harriet Walter, there are squabbling butlers! Seriously – butlers at war! It’s a reality show just waiting to happen.
Fortunately, by the end of all this, the skies are symbolically clear again, and the episode has lost the grey tinge of the early scenes. Still, if we know Downton, storm clouds are brewing – and not just from MyAnna Burling’s capricious new lady’s maid.
‘I’ve done some research,’ observes Mr Gregson, in what is now officially Downton’s Best Line Ever, ‘and I’ve discovered that not every country is the same as England.’ He’s not wrong, you know. But German citizenship? Really? We’d had Lady Edith down as the sister least likely to become Diana Mosley. Surely she can’t end up on the wrong side of the Maginot Line in what we all know is coming next.
Stay in England, Lady Edith! Please! Your country needs you – and so does Downton!
Seriously, we don’t think we could stomach another death…
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 22 September 2013 on ITV.
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