Downton Abbey At Christmas Series 2 Christmas Special
By Julian Fellowes
Starring: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Siobhan Finneran, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, Rob James-Collier, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera and Samantha Bond.
First broadcast: 25 December 2011
In late 2012, Downton Abbey was at its absolute zenith. The second series was brilliant, a commercial success too, and the news that a Christmas special would follow was very gratefully received. Period dramas so suit the festive season and we were all dying to see the Abbey in snow.
On first viewing I was a bit dismayed to see that Christmas is so quickly brushed aside in the special – Christmas specials should be Christmassy! But on second viewing that’s hardly an issue; the special as a whole is wintry with its shooting parties and darkened prison corridors, and the conclusion is suitably festive. In fact it’s the best scene in Downton history. More on that later…
The special gets off to a great start, with the heart-warming sequence of the tree being delivered and decorated, the upstairs and the downstairs exchanging presents and Highclere Castle dusted with frost, accompanied by John Lunn’s ever-beautiful score. And Maggie Smith rolling her eyes at a presumably below-par Christmas card message. This is exactly what we wanted to see.
But then it’s time to get down to business. There’s big drama afoot set in motion by the end of last series – Mary is due to marry Sir Richard Carlisle and can’t back out now he has saved Downton’s skin with the Vera Bates debacle. Bates meanwhile is up on the charge of murdering his wife (“as if!”) and Matthew can’t possibly consider uniting with his true love Mary because of the burden of guilt he bears over Spanish Flu Lavinia. If you haven’t been paying attention, you will get lost – but to his credit, Fellowes spins these yarns well, with the odd line of clunky exposition. (Oh and did I mention, Sybil has run off with the chauffeur and isn’t home for Christmas, which they are all a bit sore about – the chauffeur, not her absence.)
It’s nice to see Sybil get so much attention in the special, which is rather ironic as Jessica Brown-Findlay is missing. The uncomfortable aftermath of her departure is handled well, although the reveal that she is pregnant feels more like a clumsy rushing through of plot in time for Series 3 as opposed to a well-timed announcement. Robert’s reaction is good though: “So that’s it.”
There’s plenty of festive fun to be had, with a tension-filled shooting party and the clever use of a Ouija board. Both of these strands of the story work excellently because at first glance they seem to be window-dressing (or for a joke: “T-O-O-F-A-T. He says you’re too fat”!) but they are later used to make a serious point. Daisy’s guilt over William is great; it’s nice to see that a servant is facing the same guilt that the grand estate inheritor is also experiencing. Furthermore, it is structured solidly with frequent contrasting cuts to Bates’ blue-hued cell. The shooting party is a nice centre-piece (this coming from a vegetarian), although I would have liked to see a bit of hesitation before all these young men pick up arms again, so soon after throwing them down in celebration. The search for Isis in the woods is also gorgeously filmed by Brian Percival. He must be rewarded for not allowing Downton to befall the same fate as other shows by having a Christmas special that films in Summer look very clearly Summery.
With all this going on, unlike later specials, its bumper-length does not drag. The positioning of the Christmas special, which the first series was without, works well as a point of admin to tie up the loose ends that can’t be postponed until next September, and act as an additional finale. It’s such a shame that later Christmas specials were not used as wisely.
The trial scenes are tense and build on the good prepartion done in the last series. Seeing Lord Grantham torn in the dock is interesting, and when the axe metaphorically falls on Bates relatively early in the episode, it is quite shocking. His reprieve is handled well – both a blessing and a curse – and it all gives the chance for Matthew to remind us he used to be a lawyer.
There’s little to pick on in this episode, but one thing that does grate is the scene in which it is explained why Anna is not being called to testify; a classic Fellowes dollop of historical context. “A wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband”, to which Mrs Hughes replies, “thank heaven for that.” No, actually, Mrs Hughes. I find that really unsettling, as most even-minded individuals would consider that to be a restriction of a woman’s human rights, relinquished as she enters wedlock, and this rule could have and probably did lead to a number of husbands getting away with abuse and other misdeeds. Is it likely that Mrs Hughes would be in favour of that?
Sharon Small and Nigel Havers are barely on screen but their little run-around is agreeable; any excuse for Samantha Bond to grace my screen is gratefully received. I once saw her on the stage, in An Ideal Husband at the West End, and have been captivated by her ever since. Give her the smallest scene or the coarsest line and she still shines. Her reaction to her beau’s betrayal is so well-pitched, and she is one of the few that can match Dame Maggie Smith in wit and sophistication. I want more Lady Rosamond please!
Smith continues to get all the best lines (“life is a game in which the player must appear ridiculous”), but why not when she delivers them so brilliantly! Her scene with Daisy too is an oddity and thus a treat. The rest of the regulars are on as fine a form as ever, helping to make this special episode very special indeed.
The stars of the show are of course Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, the former playing Mary’s spiky relationship with Carlisle with the right level of spike – and who isn’t rooting for her when she sticks up for the servants having a break at Christmastime? Stevens is heroic in his tussle with Carlisle like Colin Firth in the Bridget Jones fountain, and as charming as ever. I adore Mary’s amicability in saying goodbye to the villainous Carlisle, the jovial servant dance and the first flakes of snow drifting down in foreshadowing of the denouement to come.
And then it gets even better. That Ouija board spells out the words we have wanted to hear for two years. “May they be happy.” Then we cut to Mary and Matthew, looking beautiful in the gentle snow. This scene was perfect, and has already become iconic. You know you are watching genuine television history being forged.
Fellowes has answered our wishes and prayers with this special. With the spine of the series resolved – the Abbey’s inheritance is secured and our will-they-won’t-they lovers united – I almost wish it had ended here.
(For my review of Series 2 go to: http://wp.me/p3KHHr-aO. Reviews of Series 3 onwards coming soon.)