Why the 'Downton Abbey' Christmas Special was the Opposite of Everything it Should Be
Downton Abbey is a great television show. But this year’s Christmas special was terrible. It wasn’t just a bad Christmas special. It was a bad episode of Downton. It was a bad hour and a half of TV. But also (it bears repeating) it was very bad Christmas special.
I hold some narrowly defined beliefs about what a festive TV episode must include. A Christmas special should be a Hershey’s Cherry Blossom—a self-contained treat.
Sickening sweetness is acceptable, as long as there is a tart centre with a zip of suspense or a tangy bite of drama. A Christmas special is made to be revelled in, savoured. It should be worth waiting for. It should cap off the season and leave you excited for the next premiere. But it should also be able to hold its own as a television movie that the whole family—a perfect captive audience, home for the holidays and collapsed on the couch after too much turkey—can watch together. When done right, a Christmas special can be the ideal vehicle for creators to hook new viewers into a show.
Most importantly, and I can’t stress this enough, a Christmas special should be Christmassy.
Great Christmas specials of the past have entered the pop-culture canon and even spawned TV shows that ran for nine seasons and six movies.
With its Season 4 Christmas special, Downton failed quite terribly on all these fronts and more.
The premium ITV period drama, in the tradition pioneered by Upstairs Downstairs (and the phenomenal 2010 remake), is set in Yorkshire and follows members of the noble House of Grantham and their servants over a period of several years, from Edwardian times to the interwar period.
Don’t get me wrong. I watch Downton religiously, and every moment I spend slack-jawed in front of it is time well spent.
Many critics claim that it slid into sudsy territory with the Turkish Gentleman’s last gasp in Season 1, Episode 3, and never quite scrambled out again. This is true. Downton is fundamentally a soap. An awesome, glittery, sumptuous, dramatic soap. Usually. But not in this episode.
The plot revolves around the Granthams’ trip to London for the start of the social season and Lady Rose McClare’s presentation at court—a yearly event held in April. So much for Christmas.
During the festivities, noted card shark and moderately evil villain Terrence Samson reappears after several episodes of absence and steals a salacious letter from Rose’s friend, noted real-life socialite Freda Dudley Ward.
The sender is notorious philanderer and abdicator Edward VII, and if that rascal Samson were to sell his letter to the press, it would be all done and dusted for the monarchy.
And so the family Grantham embarks on an overly long, cutesy caper to retrieve the letter from Samson’s apartment. I can only imagine the showrunners are trying to capitalize on today’s royal fever to draw in more viewers, because I can’t think of another reason they would introduce this element of phony historicity and construct a subplot everyone can Google the ending to.
In another example of bad story judgement, the writers have devoted way too much precious downstairs screentime this season to a boring love quadrangle of mostly replaceable servant characters. All I absorbed was, “Daisy bla bla bla Alfred bla bla bla cheese puffs bla bla bla Jimmy bla Ivy bla no man should expect that before marriage!”
Daisy is one of the most interesting characters on the show—a woman who takes extreme pride in her work and who went from a rather meek and downtrodden scullery maid in Season 1 to a confident assistant cook. Daisy has shown over and over that she knows she deserves better than any of the love interests the Downton writing staff has conjured up for her.
Blessedly, the long-running, tear-jerkingly boring cat fight between Daisy and kitchen maid Ivy is put out of its misery in the special when Ivy, in the long tradition of minor servant characters, is summarily written out of the show. She’s sailing to America to cook for Lady Grantham’s adorable and incorrigible brother Harold, ideally never to be seen again. Maybe they’ll sink. At least that would be interesting.
None of the other plotlines are settled at all, let alone drawn to a dramatic close as they rightly should have been in a Christmas special. Lady Edith’s lover is still missing, although we learn that he was possibly murdered by proto-Nazis. Lady Mary’s suitors are still suiting. Tom Branson misses his beloved Sybil. The financial future of the great house is still up in the air. Et cetera.
Meanwhile, the season’s most compelling storyline ground to a halt. Previously, Lady Mary’s maid Anna is raped and her husband Mr. Bates—who has already been tried for murder once—kills her attacker in turn. Now, in a pretty out-of-character move, housekeeper Mrs. Hughes burns a piece of crucial evidence. After all, a little revenge killing can be forgiven, in the spirit of the holiday season. (Maybe I would have let this slide if the Christmas special was actually set at Christmas).
I have to grant one victory in this poorly-paced disaster of an episode—the last five minutes were spectacular.
Mrs. Hughes (she’s not married, all women of a certain age were addressed as “Mrs.” at the time) and butler Mr. Carson wade together hand in hand into the sea during a servants’ outing that she schemes him into arranging. And then, to my complete surprise, they engage in some flirty banter that must have been considered XXX in 1922.
If Downton’s two longest-serving servants—loyal, wise, witty, and cherished by the show’s fans—hook up and cause drama, all of life downstairs could fall apart. I can’t wait to see where this goes.
It ended on a clear, high note, but most of this episode was one hell of a botched Christmas carol.
What did you think of this year’s Downton Abbey Christmas special? Were you bored and disappointed, or did you like the introduction of real-life royals? What are you hoping for next season? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Genna Buck is a journalist and broadcaster based in Toronto. Her main reporting interests are science and social issues, with the occasional foray into British television. She runs a personal blog and tweets @genna_buck.