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The family and servants at the London house. (Courtesy of Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for Masterpiece)

Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 8: Dear Abbey, What’s to Become Of Us?

One writer’s advice for Downton’s plot-twist-beset heroes and heroines.

BY Sady Doyle

The Christmas Special of Downton Abbey—which ties up approximately zero of the season’s seventy-four separate plot lines—has only left me with more questions. But do you know who else has questions? Every single character on Downton Abbey.

This week, at long last, we bid farewell to the genteel and refined world of Downton Abbey: A world where all the dresses are gorgeous, all the relationships are turbulent, and all the plot twists are (a) ludicrous, and (b) underscored with ominous piano plinking when necessary.

I’ll miss this world of ours. Indeed, the Christmas Special—which ties up approximately zero of the season’s seventy-four separate plot lines—has only left me with more questions. But do you know who else has questions? Every single character on Downton Abbey. This humble recap series is, as always, devoted to service above all else. And so, in order to help us all find peace as we leave Downton Abbey behind for another year, we’re dedicating this installment to providing guidance and advice, for all these charmingly old-timey people struggling to navigate their difficult yet lavishly costumed world. Let’s open the mail bag! 

Dear me! At the beginning of my recent Christmas special, I find myself unaccountably transported eight months into the future! In that eight months, I have learned that my secret lover Michael disappeared after fist-fighting some Nazis. I have also traveled to Switzerland, where I gestated and delivered a secret baby, whom I now wish to deliver to the local pig-tender. To what degree should I constantly bitch out my relatives about any of the above?

— Edith C.

Dear Edith C., 

First of all, congratulations on your Nazi-punching boyfriend! I think we were all pretty sure by now that he was, himself, a Nazi. His reputation—if not his life—has been saved quite delightfully by this news.

Secondly: Are you aware that you still have a job? According to our research, you are an actual, paid journalist. It was a big deal last season. It made you seem very forward-thinking and pioneering and such. In fact, in this very episode, we learn that you have been promoted to an editorship at your publication. Given that we have not seen you writing at any point in this past season, and in fact assumed that you had quietly given up on your career, this promotion comes as quite the shock! We believe that your adventures as a trail-blazing lady editor in the 1920s might be compelling, cinematic, and unique—just the sort of thing, in fact, that might serve as a very interesting plot line on a television program about changing social norms in the 1920s.

Should you decline this advice, however, and focus entirely on the “boys and babies” part of your story line, we recommend the following: Cry constantly. Never stop crying. Also, make sure to yell at any relatives—say, a surprisingly empathetic Dowager Countess, or a helpful spinster aunt—who (a) know about your pregnancy, and (b) have supported you regardless. Then, give your baby to the pig dude. He seems okay! I mean, he probably likes you better than any of your actual relatives. Especially after all that yelling.

I am a man of some station, the lord of a grand estate. As such, I consider it a point of honor to be intensely boring at all times. Stiff upper lip, you know. Much to my dismay, it would appear that my wife’s scoundrel of a brother—that villainous Harold, whom I but recently rescued from the Teapot Dome scandal in an entirely off-screen plot line—has appeared in this, the sacred Isle of Albion! Worse: He bears a positively dreadful resemblance to noted character actor Paul Giamatti, known to be interesting in many of his roles. And, if that weren’t enough of a sticky wicket, I find that I am also tasked with recovering a purloined letter written by the Prince of Wales, which, if uncovered, would reveal a scandalous affair, and bring disgrace upon the throne. All this potentially captivating plot action centered around myself simply isn’t cricket, my good chap! How may I continue to bore the audience, as Queen and Country demand?

Hail Britannia,

Lord X.

Dear Lord X.,

Never fear! Simply avoid Paul Giamatti—or any relatives who resemble him—for the majority of his visit. Displacing yourself from actual on-screen charisma will allow you to maintain your status as human wallpaper. Meanwhile, your Giamatti-esque relative will find himself isolated in his own plot line, about refusing a marriage proposal from some woman we’ve never seen before.

As for saving the Prince of Wales: We agree, this plot line is dangerously close to generating audience interest. Fortunately, as head of your family, you have access to many relatives, some of whom are nearly as boring as yourself! Teaming up with similarly uninteresting characters will reduce a potentially fun caper into a morass of people we don’t care about doing things we don’t care to watch. Try making your plot line center around Rose, the Jazz-Loving Cousin: Her lack of personality and vacant, eerily chipper line readings will leach all suspense from the proceedings, allowing the whole “the Crawleys save the British Empire” nonsense to retreat into the background, where you will feel most at ease.

I used to be the villain on Downton Abbey. Am I even on that show any more?

— Thomas

PS: You know, Thomas.

PPS: You know, the really mean under-butler? I got the nanny fired? I indirectly caused Lady Cora’s miscarriage? I tripped Bates. I’m usually really mean, is what I’m saying.

Dear Thomas,

Yeah, we’re not sure what happened with you, either. You mostly seem to hover around and try to intimidate Baxter these days. It doesn’t seem to be working. Try snitching on Branson when you catch him giving his schoolteacher girlfriend a tour of the Abbey. It’s not exactly first-class villainy, but every little bit helps!

Alas, what a quandary is mine! Allow me to explain: I am a noble lady, of high standing and fabulous wardrobe, all too recently widowed. My destiny, to save my family’s estate; my curse, to be too beautiful and well-dressed for any man to resist. Though once I swore I would never love again, my all-too-recently-broken heart is torn now between two equally ardent suitors. One: A mere estate-surveyor, fiery in his imprecations against the upper class, playful in his slinging of pig-mud… yet not of the nobility, hence entirely unsuitable! The other: A childhood friend, lordly of standing, tireless in his devotion… yet lacking the untamed, muddy charisma of the first! To whom shall I pledge my heart and family lands?

Oh, and it turns out the estate-surveyor guy is secretly a baron or something. Just FYI.

— Emotionally Torn and Impeccably Dressed in Downton

Seriously? Blake The Commoner is a secret baron now? You know that was a plot twist on Gossip Girl, right? Jesus, lady: Just pick a dude and end this. At this point, your two boyfriends are so identical we can’t find it within ourselves to care.

I’m sorry for sending you this letter, but I don’t know where to turn.

I think my husband is a serial killer. As in, I honestly believe he has taken a human life, on more than one occasion. I was raped earlier this year, and while I was trying to deal with it, all he could talk about was how much he “wanted to murder” when he thought about it. I even found myself covering for my rapist, because I was so terrified of my husband’s violent tendencies. Later, that guy showed up dead, and I’m pretty sure my husband was responsible. My bosses recently found proof that he was secretly in town on the day my rapist was killed; when they tried to question my husband about it, he told them obvious lies, glared at them threateningly as if to say “you’re next,” and then just stood there while ominous music played on the soundtrack.

Maybe he was just angry. Maybe he lost control of himself. I could understand that. But before any of this happened, his ex-wife also turned up dead, and there was proof he’d killed her, too. He was really ominous around the time of her death, in a way that now feels familiar. When his innocence in the matter of his wife’s death was established—or “established”—I felt safe. But now: More dead bodies. More ominous music. More lies. More creepy staring. The signs are starting to add up, and they’re all pointing to: “You Are Married To A Guy Who Kills People.”

Could I just be imagining things? Am I going crazy? Or am I actually in danger here? Oh, dear God: How can I forgive myself the disloyalty of even asking you this? Please don’t tell him. Please. I don’t want to make him angry. I’m so scared.

— Loyal Wife

No worries! Your bosses, after uncovering the latest piece of evidence that your husband has committed murder (possibly not for the first time) will burn that evidence, so he can go on helping the family with capers involving the Prince of Wales. Everyone who suspects him of murder will have decided that he did it to “avenge your honor,” after all, so your actual wishes—let alone your fear, which any reasonable woman would feel upon learning that she’s married to a man capable of murderous violence, whose list of potential victims includes the last woman he was married to—are irrelevant. Just go on doing the rich people’s hair and tending to your husband, dear Wife, and let all of these warning signs that you’re in a terrifyingly abusive relationship slide right off your back. Hey: If you’re good, maybe Carson will take you to the beach! Won’t that be nice? I mean, it won’t be. But given how set your writers are on punishing and traumatizing you, I say take what you can get.

Advice columns are unspeakably vulgar. Cease this tomfoolery at once, or I shall have words with your employer.

False names are for criminals and romance novelists. I remain,

The Dowager Countess.

Whatever you say, lady. After all, no matter how much we complain, you’re still the reason we’re going to turn up and watch this show next year.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady inthesetimes.com.

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