Downton Abbey Christmas Special 2012 Review “Journey to the Highlands”

Downton Abbey returned for a Christmas 2012 special with ‘A Journey to the Highlands’, which saw the Crawleys and some of the staff decamp to Scotland to visit the MacClares — Rose, her mother Susan and father Hugh or ‘Shrimpie’ — at Duneagle Castle. This feature length episode skipped back and forth between Duneagle and Downton before ending in a massive blow to the Crawleys with Matthew’s death in an accident soon after the birth of his son.

The visit to Duneagle was quite bland. There was little in the episode that couldn’t — and hasn’t — been shown previously in Downton, albeit with an added postcard perfect Scottish air. A pregnant Mary spent the episode feeling shaken up by train and car travel and making snarky comments about Gregson, Edith’s editor and love interest who visited to meet them. Matthew took Gregson on as his Branson-esque sidekick, eventually finding out his true situation (crazy wife in the attic asylum) and dissuading him from starting a relationship with Edith. Robert and Cora hunted and lunched and, well, not much else.

The staff fared slightly better. Anna and Bates continued to be the most romantic couple on this show with a nice picnic, followed by Anna learning to dance a reel to impress Bates. O’Brien unintentionally made an enemy of Susan’s lady’s maid, but thwarted her attempt at revenge because, let’s face it, the day someone out-evils O’Brien is the day O’Brien kicks the proverbial bucket. It was Molesley who suffered the most from this attempt at revenge, though ‘suffer’ is a relative term; he drunkenly danced with the best of them and had the most fun out of everyone (at least until the morning after).

There was a lot of emphasis on Rose and her parents, as well as on the relationships between them. This made sense for Rose — she’s going to be moving to Downton in series 4, so we needed to know more about her. She was a lot less irritating than in her series 3 appearance and could even be a truly likable character in future. Her parents relationship was rocky and unpleasant to watch. Unless their marriage is going to be a huge factor in series 4 — though that seems doubtful given that they’re off to India — I can’t see why so much time was spent on it. It was time that would have been better served elsewhere.

Back at Downton, Mrs Patmore was wooed by a shop owner who invited the staff to a fair. This was easily the best part of the episode. Mrs Hughes discovered that Mrs Patmore’s man was a flirt (which later lead to a priceless scene in which Mrs Patmore is relieved that she has an excuse not to marry him), the Downton boys took part in a tug-‘o-war game, Daisy and Ivy hung out as friends (when did this happen?), Dr Clarkson and Isabel began a will they/won’t they relationship, and Thomas played the hero when he saved Jimmy from a couple of muggers. Aside from the last, it was pure fun and felt like the sort of thing you actually want to watch on Christmas Day, mug of tea in hand after a bit too much dinner and pudding.

The Thomas and Jimmy situation was, for me, a bit of a disappointment. The gist was that Thomas saving Jimmy from the muggers showed Jimmy that Thomas was a really good guy, allowing him to accept Thomas enough for them to forge a friendship. In theory it works, and the final scene in Thomas’ room was absolutely lovely. But if we look at it more critically, Jimmy only accepted Thomas as a good person after Thomas was physically assaulted. Surely there were other ways for Fellowes to make this point without Thomas getting the holy heck kicked out of him? Now their friendship is based on Jimmy having told Thomas that nothing will ever happen between them. Thomas seems fine accepting this, but are we to believe that having Jimmy as a friend is better than the awkward but not horrible tension between them at the start of the episode? Thomas obviously cares about Jimmy a lot (possibly even loves him), so unless something changes drastically in series 4, having Thomas try to be friends with the man he wants and can’t have seems a bit cruel.

Speaking of awkward, new maid Edna certainly overstepped her bounds with Branson. He’d been left behind on the trip to Duneagle and spent the entire episode trying to deal with being the only one upstairs whilst all his old friends were downstairs. Edna — who was the least subtle character on a show full of unsubtle characters — basically shamed Branson into going back below stairs in her attempt at getting closer to him. Mrs Hughes had to be her awesome self and put a stop to it, telling Branson that there’s no shame in his situation and kicking Edna out.

Here’s the thing about Branson in this episode: it would have been a lot more satisfying if a lonely Branson went below stairs because he wanted to fit in while the Crawleys were away, and Mrs Hughes had to convince him to stick to the script because that’s just how his life has to be nowadays. Aside from Sybbie, Branson really has nothing forcing him to stay above stairs when nobody is looking, so the conflict should have perhaps have been internal. Instead we got Edna making her move only 4 episodes after Sybil’s death. It was slimy and horrible and unpleasant.

Then came that ending. Dan Stevens decided to leave the show a little while ago, so however you feel about Matthew’s death, the character’s departure was inevitable. That said, I don’t understand why Fellowes chose to kill him off right after the birth of his son. Was it nice that he got to see his child before reckless driving saw him crashing down an embankment? Yes, it was. But losing two main characters in the space of half a series was bad enough without them both dying soon after seeing their child for the first and last time. It was over the top and frustrating. I went into this episode expecting Matthew to die, so that wasn’t a shock, but had hoped for better from Fellowes.

Now we face going into series 4 with everyone in mourning once again, both Branson and Mary soldiering on as grieving single parents. I honestly don’t put it past Fellowes to pair them up. It would be horrendous for a number of reasons, but this episode felt like Downton may have jumped the shark anyway, finally crossing the line from ‘slightly out there drama’ to ‘farce’. I really hope series 4 finds a way past these character deaths and back to being truly engaging series.

Of course, opinions will vary and we’d love to hear what you thought of ‘A Journey to the Highlands’, dear reader. How do you feel about Matthew’s death? Will you enjoy Rose being a main character in series 4? Do you think Thomas having Jimmy on his side will change the dynamics downstairs? Should Branson have considered dating Edna? And how cute was Carson looking after little Sybbie? Let us know your thoughts on the episode in the comments below!