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“Downton Abbey” is tiptoeing toward the end of a season of secrets: Spirited Cousin Rose's romance with an African-American bandleader. Lady Edith's pregnancy by her now-missing lover. The shocking rape of maid Anna by the manservant of one of Lady Mary's would-be suitors.
The truth, in one form or another, eventually surfaced in all those cases. But with the show’s fourth season finale set for Sunday on PBS, there’s at least one secret that might be better left a mystery: whether Mr. Bates avenged his wife Anna by killing her rapist.
Anna and Bates emerged early on as the one couple everybody can root for on the early 20th Century-set "Upstairs Downstairs"-style British drama that’s notched a spot in the modern popular culture. Still, there’s always been a haunting ambiguity clouding Bates, who spent much of last season in prison on an apparently false rap of murdering his shrewish first wife. His smile in the most recent episode following the supposedly accidental death of Anna’s rapist proved far more chilling than charming, even if no one is mourning the attacker.
The latest Anna-Bates Job-like challenge proved the weightiest – and most compelling – storyline of this season, set in the early 1920s. Still, last season’s death of Matthew Crawley, so soon after the demise of young Lady Sybil, also hung heavily over the manor.
Lady Mary and Tom Branson, who lost spouses, channeled their energy into saving the estate amid changing economic and social times – showing foresight, acumen and touches of kind wisdom learned from less practical keeper of the Downton flame, Lord Grantham.
Pampered Mary transformed into a proto-feminist of sorts who showed she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty – even during a pig-farming crisis – as she fends off gentleman callers. While Mary oozes with seeming self-assurance, Tom, the Irish former Downton chauffeur, remains less clear on his place, as he lurches into the muddy world of politics.
The sickening attack on Anna aside, this season has lacked the frequent fireworks of those past. Still, fans have been treated to some memorable moments: Isabel Crawley tenderly nursing her usual verbal sparring partner, the Dowager Countess, back to health. Edith's ill-fated lover using his poker skills to help Lord Grantham save face (and a small fortune) from a cheating cad. Uptight head butler Carson making up with the old music hall performing partner from a past he'd rather forget.
Overall, though, we’ve seen disappointingly little from the servants this season. The chaste Daisy-Alfred-Ivy triangle offered a mild diversion, as did mopey Mr. Mosely's pride-driven travails.
Pride seems likely to crumble as next season takes us deeper into the 1920s, which began with a roar and ended in depression. Downton, to borrow a phrase from a popular drama of another sort, is a house of cards.
Sunday’s episode brings the return from America of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Grantham’s mother, Martha. Tagging along is Martha’s playboy son, Harold (Paul Giamatti), who got caught up in the U.S. Teapot Dome scandal, a mere sip of the worldwide wave tumult to come.
As we wait to see what revelations the finale of this season of secrets brings for Anna, Bates and the rest, check out a preview below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.