[Caution: The following recap of Downton Abbey contains spoilers!]
Well, here we are for one last hurrah with England’s most beloved aristocrats and servants. The final season of Downton Abbey has begun, and times are changing, as the characters constantly remind us. But the changes are thrown sharply into focus at the very beginning this time around. Not only is there now a refrigerator in the Downton Abbey kitchen, much to the chagrin of ever-peppery cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), but also, in an opening hunting party sequence, we see eldest daughter of the house, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), riding her horse astride! Oh, gasp. Her father, our stoic Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), looks dubious as he rides alongside, clearly wondering if it’s a bit fast of her.
In general, this new season started off fast indeed, as the social shifts that have perhaps been brewing below the surface now seem to be staring the Crawley family in the face. Central to this first episode is the sale of a neighboring estate. The sale of the house and land is completed with an auction, which sees the family’s most valuable heirlooms and possessions sold to any high bidder. The Crawleys attend the auction, and it’s an awakening for Robert, the ever-stuck-in-tradition lord, forcing him to think seriously about how he and Mary will continue maintaining Downton. So far, Mary’s management role has heightened after the departure of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), former estate agent and widower of the late youngest Crawley sister. His absence is felt by all, but Mary is clearly a capable manager. I’m sure we’ll see conversations between her and Robert on what the future holds for Downton sooner rather than later.
In his musings on what’s to come, Robert and the even more traditional butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), discuss that staff cuts will have to soon be made, naturally inciting audience curiosity on who will go first. Robert also confides this to his mother, the fabulously witty Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Though also obsessed with tradition, Violet does see the necessity of some adaptation. But she offhandedly mentions the information to her lady’s maid, Miss Denker (Sue Johnston), and despite a warning to keep it under wraps, Denker, true to form, promptly heralds the news both to the Abbey staff and to Violet’s stiff, touchy butler, Mr. Spratt (Jeremy Swift). Naturally, her infraction finds its way back to Violet, and in a splendidly icy exchange, Violet punishes her with a hint that Denker could be the first dismissed from the Dower house. Upon witnessing this chastening, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), mother of Mary’s late husband, somewhat pities Denker, but Violet triumphantly crows, “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.”
Oh, how we’ve missed your zingers, Violet. Hopefully Denker will keep quiet for a bit. More concerning for the audience was another consequence of the neighboring house’s sale – Mr. Mason, father-in-law to Downton’s assistant cook, Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), faces the loss of his farm, as his tenancy was dependent on the owners of the house now being sold. At the auction, Daisy also had reason to fear, for she turned into a loudmouth that rivaled even Denker. Attempting to stand up for Mr. Mason to the house’s new owner, she succeeds only in embarrassing herself in front of the whole Crawley family and worsening Mr. Mason’s cause. She narrowly escaped dismissal this time, but her increasing abrasiveness and embrace of modernity make me suspect her future is certainly elsewhere.
Also embracing the modern shifts is the perpetually unlucky second Crawley daughter, Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael). After the death of her beloved Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) in the previous season, she now independently runs his London-based publishing company and thrives on the responsibility and purpose it gives. She has also inherited his flat in London, and with previous renters vacating it, Edith now wonders if a permanent London home could be useful for her and her daughter Marigold, who is still introduced as her “ward” to outsiders to avoid the scandal that would surround an out-of-wedlock child. Only family members, excepting Mary, are privy to the secret of Marigold’s parentage.
But scandal cannot be thwarted for long around Downton Abbey, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Lady Mary is now its latest victim. After the beginning hunting party, Mary confronts an unknown woman who had been loitering about the grounds and giving smug smiles. The woman brazenly introduces herself as Rita Bevan (Nichola Burley), a former chambermaid from the Liverpool Grand Hotel, location of Mary’s last-season rendezvous with Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen). Miss Bevan demands one thousand pounds, threatening to blackmail Mary with her knowledge of the tryst, but Mary staunchly refuses, determined not to invite a permanent money-sucking leech into her life. Undeterred, Miss Bevan repeats her threat in following days, once even deceiving her way into Mary’s bedroom before Mary had finished breakfast. Her manners and insults reach beyond distasteful, prompting Mary to ejaculate, “You’re revolting.”
I quite agree, m’lady. Fortunately, ever faithful maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), in whom Mary has naturally confided, sees Miss Bevan firmly out of the house after this exchange. But we have affectionate father Robert to thank for sending her permanently packing (at least we hope so). The last repetition of the threat comes to Robert himself, as Mary is absent when Miss Bevan arrives. Mary returns just in time to see Robert hand Miss Bevan a check and warn her not to say a word. In the conversation that follows, we find that Robert paid her fifty pounds and forced her to sign an agreement that she would not publicize the story at the risk of prosecution. Though Robert shows some disappointment in Mary and in Gillingham, he clearly did not hesitate to defend his daughter, much to Mary’s gratitude.
Meanwhile, a somewhat lighter, more humorous conflict ensues over the management of the local hospital. It’s been a while since Violet and Isobel had a spat, so we’re treated to a fresh one instantly this time around. The hospital board experiences division over whether they should allow a larger Yorkshire hospital to take over their smaller cottage hospital. Isobel, supported by Mary’s godfather, Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), and Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), believes the arrangement would be beneficial, as it would grant the hospital access to new and better equipment and treatments. Violet and head doctor, Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), express opposition because of the sure loss of local authority over management that would ensue. This is far from resolved, and I expect many more arguments to follow. So far, we owe this story arc for by far the best line of the episode. In one of the disputes, Violet haughtily quips to Isobel, “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”
Again, how we’ve missed those one-liners from our dear Dowager.
Less lighthearted are the continued trials of Anna and John Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle), lady’s maid to Lady Mary and valet to Lord Grantham respectively. They frequently discussed their hope of children in the last season and it’s still a strong desire in both of them. But as ever, life is never easy for this ill-fated couple, as we soon hear in a tearful exchange between them that Anna has miscarried multiple times recently. Anna feels unsure that she can carry a child to term, but Mr. Bates seems to remain hopeful. More pressing for the audience is the unfinished mystery surrounding the death of Mr. Green, the evil valet who attacked Anna back in season 4. Both Anna and Bates have been suspects of his murder, but they are on bail at the beginning of this episode and the resolution remains open-ended. Midway through, Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) tells them that another woman has confessed to the crime and they only need more evidence to confirm it. This storyline is thankfully concluded (at least it seems so; can’t get confident can we?) at the end when Sergeant Willis comes back late one night to share that a witness has backed up the confession, so the case is closed for the Bateses. Carson passes on the news to the family, and family and servants then celebrate together in the servants’ hall with drinks and dancing to the music of the gramophone. Lady Mary happily exclaims, “It’s been such a long road! Can this really be the end of it?”
We certainly hope so. Heavens, don’t we all hope so? This storyline has more than outstayed its welcome, I’ll say. But these are the Bateses we’re talking about, so I wouldn’t get too comfortable. The Mr. Green business may be over, thank goodness, but I’m not convinced it’s on to happily ever after for Anna and Bates quite yet.
But happily ever after does appear very close for the newly engaged Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan), the butler and housekeeper who satisfied much fan demand with a fabulous proposal scene at the end of season 5. Now we see Carson trying to talk Mrs. Hughes into setting a wedding date, but she smilingly puts him off for a less comfortable reason than she looks. She confides in Mrs. Patmore that she’s nervous about whether he’ll expect “wifely duties,” as Mrs. Patmore clumsily puts it. She just needs to know what he wants, but is embarrassed to question him about it herself, so she asks Mrs. Patmore to do so. Mrs. Patmore is bewildered, but agrees to try. Several perfectly awkward and humorous exchanges later, Mr. Carson banishes Mrs. Hughes’ doubts with moving words of his care for her and of her beauty in his eyes. The episode closes with a tender kiss between them and Carson’s reassurance of his certainty in marrying her: “I have never been so sure of anything.”
This is definitely one pairing we can all root for. I know I’m excited to see this wedding.
That’s all for this first episode of season 6 of Downton Abbey! Tune in next week for episode 2 of Downton Abbey on PBS/Masterpiece at 9/8c!1 of 1