Warning on spoilers:
From the very first scene of the very first episode – with the sinking of the Titanic – “Downton Abbey’s” great theme has been change and the coming collapse of the Downton way of life. For five seasons we’ve heard Mr. Carson whining about eroding standards and it looks like Season Six will be no different – why they used to have six upstairs maids and five footmen but now they only have two of each!
Unsurprisingly. the first episode of this final season makes this theme explicit. It begins with a fox hunt – the very embodiment of the power of the landed aristocracy – and ends with the sale of a neighboring great house and the auction of its contents. An era is ending — will the Crawleys be able to avoid that fate?
While the world of “Downton Abbey” may be changing, “Downton Abbey” the TV show remains completely the same. It’s the same mix of lame plots, snarky bon mots, beautiful costumes and set decoration as it’s always been.
I had half hoped that Julian Fellowes, finally freed from the constraints of keeping the series going indefinitely, would go for broke and try some something different – like an original story – but what we get instead are a bunch of regurgitated plots lines from previous seasons. Mary’s being blackmailed for a sexual tryst? Edith’s trying to decide whether to move to London? There’s a fight over the future of the local hospital? A lower-class female agitator blasts a rich land owner? Anna and Bates are still suspected of killing Mr. Green the raping valet? The Dowager Countess’ servants are at each other’s throats? Been there done that.
I have a little bit of sympathy for Fellowes – there are so many characters who must be given their due in each episode and there are so many episode-specific plots and season-long narratives to keep track of that many of these stories are bound to be compressed into unsatisfactory sketches or stretched out far too long. Worse, Fellowes doesn’t trust his audience to comprehend a major theme if he simply dramatizes it, so he has the characters repeatedly explain it.
So what are our themes this episode? Well first, as noted, the show forecasts the impending end of the “Downton” way of life. Not only do we have the specter of the neighboring house being auctioned, but we also have Lord Grantham speculating about cutbacks in the household staff, which makes every under-butler and chambermaid nervous. As well it should. We all remember that when Mr. Mosley lost his job in the LAST wave of cutbacks he ended up as a day laborer on a road crew. In any event, in case we miss the point, here’s what Fellowes has the nearly bankrupt landowner say: “This life is over for us. It won’t come back. … I’m afraid we held on for far too long, and now there’s nothing left. Learn from us!” Good advice, but isn’t that exactly what Lord Grantham’s good friend “Shrimpie” told him last year when he sold off his Scottish estate?
Another major theme is squeamishness about sex. I had always assumed that Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore were widows but apparently they are virgin spinsters who have taken the title of “Mrs.” in order to reflect their senior position in the household staff. In any event, when Mrs. Hughes accepted Mr. Carson’s marriage proposal it seems she didn’t take into consideration that she’d be expected to consummate the marriage. So now she’s hedging on the date until she can enroll in a Jazzercise class. What would be believable is to find out that she’s frigid or has an aversion to sex, but no, her problem is that she thinks Mrs. Carson will be “disappointed” in her because she’s not a Playboy bunny. As if Mr. Carson is such an Adonis himself. So she sends Mrs. Patmore as her emissary to find out what his intentions are in that department. Yeah, he wants it! This scene is actually very sweet because he tells Mrs. Patmore that he loves Mrs. Hughes and wants to be as “close” as two people can be. So no living together as brother and sister. All this gets worked out in the end, as it always does on “Downton.” But Elsie, I wouldn’t worry too much about performing those conjugal responsibilities too often. Between the port drinking, all those decades of celibacy and his advancing age, I think it’s Mr. Carson who should be worried about disappointing his bride.
Meanwhile, Mary is being blackmailed by Miss Bevan, a hotel chambermaid who deduced that she and Tony Gillingham took that test drive at the Liverpudlian Hotel last season. Mary, who’s used to being blackmailed (remember the case of Mr. Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat who died in her room?) is disinclined to pay but Miss Bevan keeps showing at the house up and demanding a thousand pounds. I know this story is supposed to underscore the era’s archaic and hypocritical attitude toward sex, but the plot is still pretty ridiculous. What evidence can Miss Bevan have to prove this? Didn’t they register under assumed names and in any event didn’t they have separate rooms? Second, is Mary Crawley so famous that the papers would really expose her and risk getting sued themselves? And third, didn’t the blackmailer understand she was exposing herself to criminal prosecution by being so blatant in her efforts? Even Lord Grantham figured that out and negotiated the price of blackmail down to fifty pounds.
The other sex-related plot involves the poor Bateses, who just move from one sad story to another. Once again, the characters talk about sex through inference and innuendo. I think we are supposed to assume that Anna just had a miscarriage – the most recent of several actually – but at first viewing I thought she was just telling Bates that she’d been late with her period. Either way, I will bet you fifty pounds that she delivers a healthy baby before the series ends and that we’ll learn that those fertility problems resulted from her anxiety over being a murder suspect. And if that doesn’t work out, the Bateses can just ask Edith how to steal a baby.
The other great theme in this episode was female empowerment and I don’t just mean Mary Crowley refusing to ride sidesaddle. (Yep, she spread her legs to mount that beast.) I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the plots on this episode were set in motion by or dominated by women. Why, here’s Mary announcing that she’s going to assume Tom Branson’s job as agent for Downton Abbey. Oh really? I know she did roll around in the mud once with Charles Blake, but are we really supposed to believe that she’s going to manage the day-to-day affairs of the estate, negotiate with the tenant farmers, decide what crops to plant, etc. She wasn’t even street-smart enough to put Miss Bevan in a box, which her father did in five minutes.
Then we’ve got Edith, who’s planning to take over more responsibilities at the newspaper. I seem to recall that she spent about two days last year acting as the on-site publisher before returning to Downton with Marigold. There’s a word for what she is and that’s “dilettante.” She’s lucky she has any asset left given there’s no one minding the store. But she seems determined now to bring Marigold back to London, where people ask fewer nosy questions, and the paper seems a good excuse to do so.
We also have the spectacle of two ladies of a certain age –Isobel Crawley and The Dowager Countess – wrestling over the future of the local hospital. Should they combine it with a bigger hospital in York to get better service, but give up control of their local institution? Isobel says yes, The Dowager Countess says no. I’m not sure why those two are the ones fighting it out since Lord Grantham is probably the real power on the board, but he’s apparently abdicated his role to them. It’s also pretty clear that Cora’s going to get involved too, presumably to create a season-long conflict to give her, Isobel and the Dowager Countess something to do.
Another sign of Fellowes’ proto-feminism? There are no marriage plots. At least not in this episode. As befitting a soap opera, much of Downton Abbey’s history has been driven – Jane Austen-like –by the question of who’s going to marry the daughters of the house. The final episode of last season introduced some new suitors for Edith and Mary but they did not show their faces this episode. This lack of romance for the Crawley women cannot last long. Edith and Mary can take all the jobs they want but this season is not going to be over until their romantic lives are settled one way or another.
Some other observations:
- The most shocking plot development of this episode is that the murder of Mr. Green was not resolved before the opening credits. This has been the single most vexing and preposterous plot of the entire series. To recap: there has never been any evidence that either Anna or Mr. Bates had anything to do with the murder. At the end of last season, the police dropped their trumped up charges and that was that. Or so we thought. Yet once again this season the cops show up in the Downton servants’ quarters to update the Bateses on the case’s progress because she’s still not in the clear. And even when another mysterious unidentified woman comes forward and confesses, that’s not good enough because she could have been making a false confession (well, to be fair, Mr. Bates did falsely confess himself so there’s a precedent). So Anna spent all of last season in jail based on no evidence, but an actual confession by someone else is not good enough to close the case? In any event, eventually another mysterious and unidentified witness corroborates the story, which elicits the funniest (although probably the most unintentionally funny) line of the episode in this toast by Lord G: “To British justice, the envy of the world.” Ha. Tell it to the Irish.
- That opening fox hunting scene is designed to show the aristocracy at play in all their glory, and it’s a fine scene considering the limitations of TV budgets. For a much more exciting hunting depiction check out this clip from the movie “Tom Jones,” which is set about 150 years before the events in “Downton Abbey,” but does a better job of showing the blood lust and thrill of these rural romps.
- Am I the only one who was under the impression that Mr. Mason, Daisy’s father-in-law, owned his own farm? I thought the whole point of her being a minor heiress was that she’d inherit the place after he died. But now it turns out that he’s a tenant farmer, working the land on the whim of the local Lord. Some inheritance.
- Speaking of Daisy, she almost never fails to do and say the wrong thing. Having been radicalized last year by Miss Sarah Bunting, she is clearly going to be this season’s mouthpiece for the disgruntled underclass. That’s fine, but what did she think she was accomplishing by mouthing off to the new landowner before he’d even made any decisions about whether to keep renting to existing tenants? She’s not much smarter than Miss Bevan, the blackmailing chamber maid who’s also full of class resentment. The way these two woman are depicted shows that Julian Fellowes is stacking the deck against the underclasses by making them so unsympathetic.
- Best throwaway line: “This is the room where I met Virginia Woolf.” Well, I never knew that Michael Gregson hobnobbed in such literary circles.
- Miss Bevan threatens to expose Mary’s scandalous past by going to News of the World, a real newspaper that was closed down during the Murdoch phone hacking scandals of 2011. The threat to go to News of the World would have had a lot more meaning to British viewers than American, since it was a hugely read scandal sheet even when it closed.
- What is Lord Merton doing on the hospital board? Does he even live in the Downtown Cottage Hospital coverage area? Last year at this time he’d never met Isobel Crawley, but now as her rejected suitor they’re serving on the same board and he’s trying to curry her favor by agreeing with everything she says.
- Speaking of this hospital conflict, one thing that definitely rings true-to-life is the opposition to the merger by Dr. Clarkson. If the hospital is swallowed up he’d have a diminished role in its operation and no medical bureaucrat likes that.
- Tom and Sybbie are supposedly happily settled in Boston. But then why is Allen Leech, the actor who plays Tom, appearing in all the publicity roll-out that has assaulted us here in the U.S.? We can only assume he’ll be back at some point.
- I wasn’t exactly sure what role Isobel had at the hospital but I think she said “Almoner,” which Google tells me is the official who decides whether the poor should get free care. That sure sounds like a staff position to me, so I don’t understand why she’s on her high horse at not getting advance warning about the impending takeover. In any event, her high dungeon about the whole thing inspires the Dowager Countess’ best line: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”
- Finally, it appears that Mrs. Hughes is a bit of a history scholar after all. She correctly cites Oliver Cromwell as the originator of the phrase “warts and all.”