As we hurtle to the end of the “Downton Abbey” saga, we are treated to a penultimate episode full of surprises, achingly obvious plot developments, plot resolutions, one or two scenes of real emotion, some pathos and a few nasty showdowns.
Sunday’s episode (Season 6, Episode 8) actually concluded the regular “Downton” season and had the feel of a year-end wrap-up, with lingering shots of the Crawley children playing around Sybil’s grave (that was weird, btw). But we all know the REAL finale — the so-called Christmas Special, which aired on Christmas Day in the UK — is yet to come so there are even more plot twists still awaiting us. (BTW, the series finale will be shown in two weeks so that it does not compete against the Academy Awards; given the demographic of the show’s fan base, it’s one thing to go up against the Super Bowl, but an entirely different thing to compete with the Oscars.)
Given that it was the final regular “Downton” episode it was entirely appropriate that it revolved primarily around the romantic prospects of the Crawley daughters. “Downton” can dabble all it wants in class, gender and gay issues, but at the end of the day, it’s a soap opera and a soap opera must focus on the crucial question of who’s marrying (or sleeping with) whom.
It is not a surprise that Mary and Henry Talbot end up together again but it is a surprise that they got married so suddenly. Presumably that’s so Edith can have her own wedding in the final episode.
When last we saw them, Mary had just broken up with Henry in the aftermath of the fiery crash at the racetrack. That crash had brought back bad memories of Matthew Crawley’s unfortunate demise and Mary explained that she didn’t want to live in fear of another crash, but also didn’t want him to give up racing. All this made sense.
Tom Branson, who has a severe man-crush on Henry, is not giving up his dreams of being the guy’s brother-in-law so easily. To Mary’s vast annoyance, he summons Henry to Downton to try again. But what happens — to MY vast annoyance — is that everyone seems to have forgetten the reason Mary broke up with him in the first place. Henry assumes it’s because he doesn’t have money or a title and never even mentions her fears about racing. Ditto Mr. Tom Sensitive. When Henry accuses her of caring too much about the social imbalance she tells him to screw off and he skedaddles back to London.
She then channels her inner bitch and wrecks Edith’s prospects (more on that below). Mary really is an appalling person in this scene and she’s not much nicer later, when Barrow attempts suicide and she asks her father “Do you still think dismissing Barrow was a useful cost-saving move?” Michelle Dockery really nails it in these scenes — she does a great job of conveying the conflicting emotions of someone who’s arrogant and too prideful to convey the subsequent remorse she feels.
Finally her lapdog Tom dresses her down. Except for perhaps Carson, who would never question anything Mary did, Tom is the person who’s negative judgment she fears the most and he really lays into her for ruining Edith’s life and her own (“Like all bullies you’re a coward.”) He calls BS on her when she claims that she didn’t know that Edith hadn’t told her fiance her secret. But weirdly he still seems most pissed that she has blown Henry off again and won’t settle for happiness. But again — no honest discussion about her fear of racing.
Ever the busy-body, Tom writes to The Dowager Countess, who rushes back to save poor Mary from herself (and it’s typical of this family that she’s primarily preoccupied with Mary’s happiness, not Edith’s.) The scene is touching — just as it was in Season Four when the Dowager Countess had one of these heart-to-hearts with her Mary when she was depressed about Matthew’s death. It’s a rule of Julian Fellowes that if a scene works in one season by all means try it again in a second. In any event, Mary does seem to be asking Grandmama’s permission to marry beneath her station and the old bird comes through again, unsurprisingly coming down on the side of love (unsurprising because she’s done this multiple times, despite supposedly being a classist of the highest order). When Mary tells the Dowager Countess that she fears becoming a “crash widow” a second time, it’s treated as a big reveal, even though, as I pointed out, we learned this last week.
The Dowager Countess also delivers what I guess we are supposed to believe is a sharp diagnosis of Mary’s romantic inclinations. She observes that Tony Gillingham had money, prestige and a title but that Mary wouldn’t marry him because he wasn’t as clever or as strong as she was, unlike Henry Talbot who has all these qualities. Oh really? It is a weakness of Julian Fellowes’ writing that we cannot distinguish these two beaus from each other. What has Henry ever said that was clever or interesting? In what way was Tony boring? If you put them both in the same room could you figure out who was the interesting one? (Now Charles Blake, that guy actually was interesting and strong.) Fellowes continues to be President of the “Tell Not Show” Club.
Regardless, all it takes is one talking-to from Grandmama and Mary completely changes her mind. She goes for a walk to Matthew’s grave to explain herself, an act that is conveniently observed by Isobel and who gives her daughter-in-law her blessing to remarry (again, something she already did once before in Season 4). Then off goes the telegram to London summoning Henry Talbot. There’s a nice scene where she accepts his proposal. They kiss. They agree to marry faster than a shotgun wedding. One thing they do not do is discuss the issue that kept them divided — her fear of racing. Presumably that will be addressed in the final episode.
The wedding is nice. And as Lord Grantham sees the happy couple ride away in a horse-drawn carriage — a form of transportation with which the ancient Egyptians were probably familiar — he is moved to observe, “There goes a new couple into a new world.” Whatever.
What’s surprising about this story: that Baron Fellowes would dare stoop to that hoariest of cliches — having a character unexpectedly raised to nobility through the death of a distant relative. What is unsurprising about this story: everything else, especially Bertie Pelham’s reluctance to marry Edith after discovering that she’s been misleading him about her love child. After all, we can’t have Edith get married without one last obstacle. I would almost bet that Julian Fellowes flipped a coin to see which daughter would get married in this episode and which in the next.
Did we all know that Bertie was his cousin’s heir? I don’t have the energy to go back and check from last season. If so, this was not commented on significantly enough. Isn’t it odd, in a Cinderella-type way, for a Marquess to keep his heir employed at the castle as a hired hand? Further, the Marquess is obviously gay (ogling the fishermen in Tangiers and being described as “delicate”) so why did everyone assume he’d produce a son of his own? Even if he married and did the deed enough times to get his wife pregnant, he might have had daughters like Lord Grantham.
We’ll let that pass. After pausing exactly one second to mourn the late Marquess of Hexam, Lord Granthan is delighted to observe that poor Edith, who couldn’t even get her dolls to do what she wanted, is going to end up as a Marchioness and outrank them all. Golly gumdrops!! (Here’s a useful explanation of British hereditary titles but the ranking order is Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. The Granthams are mere Earls.) Mary, that bitch, is completely put off that her sad sack sister is going to outrank her (among other things, Mary is the daughter of an earl and the mother of a future earl, but will never be a countess herself).
Bertie shows up on the way to settle his cousin’s affairs in Tangiers and also to press Edith for an answer to his proposal. What a stand-up guy. Even though he could marry any single lady in the Kingdom he still wants Edith. But she’s afraid to tell him about Marigold and when he presses his case she leaves the impression that she’s accepted. When will the characters on the show learn that when you have a secret, the secret controls you, not the other way around? And under these circumstances, is it wise for Edith to pick a fight with Mary at breakfast? Because Edith did provoke her by saying that Mary couldn’t stand it that she’s getting married when Mary’s man had left that very morning.
Regardless, there’s no excuse for Mary dropping the bomb that Marigold is Edith’s biological daughter. For a second I thought Julian Fellowes would actually surprise us and have Henry say he didn’t care, but no, we have to follow the expected path. He’s a person of such high ideals that he can’t marry a women whom he doesn’t trust or, worse, who doesn’t trust him to do the right thing. Yawn. We know this is such a plot device to push the wedding into another episode.
Or maybe it was a device to set up one of the great confrontations in “Downton” history, when Mary halfheartedly tries to apologize and Edith tells her to shut up and calls her a scheming nasty bitch. Boy did that scene feel good because Mary has needed a good dressing down for years. I especially liked the way she says, “Who do you think you’re talking to? Mama, Papa, your maid? I KNOW you.” Right, they’re all afraid of Mary and have turned into her enablers.
But the scene that really did make me tear up a little bit was the quasi-reconciliation. When Edith returns for the wedding she has not exactly forgiven Mary, shrewdly pointing out that Mary is only being nice now because she’s happy. But when Mary asks if that’s the case, why is she there for the wedding, Edith describes that unique bond that only siblings share: “In the end, you’re my sister. And one day, only we will remember Sybil. Or Mama or Papa. Or Matthew or Michael. Or Granny or Carson. Or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.” That’s surprisingly beautiful writing from Baron Fellowes.
Some other thoughts about the episode:
- Perhaps nothing has been more tiresome on “Downton Abbey” than its obsession with secrets and the scheming to uncover them. Finally Marigold’s secret is out, so at least that’s one down. The wisdom of not trying to keep a secret is expressed most succinctly by Baxter, of all people, who was keeping a huge one herself for a couple of seasons. When Molesly confides that he’s afraid his students won’t respect him when they find out he’s in service she asks, “Why not tell them? Then they won’t have to find out, will they?”
- So Thomas tried to commit suicide did he? Another yawn. The show has been telegraphing his unhappiness and loneliness all season (although he needn’t be lonely given that Baxter has repeatedly tried to befriend him.) Still, this bit of melodrama does yield one nice scene, when Mary and Master George come to visit him and Thomas proclaims that George is his only friend. They are sweet together and it’s nice to see Mary and Thomas understand each other as kindred spirits who can’t help but lash out at others when they are unhappy. The amount of damage those two have wreaked on the rest of the characters is too large to quantify, but the self-awareness is welcome.
- The story about Mrs. Patmore’s B&B getting a reputation as a house of ill-repute seems unnecessary as we try to wrap things up. But it does serve a couple of purposes. I) It provides comic relief in an otherwise intense episode; 2) It provides the opportunity for the family to become big heroes by lending their respectability to the establishment and saving Mrs. Patmore’s reputation. 3) It provides yet another illustration of Mr. Carson’s descent into aristocracy worship and sheer unpleasantness.
- Speaking of Mr. Carson, he’s becoming a real pill. No. More than a real pill: a jerk. He’s unsupportive of Mr. Molesly’s attempt to better himself. He’s all upset that the Crawleys might drag their names into the mud by visiting the B&B (which unknowingly hosted an adulterous liaison) and won’t let up about it even after Lord Grantham, with considerable irritation, has made the family’s position clear. Worse, in a way, he’s snide to Mrs. Hughes, who supports the Crawleys’ face-saving visit: “I’ve always known women were ruthless but I never thought I’d feel the proof in my own wife.” He’s lucky that Mrs. Hughes is a saint who takes the attitude, “You’re such a curmudgeon but you’re my curmudgeon.”
- The Molesly story is inspiring but a little unbelievable as depicted. Molesly has never been taken seriously on the show but through dint of hard work and self-improvement he educated himself and positioned himself to take advantage of a teaching opportunity when it presented itself. He earns our respect as an “every man” who’s kind and uncomplaining. And yet the problem/solution formula is really off on this story. In his first day of teaching the students he can’t control the class and no one learns anything. On Day Two, he emerges as Mr. Chips solely by giving them a little lecture on the importance of education and by revealing that he is in service himself — just like the parents of the kids in his class.
- Speaking of surprises, you had to think that something was up with the true identity of Miss Casandra Jones, Edith’s advice columnist, but you have to hand it to Julian Fellowes for revealing it be Spratt. Of course it’s easy to surprise when you come up with something so totally preposterous, but what the heck? It was good for a laugh. I would have paid $100, though, for it to have actually been Michael Gregson’s wife, who is theoretically still alive in some insane asylum. Not enough attention has been paid to the fact that Gregson left the magazine to Edith instead of his wife, and you have to wonder why no one challenged the will on that one.
- No Denker?
- I’m glad they squeezed in a moment of too for the Isobel/Merty subplot. Isobel insists that the vile Larry Grey himself give his blessings to the marriage. Quite right.
With one episode left there are about 15 plot strands to be resolved, including which romantic couples end up with who. Edith and Isobel seem like very likely brides. In descending order of likelihood, other potential brides include: Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, Baxter, and Edith’s editor. Also unresolved: the professional careers of Henry Talbot, Tom, Thomas, Andy, Daisy, and even the Carsons. The best bet is that Thomas ends up with Bertie and Edith as their head butler. Or maybe he finds employment at the Dowager House if Spratt becomes a highly compensated advice columnist. We also need to see Anna give birth, so we will be jumping ahead to at least Christmas 1925 if not further.
Those of you out there who know the answers, please keep it to yourselves. I’m going on Downton lockdown for the next two weeks.