The season 5 capper works both as a great conclusion and a perfect set-up for the next.
The amount of story, incredible character moments, and witty one-liners that Downton Abbey can squeeze into a single hour of television is a weekly feat to behold. So what does 90 blissful minutes of Downton get you? How about a 50 percent more story, incredible character moments, and witty one-liners, with a bonus soup-centric subplot thrown in for good luck?
The finale of Downton Abbey‘s fifth season—presented as a Christmas special in the U.K.—tied up several of the loose ends from throughout the year, including the investigation into Mr. Green’s murder, Isobel’s engagement, and the missing Princess Kuragin, but what left me reeling were the threads that the series could pick up next season if Julian Fellowes so chooses.
Let’s make like the debonair Henry Talbot entering his car and jump right in!
Being the supportive employer that she is, Mary visits Anna, who’s sitting in prison because a guy who looks like Morrissey claims he saw her push a serial rapist in front of a bus in London. (Who knew that was even illegal?) But because this is 1920s England, there’s some minor hand-wringing about what happens if “people” find out about the visit. Violet, in particular, is questioned about what she would do in Mary’s situation, if Ms. Denker were jailed, and she admits that she would visit, “Only to check if the locks were sound.”
Not to have their plans derailed by the wrongful imprisonment of one of their staff, the family heads off to Brancaster Castle, on Lord Sinderby’s invitation for a grouse hunt. Bates, understandably distraught over Anna’s arrest, decides to stay behind, so Barrow takes over valet duties from him. (That might seem like a minor, logistical detail, but oh, does it result in a glorious shit storm!) As worked up as Bates is, there’s very little he can do for his wife. He even offers to cut his own arm off, metaphorically, if it were to do any good, but Barrow doesn’t see the logic there. “Oh, I don’t think that would be sensible, Mr. Bates,” he says. “We can’t have you wobbly at both ends.” So I guess that whole “Baxter saved my life, now I’m nice” thing didn’t last too long, huh, Barrow?
Is there some line in Sophie McShera’s contract that requires Daisy to have some sort of self-doubting crisis every episode? Or is that the one story beat each episode starts with? “So we know Daisy’s going to question continuing her studies,” Julian Fellowes asks, kicking off a writers’ meeting. “What else should happen? Maybe Mary is mean to Edith, or something? I don’t know.” At least Mrs. Patmore is hip to the trend. “Oh, dear,” she says. “We’re not having another crisis, are we?”
But Daisy is not the only one having doubts. On the way to Brancaster, Tom questions whether he should have come at all, considering how uptight Lord Sinderby is. Cora also wonders whether Robert’s unexplained trip to York earlier in the week is really nothing like he insists, or has something to do with the pain he appears to be in or how grumpy he gets, telling her to “stop fussing.” Well, sorry, Lord Grumpypants. It just really seems like you’re going to die. That’s all.
NEXT: Off to Brancaster
The arrival at Brancaster comes with a mix of joys and concerns. Joy: Rose and Atticus (henceforth “Rotticus”) have returned from their honeymoon in Venice. “There was water all over the streets.” Oh, Atticus, you joker. Concern: Lord Sinderby has brought his own butler, Stowell, along, and not only does he seem to have very strong feelings about whether tea is taken in the library or ante-library, but he looks down on Tom’s humble beginnings and refuses to serve him. More than that, he demotes Barrow to footman, a decision he will come to rue.
Before anyone can rue anything, however, there’s some shooting to be done. The party is small, and apparently that’s how Lord Sinderby would like to keep it, at least when it comes to Shrimpy’s attendance. While no one managed to ruin Rose and Atticus’ wedding, the groom’s father still doesn’t approve of his new in-laws and their impending divorce. But would you invite Susan to the castle you spent a fortune to rent out? No. No, you wouldn’t.
Back in London, the emotional pummeling of Anna continues in a really unfortunate manner. While Bates is visiting her in prison, she reveals the secret that is now being used against her as evidence and keeping her from being released on bail. The death of Anna’s father left her and her mother destitute until her stepfather came into the picture, and he was a real bastard. Starting with small touches, the guy worked his way up to out-right molesting her, culminating in Anna pulling a knife on him. The incident never made it onto Anna’s record, since her mother convinced her stepfather not to report it, but now the story is being used as evidence. Bates is unwavering in his faith, however. “I don’t doubt,” he says. “And I don’t doubt that the sun will rise in the east either.” They’re sweet. So sweet that you almost wish the show would stop punishing them already.
I guess Anna and Bates are lucky in a way. Not all married couples can make it work in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Take the Kuragins, for example. Shrimpy goes through all the trouble of locating the princess and returning her to the prince, but what happens once they’re finally reunited after five years? Quite literally the worst house party of all time. She shows up in a brand new dress that Violet bought for her, and she’s all like, “I don’t have any luggage” and “I’ve lost the will to live” and “I still remember that time you tried running away with my husband.” Plenty of attitude, not an ounce of gratitude. And just to cap off a lovely evening, Prince Kuragin, once he’s left alone with Violet, asks her again if she’ll run away with him. No doubt more understanding of why he’d like to leave his wife, the Dowager still refuses, even though her answer makes her sad.
“I will never again receive an immoral proposition from a man,” she tells Isobel. “Was I so wrong to savor it?”
NEXT: Someone gets called a “stupid fool.” But who?!
Between Princess Kuragin and Stowell, the finale had more than enough bad vibes going around, and nothing fixes bad vibes like a good old pranking. That’s what Mary has in mind when she contracts out a scheme to Barrow. She wants to give Stowell a “black mark” for the way he’s been treating Tom, and the set-up is simple enough. Barrow forges a note from Lord Sinderby’s valet to the cook, so that Atticus’ father ends up with a less delicious dinner. How dastardly! And the plan works… too well. Stowell does himself in by contradicting Lord Sinderby with the word “obviously,” but he manages to take Barrow down with him. Sinderby, enraged by Stowell’s manners, calls the scheme’s mastermind a “stupid fool,” which might have been a mistake in hindsight.
Upstairs after dinner, Cora has had enough, and frankly, I have too. Robert has no right to be hiding what ails him, especially so soon after we lost Isis. Secret illness always leads to death on TV, so fess up, Bob. According to a doctor in York—because apparently Dr. Clarkson isn’t good enough anymore—the pain in Robert’s “chest, side, and tummy” may be angina, and it concerns him enough that he feels the need to clear the air with Edith about the child that is obviously hers. At this point all someone needs to do is give Edith a stern look and she’ll fess up to birthing Marigold. That’s what happens when Robert goes to her and her surprisingly long hair. (It takes even less effort from Tom later in the episode.) Robert admits that while the situation isn’t ideal, he’s happy for her.
Man, it really seems like this guy is going to die, huh?
Barrow’s first law of scheming dictates that a prank in motion will stay in motion until it almost ruins an entire family. That being the case, the stupid fool has shifted his devious cross hairs to Lord Sinderby, and he knows just the man to bring him down. When Barrow goes down to see Stowell, the butler, shaken by the tongue lashing at dinner, is ready to do some drinking and some gossiping about his boss and any illegitimate children he might have. The next morning, he asks Barrow for some discretion, saying that he may have said too much. Yeah, no worries, buddy. You’re good.
While the family is off shooting stuff at a castle, there’s still plenty going on at Downton. Carson and Mrs. Hughes have been using the free time to look at properties to buy, but when the butler believes he’s found the perfect one, the plan hits a snag. Mrs. Hughes has been keeping a secret from him. She has no savings, since nearly ever penny she earns goes toward caring for her sister, who suffers from some mental impairment. Since she couldn’t possibly afford to go in on the house with Carson and continue indulging her fantasy, she wishes him the best with his investment and leaves it at that.
NEXT: One shooting scene has me shipping two new couples
This episode had a grand total of three couples that just need to admit they’re in love already, and two of these pairs we’re introduced during the second day of shooting. First, there’s Mary and Henry Talbot, a friend of Atticus’ friend who tags along and takes the newlywed’s spot. The imposition peeves Mary at first, but let’s face it, the guy is really cool. He makes Charles Blake look like Tony Gillingham. And being the cool guy that he is, Talbot uses the classic “Is your husband shooting?” line to check if Mary’s single. (Smooth, dude.) Across the field, Edith is having a lovely chat with an intriguing fellow of her own. Mr. Pelham, not quite as cool as Talbot but nice, is the agent for Brancaster Castle, and the two get along quite well. How well? By the end of the scene, Edith says she’s happy. Edith! Happy!
Decidedly less happy is Isobel. The episode with the Kuragins briefly reunited her with on-the-rocks fiancé Dicky Merton, who is understandably looking for some clarity on the whole “Are we getting married?” issue. Isobel refuses to go through with the wedding if she’s just setting herself up for a life as the wedge between Merton and his horrible sons. Desperate to rectify the situation, Merton gets her to agree to reconsider if the boys change their minds. Unfortunately for Merton, all Larry Grey is good for is a nasty letter to Isobel in which he restates his disapproval of her, which is enough for Isobel to call it quits. Violet, always one to look on the bright side, had this to offer: “I suppose there’s one consolation. Dr. Clarkson will be delighted.”
Man, all this drama is liable to make one thirsty for some restorative broth. That’s Violet’s idea anyway. The Dowager shares the story of her grandmother’s broth, and Denker has to go on the defensive once Spratt essentially challenges her ability to make some. In reality, the maid can’t cook anything that doesn’t put a twisted look on Daisy’s and Mrs. Patmore’s faces, so she enlists the Downton cooks’ help to show up Spratt. The plan goes awry, however, when the butler catches Daisy delivering her broth to Denker. He snags the bottle that Denker hid and pours its contents down the drain, along with the maid’s hopes of impressing Violet. What she didn’t count on, though, was the Dowager also wanting to prove Spratt wrong. “It’s delicious,” she says, lying. “There’s a point, Spratt, when malice ceases to be amusing.” Now, I’m not Dr. Clarkson, but that looks like a sick burn.
If the events of the finale made anything clear about the future of the show, it’s that Downton Abbey will be a less joyful place if Rose does indeed move to New York with Atticus for his new job. At least she was still around to save Lord Sinderby’s butt when the other shoe of Barrow’s scheme fell. That shoe was Diana Clark, the mother of Daniel, Sinderby’s illegitimate son, who arrives after receiving a letter she thinks is from the boy’s father, telling them both to come over. Thinking on her toes, Rose greets Diana as her friend and convinces Mary and Robert to do the same. (Lord Grantham’s “Oh, crikey” was perfect.) Everyone gets out of the situation unscathed, and in the case of Rose, she’s honestly better off than she was before. Sinderby now sees the worth of having someone nice and smart married to his son. Go figure. “You are clever, kind, and resourceful, and I wish to put it on record now that we are lucky to have you in the family,” he tells her. Better late than never, I guess.
The incident didn’t go completely unnoticed, however, as Henry Talbot pretty much figures the whole thing out, impressing Mary in the process. “Naturally, I’m not going to answer any of your questions, but I’m impressed you should ask them,” she says. “Well done.” That would have been a pretty suave note to end their first meeting on, but Henry took the “jump into my sweet ride and drive away” route instead, to great effect. With any luck, we’ll be seeing more of Henry and the criminally underrated Matthew Goode next year. There hasn’t been an announcement about him joining the cast, but I really hope he does. Watching back the shooting scene again, it’s obvious how perfect he and Mary are, but I wonder if his enthusiasm for cars sent up any red flags. We know what happened last time.
I’m sorry, but what the hell is Bates doing? I mean, it’s immediately apparent that he’s going to sacrifice himself to free Anna as soon as he hands his notes for Mr. Carson to Molesley, but how is confessing to a murder he didn’t commit really going to solve the problem here? Yes, it frees Anna, but you know what else would have freed Anna? Proving her innocence. Why isn’t that discussed as an option? We’re going straight to the “confess and flee to Ireland” option? Anyway, his plan works to a point. Anna is released on bail, but not off scot-free yet, since the way she sees it, either she or Bates will be held accountable. Good plan, Bates!
Thankfully, Molesley and Baxter decide to do the sensible thing and prove someone’s innocence by going from pub to pub in York, searching for anyone who might have seen Bates that day. It takes them a while, but they manage to find the pub, since the owner served with Bates in South Africa. Once Murray collects a statement from the bar owner, Bates should be able to come home. What’s more, Anna can stay out of prison for now, since the eyewitness that identified her is questioning his memory. These two updates come rather close together, which I’m hoping is the show saying, “Look, we’re sorry to have put y’all through this, but the end is near.”
NEXT: “Starring Jim Broadbent as Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley”
Christmas brings other good tidings to Downton, as well. The della Francesca sold well enough to allow for a new footman (Andy, the previous episode!), and Robert doesn’t have angina! It’s just an ulcer, which—for the record—is not nothing. The news is not all good, though. Rose and Atticus are indeed leaving for New York in the New Year, around the same time Tom heads for Boston, just to prove that everyone we love is leaving. While potentially losing Lily James to movie superstardom hurts, saying goodbye to Tom is major. We haven’t lost a major character like this since the Great Contractually Obligated Purge of Season Three took Sybil and Matthew from us. The show’s producers won’t confirm one way or another how final these departures are, but it sure felt definitive as Tom, Mary, and Edith stood in the nursery and remembered Sybil.
Downstairs, Violet and Isobel were doing some reflecting of their own, on the men they turned down and the crazy year they had. And as a Christmas gift to us all, the Dowager shares the full story of her relationship with Prince Kuragin. The two had met at the royal wedding and immediately fell in love. Resolving to elope, they set a time and place for their rendezvous, but what’s a good story without some treachery? Violet’s maid ratted the couple out to the Princess, who responded accordingly by ripping the young Dowager out of her carriage. In hindsight though, Princess Kuragin saved Violet “from ruin, from the loss of my children, and from a life in the shadows,” not to mention giving the world the most perfect pitch for a Dowager prequel series I could have ever imagined. Cast Emily Blunt!
Having watched the episode twice, I can’t decide who I’m more embarrassed for: Robert, who gets drunk and turns into Jim Broadbent, or Mary, who I presume forgot the words to “Silent Night” and made up some crazy new lyrics.
Silent night, holy night
Sleeps the world, hid from sight.
Mary and Joseph in stable bare
Watched over child, beloved and fair
Sleep in heavenly rest.
Sleep in heavenly rest.
Not even close, Mary. Thankfully, Bates arrives just in time to distract us from the embarrassment and surprise Anna. Thanks to their odd assortment of legal loopholes, the couple has found a precarious balance of freedom. Does this mean that we can finally do away with this whole ugly affair? While it’s certainly possible that we’ve heard the last of Mr. Green, my interview with producer Gareth Neame makes it sound like we and the Bateses are not quite done yet.
So I’m obviously burying the lead here, probably because I’m still processing the big final twist of the episode. No, I’m not talking about that door that closed in front of Bates and Anna on its own. I’m talking about the engagement of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. It’s certainly not traditional for a couple to jump straight from holding hands at the end of season 4 to buying a house as an engaged couple, but I’m not going to question it. These are two good people, who deserve each other and all of the happiness in the world. One of the great things about Downton is that I don’t feel silly saying that. (Well, not that silly.) How viable are these two as a couple though? Considering how quickly things happened, that remains to be seen. Carson and Hughes have always gotten along and obviously care for each other quite a lot, but their roles in the house have meant that they don’t always see eye to eye. Honestly, I’m too pleased with how this year wrapped up to get into the nitty-gritty of what this means for next season.
So for the next few months, let’s just be happy that no one is in prison and that Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are the cutest couple in northern England until Isobel finally wakes up to what a stone-cold fox Dr. Clarkson is.