In a single episode, Mary does both the dumbest and smartest things she could

By Kevin P. Sullivan
February 22, 2016 at 12:06 AM EST
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If the penultimate episode of Downton Abbey made anything clear, it was that none of us were getting out of here with dry eyes.

The loose ends are beginning their inevitable tying up, but that didn’t stop the hour from containing some of the biggest shocks in the series’ history. All around, episode eight of season 6 was one of the finest that Julian Fellowes has put together, setting up the finale to be one of the more satisfying closers for a wildly popular series.

There was just so much going on in this episode, with so many emotions at play and lives at stake, that it was almost too much to handle. Thankfully, Downton has always been good at striking a tonal balance that’s so precise that you wouldn’t be blamed for forgetting that a character who’s been around since the first episode tried to kill himself.

With so much heavy drama, poor old Mrs. Patmore and her recently opened bed and breakfast had to lot of work to do. Remember those nice lodgers — Patmore’s first guests — from the previous episode? Well, it turns out that they weren’t nice lodgers at all. They were adulterous lodgers, and after the local paper catches wind of a lawsuit stemming from the illicit courtship, Mrs. Patmore’s B&B is labeled a house of ill-repute.

Bookings are canceled. One guy even wants compensation because of the association. It is all so funny, and everyone at Downton laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs. Mrs. Patmore’s dream and future livelihood are in jeopardy because of conservative social structures. Hilarious! But since the whole affair tickled him so, Lord Grantham decides that he should probably help the cook out by stopping by for a highly publicized visit, even as Carson vocally objects to the plan, because of course he does.

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Are we really going to have to end the series not liking Carson? Mrs. Hughes might be fine with the old curmudgeon as long as he’s her old curmudgeon, but the guy has really become nastier than he’s ever been in the history of the series. What possible harm could come out of the Crawleys having tea at Mrs. Patmore’s B&B, which was the host of two adulterers that one time? If anything positive comes out of the near tragedy with Barrow, it’s that Carson is at least partially aware that his words and harsh views have an influence on the lives of others and not necessarily a positive one.

Despite Carson’s best efforts to thwart Lord Grantham, who really is a good guy, Mrs. Patmore’s B&B appears to have been saved. And she’s gets a lovely picture with Robert, Cora, and Lady Rosamund.

NEXT: And then things got dark…

There were the happy moments (how cute was Molesley with those school kids?), but Episode 8 was mostly filled with tragedy. As I previously mentioned, Barrow had a near brush with death. His suicide attempt was the culmination of his season-long struggle to find meaning and belonging in a world quickly rendering him obsolete and in a house populated with people, most of whom he’s previously wronged. A tragic end would have been just desserts for a character this frequently antagonistic on most other shows, but Barrow’s arc has been one of the more complex and compelling on the entire series.

Even after turning over a new leaf and attempting some semblance of self-acceptance after those “gay cure” injections last season, the new and improved Barrow was mostly rejected because of his past as a total — if misunderstood — jerk. Facing an imminent removal from the closest thing he’s ever had to a home and without any proper job prospects, he gets desperate.

The fact that Baxter finds him at all is proof that Barrow’s reading of the people around him was off. She would never have saved his life if he hadn’t been someone worth the concern. Barrow is on her mind because she cares for him, and he has his life by the end of the episode to show for it. Combine that with the very cute visit from George and Carson reconsidering alongside Lord Grantham, and there appears to be some hope for Barrow.

One of the ways to tell that Downton is an incredibly well-written show is how naturally it can put two characters that share something unexpected in common in a room at just the right moment for a conversation. We see that here with Mary and Barrow’s talk while he’s on bed rest. Their problems are not dissimilar, in that they cannot stop themselves from being the very worst versions of themselves. Mary has the benefit of seeing where that can lead, though more metaphorically for her.

The stakes are indeed that high in Edith’s and Mary’s separate and shared dramas. The episode brought six years of sibling rivalry to a head, giving us the Edith and Mary showdown that’s been heating up from the very beginning of this story. And as with many conflicts in Downton, it arises out of class.

Bertie Pelham’s cousin, the Marquess of Hexham, has died from malaria while in Tangiers. It’s a terrible tragedy that no one in the Crawley family can feel bad about for that long because Mr. Pelham is the unexpected heir to the unmarried and highly positioned Marquess. The former agent at Brancaster Castle now inherits the estate and the title. “Golly gumdrops, what a turn up!” Lord Grantham says about the guy who died. With a marriage proposal already laid before Edith, Robert can barely contain himself. “If anyone had told me that Mary would hitch up with a mechanic and Edith would marry one of the grandest men in England, I would have knocked them down,” he says.

The only problem is Marigold. Edith has yet to tell Bertie the full story of her “ward’s” parentage, and now that he stands to inherit more than anyone had ever imagined, the concern is that the middle Crawley daughter — even without an illegitimate child — isn’t enough for him. So to tell Bertie or not to tell Bertie? Robert comes done hard on the side of “Don’t screw this up for me — I mean, Edith.” While everyone else more or less agrees that Bertie should know.

His arrival at Downton doesn’t make anything easier. He’s stopped on his way to Tangiers in order to settle things with Edith. He’s very sweet, saying things like “That’s why I need you, to help me live up to my own expectations.” But there’s already talk of his mother, who sounds tough and not exactly the kind of person who would welcome another man’s daughter into her son’s life. The issue is pressed when Bertie asks to be “sent to bed happy,” which means something different where I come from. Edith tries to tell him the truth without telling him the truth. “I’m not as simple as I used to be,” she says. “My life is not as simple.” Once she admits that she loves him, Bertie takes that as a “yes” without giving Edith much of a chance to elaborate.

NEXT: Mary does that thing she really shouldn’t have done

At breakfast the next morning, tensions are high around the house. Henry Talbot, who arrives after a letter from Tom, has left suddenly. The night before, he forced Mary to confront the issue of their obvious love for each other, and she danced around it with her usual routine of bringing up the need to “marry sensibly.” “If you’re trying to get rid of me, I’m going to make this as hard and horrible as I can,” Henry tells her, but she wants him to leave. So he does.

There is never a question of whether Mary is in rough shape the morning that Bertie and Edith enter the dining room engaged, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone expecting what came next. Already having been accused of not being happy whenever Edith is, Mary decides that it’s time to clear the air for her and Bertie about Marigold, and she does it with her signature style, forcing Edith to give up the whole truth.

The reveal is tragic. Bertie flees, saddened most not by the secret but that it appears Edith was trying to trick him. Would she ever have told him? Probably, but she’s correct to point out that it doesn’t matter now that she’ll never get the chance. “I don’t feel like I can spend my life with someone I don’t trust, who didn’t trust me,” he tells her. When Bertie leaves to catch his train, both he and Edith seem to think that it is for good, so all that’s left to do is for everyone to take turns yelling at Mary.

Tom goes first, and boy, is it brutal. The bond that he and Mary have formed in the wake of both Sybil’s and Matthew’s deaths have been so important for each of them that to see Tom take her down like that was difficult to watch, even if he was totally right. She is a coward. “You ruined Edith’s life today,” he says. “How many lives are you going to wreck, just to smother your own misery?”

While Tom went for more of an emotional angle, Edith cut straight to the heart of the matter. “I know you to be a nasty, scheming bitch,” she says. “You’re a bitch.” She is also totally right. Mary is such a fascinating character because she is a bitch. After all of these years, she hasn’t softened, when the trend on generally light-hearted TV series is to smooth the edges of the characters early on and rely on outside conflict to create the story. Not with Mary though. She has stayed consistent throughout, as an extension of the hardship she’s gone through.

The truth comes out when the Dowager Countess arrives back at Downton from her one-episode-long “I’m leaving forever” phase. Mary isn’t rejecting Henry because of his stature, but because she still bears the scars left by Matthew’s death. She can’t be a crash widow again. The revelation is so powerful that it brings out a side of the Dowager that we simply have never seen before. “I believe in rules and traditions and playing our part, but there is something else — I believe in love,” say the old softy. “I mean, brilliant careers, rich lives are seldom led without just an element of love.”

And then before you know it, we have another wedding on our hands, with a very special guest. Edith has come back from London (after finding out that Septimus Spratt was her mystery columnist WHAT?) to see her sister married. The reason for the surprise return is essentially the thesis of the show. Mary may be a bitch, but years from now, after the world has changed even more, the sisters will be the only ones who remember everything that happened in those halls. Every moment that defined their time there is lost and rendered meaningless without people to share them with.

The conversation reminds me of the Lost finale in the way that it handles mortality, suggesting that all of us and our lives are just blips in time that are defined by the people we share them with. Downton has always been preoccupied with modernity and the changing of the times, but at the core of that fear is mortality. A telephone is just a telephone, but it and whatever comes after it will be around long after Lord Grantham or Mary or Cora. The world will continue to evolve and forget; that’s why we need the people who saw us through it all.

Episode Recaps

The war is over, but intrigue, crisis, romance, and change still grip the beloved estate.
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