‘Downton Abbey’ Returns at a Brilliant Gallop: S6E1 Recap

Storylines exploded thick and fast in the first episode of the show’s final season—from blackmail to warring grande dames, and a glimmer of happiness for Mr. and Mrs. Bates.

01.04.16 3:15 AM ET

The somnambulance of Season 5—when plots and characters aimlessly meandered—is over. The final season of Downton Abbey began with the galloping hooves of horses and yapping of hounds massing for a day’s hunting. 

It was an apposite opening scene: the pace in this opening episode was fast—not crazy-fast, but fast-precise—with Downton’s writer-creator Julian Fellowes at his best. Drama and comedy, the cheesy and the heartfelt, all melded perfectly, and, gosh, quickly.

Yes, Downton, the gorgeous English country house with its warrenously plotted world of masters, mistresses and servants, is in peril again. When has it ever been not?

In a mirror of modern times, the talk was of cutting back, of falling revenues, and a necessity of tightening belts and a sense that the role and nature of being waited upon was becoming defunct. 

This being Downton, the seriousness of that, and the historical references to the Wages Bill and the like, was undercut by the deftly written humor of the Countess Dowager’s lady-maid (Denker, played by Sue Johnston) stirring the pot among the servants about who might get the chop.

Fellowes runs a strict moral universe, so her attempts to frighten both the main house under-stairs staff and her nemesis, the Countess Dowager’s butler Spratt (Jeremy Swift—brilliantly snarky, smarmy, and bumbling), backfired, with Violet Crawley, the Countess Dowager (Maggie Smith, on as-per great, withering form) intimating, falsely, that Denker herself might get the bullet.

Violet said she did so because she liked to rule by fear, and this was apparent in another subplot, in which she, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), and the previously storyline-free listless Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) become involved in a battle royale for control of the local hospital—basically, should it run itself or be run by a larger health authority.

“Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?” the Countess Dowager asked Isobel, that magnificent lip curl dialed to the max.

As this rumbled on, and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) wondered how to keep the estate going, his daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) threw light shade in each other’s direction as their own lives progressed.

Mary started by almost being blackmailed by a former chambermaid who knows she had illicit nooky with Lord Gillingham in Liverpool.

This proto-villain, Rita Bevan, brought with her—as the bolshier working-class characters in Downton Abbey sometimes do—an element of class warfare, which Fellowes is very rum about. Eventually, and completely implausibly, Bevan was despatched with 50 pounds and a flea in her ear by Lord Grantham.

It’s the kind of Downton plot, which rumbles baroquely into life, then—does Fellowes just get bored writing, one wonders?—fizzles to nothing.

The conclusion for Lord Grantham watching Mary’s indecisive handling of this situation was—equally bafflingly—that she would make an excellent steward of Downton, so Mary will now help run the house’s affairs. You sense at moments like this Fellowes looking at his computer screen, and going, “Fuck it, if they say it quick enough and with a smile, and we put some orchestral music in, no-one will question it.” Quite right, we’re busted.

However, moments in this hokum-y plot also showed those crystallizing moments of Downton at its best and sweetest—such as Mary quietly wondering aloud to Carson (Jim Carter) what could she do that he would ever condemn her for.

There is something eternally heart-tugging about these moments between her, the lady, and him, the servant and second father who has watched her grow up—utterly manipulative to script and watch, utterly winning every time.

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Carter’s ability to switch between the gruff master of downstairs, snapping at the servants to do their work, and then bumbling in matters more personal was itself beautifully caught in the mini-tale of how he and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, and Mrs H.’s first name is Elsie, we found out) may be “full” husband and wife.

The two most polite and restrained servants are getting together, but she didn’t know if he expected her to have sex. How would they be intimate with each other, she worried to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). 

All of this was played out in period language, and with all the discomfort of not just all three personalities, but the mores of the time.

It led to Mrs. Hughes enlisting Mrs. Patmore to ask Mr. Carson what he expected, and—after speaking at cross purposes—a wonderful scene where Mr. Carter not only expressed he hoped they would have a “full” marriage, but also the depth of his love for Mrs. Hughes. This both moving and funny dance around sexual politesse was played to perfection by all three actors.

If you hadn’t cried at Mr. Carson’s cutely growled “I love her, I am tickled by her, I am bursting with pride that she would be my wife” declaration of love for Mrs. Hughes to Mrs. Patmore, the travails of Mr. and Mrs. Bates (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt) would have had you reaching for both a headache tablet and another box of tissues.

After what seems like two lifetimes of them swapping the courtroom dock and jail cell with each other over murders neither committed but both were accused of, it was left to Mrs. Bates to be finally exonerated for pushing her rapist, Mr. Green, under a bus.

In another lightning piece of plotting which made little sense (though Downton fans know to shrug at the show’s strange stitching), it turned out another woman did it, just came forward, and apologized, and, yep, that was that.

For something that felt like it had been going on since the late Edwardian era, it was over in five seconds.

But this is Mr. and Mrs. Bates, the most miserable, troubled couple in the world. On a sunny day, they’d travel thousands of miles to find a cloud to sit under.

And so, even before the policeman had delivered the nominally good news that for once neither of them was under suspicion of murder, unhappiness was theirs again: Mrs. Bates thought she was pregnant, but she wasn’t, and this wasn’t the first time she thought she was pregnant but wasn’t, and—she wept—Mr. Bates, no matter how much he tells her that he loves her and it doesn’t matter, it really does, because she can’t give him what he wants. A baby.

Give us all strength. Basically, fellow fans: There may not be another murder charge (yet), but Fellowes has found another agonizing, long-term poison for Mr. and Mrs. Bates’ tortured relationship.

Indeed, the only people happy about Mrs. Bates’ freedom was—well—every other character; indeed, the occasion demanded one of those rare moments when ‘upstairs’ visited ‘downstairs’ to celebrate. A gramophone was even produced so the proles could enjoy some dancing, for goodness sake—and, as Lord Grantham availed himself from some snacks from Mrs. Patmore’s fridge, one of Carson’s raised bushy eyebrows reminded him whose territory he was invading and to be respectful of that.

Of Fellowes’s two longest-standing outlets for narrative punishment, there was a mixed evening. Kitchen-hand Daisy (Sophie McShera), standing up for her dead loved one’s dad’s right to tenant his farm (yes, deep breaths required again), led her to confront the new owner of his farm.

For some reason her verbal attack was considered potential grounds for sacking Daisy, and no-one—publicly or privately—stood up for her, or even congratulated her bravery. Has anyone else got a crush on Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), the goodly tenant farmer in question? Just me? OK.

Fellowes’s other consistent outlet for sadism had a worrying perk in her step. Lady Edith has become a media magnate, and is mulling a move to London. There she could swan among the Bloomsbury set, and no-one would question who Marigold, her secret daughter being passed off as an orphan, was—because, erm (*Fellowes types quickly*) London is so big.

This was hilarious, not least because Lady Edith is very rich and moving in high society, and people would absolutely ask who the young child she was parenting was. 

So, both Lady Mary and Lady Edith are now single and powerful—and one senses that formerly evil footman Barrow (Robert James Collier) may also be either looking to spread his wings, or bed the new, hot servant who everyone, rather meanly, keeps trying to warn him away from. 

Stolen smiles between them may suggest a frisson—which also seems to thrum between Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), who helped get Mrs. Bates off the murder charge through some sleuthing and whose good characters were eloquently summarized in thanks by Mr. Bates.

This deliciously fast, pithy, nutty, emotional episode ended with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson in an embrace, following another potential misunderstanding (there’s going to be a few of these, borne by their pent-up natures you sense).

She, saying he could have her “warts and all,” was quoting Oliver Cromwell—and that phrase also pretty sums up the necessary acceptance fans take on watching Downton. We accept it for all its flaws, plot leaps, plot holes, and character inconsistencies, because it also has its own beauty and solid emotional heart. We’ll be with it to the end, however maddening the journey.