Downton Abbey’s return spotlights more than ever the era’s changing social and economic mores, the seismic shift Carson described a full season ago as “a shaking of the ground I stand on.” In the first episode of its sixth and final season, these changes appear as intrusions, with characters finding their way into spaces where they never belonged before. The Crawleys descend below stairs to celebrate Anna’s freedom from suspicion, and after they pop a bottle of champagne, Lord and Lady Grantham excuse themselves from the festivities to poke around the manor kitchen. (“Is this the refrigerator?” Lord Grantham has to ask.) The intimacy of Robert and Cora picking at cold chicken and reminiscing about Robert’s childhood hints at a future when they’ll no longer be so removed from the simple necessities of life.
In a more sinister infiltration, a chambermaid from the Liverpool hotel where Lady Mary spent a week with Lord Gillingham arrives at Downton Abbey to blackmail her. Her appearance as Mary rides to hounds so distracts Her Ladyship that she loses her mount crossing a brook; she’s dragged through the mud before Rita Bevan (Nichola Burley) speaks a word. When they meet on the gravel drive of the manor, Miss Bevan looms large in the frame, crowding out Mary’s smart silhouette. Later, the blackmailer talks her way into Mary’s bedroom to confront her still abed, even taking a bite of toast from her breakfast tray.
“I suppose we’re invisible to people like you,” Miss Bevan jeers, and she’s right. A good domestic was then supposed to be invisible, unremarkable, and above all to know her place. Miss Bevan is invulnerable to those old codes. “Can’t you see that none of that stuff works with me?” she says, rebuffing Mary’s attempts to shame her with “la-di-da gracious great-lady” reprimands. Miss Bevan is a thief, yes, and a blackmailer, and she’s not susceptible to Mary’s imperious scorn.
Robert and Cora chatting in the kitchen is a cozy scene; Miss Bevan in Mary’s bedroom is menacing. But both herald change. The seclusion and security of the nobility is eroding, and even at Downton Abbey, the distinct spaces of upper- and servant-classes are eroding with it.
At the same time, the circumscribed state of the underclass, and their dependence on a crumbling system, is more evident than ever. Anna and Bates embrace over ranks of the Crawleys’ shoes, the manor’s walls closing in around them. With the shadow of Mr. Green’s death no longer darkening their future, they make plans against a backdrop of the bells that summon them night and day. Poor Spratt, who’s always waiting for the anvil to fall on his head, trembles at the prospect of losing his place on Violet Crawley’s already modest staff. Daisy’s outburst at the new owner of Mallerton Hall (another infiltration of space, as servants and tenants wander around the great house they’d previously open to them only at Christmas) not only clinches her father-in-law’s expulsion from his farm but threatens her own position at Downton Abbey.
The Dowager Countess is most resistant to the changes of the age, and most distraught by them. Violet Crawley has long ruled with a gesture or a word, but that easily assumed command is slipping from her grasp a bit more each year. Clashing over the proposed hospital takeover, Isobel Crawley asks Violet, “What matters more, health or power?” Isobel may think it a rhetorical question, but Violet very likely does not.
Maggie Smith delivers one of her finest performances in this episode, starting with Violet’s muted anguish as Robert—her companion and confederate in preserving the dignified graces of the past, whatever the cost—concedes the need to economize, reduce staff, simplify. Later in her chamber, her quiet resignation is more effective, and more affecting, than tears would be. As Violet confides the woes of the manor to Denker, the lady’s maid appears in each wing of the triptych mirror, tacitly reflecting a past in which Violet, then the Lady Grantham, was surrounded by a bevy of staff.
That vulnerability doesn’t dampen Violet’s fire for long. When Denker delights in spreading bad news and toying with other servants’ anxiety, Violet repays Denker’s cruelty in kind. True noblesse oblige should forbid Violet from prolonging Denker’s suffering, but she doles out the comeuppance with such delicious finesse, it’s hard to resent. “Oh, Denker, you are a wonder, I shall miss you,” she murmurs all in one breath, and I howled with laughter. The Dowager Countess is taking her power where she finds it; as she tells Isobel, “Sometimes, it’s good to rule by fear.”
It’s rare for any show to balance sentiment and silliness as deftly as this episode does, and not just in Violet’s story. Mrs. Hughes, still engaged to Carson, confides in Mrs. Patmore (and remember, these women are “Mrs.” in title only, in deference to their rank) her reason for delaying the happy day—“I hadn’t fully considered all the… aspects of marriage”—and commissions her to ask Mr. Carson if he would settle for a marriage of companionship, not passion.
It’s a tricky mission, and the scene is appropriately ticklish. Mrs. Patmore tries and fails to broach the subject; Mr. Carson is all decorous interest. Finally, the penny drops and they both curl up in embarrassment. “That’s it, I think we’ve got there,” Mrs. Patmore blurts out, and indeed they have. Awkwardness blooms into sweetness as Carson describes his feelings for Mrs. Hughes:
“I love her, Mrs Patmore. I am happy and tickled and bursting with pride that she would agree to be my wife, and I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on earth.”
Under the comedy, this conversation is as intimate and as sentimental as Maggie Smith’s scene at her bedroom vanity. The camera shifts and dips like the gaze of a voyeur. The clock ticks away in the background, a reminder of of passing time, especially poignant for Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, who have found love late in life.
Those old days are ticking away, and the old ways are dying off, for good or ill. For good and ill: Robert can romanticize women riding sidesaddle—“so much more graceful”—but Mary reminds him it was also “so much more dangerous.” It’s easy for Robert to admire the grace of riding sidesaddle, when he’ll never have to perform its rigors. And it’s easy enough for him to toast, “British justice! The envy of the world,” when it was Anna, not him, in the shadow of the gallows.
But Lord Grantham can accept, and even master, the nuances of this new world he’s entering unwilling. He takes to heart the advice of Sir John Darnley, who’s auctioning off almost every possession of Mallerton Hall, even the portrait of his grandmother. He commiserates with Carson over further reductions in staff, but also asks, “Who has an underbutler these days?” Miss Bevan doesn’t cower at Mary’s crisp dismissal, but she succumbs to Lord Grantham’s offer of £50 in exchange for her confession as a guarantee against further extortion. And Robert Crawley may bridle at Mary riding astride just as he bridles at her assuming Branson’s duties, but he knows the bravery it takes to outface a blackmailer, and that it means she has the mettle to take over Downton Abbey.
- Another of Mr. Green’s victims is confirmed as his murderer, wrapping up that plot with no pay-off. If this isn’t really the end of the tedious mystery of Mr. Green, Lord Grantham won’t have to worry about reducing staff or maintaining a great house; I’ll burn down Downton Abbey myself.
- Violet: “Ever since you took that position, you talk as if you run the place.” Isobel: “I do run the place!”
- Mary pretends haughty confidence with Miss Bevan, but that fidgeting hand gives her away.
- Violet to Spratt: “If you were talking in Urdu, I couldn’t understand you less.”
- It would be smart to wise up the now-married Lord Gillingham to the existence of Miss Bevan’s note, in case she goes sniffing around him for money.
- “They all want to be rid of me, anyway.” Someone or another has been trying to get rid of Barrow since 1912, so I don’t know that he needs to worry unduly.
- Despite her career, her chic London apartment, and her Bloomsbury acquaintances, Edith ends up an afterthought, existing only to make subtext text: “It’s time to go forward.”
- Welcome back for the final season of Downton Abbey! As always, I’ll be reviewing the series as if it were airing live for the first time. If you discuss events to come in the comments, please include a spoiler warning.