Downton Abbey: Season 6, Episode 1 Recap

Deborah Gilbert | January 3, 2016

Downton Day has arrived! Release the hounds!

As season six begins we are awash in wagging doggie tushes. It’s as if they know how much the audience loves that waggy Labrador opening and want to give us our fill before last orders are called at Pub Downton. It’s interesting to note that Mary rides out with the hunt, but not Edith. Mary is her father’s son.(Though, when she fell off, he wasn’t concerned enough to get down and check on her himself, and take the chance of soiling his splendid crimson and white livery. He left that to a random villager in brown tweed.) Also interesting to note that Granny Violet wasn’t there. My guess is she was, but when she saw Mary riding astride, she fainted into a heap and had to be carried into the library. They were just waiting for everyone to ride out before they revived her. And by the way, I was curious to know if there was any significance in the way everyone was dressed for the hunt, in the colors of the jackets and such, so I looked it up. It turns out there is. In fact, there are pages of rules about what you can wear (and how and when you can wear it) to a fox hunt! Enough that it could give even Alastair Bruce a nervous breakdown – but none of it explained how their top hats stay on while they’re galloping on horseback. That shall remain a mystery for another day, but my theory: Double-stick tape, (which I’m sure was invented in 1924, in Thirsk, for just such a purpose).

All these rules surrounding every little detail, down to the buttons on the livery, and the colors of the fabric, seem hopelessly lost when the fabric of the society they represent, this ordered life, is fraying. It used to be that everyone in the Grantham’s world knew who they were and where they stood. Now you can’t tell warp from weft and it’s all starting to unravel in earnest.

As the hunt stalks the fox, Lady Mary is stalked by a smug chambermaid, and she means to deal with Mary as savagely as those dogs mean to deal with that fox.

Truth or Dare: Dumb Like a Fox (Hunt):

“Your lot’s finished!” How often have we heard this? It’s become a common refrain from the commoners, and seems kind of like a silly schoolyard taunt on its face, but it belies a seething that must have always been there just under the politely ordered surface of this class system, where everyone was held in their places by nothing but common agreement. That thin veneer of obedience is now worn away, exposing the resentment hiding behind a million “yes, m’lady’s. We’ve seen it in subtle changes and interactions over the years, like last season when Mary tried to prevent Detective Vyner from carting Anna away by pulling rank, “I am not Miss. I am Lady Mary Crawley”, which, to her shock, had zero effect. And now this; a pushy woman claiming to be a chambermaid from the hotel where Mary had her Try-Before-You-Buy weekend with Tony the Tiger turns up at Downton threatening to expose her. Turns out what happens in Liverpool doesn’t stay in Liverpool, and Tony’s idea to use their real names wasn’t such a bright one after all. Smug Chambermaid wants £1000 to keep her mouth shut. £1000 in 1925 money is the equivalent of about £54,400 in 2015 money (or $81,125 in American dollars). Quite a packet. But I wonder: Why did she come to Downton? Why Mary? Why not blackmail Tony? This is the third season now that proximity to Tony has caused major headaches for the House of Grantham. I find it suspicious. In fact, if you’ve been reading my blog all along you know that I’ve always found it suspicious the way the fallout from proximity to Lord Tony has always seemed to pass over him and land on Mary and Anna.

The scandal here though, isn’t just the one Miss Smug Chambermaid is threatening to go to the tabloids with, it is the way she, bold as brass, pushes into the Abbey anytime she pleases. It’s the, ‘I can brazenly come waltzing into your home, into your very bedroom; I can even eat your toast off your silver tray if I want to’ attitude. It matters not that Lady Mary’s imperious volume has been turned up to 11; Miss Bevin is the personification of a tide that cannot be stopped. The old rules no longer apply. Thankfully Anna’s legal troubles have taught her how to do the perp walk, and she assists Miss Bevin as she sashays away and out the back door — only for her to return. But for all her big talk, in the end, Miss Bevin was a cheap date. She settled for a mere £50 (£2720 – or $4056 – in 2015 money) thanks to Lord Grantham. Still quite a lot, but a pretty big come down from her original demand. Before she goes, Smug Chambermaid takes a dig, “Aren’t you the lucky one, but then I suppose you always are” before turning on her heel.

Mary might have a different point of view there. She might not think of herself as so lucky. Yes, of course she is on the surface and in many ways; she’s titled, wealthy, pretty, but not lucky, really, in the ways that mean the most to her. As imperious as she is it is easy to forget that, like Edith, she has had her share of heartbreak and disappointment. When we first met her, she seemed to want nothing more than to smash the entail and be the rightful heir to the estate and everything that would come with it. All these years later, after a circuitous path, Downton is essentially hers, but now it’s as much a liability as anything, so it’s a hollow victory (if you can even call it a victory at all). Only a few months ago she had multiple men vying for her attentions, now she sits playing Solitaire. With Tom and Cousin Rose gone, the house is a bit downcast. Despite declaring to Tony that she wouldn’t be tarnished again, Smug Miss Bevin had her so rattled, she was resigned to it. She lives a life that looks so enviable from the outside that bitter, jealous people like Miss Bevin (or Sir Richard) seek to target her just for the twisted sport of it. Where is the luck in that? There is no smooth sailing, not even for Mary. There is always an iceberg, or a sharp turn, in your path. Thankfully she still has the unconditional, warts-and-all love of Carson and Anna.

Hobby Horse:

When we see Thomas’ clip-clop horsey relationship with Little Lord Georgie (in his red velvet jacket), what we also see in this simple act is the young Carson and little Lady Mary. We can picture where their relationship began; we can picture Carson playing the horse and Mary, like little Georgie, commanding, “Faster! Faster!” (Though she probably used a riding crop on him.) She is his daughter in the ways that count most. The big question is what kind of daughter-in-law will she be for Mrs. Hughes? As for Thomas, it seems that everyone downstairs is trying to run interference between Big Gay Thomas and Innocent Andy, and now Thomas’ paranoia is starting to get the better of him once more and he’s coiling back. Then again, if people really are all against you, are you paranoid or just prescient? Is spending hours a day giving piggyback rides to Marigold and Master George a way to inveigle himself with the Crawleys and keep his job safe? What else is he to do? After all, he can’t lock them in a shed… can he? Hmmm…

Rope-a-Dope: The Thrilla in Yorkshire:

Another season of Downton Abbey, another season of Mortal Combat: Violet v. Isobel which, at this point, rivals Jarndyce v Jarndyce for brevity in conflict resolution. In this episode, a proposal from the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital causes Violet to call a meeting of the Harper Valley PTA. Sides are taken, begging the question, would Dr. Clarkson be against this scheme if Lord Merton wasn’t for it? Is this really about the hospital or is it about the Isobel/Clarkson/Merton/Violet love quadrangle? My prediction? In episode two, the fortunes of the cottage hospital will be saved after villagers see Isobel and Violet rumble on the green, and thus Krav Maga is born. A fortune will be made selling lessons. But what about Cora? Violet just dismissed her for the umpteenth time, but this time we can see the wheels turning in Cora’s head as she’s shushed. Suppose she’s tired of staying in her appointed place? Suppose she goes all Daisy on the Dowager? Given that it hasn’t been all that long since Violet conspired to hide Edith’s Marigold predicament from Cora, she would have been wise to give Cora a wide berth – but she just cannot help herself. And like Daisy (and Sprat, come to think of it), Cora can take no more.

In other news…Cousin Oliver Rose checks in. She’s happy in New York with her cake-loving Atticus, no doubt brunching at Barney Greengrass, and maybe even seeing the original production of Shuffle Along on Broadway, the show that brought I’m Just Wild About Harry, sung by her former beau Jack Ross, to Downton. And Branson is doing something with fish either in or out of water, and poor, dear Sybbie is turning into a damn Yankee.

When Push Comes to Shove: Free At Last (Knock Wood, Kina Hora, Pooh-Pooh…):

Anna has a bad case of PMS, bursting into sobs at the drop of a hat. In other words, it’s a typical day in Batesville. She seems to have been vaguely pregnant – was it a miscarriage or was she just late? Hard to tell from her verbal hieroglyphics, but either way, she is upset at the thought of disappointing Mr. Bates. He tries to reassure her and demonstrates his firm grasp of the obvious when he says, “There isn’t couple in the world who’ve had as many worries as we have.” (Ain’t that the truth!) Sounds like he got that line from Lord Grantham.

But what’s this? It’s a funny thing, Sgt Willis returns with news that another woman has come forward to confess to giving Mr. Green the Picadilly Push, and after a wee bit more sturm und drang it is confirmed to Detective Vyner’s satisfaction, and the Bateses are cleared! Hallelujah! Break out the Veuve Clicquot and drumsticks! The dark clouds have lifted, birds sing anew, toilets resume swirling in a counter-clockwise direction; Free at last, free at last…oh god. What did they just do? Did they just say they’re so happy? Out loud? What have I told them about making plans and declarations of happiness? Now what? Typhoons? Bankruptcy? Frogs? Everyone QUICK, throw some salt over your shoulders before something else goes wrong!!! In seven short years the Lindbergh baby will be kidnapped, and even though it hasn’t yet happened, (or the baby yet even been born), Bates is already the prime suspect. I can just feel it. And speaking of going wrong, why doesn’t Anna share her pregnancy issues with Mary? They share everything else. If Mary kept her own reproductive issues secret from Anna it is the only thing she ever has, so Anna should know that Mary had her own problems. If only she’d share this secret with Mary, maybe Mary could steer her in the direction of that London Doctor who helped her conceive George.

I know there are some who are tired of the Bateses tsurises, but they did show us something quite new and lovely in this episode:  In that scene where they walk away from the Abbey at dusk, with the sky still softly lit behind it and the windows glowing, we are treated to a view of Downton we have not seen before. Nice to still see that even after five seasons there are nuances in the old girl still left to explore. Mrs. Hughes, take heart!

Stand By Me: Sale Away:

Robert pours his own drinks, he raids the fridge for leftovers as Cora stands guard, (lest they be caught), yes, this is a new Lord Grantham. He’s even nicer to Edith and cagey enough to extract a blackmail confession from Miss Bevin (the influence of Bates, no doubt). Lord Grantham 2.0 is beginning to become more realistic about money and what he can afford. But even with that, still he is shocked when Mr. Mason turns up with news that Lord Darnley is putting Mallerton Hall on the auction block – and when they make an outing of it, the cold reality truly hits like a ton of bricks. Though why Mary made reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is beyond me. Lord John didn’t look creepy at all. The location used as Mallerton Hall is a manor called Ditchley Park. For centuries, Ditchley Park was a stately home, whose titled family hosted the likes of Queen Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill there, but it had a fate much like the one predicted by Sir John when he said that in twenty years there wouldn’t be a house like theirs around that wasn’t an institution. After the family sold it in 1932, it passed through numerous hands and was finally purchased by a wealthy tobacco family in the early 50’s, who eventually donated it to the Ditchley Foundation formed in 1958.

Miss Daisy, Driving Under the Influence: Norma Rae or Norma Desmond? You Decide:

This was the nuttiest episode of Antiques Roadshow I’ve ever seen! As for Daisy’s display, I blame Miss Bunting for it. It was Miss Bunting who radicalized Daisy. Before she came along, Daisy took most of her advice from a Ouija Board. It is interesting to note that even though she was bold enough to ask to ride in the car to Mallerton Hall, when the Crawleys got out, Daisy just sat there in the front seat, waiting. She is still held in place. Though maybe it was the sitting there, waiting, thinking, that made her go postal once she got inside. And what about poor Mr. Mason (and that gorgeous leaded window in his farm’s kitchen)? What will happen to them? No one can accuse Daisy of trying to inveigle the Hendersons (I wanted to use it in a sentence, Mr. Carson), but Guy Fawkes she is not. Clearly Mr. Carson thinks she’s storing gunpowder in the larder, but thankfully cooler heads prevailed and Daisy lives to fight another day.

Run Silent, Run Deep: Easy come, Easy Go:

Madge, we hardly knew ye. In fact, all we know about Madge is (apparently) she talks a lot off-screen and she has a foot. One hoped the oft referred to but never actually heard from phantom housemaid would make this last season her breakout year. Maybe we’d find out it was she who killed Green. Or maybe she’d jump up on the table in the dining room, in the middle of a dinner party, and deliver a monologue about how the entire house of Crawley is certifiably cuckoo for cocoa puffs before being dragged off by Sgt Willis. Or maybe she’d just get a line. Just one line. But that now seems destined to be a pipe dream. It seems her young man wants her to be free in the evenings, so apparently she’ll just go quietly into that good night – never having said a word. Sigh.

Mourning Glory: Should I Stay or Should I Go?:

Edith is weighing her options. Her vagabond shoes are longing to stray, right to the very heart of it, London, UK. She’s staking her claim on a new life. Back at Downton, rolling her eyes at Mary has become her cardio. She started out envious of Mary, but it’s a funny old life. While Mary was making small talk with toffs in the Yorkshire countryside, Edith was hanging with the Bloomsbury crowd in Editor Charming’s London loft. Now, the life she may make for herself there, with their daughter, isn’t exactly the life she imagined they’d have, but out of the remnants of what he left behind, she is making a life that is her own. Edith’s lifetime of disappointments may have made her better equipped than others in her family to handle the seismic shift that has been rumbling towards Downton for the last ten years or more. And that seismic shift applies not just to the culture, but to the shift in power between sisters as well. There is a confidence in Edith that wasn’t there before. It’s been growing over time. When we first met her, and for some time after, Edith’s life was something that happened to her. Now she takes her fate into her own hands. Edith is not allowing anyone to define her anymore. She is defining herself. We see it even in the small exchanges. Mary’s snipe, “You mean Michael Gregson’s flat?” is answered with a simply considered, “My flat.” She has options. She became an accidental feminist out of a sense of pragmatism more than anything else, but now no one puts Lady Edith in a corner. And on her face there is also a wry smile, rather than a look of concern, when the falls of the Great Houses are discussed. Does she feign nonchalance simply because she really is unconcerned, or is it just to egg on Mary? While she may one day wax nostalgic at the loss of her childhood home, if Downton falls, it is no harm/no foul for her because it was never hers, really. We know she felt she didn’t belong there. Entering the Mallerton Hall auction Edith says, “Sic transit gloria mundi” (a Latin phrase that means ‘Thus passes the glory of the world’ and has also been interpreted as ‘Worldly things are fleeting’) and when Mary asks if she’ll be so philosophical when it’s their turn, she responds with a dismissive, “pfft!” Oh yeah Mary, talk to the hand. One suspects that rather than being upset at Downton’s fall, Edith would sit back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoy it for its entertainment value. If it crumbles it is Mary’s loss.

When Edith mentions her editor problems, Cora questions her on not selling up and taking the money, which brings to mind something Lord Fellowes has mentioned as the difference between British aristocrats and their American counterparts; These aristocratic British families made their money hundreds of years ago, then sold off the businesses and have been living off the proceeds as gentlemen (ie; not working) ever since – which is why they’ve gone broke. Americans never felt the need to distance themselves from the source of their money and have fared better. Edith is following that path.

Funny Valentine: You Are So Beautiful To Me:

It is now six months on from where we left Carson and Mrs. Hughes, Old Booby Carson having just popped the question, and she said yes. Yet they still haven’t sent out any Save the Date cards. Mrs. Hughes is dragging her feet, worried that her figure is less than Greek and that she will be a disappointment to Mr. Carson. But instead of speaking directly to her intended herself, Coach Hughes sends Dr. Ruth Patmore in off the bench to negotiate her prenup and ask about everything you ever wanted to know about…um…you know…but were afraid to ask. Unfortunately, Mrs. Patmore, ill-equipped for the task, quickly resorts to chugging port and looking around like a cat chasing a laser pointer. That’s the last time Mrs. Patmore will express concern for anyone lest she get drafted again into another embarrassing ménage. But in the end, Carson is expert at Charades and figures it out, sort of. He asks Mrs. Patmore to relay his feelings to Mrs. Hughes; that he loves her, that in his eyes she is beautiful, that he wants a real marriage, a true marriage, a mate for his poetic soul. Mrs. Hughes’ fears are allayed and they run towards each other in slow motion. Aside from Elsie Hughes, no one ever thinks to quote Oliver Cromwell when they want to inspire romance, and mores the pity I say (not really, I actually prefer Sinatra.) But Carson’s little speech is the reason why The Lady named him Sexiest Man Alive 1925, and rightly so.

Dowager Countessdown (Violet’s Best Zingers):

  1. If you were talking in Urdu I couldn’t understand you less.
  1. Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.
  1. I believe many people live without butlers, so I’m told.
  1. And may the best man win.
  1. Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?