There’s a sentimental sweetness in the first episode of the final season of “Downton Abbey.” The year is 1925 and the main topic finding love. For Series 6, Episode 1, older is definitely wiser but not necessarily better. As we say goodbye to the TV series “Downton Abbey, the Crawleys are saying goodbye to an era.
If you recall, when the series first began, it was in April 1912. Robert (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, and his American-born wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) had three adult daughters: Mary, Edith and Sybil. Robert had saved the estate Downton Abbey, by marrying a wealthy American, but all her money and all of Downton Abbey depended upon a male heir. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), their eldest daughter, had been engaged to her cousin, Patrick, because only a male heir could inherit the title, estate and all the money Cora brought to Downton Abbey. With Robert producing only daughters, Patrick’s father, James Crawley, had been the heir presumptive. Yes, it all seems unfair, but aristocracy is not about justice. It is about birth right and although Queen Elizabeth I and II and Queen Victoria proved themselves worthy monarch on the throne, the concept of the eldest daughter had not trickled down to the rest of the British aristocracy.
Patrick and his father are never seen, but their shadows are felt throughout the first series. The two men die in the sinking of the Titanic and that left the greatest concern for managers of the estate to be its future. That means, finding an appropriate husband for Lady Mary. The new heir presumptive is introduced in the first episode of Series 1, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Matthew is a lawyer from Manchester, the son of the deceased Reginald Crawley and nurse Isobel Crawley.
Money from Matthew’s late fiancée saved Downton Abbey, and her death saved Mary from unrequited love. Mary accepted Matthew’s second proposal and she and Matthew married eight years after he first came to Downton Abbey in May of 1920. They had a son, George, but in a cruel twist of fate, Matthew was killed in an automobile accident soon after his son’s birth in September of 1921. In a parallel of the first series where Mary’s happiness is threatened by her unfortunate dalliance with the Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk, in the first episode of the last season, Lady Mary is threatened by Rita Bevan, a former chambermaid from the Liverpool hotel where she and Lord Gillingham spent a wicked weekend of carnal pleasure in April of 1924 (Series 5, Episode 2).
Things might have been different if Mary had married Lord Gillingham, but she dumped him and he is now married to someone else, Mabel, thanks to help from Charles Blake. If Mary had been sensible, she should have gone for Charles Blake, but alas he does not return to save her here. Rita first appears as Mary and Robert lead a group off on a fox hunt. The upstairs crowd are on horses being served liquid refreshments.
Mary asks Robert, “Who’s that? It’s not one of the farmers’ wives, is it?”
Robert replies, “No, I don’t think so. Do you really like riding like that? When a side-saddle is so much more graceful.”
Mary retorts, ” And so much more dangerous…”
Times have certainly changed and Mary has cut her hair and now rides astride like a man. How else can she prove that she’s a fit heir to the fortunes of Downton?
Carson also see the stranger and tells her, “If you go with the others, they’ll show you where to watch them jump the brook.”
Mary does meet with the determined Rita Bevan and learns Rita wants £1000 to keep silent. Mary sensibly refuses to give in to this blackmailer.
Mary asks, “Who are you?”
Rita replies, “Rita Bevan. Don’t you know me, Lady Mary? Cause I know you.”
Mary continues, “No. I do not know you.”
Rita then smirks and replies, “And I suppose you have forgotten the Grand Hotel in Liverpool, too, m’lady? And your nights there with Viscount Gillingham? I was a chambermaid. But I suppose we’re invisible to people like you.”
Mary isn’t flustered and replies, “This is all nonsense. You’ve no proof.”
Rita doesn’t back down. She has thought this out and sasses back, “Don’t be silly. You don’t know what I’ve got. To start with, I’ve got a page from the register.”
Mary continues to keep her cool, and say, “Then you are a thief.”
Rita is shameless and admits the truth, “Yes, I am a thief, and I want a thousand pounds to keep my mouth shut.” For Americans, that would be $1500. That doesn’t seem like much, but in 2014 that would be $16,300.00 to $285,000.00 according to MeasuringWorth.com.
With that in mind you can understand why Mary replies, “That’s ridiculous.”
Rita won’t be turned down, “We’ll see how ridiculous it is. I’m going now, but I’ll be back.”
Mary replies, “Don’t bother. You’re not the first person who’s tried to blackmail me.”
Rita still doesn’t understand, “Well, I’m glad you know how it works. And as I say, I will be back.”
One wonders how Rita became so confident? Practice? Remember Thomas Barrow and his scheming ways? His attempts at blackmail during season one and even more recently also didn’t turn out so well.
When Rita asks again, swearing that she will never come again for money, Mary replies, “If I wasn’t so disgusted, that would make me laugh.”
Rita is not easily deterred. Despite Mr. Carson trying to bar her from entering while Mary is away, Rita gets a private interview with Robert. He proves himself a worthy opponent by collecting evidence against Rita (a signed statement admitting to blackmail) and gives her only £50.
Robert explains to Mary, “I told her she could either have 50 pounds, on condition of signing, or leave with nothing and be reported to the police.”
Mary inquires, “But how do you know she won’t be back?”
Robert further explains, “I said, if anything were published or if we ever see her face again, I’d use it and she’d be prosecuted.”
Mary can’t help but smile and say, “I’m impressed. My darling Papa transformed into Machiavelli at a touch. Will wonders never cease?”
Robert asks, “Is that a compliment? “
Mary deflects, “You’re still out of pocket, 50 quid. I must repay it.”
Robert tells her, “No need. It was money well spent.” Mary is no longer the easily flustered girl of Series 1.”
While sexual encounters of the past haunt both Mary and Edith, sexual encounters of the future trouble Mrs. Hughes. She and Mr. Carson are engaged but Mrs. Hughes refuses to set a date and we learn why. Mrs. Hughes reveals to Mrs. Patmore that she doesn’t want to appear ridiculous in the eyes of Carson and unlike the upstairs women, she is not going to be the lovely, young, thin fashionable bride.
Hughes explains, “I hadn’t fully considered all the aspects of marriage. Of what I was getting into.”
Mrs. Patmore replies, “I don’t understand. What aspects? You know each other better than most couples at the start. (She understands) Oh, my Lord. You mean?”
Hughes confirms her suspicions, “Yes. That is precisely what I mean.”
Mrs. Patmore attempts to calm her, “Well, there’s nothing so terrible about it, is there? So they say. I wouldn’t know, of course.”
Hughes than reveals the extent of her worries, “Mrs Patmore, look at me. I’m a woman in late middle age.”
Mrs. Patmore: Oh, don’t say ‘late’.
Mrs. Hughes: I was not bad-looking as a girl, if you can believe it.
Mrs. Patmore: Very easily.
Mrs. Hughes: But these days? I’m not sure I can let him see me as I am now.
Mrs. Hughes wonders if Mr. Carson is just looking for companionship of the perpetual friend-zone sort and asks Mrs. Patmore to properly access the situation. That takes two private interviews between Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Carson.
Carson: Tell her this, Mrs Patmore. That, in my eyes, she is beautiful.
Mrs. Patmore: I see.
Carson: You say she asks if I want a ‘full’ marriage and the answer is yes, I do. I want a real marriage, a true marriage, with everything that that involves and I hope I do not ask the indelicate when I send you back to relay this message.
Mrs. Patmore: Don’t worry about me.
Carson: 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.
Mrs. Patmore: Well, you couldn’t make it any clearer. I’ll say that for you.
Carson: And if she feels that she must withdraw so be it. But I could never have lived some pat-a-cake friendship lie.
Mrs. Patmore: No. I didn’t think you would. And for what it’s worth, I wish you the best of luck, Mr Carson.
Carson: Thank you, Mrs Patmore. That is worth a great deal.
If Mrs. Patmore proves herself a good friend to both Carson and Hughes, Mr. Carson proves himself a worthy suitor with lovely words to Mrs. Hughes that could defrost Siberia in mid-winter.That’s true love and let’s hope that the rest of these beloved characters find it as well, including Mrs. Patmore.
The unlucky couple of Anna and Mr. Bates is resolved: Sergeant Willis comes to tell them that a woman has confessed to murdering Green, the man who raped Anna. Anna’s trouble now is her failure to produce little baby Bates. She has twice miscarried and although Bates reassures her that he will love her without children, they both dearly want to have them.
There’s more trouble downstairs and upstairs. Mrs. Patmore has to contend with fangled things like refrigerators and the absence of a kitchen maid, but downstairs the cold chill comes from the death of some grand estates and the high likelihood of staff downsizing.
Robert: Yes, thank you. At least there is something. This is part of a larger conversation, but at some point we need to discuss future staffing requirements at Downton.
Carson: We have cut down quite a bit, my Lord. We’ve only got one hall boy and two housemaids, and as kitchen staff have left, we’ve not replaced them.
Robert: I know, and there’s no need for anything drastic. The estate’s doing well, thanks to Mr Crawley and Mr Branson, but I don’t like to feel out of step with my fellow man.
Carson: As a matter of fact, both the housemaids have handed in their notice. I was going to tell you.
Robert: Oh. Were they unhappy? I hope not.
Carson: No, no, no. One is leaving to get married, which we knew was coming, and Madge has found a job in a shop.
Robert: Which is better than working here?
Carson: She says that her young man wants her to be free in the evenings. I must ask you to remember, my Lord, that there were six footmen when I first came here and five housemaids. Now we’ve got to two of each and no kitchen maids at all. We must run this place as it should be run.
Robert: I’m not asking you to wield a scythe, but, I mean, who has an under-butler these days? If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would. But I can’t, Carson. Nor you, nor I can hold back time.
The staff knows something is afoot. Mrs. Patmore complains about having to make do without a kitchen maid. Violet’s maid, Denker, spreads the bad news and makes the butler, Spratt, wonder if he should be looking for a new position. When Violet gets wind of Denker’s chilling gossip and puts on a little performance while Isobel is visiting. She explains to Isobel, “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.”
Yet it is not only gossip. Another estate, Mallerton Hall, has been sold by Sir John Darnley and the contents, including the silver, are being auctioned off. While this is shocking for the Crawleys, it has a more devastating consequence for the tenant farmers like Mr. Mason, Daisy’s father-in-law. William Mason (Thomas Howes) was the second footman under first footman Thomas Barrow. William died from a war injury sustained as he saved Matthew during Series 2, but married Daisy on his death bed so that she would get any benefits as his widow and also to give his widower father another child to look after him. The Crawleys got to the Mallerton Hall auction, but so does Daisy with her father-in-law Mr. Mason.
Mr. Mason: I wanted to see the house as much as anything. I know this hall from Christmas parties and the like, but I’ve a mind to poke around. That were a wedding present when Sir John got married. A gift from the tenants. I contributed half a crown to it. Had no beer for a week. Shame to see it sold.
Daisy: I don’t think it’s right.
Mr. Mason: That was for Best of Breed at the county fair. Won by a Holstein milker. My dad tended the Holsteins before he took over our farm.
Daisy: It’s as if they were selling your past along with their own.
Mr. Mason: That’s them. That’s the new owners. Mr and Mrs Philip Henderson.
Daisy becomes indignant because neither Darnley nor Henderson seems to understand how their transaction has changed the lives of the little people.
Daisy: A man who sells his wedding presents? Do you know what it meant for a farmer to give half a crown? Or don’t you care?
Robert: Daisy, stop this at once!
Daisy: I’m sorry, m’lord, but no. Mr Mason has given his whole life to this farm, like his father and grandfather before him, but where’s the gratitude?
Cora: Mr Henderson, I’m sure she doesn’t mean to be rude.
Mr. Henderson: You can’t imagine that if I do keep on some of the tenants, her father-in-law would now be among them?
Daisy has endangered her own job, but don’t worry. Things will be smoothed out. The Crawleys are kind and recognize that things are changing and the changes are hard on the people upstairs and downstairs. The old ways are leaving, and Violet isn’t letting them go easily. As with every series, we need a reason for Violet to get indignant so she can launch her zingers. Her opponent will be Isobel as the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital attempts to take over the village hospital. She comes to a board meeting with some information.
Isobel: Well, you seem to have all the facts, when it’s the first time we’ve heard of it.
Violet: What does that matter? The fact is that the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital wants to take over our little hospital, which is outrageous.
Cora: But it’s not as simple as that.
Violet: Why not?
Lord Merton: Because there may be benefits for the village. If we form such a partnership, our patients would have access to more modern equipment, to more advanced treatments.
Isobel: Our fundraising would be more efficient.
Violet: And the price of the fundraising would be to lose all control, and to become the tools of a faceless committee in York.
Isobel: What matters more? Health or power?
Violet: What matters is to have power over the maintenance of our own health.
Lord Merton: Ladies, ladies, please…
Dr. Clarkson: Lady Grantham is right. Our independence is not something we should just abandon without a second thought.
Robert should have been at that meeting, but he hopes that Mary will support his mother.
Robert: I suppose I hope you can support Mama’s efforts to keep control. Better yet, stay out of it entirely.
Cora: I can’t stay out of it, Robert. It’s too important. And your mother, incidentally, is wrong.
Robert: All of which adds up to a very trying spring and summer ahead.
You can be sure that Violet and Isobel will be at war with words, but neither will be vulgar. There are other updates about Lady Rose Aldridge who is now in New York with her Jewish banker husband Atticus. Tom Branson is in Boston with his daughter Sybbie and doing well. Could it be that one or all will return for this last season?
Edith is attempting to navigate the world of publishing which doesn’t easily welcome female bosses. The tenant for Gregson’s old apartment in London has given notice and Edith wonders if London is a better place for her. Both Edith and Mary begin the Series 6 without romantic prospects but very much women working to provide for their respective families although Mary still doesn’t know the truth about Marigold, Edith’s child by the late Michael Gregson.
What do we love about “Downton Abbey”? Is it that the question of sex can be discussed without actually mentioning the word for sex or intercourse? Or the idea that people can have a long and happy marriage like Robert and Cora? Or that two people can find love late in life. As Mr. Carson tells Mrs. Hughes, “I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on Earth.”
Perhaps more than anyone it is Carson who reflects the soul of Downton Abbey. As Mrs. Patmore says to Mrs. Hughes when she describes her delicate conversation with him, “Vulgarity? Mr Carson wouldn’t be vulgar if they put him on a seaside postcard. I’d like to feel a man could speak of me like that at my age. I would. “
“Downton Abbey” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on “Masterpiece” on PBS. After the initial release, each episode is available online at PBS.org.