‘Downton Abbey’ Review: In Which Thomas Targets a Familiar Face (And Mary Gets Courted…Again)
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 6 Episode 4:
Downton Abbey is going back to basics: Daisy is being obnoxious, Thomas is being a villain, and the Crawley sisters are getting courted by eligible bachelors. Hell, we even got the return of a familiar face from the show’s first season! Basically, the nostalgia was strong with this episode, and I think it’s a pretty strong choice for the show to hark back to its first season so strongly. With the final season in full swing, there’s a certain potency to being reminded why this show was so successful in the first place, with plotlines that feel pulled out of the heyday of the show’s run. Was this the greatest episode ever? No. But it was a damn solid brick in the wall for what’s been a fitting farewell season so far.
Most of the night’s interesting stories played upon class distinctions, as Downton Abbey tends to do in its best moments. For instance, the big return from Season 1 is Gwen (Rose Leslie), the former housemaid who left Downton to become a secretary and leave a life of household servitude behind. Here, she returns as the wife of wealthy businessman Mr. Hardy. Upon being welcomed into the Downton estate, no one recognizes her except for Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who makes a big point of revealing her identity to the Crawleys, knowing full well that Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) might not have even taken the meeting with Hardy had they known his wife had once worked under their roof, probably due to the conflict of interest. There’s tremendous tension in this scene, as Gwen seems concerned about her past getting out, while Thomas is primed and ready to reveal the secret at the first opportunity. And, because he’s bitter, he inevitably does, causing embarrassment not just for Gwen, but for the Crawleys as well, who appear to feel a certain amount of discomfort and shame at not having recognized the poor girl. The scene, such as it is, tells us less about the levels of separation between the Crawleys and their servants, and more about Thomas himself. Much of his arc this season has centered on his attempts at finding employment in another household, even worrying here that he’s weeks, if not days, away from being “put out on [his] ear.” And yet, we see that Thomas really has no desire to leave the life of service he’s created for himself. His resentment of Gwen is twofold: he seems to resent that she was able to get away from being a servant, but he also resents his own inability to escape. Instead of manifesting as self-loathing, Thomas lashes out at others for his poor fortune, and looks to bring Gwen back down to his level. Naturally, he knows he can’t succeed in turning her back into a housemaid, but he can at least remind her that she’s not any better than the servants she left behind. It’s a cruel act by Thomas, but not entirely unexpected, as he’s remained one of the most complex characters in the show. If this means the full-time return of evil Thomas, then that can only mean good things for the show and its inherent drama, even if it doesn’t spell anything good for Thomas himself.
The return of Gwen, who touchingly recalls how Lady Sybil helped encourage her to pursue her dreams, is a reminder of what the Crawley family has lost over the years. And she’s not the only reminder. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is a race car driver who is wasting no time in courting Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Yet, while she’s obviously charmed by this dashing rogue, her ambivalence isn’t exactly making this an easy courtship. Talbot’s profession is too stark a reminder of how Matthew died, and if she were to marry Talbot, she’d have to face the terror of losing another husband to a car crash every single time he raced. So while she does invite him to make a pass at her, she makes it clear that she won’t be accepting, even if she’ll enjoy the flirtation very much. In a lot of ways, I like this certainty of character that Mary possesses. She’s a very modern woman, perhaps more so than any other woman who’s ever been on this series. In her position, many would expect her to take a husband and give her children a new father. But her power is such that she can, and does, reject marriage offers left and right. She’s not some woman in need. She’s the agent of the Downton estates, even with Branson (Allen Leech) back in the fold full-time. That’s impressive, considering she’s built her business savvy from the ground up. By the same token, while Edith (Laura Carmichael) inherited the magazine from Gregson, she’s similarly progressive. She accepts that the public won’t accept a female co-editor, so she decides her only solution is to hire a female editor outright, so that both editor and co-editor are female. Both Mary and Edith have gone through considerable changes, not only character but in station, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see them depicted so capably, since there’s far more drama in seeing them strike out on their own and succeed or fail, irrespective of the influences of the men in their lives.
Of course, another thing I’m enjoying about this season is how seamlessly the upstairs and downstairs drama is intermingling, as several of tonight’s stories intersect in interesting ways. For instance, Anna feels a stabbing sensation in her stomach, prompting Mary to spring into action immediately (oh how I adore their friendship and love for one another), getting Branson to drive them into London to see a doctor. They have to do this without allowing Bates (Brendan Coyle) to know the nature of the medical ailment, and without allowing anyone else in the house to worry. Naturally, this doesn’t work, as Bates quickly deduces that Anna is hiding a major medical condition from him. However, we actually get a bit of a happy ending here, as Anna reveals that, for once, it’s good news. She’s pregnant. And while she ended up telling him far sooner than she wanted to (noting that she didn’t want him to worry until she knew whether or not there was something to worry about), there is actually something to celebrate here — she didn’t lose the baby! Well, not yet anyway. Despite her pains, Mary and Branson got Anna to London just in the nick of time, keeping not only the baby alive a while longer, but this storyline as well. And that’s fine by me, since it gives us something to root for (although, by the same token, it gives us something to dread. As much as this storyline seems destined for a happy ending, Anna and Bates have been punching bags pretty much since they got together, so I wouldn’t exactly put it past Julian Fellowes to end this story in tragedy. Or, at the very least, in a bittersweet conclusion).
Another instance of upstairs/downstairs mingling that, surprisingly, worked pretty well, was the issue of whether or not Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) would testify against Peter Coyle, the con man who seduced her into stealing jewelry from her previous employer. Much of the drama here comes down to Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who comes across as the moral center of the storyline. He understands the immense difficulty of what Sgt. Willis (Howard Ward) is asking her to do, but he feels it’s not only a matter of principle, it’s about Baxter reclaiming what Coyle took from her. While Molesley doesn’t believe Baxter when she declares that Coyle ruined her as a person, the point of this is for Baxter to realize this herself. That while she’s been irrevocably changed by Coyle, she hasn’t been ruined. Molesley wants to empower Baxter by allowing her to stop Coyle from scamming any other women, and that’s a powerful enough argument to get Baxter to rethink her position. I haven’t always loved the stuff centering on Baxter, but I think her friendship with Molesley has been one of the most subtly engaging in the series. Cassidy and Doyle simply match well together onscreen, and their characters feel like two halves of a whole that hasn’t been glued together yet.
What I guess I’m saying is, I enjoyed the Baxter/Molesley story far more than I expected to, although I do wonder how this will play out when you consider that Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) knows all about Baxter’s criminal past. What will she think of Baxter’s decision to testify, and potentially reveal that Downton Abbey is employing an ex-con? Maybe it won’t be a factor at all, but given how this season is shaping up, it feels as though the actions of the downstairs employees are affecting the upstairs happenings more than ever before. Case in point, Daisy (Sophie McShera) approaches Branson to make the case for why Mr. Mason should be given the Drewes’ now-vacant farm. In her desperation, the character of Daisy basically becomes insufferable, verbally lashing out at Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and then declaring, after she believes Cora has chosen to give the farm to someone else, that she will finally give the Crawleys a piece of her mind. Naturally, just as she’s about to rip into Cora and Robert for not giving Mr. Mason the respect she feels he’s deserved, the Crawleys inform her that they’ve decided to give the old man the farm after all, inspired by Gwen’s touching words about Sybil’s generosity. Daisy is shocked into silence, her entire worldview turned upside down, as the aristocratic family she was prepared to hate with all her power has showed they actually do care for the plight of the proletariat. It’s a moment of clarity and conflict that was almost worth having to deal with Daisy’s increasingly shrill complaints. Hopefully now, the character can move on already.
All in all, I was impressed with this episode, despite the less-than-engaging subplots. On the one hand, I’m intrigued by the mystery ailment that is plaguing Robert, because it could cause a shakeup in the hierarchy of Downton. It also seemed pretty unlikely that we’d escape the final season without a major death, although I don’t think this mystery illness is meant to indicate that Robert will be that death. Rather, it seems present simply to remind us that death is looming large in the distance, and it might come for someone we’ve known a very long time. However, with the interesting background business with Robert comes the interminable, unbearable business with the hospital. While I love seeing Violet (Maggie Smith) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) bicker back and forth, I’m still struggling to figure out why Julian Fellowes thinks anyone cares about this hospital storyline. Perhaps it’ll tie back into Anna’s pregnancy or Robert’s illness, or perhaps the death of a major character. But for now, it’s easily the most boring, tiresome element of the new season. Here’s hoping this is all going somewhere. But even if it isn’t, this story wasn’t enough to bring down what was, overall, the best episode of the season so far, in my opinion. Downton Abbey is slowly getting back to what made it work in its first season, and I couldn’t be more happy about that, even as we’re gearing up to say goodbye.
But what did you think of Downton Abbey Season 6 Episode 4? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Downton Abbey, check out our review of last week’s emotional wedding episode!