‘Downton Abbey’ Season 6 Premiere Review: Blackmail, Sex Talk, and the Working Class Blues
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 6 Premiere:
The final season of Downton Abbey has finally hit U.S. shores, and I think the months of distance between this airing and the initial airing over in the U.K. has shifted my perspective somewhat on this premiere. While it’s true that it’s mostly business as usual, the premiere actually manages to be a bit more exciting than I initially remembered. This, despite the fact that the supersized premiere mostly spends time tying up loose ends from last year so we can move the hell on already. Of course, while the new material for this season is likely to rankle some by sheer virtue of its dry nature, I think there’s enough soap opera drama to keep this premiere from sinking under the weight of its own haughty “bourgeois vs. proletariat” narrative.
On the subject of that class struggle, I find it’s actually more pronounced than I remember it being. Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Violet (Maggie Smith) face existential questions about their own way of life, with Robert wondering if it even makes sense to still have so much staff. Violet resists the notion of change, but the onward creep of time is bringing change of its own, namely the differences in working wages in Great Britain. There’s a fairly pointed talk early on about just how much the servers’ pay has increased, in accordance with the increased demands of running the estate. As a result, this has a trickle-down effect on the downstairs narrative, as the servants learn that there’s a plan in place to reduce the household staff. It’s a surprisingly relevant subplot, in that it echoes the concerns of our own times, in which a good, steady job is hard to come by. In essence, the episode structures itself around the theme of identity, albeit different kinds of identity. For instance, the decline of Robert’s way of living, coupled with its effect on the household servants below, illustrates the disparity between the wealthy and the working class, and how deeply entrenched those identities have become. For the servants, work is mostly all they have, save for people like Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle), or now Carson (Jim Carter) and Hughes (Phyllis Logan). The couples have each other, but the singles among the staff don’t seem to have much else in their lives except for work. By the same token, Robert has been Earl of Grantham for so long, and has been subject to all the responsibility that entails to such a degree, that the end of the grandiose way of living is almost like an indictment of Robert himself. At least, that’s the way Robert seems to be taking it. Sure, he recognizes there’s an element of inevitability to it, but even now, it doesn’t seem like Robert is prepared for modernity. Ultimately, I think it’s brilliantly illustrated, and it’s a conflict that extends to the most tawdry tale of the premiere.
In the most outlandish storyline of the night, Mary (Michelle Dockery) is blackmailed by a chamber maid from the hotel where she and Tony Gillingham had their little “weekend of sin,” as Mary puts it later. The woman wants a thousand pounds, or she’ll go to the papers with the story. The threat itself is as much a threat to Mary’s upper-class species as it is to Mary herself. To have Mary brought low by scandal would essentially reveal to the world that the upper crust, at heart, really isn’t all that different from your run-of-the-mill proletariat, who are every bit as prone to affairs and flights of passion. To our modern sensibilities, the knowledge that the rich and the working class aren’t all that different would be a good thing. But within the context of its own time, a wealthy person like Mary would be made the subject of ridicule for any perceived failing, no matter how much such a failing should, in theory, humanize her to those who know nothing of the wealthy class. I mean, the chamber maid doesn’t know anything about the anguish Mary faced in choosing to let go of Tony, only that she’s another rich girl having a rich girl fling. She declares that Mary’s type is on the way out, while the working class is on the rise, which folds into the narrative concerning the changing of the guard. She also condemns Mary and her kind for their luck, which keeps them from ever having to suffer the way the working class does. But this episode suggests that while there is an element of luck to their continued ascent, the Crawleys are capable of engineering their own success, such as Robert does in getting rid of the blackmailer in the first place. In short, everything is coming up Crawley, and it suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Naturally, this is in no way presented to us as a bad thing, and I don’t see any reason why we should take it as bad that the Crawleys are continuing to hold onto their way of life, even as the rest of the world is changing around them. We’re now in 1925, and it’s clearly evident that the old way can’t continue, at least not in the way it always has.
And yet, the Crawley family is fighting change and forestalling its encroachment with each move. Case in point, Robert is able to outwit the blackmailer by blackmailing her himself with a confession letter, preventing Mary and the Crawley name from falling into ruin. It’s almost kind of stunning just how matter-of-factly the woman is dismissed from the story. And yet, what I love most about the storyline is that Mary is never portrayed as someone who made a mistake. She made a choice, sure, but embarking on that weekend of sin was something necessary to know, for certain, if Tony was the one or not. For Mary, it was something she had to do, otherwise she’d risk either pursuing a marriage that could never work, or, conversely, finding herself haunted by the “what if?” of having let Tony slip through her fingers. Although Mary is regretful at this scandal having come to light, her actions aren’t portrayed as something for which she should have to apologize or defend. She does have a brief spat with Robert over what she was thinking when she decided to run off with Tony. But it’s not even a particularly harsh rebuke, if it can even be called a rebuke at all. So even while the Crawleys resist change in certain areas, they seem to understand modernity in others, with Robert going as far as to say that he can’t really condemn Mary for what she did with Tony, since the Edwardians likely did far worse in their day. But with the threat to the Crawleys’ way of life comes the Crawleys’ usual resiliency to change. In fact, just about everything that could bring the Crawleys down ends up being forestalled. There’s the aforementioned business with the blackmailer, but there’s also an upswing for Edith (Laura Carmichael). Sure, she’s still unable to see Marigold, but at least she’s not making a mess out of the business holdings Gregson left to her. And at least the fact of Marigold’s existence isn’t scandalizing the family. Also, the horrid Mr. Green case is finally over! A woman comes forward to confess that she was the one who pushed the rapist in the path of that trolley, meaning Anna and Bates can finally begin moving on with their lives, at long last. It’s a badly-needed win for characters who, in keeping with the theme of identity, have come to be defined by these ongoing troubles they’ve faced: the Marigold issue for Edith, and the Mr. Green business for Anna and Bates.
Of course, I talk about the Crawleys’ good fortune, but even then, they’re not invincible. For instance, Robert can’t do much to help poor Mr. Mason, who finds himself on the edge of eviction once his landlords sell their property to new owners who are unlikely to keep him on as a tenant. However, you could argue that the Crawleys’ inability to help Mr. Mason is due less to their own shortcomings, and more because of Daisy (Sophie McShera), who manages to blow all the good will Robert had built up with the new landlords by making a big scene at the estate auction, and telling the new owner directly that he’s been “ungrateful” to the Mason family, who’ve sacrificed so much over the generations. Robert is horrified, but ultimately convinces Carson that firing Daisy would be too extreme. Still, she hasn’t exactly helped Mr. Mason’s cause. Again, it’s an illustration of the gap between the wealthy and the working class: despite ostensibly being “on the rise,” workers are still facing tough times, finding themselves at the mercy of the wealthy. Yes, some of it is due to personal circumstances more than their work situation, but the episode is making a point in depicting this struggle. Granted, it’s not all grim and dour, as the show even goes as far as to take a comedic tone in some of the situations. For instance, when Violet hears that Denker has been teasing Spratt about the possible firings that will take place, she decides to get back at her lady’s maid by making her think it’s her own head on the chopping block, not Spratt’s. It’s a scene that allows Maggie Smith to indulge in the Dowager Countess’s sense of mischief, and her sense of justice, since Violet is essentially putting Denker back in her place, despite admitting to Isobel (Penelope Wilton) that she has no intention of actually firing anybody. However, you could make the argument that this is another instance of the show illustrating distance between the wealthy and the working class, not only in social station, but in attitude as well. Say what you will about Denker, but it can come across as cruel for Violet to toy with someone who literally is in fear of losing her career. Sure, she’s not going to, but Denker doesn’t know that, and Violet doesn’t understand that fear. And she never will.
Naturally, this is all fascinating stuff, yet my favorite story of the night centered on Hughes and Carson. In short, Hughes hasn’t been with a man in so long that she’s worried she’ll disappoint Carson if she’s asked to perform her “wifely duties”. So she has Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) serve as the go-between, to find out what, exactly, Carson expects out of this marriage, and whether he might be open to living as good friends. It’s a pretty frank sex talk, and compelling throughout. And it goes without saying that the acting here is superb, particularly from Nicol, who adds a comedic edge to Mrs. Patmore’s flustered discomfort over broaching this subject with Carson at all. Her performance never robs the material of its gravity though, which is a credit to her talents. Similarly, I’d argue this is some of Jim Carter’s best work, particularly when he finally understands what Mrs. Patmore is asking him. It’s the type of subtle physical comedy that this show does really well, but all too rarely. And those moments of lighthearted comedy made the poignant moments all the more touching. I got goosebumps when Carson explained to Mrs. Patmore that he loves Hughes, and wants nothing less than a full marriage with her, with all that a marriage entails. Granted, I can’t say I was rooting for Carson and Hughes to get together for all these seasons. I would have been fine with them remaining good friends, whose relationship is an anchor for the series. But I have absolutely no problem with that relationship expanding into the romantic domain. In fact, when the proposal came last season, I was surprised by how utterly joyful it made me. These two characters have a quality that inspires us to root for them, and it’s a relationship that has long been among the show’s best pairings, at least platonically. So I’m glad the chemistry has carried over into the romantic sphere. Carson, for his part, dejectedly expects that Hughes will call off the engagement. However, the opposite happens. She explains that she wants a full marriage too, but was afraid she’d let Carson down, and that she wouldn’t measure up to his expectations. Carson essentially puts those fear to rest with one of the most touching moments in the history of the series, as Carson and Hughes share their first kiss. It’s just so brilliantly performed, as the kiss itself is exactly the kind of kiss you’d expect between two people who haven’t kissed anyone in ages. It was a great acting choice by Carter and Logan, who’ve made this emotional bond between Carson and Hughes one of the highlights of Downton Abbey over the years. And that second kiss on the forehead somehow managed to be even more tender and heartstring-tugging than the first. These two are just fantastic.
This series premiere was among the best Downton Abbey has ever done, in my opinion. Old stories were put out to pasture, while the way is cleared for new stories to take hold in the home stretch of what’s been one of the best period dramas in recent memory.
But what did you think of the final season premiere of Downton Abbey? Sound off in the comments!