‘Dowton Abbey’ Series Premiere Review: Blackmail and Sex Talk Are the Order of the Day!
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Series 6 Premiere:
Downton Abbey is back for its final series, and, surprisingly, it actually feels like it. This is because the story doesn’t spend a whole lot of time hemming and hawing. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking this was the Series 5 finale, since the full 90 minutes is dedicated largely to wrapping up last year’s storylines to clear the way for the home stretch this year. But the new material is fascinating, more so on a thematic level than anything else.
Indeed, a lot of the most interesting stuff about the premiere is in the background. Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Violet (Maggie Smith) are struggling with the question of whether or not their way of life can continue. There’s a broad discussion about how the servers’ wage has increased exponentially as the demands of running an estate have increased, while there is also an ongoing subplot related to the reduction of household staff. People are in fear of losing their jobs, every bit as much as Robert is fearing the death of his way of life. It’s a theme centered on the disparity between the wealthy and the working class, and I think it’s brilliantly illustrated. For instance, we get the conclusion to the Mary/Gillingham business with a storyline that is, thankfully, wrapped up by the end of the premiere, as Mary (Michelle Dockery) is blackmailed by a chamber maid from the hotel where she and Tony had their little “weekend of sin,” as Mary puts it later. The woman threatens that Mary’s type is on the way out, while the working class is on the rise, which folds into the theme of change that stirs around these story. 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. For instance, 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 just a little while longer. It’s almost kind of stunning just how matter-of-factly the woman is dismissed from the story, and that type of narrative efficiency has me excited for the season to come. In a previous season, I feel like that blackmail storyline would have lasted half the damn season. But Julian Fellowes appears to be running a far tighter ship this year, in the storytelling department.
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. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is 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 (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) can finally begin moving on with their lives, at long last. Granted, I don’t buy for one second that Anna and Bates won’t continue to be the show’s punching bags, but this was a badly-needed win for the characters, and for the show itself, since we aren’t always given these sorts of moments of true celebration (at least not this early in the season).
But this brings us back to the changing of the guard. The blackmailing chamber maid earlier condemned 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, although 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. That said, I do think this is the beginning of the end for them, although just how that end comes, I can’t be sure. But the house-wide celebration over Anna finally being vindicated feels like the last major victory for the family before things go to pot. Of course, good drama basically demands that bad things will happen, sooner rather than later.
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 proper to new owners who are unlikely to keep him on. 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 given up so much for their land over the generations. Robert is horrified, but ultimately convinces Carson (Jim Carter) 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. Sure, some of it is due to personal circumstances more than their work situation, but the episode is making a point of depicting this struggle. Hell, 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. Perhaps that will be part of the narrative arc of this season, bringing the wealthy to a point where they can understand the fears of the working class, as Violet’s way of life is eroded and rendered obsolete.
Naturally, this is all fascinating stuff, yet my favorite story of the night centered on Hughes (Phyllis Logan) 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. 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, but who doesn’t ever rob the material of its gravity. Similarly, I’d argue this is some of Jim Carter’s best work, particularly when he finally understands what Mrs. Patmore is asking him. 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. That alone was poignant enough to be a highlight for the episode, but its poignancy is magnified by Carson’s dejected attitude afterwards, as though he expects this to mean 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 kiss. 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. I can’t wait to see where this is all heading. But regardless of what’s ahead, I’m glad to have Downton Abbey back, if only for just one more series.
But what did you think of the final series premiere of Downton Abbey? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on what’s to come this series, watch the full Downton Abbey Series 6 trailer here!