‘Downton Abbey’ Season 6 Episode 7 Review: Mary Makes Her Choice In a Compelling Hour of TV
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 6 Episode 7:
After last week’s episode left me feeling a bit cold on the direction of the season, Downton Abbey managed to surpass my wildest expectations with an episode that was downright gripping. This is an episode that draws on the past to inform the present, as we get storylines that not only hark back to past relationships and heartbreaks, but also reference past tragedies. In each of these incidents, the histories of the respective characters offer insight into the magnitude of the situations they find themselves in now. Because Edith’s romantic stakes wouldn’t mean as much if we didn’t know how many times she’s suffered through getting her heart broken. And Mary’s concerns over Talbot wouldn’t nearly as justified if not for the tragic end for Matthew.
And let’s start there, because I think it’s the best storyline of the episode, as Mary (Michelle Dockery) makes her choice regarding Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode). Naturally, part of what’s holding Mary back from pursuing a relationship with Talbot is his career as a race car driver. Considering this is how Matthew died back in Season 3, her hesitation is completely understandable. Who wants to risk losing another loved one to the chaos of the open road? Of course, Mary owes it to herself to give this relationship a chance, and she gets encouragement from just about everyone in her family, especially Branson (Allen Leech), who seems REALLY gung-ho about making this love connection happen. And yet, for all the chemistry Mary and Talbot seem to have, their relationship has a constant cloud overhead, as the threat of a sudden, tragic accident is always a possibility. And it’s never more apparent than tonight, as Talbot invites Mary and all the Crawleys to a big race he’s having — a race that Mary can hardly even stomach watching. Hell, she’s having a hard enough time watching Talbot and his best friend/rival driver, Charlie, egg each other on before the race starts. The race is a swirl of foreboding moments, and I thought it was one of the smarter choices of the episode to film this sequence with wild, fast cuts. The sequence, which is among the most exciting since Matthew went to war back in Season 2, is a triumph of frenetic editing, whipping back and forth between the race itself and the Crawleys watching nervously (or, in Branson’s case, rapturously) from the stands. The scene would then cut away to something involving the servants, leaving us in a state of suspense over Talbot, and the increasingly dangerous speeds of the drivers around him. The race is edited in a way that creates dread, so much so that I found it hard to believe something bad would actually happen, since it all felt like an obvious misdirect. But oh, how wrong I was…
The tragedy of this episode occurs on the final lap of the race, as the cars disappear around a corner, we hear a horrific crashing sound, and we witness plumes of smoke rising in the distance. As a terrified Mary and the rest of the Crawley family arrive on the scene, one car has overturned, and it’s engulfed in flames. It’s not Talbot’s, however. It’s the car driven by Charlie, Talbot’s best friend, who has been killed in the accident. In the immediate aftermath, Talbot is left shell-shocked by the entire tragedy while Mary, to her admitted shame, is actually relieved that it wasn’t Talbot who was killed. It’s a harrowing moment, and it had the effect of equally dividing my sympathies between the two affected characters: Talbot has just lost his best friend, and he blames himself for the accident, stating that he pushed Charlie too hard in the spirit of competition. Talbot’s anguish is completely understandable, even if Mary is right in stating that, were the roles reversed, Charlie would be blaming himself just as much. Talbot isn’t at fault, but grief often manifests in ways that demand blame gets placed somewhere. My sympathies were certainly with him — and yet, they were also with Mary, who was placed in an impossible situation, since she now has to make a choice about this relationship at the worst possible time.
The race essentially shocks Mary into the realization that she could never be with Talbot, since she couldn’t stomach one more race like that, much less an entire lifetime of anxiety-inducing races. Yet she still must support Talbot in this difficult time. She’s essentially locked into a relationship she doesn’t want, all out of a sense of decorum and personal sympathy…which is why it’s all the more surprising when Talbot gives her an out. When he calls late in the night, saying he needs to hear Mary’s voice, and adding that he won’t be able to go to sleep until he knows where they stand, Mary is forced to admit she just doesn’t feel this relationship is working out. It’s a real test for Mary, who has to find ways to navigate her complicated feelings, and I think she handled it beautifully. Or at least as beautifully as anyone would have. She states that she doesn’t want Talbot to give up racing (or anything, for that matter) for her, because it would mean he would be changing who he is in order to suit her needs. And, really, that isn’t how a relationship should start out. Letting Talbot down like this shows a tremendous growth from the messy way things ended with Gillingham, as Mary seems to have developed an intuition about gracefully extricating herself from a delicate situation. That said, Talbot is virtually inconsolable, having lost his best friend and the woman he loves in one horrific day. But the narrative doesn’t place Mary in a position to be judged, which is a relief, since I was worried Mary would be painted as the bad guy for simply being honest with ol’ Henry. Still, despite the relatively clean break, it’s a storyline that feels poised to continue, if for no other reason than for how upset Branson seems more upset about the end of the relationship. I mean, seriously, he’s more upset than Mary! Branson grasps her by the hands, and for a brief second, it looks like the moment might turn into something more intimate between the in-laws. But the moment passes, and we’re left with a relationship defined by its arrested development. At this point, any sort of love triangle seems unlikely due to how little time we have left in the series. But seeing Mary and Branson go back-and-forth made for some really compelling TV, particularly since it gave both Dockery and Leech a chance to shine with a big, blustery, emotional argument.
Of course, while Mary’s and Talbot’s troubles anchor the episode, they’re by no means the only problems facing Downton Abbey this week, albeit they’re among the clearly-defined, considering the rest of the episode is a series of loosely connected subplots. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) is still planning on visiting Coyle for closure, while Molesley (Kevin Doyle) successfully passes his exams and earns a job teaching at the local school. Daisy (Sophie McShera) is in the middle of taking her exams, but the main lesson she’s getting is how to share, as Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) gives her a stern talking-to about Mr. Mason, stating that just because the old man is making new friends doesn’t mean he’ll have any less love for her. In one of the saddest moments of the episode, Daisy states, “Doesn’t it?” And just like that, I feel bad for ripping on her for the past several weeks. Daisy has never been the most complex character, but she’s someone who’s never had it particularly easy, considering she’s someone whose own self-esteem issues have made it somewhat difficult for her to rise above her station, whether it’s believing she isn’t a good enough cook, or simply thinking herself dumb. So it’s not surprising to find that she genuinely believes Mr. Mason wouldn’t have time for her anymore if he were to become involved with Mrs. Patmore. It’s a sad realization that Mrs. Patmore is, thankfully, able to turn into a heartwarming one when she insists that Daisy will always have Mr. Mason to depend on as a father figure, and that Daisy will always have her as well. It’s less of a subplot than it is a quick character check-in, but it’s effective in that it comes back to one of Downton’s longest-standing pairings in Daisy and Mrs. Patmore. And any time the show focuses on its originals, and the relationships they’ve forged over decades of service at Downton Abbey, the payoff ends up being pretty solid.
Speaking of Mrs. Patmore, she’s finally opened up the bed and breakfast with her niece, although she’s now being followed by a mysterious man with a notepad and camera, so I doubt everything is going to be going well for her. But how much time do we really have left to tell that story? Introducing these stories so late in the game is part of what made last week so frustrating. Did we really need a cool-down week with no big developments, when we have all these potential plot bombs waiting to go off? For instance, Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) proposes to Edith (Laura Carmichael), but she can’t bring herself to accept right away, stating that she needs time to think about it. Naturally, this would probably be the time for her to tell the truth about Marigold, but she neglects to come clean, instead telling Bertie that one of the conditions of her accepting his proposal is that they get to bring Marigold with them. She goes along with the lie that the girl is her family’s ward, and Bertie quickly agrees to the condition, shrugging it off by assuming they’ll inevitably have children of their own anyway. But it seems the secret is soon to come out, and honestly, I’m not sure how shocking it would really be if it turned out that Bertie has a problem with it. Relative to social mores of the time, it’s something that should give him pause, if not for the scandal of it, than for the simple fact of having been lied to. Then again, how long have Bertie and Edith known each anyway? Is there any real expectation she’d let him in on the Marigold secret so soon? It’s a shame, because even when things are turning out nicely for Edith, she can’t really enjoy it because of any number of clouds hanging over her head at all times.
Among other subplots, Violet (Maggie Smith) decides to get away from Downton for a while by going on a trip to the Mediterranean, shocking her family. Granted, she softens the blow by leaving behind a gift for her son: a new dog! The pup is named Teo, after the wife of Tutankhamun, which keeps with the overall Egyptian naming conventions of the dogs in the Crawley family after Pharaoh and Isis. Violet also leaves a parting gift for Isobel (Penelope Wilton): the encouragement to finally go after Lord Richard “Dickie” Merton once again! Violet apparently has gotten into a row with the miserable Miss Cruikshank, the fiance of Merton’s equally miserable git of a son, Larry. In the process of this confrontation, Violet learns that Larry and Cruikshank want Lord Merton out of their hair. In Violet’s eyes, this means that Isobel’s intercession wouldn’t mean coming between a father and son’s relationship, as she feared, but rather saving a father and son’s relationship by giving them their distance. Or something to that affect. All we know is that Violet is shipping Team IsoDickie (I’m sure somebody will be able to come up with something better). It’s a lovely little story, and Lord knows, Isobel could use a win after losing Matthew and suffering through the abhorrent attitude Larry showed to her last year. Here’s hoping for a happier outcome than we got last season.
Naturally, not all tidings are happy ones. Carson (Jim Carter) is still being a bit of a jerk to Thomas (Rob James-Collier) in pressing the issue of finding a job, even gloating about how happy he’ll be once he knows when and to where Thomas will finally be leaving. This results in Thomas skulking, as everyone else gets to do other things on their free days, whereas he has to go job hunting…well, except for one moment in which he attends a picnic with his fellow servants, along with the headmaster who’s now Molesley’s boss. When Andy reveals to everyone that he can’t read, the headmaster offers to take over as his reading instructor, even telling Thomas (in as polite a manner as possible) that his services will no longer be needed. In essence, Thomas is a man without a home, cast away from a house for which he’d grown to care considerably. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the episode, he admits to Hughes (Phyllis Logan) that he allowed himself to set down roots in Downton, and this is the only place where that’s ever happened. She sympathizes with him, but there really isn’t anything she can do about it, unless she can convince Carson that Thomas is valuable enough to be kept on. And even then, she’d have to condemn another person to joblessness if she’s going to save Thomas’s. Then again, with Molesley leaving, who knows what affect that will have on the staff downsizing plans? With the finale next week, we should get some measure of closure to Thomas’s arc. At least, I would hope so. Because as charming as it is to see Hughes finally turn the tables on Carson by forcing him to cook and clean (so that he might develop a better appreciation for her work around their cottage), it’s not exactly the most riveting drama to witness, this close to the end of the series.
Ultimately, I thought this week’s episode of Downton Abbey was one of the strongest of the season, and next week’s finale looks to be even better. I’m expecting some of the plot threads will be left to linger for the Christmas special to tie up, but as we approach the series finale of Downton Abbey, I find myself hoping these characters get the respective endings they deserve, and that heartbreak and tragedy can take a holiday, albeit not at the expense of good drama. Come to think of it, maybe that’s too big an ask? Especially when you consider how drama and tragedy go hand-in-hand. I suppose we’ll find out next week.
But what did you think of Downton Abbey Season 6 Episode 7? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Downton Abbey, read our review of last week’s divisive episode!