Well, here we are at last. We’ve come to the first episode of the last season of the very best soap opera drama that British television has to offer.
Tom has moved to Boston with Sybbie. Lady Edith is still at sixes and sevens. Lady Mary is the new estate agent and still as cold as an icicle. The Earl is as backward thinking as ever, and Lady Cora has all but disappeared. SPOILER ALERT! Do not continue reading if you have not seen this episode.
1925 marked the fading twilight of a golden era of British country estates – sumptuous, super-sized mansions built on vast lands that required a small village, outlying tenant farms, and an army of workers to maintain. The upper classes of post-war Britain were struggling to pay crippling taxes and the increased salaries of servants, or so we are told. With droves of young labor migrating to cities for better-paying jobs, as shop girls, for example, it was a losing situation. In this final season, viewers will see the continued struggles of the Crawley family to make certain ends meet, even while maintaining a lavish lifestyle.
Enough of preaching, let’s have some fun! Season Six opens just nine days after Season Five’s Christmas special, with a lavish fox hunt not seen since Season One. As Lady Mary, the earl, and invited guests mill around on their horses, male servers hand out morning libations in silver horse head goblets.
Then the hunt begins and they’re off! A woman in a nut-brown outfit glares at Lady Mary on the sidelines. “Who’s that?” asks our heroine, with that upper crust coldness Michelle Dockery pulls off so well.
Carson encourages the female stranger to watch the hunt from a better vantage point. In another season, our favorite butler would have instantly shooed a person “of such unappealing aspect” off the premises. Glimpsing her again as she’s about to cross a creek, Lady Mary falls off her horse despite riding astride like a man. So much for a safer ride, she thinks, as she’s covered in mud.
As she returns to the Abbey, she is in no mood to mince words with the minx who awaits her. Their conversation goes something like this: “Hello, Lady Mary, you don’t know me, but I know you. Remember the Grand Hotel Liverpool? Well, my name is Rita. I was the chambermaid who saw Viscount Gillingham’s naked backside covering your naked front side. I have proof in the form of a torn out page from the front desk register, for which I lost my lousy job. Gimme £1,000 and I’ll slither away quietly, never to darken you door again.”
“You think this is the first time some blood sucking vampire has tried to black mail me? Your cheek astounds me. No! Go away! or I’ll have Carson burn you to ashes with a silver cross.”
Not deterred in the least, the brazen Liverpuddlian makes a second attempt at teasing out Lady Mary’s charitable sensibilities. She bluffs her way past Mrs. Hughes and surprises Mary, who is about to partake of breakfast in her chambers. “I want my money!”she demands. An astonished Lady Mary can’t decide which is worse – a badly feathered nut brown-wren infiltrating her inner sanctum or the fact that the creature bit into her toast. “How dare you!” she hisses. A thin layer of frost instantly spreads towards Rita’s feet. Before she’s turned into a pillar of ice, Anna yanks Rita by the arm and pulls her out of the room.
But the former chambermaid is no missish miss. Having viewed the Abbey inside and out, she sees gold in them thar hills. Rita makes her third direct approach via the front door. As Carson guards her like a Rottweiler with gnashed teeth, Lord Grantham emerges from the library. Rita, who developed her biceps hauling 90 pails of water up and down 6 flights of stairs every day, pushes her way past Carson and into the earl’s library, where she fills the earl in on Mary’s extra-curricular activities.
Mary interrupts them at the conclusion of this revealing tête–à–tête, with the result that everyone’s disappointed: The earl in Tony Gillingham’s namby-pamby seduction, for he has great pride in Mary’s wise decision to sample a potential husband’s potency; Mary in her papa for giving in to blackmail, like the wuss he is; and Rita for receiving only £ 50, when she could have made so much more on her backside for less trouble.
The plot now centers on our favorite new amorous couple, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, who were engaged at the end of last season. Instead of hearing Disney doves cooing in the air and imagining herself in decked out in virginal white, Mrs. Hughes seems strangely reluctant to set a wedding date. The mere thought of Carson seeing her without her corsets in the blinding light of a candle throws her in a tizzy. (Whatever happened to British endurance? Stiff upper lip? Thinking of England during the supreme moment of penetration?) And so Mrs. Hughes consults the nearest marriage counselor at hand – the never married Mrs. Patmore. I give you their brilliant dialogue, almost verbatim. The two women skirt the topic of marital duties in a roundabout way, with many facial expressions and suggestive pauses:
Mrs. P: “So what’s the problem?”
Mrs. H: “I hadn’t fully considered all the aspects of marriage, of what I was getting into…”
Mrs. P:- “I don’t understand …”
Mrs Hughes makes a face.
Mrs. P: “Oh, lord, you mean…”
Mrs. Patmore makes a face.
Both women nod their heads.
Mrs. H: “Yes.”
Mrs. P: “Well there’s nothing so terrible about it is there? So they say… I wouldn’t know, of course.”
Mrs. H: “Mrs. Patmore, look at me! I’m a woman in late middle age… I’m not sure I can let him see me as I am now.”
Mrs. P: “Perhaps you can keep the lights off.”
Mrs. H: “I think we should be clear about what we’re doing.”
Mrs. P: “Or not doing.
Mrs. H: “Yes, thank you Mrs. Patmore.”
Now we enter the realm of pure fantasy, for Mrs. Patmore attempts to discuss the subject with Mr. Hughes, who was also having second thoughts. Thinking of his ample girth, creaky knees, and tendency to huff and puff with any exertion, Carson was wondering if his lady love might not be pleased with his husbandly performance. If he couldn’t get up the nerve to tell her that Elsie was his favorite childhood dairy cow, which is why he wouldn’t call her by her natal name, how could he find the courage to mount his beloved in the marital bed as if he were a man still in his 20’s, nay 30’s, nay 40’s? And so his full attention isn’t quite on Mrs. Patmore when she blurts out, “The terms in which you intend to live.” Do You expect to share your *gulp*…. WAY of life?” Mrs. Patmore rushes out of the room before he can properly answer.
Wanting to get his message to his future bride ASAP, Mr. Carson corrals Mrs. Patmore the first chance he gets and tells her some of the sweetest things any man can tell a woman (albeit the wrong one). “Tell her this, Mrs. Patmore, that in my eyes she is beautiful. I want a real marriage, a true marriage with everything that that involves. I love her, Mrs. Patmore, I am happy and tickled and bursting with pride that she would agree to be my wife.”
At that sweet declaration, Mrs. Patmore almost said “I do.”
Hearing of Mr. Carson’s intentions second-hand, Mrs. Hughes seeks out her portly lothario, “Well, then, Mr. Carson if you want me, you can have me. To quote Oliver Cromwell, warts and all.” Totally besotted with his bride-to-be, Mr. Carson promptly forgets about his lack of physical attributes and looks forward to the CONSUMMATION.
As an aside, Lord Grantham fusses at Lady Cora about the impending marriage, “I don’t have to call her Mrs. Carson, do I? That would be too much.” (The pater familias of Downton Abbey never fails to tickle our funny bone.)
The subtext of Episode One is economizing, which means downsizing the Abbey’s staff, since the wage bill is three times what it was before WWI. All the downstairs folks are on tenterhooks, worried about their future employment. Two kitchen maids have not been replaced and the poor household is down to two footmen, two kitchen maids, and two housemaids (who have already tendered their resignation). As the earl wonders out loud, “Who needs an under butler these days?” Thomas begins to stress major big time, breaking out in zits and hives, and an unexpected dose of niceness. He scrambles to be useful in any way, even taking on the role of horsie during horse play with the kiddies.
Rumors of “workforce imbalance correction” spread throughout the staff. Lady Violet shares too much information with her ladies maid, Denker, telling her, “We’re down to the bare bones. I worry about those who have to go, but remember – no talking!” Meddle stirs the pot, as Lady Violet knows – tell one person a rumor, and the ripple effect will do the trick of spreading the bad news. Thus, Denker, a piece of ladiesmaid work, if ever there was one, hurries to the Abbey to “sympathize” in the servants hall. “It comes down to who is useful and who is ornamental, don’t you agree, Mr. Barrow?” she says slyly.
Thomas gives her the evil eye, as does Mr. Septimus Spratt, Lady Violet’s butler. Denker has made his life a misery with regular spats and innuendos. Sprat’s finally had enough of Denker’s mischief and he approaches Lady Violet, asking her for sufficient warning so he can find other employment when he’s cast out. This little bit of news provides the viewer with a classic Violet moment, when she mischievously tells her lady’s maid in front of Isobel and Spratt,
“I shall miss you.”
Denker turns white. “Lady?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. No, forget I said that. After all, nothing is settled.”
Denker’s eyes go wide. “What’s not settled?”
Lady Violet looks surprised. “I don’t understand. I thought you told Spratt about the staff being cut back. I think it a splendid idea. It shall help with headcount realignment.”
“…but your ladyship surely couldn’t manage without a maid?” she utters in disbelief.
“Mrs. Crawley does, don’t you?” Violet turns to Isobel, who nods.
“…But Mrs. Crawley also manages without a butler, my lady.”
“That is true,” Violet says mildly. “But, I don’t think I can break with tradition to quite that degree. I feel sure that Sprat can wear many a hat.”
By this time, Spratt is doing an Irish jig in the background, although the thought of helping Lady Violet into her corsets gives him pause.
It is evident that while the Crawleys must economize and downsize many aspects of their estate, they are still living a comfortable, if not luxurious lifestyle. Such is not the case for their neighbor, Sir John Darnley (Adrian Lukis, who played Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, 1995). Time are much tougher for him. He must sell his estate, Mallerton, and go through the personal agony of witnessing most of his possessions being sold at auction. The earl and Cora attend the auction, thinking to pick up a bauble or two and prop Sir John up in the process. The auction is a sad reminder of hard times that might come to the Crawleys in due course, should they not modernize.
The new owner, a brutish looking man compared to the blue bloods surrounding him, has given the boot to the tenant farmers. This means that Daisy’s papa-in-law stands to lose his livelihood and that Daisy stands to inherit – nothing. Daisy throws a hissy fit in defense of Mr. Mason in front of her betters, which results in Carson wanting to “trim the staff fat” right then and there. Kind Lady Cora puts the kibosh on that. Wishing to give Daisy a second chance, she tells Carson to make sure there is no repetition of her outburst. Having thought of other ways of “inviting his staff to be successful elsewhere,” Carson reassures the countess that Daisy will be kept on.
“Kind” Lady Cora is not given much to do in Episode One. Neither is Lady Edith, really, although she looks fabulous in 1925 outfits. She struggles to work with her imperious male editor, who resists having a female boss, but she loves her work, nevertheless. So far, I find Edith’s story tepid compared to Mary’s. One thing is for sure, she’s not going to hang around the Abbey much longer being sniped at by her older sister. The Edith of 1925 has too much going for her and I, for one, am rooting for her.
More irritating than interesting is the silly kerfuffle between Lady Violet and Isobel over the fate of the Downton Village Hospital. The Royal Yorkshire County Hospital, a much larger, richer entity, wants to take it over. Violet and Dr. Clarkson are adamantly against the move, while Isobel, Lord Merton, and Cora are supportive. The disagreement seems minor, given that these two alpha women have forged a close and meaningful bond since Matthew’s death, but Violet still finds opportunity to aim a few zingers Isobel’s way. “Does it get cold up there on the moral high ground?” she asks her in frustration. The fight is lackluster, Dr. Clarkson’s jealousy seems petty, and Lord Merton has become a mere ornament.
Finally, we come to Anna and Bates. (Violin music please.) I guess Downton’s producers had yet to figure out by the end of Season 5 that the audience has had enough of this couple’s continual misery. It takes almost the entire episode to learn that someone else, a female, has been arrested in Green’s death. They’ve found a witness. The confession is real. Meh. This story was anticlimactic and useless. Will Bates and Anna finally have a moment of happiness?
Well, that wraps things up for this week. At this point, we’ve seen the introduction of the latest technological advances at the Abbey since 1914 – electricity, phones, toasters and mixers, gramophones, sewing machines, and refrigerators. What’s next? Hair dryers and cars that can speed over 80 m.p.h.!
Taking the five previous seasons into account, I will rate each episode this season to stand on its own. For giving us the sterling story lines about Mary’s blackmailer and Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson’s anxiety about their wedding night, I give this episode four stars. Alas, the Anna/Bates story line, Lady Violet’s and Isobel’s silly disagreement, and Edith’s and Cora’s tepid journeys prevent me from awarding S6, E1 five stars.
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