Storylines exploded thick and fast in the first episode of the shows final seasonfrom blackmail to warring grande dames, and a glimmer of happiness for Mr. and Mrs. Bates.
The somnambulance of Season 5when plots and characters aimlessly meanderedis over. The final season of Downton Abbey began with the galloping hooves of horses and yapping of hounds massing for a days hunting.
It was an apposite opening scene: the pace in this opening episode was fastnot crazy-fast, but fast-precisewith Downtons writer-creator Julian Fellowes at his best. Drama and comedy, the cheesy and the heartfelt, all melded perfectly, and, gosh, quickly.
Yes, Downton, the gorgeous English country house with its warrenously plotted world of masters, mistresses and servants, is in peril again. When has it ever been not?
In a mirror of modern times, the talk was of cutting back, of falling revenues, and a necessity of tightening belts and a sense that the role and nature of being waited upon was becoming defunct.
This being Downton, the seriousness of that, and the historical references to the Wages Bill and the like, was undercut by the deftly written humor of the Countess Dowagers lady-maid (Denker, played by Sue Johnston) stirring the pot among the servants about who might get the chop.
Fellowes runs a strict moral universe, so her attempts to frighten both the main house under-stairs staff and her nemesis, the Countess Dowagers butler Spratt (Jeremy Swiftbrilliantly snarky, smarmy, and bumbling), backfired, with Violet Crawley, the Countess Dowager (Maggie Smith, on as-per great, withering form) intimating, falsely, that Denker herself might get the bullet.
Violet said she did so because she liked to rule by fear, and this was apparent in another subplot, in which she, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), and the previously storyline-free listless Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) become involved in a battle royale for control of the local hospitalbasically, should it run itself or be run by a larger health authority.
Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground? the Countess Dowager asked Isobel, that magnificent lip curl dialed to the max.
As this rumbled on, and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) wondered how to keep the estate going, his daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) threw light shade in each others direction as their own lives progressed.
Mary started by almost being blackmailed by a former chambermaid who knows she had illicit nooky with Lord Gillingham in Liverpool.
This proto-villain, Rita Bevan, brought with heras the bolshier working-class characters in Downton Abbey sometimes doan element of class warfare, which Fellowes is very rum about. Eventually, and completely implausibly, Bevan was despatched with 50 pounds and a flea in her ear by Lord Grantham.
Its the kind of Downton plot, which rumbles baroquely into life, thendoes Fellowes just get bored writing, one wonders?fizzles to nothing.
The conclusion for Lord Grantham watching Marys indecisive handling of this situation wasequally bafflinglythat she would make an excellent steward of Downton, so Mary will now help run the houses affairs. You sense at moments like this Fellowes looking at his computer screen, and going, Fuck it, if they say it quick enough and with a smile, and we put some orchestral music in, no-one will question it. Quite right, were busted.
However, moments in this hokum-y plot also showed those crystallizing moments of Downton at its best and sweetestsuch as Mary quietly wondering aloud to Carson (Jim Carter) what could she do that he would ever condemn her for.
There is something eternally heart-tugging about these moments between her, the lady, and him, the servant and second father who has watched her grow uputterly manipulative to script and watch, utterly winning every time.
Carters ability to switch between the gruff master of downstairs, snapping at the servants to do their work, and then bumbling in matters more personal was itself beautifully caught in the mini-tale of how he and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, and Mrs H.s first name is Elsie, we found out) may be full husband and wife.
The two most polite and restrained servants are getting together, but she didnt know if he expected her to have sex. How would they be intimate with each other, she worried to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol).
All of this was played out in period language, and with all the discomfort of not just all three personalities, but the mores of the time.
It led to Mrs. Hughes enlisting Mrs. Patmore to ask Mr. Carson what he expected, andafter speaking at cross purposesa wonderful scene where Mr. Carter not only expressed he hoped they would have a full marriage, but also the depth of his love for Mrs. Hughes. This both moving and funny dance around sexual politesse was played to perfection by all three actors.
If you hadnt cried at Mr. Carsons cutely growled I love her, I am tickled by her, I am bursting with pride that she would be my wife declaration of love for Mrs. Hughes to Mrs. Patmore, the travails of Mr. and Mrs. Bates (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt) would have had you reaching for both a headache tablet and another box of tissues.
After what seems like two lifetimes of them swapping the courtroom dock and jail cell with each other over murders neither committed but both were accused of, it was left to Mrs. Bates to be finally exonerated for pushing her rapist, Mr. Green, under a bus.
In another lightning piece of plotting which made little sense (though Downton fans know to shrug at the shows strange stitching), it turned out another woman did it, just came forward, and apologized, and, yep, that was that.
For something that felt like it had been going on since the late Edwardian era, it was over in five seconds.
But this is Mr. and Mrs. Bates, the most miserable, troubled couple in the world. On a sunny day, theyd travel thousands of miles to find a cloud to sit under.
And so, even before the policeman had delivered the nominally good news that for once neither of them was under suspicion of murder, unhappiness was theirs again: Mrs. Bates thought she was pregnant, but she wasnt, and this wasnt the first time she thought she was pregnant but wasnt, andshe weptMr. Bates, no matter how much he tells her that he loves her and it doesnt matter, it really does, because she cant give him what he wants. A baby.
Give us all strength. Basically, fellow fans: There may not be another murder charge (yet), but Fellowes has found another agonizing, long-term poison for Mr. and Mrs. Bates tortured relationship.
Indeed, the only people happy about Mrs. Bates freedom waswellevery other character; indeed, the occasion demanded one of those rare moments when upstairs visited downstairs to celebrate. A gramophone was even produced so the proles could enjoy some dancing, for goodness sakeand, as Lord Grantham availed himself from some snacks from Mrs. Patmores fridge, one of Carsons raised bushy eyebrows reminded him whose territory he was invading and to be respectful of that.
Of Fellowess two longest-standing outlets for narrative punishment, there was a mixed evening. Kitchen-hand Daisy (Sophie McShera), standing up for her dead loved ones dads right to tenant his farm (yes, deep breaths required again), led her to confront the new owner of his farm.
For some reason her verbal attack was considered potential grounds for sacking Daisy, and no-onepublicly or privatelystood up for her, or even congratulated her bravery. Has anyone else got a crush on Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), the goodly tenant farmer in question? Just me? OK.
Fellowess other consistent outlet for sadism had a worrying perk in her step. Lady Edith has become a media magnate, and is mulling a move to London. There she could swan among the Bloomsbury set, and no-one would question who Marigold, her secret daughter being passed off as an orphan, wasbecause, erm (*Fellowes types quickly*) London is so big.
This was hilarious, not least because Lady Edith is very rich and moving in high society, and people would absolutely ask who the young child she was parenting was.
So, both Lady Mary and Lady Edith are now single and powerfuland one senses that formerly evil footman Barrow (Robert James Collier) may also be either looking to spread his wings, or bed the new, hot servant who everyone, rather meanly, keeps trying to warn him away from.
Stolen smiles between them may suggest a frissonwhich also seems to thrum between Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), who helped get Mrs. Bates off the murder charge through some sleuthing and whose good characters were eloquently summarized in thanks by Mr. Bates.
This deliciously fast, pithy, nutty, emotional episode ended with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson in an embrace, following another potential misunderstanding (theres going to be a few of these, borne by their pent-up natures you sense).
She, saying he could have her warts and all, was quoting Oliver Cromwelland that phrase also pretty sums up the necessary acceptance fans take on watching Downton. We accept it for all its flaws, plot leaps, plot holes, and character inconsistencies, because it also has its own beauty and solid emotional heart. Well be with it to the end, however maddening the journey.