From the beginning, Downton Abbey has been a series about change. This episode, the first of the final season, leaves us in no doubt about whether that theme will continue.
The time frame has not moved forward very much. We are told that the year is 1925, which is immediately following last year’s Christmas special. Throughout this hour, however, we are both told and shown that change is coming and it is coming quickly.
The stories that were told have all (seriously, all of them) been told before. Fellowes settled on his formula a few years back and he doesn’t stray from it here. Mary is being blackmailed; Edith is dithering about her life; Robert is fussing; Carson is being a stick; Thomas is being nasty; Spratt and Denker are sniping; so are Lady Violet and Isobel. You’ve seen it all before.
What set this episode apart, and what made it so interesting to watch, was the fact that the social lines, those once crystal clear lines of demarcation, are being crossed. Fellowes showed us a fair few instances of lines being crossed and spaces being invaded. It was subtle, but extremely effective.
Miss Bevan, for example. She has no qualms about walking right into the house. She doesn’t hesitate to lie her way into Mary’s bedroom (as upstairs as it is possible to go) where she calmly helps herself to a slice of toast and then throws it on the tray. Remember way back in season one when Daisy was scolded for doing the same thing because she had overslept and had missed her breakfast?
Although I rather liked Miss Bevan’s cheek, the blackmail story left me cold. Mary has been through much worse and, as she herself points out, neither she nor Tony were married at the time. Yes, it would have been unpleasant, but it wouldn’t have been fatal socially.
The best instance of crossing the lines, however, occurred when the entire Crawley family descended into the servant’s quarters to celebrate the end of the Green saga. Again, remember back in the second season when Sybil went down to learn to cook? Carson was shocked beyond measure. Now, everyone seems to accept it. I loved the small scene with Robert and Cora in the kitchen. A real foreshadowing of what will become commonplace in the not too distant future.
Let’s pause for a moment and give thanks that the Green story is over. OK -- enough. Let’s move on. But wait, we need to pause and consider that now Anna is struggling to get pregnant. Of course she is. Fellowes needs to lighten up on Bates and Anna. They’ve been through enough.
One of the best lines in the episode was when Sir John Darnley says to Robert that in twenty years time all of the big houses will be institutions. With the benefit of history, we know he was right. It was moving to see his house and all his possessions up for sale. Again, however, lines were crossed. The tenants and the servants were able to roam all over the house, a place that in the past had only been opened to them at Christmas and then only the Hall.
Daisy went a bit far. I like Daisy when she shows some fire, but she went well and truly over the line here. She’s lucky she still has her job. I’d like to see her take her exams and become one of those who have moved on to better things.
Speaking of better things, the whole Mrs. Hughes/Mrs. Patmore/Carson story made me laugh out loud. The coy way the subject of sex was broached was simply hilarious. I’m afraid I found it funnier than it was meant to be, but the whole situation was impossible to take too seriously,
I must admit that a season long arc of Lady Violet and Isobel at odds over the hospital disappointed me. I loved their BFF aspect last season and was looking forward to seeing more of that. I hope this gets wrapped up quickly so that we can go back to those wonderful scenes of these two women exchanging confidences over endless cups of tea.
The role of women is changing and I like that Fellowes is addressing it through both Crawley daughters. Mary is going to take over Tom’s job as the agent for the estate; Edith is running the publishing company. I like the idea of Edith going to London and moving on with her life. Rosamund is right; she deserves better than a life of Mary sniping at her all the time.
The story that took the prize for irony was that of Denker telling everyone who would listen that staffing was being reduced at the great house. Ladies maids kept their jobs by keeping their mouths shut. The fact that she would not only tell everyone, but crow about the fact that her job was safe was a fascinating insight into this woman’s character. Of course, it did give us the chance to see Lady Violet at her best. “Sometimes it’s best to rule by fear.” Indeed.
This was a good opening episode to the season. Although the stories are not new and the characters are not really growing, it is comforting to spend time with the family and those around them as we begin our final hours with them.
Bits and Bobs:
-- Tom and Rose are gone from the opening credits. I will miss them both.
-- The opening shots of the hunt were right out of season one. However, change has come to that as well. Mary is riding astride, not side saddle.
-- Very sweet moment of Thomas giving George a piggyback ride. I like the idea of this prickly man spending his time playing with the kids.
-- Mrs. Patmore dancing with Sgt. Willis made me smile.
Mrs. Patmore: “Perhaps you can keep the lights off.”
Isobel: “So, you want to protect your power at the expense of the patients. I want to protect the patients as the expense of my power.”
Lady Violet: “And may the best man win.”
Denker: “Oh dear, I do hope I haven’t cast a shadow.”
Mrs. Patmore: “What did you think you were doing, sprinkling sunshine?”
Robert: “I wish you’d stay out of it. Not least because she’s bound to win. Nobody ever stops her.”
Cora: “What you mean is no one has stopped her yet.”
Lady Violet: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”
ChrisB loves all things English, especially period drama.
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