Now that we're truly in the final stretch, maybe I'm feeling more generous toward Downton Abbey than usual. But I thought this week's episode is as solid as anything since season one, when the series was at its sharply crafted best.
The seventh hour of Downton's final season is filled with the stuff of, to borrow Mrs. Hughes's closing words, "just life." There are wedding invitations and marriage proposals, new career opportunities and beloved jobs that seem to be slipping away, unexpected deaths and what Miss Baxter refers to as "new life coming." Even though there's a sad event at the center of this episode — the death of Charlie Rogers in a car crash that, for Mary, harks back to the loss of Matthew — there is an undercurrent of joy, too, both within the narrative itself and for the viewers who watch it all unfold.
I love how the episode toggles between the zippy scenes at the Brooklands race track and the sleepier serenity of the picnic back at Downton, where things are less exciting but also less dangerous. (The closest thing to danger is confessing that you can't read, a revelation that actually turns out better for Andrew than it did for Thomas.)
I love everything about the Dowager Countess's insistence on meeting with Amelia Cruikshank, as well as the ensuing Jane Austen–esque encounter, which, like much of this episode, is a treasure trove of Maggie Smith saying deliciously acidic things. (Example: Cruikshank suggests that the Dowager should leave because if she doesn't, the two might feel awkward when they next meet, which they "are bound to do." "I think not, Miss Cruikshank," Violet counters. "Not if I see you first." That's what we call a Dame Maggie mic drop.)
I rather enjoyed Mrs. Hughes's hand-injury prank on Carson, which forces him to see that it's damn hard — especially in the early 20th century when the ovens are so very, verrry tiny — to cook a full meal for two. The whole experience raises a good question: How in the world did Carson survive all those years when he was single? The answer: He lived at Downton and even though he worked downstairs, he could still take for granted the lodging and food. Estate life shelters everyone from certain aspects of real life, not just the aristocrats.
And of course, as a human being with a beating heart and an affection for cuddly things, I adored the arrival of Tiaa, the new Downton dog, a gift given to Robert by the Dowager Countess. I mean, did you see Robert's face when he first lays eyes on that little lab?
And when he first holds her?
Lord Grantham was not as rapturous after the births of his own daughters as he was to behold that glorious puppy, named after an Egyptian wife and mother of kings. (It's notable that Robert seems to be the only person who knows the history of the Egyptian royals, who — ahem — died out long ago.) "He does love his dogs," Mrs. Hughes observes. He sure does, Mrs. Hughes. He sure does.
With just two episodes left, the push to resolve these characters' story lines — and the push to make those resolutions feel like full-circle moments for the show — is becoming more urgent. Everything is getting a bit rushed, yet I'm inclined to forgive some of that pacing. When Mary and the rest of the Crawley contingent goes to Brooklands to watch Henry race, you just know something bad is going to happen. The crash isn't a surprise, nor is it a surprise to realize that it's Charlie, not Henry, whose life is lost. But the drama of the moment works because of the way Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode so effectively convey their personal shock in the immediate aftermath. Given Mary's history, they both immediately understand the shockwaves of this event.
Henry, sensing that the crash triggered flashbacks to her late husband's demise, tries to pull Mary closer, partly because he loves her and partly to reassure himself that she won't freak out and leave him. Mary, in turn, does exactly that. She breaks up with him … on the phone … on the same day his best friend died. Way harsh, Tai.
Because Downton covers long periods of time in such a small number of episodes, the Mary/Henry relationship has gotten intense pretty quickly. But Julian Fellowes needed that relationship to amp up before it hit the skids — and then, presumably, get back on track — in order to show the audience that Mary has been forced to emotionally wrestle with the death of Matthew, the only man who ever thawed her heart, and has found someone new who can similarly break through her chill.
Obviously, there's no race between Mary and Edith to see who can get married first — oh wait, who am I kidding? Everything between Mary and Edith is a race. And it looks like Edith, who met Bertie at practically the same moment Mary met Henry, is the winner this time. She gets a real, for-true proposal. Some may feel Edith got shortchanged — her engagement wasn't quite as Disney Princesses on Ice as the one Mary got from Matthew — but the moment feels right for the character. It's heartfelt, intimate, practical, and deliberately vague about Edith's connection to Marigold. I also like the fact that the proposal has a touch of Carson in it, too. "You're not offended?" Bertie asks, echoing the same words the butler spoke when he asked Mrs. Hughes for her hand.
Bertie still doesn't know Edith has a daughter, even though her request to have the family ward live with them should send up TONS of red flags, and his ignorance creates the perfect scenario for Mary to drop a "Marigold-is-Edith's-daughter" bomb on Bertie. That would be the ultimate revenge for Edith's letter to the Turkish Embassy exposing the Mary/Pamuk affair back in season one, and could put an end to her sister's marriage prospects, which would seem awfully cruel. But if Mary is the sort of person who can dump a grieving Matthew Goode, she is capable of anything.
There's also someone else who is capable of anything, albeit in a different way, and his name is Joseph Molesley, Butler Genius. (Oh my God, why isn't there a Downton spin-off called Joseph Molesley, Butler Genius?) Over the years, Molesley has been the butt of many jokes due to his inability to hold his liquor and the fact that he talks a LOT of smack about cricket despite having zero cricket skills. But in recent seasons, his intelligence has radiated outward and it's now apparent to everyone that he's got more to offer the world. When he find out he passed his test and has the brains of a Cambridge and Oxford man combined — or, if you prefer the American version of that analogy, he's wicked smahtah than Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting — his choked-up response is really lovely. "I never think I deserve anything," he tells Daisy, summing up the mindset of everyone who works in the basement. "Perhaps I've been wrong all along." (Speaking of Daisy, the moment when Patmore tells her that Mr. Mason is her father and Patmore is essentially her mom … yeah, that's a tear-wiper too. And speaking further of Mr. Molesley: His departure to work at the school, coupled with the revelation that Thomas has been tutoring Andrew, should be enough to save Thomas's job. Right? Riiight?)
As much as I'd like to spend the rest of this recap attempting to determine why Patmore is being stalked by some dude with a notebook, it's more crucial that we delve into the Dowager Countess story line, which echoes the sounds of Downtons past. From the earliest moments of this series, Violet has been the kind of person who sticks her nose in other people's business. Now she's doing it to help Isobel, her off-and-on nemesis who is, more often than not, a friend. The Dowager not only deduces that Miss Cruikshank, awful fiancée of the even more loathsome Larry Grey, is only trying to convince Isobel to marry Lord Merton so that she (and Larry) won't have to take care of the man in his old age, she further advises Isobel that this might not be a bad thing. If Isobel marries Merton, she's practically guaranteed no contact with his son since Larry's new wife won't want anything to do with them. So Cruikshank's vileness and overall lack of moral character is a win-win for everyone! It really is true: Cruikshank = tough nut. But the Dowager Countess = tough nutcracker.
It's also notable that Violet goes on a cruise aboard the SS Paris because she wants a vacation that will "make her eager to come home." (She follows that with another beauty of a Dowager zinger: "A month among the French should do it.") Downton Abbey began with the sinking of the Titanic, which meant the loss of cousin Patrick, the family heir. Will something bad happen to Violet on this trip? Will we never see her again? Is that why Julian Fellowes made the Dowager bon-mot-per-minute ratio so high in this episode? I hope not, but the dog present feels an awful lot like a farewell gift. Perhaps even more significant: When Violet says, regarding her daughter-in-law, "I'm yesterday, she's tomorrow."
All I know is that, for the first time in a long while, an episode of Downton Abbey has made me genuinely sad about saying good-bye, both to the Dowager Countess and to all of this show's yesterdays.