Downton Abbey Premiere Recap: Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex

Downton Abbey

Part 1
Season 6 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Downton Abbey

Part 1
Season 6 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore, Jim Carter as Mr. Carson. Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited

In season after season, Downton Abbey announces that the societal power in England is shifting away from those who were born into money. From the obviously symbolic deaths of Downton heirs James and Patrick Crawley in season one to the many times Robert has nearly frittered away the family fortune since, series creator Julian Fellowes keeps foreshadowing the end of English aristocracy — and the rise of those who toil away downstairs — as frequently and blatantly as Lady Mary rolls her eyes at Lady Edith.

It’s not surprising, then, that in the first episode of Downton’s final season, the effects of that shift are being seen and felt. The members of the working class are fired-up, ready to go, and totally on board with chugging every bottle of Veuve Clicquot in Lord Grantham’s wine cellar. (You know, as long as he’s already paid for it and says it’s okay.) And so, at last, some of the servants aren’t afraid to stick it to the masters. That’s why meek little Daisy Mason doesn’t go to that Mallerton Hall auction and act totally polite about the fact that the estate sale could leave her father-in-law homeless. Aw, hells no. Daisy goes full Erin Brockovich on the new owner and tells him that Mr. Mason deserves some respect, and that he has earned the right to continue being a tenant, and that she will not be SILENCED … at least until that new owner, as well as Lord and Lady Grantham, insist that she shush.

It’s also why Rita Bevan — the former chambermaid from Liverpool’s Grand Hotel who apparently never forgets the face of a wealthy woman (Mary) who takes a man (Tony Gillingham) for a sexual test drive — shows up at Downton and fearlessly attempts to blackmail Mary. This woman has the tenacity of the paperboy from Better Off Dead. (“1,000 pounds! I want my thousand pounds!”) Actually, forget that. She’s more like the Terminator of chambermaids: “I’ll be back,” she promises Mary. Then she keeps coming back, even conning her way into Mary’s bedroom, which is certainly a metaphor for the way working-class reality has crept into the luxe-bubble of the Crawleys’ lives. Just in case you didn’t catch the metaphor, Rita actually says to Mary, “Your lot’s finished. You’re going down and we’re coming up,” which is totally in keeping with Downton Abbey’s tradition of delivering both a scene’s text and its Cliffs Notes simultaneously.

Of course, Rita’s efforts don’t work. Mary doesn’t ultimately care whether everyone knows she did it with Tony Gillingham, but her Papa bails her out anyway, offering Rita a mere 50 pounds and the threat of prosecution if she attempts to expose Mary’s “indiscretion.” (Only the very wealthy know how to counter-blackmail so effectively.)

Alright, so maybe the less fortunate aren’t quite getting what they want and the privileged are still calling most of the shots. (Some of the staff at Downton might even lose their jobs! Well, I don’t know if that’s definitely happening. I heard it from Denker while we were chatting on a Slack channel called “Shit I Heard the Dowager Countess Say.”) With Tom (and Sybbie) now off in Boston, Edith pondering a permanent move to London, and members of the downstairs staff making their own plans for the future, there’s a sense that everyone is ready to move on. Most Downton Abbey viewers probably are, too. It just feels like it’s time.

Is this show still any good at this point? I asked myself that after watching this premiere and immediately realized the question is irrelevant, partly because the series is nearly finished and those of us still riding this horse — not sidesaddle, by the way — will keep doing so until its point-to-point is over. But it’s also irrelevant because Downton Abbey is just … Downton Abbey. It’s wonderfully familiar and totally ridiculous. Sometimes it’s slow as hell, and sometimes it’s so quick to resolve a plot thread that it induces motion sickness. It’s a telenovela dressed up in British early-20th-century period clothing, a costume that guarantees it will always receive Emmy recognition. (In this episode, after Maggie Smith uttered another smashing Dowager Countess classic — “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?” — I’m pretty sure half the Emmy voters went ahead and nominated Downton for best drama.) After five seasons, this show is essentially family, which means we’re well-aware of its flaws and manage to still love it — or at least appreciate it — in spite of them.

To wit: It’s totally obvious that the whole hospital situation has been cooked up to give Isobel and the Dowager Countess something to argue about for the rest of the season; it’s not a story line so much as a bon mot–making machine. But guess what? If it means the Dowager Countess again tells Isobel to “put that in her pipe and smoke it,” I don’t even care.

And clearly, it’s absurd that after two seasons of dragging out the “Who killed Mr. Green?” question, it turns out the shove-murderer was another of Green’s rape victims, a woman who held back her confession long enough to drag this narrative albatross along for more than a season. This unnamed poor woman — who already suffered enough by being assaulted by the President of the Downton Abbey Asshole Butler and Valets Club (VP: Lord Sinderby’s butler; Treasurer: Thomas Barrow) — will go to prison. But hey, at least it’s not Anna and at least we won’t hear about Mr. Green anymore. Uncork the champagne, everyone!

Also, it’s more than a little odd that two of the most beloved couples on the series — Anna and John Bates and the soon-to-be-wed Carson and Mrs. Hughes — are so fundamentally awful at communicating with each other. Because Anna can’t go through an episode without crushingly bad news, she tells John she’s just had a miscarriage, and that she’s miscarried on two previous occasions but didn’t bother to mention it. Here’s an excerpt from their actual conversation:

Anna: I thought I was pregnant. And then this morning — well anyway, now I’m not.

John: You should have told me.

Anna: I didn’t want to get your hopes up.

John: I would have wanted to know.

Anna: It’s also happened twice before.

John: You didn’t tell me then either?

Anna: Well, you looked like you were really busy scowling at Thomas. I didn’t want to bother you.

John: Oh, my darling …

Anna: Also, ten minutes ago, I coughed really hard and I’m pretty sure one of my ovaries flew out of my mouth. I would have said something but it was hard to speak for a few minutes there … [Breaks down in sobs.]

Bless Joanne Froggatt for playing that scene — which may or may not have unfolded exactly as written above — so impeccably. But after lying to Mr. Bates about being raped, my God, shouldn’t Anna have an all-honesty policy with her husband by now?

Then there’s Hughes and Carson, whose chastity is both the most preposterous and totally best thing in this episode. They finally talk about [mouths word silently so no one will hear] … sex. Well, they don’t exactly talk about it so much as discuss it without saying specific sex-words. And they don’t even talk about that initially, because Mrs. Hughes asks Mrs. Patmore to do the speaking for her, which is completely unfair. Does she look like a frolicker? Not surprisingly, she has no idea how to put the words, “Do you want to hit that?” into a sentence, in that order.

So many sweetly pathetic revelations come out of this story line, though: the fact that Mrs. Patmore has never gotten laid (no wonder she yells at Daisy so much); that Mrs. Hughes feels so self-conscious about being intimate; that Carson has no qualms about saying of his fiancée, “In my eyes, she is beautiful”; that they finally kiss in a way that generates enough sparks to … maybe light a very small votive candle, if they’re lucky?

Oh, whatever. It’s still charming because nothing is more adorable than older, repressed British people sharing a closed-mouth smooch. Besides, I’m pretty sure that episode two will open with a shot of Mrs. Hughes and Carson splayed out all over Carson’s desk, with his tiny sherry cups placed in some super-compromising positions. Can you imagine if that happened? Patmore would walk in on them and immediately drop dead of sex-shock, and PBS would lose all of its funding. But man: It would be worth it.

Downton Abbey Recap: Let’s (Not) Talk About Sex