[Caution: this recap of Downton Abbey contains spoilers!]
The penultimate episode of Downton Abbey has now aired and what a roller coaster it is! Our icy leading lady, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), is at the heart of this one, and her attitudes range from uncertain to cowardly to cruel to vulnerable to playful all in about 90 minutes. She is truly a woman of depth and complexity that’s quite bewildering at times, but what great drama it makes for us!
Among the servants, excitement is still the undercurrent for the most part, though we couldn’t do without a few scandals for long. The good news is that assistant cook Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) has passed ALL her exams! And footman Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), after passing his exams in the last episode, is now a teacher at the village school. His first day is a little rough, but he’s soon won over his students by encouraging them that education is for everyone, not just the upper classes and the good-looking.
But meanwhile, the cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), has run into trouble with her new bed-and-breakfast. Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) arrives one morning to inform her that her recent guests there were carrying on in an adulterous affair, and now the offended spouse in the matter is pressing legal charges to get a divorce! Oh, horror for Mrs. Patmore! Now she’s running “a house of ill repute,” as they say. Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is particularly upset at the idea of involving Downton in scandal, but the family quickly comes to Mrs. Patmore’s aid by having tea at the B&B in order to bring its reputation back up to snuff. Crisis averted.
Another much more serious crisis is also averted concerning under-butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). His isolation and depression have increased, and in a moment of sharp discernment, Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and footman Andy Parker (Michael Fox) interrupt him attempting to commit suicide. He’s cut his wrists and the damage is serious, but they fortunately arrive in time.
On the upstairs front, Mary creates and then works through a few other crises. She’s still rather glum after breaking off her relationship with racecar driver Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), as she clearly loves him but won’t admit it to herself. And now she comes completely unglued when everyone hears that Lady Edith Crawley’s (Laura Carmichael) beau, Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Patton), has inherited the title of Marquess of Hexham upon the sudden death of his third cousin and employer at Brancaster Castle. Mary can’t stand the idea of Edith outranking her and the rest of the family, and she’s terrified of the fact that Edith is stepping out from her shadow after so many years.
Terror is also at the root of her resolve to push Henry away. He arrives unexpectedly one evening and assures her that he’s not one to give up easily, but Mary prattles on about rank and money and their different lives, determined to send him packing. Her faithful brother-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), begins calling her out on it, knowing that her angry speeches and weak excuses are a cloak for her fear. It all reaches a head in the morning when Mary finds that Henry has left early and Edith and Bertie are on the brink of marriage. As usual, her fear and anger find an outlet in cruelty to Edith, so she coolly brings to light that Marigold is Edith’s daughter, not just her ward. Bertie is understandably shocked, but he’s compassionate to Edith’s plight. But he confesses he’s most bothered by the fact that she didn’t trust him enough to tell the truth. They part on good terms, but Edith is once again left unlucky. Somehow though, I have a feeling they could still work things out.
After this sad turn, Mary gets a few ticking-offs that she’s had coming for a while. The first is naturally from Tom. These two have become close confidantes and always stick up for one another, but Tom is one of the few who isn’t afraid to harshly call her out when it’s needed, and it certainly is here. He makes clear that he’s disgusted by her behavior and tells her point-blank that it’s rooted in the fact that she’s running away scared:
“You’re a coward, Mary! Like all bullies, you’re a coward.”
She’s afraid of her and Edith’s positions changing, of not being in control, and of being hurt again, and she’s willingly wounding Henry and Edith as a result. Her next telling-off is from Edith, perhaps a bit surprisingly. But Edith has finally learned to stand up to Mary, and she minces no words this time. As she hurriedly packs for London, Edith states plainly that she knows Mary spited her because she can’t stand for Edith to be happy when she’s unhappy. She even tells her that Henry is perfect for her, but she’s just too stupid to see it. It’s an admirable moment for Edith, for even Mary seems a bit subdued after the exchange. Edith races to London to pour herself into the magazine, and she meets comfort from her co-editor Laura Edmunds (Antonia Bernath), as well as a surprise visit from Mr. Spratt, Violet’s butler (Jeremy Swift)! He’s been writing pitches for an advice column in the magazine under a pseudonym for some time now. Who would have thought it?
But as for Mary, it’s during the talk with Granny Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), that she finally faces the root of her bad behavior. Tom wisely writes to Violet to hasten her return from her French vacation, explaining Mary’s situation and actions fully in the letter. As Violet prods about Henry, Mary avoids the issues for a minute or two, but then finally breaks down in sobs as she recounts the racing accident. She cries out desperately, “I can’t be a crash widow again! I can’t! I’d live in terror – dreading every race, every practice, every trial! I cannot do it!” Violet’s heart clearly goes out to this granddaughter with whom she’s always seemed to have the most in common. She assures her, “I believe in rules, and traditions, and playing our part. But there is something else…I believe in love. I mean, brilliant careers, rich lives, are seldom led without just an element of love.” The touching scene ends with an affectionate embrace and Violet admonishing Mary to make peace with her sister and with herself.
And she does both in due course. First, she visits Matthew’s grave in one of the most tear-jerking scenes of this season. As she lovingly fingers the tombstone, she whispers, “However much I love him, I will always love you.” And further encouragement arrives when she meets Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), on her return walk. Isobel assures her that she’s delighted at the prospect of Mary remarrying, and Mary clearly appreciates the confirmation.
So, all that’s left is to tell Henry! He arrives at Downton after receiving a telegram from Mary, and he goes from uncertain to jubilant as Mary apologizes for her behavior and admits he was right – they are in love with each other. She says they are equal in strength and passion, and that’s what’s needed. Their moods rise to playful as Henry sweetly kisses her, Mary giggles, and they agree to an almost immediate wedding!
What a whirlwind! In a few days’ time, Tom and Henry look strapping in their wedding getups, and the ladies gush as Mary dons a lovely white tea dress with white roses. In the midst of the preparations, Edith arrives, and Mary takes the opportunity to sincerely apologize. It’s a moving moment between these sisters who have never seen eye to eye, and though it doesn’t indicate that they’ll be best friends, it does make clear that their relationship matters. That even with all their disagreements and bickering, they know the other will always be there. Edith puts it well when she says, “In the end, you’re my sister. And one day only we will remember Sybil or Mama or Papa or Matthew or Michael or Granny or Carson or any of the others who have peopled our youth, until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.” I know we all hope so, dear Crawley sisters! And Edith even tells Mary she believes Matthew would be pleased.
What an episode. Lady Mary Crawley is now Mary Talbot and she and Edith have made peace. Questions still remain for Edith’s future, as well as for Isobel and the ever-hopeful Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). And could there be a lady for Tom with just one episode to go? We’ll know soon! Tune in on March 6th for the final episode ever of Downton Abbey!