In this episode of Downton Abbey, Gwen returns from Westeros to make things awkward, Baxter decides to confront a ghost from her past, Mary finds a handsome and exciting new love interest and Daisy’s temper almost gets her fired.
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Fun But Forgettable
This is a fun episode of Downton Abbey, but literally minutes after the episode ended I struggled to remember what happened. I remember Gwen, mostly because they somehow resist the urge to have her utter her famous “You know nothing” line from Game of Thrones. I vaguely remember Daisy getting angry. Anna is pregnant now, right?
This season of Downton has been vastly superior than some of the preceding seasons, but it’s still suffering from a serious lack of stakes. And by stakes, I don’t mean life-or-death, “OMG” drama. I just mean storylines that have emotional heft and dramatic weight.
Does anyone seriously care who Mary ends up with at this point or whether or not the hospital stays local? Has anyone been on the edge of their seats wondering if Mr. Mason would end up with a nice farm? This is the final season of Downton, and yet the storylines that showrunner Julian Fellowes has chosen to pursue are so lightweight they would get carried off by the first light breeze.
Still, thanks in part to the audience going into this season knowing it’s the final one, I mostly just find myself enjoying my time with these characters I have grown to know and love. It’s finally seeing Mary supporting Edith … for a hot second before insulting her again. It’s watching Thomas battle his demons and admit his vulnerabilities. It’s Branson remembering selfless Sybil and wondering what it is he’s going to do with his life now that he’s decided to adopt these rich crazies as his forever family.
The strength of Downton Abbey has never resided in its storytelling, which, since early in the show’s run, has been repetitive, cliched and downright boring at times. The power of Downton Abbey is the time period, the clothes, the scenery and, most important of all, the characters.
These characters feel like real people, who take steps forward and steps back, who are sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. We’ve seen the best of these people and the worst of them, and we’ve seen them grow and change over more than a decade’s worth of history.
I hope that the storytelling steps it up a notch going into the final run of episodes, but even if it doesn’t ever get more exciting than Violet and Isobel snipping at each other over a hospital no one cares about, I’ll still be happy to spend just a little bit more time in the presence of the Crawley family.
Remember Gwen from Downton Abbey’s first season? She traveled to the far off land of Westeros to become a secretary? Sybil helped her get a typewriter and then she told Jon Snow he knew nothing?
You’d be forgiven for forgetting such a minor character and spending most of Rose Leslie‘s return to Downton Abbey thinking of her far more popular (and cool!) character on Game of Thrones. Would Gwen have popped up again if people hadn’t loved Ygritte on HBO’s fantasy epic? Who knows? But the storyline is a nice chance for the show to reflect back, to add some shading to Thomas and to remember Sybil.
On her way to Downton to back up Cora and her modern medicine squad, Aunt Rosamund tells Edith about a school for women that she thinks Edith should become a trustee for. The treasurer lives in the area and is coming to visit Downton with his wife, who just happens to be Gwen.
Things get weird right away when Gwen has a whispered conversation with Anna and seemingly pretends like she didn’t spend the first season of the show scurrying around below decks. I guess now that she’s run with the Wildlings, Gwen is a little too big for her downstairs britches.
This is certainly what Thomas thinks when he outs Gwen at the lunch table as a former servant of the household. Everyone in the Crawley family is amazed they didn’t recognize her, even though she had worked there for two years. “Wait, are we bad people?” Mary wonders, then orders a servant to bring her some finger sandwiches.
Gwen talks about her rise up the ranks and how none of it would have been possible without Sybil’s kindness and generosity. This makes everyone at the table miss Sybil terribly, especially a heartbroken Branson.
It also makes Mary think about her life and her choices in life, when she realizes how much her own actions have paled in comparison to her brave and giving sister. “Am I a bad person? Am I self-centered?” Mary wonders, as Anna kneels over in the background. “Ugh, Anna, not now. I’m having an existential crisis.”
Mary whisks Anna away to London as quickly as possible, pretending like she herself is suffering from some kind of vague, non-emergency medical condition. “Whatever, try not to sex-murder anyone while you’re in London,” Robert says dismissively. The Crawley parents have really given up on wondering what it is Mary is up to half the time and it’s hilarious.
It turns out the operation was successful, and at the end of the episode Anna is finally able to tell a deliriously happy Mr. Bates the good news. I have to be honest, I stopped really caring about Anna and Mr. Bates several incarcerations ago, but this scene is really and truly sweet.
Perhaps the most compelling downstairs performer in this episode is Thomas. Over the course of the series, Thomas has quietly become one of the show’s most compelling characters, starting as a broad, mustache-twirling villain and slowly turning into something much more complex and human. His interactions with both Baxter and Gwen show him at his best and at his worst simultaneously.
Like with Mary, I really respect the series for refusing to sand down the rough edges of some of the more prickly characters. Another show would have turned Mary into a nicer and less interesting character by now and would have fully redeemed Thomas. But Thomas remains a hard character to like at times, even if it’s easy to understand why he continually lashes out at a society that will never allow him to fit in and be truly happy.
Seeing Gwen dismiss her servant role is too much for Thomas and he snaps, even if he had been doing a previously good job taking over Carson’s role as butler. It’s easy to understand why, after decades of service to the Crawley family, he would feel ill-used at suddenly living under the near-constant threat of being fired. But the way that he channels his feelings always ends up hurting himself the worst. “You are your own worst enemy,” Baxter says sadly, and it’s always been true about Thomas.
Speaking of people that are their own worst enemies, Daisy almost pops off at Cora over giving the former Drewe family farm to Mr. Mason. (I love how no one really seems to care that they totally just ruined the Drewe family’s life. Whoops?)
Thankfully, she doesn’t manage to launch into her ill-timed tirade against the bourgeois before Robert strolls up and congratulates her on the good news about Mr. Mason getting the farm. Daisy walks away quickly before she does something else stupid, and Cora is like, “That’s it, I’m locking the downstairs door. These servants are getting too uppity.”
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Now that Branson is back, the question on the table is how much he’ll be involved in running the estate, especially since Mary is finding the role of working woman to be fulfilling. Branson decides that while he wants to help run Downton, he also wants to do something else as well.
The key to his dilemma arrives in a very, very attractive package when Lady Shackleton’s nephew, Henry Talbot, played by the delicious Matthew Goode, shows up at Downton Abbey. As is customary for all eligible men visiting Downton, Henry immediately starts flirting hard with Mary. “Awesome, another love interest! I missed having a harem,” Mary says, tucking his card into her dress for later.
Henry is really into racing cars, which gives Branson the idea that maybe he’ll do something with automobiles in his future. Since we first met Branson as a chauffeur, it would be fitting, and lend a nice symmetry to his story, to see him go back to working with cars in some fashion.
Why is Henry Talbot and his beautiful face at Downton? It’s thanks in part to the boring hospital storyline no one really cares about. Violet has invited Lady Shackleton to Downton to back her up, since Isobel is rolling deep with her “modern medicine” squad. Violet still refuses to give up, even though this storyline is so inconsequential that everyone else in the show seems bored to be dealing with it even while they are actually talking about it.
Up in London to help out Anna, Mary goes out to dinner with Henry Talbot. They both look amazing and spend the entire dinner flirting with each other pretty delightfully. Mary is totally giving Henry a look that says, “I can’t wait to sex-murder you later, boo.”
Elsewhere Around Downton…
— Edith is thinking about getting a new editor for her women’s magazine who is actually — gasp! — a woman. Perish the thought! It’s the first idea Edith’s had since 1912 that Mary has agreed with. Watching Mary compliment one of Edith’s ideas is the weirdest thing … that is, until she insults her sister moments later. Ahhh, the world was turned upside down for a moment, but now it’s rightside up again.
— Baxter is lectured by multiple men about how she really needs to just woman up and face her former abuser and it’s really off-putting. Baxter does eventually decide to stand up to the man who had formerly convinced her to steal for him and who has ruined the lives of multiple other women afterwards.
— Carson and Mrs. Carson return from their honeymoon and move into their new home. The whole Crawley family walks around as if they are under a great hardship because they might have to call Mrs. Hughes by her new married name, Mrs. Carson, and won’t that get complicated? How can they be expected to remember a different name? These servants! So uppity lately! That is, until Carson assures them that they can basically just stick with the names they know. “Don’t worry! You can just call us whatever you want!” It’s so reminiscent of Comedy Central’s Downton Abbey spoof, Another Period, in which one of the characters is renamed “Chair,” that I just had to laugh.
What did you think of the episode? Do you like Mary and Henry Talbot together? Do you think it’s time for Thomas to leave or has he grown on you? What did you think of Gwen’s return? Sound off in the comments!
Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9pm on PBS.
(Image courtesy of PBS)