In a departure from earlier episodes this season, not a single character in last night’s show got married or was jilted. Still, there was plenty going on both upstairs and downstairs at Downton Abbey.
The episode began with Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, distributing mail to the downstairs staff.
“Nothing for me, Mr. Carson?” an obviously disappointed Anna (Joanne Froggatt) asked.
It seems she has received no letters in weeks from her husband, the wrongly imprisoned John Bates (Brendan Coyle), nor has she been allowed to visit him at the jail.
Ditto for Bates. During mail call at the prison, he glumly walks away empty handed.
Upstairs at Downtown, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) urges a reluctant Matthew (Dan Stevens) to delve into Downton’s account books now that he’s a co-owner of the estate. “You have to get into the details,” she tells her husband.
Busybody Isobel (Penelope Wilton) comes calling on Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Handing over a letter for the housekeeper from Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), the disgraced former Downton maid, Isobel informs Mrs. Hughes that Ethel has become a prostitute. “My, my, that’s not a word you hear in this house everyday,” clucks Mrs. Hughes.
At breakfast the next morning, the recently jilted Edith (Laura Carmichael) announces that she’s in favor of women’s suffrage after Robert makes disapproving noises about the recently passed 19th Amendment (giving women the vote in the U.S.). Matthew suggests that she write a letter to The Times. “Maybe I will,” says Edith.
Soon, she’s visiting Violet (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess, to kvetch about how empty her life is since being abandoned at the altar.
“You must keep busy. There must be something you can put your mind to,” says Violet.
“Gardening?” Edith offers.
“You can’t be as desperate as that,” a horrified Violet replies. “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.”
Still no mail for Anna from Bates. Tearfully, she tells Mrs. Hughes that she’s worried her husband is being gallant and hoping she’ll make a new life without him.
“I doubt that very much,” the kindly housekeeper reassures Anna.
Bates, meanwhile, is busy sewing burlap bags, which seems to be his prison job. In between stitches, a fellow prisoner tells Bates that the reason he’s not receiving letters or visits from his wife is because he’s been reported as a dangerous prisoner to the authorities, all part of a conspiracy between Bates’ nasty cellmate and corrupt guards. Bates smiles broadly. “Thank God,” he says. “I thought she’d given up on me.”
Back in the servant’s hall at Downton, Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), the recently hired footman, is being schooled in spoons by Carson. Alfred correctly identifies a teaspoon, egg spoon, melon spoon, grapefruit spoon and jam spoon, but is puzzled by the last utensil in the line-up. It’s a bouillon spoon, Carson tells him helpfully. What, no spork?
Ethel meets with Mrs. Hughes and Isobel at Isobel’s house where Isobel’s housekeeper-cook, clearly harboring a less enlightened attitude toward fallen women than her mistress, repeatedly snubs Ethel. The former Downton maid wants the help of the two older women in turning her young, illegitimate son over to the Bryants, the wealthy parents of the boy’s deceased father. Isobel urges her instead to build a new life for herself and keep her son, Charlie.
Back at Downton, the archbishop has come to dine with the Crawleys. Over pre-dinner cocktails, he and Robert trade anti-Catholic quips.
“There always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics,” says Robert, who is fast becoming an unpleasant, prejudiced prig this season.
Dinner is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Irish Catholic son-in-law and former Downton chauffeur. Once the archbishop departs, Tom reveals that he’s on the run from the authorities back in Ireland. It seems he was present when more militant colleagues in the Irish freedom movement ousted a family of Irish-Anglo aristocrats from their castle near Dublin and then burned it down.
Mary recalls making her debut with a daughter of the family. “What a tragedy,” she says.
“Well, yes and no. That house was hideous,” says Violet, getting off one of her best lines of the show.
The next morning, Robert excoriates Tom. “I find your actions despicable,” he tells him. Nonetheless, Robert heads to London, at Cora’s urging – “I know it’s what’s best for Sybil and this family,” she says – to speak on Tom’s behalf with a high-ranking government official.
Over at Isobel’s, Ethel meets with the Bryants. After giving him one last kiss, she gives little Charlie, her son, over to the older couple’s care. The Bryants and Charlie drive off as Ethel sobs. She then walks toward the village, a brave and lonely figure. “What chance is there for a woman like her? She’s taken the road to ruin. There’s no looking back,” Mrs. Hughes says. Isobel merely looks thoughtful.
Thanks to Matthew’s infusion of cash into Downton, Robert is no longer pinching pennies and has given Carson the green light to hire more staff. The butler interviews Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers), a dapper young fellow applying to be a footman. Carson hires him but tells Jimmy that from now on he’ll be known as James.
As Jimmy is changing into his new footman’s uniform, Thomas catches sight of the younger man’s partially unclothed torso and likes what he sees. The valet’s former confederate and now mortal rival, Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), takes note, and it’s obvious a nefarious plot is beginning to take shape in her mind.
Back at the hoosegow, guards enter Bates’ cell and find contraband hidden in his cellmate’s bunk, where it was, more than likely, planted by Bates. As the cellmate is escorted out, he snarls to Bates, “You’ll be sorry.” Bates just grins.
Sybil arrives at Downton, having evaded police while making her way solo from Dublin. Robert returns from London and tells Tom that he has saved his sorry backside but there’s a price to be paid: “You can never go back to Ireland.” Tom doesn’t look happy.
Edith’s announces that she has sent off a letter supporting women’s suffrage to the Times.
“No lady writes to a newspaper!” Violet gasps.
Cora nods, saying, “I think Granny’s right.”
“Could someone write that down?” Violet asks dryly.
Jimmy is introduced to the family for the first time when he helps to serve at dinner. After giving the handsome James the onceover, Mary says approvingly, “Well done, Carson.”
Violet adds her two cents: “He looks like the footman in a musical review.”
Carson isn’t about to be swayed by mere appearance.
“Hard work and diligence outweigh beauty in the real world,” he huffs.
“If only that were true,” says Violet.
(It’s exchanges like this one that makes Downton such a pleasure.)
Trying to promote harmony, Tom offers a grudging apology to Robert, telling him he’s grateful for the help his father-in-law has provided. Sybil tells Tom she wants their baby to be born at Downton. “We need peace and safety. Downton can offer us both,” she says. Tom responds by kissing her.
Below stairs, smokes billows into a hallway. Carson grabs a bucket only to discover it’s Mrs. Hughes’ newly purchased electric toaster that’s causing the problem. “I was worried Mr. Branson might take it into his head to burn the house down, but never you,” he tells her.
Mrs. Hughes, who has turned into quite the wit this season, replies, “You shouldn’t take anything for granted, Mr. Carson.”
Stop the presses! Edith’s letter has been published in the Times under the headline, “Earl’s Daughter Speaks Out on Ladies’ Rights.” Robert is appalled. Matthew and Tom congratulate her. Carson looks as if the world as he knows it has come to an end. Edith just beams. Obviously, Nellie Bly had better watch her back.
Alfred and James joust over which of them is to be the first footman and which second. Daisy (Sophie McShera) sticks up for Alfred, on whom she is sweet. Just when Daisy is about to tell him of her feelings, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) comes by to introduce the new kitchen maid, Ivy Stuart (Cara Theobold). Alfred is instantly smitten. Daisy is crushed. When Ivy tells her she hopes they can be friends, Daisy replies coldly, “We don’t have to get on, we just have to work together.”
Matthew pays a call on the Dowager Countess to seek her advice on a sticky problem. Having gone through the books, he feels that Downton is being mismanaged and wants to set it right but Robert has essentially rebuffed his efforts to discuss the problems.
Violet tells Matthew that he must do what needs to be done, but warns him, “I think I can safely say a great many noses will be out of joint.”
As the show wraps up, Bates and Anna each receive plump packets of letters from the other. Whatever restrictions had been placed on Bates have been lifted. The happy couple, Bates in his cell and Anna in her tiny room at Downton, hungrily devour their mail. The music swells.
Which plot development or character do you like best this season?