‘Downton Abbey’ Season 6, Episode 2 – a recap

Hughes and Carson – off to a rocky start

For all the talk about change a-coming, or change a foot on Downton Abbey, I noticed just how little changes for the folks upstairs. For the Granthams, the changes they fear are merely superficial and petty – I mean, for all the noise being made about a Labour government and changes to class, let’s be real: income inequality prevails. So yeah, we don’t have an underclass of butlers and maids who are essentially born into servitude, but we still have folks born with silver spoons in their mouths – so even though the upstairs folks at Downton will have to grasp the idea of economizing, it’s nothing compared to what the working class and the servants have to deal with.

And I don’t an episode of Downton Abbey has so demonstrated the divide like the second episode of the final season. Supposedly huge changes are coming – the ground is shifting beneath their feet, so to speak, but the changes for the Granthams don’t seem all that traumatic. The biggest change in Dowton seems to be Lady Mary’s growing influence. Now that Branson’s in Boston, and Robert is increasingly ineffectual and seemingly stunned by everything around him, it’s up to Mary to march around and give orders – which she does with aplomb.

But it’s not just the farm that has Mary’s attention. Carson and Hughes’ marriage is coming up – and when Robert stupidly offered the servant’s hall for the reception (really, I mean, really???), Lady Mary steps in and offers the library. Of course it’s a generous gift, and Lady Mary loves Carson – but in a telling moment, when Cora warns everyone that Hughes has to agree with the wedding venue, Mary looks nonplussed.

And in a third and final moment of self-importance, Lady Mary takes on Anna’s gynecological problems. In this subplot, Lady Mary’s high-handedness isn’t nearly as obnoxious, because she actually is reaching out to Anna as a woman – not quite an equal, but a woman who is struggling with many of the same issues she herself had. Lady Mary insists that the two go to London to her doctor to see if anything could be done about Anna’s fertility problems. And in Mary’s one true moment of sincerity and humility, she insists that Anna has earned the help “fair and square” for all the times Anna has leaped into action whenever there was an emergency (dragging a dead body, hiding a contraceptive device). It’s a nice moment – though when Anna mused that the had some times, I thought we were going to be treated to a flashback (thankfully, we weren’t).

But Mary’s meddling in Carson and Hughes’ affair may be problematic, because the two cannot seem to understand each other. Hughes understandably chafes at the idea of having the wedding at Downton because the place defines her as a housekeeper – she’s a servant there, and on the day of her wedding, even if she had the day off, she’d still be a housekeeper. Carson, on the other hand, feels the Granthams are just as much a part of his world as his family and friends, and therefore doesn’t understand Hughes’ reticence in agreeing to marry at Downton. It’s an important distinction because we can see the two’s priorities and world views: Carson’s whole existence is seemingly wrapped up in his work, while Hughes wants a healthy life separate from her work. Though viewers didn’t get to see much in their disagreement, Carson’s obstinate attitude may doom their marriage before it starts.

And it’s not just Carson and Hughes that are having trouble with a Grantham daughter. We may remember the horribly-selfish lie that Lady Edith concocted in which she had a child out of wedlock, and decided to drop the kid off at a farmer’s house, but snatches the baby back once she gets broody mommy pangs. Well, Mrs. Drewe has never gotten over getting a baby and then having to give it back – so when she sorta kidnaps Marigold, it’s understood that the Drewes will have to leave Downton. Mr. Drew is very understanding, and in fact, too gracious about the whole affair, but at least Robert has the decency to recognize just how ass-backwards all of this really is.

In what amounts to the most profound story line of the evening, Daisy starts to get bolshy stirrings in her soul, as she realizes how little control and autonomy the servant class has. Even the nice members of the upper class, like Cora, aren’t helpful in bettering the situations of so many people. When Daisy fumes that Lady Cora is simply part of a “system” designed to keep people in their place, she finally brings a harsh and unforgiving spotlight on just how glacial and incremental these huge changes really are.

All in all, a good, solid episode – not nearly as strong as last week’s – this episode suffered from some hackneyed writing: I saw where the Drewe story line was going a mile away. And unfortunately, Julian Fellowes yet again reduces Maggie Smith to tottering around the set and trilling with disapproval at any sign of progress or change. The hospital drama between Violet and Isobel is surprisingly boring. The stakes aren’t terribly high, as Violet’s interest in the hospital is merely pomp and circumstance. Though I see Fellowes trying to inject more evidence of Violet’s waning influence, this hospital nonsense is so trivial that it doesn’t do the trick.

Random notes:

  • As I said last week, I think it’s time to retire Anna and Bates – they’ve had a semi-decent run for the first few seasons, but now they have the effect of a damp and wet blanket.
  • Thomas’ minor story of trying to find work outside of Downton is interesting – he’s leaving an environment that is set in its ways, defined and designed by hierarchy, structure, stratification, and concrete roles, only to discover that in the real world, these set notions are starting to disintegrate. If a young man like Thomas is having trouble adjusting, what hope is there for the older folks?
  • Mary, Edith, and Cora all look fabulous tonight.
  • It was nice to see Cora do something more than just simply perch on a coach and gaze lovingly at Robert. I have such affection for the character that when she stood up to Violet and Dr. Clark about the hospital controversy, I felt undue pride in her backbone.
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