Downton Abbey, Season 6, Episode 1: The Birds & the Bees & Mrs. Hughes

The Beginning of the End

Who among you didn’t get a little lump in your throat at the opening credits, knowing that this is the last first time you’ll watch a brand-new Downton Abbey in a brand-new year? For the last six years we’ve anticipated this show every January; it gave us something to look forward to as we emerged from the holidays. And now it is all coming to an end.

It is coming to an end — just like all them big ol’ English country houses came to an end, the ones packed with furniture and paintings and silver, with servants stacked from cellars to rafters like cordwood. Sometimes you just got to call it, to quote Lord Neighbor-who-auctioned-off-his-stuff: you’ve got to “stop hanging on to what is no longer supportable”. And lest we all get too sentimental, let us remember that Downton Abbey, however wonderful the show once was, is no longer supportable. It’s time to put the old girl down. But first! We shall enjoy many last suppers around the table with the Family Grantham, many below-stairs antics, and many, many discussions about how the times just continue to change and change and change.

But It is So Pretty to Look At

The show opens with a beautiful tableau of a fox hunt, but not before Thomas and Molesley trot outside to fortify the riders milling about outside Downton with glasses of champagne. A little alcoholic seltzer then it’s off to run down an 10-pound animal on horses the size of small tanks! But a giant horse is no match for a wily fox or for crafty Mary, who rides astride her horse like a porcelain sculpture of a man-girl. But Mary is not made of porcelain after all, as viewers see when she falls from her horse during the hunt and manages to stay in one piece. What causes Mary to lose her composure and crash to the ground? It is the startling sight of a complete and total stranger watching the hunt. The fact that this stranger is wearing such an unflattering coat probably didn’t help. But our Mary pulls herself together gets right back on that horse, slinging her leg over the saddle like nobody’s business. Away and back to Downton!  A little mud never slowed Iron Mary down, as we saw way back in the save-the-dehydrated-pigs episode.

While Mary is asserting her dominance over animals and mud, we find Granny and Isobel back at Downton, sitting around the table at a board meeting for the local hospital. The two frenemies are at odds right out of the gate, with Isabel flanked by her two admirers, Lord Merton and Dr. Sensible, telling Granny that she will in no way shape or form support whatever it is the Dowager Countess supports, in whatever shape or form it takes. Negotiations involving hospital mergers and acquisitions and hostile takeovers ensue, with a few jealous asides from Dr. Sensible. The scene ends with Granny and Isobel narrowing their eyes at each other, ready for a long and protracted battle. The greatest relationship in the entire series is between these two, who refuse to come together short of a deathbed scene or a game of cards.

The Good

Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are still engaged, nearly ready to marry and reconstitute as the giant country house-managing superstar entity known as Carson-Hughes. There are a few delightful scenes involving delicate discussion of how babies get made, or not, in this case. Mr. Carson, after discussing the matter with Mrs. Patmore (a woman of the world) finally realizes that Mrs. Hughes is feeling a bit nervous about life together post-wedding, and having the lights on after the lights go out, if you catch my drift. Mr. Carson gently reassures her in thunderous tones that this aged rooster does not seek a spring chicken. It is Mrs. Hughes he wants. Drawing himself to even greater heights, he declares that he wants to spend his dotage with Mrs. Hughes, and it is one of the most romantic moments in television history, replete with a quote from Oliver Cromwell about warts. The episode closes with a kiss between them, and it is a far superior kiss to all the ones Rose slathered on various men under bridges and at clubs, or even between Mary and Matthew, as in that case one party was made of granite. And granite is a cold, hard substance.

The Bad

The murder plot line that dragged on and on like a dead body through the corridors of Downton was finally resolved. It turns out that neither Mr. Bates nor Mrs. Bates killed Mr. Green!

Not a soul was surprised, as it had been determined long ago — in the first season, through the establishment of their basic characters — that the Bateseses could not possibly be killers, though everybody was thrilled that the police finally figured this out. The big shots from upstairs came downstairs to the kitchen and break room to celebrate the news that finally, this foolishness was over. Lord G partied like regular folk by eating straight out of the fridge while chitchatting with Cora. “Misssus Patmore had that dish preepared for toomoreow” Cora chastised, but Lord G kept munching and reminiscing about the good old days when he used to hide in the kitchen from various tutors and governesses when he was a young lad in miniature tweed shortpants.

It is a credit to Scotland Yard that this crack crimefighting machine worked tirelessly over a period of years to find Mr. Green’s killer. Especially since he died in what looked to bystanders like a streetcar accident. But no. It may not have been — well, it probably wasn’t — wait a second! it definitely wasn’t — a simple streetcar accident. First Bates, then Anna was accused of shoving Mr. Green in front of the streetcar. What a pickle! Each new twist and turn meant that poor Sargent Willis had to hustle down to Downton, nearly 200 miles away from London, to breathlessly keep the Bateseses in the know on exactly where each one of them stood when it came to determining who killed Mr. Green, second only to the Prime Minister in importance. At the end of last season Anna comes home for Christmas because, saints be praised, another woman confessed to the killing. But not so fast Anna! The killer may have confessed but Scotland Yard refuses to accept a signed confession unless there is a corroborating witness account. It’s just standard practice. So it’s back to Downton for Mr. Willis, to let the folks there know that while the cops have a confession in hand, they haven’t yet scrounged up a witness to the crime. But wait! We do have a witness after all! Huzzah! Sargent Willis, get back on that train and head to Yorkshire to inform the folks at Downton that there is indeed a witness now. And you must do this in person — such news cannot be conveyed by telephone or telegraph or telegram. Veuve clicquot all around, and don’t get drunk Daisy! We don’t want you shouting insults at any more rich landowners while your poor father-in-law Farmer Mason stands behind you looking as though he would rather be dead at that moment.

The Different

Sybil and Tom are off in America, hobnobbing with their fellow immigrant Irish-Americans, as Isobel helpfully points out in a classic example of liberal-minded condescension. Rose and whats-his-face are in Manhattan, dancing and drinking bathtub gin, making a ton of money and hanging out with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anna and Mrs. Hughes both got their hair did, with Anna sporting Marilyn Monroe levels of bleach and Mrs. Hughes washing away that grey in an effort to bolster her self-confidence before the wedding.

Poor Edith ain’t so poor, with a wonderful London flat and the ability to dish it out to Mary and various lippy editors. She can also carry around piles of papers and look legitimately busy, unlike Mary, who looks the most in her element when she is sitting still as a statue after dinner slowly turning the pages of a newspaper or playing solitaire. Apparently this pose is a ruse, however, as Mary is fully capable of doing so much more than looking at the newspaper or staring off into the distance in the manner of her mother. Mary is capable of managing the entire, multi-thousand acre estate. She can collect rents, deal with the tenants, make decisions about equipment, crop rotation, livestock acquisition (remember the pigs!), take care the house, stables and staff, and so forth. And how do we know this? Lord G told us so. While initially skeptical of her abilities, he changed his mind after discovering that Mary continues to engage in ruinous behavior, which shows great strength and obstinance, Lord G. feels. His eldest daughter is being blackmailed again, this time for spending a week in a hotel with Tony Gillingham Lord Foyle, checking out the goods before purchase so to speak. The fact that her father found this out about Mary only endeared her to him further.

“Ah Mary” Lord G said, his eyes glowing with pride after he wrote a check to pay off the hotel maid blackmailing his daughter. “Through this situation and your defiance of convention and utter disregard for the family name and your honor as a woman and a mother, you have proved yourself man enough to run the estate. Props to you, my darling. I have never been prouder.” Even Mary was surprised at this turn of events. “Okay, Pops.” she answered.  “So glad to discover that you’re Machiavellian after all.” At this point Cora enters the room.

“Just wut iss goingg onn?” she asks. Iron Mary and Lord G look at each other, amused. Oh Cora. Just another round of blackmail. “Nothing you need to know, dear.” Lord G. says. “It’s not as though a young Turkish diplomat died in Mary’s bed and she needs us to help move the body or anything.” All three laugh uproariously at this.

Next Week:

Tony Gillingham Lord Foyle will come back into Mary’s life and offer to pay half of the 50 quid Lord G Father of Mary shelled out in the 1925 Blackmail Scandal. Mary will take a long gander in the nursery to see if George has reached puberty yet. If he has, she will take him down to the kitchen and to Mrs. Patmore for a discussion about the facts of life. Rose will cable Downton to let them know that she and what’s-his-face have invested every penny, every single one, in the New York Stock Exchange, because what could possibly go wrong? Carson-Hughes will merge into a union even more magnificent and Cora will watch helplessly from the couch as one thing after another is managed so beautifully. The village hospital will not merge with the other faraway hospital and in her triumph, Granny will send Isobel a conciliatory fair-trade organic free-range bouquet of flowers as a good will gesture, which Isobel will promptly give away to the nearest street urchin.



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