'Downton Abbey' Recap: Season 6, Episode 1

Time to start saying our goodbyes to Highclere Castle (Photo: Courtesy of Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE)

MASTERPIECE Downton Abbey The Final Season Premieres January 3, 2016 at 9 PM ET The top PBS drama of all time approaches its climactic chapter as Downton Abbey embarks on its final season. The year is 1925, and momentous change threatens the great house, its owners, and servants. Past scandals are also looming. The beloved ensemble is back for their farewell performance, closing the book on a television legend. © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

© Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE

Time to start saying our goodbyes to Highclere Castle (Photo: Courtesy of Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE)
Time to start saying our goodbyes to Highclere Castle (Photo: Courtesy of Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE)

Previously on Downton Abbey: There is too much. Go visit the Season 5 recaps for a bit if you need a refresher on all the things that went down last year.

Y’all: It’s finally happening: The end of Downton is here. And no matter how much we may wish that weren’t true, it’s time to start getting a handle on our emotions about it. (JK, we’re basically going cry straight through the next eight weeks, right? It’s cool. We’re all friends here.) 

Anyway, there’s a lot to discuss (surprise, surprise) and some of it’s incredible and some of it’s not, and some of it’s the televisual equivalent of the shrug emoji (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), so, you know, prepare yourselves. 

In short: We have a lot to talk about. 

Creepy Ladies Be Creepin’.  It’s 1925, but as per usual with this show and time jumps, it’s kind of unclear how much time has passed exactly since the Series 5 finale. The Crawleys are hosting another hunt at Downton, as they do, and Mary’s decided to completely abandon the pretense of riding sidesaddle, in case anyone has forgotten that she’s a thoroughly modern sort of girl now. In another new addition, there’s also now a strange, unknown woman loitering about, stalking the hunting party and watching Mary in a decidedly creepy manner.

After some extremely awkward staring, we learn that her name is Rita Bevan and she was a chambermaid at the Grand Hotel back during that weekend when Mary had a fling with Tony Gillingham last season. Womp womp. (PS:  Thanks a lot for reminding me of that disgusting mess, Rita. You suck.) She’s there to blackmail Mary, because I will never be free of Lord Stalkingham, and claims that she stole a page from the hotel registry that proves they were there together and now she wants a thousand pounds to keep her mouth shut.

But Mary laughs in her face – this is the one time Mary’s haughtier-than-thou attitude is a AMAZING thing to behold (“You’re not the first person who’s tried to blackmail me”) – but Rita doesn’t back down. She says she’ll be back, and if Mary doesn’t pay up, she’ll be sorry.  

The Only Thing That Matters is Carson and Mrs. Hughes. There are people out there who are deeply invested in whether Mary remembers how to be a human being ever again, or if Edith finally finds a man that doesn’t treat her like dirt, or if Thomas finally gets a storyline that isn’t about him being composed of pure evil. It seems only fair to point out to everyone who reads these recaps, however, that I am not one of those people. 

After five years, I am fully capable of maintaining an objective distance from every single storyline on Downton by this point. All except one, and that is the whole Carson/Mrs. Hughes situation. My response to this pairing, and anything that may happen to them this season, is pretty much on the emotional level of a teenage Tumblr user, and you should all know that going in. A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend. 

Anyway! All of Team Downstairs is psyched about the impending Carson/Hughes nuptials and want to know if the happy couple’s set a date for the wedding. They haven’t, and enough time has passed that people are starting to think that’s kind of weird. Mrs. Patmore finally decides to take the proverbial bull by the horns and confront her friend directly about what’s wrong. Mrs. Hughes hems and haws, but finally admits that she’s really nervous about the prospect of sharing a wedding night – and all that entails, if you’ve picked up on the painfully apparent innuendo yet – with Mr. Carson. She’s also afraid that he won’t find her attractive “that way”, her being a woman in “late middle age” and all.  Mrs. Patmore does her best to be supportive (“Don’t say late!”), but she doesn’t have a whole lot of experience in this area either, so she’s not an incredibly well-informed advocate for the concept of conjugal bliss.

Eventually, Mrs. Hughes decides to recruit her best friend to talk to her fiancée on her behalf and try to suss out what he’d like from married life, particularly whether he expects the two of them to sleep together or not. Mrs. Patmore looks like she would rather kill herself than do this, but nevertheless agrees, because she is the best friend in the world. 

The Hospital Board Faces a Crisis. Into every episode a storyline must fall that no one cares about, but that everyone tolerates because Maggie Smith is in it. This week, it’s some boring argument between the members of the local hospital board. Violet is super angry because she’s learned that the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital wants to take over the smaller hospital in their village. Lord Merton and Isobel, naturally, don’t think this is necessarily the worst idea in the world because it might provide their hospital with more resources, and because they almost always hate anything that Violet likes. 

The two ladies end up having a fight about it, because there has to be a storyline every season in which Violet and Isobel are at odds. The only tidbit of note is that Dr. Clarkson sides with Violet, and Merton sides with Isobel, because this whole thing is probably just some dumb metaphor for the two of them fighting over her. No one cares, but Violet is super snarky, which is always fun. 

The Times They Are A Changing. Lord Robert tells Carson that at some point real soon they’re going to have discuss the future of “staffing requirements” at Downton. This scene is just the excuse for Hugh Bonneville to make the annual “THINGS SURE ARE DIFFERENT NOW IN THIS YEAR” speech that gets used as voiceover fodder for all the Downton trailers, and provides the show with cover when people notice that the only things that seem to age around the estate ever are Mary and Edith’s kids.

Carson looks suitably appalled, as he always does and protests that they’re already down a bunch of housemaids and haven’t replaced any of the kitchen staff that’s left. Robert says he thinks things are pretty okay at the moment, but he doesn’t like to feel out of step with his neighbors, and they’re all cutting back, and he can’t stop the world from changing. Shut up, Robert. 

Mary’s Blackmail Strategy. Mary fills Anna in on the whole random stranger trying to blackmail her in the driveway problem, and declares that she’s not going to pay this woman, because that means she’ll just keep coming back forever. Her plan of response is just not to do anything at all until she sees how far this woman is willing to go. This seems like not a great idea in general, but let’s see what happens.

A day or so later, Rita returns to Downton and manages to lie her way into the house to see Mary, claiming that she’s got a letter from the Dowager she promised to deliver. Mary is shocked at her nerve, but Rita just laughs, and says that none of her high and mighty airs will affect her. She says that Mary’s day is over, and that the working classes are on the way up now. Mary tells her she won’t give her anything, since it only means she’ll come back for more later. Rita offers to give her word that she won’t, but Mary quite rightly points out that she’s got zero reason to believe anything Rita says. Anna arrives just in time to escort Rita out, but not before she can get a parting shot in about Mary having “one more chance” to pay up before she ruins her life. (This storyline would probably be a lot more compelling if Rita weren’t quite so vile. As it stands it’s just kind of gross.)

Mrs. Patmore is the World’s Best BFF.  Mrs. Patmore, who probably deserves some kind of Nobel Prize, asks Carson if they can chat for a bit after dinner one night. She heads to his office, and tries to explain her conversation with Mrs. Hughes in a way that outlines her friends’ concerns without her having to say anything too explicit. It’s painfully, painfully awkward and Leslie Nichol is wonderful at looking as though she wants the ground to open up and swallow her. Eventually, Mrs. Patmore basically runs away, because she can’t manage to get a satisfactory answer from Carson about whether he’s interested in sleeping with Mrs. Hughes once they get married.

Meanwhile, Carson and Mrs. Hughes have an adorable chat wherein he declares that he can’t possibly call her “Elsie” while they’re working, and asks whether they can maybe, finally set a date for the wedding. Mrs. Hughes – knowing that Mrs. Patmore has failed in her mission thus far – insists that there’s no rush. Carson looks sad, and I am sad, and everything is terrible. 

Oh No, Anna’s Crying Again. In the grand tradition of Downton Abbey, Season 6 opens with Anna crying about something. If there was a Downton drinking game and “Anna crying” was a rule, people would actually die while playing.

Why is Anna sobbing this time, you might ask? There are so many possible reasons. It’s not because either of the Bates-es are threatened with jail anymore; their lawyer has finally informed the both of them that they’re free from suspicion over the whole Mr. Green situation, so our two-year national nightmare is over, insofar as that goes. So, now it’s clearly time to torture the Bateses with something new, and now it’s that Anna’s worried she won’t be able to have children.

She’d actually thought she was pregnant, and, now she’s not – and it turns out she’s had a miscarriage more than once, so now she’s convinced she’s “not able” to carry a child to term. Bates comforts her and says there’s no proof of that at all and tries to be supportive. Anna sobs some more because this show hates them. 

Guess What Violet’s Terrible Maid Still Exists. Denker, the Dowager Countess’ terrible ladies’ maid from last season, still exists and has a job, despite being pretty awful in almost every possible way that might matter to an employer. While she’s getting ready for bed, Violet mentions that the Abbey is thinking of possibly laying off some of its staff, but makes her maid promise to not say anything. Denker, because she is terrible and because she feels like her job’s 100% safe since it’s unlikely the Dowager is going to start dressing herself ever, goes right up to the house and starts telling everyone that they’re going to lose their jobs. Denker is an awful human being.

Everyone is nervous, particularly new footman Andrew, because he just got hired in the first place, and Carson doesn’t help matters by not giving much of an answer on the topic when asked about it. (He basically says they’ll worry about it later.) Denker goes home and tells Spratt the same thing, implying that he’s about to get laid off as well, because the writers of this show for some deeply mistaken reason seem to think that we care at all about this weird rivalry between the two of them. Surely there must be better ways to spend the valuable final minutes of this season?

Oh, No, Mr. Mason! Awesome Mr. Mason, Daisy’s former father in law, shows up at Downton Abbey, because he needs some help since the owners of the estate where he’s a tenant are selling up. Mason wants Robert to put in a good word with the family to try and help him keep his tenancy on the farm after they leave. Robert says he’ll try and do what he can, since Mason has such a long standing connection to the Crawleys and Downton (though why Robert can’t just give him a tenancy there anyway, IDK).  

Down in the kitchen, Daisy’s livid about the fact that Mr. Mason can just be kicked out of his own farm. He tries to explain the way the tenant system but she’s not having it because, as you know, Daisy has been getting all “Power to the People!” since she started taking lessons from that terrible teacher friend of Tom’s last season. (I have legitimately forgotten her name; please do not remind me ever.)  Anyway, despite Robert’s best efforts, there’s nothing he can do to help Mr. Mason – the only way he could perhaps keep his farm is if the new owners decide to let him stay on after they take over the property.

Mrs. Patmore Deserves an Award. Carson, who still looks sad and nervous, corners Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen and wants to know what she really meant to tell him before. He’s (finally) figured out that she was on a mission from Mrs. Hughes, and now he’s really (adorably) nervous that she sent Mrs. Patmore to tell him that she’s changed her mind about getting married. Poor Mrs. P, who is back to looking like she’s praying for the sweet release of death, finally gathers up her courage and haltingly explains that Mrs. Hughes is nervous about performing her “wifely” duties, because she doesn’t want to “look ridiculous” in Carson’s eyes.

This devolves rapidly into the world’s most awkward conversation, where both of them try to discuss sex without ever actually saying any words that are in any way connected to sex, but eventually Carson asks Mrs. Patmore to convey the idea that in his eyes Mrs. Hughes is always beautiful and he loves her and wants to marry her for real, with everything that entails. (Goodness, they’ve even got me trying to think of ways to write around the phrase “sleep together” at this point!)  Ugh, Carson, you guys. I can’t even deal with all the feelings I’m having. 

Meanwhile, Back to the People We Don’t Care About. Following his conversation with Denker, Spratt goes to see the Dowager Countess to ask that she just give him a heads up when he’s about to get sacked. Violet laughs at him (“If you were talking in Urdu I couldn’t understand you less!"), but Spratt soldiers on, and explains that Denker has told everyone in the Downton and Downton-adjacent households that people are going to get fired. Violet looks annoyed, and tells Spratt she’ll deal with it.

Her method of “dealing with it” is to behave as though Denker herself is getting fired in order to make her maid feel terrible. She even enlists Isobel’s help as evidence that it is possible to survive life without a ladies’ maid. This is a pretty awful “prank”, but no one cares because Denker is the worst, and because we all absolutely believe that the Dowager runs her household through fear.

Awww, Robert to the Rescue! Rita Bevins shows up at Downton again, because she seems to have nothing to do but spend money to ferry herself to an isolated estate in the middle of nowhere a bunch of times. Mary isn’t home, but Rita insists that she’ll wait for her to return. Carson, obviously, is not having this and is in the process of kicking her out when Robert wanders into the room and Rita says that her visit concerns him too, because she’s waited on his daughter long enough.

Mary returns home and Carson fills her in on what’s going on. She finds her father and Rita in the sitting room, where her father’s writing her a check.  Rita leaves, after some parting snark about how lucky Mary is to have Robert around to take care of things, and Mary is left to awkwardly discuss her weekend fling with Tony Gillingham with her father, because the theme of this week’s episode is apparently “Everyone Has Awkward Sex Conversations” or something. She offers to pay Robert back for the blackmail cash, but it turns out that her father is a way better negotiator than she was, having only given Rita fifty pounds and gotten a signed confession of blackmail in return. Woo, Robert finally did something awesome! He even says that this experience has taught him that Mary is a child no more, and capable of running Downton if she wants to. (Awww.) 

Yet Again, Daisy Ruins Everything. The Crawleys head off to the auction at Mallarton, to say goodbye to their old neighbors, check out the new owners and maybe buy some antiques at a good price. Daisy tags along with them, because she wants to see what will happen with Mr. Mason and his farm. This is obviously a terrible idea, which becomes more obvious the minute Daisy decides to confront the new owners and tell them their decision to kick Mr. Mason off his farm is unfair.

Of course, she does this in the most tactful, terrible way in front of the new owners, the old owners, and the entire Crawley family, indicting the Hendersons for kicking Mr. Mason off a farm his family’s worked for generations, shaming the Darnleys for selling off their wedding presents in his rush to get out of town. All the Crawleys try to get Daisy to shut up (Robert) or make excuses for her behavior (Cora), but Mr. Henderson just sniffs and says that if he had maybe been thinking about keeping on any of the previous tenants the father-in-law of a woman like this sure won’t be one of them. Way to go Daisy, you’ve totally ruined Mr. Mason’s life! 

But All is Right with the World Again. Once the official word comes from the police that Anna and Bates are no longer murder suspects, the Crawleys break out the champagne and throw an impromptu party for them. Bates and Anna are relieved, but she’s still moping about the fact that she’s decided she’ll never be able to have children, because these two are never allowed any joy at all ever. Bates does his best to be optimistic, insisting that now they’re both free they can start to plan for and look to the future again, together. Anna just looks sad and laments the fact that she’ll never be able to give him children. (This refrain is going to get real old real quick.)

Meanwhile, Mrs. Hughes, who has been briefed by Mrs. Patmore about the very romantic and fantastic things Carson said about her over the course of their awkward discussion earlier, decides it’s finally time to talk things out with her fiancée. She tries to apologize for the fact that she’s been putting him off about the wedding, but it’s obvious that Carson just thinks he’s about to get dumped entirely, which is painful and adorable and terrible in the way that all of these Austen-style relationship confusion things always are. Because, of course, that’s not going on. Mrs. Hughes admits that she was afraid that she’d end up being a disappointment to him, but if he’s sure about all this, then she’s ready if he is. Carson just looks at her as though she has gone completely insane, because he obviously thinks she is perfect and amazing already, and says that he’s never been so sure of anything ever. And then they kiss and the episode ends and I have basically expired from joy. 

Surprise, my ghost has actually been typing this recap the whole time. Thanks for doing this to me, Downton. It’s been real.

Thoughts on the Season 6 premiere? It might take me a minute to be able to formulate any sentences that aren’t flailing about Carson and Mrs. Hughes in ALL CAPS, but I’ll do my best. Hit the comments. 

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Twitter at @LacyMB