The Downton Abbey Christmas special aired earlier this week, and it was a doozy. We’ll all need time to process it, so check out our recap of the episode and share your feelings below. All the spoilers below!
The episode begins with the house in a carefully controlled chaos, as Robert, Cora, Violet, Mary (who is pregnant), Matthew (who is worried), and Edith all hop aboard the train to Duneagle Castle in Scotland. Duneagle is the estate of Robert’s cousin Hugh (“Shrimpy”) MacClare and his wife Susan. Their teenaged daughter Rose – last seen in the season finale, though she is much more sympathetic and vulnerable this time around – is at Duneagle as well, and is thrilled to have company. Anna, Bates, O’Brien and Molesey come along as well to attend to the family in the various goings-on.
But frankly, not a whole lot happens up in Duneagle. Shrimpy and his wife have realized that they despise each other and they snipe among themselves at every opportunity; Lady Shrimpy vents her vitriol on Rose out of motherly concern. Remembering Sybil’s rebellious-ish days, Cora sympathizes, and it’s eventually decided that Rose will come to live at Downton while Shrimpy and Susan take up a military post for the Empire in India. (Maybe the food will improve their marriage, or at least their tempers.)
Robert lusts after the unadulterated privilege which Shrimpy’s vast estate reminds him of (Robert’s own has been dissipated by the war) and hunts, dines and lives as lordly as he could wish… until Shrimpy admits that he has lost the estate by neglecting to modernize its management, as Robert has. Lord Grantham realizes how lucky he is to be in love with his wife, and expresses at length his good fortune in having Matthew there to pressure him into taking Downton Abbey into the 20th century.
Really, what would we do without Matthew?
At the same time, it turns out that Edith’s newspaper editor Michael Gregson has more-or-less followed her up to Scotland in order to propose a not-marriage. Mary disapproves of Gregson instantly and lashes Edith with her acid tongue every time the subject comes up, though to be fair, she hasn’t got much else to do. Matthew (dear, dear Matthew) is much more sympathetic to Gregson and tries to make a good potential brother-in-law by hiking across the Highlands with him in an attempt to kill stags and fish.
That is, until the facts reveal themselves. The editor is still trapped in a marriage to his mad wife (maybe he should hire Bates?) and the best he can offer Edith is a position as his super-duper beloved mistress. Matthew insists that he end their flirtation after the Gillies Ball, but Edith once again rejects her man’s rejection of her and informs him that their relationship is not over.
Bates and Anna sneak away for a picnic, all memory of the former’s incarceration and death sentencing swept away by the scenery, or maybe the opening credits. They are sweetly flirtatious, especially when Anna surprises Bates by breaking out a killer reel in the middle of the ball. O’Brien and Lady Shrimpy’s maid at first seem to be kindred spirits, but then wind up in a battle of the ladies’ maids, with Molesey as the drunken casualty.
And Mary, after becoming increasingly uncomfortable in her nearly full-term pregnancy, decides to return home to Downton after dancing a reel, and falls into full-blown labor as the train pulls into Downton station. (Yes, that is apparently what it’s called.)
But before we go on to the really exciting parts, let’s rewind a bit. Meanwhile in Downton Abbey…
The younger servants left behind find their attentions wandering, though Carson and Mrs. Hughes provide plenty of work for them to do. Mrs. Patmore begins to be courted by the village’s new spice-shop owner, who invites everyone to a country fair. After a good deal of cajoling by the enternally-awesome Mrs. Hughes, Carson allows Thomas, Jimmy, Alfred, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, Ivy, and new (and instantly loathed) maid Edna to attend the fair. While they’re away, Carson cuddles with baby Sybil in a scene which might have been worth the entire two hours combined.
Speaking (alas) of Edna, Tom Branson (who has not been invited to Duneagle) is left alone in charge of the estate while the Crawleys are on holiday. This continues to exacerbate Tom’s awkward comrade-to-superior relationship with the staff. Edna spies Tom’s discomfort and seizes her opportunity, flirting with him with narrow-eyed intensity and inviting him downstairs to dine with the staff. She ups her game at the fair and finally walks in on a shirtless Tom alone in his room. (Screencap it, it’s worth it.) Edna kisses him and tells him to meet her at the pub for lunch, which fact she (in a truly spectacular breach of brain cells) informs Carson and Mrs. Hughes when they ask her to actually do her job.
Mrs. Hughes, having sniffed out the source of Tom’s newfound camaraderie with the staff – which is, for some reason, a problem – fires Edna and assures Branson that he has nothing to regret in his raised station. Tom gratifyingly breaks down over Sybil and expresses how much he misses her; Mrs. Hughes comforts him and tells him that someday he’ll find someone with whom to bear that loss.
(Disregard those words from the man behind the curtain, they will certainly not be important later.)
At the country fair, Jimmy gets drunk with cash to burn and winds up nearly the victim of a brutal robbery. Thomas (still pining, apparently) steps in to take the beating and gets his face bashed in. Feeling guilty, Jimmy visits a recuperating Thomas in his bedroom and admits that while he is not interested in a romance with Thomas, he is willing to make a go at friendship. Thomas happily agrees.
Also at the fair, Daisy wins a rigged game, and Mrs. Patmore’s beau flirts mercilessly with her and every other woman in sight. Mrs. Hughes breaks this news to her later, but Mrs. Patmore reacts with relief. Dr. Clarkson and Isobel attend as well, having shared a few plesant evenings together, but Isobel inadvertently rejects Clarkson’s proposal of marriage by telling him she prefers friendship to wedlock.
So! A ghostly pale Mary is zipped straight to the hospital, where she begins to labor in earnest. (The baby is early, but not worryingly so.) Isobel comforts her as news is brought to the Crawleys back in Scotland, who make arrangements to dash down as quickly as possible. With Downton in a tizzy as they arrive (even Carson is adorably ruffled) Matthew dashes to the hospital. Sweaty and terrified and joyful, he is just in time to meet his newborn son and – as Mary very pointedly reminds us, just in case we’d all forgotten the past three series of playing ‘Catch the Crawley’ – his heir. Mary, Matthew and long-awaited baby enjoy a few blissful moments in the sun-drenched hospital room, light glowing around them all like halos, enveloped in their collective love and the bright future ahead of them.
At Downton, the Crawleys breathe a sigh of relief and Robert recaps the past years of turmoil, wondering what he has done to deserve two healthy heirs. Violet agrees (that Robert has done nothing, apparently) and then cooly informs the audience that, “We don’t always get our just desserts.”
We have no idea what she could be talking about.
At the same time, Matthew drives back to Downton Abbey in his Chekhov’s car, bearing his tides of boundless joy. Smiling as only a new parent can as the wind ruffles his hair, he arrives back at Downton, and all is happiness, as fan-and-family dreams are fulfilled alike, and there are fireworks, and –
Oh, sorry. Actually, a lorry driving up the one-lane road causes Matthew to veer off down the unpaved hillside, where his his head is dashed in the dirt and his body crushed beneath his overturned car. Not being party to all the foreshadowing, Mary smiles down at her son in the hospital, waiting for her family and her husband to come back to her.
Happy Christmas to you too, Lord Fellowes.
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