‘Downton Abbey’ recap: The season finale

February 23

Wait, did the season finale of “Downton” leave us with more questions than it answered?

Here’s what we still don’t know:

Did Bates kill Green?
Will Mary choose Blake or Gillingham or Napier? (Okay, probably not Napier).
Will Edith ever locate Michael Gregson?
What dirt does Barrow have on Baxter? (And, related, why do the names of so many characters on “Downton” begin with B? Bates, Blake, Barrow, Baxter, Bunting, Branson, Braithwaite. I’m out of breath).

I doubt the last question will be answered and it looks like we’ll have to wait for next season to find out about the others.

Until then, I hope this scientific analysis of this season’s final episode will suffice.


Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Lily James as Lady Rose in “Downton Abbey.” (Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited)

It’s mid-summer 1923 and London is sinking under the weight of toffs, all in town for debutante season. Our friends from Downton Abbey are here for the presentation of ditzy Rose to the king and queen and for her debutante ball.

It’s not just Americans who think this is a strange ritual. “Seems odd to me that a curtsy and a nod from the throne turns a girl into a woman, but that’s the way they do it so who are we to argue,” says Mrs. Hughes.

There’s not quite as much room in the Granthams’ ramshackle London digs, so they are “squeezed in like sardines,” as Rose puts it. Poor dears. Cora says that there may have to be some doubling up to which Mary responds: “I’d rather sleep on the roof than share with Edith.” That seems a bit mean, but would you want to share a room with Edith?

Joining the family in London are Cora’s American mother and brother, Martha and Harold Levinson. Harold is getting away from the States to lie low for a while after being tied to the Teapot Dome scandal. Martha is there, it seems, just to be a thorn in everyone’s backsides. She and the Dowager Countess share a particular disdain for one another. They mix it up throughout the show and at one point, Martha explains why she isn’t interested in marrying in to the English nobility: “I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life among people who think me loud and opinionated and common.” Well, Martha, I’m afraid that rules out almost everyone.

Harold Levinson is a bit like his mother. Cranky and convinced that people only care about him because he’s rich. He’s probably right about that. It would be easy to get annoyed at how the “American-ness” of Martha and Harold, and of Harold’s valet Ethan Slade, an overeager puppy, are exaggerated to such cartoon effect. But so too is the Britishness of all the other characters, so fair’s fair, I suppose.

Edith is back from Switzerland and is feeling particularly blue. She had her baby and then gave her to a Swiss family to raise. But now that she’s returned, she can’t help feeling she’s made the wrong decision. She also thinks Gregson may still be alive. The last she heard though, he was being roughed up by “brownshirts.” This is the first reference to Nazis. I expect we’ll hear much more of them next season. Nazis always do well in the ratings.

Aunt Rosamund tries to convince her she’s done the right thing, but Edith can’t be consoled. Granny’s jokes don’t help. Later Edith makes a stunning decision. She tracks down Downton’s pig man and gets him to agree to raise the child as his own. Edith tells him that the child belongs to a friend of hers who died, but the pig man is too clever to buy that story. He promises he will keep the plan secret and that his family will raise the child, thus ensuring that the child will grow up on Downton property (even if she’s not allowed to enter the Abbey through the front door). The woman I’m related to by marriage thinks Edith and the pig man will have an affair, but that would definitely not be kosher.

Is there really a story that matters this year besides whether Bates killed Green, the man who raped Anna? This week provides the first bit of circumstantial evidence that Bates was in London the day Green was killed. Mrs. Hughes collects clothing for a charity drive and Anna donates Mr. Bates’s coat. In it Hughes finds a train ticket to London on the day in question.

Hughes gives the ticket to Lady Mary and tells her that she’s not going to rat out Bates. “If he was there to avenge his wife’s honor, I won’t condemn him for it. I’m sorry, but I won’t.” Mary agrees, but seems troubled. Later she finds Mrs. Hughes and tells her, “We’re talking about a man’s life. Whatever we may think, do we have the right to do nothing?”

Hughes makes her position clear: “So Mr. Bates must be ruined, or even hanged, because a vile vicious monster is no longer with us?” Mary has a decision to make.

One of the things “Downton Abbey” has always done spectacularly well is dinners and parties. This episode was full of them.


At one such dinner, we meet Lord Ainsgarth, who has a title, but not much else. Is this the British version of “all hat and no cattle”? He soon becomes aware of Martha’s immense wealth and tries to seduce her. And he sics his lovely daughter Madeline on Harold. But Harold and Martha are both wise to their wooers, though they react differently.

Martha leads the lord on, enjoying watching him try to pander to her. Harold is blunt, too blunt, with Madeline and insults her without getting to know her first. He realizes his mistake and begins to make amends. He offers a fabulous picnic as an apology and by the end of a show, there’s a hint that a relationship between these two is possible.

There have been many strange things on “Downton Abbey” over the years, but this season finale should have come with a warning notice: Viewers beware. This episode contains a madcap caper!

It was hard to know what to make of the storyline about the love letter from the Prince of Wales getting into the wrong hands and the extraordinarily silly efforts the Downton gang make to retrieve it. I sort of wished these scenes were played in fast motion and set to “Benny Hill” theme music.

At an embassy party, Rose and her new friend Freda, a pal-amour of the Prince of Wales, share some giggles over a letter the prince has sent to Freda. Its contents aren’t revealed, but it’s probably a 1920s version of an Anthony Weiner tweet.

Sitting with Rose and Freda at the the table is Mr. Sampson, the card sharp who cheated everyone in an earlier episode before being caught up in his own game by Michael Gregson. When Rose and Freda leave the table to dance, Sampson swipes the love letter, apparently with plans of either blackmailing the prince or selling the letter to the press. (As a member of the press, I can assure you the latter would never happen, because the press simply doesn’t engage in such tawdry business.)

Rose tells Lord Grantham about the missing letter and a plot is hatched to bring Sampson to the house to play poker while Rose, Mary and Mr. Blake search Sampson’s apartment. First they need a forged note to get in. Ah, Bates, just the fellow. The apartment search proves fruitless, however, and so there’s despair in Downtonville.

As the poker game breaks up, Bates has an idea. He helps Sampson put on his coat and while doing so he pickpockets the letter which Sampson has kept on him the whole time. Let’s see, Bates is a pickpocket and a forger and possibly a two-time murderer. No wonder he’s my favorite character. The Granthams are certainly in his debt. Mary recognizes that and burns the train ticket that seemed to show he was in London the day Green died.

With the letter secured, there’s Rose’s ball to prepare for. Punch bowls are arranged. An orchestra readies (sadly, Jack Ross is not the leader of this one). The guests arrive in their exquisite clothes and the dancing is about to begin. But wait, who’s this? Oh, just the Prince of Wales. He’s been told he owes the Granthams big-time, so he asks to have the first dance with Rose. Rose will now be the coolest deb in London.

To thank the staff for all of their extra work, Cora has told Carson to take the staff out for a day-off treat. Carson has terrible ideas for where to spend the day off. Mrs. Hughes tries to steer him into something a little less boring and he eventually settles on a trip for everyone to a seaside town.


Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes as Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in “Downton Abbey.” (Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited)

At the beach, Carson dips his toes into the water (and yes, if you hadn’t guessed, this scene is a two-ton metaphor.) He’s only in up to his ankles, but he’s worried he’s in too deep. He takes Mrs. Hughes’s hand to steady himself. “You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady,” she tells him. “I don’t know how, but you managed to make that sound a little risque,” Carson responds. “And if I did,” she says with a teasing smile. “We’re getting on Mr. Carson, you and I. We can afford to live a little.” I’m pretty sure I heard some Barry White playing in the background, but maybe I just imagined it.

Other goings-on:

The ongoing snippy battle between Blake and Gillingham for Mary is a bit strange. Gillingham had the upper hand until he informed Mary that Blake is in line for a huge inheritance. Gillingham wants it to be a fair fight. But who fights fair when it comes to love? Meanwhile Mary says that her destiny is to save Downton for George. George? Oh, right, her son. The one she seems to have zero interest in. I’m not sure who will win Mary’s favor, but I think whoever doesn’t will be the real winner.

I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve started to like Molesley. Maybe it’s because he finally stopped whining. And he’s been a good friend to Baxter in her battles with Barrow. (Those Bs!)

Lord Merton is certainly making a play for Isobel Crawley. And she seems flustered by the attention, which is always a good sign. But what does this mean for poor Dr. Clarkson? I think he may be out in the cold next year.

Tom Branson sees Sarah Bunting in town and they go to the pub for dinner. She asks to see Downton and despite his misgivings, he shows her the place. She wants a look from upstairs and as they’re up there who should appear but the evil Barrow. I’m a little tired of Barrow this year. He didn’t contribute much besides a few malicious smiles. He later rats out Branson to Lord Grantham, but that doesn’t seem to lead to much.

Uncle Harold’s valet falls for Daisy and tries to recruit her to move to America and work for his boss. Really, he just wants Daisy. Daisy is happy for the attention, but she has no plans to move to America. I think she hasn’t yet given up on Alfred. Ivy senses opportunity and asks to go in Daisy’s place. It’s not what the valet had in mind, but his man needs a cook, so that settles it.

Finally, here are some possible (albeit unlikely) plot developments for next year’s season:

Yes, it looks like Bates was in London when Green died. But you know who was also in London? Anna! Might she have avenged her own rape? Very possible. She wouldn’t have worried about Bates being implicated because she believed he was back at Downton. She knew where Green lived and she might have gone after him herself. It’s a longshot, yes, but I can dream, can’t I?

Edith goes to retrieve her daughter in Switzerland (her Swiss miss?) and finds Gregson. They become a leading spy family, providing crucial information to England during the war. Edith becomes the real hero of Downton lore.

Cora is secretly operating an opium den in Downton. No one suspects her. They just think that’s how she is.

Mrs. Hughes proclaims her feelings for Mr. Carson. But Mr. Carson is conflicted. He’s secretly pining for Mrs. Patmore who’s oblivious to his vague advances. Mrs. Patmore is secretly pining for another pasty.

I think that’s as good a place as any to stop. Thanks for reading.

You can follow me on Twitter: @joeheim

Previous Season 4 recaps:

Episode 1: Season 4 begins, and it’s a bummer

Episode 2: An unthinkable act changes the tenor of the show

Episode 3: Is Mary ready to be married again?

Episode 4: Mr. Bates knows. Now what?

Episode 5: Edith has a secret

Episode 6: An unwelcome guest returns

Episode 7: What was Mr. Bates up to?

Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine. He has recently written about the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence.
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