No one dies and that will make some thankful enough for “Downton Abbey” fans. In what was the 2014 Christmas Special in the UK (Season 5 episode 9 in America), “A Moorland Holiday,” we have the possibility of love for both Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael), two parties and a marriage proposal. This is an episode about arrivals and departures, beginnings and endings of love stories.
The episode begins with a car arriving. A lady steps out. Where is she? That’s a question that resonates throughout the whole episode. Where are the women in their emotional lives and what doors will they open or close?
Dressed in a dark red coat, light grey hat and sensible shoes, Lady Mary and gone to visit Anna in prison. If you recall, Anna was arrested at the end of the last episode. In America, that would be a cliff hanger, left to trouble us until the next season started up, but that isn’t the British way.
Anna (Joanne Froggatt) asks Mary, “Did you give a false name?”
Mary replies, “Certainly not.”
Anna doesn’t trust the system so she replies, “But suppose it comes out in the papers you came to see me.”
Mary states, “It will show that the Crawleys do not believe you did it.”
Anna explains, “Yes, but who knows what they’ll come up with before they’re done?…I’ve been here before with Mr Bates. They weave their web with little lies and innuendo until they hold you fast.” Mary assure her that the whole family will be willing character witnesses. We hear a door slam and suddenly we’re back downstairs at Downton Abbey.
Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is uneasy about Mary’s visit to the prison. He asks, “Suppose it gets into the papers. ‘Earl’s loyal daughter visits maid in prison.'”
Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) comments, “I should think the public would like her for it.”
Carson still isn’t reassured, “Whether they do or not, I hate to give them the chance to poke their grubby noses into our business.”
At Downton Abbey, things are stirring downstairs. The family has been invited by Rose’s in-laws, Lord Sinderby (James Faulkner), out to Brancaster Castle for grouse hunting. Lord Sinderby is only renting the “extremely grand” castle and instead of depending upon the staff there, he has brought his own butler. That’s not a wise move for it means his butler will be bossing around a staff he doesn’t know.
Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) will go to be valet for Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville). Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) will be assisting Lady Mary, Lady Edith and their mother Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).
Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) sympathizes with her saying, “It’s hard to cope with three ladies at once, what with tweeds, evening dresses and tea gowns and all.”
Yet times have changed. “Tea gowns? We’re not in the 1890s now, Mr. Molesely,” Mrs. Hughes declares.
“More the pity,”Carson replies. I wish I had a maid to help me in and out of clothes and put my things away and endless closets.
Upstairs, there’s a discussion about Lady Mary visiting Anna.
Violet (Maggie Smith) asks, “Did she take a cake with a file in it?”
Robert tells his mother, “I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss. You’d visit Denker if she were locked up.”
Violet replies, “Only to check if the locks were sound.”
Violet is involved in some intrigue of her own. Shrimpie’s men have found Princess Kuragin (Jane Lapotaire).
“When she arrive in England, she’s coming straight to me.” The family is quite puzzled why Violet is going to so much trouble when she doesn’t like the Princess.
Violet puts off all those questions, by saying, “Oh, you know me. Never complain; never explain.”
Edith replies, “You don’t usually have much trouble complaining.”
Downstairs there’s more packing and we understand why Mary went alone. “They allow one visitor at a time, unless there’s a special reason” and so Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) sacrificed his time to see Anna today so that Mary could go see her. He proclaims, “I’d cut my arm off it I thought it would do any good.”
Thomas (Rob James-Collier) lightens the tone of the conversation saying, “I don’t think that would be sensible. We can’t have you wobbly at both ends.”
With the family leaving, Carson and Mrs. Hughes finish off a bottle of Margaux and Carson discusses the houses he has selected for them to look at as an investment toward their future retirement.
Carson tells her, “You don’t go far wrong with Margaux…These four are real contenders.
Three good-size bedrooms, bathroom already installed ~ and a room off the kitchen for a maid.”
Susan and Shrimpie won’t be there and Susan has been informed because as Cora puts it, “I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else.”
The children are outside, ready to see their parents off. Edith almost says, “Come to mummy” to Marigold and while Mary doesn’t notice, Robert, Edith’s father does. Robert asks Cora if he should reveal his knowledge to Edith, but Cora assures him, “It’s not our secret.” Of course, we’re all waiting to see when Mary will figure all this out.
Violet is there to see them all off. Carson reminds Thomas, “Check every piece of luggage when they’re transferred in York.”
Thomas assures him, “I have changed trains before, Mr. Carson.”
When Robert comments, “I’m impressed you should come to say goodbye, mama,” Violet replies “Why do you always talk of me as if I were a salmon who laid my eggs in the gravel and swam back to the sea?”
Mary replies, “You’re very maternal aren’t you granny when it suits you.”
Isobel is there, too and they both will be around when Princess Kuragin turns up the next day.
After, Cora, Edith, Mary, Robert and Tom are in the train and off, Violet comments, “Lord Sinderby, Branson and Barrow–not what I’d call a recipe for a peaceful week’s shooting.”
“Makes you wonder what they’ll be shooting at by the end of it,” Isobel (Penelope Wilton) comments and they both laugh. It’s nice to see these two ladies getting chummy.
Of course, everyone is well aware of the situation with Lord Sinderby.
Cora declares, “For Rose’s sake, we must all be on our best behaviour.”
Robert adds, “I agree. Sinderby always looks as if he’s spoiling for a fight, whether he is or not.
We must be careful not to give him grounds for one.”
Tom says, “I wonder if I was right to come. I don’t want to sound like Larry Grey, but I’m not Lord Sinderby’s idea of a perfect son-in-law.”
Mary quickly puts that to rest, “Stuff and nonsense! We Crawleys stick together.”
Edith is supportive, adding, “For once I agree with Mary.”
Edith has her own concerns which should have made Mary suspicious. Edith reveals, “I suggested to Nanny she take the children to Lake Gormire for a picnic. Do you think it too dangerous? Shall I telephone to cancel it?”
Mary quickly gives Edith a hint about motherhood, “Why don’t you shut them up in a box in the attic, let them out when they’re 21?”
Cora, who exchanges a knowing look, “Don’t be unkind!”
Mary is too self-involved to notice what’s passed and says, “Honestly, I’m the mother round here and I’m not panicking.”
At the Brancaster Castle, the Crawleys are met by Rose and Atticus. They’ve returned from a honeymoon in Venice, but they are not the hosts.
Lady Sinderby explains why they’ve rented the castle, saying, “We know some locals, which is one of the reasons we took it.” The castle belongs to Lord Hexham who is seldom there.
Yet the usage of the house also comes with a few strings attached. Atticus explains, “And Lord Hexham has asked us to be kind to his late father’s pals.”
Robert comments, “That seems steep given what Lord Sinderby must be in for.”
While the introductions upstairs don’t need to be made, downstairs is a different story. Thomas was briefly introduced to Stowell, but the man is, like Lord Sinderby, cold and rude.
Thomas makes a second attempt at introducing himself, “May I introduce myself? I am Mr Barrow, valet to the Earl of Grantham.”
Stowell (Alun Armstrong) abruptly puts him in his place, replying, “I believe you are TEMPORARY valet to Lord Grantham. The sad story of Mrs Bates has reached our ears.”
Faced with an unsympathetic Stowell, Thomas can only reply, “News travels fast.”
Stowell then asserts his position, “I’m Lord Sinderby’s butler, Stowell.”
Thomas attempts to find some common ground, by commenting, “Oh, so you’re a novice here, too.”
Stowell sternly admonishing, “I am not a novice anywhere.”
Quickly, Stowell asserts his prejudices when Thomas indicates some possessions belong to Tom, “Those are for Mr Branson. He’s up here without a valet.”
Stowell spits out, “Few chauffeurs travel with a valet.”
Thomas remains ever so polite, replying, “Heavens, you are up-to-date with your detail, Mr Stowell.”
Stowell then offers the tiniest leaf of an olive branch, “How can you bear to wait on him?”
Thomas offers an actual branch, saying, “We do what we have to do, don’t we?”
Stowell sets that branch on fire by commenting, “On which subject, you will help out as a footman while you’re here.”
Thomas protests, “Excuse, I am an under-butler and…”
Stowell cuts him off, by explaining curtly, “Lord Hexham is seldom at home, and so they do not maintain a full staff. You will serve as a footman.”
Stowell isn’t much kinder for Miss Baxter who is being a ladies maid to three ladies. We are made to understand that the rooms aren’t very close, making Miss Baxter’s job harder.
Upstairs, things are a bit frosty as the guests socialize over tea. Robert ventures to suggest to Lord Sinderby, “You should invite Shrimpie; he’s a marvelous shot.” Robert and Cora exchange looks when Lord Sinderby makes no reply. “I gather you’ve asked a few of Lord Hexham’s friends. Very good of you.” There is an art to polite conversation.
Lord Sinderby comments, “I suspect some of them have had to overcome their principles ~ to accept my hospitality.”
Keeping things light, Robert replies, “The English have strong principles except when it comes to the chance of good shooting or eating well.”
Lord Sinderby is briefly agreeable, commenting, “How true!” before he rudely demands Thomas’ attention. “You. Milk (to Thomas).” This is not the way the Crawley family would address their servants.
During this function, Stowell won’t give Tom sugar. This doesn’t go unnoticed.
As they begin their grouse hunting which consists of men flushing out the birds while pairs of people chum up behind small shooting sites.
Rachel (Lady Sinderby) partners up with Tom while Mary is with Lord Sinderby.
This gives the family an opportunity to get to know each other. Lord Sinderby isn’t totally clueless, telling Mary, “I’m afraid your father’s rather disappointed that I’m not inclined to welcome your cousin Shrimpie under my roof.”
Mary coolly replies, “Papa only said he was a good shot, and he is. Lord Sinderby, now that we’re family, wouldn’t it be better just to accept the situation of Rose’s parents? Wouldn’t it make it pleasanter for everyone?”
Lord Sinderby isn’t about being pleasant and replies, “I can’t pretend to approve of divorce. Even for you.”
Mary asks, “And you can’t learn to live with it, even for Rose’s sake?”
Rachel asks Tom about coming into the family.
If the grouse hunt is awkward, then so is Anna’s discussion about her past, something she fears has just been discovered and she must tell her husband, John, about a past that includes a stepfather who wanted more affection than was descent.
Anna’s mother was left widowed when her husband died in an accident. Her mother’s remarriage saved them from being destitute.
Anna tells John, “It wasn’t much at first. Slight touches. Brushing past me. I still remember the smell of the beer on his breath.”
John asks, “Couldn’t you tell your mother?”
Anna explains, “She didn’t want to believe it. What would she have done if he’d left? Then, one night, he kept looking at me and I knew what was coming. So I fetched a knife from the scullery and I waited in the dark.”
Do you think perhaps this is a bit too much? Or is this whole tragic black cloud that engulfs this couple already too much? Was it murder?
John asks, ” Are you saying you killed him?”
Anna responds timidly, “No. No, of course not. I threatened him. And when he wouldn’t stop, I struck him with the blade, but I only cut him.”
John asks the important question, “You mean, nothing happened?”
Anna responds, “Well, he screamed blue murder, so the Watch came, but my mother persuaded him to say he slipped and fell, that it was an accident. After that, I took a job further up north as a tweeny.
But it must have been in the records and now they’ve found it.”
As we watch the love of Anna and John Bates reaffirmed, we also watch Violet’s love interest reunited with his wife. If one thought Violet was stiff and self-righteous, then her one-time rival is stiffer than a corpse in full rigor mortis. The lady is a downer and it’s hardly a wonder the Prince wanted to escape from his marriage with her.
Lord Merton and Isobel were there because as Violet puts it, “The presence of strangers is our only guarantee of good behaviour.” For a night, the Prince Kuragin and Princess Kuragin can enjoy the luxury of their old life. Prince Kuragin has borrowed a tux from the Theatre Royale. He had not seen her for five years. Violet has given the princess a dress, but that hardly makes her happy.
Isobel attempts to start a conversation, saying, “I would so like to go to Russia. I’m afraid I never have.”
The Princess Kuragin, Irina, is hardly ready for polite company, replying only, “Then you’ve missed it.”
Violet asks, “Do you have everything you need?”
Irina gives a frosty reply, “I wear the clothes you had put out.”
Violet says, “I didn’t know if you’d have your luggage with you.”
Irina replies, “I have no luggage. I have no possessions to put in my luggage.”
Prince Kuragin chides his wife, “Come, my dear. Nothing is more tedious than other people’s misfortunes. Let us just be grateful to Lady Grantham.”
Irina doesn’t defrost and only states, “Last time we met, the circumstances were rather different.”
Violet politely claims, “I don’t remember.”
Irina replies, “I think you do.” Igor and Irina will be going to live in Paris but it won’t be a pleasant existence.
If that meal ended badly, another meal was just slightly less uncomfortable, at least for Tom. At the castle, Lord Sinderby’s butler makes it clear he doesn’t wish to serve Tom.
Tom is passed over when the bread is being offered and has to politely ask, “Might I have some bread? Thank you, Stowell. You’re very kind.”
Atticus does whisper, “I do apologise.”
Rose confides, “Poor Atticus.”
As explanation, Mary says, “How can he reprimand his father’s butler? Lord Sinderby wouldn’t take kindly to that.”
Rose then comments, “The silly thing is, I don’t think Stowell likes my father-in-law.”
Mary replies, “He seems obsequious enough.”
Rose reveals, “Oh, he’s all bows and deference to his face, but my maid tells me it’s a different story behind his back.” One assumes that Rose’s maid loves her mistress. How could one not like the good-hearted and generous Rose?
Mary says, “That’s a frightening thought, when you remember what a butler knows about the family he serves.”
Rose asserts, “They know far more about us than we do about them.”
Later, after the dinner, Mary speaks to Miss Baxter, “I hate the way Stowell treats Mr Branson.”
Miss Baxter admits, “He isn’t polite downstairs.”
Mary wonders outloud, “What right has he to approve or disapprove? Anyway, Lady Rose says he doesn’t even like Lord Sinderby.”
Miss Baxter comments, “I’m not sure His Lordship’s very easy to like.”
Yet there is an idea forming in Lady Mary’s mind and she says, “True enough, but is there any way to get Stowell a black mark? Can’t Barrow come up with something?”
Yes, that’s right. Mary can’t do her own scheming, but she’ll let Thomas do it for her. Miss Baxter admits, “You’re right, Mr Barrow usually has a card or two up his sleeve.”
Mary then declares, “Well, tell him to get one out of his sleeve and play it. Pronto.”
Downstairs, when Miss Baxter relays Lady Mary’s message, Thomas says, “I don’t mind taking him down a peg or two.”
Miss Baxter wonders, “But how?”
Thomas does think of a way and Miss Baxter is, this time, a willing accomplice. While Miss Baxter and Thomas succeed, they perhaps succeed too well. Lord Sinderby hasn’t considered that even a lion can be helped by a mouse. He yells at his butler at dinner and calls Thomas a fool. Although Mary enjoys the show, Thomas does not and takes his plan a little further, using a bit of wine and the bitter taste of ungrateful servitude to get some intelligence.
Stowell complains that “restraint is Hobson’s choice” even when Lord Merton’s title is “not 10 minutes old.” A Hobson’s choice comes from a man who lived between 1544 and 1631, Thomas Hobson. Hobson was a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England who used to offer his customers a choice: Take the horse in the stall nearest to the door or take nothing.
I won’t spoil this little intrigue, but it does manage to make Lord Sinderby grateful for Rose and her kind heart and while his butler Stowell becomes indebted to the Crawleys and humbly begins to extend service to Tom.
This isn’t the only intrigue going on at Brancaster Castle. Edith meets the agent of the castle, Bertie Pelham (Harry Haden-Paton) and dances with him. Mary meets Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode). Talbot is completely aware of the rescue operation enacted by the Crawleys and asks Mary pointed questions that she cannot answer.
And yet secrets are revealed. Spratt finally almost gets the upper hand with Denker but by the December Christmas party, Violet has had enough and insists on peace at home (“There’s a point, Spratt, where malice ceases to be amusing.”). Robert, worried about his health, has a heart-to-heart talk with Edith. Tom has guessed Edith’s secret.
Tom is bound for Boston and Atticus and Rose will be in New York. Is there hopes of an American version of Downton Abbey? Will Tom and his daughter vanish from our Downton Abbey world even though he says, “I’ll be back one day I need to see how the village turned out”?
Perhaps Tom will also come back to see how Thomas Barrow turns out. In this episode, Thomas Barrow has crossed over to the light side and teamed with Lady Mary can be formidable. This episode is also a reminder that one should be kind and polite to those who serve us; no one needs enemies.
While neither Violet and Isobel will have a happy ending to the romances that have been central stories for this season (Violet mourns, saying, “I will never again receive an immoral proposition from a man.”), there is one sweet proposal at the end (“Of course I’ll marry you, you old booby.”) and expect a reunion between Anna and John thanks to the efforts of Mr. Moseley and Miss Baxter. Expect tidings of comfort and joy, a happy Christmas and a call to “let us adore Him Christ the Lord.”
“Downton Abbey” Series/Season 5, Episode 9 was originally a 2014 Christmas special and since it aired Sunday night, can be viewed VoD on PBS.