Downton Abbey series five, episode six review: Edith cracks, Mary gets new hair

Have we said goodbye for ever to the soggiest Crawley sister? Could the Dowager Countess be turning Russian? Re-live the drama with our full recap!

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As Carson explained to the whispering under-slaves: if it’s a phone call, that’s OK. If it’s a telegram: strap on a veil and tell Mrs Patmore to boil up some of her spiced mutton tonic, because it must be serious. Edith was propelled into a final slough of despond this week, when a colleague of her lost fiancé Gregson (Michael Palin) telegrammed ominously to say he was coming to Downtonshire with developments.   

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Having grappled with randy beanpole aesthete Simon Bricker in his own bedroom last week, Lord Grantham passed on the latest to Cora in clipped tones. Like so many marriages in trouble, theirs had descended into stilted infodumps, reminiscent of hastily written drama. The man who sent the telegram had come. Gregson was dead. He’d been killed by Hitler’s frightful hooligans during the Munich beer hall Putsch. Gregson’s remains were spread across Germany like so many cheap Pfeffernüsse. Edith was sad.   

All these bulletins were spat out perfunctorily, the only connection between the warring spouses being an almost clairvoyant shared expertise in German politics, leading both to predict that Hitler would not serve his full five-year sentence. At the end of the conversation, Lord G turned on his heel and petulantly slammed the door behind him – or as close as one can get to a slam when the door is six inches thick, made of solid oak inlaid with platinum and edged in velvet, and was a gift from King Errol XII of Ruritania.  

Later, Lord G was pointedly settling down in a single bed in his dressing room when Cora entered, and challenged him to stay there only if he could swear to himself that he had never let a flirtation get out of control. At first he reached stoutly to switch off his bedside lamp and enjoy some wronged sleep, but then he remembered: of course! Season two, episode seven! Jane the maid, right there in the dressing room. Dammit Cora, fifteen-all. Off Lord G trotted, back into the boudoir for some make-up rumpety-tumpingtons. So that’s all sorted.  

On the upside as far as Edith was concerned, she had inherited a publishing company. News that Lady Rose might also be about to fornicate her way into a bit of bunce came via an invite to a gathering Atticus Aldridge’s parents were having at their house: afternoon tea, a marquee the size of Earl’s Court, some semi-professional horse racing in the back garden. Nothing fancy. Lady Mary was informed that both her admirers, the waning Tony Gillingham and the increasingly confidently waxing Charles Blake, would be there.   

“Am I looking… frumpy?” she asked the faithful Anna, gazing in the mirror at her trademark locked-down salmon-brown smock and defiantly drooping jewellery. Anna pooh-poohed the idea, but Mary’s mind was made up and, before you could say “Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka”, she’d popped to the north-east’s most fashionable salon for a daring bob cut. Mary was ready for a massive romantic horse-off.

Downstairs, among the main topics of conversation was Barrow’s continuing transformation into a black-eyed ghost child, thanks to his dodgy, self-administered medicinal regime. While serving lunch he could get away with it by standing near  Lady Edith, making him only the second most pale and bilious person in the room. In the kitchen, however, his colleagues were quick to announce that he now resembled a zombie with norovirus.  

Eventually Barrow reached breaking point and ushered Baxter into a bathroom, where he shamefully showcased his vials, syringes and infected abdomen. A visit to Clarkson, the reassuringly Scottish doctor, revealed that the medicine was a saline placebo – the unsterile reuse of needles being the culprit – and that Barrow had acquired the fake treatment in an effort to cure his homosexuality. Baxter applauded his bravery in trying to do something to fix his unhappiness – her kindness coming despite the fact that he’d caused her to reveal her criminal past to Mrs Hughes.  

Acting on a tip-off sent in by Barrow as part of his endless, motiveless war on the Bateses, the cops had returned to Downton to question Baxter with Hughesy present. Baxter had been forced to admit that she’d been to prison and that she knew of an illicit trip to London. Mrs Hughes didn’t mind the criminal record so much as the prospect of the police once again closing in on the Downton murderer.  

Not that there necessarily is one. Anna Bates sent her husband, Bates Bates, on an apparently unremarkable errand: rifling through their drawers and cupboards for buttons. Instead he found Lady Mary’s heir-tight swimming cap and assumed the device was his wife’s. Once he and Anna were in the boot room – strict workplace protocol demands all disputes between servants take place there – a mild domestic ensued, in which he speculated that she might not want his children because she thinks he killed Green, which he didn’t, although he did buy a ticket from York to London before reconsidering.  

The ticket was to be his alibi, since it wasn’t torn, denoting a journey not taken. But he’d kept it in the pocket of an overcoat Anna had given to Mrs Hughes to give to charity. Anna rushed to Hughesy and explained. Surely she wouldn’t remember the ticket, let alone have retained it? Hughesy had to cast her mind back… of course! The 2013 Christmas special! She gave the ticket to Lady Mary. At the moment, Anna doesn’t know this – or that Lady Mary, who owns her own first-class carriage and thus does not know the significance of unmolested tickets, burned the evidence in an effort to help Bates get away with murder as a thank you for his help in saving the Prince of Wales from scandal by pick-pocketing a card sharp. At the speed the Downton cops move, if they get wind of that saga and try to unravel it, they’ll be there until halfway through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

Meanwhile, excitement grew at the advent of toothy lothario Atticus’s point-to-point party. He arrived at Downton, grinning constantly and laying the flirting on thick with Rose. Everyone was on board and ready to party until Edith, offended that Mary had chosen the day after the news of Gregson’s death to sculpt her hair into a beacon of sexual assertiveness, said she wouldn’t attend and stormed out. Atticus feared a mass cancellation – you could tell he was alarmed, because his wisdom teeth briefly weren’t visible – but then was reassured that soppy Edith is rubbish at parties anyway, so the clan was still coming. Mary, who does the bulk of her grieving between series when someone she loves dies violently, was particularly unkind.  

For the Dowager Countess, there were several more harsh reminders that there are some things a rasping one-liner can’t fix. She has trouble downstairs in the form of impertinent new maid Denker, who is at war with Spratt the sensitive Geordie butler. The indiscreet laundering of the D-C’s undergarments is the cause of the dispute, with the implication being that Denker carelessly boils up the trusses willy-nilly while Spratt is trying to concentrate on creaming scones.  

More importantly, the Dowager’s emotional armour continues to crack. A visit to the hovel in York of the flamboyantly moustachioed Russian aristo, who once warmed up the Dowager in St Petersburg and is now on the run from the Bolsheviks, revealed that theirs was a proper love, but that uptight 19th-century social mores stopped the D-C admitting she’d married the wrong guy. Is it too late to become the Countess Kuragin? At her age, can the Dowager Countess adapt to the bland cuisine, the endless vodka, the cold winters, the interminable novels?  

A greater romance is still only known to its participants, and even they barely acknowledge it. A visit with Mrs Patmore to her buy-to-let cottage prompted Carson to nervily ask Mrs Hughes about her plans for retirement – would she perhaps like to go halves with him now on a similar investment, the unemphasised but unmistakable implication being that they would later live there together? By Carson’s standards this was a wild, balls-on-sleeve declaration of all-consuming love. Mrs Hughes responded in kind, shooing him off to ring the gong for dinner before wantonly permitting herself half a smile. It’s on!  

Branson, humble and directionless after his rejection of Bunting the rude socialist, had a quiet week. At one point he tried to start a conversation about which firm’s building plans presented the most economical option for the redevelopment of the lower field, but the rest of the family sensed they were in the most entertaining episode since series three and quickly moved on. Branson’s main contribution was to be the only witness, among the Crawleys at least, to Edith’s apparently permanent departure.   

Finally despairing at being seen by her own family as a wet drag, Edith told Tom not to let upper-class life rob him of his idealism and vitality – he’d bunked off the racing party in order to “see the figures from the repair shop”, so that ship may have sailed – and then packed her cases to head for Yewtree Farm, where she made it plain to Tim the kind pig-wrangler’s distraught wife that she was Marigold’s mother and would now be taking over.

We left Edith and Marigold in a high-end boarding house in London, where the child can look forward to a lifetime of drab clothing and sudden teary outbursts. She already seemed to be longing for the piggery.  

At the races, Charles Blake smoothly re-introduced Martha Lane-Fox to Tony Gillingham, then even more smoothly wangled everyone a bed at Downton that night. Excited by this and by her sexy new helmet of hair, Mary shocked onlookers by mounting a horse and competing with the men. She didn’t win, but performed well if one allows for her having ridden side-saddle so as not to offend her grandmother completely.  

“I’m dying to ride astride,” Mary confided to Lane-Fox. Oh dear. Has she forgotten Liverpool already? Poor Tony.

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>> Episode five: Carson is fooled, Lord Grantham attacks