A classic Downton Christmas: mostly in mid-summer, mostly not at Downton Abbey, and a forged letter started it all. The toffs gathered a skeleton staff and decamped to Brancaster, a charming 97-bedroom castle conversion with large rear garden, hired by Lord Sinderby for the purpose of shooting grouse.
The Crawleys had been dreading going to stay with Sinderby, a relative by marriage who has the permanent hump and is particularly grumpy and bigoted at dinner – making this episode a bit more traditionally Christmassy than it initially appeared.
Yet their chief antagonist proved not to be Sinderby, but his even more cantankerous butler Stowell. This joker quickly cut down Barrow’s dreams of excelling as a stand-in valet – Bates being excused from sponging Lord Grantham’s holiday cummerbunds on account of his wife being on remand for murder – by informing him, very curtly indeed, that he would be acting as a footman for the duration. Stowell was also so rude about Branson that Barrow, a man previously dedicated to Branson’s social destruction, rallied round and took further umbrage.
Barrow didn’t act on his rage until Stowell went public with his anti-Bransonism, ostentatiously refusing to give the upscaled chauffeur any bread rolls. Lady Mary didn’t like that at all and, while Baxter was helping her into her taupe elbow gloves pre-dinner, she asked her temporary lady’s maid to see if she and Barrow couldn’t take Stowell down a peg or six.
Initially Barrow stuck to the regular disgruntled servant’s playbook, writing a fake letter to the cook instructing her that Sinderby wished to serve bland food the next evening. He did not, and made this plain to Stowell in front of everyone, with Barrow also caught in the crossfire when Sinderby ran out of insults to throw at his man and called Barrow a “stupid fool” into the bargain.
At this, Barrow’s fangs descended. That night he melted into the rooms of the angrily drunk Stowell and pumped him expertly for info on Sinderby. Before you could say “reputational armageddon”, a woman called Diana had received a fake telegram and crashed a drinks party under the impression that Sinderby would wish to talk to her and her small, Sinderby-esque son.
He did not, and made this plain by hyperventilating and grabbing the dado rail for support. Rose stepped in and, with help from Lord Grantham and a horrified, guilty Lady Mary, passed the woman off as a London friend before Lady Sinderby could clock the crisis and file for divorce. All was saved. So it was that Ebeneezer Sinderby realised the error of his ways and welcomed Rose into the family. Merry Mid-Summer, one and all!
At the shoot itself, the natural order of things was upheld. The men fired the bullets while the women looked on and simpered, and the lower classes tramped through the undergrowth hoovering up dead fowl.
Mary was paired with Henry Talbot, a new acquaintance who announced himself as a potential suitor by being played by a quite famous actor, and by competing lustily in Mary’s preferred method of courtship, which is to exchange cold insults without making eye contact. Doing this while casually murdering birds took his game to another level.
At an impromptu dance back at the castle, Talbot – clamped confidently to Lady Mary’s torso – showily rattled off the whole story of how Sinderby had secretly been helped by Rose, having observed and deduced it all like a posh, sexy Poirot.
The clincher came the next morning when Mary, light blue with arousal, intercepted Talbot’s pre-breakfast departure and said she hoped to watch him unload again sometime. Talbot angled his hat still more raffishly and replied that although he is of course brilliant at it, shooting isn’t his sport. It’s cars. He leapt into his sexy sports chariot and, as Mary nearly fainted from desire, drove off. Talbot is pale, rude, clever and generally makes Tony Gillingham look like a golf bag with a face drawn on. He’s the one.
Lady Edith, meanwhile, was perching wetly on the shoulder of Wodehousian bumbler Bertie Pelham, a self-deprecating lettings agent who had been given the job of renting out the castle by its owner, and had been invited to the shooting party by Sinderby. Both these gestures were out of sheer pity, as he cheerfully admitted to Edith as part of his unorthodox pick-up technique, which was to outline what a colossal loser he is while failing utterly to execute any grouse.
Edith allowed herself a weak smile and intimated that she too is a benighted outsider, smearing sad snot against the window pane of life but trying not to complain. Could Bertie be the man to make Edith forget her beloved, murdered-by-Nazis fiancé Gregson (Michael Palin) and help train little Marigold to be a plucky doormat? We can but hope.
In Downtonshire, the Dowager Countess’s slaves continued their vicious office politics. Permanently outraged butler-on-castors Spratt saw a chance to nix slack maid Denker once and for all, by arranging for her to make the DC some restorative chicken broth.
Denker was probably out organising dog fights or smoking opium when other maids were learning to cook, so she threw herself on the mercy of the temporarily under-employed Mrs Patmore and Daisy. Having established that soup made by an unsupervised Denker tasted like yesterday’s stable-water, they hatched a plan. Daisy would go round with the ingredients for M-Patz’s failsafe chicken broth: chicken, carrots, double cream, venison liver, butter, onions, lard, parsley, goose dripping, milk, turnips, a boar’s corpse. But she also brought a bottle of it already made up, leaving Denker to mime chopping and mixing for Spratt’s benefit.
The scheme failed when Spratt, eyes swivelling, manoeuvred himself down the Dowager’s back steps to catch a guilty Daisy exiting with an empty basket. Denker was confronted, the bottled soup was poured away, and the maid had to serve her own bad broth.
The Dowager, however, has had a long career in domestic espionage. She had no trouble rumbling a rudimentary soup-based sting and stoutly pretended the slop was edible, thus saving Denker’s face and tacitly warning Spratt to stop being such a lemon tart. But Spratt won’t take humiliation lying down, not least because he probably spends all night upright and alert, swatting shadows.
The DC was keen to defuse conflict in her basement, since her own personal life was providing enough drama. Princess Kuragin arrived, as warm and comforting as a frozen vodka enema. Her husband continued to prefer the Dowager but after a meeting that was, amid some pretty stiff competition, the most awkward event of the 1924 Downton social season, the DC told him to stick with his wife.
The Dowager later explained to Isobel that she was grateful to her Russian rival for literally dragging her back to reality on that crazy nineteenth-century night when she was tempted to leave her family and convert her aristocratic stock to the volatile rouble.
Isobel, meanwhile, discarded Snoozy Merton when his toxic son Larry underlined that he would never accept a relative pauper – you can walk from one end of Isobel’s house to the other without packing sandwiches and a hip flask – into the family.
Lord Snoozy, on receiving the final brush-off, became more animated than he has since his first wife de-alphabetised his collection of letter openers. To no avail. Isobel and the Dowager Countess shall sip tea spikily together until they softly expire.
At the abbey itself, the workers were worried about Anna, in custody for a crime she (probably) didn’t commit. Would she face trial? She revealed that she’d slashed her sexually abusive stepfather with a knife as a girl – a detail that the prosecution might use to boost their case that she killed her rapist Green, giving them form to go with motive and opportunity.
While Bates agonised over that, Carson fretted that Mrs Hughes was pouring cold water on all his suggestions for houses they could buy as a retirement nest egg. Even a succession of fine wines stolen from Lord Grantham and proferred hopefully in Hughesy’s command bunker didn’t sway her. Eventually she revealed that she’d spent all her money on caring for her hitherto unmentioned, mentally handicapped sister. She was out of the deal.
What with that and Bates leaving a signed confession to the murder of Green before fleeing to Ireland, the house was under a cloud of uncertainty when the upper classes returned. Fast forward to Christmas 1924, which Branson confirmed would be his and baby Sybbie’s last at Downton. The tree was up in the vestibule, a ton of extras from the village had been invited up to sup Mrs Patmore’s spiced oxtail punch, and carols were to be sung. Could the outstanding wrongs be righted?
Molesley saw a chance to be a hero. Feats of strength, acts of bravery and applying hair dye convincingly are all out of his reach. But tramping round York on his days off for several months, methodically visiting every pub in the city until he found the one Bates had been in on the day of the murder? Molesley, and his even less showy sidekick Baxter, to the rescue!
With Anna having been freed by her husband’s false confession (and unlikely to be re-prosecuted due to the main witness generously recanting), testimony from a publican who vividly remembered a single customer from two and a half years ago – and presumably the exact date of his visit – got Bates off the hook too, clearing the way for his return during O Come, All Ye Faithful. It’s a miracle! Miracles tend not to bear analysis. It’s fine.
But, as Lady Mary sang Silent Night to the throng with all her customary sparkle, the real warmth was emanating from the bowels of the house, where Carson stepped nervously into Mrs Hughes’ bunker to announce that he had invested in a property, but not alone. Her name was on the deeds too, necessitating their betrothal, if she didn’t mind too much. She did not mind, and she made this plain.