Downton Abbey series 6, episode 1 recap: Blackmail, staff cuts and sexy stuff

Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes consider consummation, Lady Mary's past indiscretions come back to haunt her and the Bates' finally get closure

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It’s winter 1925. Mere days have passed since we last saw the Crawleys. Mrs Patmore could still be serving up turkey leftovers in the dining room. Times are a-changing, you see. Money is tight and not just because Robert is in change of balancing the books.

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The Earl is thinking about cutting costs by losing a few staff members – “Does anyone have an under butler these days?” – but it’s not troubling enough to cancel his lavish hunting party, where the riders sip rare vintages from silver horse-head goblets before charging off into the estate.

While Mary and Robert chase wildlife around the countryside with abandon (she shockingly eschews side-saddle these days), an unknown woman with a suspicious Liverpool accent is hanging around the Abbey. Mary falls off her horse in surprise and the young woman “of most unappealing aspect” giggles with glee.

Back at the Abbey, Mrs Hughes is refusing to pick a date for her upcoming nuptials. She was all caught up in veils, vows and vol-au-vents when she said ‘Yes’ and forgot about her wifely duties. Perhaps they would be better off living as “a very loving brother and sister” and leaving all rumpy-pumpy out of it? Naturally, it would be indelicate for her to raise such intimate matters with a future husband and so off she sends Mrs Patmore to do it for her.

A muddy Mary, meanwhile, learns the identity of the stranger: Miss Rita Bevan, a chambermaid from the hotel where she and Tony Gillingham enjoyed a week of sinful sexual relations. Rita wants £1,000 to keep her mouth shut. Mary barely raises a perfectly plucked eyebrow as she saunters away. This isn’t the first time she’s been blackmailed.

Inside, Violet is holding a meeting in the drawing room. The Royal Yorkshire County Hospital wants to take over the Downton village hospital. She believes this to be positively outrageous. Isobel, Lord Merton and Cora don’t. A sparring match ensues and war is declared: “May the best man win.”

Downstairs, Anna (still on bail) alternates between sobbing in stairwells and snivelling over shoe polish. She thought she was about to hear the pitter-patter of tiny Bates feet, but now she’s not and it’s happened before. Twice. Will the ex-cons will ever get any respite from their unrelenting misery?

The Crawleys have been whispering too loudly about staff cuts and now everyone is in a flap. Thomas is convinced he’ll be first for the chop, and starts being stroppy in an apparent attempt to prove himself right, while over at the Dower House, Denker winds up Spratt explaining why a butler is a luxury not a necessity (whereas hiring someone to brush your hair and do up your buttons is obviously essential).

The following morning, Rita interrupts Mary’s breakfast in bed to ask for her banknotes and says she and the rest of the working class are on their way to get her. Figuratively, not literally. Mary appears to be most upset about the fact that Rita has helped herself to a slice of toast.

Anna frogmarches the intruder out of the Abbey, but she soon returns to demand her gravy – this time filling Robert in on Mary’s saucy “sketching trip.” Mary returns just as the deal is wrapping up. Robert is disappointed in Tony Gillingham’s weak morals. Mary is disappointed that Robert paid Rita. And Rita is disappointed because Robert only paid her £50 and made her sign a statement confessing to blackmail.

Meanwhile, in Carson’s parlour, Mrs Patmore just about manages to squeak out: “She needs to know if that’s what you anticipate… a full marriage?” after turning her back on the butler to avoid any unseemly eye contact.

This, it turns out, is exactly what Carson wants. He loves Hughes and thinks she’s beautiful. And he won’t compromise on the sexy stuff.

Across the fields, Mr Mason’s employers the Darnleys are bankrupt. They are reluctantly selling their country pile and have given Mason notice on his farm. Robert is astounded but heads off to the sale to see if he can pick up a nice “momento” nonetheless.

Daisy trips off to Mallerton behind her employers and – keen to show off her new-found vocabulary – has her say on proceedings. There’s a terrible to-do at the auction, with the formerly timid kitchen maid shouting about respect and rights. Mr Mason won’t be one of the tenants staying on now – and after kicking off in front of a dreadfully disconcerted Robert, Daisy might be given the heave-ho too…

Later that evening, the drama is all below stairs. Sergeant Willis has arrived at the house with news on the criminal case. It seems another of Green’s victims has confessed and both the Bates’ are finally off the hook. “This time it is over,” he says.

Carson dashes upstairs to tell the Crawleys they are officially no longer housing criminals in their kitchens, and the gang all head downstairs – four bottles of Veuve Clicquot and gramophone in hand – for a right ol’ knees up.

While Mrs Patmore dances with Willis and Robert fumbles around in the new-fangled refrigerator for a midnight snack (goodness knows what Violet would think), there are still a couple of questions to answer: Daisy’s future at the Abbey (Carson is hankering for a dismissal but Cora decides a ticking off will do), and of course whether anything will be going on between Carson and Hughes’ bedsheets.

Carson’s passionate words seem to have done the trick. “If you want me you can have me,” says Hughes before the pair lock quivering lips in the parlour.

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Is anyone else feeling a little hot under the collar?