Cousin Rose started this week’s episode of Downton Abbey single and ended it married. Anna Bates started it free and ended it in prison. But you needn’t turn to either the latest Crawley clan wedding nor the next chapter of television’s least engaging murder mystery to see how changes in status can affect people who’d grown accustomed to life before the shift. This sprawling, hour-plus installment — considered the season finale in the UK, with next week’s Christmas special standing on its own — featured several striking portraits of people in progress, each reacting to change in revealing ways.
The most delightful of these is Daisy, the scullery maid whose ongoing education has spurred a one-woman revolution of the mind. “I feel as if I’ve been down a coal hole and someone’s opened the lid and brought me into the sunlight.” She doesn’t mean that in a good way! “I feel so resentful, so discontented. It’s as if my old life were a prison I have to go back to.” First Miss Bunting, then Mr. Molesley, and finally this excursion to the museums of London have expanded Daisy’s mind to the point of bursting, like a deep-sea creature dragged up to the surface and ready to pop for the sudden lack of pressure. She’s got the intellectual bends. Actor Sophie McShera, who’s been mousy and marvelous in this role for years now, plays the transformation beautifully, spewing torrents of excited and guileless verbiage about her new hopes and fears all over anyone within earshot. Her inability to hide her feelings, and her need to hash them out as directly as possible, neatly highlights one of the costs of the class system that powers Downton Abbey (the setting and the series alike). Whether or not she winds up leaving her life in the household behind, it’s charming to watch.
If the effects of a sudden change in station are largely positive on Daisy, her own anger about her forcibly limited past aside, the opposite is true of Lady Flintshire. Rose’s mother Susan is a broken woman, worn down to a Livia Soprano-sized nub of spite and vindictiveness as time wages its war of attrition upon her family’s fortune. Yet there are other ways to handle this. Susan’s good-natured husband Hugh — a career diplomat with the nickname “Shrimpie,” both revealing of his demeanor — is bearing the end of his marriage with weary grace, despite the inevitable scandal. This, of course, he hopes to put off until after the wedding of his daughter Rose to Atticus Aldridge, whose Judaism he sees as inconsequential compared to his own kid’s happiness.
Susan, by contrast sees it as the final straw. In an excruciating scene where Shrimpie confronts her about her scheme to send falsely incriminating pictures of Atticus’s stag night to her own daughter, she explains her despair. “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” she hisses, as if even forming the words were painful. “That we have lost our money? That we have lost our position? That we have lost everything the children have grown up expecting as their right…and now you want Rose to be an outcast?” Shrimpie points out that their own lives prove playing by the rules is no guarantee of happiness, but she’s too far gone to heed him. Powerfully played by actor Phoebe Nicholls — chin quavering, tiny frame draped in dresses that make her look shrunken and old beyond her years — Susan becomes a psychological suicide bomber, putting her own good name on blast by unceremoniously announcing her divorce right before Rose’s wedding in hopes of stopping it.
In this, she is counting on the intransigence of her opposite number. Lord Sinderby, Atticus’s father, is an antagonist from the Magneto school, a commanding figure with the silhouette of a bullet and the hard-earned pride of a man who knows his accomplishments stand surrounded by an ocean of opposition. Actor James Faulkner gives him a glare that could melt steel; there’s honestly no better way for the show to finally sell Lily James’s Lady Rose as the rightful youthful-idealist heir to the departed Lady Sybil than by showing her failing to wither in its face. And his voice joins Downton’s dulcet pantheon of greats, a sepulchural croak that’s the stuff of Disney villains. (Don’t underestimate the aural dimension of good TV: many of the New Golden Age’s best shows, from Downton to Deadwood to The Wire to Boardwalk Empire, are as much fun to listen to as they are to look at.)
But neither fear of assimilation nor loathing of divorce are enough to induce Lord Sinderby to stop the wedding. At least, not after Lady Sinderby threatens to end their marriage if he ends Atticus’s. The Lady’s an adaptable and redoubtable sort who handles both her husband and Susan like she could do it in her sleep. Witness the way she plays Judaism judo during that first awkward meal together, using Susan’s anti-Semitic innuendo against her: “Tell me, do you find it difficult these days to get staff?” Lady Flintshire asks, the implicit “you know, since you’re that sort” dripping from every word. “Not very,” Lady Sinderby replies. “But then we’re Jewish, so we pay well.” We’ve endured, what, a few dozen dinner-table doozies over the course of this series — has anyone ever smack down a rude guest so gently and so completely? Book her a seat at Violet and Isobel’s table, because this one’s a keeper.
Yet of all the characters confronting change this week, Mrs. Patmore was the most affecting. She reacts to the news of Daisy’s departure the only way she could be expected to: with devastation. The downstairs scenes are unimaginable without her all-bark-no-bite bluster, for which Daisy provided a captive audience. How can she possibly play to an empty room? But our last glimpse of her is a happier one, walking together with Daisy and Mr. Mason after the surprise unveiling of Lord Robert’s memorial to her nephew, shot for desertion during the Great War. There’s been no lovelier shot this season than that of the cook slowly approaching the stone tablet, with the breeze of the cloudy afternoon blowing through the leaves and branches behind her. This is one change that was wholly unexpected, and wholly welcome. “I hate it when people who love each other must be far apart,” Mr. Mason says as the three of them walk home from the ceremony. In Downton Abbey, change separates many people from the lives they knew, but love and kindness are capable of traveling great distances indeed.