Is that the sound of the Downton theme music, with no dog butt to welcome us in? It must be a very special two-hour episode—which is a promise that pays off in the Season 3 finale. (The episode aired in the U.K. as the 2012 Christmas Special.) “Special” means a lot happens and spoilers follow here.
Seriously, you’ll have to wait months and months for another new episode after this one, so don’t you want to watch it before you read? Again: Spoilers. Big ones.
So, a year has passed, as years tend to do at Downton. The family is headed up to Scotland for a ten-day journey to the Highlands, via the cutest train ever, to visit the Flintshires, Cousin Shrimpy and Susan and Rose. There’s a new maid with a glint in her eye, Jimmy and Thomas coexist in an uneasy truce, and—drumroll, please—Mary is eight months pregnant.
The Flintshires’ home, Duneagle Castle, is a straight-up Cinderella dealio, but clearly all is not well between Shrimpy and Susan. There’s also a foul mood downstairs at Duneagle, where the staff is very solemn; you know it’s bad when Miss O’Brien meets a kindred spirit, Susan’s maid Wilkins, who is even more unpleasant than she is. Also, if you couldn’t already tell that this episode takes place in Scotland, here comes a bagpiper, just circling the dining table in his bagpipe-y way. At dinner, Edith is told to invite her editor Michael Gregson (who just so happens to be in the area on a fishing trip), and the family looks forward to the Gillies’ Ball, a dance that’s a highlight of the Scottish social calendar.
Cousin Shrimpy tells Robert that he’s been sent to a distant post somewhere in the Empire, later revealed to be Bombay. Susan is dreading it—particularly because the couple isn’t getting along in the first place, and if they bring Rose it’ll be even more of a problem, because Susan and Rose are at each other’s throats too. Mary gives Edith a hard time about Gregson visiting, and she’s proved right when he shows up: he dressed in tails, so it’s clear he didn’t just come to fish. Or at least not in a stream, know what I’m saying? Gregson admits to Edith that he, in fact, did come to try to get on her family’s good side, even though Edith reminds him that—even if he loves her—the facts of his marriage cannot change. Mary teases Matthew about being nice to Gregson and inviting him hunting, but Matthew assures her that he knows she’s really a nice person too because he’s seen her naked. (Oh, is that how that works?)
On the hunting-trip day, Robert and Shrimpy go out in their Sherlock Holmes deerstalkers and kill a stag, so they get to have a picnic by the Loch with the ladies, but Matthew and Gregson have less luck so they agree to go fly-fishing the next day. So many beautiful landscapes! Is this an ad for the Scottish tourism bureau? (Don’t they already have ponies in sweaters?) Gregson confides in Matthew about his wife, who he says doesn’t even recognize him anymore. Matthew is sympathetic but he can’t encourage Edith to get involved in something that can’t lead anywhere. He thinks that Michael should use the ball to say good-bye to Edith.
Meanwhile, back at Downton, Carson does his best to get the house staff to clean every inch of the estate while the family is gone, but you know what they say happens when the cat’s away. Tom Branson and Isobel Crawley and baby Sybie and Isis the dog are the only family members who have stayed behind, so much of the upstairs-downstairs dynamic is shifted, particularly because the new maid—Edna, already causing trouble—has her eye on Tom. Every time they’re alone in the same room it’s just wince-worthy bad-news-tempty-harlot-blurgh-blurgh-go-away-blurgh. It’s not just that Edna is incredibly forward (she dines alone in a pub, which is daring on its own, and she doesn’t even pretend she didn’t do it to run into him) but that she makes Tom feel like he belongs back downstairs, like he’s not a member of the family. She’s a real PUA, it seems, negging him with accusations that he’s ashamed until he finally agrees to eat dinner with the servants. (Isobel doesn’t help matters: even though she promised to keep an eye on Tom, she tells him that he shouldn’t be so eager to please the family that he acts awkwardly with the staff.)
A new salesman, Jos Tufton, comes to Downton with an order for Mrs. Patmore, He gets a taste of her cooking—and she gets a taste of his flirting. Tufton tells the staff about an upcoming fair in Thirsk and they all want to go, except Mr. Carson, who knows they won’t be able to have fun with him there. Mrs. Patmore bought a new outfit so Ivy is sure she has a “fancy-man,” and she’s right: Mrs. Patmore shows Mrs. Hughes the flirty note Tufton sent her about squiring her about the fair. It’s the 1920s version of sexting!
Dr. Clarkson and Isobel have been spending a lot of time together and commiserating about the medical life, since Isobel is the widow of a doctor and understands Clarkson’s life. They decide to go to the fair together too.
At the fair, Branson, Alfred, James and Thomas compete in a tug-of-war. Insert gratuitous shot of Morris dancers. James puts some money on the 10-to-1 odds for the Downton team to win, demonstrating that an earlier reference to his ability to get money pretty much confirms he’s a gambler. He spends his winnings on booze and giving Ivy and Daisy (now, apparently friends) money for games—and generally flashing his cash everywhere. Totally drunk, he wanders off into an ominous tunnel, where he’s set upon by two muggers. Thomas shows up, and takes the beating. Dr. Clarkson asks Isobel if she ever thinks of marrying again, but she says that she likes her life the way it is, especially with friends like him. It’s unclear if she’s really that oblivious, and before they can say more, Jimmy runs up and tells the doctor to come quick because Thomas is hurt.
On the carousel, Edna pretends she needs Tom to steady her…and “Eagle Eye” Hughes sees it all. She also spots Mr. Tufton, who’s like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, only instead of loving to laugh, he loves to flirt—even kissing a random girl. When they get home, Mrs. Patmore tells Mrs. Hughes that Tufton wants to get married, Mrs. Hughes said she saw him flirting—and Mrs. Patmore admits she’s relieved to have a reason to get rid of him. Meanwhile, Edna walks in on a shirtless Tom changing. She doesn’t leave when he says she should go, instead asking him to have lunch—and then kissing him and leaving before he answers. SHE IS THE WORST. UGH.
Back in Scotland, the night of the big party has arrived. Let’s go to the ball!
Susan won’t let Rose wear a fashionable dress—even though a princess has one just like it, she thinks it’s slutty—but Shrimpy overrules her decision. It’s so fun to write about princesses and balls. Princess! Ball! Princess! Ball! Mr. Molesley shows off his skills, doing a little jig alone in the corner. Typical Mr. Molesley. Rose is making her way through the little silver goblets of punch with quite some speed, and Cora warns her that it’s quite strong. O’Brien finds out that Wilkins spiked her punch—and she’s happy to know she needn’t have any loyalty to the other maid, whose job she clearly wants to steal—but Mr. Molesley drinks it in one gulp and gets totally wasted. Typical Mr. Molesley. Anna, who got dance lessons from Rose, gets a chance to show off her reeling skillz. Bates can’t dance because of his leg, but he does a great job at gazing at her adoringly while violins soar.
Michael breaks the news to Edith that he hasn’t convinced Matthew to be on his side, but she pulls a total Edith move and refuses to take no for an answer. (That ended badly before but she can’t get left at the altar by a man who can’t marry, so maybe not such a terrible idea?) Shrimpy tells Robert that he’s not just uphappy because of Susan: he failed to modernize Duneagle the way Robert did for Downton, so he’s out of money and will have to sell. Robert realizes how lucky he is to have Matthew as a son-in-law. But Mary isn’t feeling so hot. She tells Matthew she’s going to go home before the rest of the family, but he should stay so the rest of them get to enjoy their vacation. Susan and Cora have a chat about babies, and it’s clear that Susan judged Sybil and Mary’s choices—but now that Rose is a teenager she understands what Cora went through, and Cora is sympathetic because Rose reminds her of Sybil. They arrange for Rose to live at Downton while Susan and Shrimpy are in India.
The staff back at Downton gets ready for Mary’s early return. Getting ready includes Jimmy thanking Thomas and saying they can be friends, and Mrs. Hughes firing Edna. Mrs. Hughes and Branson have a heart-to-heart about it and she tells him he shouldn’t be ashamed of his new life, and that Lady Sybil would have been proud. Which makes Tom—and, let’s be honest, us—cry. Way to put a stop to that nonsense, Mrs. Hughes. But when Mary gets off the train, she doesn’t come home: she goes straight to the hospital.
She’s in labor! Shortly after, Carson gets the call: Lady Mary and the baby are both doing well! Matthew races home from Scotland! Mary is holding the baby, his son and heir, his dearest little chap! Matthew gets to hold the baby! They’re happy! She’s tired but also happy! They’ve done their duty to the estate! There’s finally an heir! They’re all dancing jigs like drunken Mr. Molesleys! Matthew is sure Mary is going to be a great mother, because his Mary is so nice even if Edith’s version of Mary isn’t! Happy, happy, happy! The others are back and the house waiting to see them! Matthew speeds back in his cute car to give them the good news!
A car races in the other direction! As Robert reminisces about the entire plot of Downton Abbey, Matthew’s car lies overturned in a ditch. You maybe knew this was coming if you heard any casting news for Season 4, but it’s still a shock. And there he is. Matthew. Under the car. Blood on his head. Empty eyes. Mary, in the hospital, not knowing what has happened, holds the baby.
That’s the end of the episode. And of Matthew. There’s only one thing left to do.
BE SAD FOR MONTHS AND MONTHS UNTIL THE NEXT SEASON.
Dowager Zinger of the Week: Robert: “They do say there’s a wild man inside all of us.” The Dowager: “If only he would stay inside.”
History Lesson of the Week: The Queen of England, who is interested in Scottish dancing according to her official website, still gives Gillies’ Balls (also spelled Ghillies’) each year when she visits Balmoral Castle—and yes, both locals and staff attend. Ghillies are the shoes traditionally worn while reeling.