Downton Abbey: A Journey to the Highlands

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SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2012, ITV.

The family and some of the servants decamp to Duneagle, a house in Scotland, for an annual shoot. But tragedy soon strikes… Meanwhile, back at Downton, Tom Branson is tempted by a new maid, Thomas comes to Jimmy’s rescue, and Mrs Patmore has an admirer.

When is it set? ‘One year later’, according to a caption. So we’re now in the middle of 1921.

Where is it set? The house and the surrounding countryside. Downton railway station. Isobel’s house. Duneagle Castle. The village and its pub. Thirsk. Downton’s hospital. 

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* There’s a new maid at Downton called Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring). She takes an interest in Tom Branson, the only member of the family who doesn’t go to Scotland. Learning that he’s going to the local pub, she bumps into him on purpose and drops hints that he should be eating with the servants. Later, at a local fair, she flirts heavily and even links arms with him. They agree to meet for lunch – but Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes find out and put a stop to the relationship. Edna’s given the sack.
* Lord and Lady Flintshire, who have been mentioned in earlier episodes, now appear. Shrimpie (Peter Egan) and Susan (Phoebe Nicholls) are Lady Rose’s parents; Susan is also Violet’s niece. Shrimpie has been offered a diplomatic posting in Bombay, which Susan is not pleased about. It’s an unhappy marriage generally.
* Jos Tufton (John Henshaw) is a tradesman from the nearby Thirsk. He brings some goods for Mrs Patmore, then starts chatting her up. He also invites all the servants to a local fair. But then Mrs Hughes sees him flirting with other women and realises he’s a wrong’un.
* Miss Wilkins (Simone Lahbib) is a maid at the Flintshires’ who initially forms a friendship with Miss O’Brien. However, when she feels embarrassed by O’Brien’s superior knowledge, she plays a prank on her. She spikes a drink at the ghillies’ ball, but Mr Molesley drinks it instead of O’Brien.
* Feeling unwell, the pregnant Mary returns from Scotland early. On the train home, her waters break. She soon gives birth to a son, George…
* Matthew races south to be by his wife’s side and arrives just after the labour. However, not long later, his car is forced off the road and Matthew is killed.

Best bits:
* The frosty atmosphere between Lord and Lady Flintshire.
* Again, the Michael Gregson subplot is likeable. He’s gone all the way to Scotland in order to meet Edith’s family. She’s flattered, but knows that he’s married with no chance of divorce.
* Isobel and Dr Clarkson grow close. It makes sense: they’re both from middle-class backgrounds; he’s a doctor, she was a nurse.
* Matthew tells Mary and Edith about his futile day stalking deer. “Really, darling,” says Mary. “It’s boring enough to hear about when you succeed…”
* Mr Carson takes the phone call telling him Mary has given birth and is healthy. In his joy at the happy news, he doesn’t think to ask what sex the baby is.
* The tear-jerking scene of happiness when Matthew meets his new son.
* The sucker-punch of the final scene.

Worst bits:
* Mr Bates has to point out that the family go to Duneagle every year… except last year when Sybil died… or during the war. This explains why this ‘annual’ trip hasn’t featured in the show before. Remember, fictionally, we’re nine years on from the first episode.
* Anna plans a surprise for her husband and even declines to tell Mary what it is. But then we see her leaning to dance. Wouldn’t it be more fun to reveal it at the ball when Mr Bates finds out?
* After Shrimpie and Susan decide to separate, the question arises of what will happen to Rose. Will she move to Downton Abbey and replace the dead Sybil as the household’s young, flighty daughter figure perhaps?

Real history:
* Mrs Patmore is flattered when Mr Tufton asks her to the fair. “No man’s wanted to squire me since the Golden Jubilee,” she says. “And even then he expected me to buy the drinks.” She’s referring to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1897.
* Robert points out that Sunny Marlborough has got divorced and is still part of society. Tory politician Charles ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill (1871-1934) was the 9th Duke of Marlborough and a cousin of Winston Churchill. In 1921 he divorced his first wife, Consuela Vanderbilt (1877-1964). They’d had an unhappy marriage of convenience.
* Mr Tufton mentions Vogue magazine. The British version of the US title began in autumn 1916.
* Matthew mentions novelist Walter Scott (1771-1832).
* Isobel quotes an 1890 Rudyard Kipling poem: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”
* When Susan tells Rose she can’t wear a modern dress, Rose points out that Princess Mary has one just like it. Mary (1897-1965) was the daughter of the then king, George V.

Upstairs, Downton: There are quite a few echoes of Upstairs, Downstairs in this Christmas special. In Updown, the Bellamy family went on holiday to Scotland in an episode called Will Ye No Come Back Again? (1975). In the first series, there was also a story about servants being left at home while the family’s away: Board Wages (1971). Updown’s cook, Mrs Bridges, had her head turned by a dodgy tradesman in The Sudden Storm (1974), while a couple of episodes in series three featured James Bellamy going to a country house for the hunting season: A Change of Scene and The Bolter (both 1973).

Maggie Smithism of the week: Susan says she doesn’t know where Shrimpie’s new job will be: “But it will be filthy and dirty and the food will be awful and there’ll be no one to talk to for 100 square miles.” Violet replies: “That sounds like a week with my mother-in-law.”

Mary’s men: Mary is eight months pregnant and heads home to Downton early, where she goes into labour… But her beloved Matthew is then killed in a car crash. The romance that has been the backbone of this show since the second episode is now at an end.

Doggie! Isis bounds around as the family’s bags are packed into the cars for the journey north. Later, she’s at the station as the family catch the train. Robert asks Tom, who’s staying at Downton, to walk her while he’s away. We later see Tom doing this in the village. Isis wags her tail.

Review: The show’s second Christmas special – which is set in high summer – finally does the poshos-go-on-a-shoot storyline. The stuff in Scotland reeks of cliché: there are bagpipes and haughty servants. More pleasantly, as we’re moving into the 1920s, the fashions and styles – especially those of women like Mary, Edith and Rose – are getting more and more ornate and flapper-like. There’s also fun to be had in how much stuff is being set up for future seasons: Edith’s romance with Michael Gregson, Rose coming to live at Downton, a potential new job for Miss O’Brien, and most notably the huge changes in Mary’s life.

Next episode…

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