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 Minkie Spiro. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2014, ITV.
The family holiday at Brancaster Castle, a stately home hired by Rose’s parents-in-law for the grouse season. Meanwhile, Violet tracks down the missing wife of her friend Prince Kuragin, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes make plans for their retirement, and Anna is languishing in prison.
When is it set? We begin in September 1924 and then jump to Christmas (which is a white one). That means some of this episode is set precisely 90 years to the day before its broadcast.
Where is it set? A local prison. Downton Abbey. Downton train station. The English countryside. Brancaster Castle and its estate (in reality: Alnwick Castle in Northumberland). Violet’s house. A house Mr Carson wants to buy. Isobel’s house. York.
Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Stowell (Alun Armstrong) is Lord Sinderby’s butler who we meet when our characters go to stay at Brancaster. He’s a bitter, rude man who takes against Tom Branson and lords it over Thomas Barrow. When Mary sees what an oaf he is, she asks Thomas to take him down a peg or two. He plots to embarrass Stowell in front of everyone, then tricks him into revealing some sensitive information about Lord Sinderby. This causes Stowell big problems and puts him in his place.
* The long-missing Princess Irina Kuragin (Jane Lapotaire) has been finally found. Violet arranges for her to come to Yorkshire to be reunited with her husband. Sadly she’s rather rude and ungrateful.
* Atticus has been offered a job in New York, so he and Rose plan to leave the country.
* Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is a friend of a friend of Atticus’s who comes along to the grouse shoot. He’s a car fanatic and strikes up a connection with Mary.
* Henry and Atticus’s mutual friend is called Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn).
* Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) has been the agent of the Brancaster Castle estate for 18 months and is a genial, good-natured bloke. The old Lord Hexham, a previous owner of Brancaster, was his father’s second cousin. But Bertie is a working man. He meets Edith at the shoot and they become friendly.
* Diana Clark (Alice Patten) is a woman who shows up unannounced at Brancaster with a small child. Lord Sinderby is shaken to his core to see her… because the boy is his secret love child. Rose immediately twigs what’s going on and pretends that Diana is a friend of hers, saving her father-in-law from embarrassment and making sure his wife doesn’t find out about the indiscretion. Lord S is now much more predisposed towards Rose.
* Andy, the footman hired for a week in the preceding episode, is given a full-time job. He replaces Mr Bates, who during the episode does a runner out of the country…
* Immaculately dressed Mary visits Anna in a grim, dank prison.
* Mr Bates says he would cut his own arm off if it helped Anna. “Oh, I don’t think that’d be sensible,” quips Thomas Barrow. “We can’t have you wobbly at both ends…”
* Mary and Edith say goodbye to the children before leaving for Brancaster Castle. “Come to Mummy,” says Mary to her son, George. “Come to… me,” says Edith to her secret-daughter-who’s-posing-as-a-ward Marigold.
* Rose wants both sides of her family to use their Christian names. Her Jewish father-in-law points out that his name is not Christian.
* Mary dresses in an absolutely gorgeous frock and jewellery that accentuates her Louise Brooks bob.
* With the family away, Mrs Patmore plans a cosy downstairs dinner for the senior servants still at Downton. Carson is put-out to learn that young Daisy will be joining them. “If that thought’s too democratically overpowering,” says Mrs P, “you can share what I’ve made for the housemaids.”
* Robert kindly, gently lets Edith know that’s realised Marigold is her daughter. Now, everyone within the family except Mary is in on the secret.
* Poor Isobel is having doubts about marrying Lord Merton because his sons have been so resentful towards her. A snooty letter from the dickwad eldest son doesn’t help matters.
* Tom, Mary and Edith share a very moving moment when they hold hands and remember the late Sybil.
* Mr Carson asks Mrs Hughes to marry him. Aww. “I thought you’d never ask,” she says.
* Poor Anna has been locked up on remand because, two years after a man’s death, a witness has come forward and identified her as being on the same street at the time. Later in the episode, we hear that the witness is now having doubts. No shit.
* “Well, Bates was found innocent,” says Cora over tea, pointing out that the same kind of plot is being done twice. “No doubt Anna will be too.”
* Oh, the murder-mystery plot gets even clunkier. We learn that when Anna was a child, her step-father abused her – so she threatened him with a knife and cut him in self-defense. And the incident is now being used by the police as ‘evidence’ that she killed Mr Green. This backstory hasn’t even been hinted at in any of the previous 42 episodes.
* Then… frustrated that his wife is locked up in prison, Mr Bates tells the police *he* killed Mr Green and then flees to Ireland. His sacrifice means that Anna is released on bail, but no one at Downton believes Bates did it. So Molesley and Miss Baxter take it upon themselves to prove his innocence. They visit 60 or 70 pubs in York and find a landlord who will testify that Mr Bates was there on the day Mr Green was killed. So Mr B returns. This entire storyline feels so arbitrary.
* Branson finally moves to Boston. He’s been planning this for about 700 episodes now.
* “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that I have a sister,” says Mrs Hughes to Mr Carson, one of her closest friends and colleagues who she’s known for decades.
* At Christmas, the household sing the traditional Christmas carols God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen and O Come, All Ye Faithful.
* Mary then sings Silent Night with Edith accompanying her on the piano. It was written by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818 using lyrics by Joseph Mohr.
Upstairs, Downton: Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes plan to buy and run an B&B once their time at Downton is over. In Upstairs, Downstairs, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges make similar plans.
Maggie Smithism of the week: Robert says he’s happy his mother has come to see him off at the train station. “Why must you always talk of me as if I were a salmon who laid my eggs in the gravel and then swam back to the sea?” she replies.
Mary’s men: With the long-running Mary/Charles/Tony love triangle now put to bed, we’re into a new phase of Mary’s love life… A last-minute guest at the Brancaster shoot is a man called Henry Talbot. He’s ‘chumed’ with Mary on the shoot and asks if her husband is one of the other guns. “No,” she says, “but my late husband was quite good at it. In the end.” Their frosty dialogue is played with an underlying attraction. She seems quite disappointed when he leaves.
Review: Probably Downton Abbey’s least enjoyable Christmas special. There are plenty of nice scenes and subplots, but it doesn’t have much cohesion to it. There’s also a hackneyed storyline about a bitter butler who gets his comeuppance, a dull comedy subplot about some broth, and a limp climax to Prince Kuragin’s arc. The time shifts are slightly strange too. The Brancaster holiday makes up the episode’s first two-thirds, then we skim through a few months and it’s suddenly Christmas back at Downton. But the biggest issue, sadly, is the sense that the show is now circling back and redoing the same type of stories.