Downton Abbey: Season 6, Episode 7

Mr. Henry Talbot's attempt at wooing the ever-reluctant Mary ends more gravely than he ever could've imagined.

With that messy hospital business thankfully taken care of, and with Robert (Hugh Bonneville) well on his way to a full recovery from his bloody coughing fit, Downton Abbey seems to be putting its focus fully on Mr. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and his singular goal of winning over Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is stubbornly playing hard to get. So hard to get, in fact, that Henry’s pulling out all the stops, inviting the whole family to attend his next automobile race in hopes that he will impress the entire Crawley clan with his boldness and his bravery. Perhaps he should have stuck to the fancy dinner party tactic that has worked so well on the ladies of Downton in the past, but hindsight is 20/20.

Things go well at first, with Talbot showing up uninvited, but not unwelcome, to Lady Rosamund’s (Samantha Bong) London apartment the night before the race. He’s as debonair as always, and spits some truly killer lines of flirtation that leave Mary almost unable to return his strong volley. Henry even gets a big old pre-race smooch from Mary despite her trepidation about the idea of driving around in circles for no discernible purpose.

Her stance on racing is not as ridiculous as some of the family’s less-than-progressive viewpoints on the modern world. Racecar driving, even today, can seem a bit absurd, considering the carnage and death that can sometimes result in driving a vehicle around in a circle at breakneck speeds, with the sole purpose of determining who’s fastest. That being said, her fear of racing seems to be more seeded in her inability to full reenter a life of uncertainty and danger despite the years that have passed since the demise of her former beau Matthew (Dan Stevens). When Anne (Joanne Froggatt) confesses that she feels that Mary and Henry are just not compatible enough to be truly happy, Mary takes this and runs with it, happy to have a concrete reason from a trusted source to give credence to her fears.

This fear is only accentuated to the tenth degree when the race ends with predictable horror. To say that Downton Abbey isn’t known for its action sequences is like saying Mr. Carson isn’t known for his sex appeal and charm, but the racing scenes here are done with such anxious energy that I found myself exhilarated by Downton Abbey — not a feeling I’ve come to expect from the show. The cross-cutting between Talbot going full-force around the track, and the Crawley crew taking in the events with equal parts amazement and fear is a truly magnificent example of building tension. We know where this is going to end up, and we know it isn’t going to be good, but when and how are left to our increasingly fervent imaginations.

The crash that’s all but promised the moment the men line-up for the foot race to their cars — a bit of auto-racing history I’d no idea existed — comes a few laps into the race. Again, Fellowes and crew keep us on our toes by having the crash happen off screen while we’re watching Mary and Tom rather than Henry and the other racers. While this tactic was obviously a practical one — a post-crash fire and surrounding carnage is much cheaper to show than a full-blown collision — it also served to catch us off guard, lulled to sleep by the belief that we were safe as long as the Crawley’s, and not the racers, were the focal point of the scene.

As it turned out, Henry was not the victim of the crash; it was instead his best friend, Mr. Charles Rogers (Sebastian Dunn). Henry, ever the gallant, goes rushing in after his friend despite the raging fire and obvious futility of the situation. This does nothing to change the outcome though, as Rogers is dead, Henry is devastated, and Mary is shaken to her core. The family grieves the best way they know how, by having their scheduled dinner at Rosamund’s.

The downstairs inhabitants of Downton Abbey had far less heartache this week, even balancing out the Crawley’s tragedy with some truly positive news — a rare sight indeed. Two of the most likable characters in the show’s entire run, the sheepish Mr. Molesely (Kevin Doyle) and the blusterous Ms. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), both makes steps towards a future that will make them much more securely in control of their own destinies. Molesley, nervous and stuttering as he may be, does well enough on his exams for the schoolteacher to admit that “there are Oxford and Cambridge graduates who know far less” and is thus qualified to teach at the local schoolhouse, while Ms. Patmore is ready to officially open her new bed and breakfast, a job she seems perfectly suited for, although trouble seems inevitable when we see a creepy guy taking pictures of the B&B’s coming and goings.

Unfortunately, Molesley’s new-found skills lead to the revelation that Andy (Michael Fox) can’t himself read more than a handful of words, despite the lessons graciously given by Mr. Barrow (Rob James-Collier). The schoolteacher, sensing Thomas may not have the necessary teaching skills, offers to help Andy three days a week, promising to have him reading in no time. Good for Andy, bad for the sad sack that is Mr. Barrow. He has seemed on the brink of some kind of meltdown for weeks and the schoolteacher, however generously, taking away his one true source of happiness, doesn’t bode well for Thomas.

The fallout of the Granny explosion that took place upon the revelation that she’d been forced out of the hospital-running business was less intense that predicted, with Violet (Maggie Smith) taking a surprisingly passive approach. Choosing to travel to France in attempt to cool down before she says something she’ll regret, causing a rift between her and her son and daughter-in-law. But, if we know the dowager countess, we know she’ll not remain feud-less for long.

Meanwhile, mixed in throughout the episode (and the season, for that matter), Mary and Edith (Laura Carmichael) seem to be reaching a critical mass of bitchiness that promises to explode sometime in the not-too-distant future. Part of this is because Edith is no longer the “poor Edith” of the past, which we can tell is getting under Mary’s skin. In this episode alone, we see Edith stop by her newspaper to discuss business, bring her new editor to the racetrack and get a marriage proposal from the ever-so-sweet Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton). Go Edith.

As we make like Henry Talbot and head full-throttle towards the finish line that is the series final in just a few weeks, Fellowes and crew are beginning to tie up some of the series loose ends, and a final picture is beginning to become clear. Both Mary and Edith are in the midst of courtships that seem destined to wrap-up, one way or the other, by the finale. Patmore and Molesely are making strides in the world outside Downton, while only Thomas seems to be without a rudder to properly guide his post-Downton existence. Episode seven provided some especially explosive action sequences, and while that may be the high point for physical action, there will surely be emotional eruptions to look forward to these final two weeks.

RATING 8 / 10