(Beware, spoilers below!)
We return to the world of the Granthams in this lovely Christmas special (this is a long episode, so skip to the last few paragraphs if you only want the review without the recap). The family go to join their new in laws the Sinderbys for a holiday retreat. The Sinderbys are accompanied by a bristly butler Stole and he quickly put Thomas in his place, as well as showing a lot of snobbery towards Branson. Lord Sinderby is also unaccepting of Rose’s divorced parents, refusing to invite Shrimpy on the hunting trip. However, Lady Sinderby does warm to Branson, being much kinder to the family than her other half.
The bad attitude of Stole is getting to Mary, who unsubtly suggests that Stole be taken down a peg or two by Thomas. Via a little letter trick with the dinner, Stole get humiliated in public. Lord Grantham eventually reveals to Cora has angina, which leads him to want to talk to Edith and let her know he’s fully accepting of Marigold. Thomas is however irked by his humiliating treatment, and goes to Stole to offer his sympathies.
Thomas finds out a great secret about Lord Sinderby and invites the Lord’s previous mistress to the house with his illegitimate son. Rose’s quick thinking makes the situation much easier to bear and it quickly is washed away without any problem. Stole is immediately suspected and the Sinderby takes Mary, Rose and Lord Grantham aside in order to restrict the information leaking out. He is very grateful for Rose’s help and decides to invite her parents as soon as he can.
Rose also reveals that Atticus has been offered a job in New York and Mary is still snippy to Edith despite her much improved attitude. As the neighbour and his friend Talbot show up, Mary is placed with the as yet unknown Talbot and a fairly interesting discourse is struck up between the two of them. After the situation with Lord Sinderby, Stole is much kinder to Branson. As Mary dances with Talbot he makes it clear that he’s noticed all the little quirks about the earlier issue with Sinderby, garnering Mary’s brief admiration. Branson also makes it clear to Edith that he also knows Edith’s secret but he’s naturally kind about it.
The Dowager Countess is receiving the wife of Prince Kuragin, recently saved in sanctuary. Whilst most of the family are missing out of the big excursion, Isabel is backing up the great Countess. Meanwhile in the house she is also dealing with the battle between her new housemaid Denke and Spratt, both off which keep rubbing each other the wrong way. There is a tense reunion with the Princess, who is predictably prickly. As the Dowager Countess gets through a difficult evening she finally turns down Kuragin, telling him that his cause for her affections is hopeless.
There’s also an undercurrent plot involving a broth rivalry between Spratt and Denke, with Daisy agreeing to make the broth whilst Denke pretends. Spratt however manages to find out about it, pouring the broth down the drain. He eventually leads the Dowager Countess down to taste Denke’s broth and she makes it clear that she’s not prepared to take any of his playing.
Anna also sits in jail for Mr Green’s death: Anna as others are worried about Lady Mary worrying about the news being seen in public, but consensus is that it’s noting but good for the family. Much like Bates, Anna has had a difficult past and this is coming back to haunt her as the Mr Green mystery gets more tense. Moseley sorts through the Bates’ house as he finds out that Mr Bates attempts to confess he did it to save Anna.
Mrs Hughes and Carson are also house hunting for a property together. As the family are away, the bond between the two gets ever closer before Mrs Hughes reveals that she has a mentally ill sister Becky. She has no savings or money so that she can look after her sister.
When the family return we find out that Bates has fled to Ireland. He leaves his details to Lord Grantham, but both him and Cora decide to keep mum until they know more. Anna is finally released and she is welcomed back with open arms even though she’s on bail. Lord Grantham also mentions that he’s only got an ulcer and nothing else, which leads to a funny exchange about how he has to cut down on alcohol until Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day finally comes around, with the family gathering round the tree together. Carson announced to Mrs Hughes that he’s bought the house. We find out that Molesely and Baxter have been spending the day going round sixty or so pubs in order to find where Bates was eating in York that day. Lord Grantham is, like many others, unsure about Branson leaving, knowing that it will also mean the loss of his granddaughter. Isabel has also made it clear that given the attitudes of his sons she cannot marry him.
With Branson set to go soon, the two sisters and Branson stand together to remember her. It’s Atticus’ first Christmas, which Rose helps him ease into. Behind closed doors Isabel and the Dowager Countess talk in private, confessing that she once almost eloped with Prince Kuragin and in many ways helped save her from a worse life in the shadows. Below stairs, Carson finally reveals that he registered his new house in both his and Mrs Hughes’ names. In the most gallant of gestures he asks her to marry him, and she accepts. We finally say goodbye to Branson and Sybbie. The final shot reveals Mr Bates, who has snuck back to brighten Anna’s face this Christmas.
This bumper session of Downton Abbey was filled with highs and lows but gladly, mostly highs. Matthew Goode and Alun Armstrong both make wonderful first impressions as Henry Talbot and Stole respectively, and I’m going to feed the rumours a little because Goode is reported to be coming back in Season 6. Whilst Bates and Anna are still left in the lurch (as per usual), Branson is finally going (though we never quite thought he’d do it) and between the Sinderby’s and Granthams I wonder where Rose will be next season. It’s been lovely to learn more about the Dowager Countess and see her in action. Props go to some snappy dialogue and the great acting of Hugh Bonneville which really makes him the heart of the episode. The long burning romance of Carson and Mrs Hughes finally comes to ahead after several long years, a beautiful contrast from younger faster and more dramatic romances.
After a lagging fourth season Downton has finally upped its game with its fifth season and we’ve moved quickly between scenes this Christmas special in order to bring back the spirit of its great earlier seasons. I’m also glad to see a potential suitor for Lady Mary that isn’t quite as sappy as in the past. We’re given enough cliff hangers in order to intrigue us for Season 6 whilst still leaving us with enough familiarity to not feel like it was overly melodramatic (is that even possible in Downton). Either way, it was a lovely Christmas special that focused on great intercharacter stories in both the big and little moments. One of my favourite Christmas treats for sure, and I can’t wait for the show to return in 2015.