The last couple of episodes were enlivened by surprise returns and bloody mayhem, but this week's episode doesn't have any pyrotechnics to distract from a return to the lackluster form of earlier in the season.
In order to raise funds for the hospital trust, Downton holds an open house, allowing paying "normal people" to get a look at the inside. The occasion sparks numerous conversations about why people would even want to bother to see how they live. Since the show is only a few episodes away from its conclusion, after a very successful and very lucrative run, this seems an odd time to pose that particular question. There's also a lot of on-the-nose discussion of "how much things have changed" and "what will happen in the future?" Yes, show, we know.
Robert is home resting after his successful surgery, which means he can't run away when Violet visits and tries to revive the hospital reform argument. But unbeknownst to her, she's already lost – the Board of Governors had already made the decision to merge the hospitals. Yes, once again, the show spends a huge amount of time on this conflict, only to have it decided by off-screen people we've never met.
The struggle takes on a new dimension when the Board asks Cora to be the new President, replacing the Dowager Countess. Violet is furious, barging into the open house to confront Cora in front of the gawking visitors. An angry Maggie Smith is always a good weapon for this show, and Violet's sputtering is one of the few high points of an otherwise tired episode.
There's no big Downstairs story this week, just a number of small plots attempting to position characters for the end. Carson continues to find fault with everything Mrs. Hughes does at home and her snide rejoinders go over his head – so she's going to have to come up with a more direct way of dealing with his thoughtlessness. Meanwhile, schoolmaster Mr. Dawes invites Molesley to help him out around the school. But first, he's going to have to pass a general knowledge exam so the teacher knows his capabilities. Molesley is simultaneously thrilled and petrified.
Anna has pregnancy pains but doesn't want to bother anyone. Bates, thrilled at something to do, insists that she go to the same London doctor that Mary took her to before, and demands that he be allowed to pay for it. Anna's pains are nothing to worry about, and Mary is persuaded to let Bates have his pride and pay the cost. Also, Baxter receives a letter from the imprisoned Mr. Coyle, asking her to visit. Molesley wants her to throw it away, but Baxter isn't sure because... well, I'm not sure. I guess because Baxter needs something to fret about for a few more weeks. It's episodes like this that make me want to see what would happen if they let the writing staff from "UnREAL" take over this show.
Lady Mary's Business
Mary takes Anna's need to go to London as an opportunity to surprise Henry at dinner. When he walks her home afterwards they get caught in the rain, they kiss, and Henry confess he's falling in love. Matthew Goode makes some interesting choices in this role – Henry comes off as stiff at first, but the more he's around Mary the more he lets his guard down. It's a slow burn, but it's starting to heat up.
Meanwhile, Mary tries to trick Anna and Tom into revealing the truth about Marigold. She knows something is up, although the show isn't doing a great job of showing us what exactly she's thinking, other than being put out that everybody knows something about Marigold and she doesn't. This is Mary's worst look, and it comes out in her repeated swipes at Edith.
Spinsters Have More Fun
Edith, however, is all out of fucks to give when it comes to what her sister thinks; each time Mary makes a snide comment, Edith comes back just as forcefully. She invites Bertie to Downton for dinner, and when he hears about how unprepared they are for the open house he takes over, assigning them all as tour guides – even though they don't really know much about the history of the house and are comically awful at answering the visitors' questions. Edith introduces Bertie to Marigold, but doesn't tell him the whole story, because this is another storyline they need to drag out as long as they can.
Daisy's exams are approaching, but she's much more concerned about the growing attraction between Mr. Mason and Mrs. Patmore, going so far as to "accidentally" lose a letter meant for the cook. Once again, the show that's spent so much time on Daisy's intelligence and education has to resort to making her look stupid. At least Daisy hasn't given up her revolutionary fervor, demanding they open up all the great houses to the public.
The Depressed Under-Butler Market
Barrow's days are numbered now – Robert's health scare only confirms his desire to scale down the staff, and Carson makes it clear that Barrow needs to find a new position sooner rather than later. But while the rest of the house looks through him, the only one who seems to know that Barrow is hurting is young George, who tells his mother that he's cheering him up by letting Barrow give him a pony ride. It's a telling moment when we see how much genuine joy he gets from playing with the children.
But in Barrow's world, no good deed goes unpunished; he's teaching Andy how to read, but their study sessions are raising eyebrows. Mrs. Patmore and Carson both leap to conclusions, and Carson refuses to take his word that nothing untoward is happening. Barrow seems to suddenly understand how little he is respected, in spite of his years of service. The last scene in the episode is Barrow, sitting alone, crying. It's OK, Thomas – if they won't love you, Tumblr will.
Lord Merton is still hanging around Isobel, even though their potential engagement was ruined by his awful son Larry. But Larry has a new finance, Miss Cruikshank, and she tells Isobel that she wants to repair the situation. Isobel is cautiously optimistic, but Violet sizes her up immediately and is not impressed – there's something off about Miss Cruikshank, and her bland pronouncements seem too calculated to be taken at face value. Although, if there's one thing this show has relied upon as it limps to the end, it's bland pronouncements.