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'Downton Abbey' recap: And the award for world's worst sister goes to ... Lady Mary!

'Downton Abbey' recap: And the award for world's worst sister goes to ... Lady Mary!
Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith and Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Pelham in "Downton Abbey." (Nick Briggs / Carnival Film & Television Limited)

As "Downton Abbey" nears the end of the road, let us pause to remember one thing: No matter how bad things might be in our own lives, at least Lady Mary is not our sister.

The series' penultimate episode is packed with enough drama for an entire season, making up for what has otherwise been a rather uneventful final run. All the big moments we look for from "Downton Abbey" are here: A surprise inheritance, an engagement, a breakup, another engagement, a shocking death and a shocking near-death, a wedding. There are also parasols and scenic walks through tall grass and some truly stunning fashion. Best of all, there is absolutely no discussion of hospitals! Hurray!

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Anchoring it all is a cataclysmic confrontation between Lady Mary, who's never been more petty or cruel, and Poor Old Edith®, who finally finds herself on the brink of happiness after enduring more misery than a Lars von Trier heroine.

When Bertie's boss and distant cousin unexpectedly dies of malaria in Tangiers, Bertie suddenly becomes the new Marquess of Hexham. (He's the Cousin Matthew of Brancaster, malaria the Titanic) and Lady Edith, "who couldn't make her dolls do what she wanted," as Lord Grantham so kindly puts it, is about to be a very rich lady with a very big house and a very fancy title to match.

Except for Mary, who looks like someone put castor oil in her tea, the Crawleys can barely contain their glee at the news. "Golly gumdrops, what a turnup!" says a giddy Lord Grantham, momentarily forgetting that, you know, someone just died.

The exuberance is a tad premature, because there is the not-insignificant matter of Marigold that must be resolved. Both Rosamund and Cora, to their credit, insist that Edith should come clean before accepting Bertie's proposal. But, Edith being Edith, she can't quite bring herself to do it. Instead, she says cryptic things such as "my life is not that simple" as a look of barely sublimated panic spreads across her face -- and viewers everywhere scream "JUST TELL HIM!" at the television. (Nobody registers anxiety quite as effectively as Laura Carmichael, do they?)

Meanwhile, Branson, who seems to have replaced his commitment to liberal politics with a curiously strong investment in Mary's love life, conspires to bring Henry Talbot back to Downton Abbey. The plan backfires spectacularly. When Henry shows up unannounced, claiming he was "doing various car things" nearby,  Mary gets miffed, and the tension explodes in a fight that plays like a gender-reversed scene out of "Pride & Prejudice."

"My birth is respectable, so it can't be that, which forces me to believe it is  my lack of money and position that present the problem," says Henry, the Elizabeth Bennet in this scenario. "Aren't you better than that?"

Mary doesn't take kindly to being accused of gold-digging, and angrily storms off. But she's even unhappier the next morning, when she turns up at breakfast and discovers that Henry has gone. Mary being Mary, she decides to lob a metaphorical grenade at Edith by "accidentally" revealing the truth about Marigold.

Just like that, a brokenhearted Bertie calls off the engagement and heads off to Tangiers -- though, with a two-hour special yet to go, it's probably safe to assume he'll return.

Mary has done some despicable things over the years, including other acts of romantic sabotage, but this is easily the worst. It's perfectly understandable when she confronts her "nasty, jealous, scheming" bully of a sister using a five-letter word heretofore applied only to Isis the dog.

Credit goes to Julian Fellowes for pushing Mary, this show's de facto protagonist, into uncharted emotional territory this late in the series, and for testing the limits of viewer sympathy more than ever. In a terrific scene with the Dowager, who's summoned back from France to intervene in the family crisis, Mary is initially full of bluster but eventually admits to what we all knew all along: She doesn't really care about Henry's lack of status and is actually just terrified of becoming a "crash widow" for the second time.

"You are the only woman I know who likes to think herself cold and selfish and grand," says Violet. "I believe in rules and tradition and playing our part. But there's something else: I believe in love."

In suspiciously expedient fashion, Henry is summoned back to Downton, Mary confesses her love and they get married. There's a brief pause for Mary to visit Matthew's grave -- cue the waterworks -- but otherwise it's a change of course so abrupt and so complete as to induce whiplash, and it's especially sudden given that Mary doesn't even bother explaining to Henry the real reason for her monstrous behavior. But never mind all that because: wedding!!

This episode is nothing if not a showcase for the women of "Downton," particularly Carmichael and Michelle Dockery, who share another terrific scene just as Mary prepares to head down the aisle. Even though Mary has ruined her life (for at least the second time), Edith somehow manages to be the bigger person.

"In the end you're my sister, and one day only we will remember Sybil or Mama or Papa or Matthew or Michael," she says, by way of explaining her presence on Mary's wedding day, "until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike."

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The episode sets up a nice if unexpected parallel between Mary and Thomas, two characters whose frosty demeanor masks a deep-seated vulnerability and who find themselves in crisis. Thomas, rejected from his umpteenth job application, slits his wrists in a desperate, cry-for-help suicide attempt. In an act of unusual kindness, Mary brings Master George for a visit.

"I’ve done and said things, I don’t know why," says Thomas, reflecting on his isolation. "I can’t stop myself.”

"It's strange. I could say the same," Mary replies.

Mercifully, Carson and Lord Grantham decide not to let Thomas go -- at least not right away.

Things are going better for Barrow's peers, Molesley and Mrs. Patmore, though both face some adversity along the way.

Mrs. Patmore's brand new B&B is in danger of becoming known as a house of ill repute when it's revealed that an adulterous couple stayed there for the night. The folks upstairs catch wind of her troubles and decide to generate some positive press by paying a visit for tea.

Of course, Carson -- who's really become insufferable lately -- objects to the Crawleys' involvement in this "tawdry local brouhaha," despite the fact that, as Mrs. Hughes points out, plenty of scandalous behavior has taken place at Downton Abbey over the years. Thankfully, Lord and Lady Grantham ignore his protests, and the photo op goes off without a hitch.

For Mr. Molesley, the major obstacle is a room full of poorly behaved schoolchildren who -- surprise, surprise -- are most definitely not interested in spending an entire term studying the decades of history leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That is, until Molesley heeds Baxter's advice and tells his charges that he works in service, thereby earning street cred with the working-class youngsters.

"You must never think education is just for the toffs," he says.

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Psst, Julian Fellowes, where's our Molesley spinoff?

 Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter

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