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Television

‘Downton Abbey’ recap: A blast from the past

Gwen returns to “Downton Abbey”

Rose Leslie as Gwen and Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham.

(Nick Briggs / Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015 )

You know nothing, Thomas Barrow.

“Downton Abbey” gets a blast from the past when Mrs. Harding, nee Gwen, returns more than a decade after leaving her job as a maid to fight with the free folk beyond the wall -- wait, sorry, wrong show -- to pursue a career as a secretary.

The fact that barely anyone upstairs recognizes Gwen, even though she worked at the house for several years, is eye-opening, as is her reluctance to reveal her ties to Downton. It’s not that Gwen is shifty, as Thomas would like everyone to think, but rather that it’s super-duper awkward. 

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After leaving service, Gwen moved up the ranks, married well and is now receiving invitations to dine in great homes, rather than clean them. But, one suspects, there’s a part of her that probably feels out of place, which is why she doesn’t immediately announce herself. Leave it to Thomas to sense that insecurity, and attack like a shark smelling blood in the water. But his malicious plan backfires when Gwen explains how she owes everything to the late Lady Sybil, turning what could have been a humiliating moment into a bittersweet memorial for everyone’s favorite harem pant-wearing suffragette. So there, Thomas! 

Gwen’s upwardly mobile trajectory does more than just annoy Thomas, who’s temporarily serving as butler in Carson’s absence. It becomes yet another way for “Downton Abbey” to explore the central questions of this final season, during which everyone above and below stairs alike is contemplating his or her future prospects in a rapidly changing society.

At the same time, this episode feels weirdly defensive of the upper classes, insistent on reminding us of the Crawleys’ generosity at every turn. Daisy (or Madame DeFarge, as Mrs. Patmore calls her) comes perilously close to confronting Cora over Yew Tree Farm, but learns at the very last second that it’s going to Mr. Mason after all. Fearing that Anna is experiencing another miscarriage, Mary travels with her to London in the middle of the night and pays for her doctor to make a house call (who makes sure to mention how much this will all cost). 

Even Branson, once the socialist firebrand, seems unable to resist the creature comforts of Downton. He’s also softened his political rhetoric. “I don’t feel the same about capitalism,” he explains as clunkily as ever, noting that in America “a hard-working man can go right to the top.”

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Gwen’s story notwithstanding, the idea of class mobility is still a little foreign in England. Lady Mary wryly observes how people have taken to strange occupations to make money. "I once met a man who spent his time importing guinea pigs from Peru,” she says in conversation with Henry Talbot, who has his own curious little hobby: cars. I can’t imagine anyone making money off of those! 

While he’s certainly dashing, Henry, it turns out, is not exactly rolling in the dough. Nor does he have a fancy title to make up for his merely adequate financial prospects. “About 40 strong men would have to drop dead” for him to become an earl, says Lady Shackleton. This is cause for concern for Violet, who says that “Mary needs more than a handsome smile and a hand on the gear stick." 

Apparently not. Over dinner in London, the two flirt shamelessly. But if I’m being honest, I’m far less interested in Mary’s sex life than what’s happening on Carson and, um, Mrs. Carson’s honeymoon. It seems a bit odd given all the worry about having a “real marriage” that Julian Fellowes completely skipped over the honeymoon, but something -- maybe it was that parting shot of Carson looking a bit sad to leave his single room behind -- tells me the show isn’t done with this story yet. 

The bickering over the hospital continues, and I still can’t really bring myself to care about this storyline. Violet explains that she opposes the merger, despite the likelihood it will lead to higher quality care for local patients, because she fears it will lead to "less control by the people and more control by the state until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing.” Suddenly sounding like a Republican presidential hopeful, the dowager countess says that the point of being in a great family like the Crawleys is “to protect our freedoms,” presumably by maintaining local control of institutions like hospitals. Violet’s always been a sharp-tongued defender of the status quo, but it is a little strange to hear her being quite so political, isn’t it? Let’s just be glad Miss Bunting wasn’t around to fight back.

Speaking of hospitals, all seems to have gone well on Anna’s visit to London, but I am still  worried. Fellowes doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with the Bateses other than completely reversing their fortunes from episode to episode with a speed and severity that is whiplash-inducing. (“Anna is totally going to prison for Green’s murder! But wait, someone confessed and everything is fine! Anna can’t have babies! Oh wait, yes she can, if she just has this very simple procedure!”)  

One more thought before I go. What are we to make of Lord Grantham’s tummy troubles? Call it the law of Chekhov’s Belly: When someone on television, especially in a period drama, complains about physical discomfort, it will always factor into the narrative later on. Make your predictions, dear readers. Does his lordship simply need some Pepto, or is something more dire in store? 

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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