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The Downton Abbey estate stands a splendid example of confidence and mettle, its family enduring for generations and its staff a well-oiled machine of propriety. But change is afoot at Downton--change far surpassing the new electric lights and telephone. A crisis of inheritance threatens to displace the resident Crawley family, in spite of the best efforts of the noble and compassionate Earl, Robert Crawley; his American heiress wife, Cora his comically implacable, opinionated mother, Violet and his beautiful, eldest daughter, Mary, intent on charting her own course. Reluctantly, the family is forced to welcome its heir apparent, the self-made and proudly modern Matthew Crawley himself none too happy about the new arrangements. As Matthew's bristly relationship with Mary begins to crackle with electricity, hope for the future of Downton's dynasty takes shape. But when petty jealousies and ambitions grow among the family and the staff, scheming and secrets--both delicious and dangerous--threaten to derail the scramble to preserve Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey offers a spot-on portrait of a vanishing way of life.
1925. Big changes are afoot. Robert anticipates having to cut costs, and reduce the size of the staff, which worries Carson. Mrs Hughes is nervous about being embarrassed when performing her wifely duties when married to Carson, and asks Mrs Patmore to sound him out; after much embarrassment, Carson says he expects them to have a full marriage, which reassures Mrs Hughes. The local hospital is threatened with a take-over by the larger County Hospital; the board is split, with Violet objecting, and Isobel approving in the name of efficiency. A former chambermaid, Rita Bevan, turns up trying to blackmail Mary by revealing her tryst with Lord Gillingham. Mary refuses to pay, but Rita confronts Robert, who buys her off with £50 instead of the £1,000 she wanted, and gets a signed confession to prevent further blackmail. He admires Mary's pluck, and approves of her taking over Tom's job as the estate's Agent.Sergeant Willis tells Bates and Anna that a woman has confessed to killing Green, and the matter is closed. Anna is upset at not having a child; twice she was convinced she was pregnant, but it was a miscarriage each time. Edith plans to spend more time in London, and be more hands-on with the publishing business. The family attend an auction at a neighbouring estate which is being sold off. Daisy unwisely confronts the new owner because her father-in-law Mr Mason may lose his farm, but this backfires, and she only succeeds in angering him. Although she is liable to dismissal, Cora keeps her on. The owner tells Robert that great estates like theirs are on the way out, and advises him to sell up too.
1925. The acid-tongued exchanges between Violet and Isobel over the hospital get sharper; Cora sides with Isobel. Mary chides Robert for offering Carson the servants' hall for his wedding reception, and offers upstairs instead; Mrs Hughes insists on a separate venue, which leads to friction between the couple. Thomas looks for another job; he thinks it's clear that people are avoiding him, and want him gone. Edith argues vehemently with Mr Skinner, the publisher of her magazine, who dislikes all her ideas. Mary takes Anna to a Harley Street doctor, who proposes an operation during her next pregnancy.Mary arranges for the pigs to be entered in the local livestock show, but unwisely takes Marigold when she goes to inspect them on the farm, which upsets Mrs Drewe tremendously. During the show, she kidnaps Marigold and takes her home; her husband persuades her to give her back, and decides it would be best if they moved away. Robert is distressed, because of their long and loyal service, but reluctantly agrees.
May 1925. Cora, told by Mrs Patmore that Mrs Hughes is unhappy with having her wedding breakfast in the hall, forces a meeting with the family so that Mrs Hughes can explain, and supports her, so Carson gives in. Violet tries to get Robert to support her view on the hospital merger; at a meeting of the Board things get nasty, and Isobel is annoyed enough to be rude to Dr Clarkson. Edith has more arguments with the publisher of her magazine, and he walks out. Fortunately, she meets an old acquaintance, who helps her produce the next issue. Anna is pregnant, so Mary plans to take her to the doctor in three months time. Thomas travels to be interviewed by an eccentric widower, Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup) in decrepit Dryden Park, but declines the position.Violet's butler, Spratt, is behaving strangely, which catches Denker's attention. When Sergeant Willis reveals that Spratt's nephew has escaped from prison, Denker is sure that Spratt has helped him, and can now hold that over him. Daisy hopes that Mr Mason can take over the Drewes' farm, but jumps the gun in believing that Cora has already arranged it. Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes are married in the church. At the wedding breakfast in the village school, Tom Branson and his daughter arrive unexpectedly from Boston; he announces he feels Downton is his home, and wants to stay.
1925. Lady Shackleton visits with her nephew Henry Talbot, a racing car driver and another old friend of Mary's. Violet wants her support in the dispute over the hospital, and explains that her reason for opposing the merger is her resentment at the government taking over more and more things instead of leaving it to the locals, which rather mollifies Isobel. Lady Rosamund also visits, and is visited by Mr and Mrs Harding in connection with a women's college of which she is a trustee. Mrs Harding turns out to be Gwen, the former housemaid who left to better herself; the family are pleased for her. Sergeant Willis asks Miss Baxter to testify against the man with whom she was involved when she stole from a previous employer; she is afraid, but Molesley encourages her, and she agrees. Daisy is upset when she learns that Mr Mason is unlikely to get Yew Tree Farm, and prepares to angrily confront Cora, but she has persuaded Robert and Mary to let him have the farm, which fortunately Daisy learns before risking her job by being rude.Anna has pains, and is rushed to London by Mary, where the doctor performs the promised operation and saves the baby. Once home, Bates has guessed the problem, and is delighted Anna is pregnant. Robert keeps getting twinges of pain, but insists it's nothing. Mary meets Henry in London, and tells him that his making a pass won't work. Mr Carson and his wife, still to be known as Mrs Hughes, arrive back from their Scarborough honeymoon and move into a cottage. Edith announces she plans to appoint a woman editor to her magazine.
Minister of Health Neville Chamberlain visits Downton for dinner, and is drawn into Violet's plan to save the hospital, with distressing consequences for everyone. Andy finds an unexpected confidante while helping Mr Mason move into Yew Tree Farm, Mary is uncertain if she has met her match, Edith meets Bertie Pelham in London, and Spratt comes to Denker's aid. Mrs Hughes struggles to keep Carson happy, while Mary thinks secrets are being kept from her.
The house is made open to the public to raise money for the hospital, an act that divides opinions among the family and the servants. Tensions between Violet and Cora come to a head as a decision is made about the hospital takeover, Mr Dawes has a proposition for Molesley, and Baxter is thrown into turmoil by an unexpected letter. Carson is not happy with Thomas, while Mary and Edith hope to overcome their past and find new happiness with the men in their lives.
Isobel is puzzled to receive an invitation to a wedding between a young lady, Amelia Cruikshank, and Lord Merton's son Larry, since in the past he had insulted her by calling her a middle-class gold-digger. A suspicious Violet goes to confront Amelia, and accuses her of wanting Isobel to marry Lord Merton and look after him in his old age. The family watch Henry in a motor car race, but his friend Charlie is killed in a crash. With the entire family in shock, Mary takes a call from Henry, who implores her to give her an answer to his advances; she says no, as he is not the right type for her. Daisy and Molesley sit their exams; the latter does so well that the headmaster offers him a teaching job at the school. He also offers to help Andy learn to read, when his problem is revealed. Mrs Hughes pretends to have injured her hand, so is unable to cook, and gets Mr Carson to do everything; naturally he makes a complete mess, and gains a new respect for his wife's efforts. Mrs Patmore's B&B opens with its first guests. Bertie proposes to Edith, who asks for time to consider. Upon returning to Downton, the family are surprised to learn Violet is going away for a month to the south of France, in an effort to clear the air following the conflict over the hospital. She does make one gesture of goodwill before leaving, a new dog for Robert.
A change of circumstance puts Bertie Pelham in the limelight, and Edith must decide whether to conceal her past at all costs or confront the truth and risk losing everything. As both sisters seek their perfect match, hostilities escalate and it is up to Mary to decide if she can ever make peace with Edith - or herself? Spratt proves to be a man of hidden talents and Mr Molesley embarks on a career in teaching, though his first lesson does not quite go to plan. Mrs Patmore's bed and breakfast garners unwanted attention - will the Crawleys come to her aid?
Everyone gathers for Edith and Bertie's wedding on New Year's Eve. Anna suddenly goes into labour in Mary's bedroom and gives birth to a son. Carson realizes his illness will ultimately prevent him from performing his duties, and tenders his resignation; Robert reluctantly accepts, and suggests that Thomas return as Butler. Carson can retire with a pension, retaining an oversight role, which pleases all three. Violet accepts that Cora has taken over her prime position within the family, and they reconcile.
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