As the final season of Downton Abbey builds towards its climax next week, the old order changes, giving way to new: Lady Edith's love life is actually going better than Lady Mary's and at least three of the staff are taking steps to build lives outside of service.
Mary's new beau Henry Talbot invites the entire family to watch him compete in a sports car race near London. Lord Grantham is keen to go but Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) doesn't want to encourage Henry's hopes. The ensuing discussion leads to the unlikely sight of Lord Grantham uttering the words "sex appeal.".
Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), licking her wounds after being deposed as hospital president, decides to decamp to the South of France to avoid exacerbating family tensions. Before she leaves, she ascertains Lord Merton's suspiciously friendly future daughter-in-law is scheming to use Isobel as "a free nurse to take the old man off her hands."
Downstairs, Mrs. Patmore is preparing for the opening of her B & B (with indoor bathroom!), both Daisy and Mr. Moseley are taking exams, and Carson is pressuring Barrow to find a new job. Carson is also still pressuring his new wife, Mrs. Hughes, to provide meals and housekeeping to Downton standards at their cottage.
The day of the motor race arrives, with duster coats and straw cloche hats on display. Edith (Laura Carmichael) has invited two friends: romantic interest Bertie Pelham and her just-hired magazine editor, Laura Edmunds, who hits it off with Tom.
As the cars race around the track at speeds in excess of 70 mph, Mary (Michelle Dockery) is a nervous wreck, although outwardly as immaculate as ever in a raspberry shift dress accessorized with a white duster and matching bowler. Her fears prove well-founded when Henry's racing teammate Charlie has a fatal accident, with Henry diving into the flaming wreck in an attempt to rescue his friend.
Back at Downton, Mrs. Hughes teaches Carson a lesson by faking a hand injury, which means the butler has to do all the cooking and dishwashing at their home, making him realize after a day's work that these domestic tasks are hard enough to do at all, let alone flawlessly.
Andy reveals he can't read, leading to the principal of the village school offering to take over his instruction from Barrett. He also offers Mr. Moseley, whose test results were outstanding, a teaching job. These happy developments make Barrett even more convinced that his life is going nowhere and his existence is insignificant.
Mary and Henry have a fraught telephone conversation in which Henry says Charlie's death has made him realize how important it is to seize the day. Unfortunately, it's had the opposite effect on Mary, and she tells him they aren't right for each other because she doesn't want to make him choose between his passion for cars and her.
When the family returns to Downton, Bertie proposes to Edith and agrees to let Marigold live with them, although Edith still hasn't told him the girl is her daughter. Even so, Edith doesn't jump on the offer (or Bertie) but instead asks for some time to consider it.
The most passionate love scene is saved for the end. Lady Violet has left a parting gift in the kitchen, an adorable Labrador puppy to replace the late Isis. Lord Grantham sweeps the dog up into his arms, displaying more enthusiasm than he ever has for Lady Cora or indeed anyone or anything else during the entire series.
Watch Downton Abbey on PBS, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.