The episode begins with the release of Bates (finally!) from prison and into the welcoming arms of Anna. Their reunion is a genuinely heartfelt moment and a great start to the episode. I shared Anna's relief at Bates's release as it brings an end to a storyline that has been Downton's weakest link all series. The resolution was easy to spot from the start and there was never any real threat that Bates would remain imprisoned for good.
Joanne Froggatt really proves her worth in the episode's opening scene and finally she may get something more to do. In general, it has felt like both Bates and Anna have been stuck on pause for most of the series. With Bates back and the promise of a return to his position as Lord Grantham's valet, all is well for now. Robert even promises to sort them out with more suitable living arrangements and it looks like Bates and Anna may have their own cottage before long.
The episode, as you would expect, continues to deal with the passing of Lady Sybil as Branson prepares to have baby Sybil christened. He wonders who will want to go (with him having Sybil christened as a Catholic!) but Mary assures him that he needs to give the family the chance to act properly.
I'm a big fan of the Branson and Mary scenes we have seen in the last few weeks. They show a softer and more endearing side to Mary that she can sometimes seen to be lacking. Branson asks Mary to be Sybil's godmother to which she agrees. Branson also announces the arrival of his brother Kieran (a bit of a "rough diamond" as he puts it) who will stay in the village for the christening. Mary disagrees and is adamant that he will be welcome at Downton. Anybody have the feeling that Robert may have something to say about this?
However Kieran arrives and makes himself known downstairs before Branson and Mary can come to fetch him. He says he would rather eat with the servants where he and Branson "both belong", but Branson demands that he come upstairs and accept his mother-in-law's invitation for dinner. Carson thinks that his respect for Lady Cora is "exemplary". The arrival of Kieran serves to highlight that Branson may fit in upstairs more than he would care to admit.
Kieran's presence around the dinner table brings comic relief and one of the episode's funniest moments actually comes from Robert. His description of a Catholic ceremony as "more like a gymnastics display" not only gets an unexpected laugh from Kieran but from me also.
There is more conflict between Matthew and Robert as the tussle over who can run Downton better continues. This week, it results in the resignation of Jarvis; the estate manager of 40 years who Matthew thinks doesn't like change. As much as this storyline might not be the most dramatic, it is serving its purpose. Robert's arc across this latest series of Downton has been finding a way to exist in a world that is changing around him. As Mary put it last week, the world isn't going his way anymore. However Robert does appear to be coming round to the idea that changes are afoot at Downton, but there may be more tense exchanges to come in this "dual monarchy", as Cora puts it.
Robert may not yet fully believe in Matthew but thankfully Mary does. She reassures him that she is behind his plans, as long as he considers her father whilst also finally showing that she does want a baby. "We will", she assures him when he questions their ability to conceive. Is it too much to hope for some good news before the series is out?
I was pleased to see Julian Fellowes handling the Thomas and James storyline with more care this week. It has been unsettling in recent episodes to see Thomas presented as a bit sinister and creepy. Showing the events of this week's episode from Thomas's view revealed a side to him we rarely see. He is desperately lonely in a world where he can never speak of his feelings. I thought Rob James-Collier's performance this week was exceptional.
O'Brien's scheming reaches its climax this week, as she convinces Thomas that his feelings for James are mutual, leading to him entering James's bedroom for a midnight kiss. Alfred walks in at the most inopportune moment and witnesses the resulting fallout. It isn't long before O'Brien is whispering in her nephew's ear, encouraging him to report the incident to Mr Carson. Thomas is quickly hauled up, but his fate hangs in the balance until next week at least.
However I think my favourite part of the episode was Edith's trip to London. It is fair to say Edith has had a big of tough luck across the series, rarely finding a place or man to call her own. It seems that Edith might finally be about to strike lucky. The mild-mannered Edith we know at Downton becomes a confident woman in the city. At her meeting with Gregson (who has sought her out for a potential column), she is a different person. It appears to me that she has finally found something for herself. Over lunch (she even manages to bag herself a date) Edith says how nice it is to be reminded she isn't "always a subject of pity", a feeling she knows all too well at home. Violet comments that Edith might not be cut out for the domestic life and maybe she is right, perhaps she is meant to do a whole lot more.
Violet is back on form, a standout moment being her response to Edith's announcement of there now being a journalist in the family. She dryly responds: "Since we have a country solicitor and a car mechanic, it was only a matter of time." It's also nice to see her return to her meddling ways as she persuades Edith to arrange an advertisement for a new housemaid for Isobel behind her back. She criticises Isobel for hiring Ethel and "tainting" the family as a result. Ethel's past continues to haunt her as she is refused service in the village and Isobel contemplates whether Ethel can ever be happy if she cannot make a fresh start after an intervention from Violet, Edith and Mrs Hughes.
The downstairs love triangle continues to be a mildly entertaining but largely forgetful plot. This week Alfred may have had a 'date' with Ivy but she maintains she doesn't want him to get "the wrong idea". Alfred is adamant that James is not interested in her, but Ivy refuses to believe him. Will there be happy endings for all concerned next week?
The episode concludes with the christening of baby Sybil and the decision to offer Branson the job of managing the estate following Jarvis's resignation. Violet reminds Robert that he has more "practical experience" than his predecessor and urges him to consider it a way of saving his granddaughter from growing up in a garage with Branson's brother, who she describes fantastically as a "drunken gorilla". But perhaps the funniest moment of the week is saved for last; I couldn't help laughing out loud at Robert and Violet's pained expressions when they are forced to pose in a photograph alongside Father Dominic (the Catholic priest who has christened baby Sybil).
Overall, this penultimate instalment of Downton Abbey's third run is a testament to its enduring success. Downton thrives when it blends together its more serious moments with light relief. With the past couple of weeks focusing on some pretty depressing stuff, this week provided a welcome change in tone. An episode that considered the mistakes of the past and the possibilities of the future, it leaves us with plenty of loose ends that will hopefully be tied up in next week's finale.
Downton Abbey airs on ITV1.