Christmas reunites most of the Grantham family as Rosamund, her gossipy maid Shore in tow, arrives eager to introduce her new suitor to the family. But neither the Granthams nor the servants can escape into the season's merriment when they are forced to turn against one of their own. Not even games can pierce the gloom surrounding Downton, where downstairs the servants are desperate for guidance. Thomas and O'Brien are up to their old tricks, Daisy tries to make sense of her future, and Anna holds tight to endure the present.
Robert hopes that the annual New Years Shooting Party will lift everyone's spirits, but an ill-tempered Richard resets his sights on a familiar target. His petulant and brutish efforts to dominate Mary do not go unnoticed. But with his threat hanging over her head, Mary must choose between two kinds of ruin.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
An enormous Christmas tree sparkles as the Crawleys present gifts to the servants. But in spite of the season's merriment, Anna is distressed, as Bates spends Christmas alone in his prison cell, awaiting the trial that will either prove him innocent of Vera's murder or sentence him to death. Matthew, still grieving, faces the grim prospect of Lavinia's father's death; he is heading to London to be with the dying man. Rosamund arrives from London, her new maid Shore in tow, and requests that her new suitor, Lord Hepworth, join them for New Year's Eve. Violet knew his father and welcomes the idea. Downstairs among the servants, Shore brashly tries to gossip about Bates and receives a chilled response. Anna makes a solemn visit to Bates who gently urges her to prepare for the worst.
On New Year's Eve, a letter arrives from Sybil, who is now married to Branson and residing in Dublin. Cora is delighted to learn from the letter that Sybil is pregnant, but Robert reveals that his blessing was a reserved one. Only Mary and Edith attended Sybil's Dublin wedding, and he is unhappy at the thought of becoming grandfather to Branson's child. Lord Hepworth arrives, greeted warmly by Violet, who seems quite interested in the charming gentleman. Anna spots Hepworth and Shore in furtive conversation. Meanwhile, with Bates's absence, Thomas sees opportunity — or rather, opportunity lost: He knows that because of his theft, Robert would never trust him as valet. But O'Brien suggests that Thomas find and return something that the Earl loves to earn back his trust and esteem.
The New Year begins with a shooting party. Matthew, observing the wear that Carlisle is inflicting on Mary's nerves, fabricates a commitment from Mary that she would accompany him on the first leg of the shoot. She is grateful to be rescued from Carlisle's bitter company and confesses that he is irritating her. But when Matthew asks if she still plans to marry him, she answers "Of course." When they rejoin Carlisle, he berates Mary for her friendship with Matthew, raging until Matthew interrupts.
When Mr. Mason visits, welcoming Daisy to spend time with him at the farm, she is distressed, yearning to tell him her true, mixed feelings about William. But when she takes him up on his offer, he invites her to be a daughter to him and she blossoms in his fatherly affection, taking his advice about talking to Mrs. Patmore and, as a result, securing a promotion in the house.
Hepworth visits Violet and she forces him to admit that he has lost his fortune and most of his properties. He assures Violet that his feelings for Rosamund are true. Nevertheless, Violet insists that he come clean to Rosamund about his finances. But as he breaks his news to Rosamund, Carlisle berates Mary for moving slowly in setting a wedding date. Witnessing Carlisle's bullying threat so upsets Matthew that he follows Mary out of the room to urge her not to marry him. He assures her that she will always have a place at Downton; why must she marry Carlisle? Mary answers that he would despise her if she told him why. They are interrupted and cannot continue their conversation. But Robert, having witnessed Carlisle's antagonistic treatment of his daughter, asks Cora why on earth Mary would agree to marry him. Finally, Cora tells Robert everything about Mary's scandalous night with the late Turkish diplomat, Kemal Pamuk.
The lawyer Murray prepares Robert, Mrs. Hughes and O'Brien to testify at Bates's trial. They are nervous at having been called by the prosecution, and their fears bear out, as with great unease and regret, they are forced to tell the truth about Bates's statements. His words, in this context, indict him, and to everyone's shock, Bates is pronounced guilty and sentenced to death. While Matthew reassures a horrified Anna that they will attempt to commute the sentence and keep him alive while they work to prove his innocence, Murray admits that they don't have a strong chance of succeeding. Anna visits Bates who, with calm dignity, asks her to forgive those who testified against him, even O'Brien. Anna submits her resignation, not wanting to bring scandal on the house.
In a frank conversation with Mary, Robert encourages her to break it off with Carlisle and suggests that she go to her grandmother in America until the scandal dies down. Buffered by his support, she begins making plans for departure. Anna asks to accompany Mary to America if her worst fears come true, and Mary wholeheartedly accepts.
The gloom over the house deepens as Robert's beloved dog Isis is discovered missing. Thomas had staged her disappearance so that he could "find" her and earn Robert's favor. A search party ensues, and walking back together, Matthew presses Mary to tell him why she is sure he would despise her. Knowing that her secret will soon be common knowledge, she tells him all. He is shocked, but supportive, and urges her not to marry Carlisle.
But Thomas bungled the scheme — the dog escaped from confinement and was returned to Downton by someone else. Only the disheveled sight of his pompous footman earnestly searching for his master's dog prompts Robert to give Thomas another chance. And so fortunes turn. Matthew can stand Carlisle's abuse of Mary no more and finally swings a punch at him. They fight, Robert asks him to leave in the morning, and he renews his threats to publish Mary's scandal. But the next day brings not just Carlisle's departure, but miraculous news: Bates was given a reprieve. Now serving a life sentence, he will have the chance to overturn his conviction. Meanwhile, he makes Anna promise that she will live her life while he serves out his. Anna withdraws her resignation.
The Servants Ball, which had been cancelled, is back on. Amidst the dancing couples, Anna observes Hepworth sneaking off with Shore. They are caught in a tryst, and Rosamund finds that he is a caddish fortune hunter, nothing more. Cora draws the line with Robert, insisting that she is going to retrieve Sybil and bring her and her family back into the fold. And Matthew, in a lightly swirling snow, gets down on one knee and asks Mary to marry him. She accepts.