As we enter the sixth and final series of the ITV (UK) and PBS (US) drama, Downton Abbey, every event and plot point take on a much more significant role than in previous series. While series six has its share of narrative streams, they all seem to be feeding into a collective thematic watershed: the rising tide of Downton’s women.
While there has never been a definitive main character in Julian Fellowes’ wonderfully constructed world, much of the action has been catalyzed by men. Whether it’s the head butler Carson (Jim Carter), the sullen and mysterious Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the now-deceased Matthew (Dan Stevens), the chauffer-turned-estate-manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech), or even the Earl (Hugh Bonneville) himself, the men were the movers and the shakers — which was, admittedly, historically accurate. What series six seems most ardently attempting to do is to show how much times have changed since the beginning of our time with the Crawley clan.
Most prominently taking control of her own destiny is Mary (Michelle Dockery), who now seems far less interested in finding a suitor and more excited to be taking over as official estate manager for Tom, who’s now living in America. Episode two sees her solidify her new title as she officially oversees the agriculture show, which mostly entails her checking out Mr. Drewe’s (Andrew Scarborough) pigs — actually causing some issues for the other Crawley daughter, but we’ll touch on that later — but also confirms that Mary is no longer the directionless, grieving widow we have seen in the past.
Mary also has strong opinions about the impending marriage between Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson, who she feels should be married in Downton. While Mary’s intentions are kind in nature, they come off a bit patronizing to Mrs. Hughes, who feels that a wedding in her workplace, no matter how grand, isn’t exactly the nuptials she dreamed up as a girl. This disagreement is made all the more juicy because it places Mr. Carson, whose love for Hughes is only rivaled and perhaps even surpassed by his fatherly affection for Mary, dead set in the middle of the two. My bet is that Hughes will ultimately get her way, but not without some awkward moments for everyone’s favorite head butler.
Thankfully, last episode finally wrapped up the whole Mr. Green (Nigel Harmon) sexual assault affair, which seemed destined to exasperate viewers had it gone on any longer. The thing is, we are still not free of sad, sobbing Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), who is now ashamed that despite their best efforts, she cannot seem to have Mr. Bates’ child. It’s not that this isn’t a worthy story to tell, especially given the interesting way that women at this time were now somewhere in between being only mothers and maids, and being whatever they goddamn pleased, but I just feel like Fellowes and team are once again too cruel towards Anna, who, when not fighting for her husband’s life, is fighting for her own. This tale of undeserved shame and child-rearing issues could’ve had its place in Downton Abbey, but the timing just doesn’t seem fair or narratively justified.
Speaking of women taking charge, the battle for the future of the hospital between the two resident grannies, Dowager Countess Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), continues to rage. What’s so refreshing about this battle is how both Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) must take a backseat on their respective sides, letting Violet and Isobel take the frontlines. The eventual winner seems destined to be Isobel, the more progressive, forward-thinker of the two, but the real purpose of this plot thread seems to be to give the audience what they truly want most: a few more scenes in which these two can be as wonderfully snippy as they’ve been since day one.
Edith (Laura Carmichael), as is often the case with Downton’s most downtrodden resident, is not fairing quite as well with her attempt to remove herself from the mundane life at Downton and strike out on her own accord. This episode shows her at constant odds with the editor at her paper, who seems to have even less respect for her than her constantly curt older sister. As has been true with most of Downton Abbey’s run. Edith seems completely rudderless, still unsure about where to live or what to do in the in the face of all that’s been done to her.
This onslaught continues as the episode reaches its finale, and we’re once again brought into the twisted web that is Edith’s relationship with her daughter, Marigold (Sharon Small). The pig show turns out to be the catalyst for a reunion between Marigold’s original maternal figure, Mrs. Drewe, and one that leaves Robert with no choice but to force Mr. Drewe to remove himself from the picture before things get any uglier. This struggle between adopted and birth mother is without a doubt the most melodramatic piece of the episode, but it’s also the one that had the hardest time demanding my attention. Edith’s always taken a bit of a back seat, and to thrust her story into the forefront once or twice every season doesn’t change that; it simply makes these moments feel all the more hollow.
The next milestone for series six seems to be the aforementioned servant wedding. While this will likely have all the delight and whimsy that fans and audiences have come to expect from Downton Abbey, I think the most intriguing aspect of this final year will be how these characters continue to grow and settle into the roles they’ll be left with at seasons end. It’s a journey I am happy to go on.