Downton Abbey ends its impressive run with a level of sheer joy never before reached in its six seasons.
Downton AbbeyAirtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Laura Carmichael, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode
Subtitle: Season 6, Episode 9
Air Date: 2016-03-06
The time is here. Gone are the days we will spend with poor-old Edith (Laura Carmichael), the catty Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), the jolly and oblivious Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), the old-world curmudgeon Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), and the rest of the ever-so-loved inhabitants of the Downton Estate. It's been one hell of a run. Even Lord Grantham, who hates American slogans about letting go, can hardly admit that the timing doesn't feel right.
Downton Abbeyhas succeeded in something that many shows have tried, and often failed to do: walk the tight rope between what's now known as "prestige drama" and what was once and always will be known as "soap opera". Simply describing these last six years may make this line of delineation difficult to pinpoint. After all, what stereotypically “soap” narrative turn hasn’t this show at least flirted with? We’ve seen unwanted and secret pregnancies, death by birth, death by car crash, rape, murder, attempted suicide, disappearance in a foreign country, and scandal enough to rival any in the Shonda Rhimes universe.
The important distinction to make, however, is more of a feeling than some tangible thing. Through the many twists and turns, through all the sometimes melodramatic plot developments, we’ve felt a connection that somehow went deeper than any surface-level plot. It didn’t matter how many suitors Mary (Michelle Dockery) went through before finding her true love, and it didn’t matter that he had to die to give her a few more; we cared who Mary ended up with because we knew Mary and, like the head butler himself, felt some connection that went deeper than mere gossip.
With all that creator Julian Fellowes has thrown at both the Downton elite and their downstairs brethren, the finale had one essential question to answer: how do all these rollercoaster stories come to an end? Not that we couldn’t see it coming, but Fellowes made the answer emphatically clear during the two-hour finale. Hardship for hardship’s sake can be great television -- as was often the case these last six years -- but seeing all that hardship result in unadulterated happiness makes the whole thing abundantly satisfying.
The one character that needed, more than any, to spend her final moments on screen in a state of pure bliss was Edith -- perhaps the most worn-out punching bag in the Julian Fellowes collection. We've seen her fight tooth and nail for happiness in a world that seems dead-set on giving her nothing but pain and disappointment. No Crawley daughter was safe from her fair share of relationship tragedy, but Edith’s long-lost husband and now un-proposal surely take the cake.
Knowing all this, though, it wasn’t hard to guess that the kind and generally understanding Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) would make his way back into Edith's life. It was, at least, a little surprising that this reunion was authored by none other than the "cold bitch" Mary. After Mary’s display of jealousy, treachery, and out-of-control egotism, she needed some redemption. What better way than to give her a guiding hand in her sister’s happiness? Well done, Fellowes.
From here, all Edith must do is reveal her secret to one more Pelham: Bertie’s mother (Patricia Hodge). After a rocky start, Mrs. Pelham concludes that her honesty, especially when Edith has so much to gain from the marriage, outweighs the fact that she’s "damaged goods". With mother’s blessing and a marriage set in motion, all is well in the world for not-so-poor Edith. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Robert, and all the viewers at home can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that no further tragedy should befall the Crawley’s middle daughter.
In keeping with our more downtrodden Downton crew, we head downstairs to check on our two struggling butlers: Barrow (Rob James-Collier) and Carson. We know Barrow’s issues (we’ll touch on his later), but it seems Fellowes has one more sudden twist of fate to heap onto us before things end all nice and cheery. In the last couple episodes, we’ve seen Mr. Carson transform from the likable, if ornery, paterfamilias of downstairs life, into a sexist, and still ornery, pig of a husband.
His image needed some help, and nothing repairs image better than sympathy. It all starts with a spill of wine and a trembling cup of tea; we soon learn that Carson has inherited the palsy, a death-sentence to a man who relies on a steady hand. Much to his chagrin, Carson knows he must retire; it’s just too bad that Downton just got rid of their second in command. *cough cough*
So Barrow's set to leave and start his new job in a small house in which, despite his resolve to make more friends than enemies, he finds there none of either to be had. I think you can guess that Thomas doesn't stay here long, seeing as Carson’s new-found disability seems almost a perfect way to bring him back into the fold, this time as the new head butler. We do, however, get some truly quality goodbyes to feast on before we knew just how indefinite will his leave be, with none more heart-wrenching than watching him bid farewell to his biggest fans: young Master George (Oliver Zac Barker) and young Lady Sybbie (Fifi Hart).
The remainder of the downstairs crew were able to arrive at their joyous destinations with far less drama during the finale. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) continues his journey outside of Downton after hearing the news that a fellow teacher is set to leave the school, leaving an opening in a nearby house and some more classes for the new schoolteacher, a duty he thankfully accepts.
Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) seem mercifully immune to heartache; this continues as Anna gives birth to their first child (in Mary’s room), but with surprisingly little in the way of complications, while Edith’s wedding is going on downstairs. Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Andy (Michael Fox) finally get on the same page and realize a life of pig farming can be just as romantic as any other. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) mercifully stops talking about Peter Coyle -- the man all viewers stop worrying about months ago.
Upstairs, Henry (Matthew Goode) is quite predictably having a difficult time finding meaning in his new life at Downton, which he solves with the help of best friend a guy could ask for: Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Thus, much to the surprising delight of the newly pregnant Mary, "Talbot and Branson Motors" is born. Cora’s spending more and more time at the hospital, much to the chagrin, then delight, of the now stay-at-home grandfather Robert. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) finally finds her way into the arms of Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), although it takes, among other things, pernicious anemia, a battle with the dastardly Ms. Cruikshank (Phoebe Sparrow), and finally a Granny team jail break.
So with all the necessary coupling-off in order -- with hints at more coming after the final whistle (Patmore/Mason, Branson/Editor Evans) -- all that was left was what Downton Abbeyhas always done best; moments that walk right up to the edge of complete melodrama, and some that completely leap off the edge. The show’s two best non-romantic relationships get their due in the form of Mr. Carson and Lord Grantham, who’ve never truly acknowledged are the best friends either of them will ever have. So much of the series has been about change, and these two have always been its staunchest opponents. In the end, they seem to have come to terms with the world and their dwindling place in it.
The same can be said of one-half of the show’s other great friendship, Isobel and Violet Crawley, although it often moved further into frenemy than friends. Their wars, which often took on a good deal of importance throughout the seasons, were always ideological and only sometimes personal, but as the series concludes it seems the two are at peace with this arrangement.
Their final lines together play perfectly as a theme for the whole series, with Isobel admiring the ability to move toward the future, and Violet longing for any other direction in which to head. Downton Abbey was always about living in a past few people ever really inhabited, but it was also about constantly moving forward in a head-long rush towards future. In this final disagreement, the Crawley grandmothers are both right, although I hope that neither would concede.
Six seasons may have been a little much for a show whose scope was as thin as Carson’s mind on pretty much any topic that did not involve service-industry ethics and tradition, but you can hardly blame Fellowes and team for going as far as they could with the characters we all fell in love with so quickly. They constantly put us through the ringer, building happy lives board by board only to burn them all down, but Fellows final mission was the construct an estate where happiness ran free and acceptance reigned. In that Downton Abbeyaccomplished its mission. You will be missed.