Though the new season began with a decidedly traditional event (fox hunting in 1925), even that aristocratic pastime was in flux. “After World War I, there were fewer hunters over smaller areas with considerably reduced prestige,” Ruth Goodman, social historian and author of How to Be a Victorian, tells LIFE for its special commemorative Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of the Iconic TV Show. “Great estates in financial trouble were being broken up into smaller units, and barbed wire was replacing traditional fencing and hedges.”
Spoiler warning: If you don’t want to know anything about what happens, skip this. Otherwise, read on!
More significant changes were afoot, too. The Crawleys’ neighbors have been forced to sell their ancestral home, for instance – not to mention the silverware. The Downton family considers further downsizing its staff, though the estate has already cut back. Instead of the usual six footmen, Downton now has only two, troubling the traditionalist butler Carson (Jim Carter) even more than Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). “I don’t like to feel out of step with my fellow man,” the earl says. “Who has an under-butler these days?”
Like many estates at the time, Downton Abbey opens its doors to the public to raise money – for charity, not their own coffers – prompting the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) to exclaim, “Roll up, roll up! Visit an actual dining room complete with a real-life table and chairs!”
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Yet another in a series of modern innovations – a new refrigerator – appalls the head cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), but Lord and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) actually use the appliance to (gasp!) make themselves a snack.
The servants change, too, with Mrs. Patmore’s assistant, Daisy (Sophie McShera), becoming increasingly independent – even combative – and Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) looking for another job, since his under-butler post is “fragrant with memories of a lost world,” says Carson. “You are not a creature of today,” he tells Barrow. But one “creature of today” – a radically transformed former servant – makes a surprise appearance.
“Life is short, death is sure,” Carson says in episode 5. (Notice the change theme again?) Some speculate that the final season will see the death of Smith’s Violet, no doubt upsetting everyone – except Smith herself, who told the BBC’s Graham Norton that she was “glad it’s over,” adding that she had hoped to exit the show in suitably dramatic fashion. “I pleaded for something to happen to me,” she said.
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If the Dowager Countess does in fact die, she may not be alone. Carter has warned viewers that they will need “two hankies” (not three or four?) to watch the finale.
“All the servants are together in the hall,” Carter told a British magazine. “It is New Year’s Eve, it’s candlelit, and there are Christmas decorations left over. It is dark and we quietly sing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ ” Though the actor admitted to weeping while filming, he was ultimately philosophical. “We do a job, we move on, that’s the rhythm of our lives,” he said.
It’s a changing world. But you know that already.
A version of this story is featured in LIFE’s commemorative edition, Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of the Iconic TV Show – on sale now!
Downton Abbey‘s final season is currently underway on Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on PBS Masterpiece”.