Toodles, Lady Mary! Downton Abbey Concludes with Lots of Tea and Sympathy
After six seasons, PBS Masterpiece‘s beloved British series about aristocrats and servants has rolled to a gentle, satisfying close. In the final episode, Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), finally gave up complaining that this or that setback at Downton represented the twilight of the gentry. Everyone, upstairs and down, seemed to agree instead to pretend they were basking in an eternal, sentimental gloaming. Even long-suffering Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) walked down the aisle, although her escort into the future will be a twit.
Life wound up “happy enough,” said Lady Violet (Dame Maggie Smith), “which is the English version of a happy ending.”
So, goodbye to all that.
More particularly, goodbye to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Bates (Brendan Coyle), O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond), Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) – all of them. I wish they could all be lined up along the Downton stairway and thanked, one by one, with a handshake and a specially designed Edwardian swag bag.
From beginning to end, Downton was populated by characters stamped, strongly and wholly, with their own specific individuality from their first appearance. That will be the show’s enduring strength. Smith may say she never watched her performance as Violet, and she may even have genuinely wished that Downton hadn’t thrust her into the undignified era of Instagram selfies with fans. But she was, year after year, delightful, acidic, blustering, indignant and yet unexpectedly compassionate. She was an old woman at odds with the incoming rush of modern times. But, more to the point, she was Lady Violet. We just ate her up.
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The same could be said of even the smallest and at times most annoying characters: Kevin Doyle‘s Molesley, the sadsack, put-upon under butler, or Sue Johnston’s Denker, Violet’s meddling maid, pushing herself in and out of rooms like an overly aggressive duck. They couldn’t be said to have had much utility in the show’s overarching design, unlike former footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), whose maliciousness greased many a wheel in the plot. But somehow they earned and kept their place. You couldn’t just throw them out like a house plant.
Every character counted.
On the other hand, you could also argue that, when all is said and done, the actual narrative seemed to be of less and less consequence, until we were left with all characters and no gables, turrets or roof to cover their heads. The narrative just sort of faded away.
Most viewers who followed Downton through all six seasons will agree that it never surpassed or, for that matter, came close to, matching season 1. That season was framed by two historic disasters, the sinking of the Titanic and the beginning of World War I, and it was crammed with wonderfully outrageous melodramatic turns, including the death of dashing Mr. Pamuk (Theo James) and the bar of soap placed outside Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) bathtub. This was a perfect format. After a terrible second season, in which Downton served as a military infirmary, the show quietly dropped any serious ambitions to link its story to the broader chronology of the 20th century. (Downton precursor Upstairs Downstairs did a much better job on that score.)
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This final season, in particular, contented itself with the sort of minor incidents that count for so much in Jane Austen and other British comic writers, only without much skill at (or even interest in) suggesting how such battles over privilege can be both dead-serious and trivial-funny.
This is another way of saying I would have thrown in the towel if the show devoted one more scene to that damned hospital committee.
Meanwhile, Downton had also grown more cautious about killing off characters since season 3, which included the deaths both of Jessica Brown Findlay‘s Lady Sybil (shattering) and Dan Stevens‘ Matthew (not so much). This was a kindness to viewers, but eventually it felt curiously static, airless and even defying of common sense. It could have been a fancy-dress alternate universe from LOST.
Well, it’s done now – and preserved for endless viewing and reviewing. Downton was a lovely show. A lovely dream, a lovely fantasy. Maybe a lovely museum.