There were to be no sudden reincarnations, nor appearances of wannabe heirs, their faces swathed in bandages.
Downton Abbey ended its six-season soapy gallop at its stateliest, and with its many loose ends tied up as neatly as a child’s shoelaces on their first day of school.
It was also a victory lap: the good ended well, the bad ended repentant or outclassed, and Dame Maggie Smith had not only a final arsenal of zingers, but even the last spoken line—its wry ambivalence of time and change perhaps speaking volumes for the show’s creator and sole writer, Julian Fellowes.
Change—the chief theme of the show; familial, social, historical—was everywhere: characters and time itself were, as the show had emphasized from its first moment as its primary preoccupation, moving on.
The challenge to individuals, as vocalized by Cora’s lady’s maid Baxter, was confronting the demons of the past that could prevent one from changing.
After Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s combustible fight, and tentative rapprochement last week, came Lady Mary’s redemptive act of helping arrange Lady Edith’s meeting at the Ritz with Bertie Pelham.
This narrative knot needed to be resolved: Mary had meanly revealed to Bertie that Edith was “ward” Marigold’s biological parent, and had been roundly condemned for doing so.
But all was fine: Bertie seemed to be cool about the kid, Edith being mom, and yeah, for sure, facing down any scandal that may come their way.
“Would you believe me if said I couldn’t live without you,” said Bertie in the same dashedly—by jove tones Downton’s male actors must say on occasion without bursting out laughing. (We love every single, earnest one.)
Edith couldn’t quite believe it, saying she had been brought “so low” by his rejection, but the marriage was full steam ahead until his own mother got involved, played by Patricia Hodge, the go-to actress whenever a cut-glass British ice queen is needed.
Mumsy resided at Brancaster Castle (really, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland), whose size and grandeur made Downton look like a shabby semi-detached house, and immediately made this viewer leap up from the couch, shouting, “Sequel! Sequel! Call it ‘Brancaster.’ I know PBS wants me to, but I can’t get into Mercy Street. Write it now, Jules!”
When Mrs. P. heard Edith had a secret child, her stiff upper lip hitting the ceiling was the first sign she wasn’t buying it. Brancaster had to be a “moral center” after the dissolute activities of dead Cousin Peter, who had been most naughty in Tangiers, all sadly off camera, because he could have been making big gay whoopee with Barrow surely.
Edith spoke to Mrs. P. openly and from the heart; and the ice queen melted, even telling her dinner guests that she was totally happy about the marriage.
“Should I turn down a daughter-in-law who in addition to having both birth and brains is unimpeachably honest?” Mrs. P said.
“I have been waiting for someone to work that out,” said the newly zinger-tastic Cora.
“Will you bally well kiss me?” said Bertie to Edith, in the most ridiculously old-school posh-British line since last week’s “Golly-gumdrops” from Lord G.
And so it was that Lady Edith and Bertie married at the village church—why both daughters had to be safely married off shows Fellowes’s ultimate, slightly sad conservatism—although not before the vicar had asked if anyone had any objection to the union.
Typically, with that soapy convention, a voice pipes up to scupper happiness, and—given Poor Edith’s record—this was a distinct likelihood. Maybe crazy Mrs. Drewe, or even horny Mr. Drewe (we miss you, swarthy-armed Mr. Drewe!). But no, nothing.
“It’s so strange to feel completely completely happy,” said Edith, as happily stunned as we all were that she was finally Poor Edith no longer.
Freewheeling Lady Rose returned with husband Atticus, who had an odd habit of looking at the male Crawleys for a second longer and more intensely than is heterosexually traditional.
Rose’s light, aimless return at least acted as a diversion to the most boring storyline of this final episode—that of Lady Mary and her dreary new husband Talbot, who was having a car-based crisis.
Not as traumatized by the death of his bestie at the racetrack as he once was, but still not wanting to race cars himself, but still wanting to be around cars—yes, I know, me too—had Talbot wondering what he could do with cars, if he could possibly be around cars…
For an hour and 40 minutes “cars and Talbot” became the new “village hospital”—that is, a storyline no one cares about being stretched interminably to fill screen time.
This was no way to end Lady Mary’s time on the show. She’s dramatic, bitchy, flinty, deep, passionate—and here she was forced to play second-fiddle to her dull new husband’s quest for automobile-based fulfillment.
It again, for this viewer, showed that by going down the conventional route of coupling her up, and marrying her off, that Fellowes had unnecessarily blunted Mary.
Anyway, Talbot and Branson went into the second-hand car selling business, with the promise—zzzz—that this might become an actual automobile business if everything went well.
Branson—now relegated to smiling at everyone, saying inconsequential things and busting out of every suit he was wearing—was left partner-less, but by the end had pal’d up with Miss Evans, the editor of Edith’s newspaper, who caught the bouquet at Lady Edith’s wedding.
So, the implication—light as a brick—was there may have been a tad of flirtation, which would end in yet more marriage for a previously single, independent woman.
There was a similarly emphatic suggestion that Mr. Molesley—balancing two jobs as educator of young minds and butler when needed—and Baxter would end up together; a nice vibe those two—and I still think a 1920s Hart To Hart-style detective duo show—Baxter and Molesley? B&M?—featuring them both would be a smash.
If Fellowes had treated B&M sweetly, he had also finally figured out what to do about Barrow, the toujours gay, formerly evil, latterly suicidal footman, who has had a rotten narrative time of it, even though his bad-deed days are long past.
Barrow had to find other work because of the estate’s straitened circumstances.
His farewell was moving: Mrs. Bates told him to try to get on with people; Mr. Bates manfully shook Barrow’s hand and said—after Barrow’s viciousness towards him in earlier seasons—they should part as “friends rather than enemies.”
Baxter kissed him, having benefited from his final good piece of advice to her, which was to release herself from the hold of the villainous, off-camera Coyle by not going to visit him in jail.
We never saw Coyle, and this storyline was one of those that inexplicably bloomed and fizzled as some Downton storylines are wont to do.
“You had faith in me when I had none in myself, and I’m grateful,” Barrow told Baxter.
Lord Grantham was affected by Barrow’s genuine expression of thanks even if he had lectured him “rather too harshly” (not harshly enough!), and wished him the best of luck; while Mary bought the children to say goodbye to Barrow, who asked him not to go (“I must go, but remember I’ll always be your friend wherever I am,” he said).
At which point we blubbed more: Downton, where he had “arrived a boy and left a man,” had redeemed him.
Off Barrow went to his new job, which was in a smaller, drearier house, where all he could do was stand stonily as the head of the house and his wife silently ate supper, after which he snuffed out the candles.
How boring: no one to persecute or lightly sexually hit on. If only he could return to Downton…
Oddly enough, his departure—for weeks, referred to by butler Mr. Carson as something that couldn’t come soon enough—coincided with a palsy-like condition suddenly striking Mr. Carson, making such vital tasks as the pouring of wine impossible.
Barrow, back for Lady Edith’s wedding, was offered Mr. Carson’s job, and Mr. Carson himself was conferred as active a retirement as he wished, still in the bosom of the Crawley family, with Lady Mary making a trip downstairs to again say how much this second father figure meant to her.
Then there was the deep love and loyalty between Lord Grantham and Carson; the former said Downton wouldn’t be the same without him. “The world is a different place, and Downton must change with it,” Carson gravely noted, wishing Lord G and Cora “the happiest of New Year’s.”
Lord G said they were grateful to him—for everything.
And so we blubbed again.
Thank goodness there was some steel left in the Dowager Countess, who teamed up with Isobel to sort out the shenanigans with Lord Merton, his awful son Larry, and his even more awful daughter-in-law Amelia.
First, Amelia wanted her pop-in-law off their hands, and courted Isobel to do so, then when she discovered her father-in-law had “pernicious anemia,” and was soon to cark it, she did all she could to keep Isobel away, wanting him dead ASAP, so she and Larry could have the Merton house and fortune all to themselves.
His awful family was keeping him captive, the Dowager C noted. Isobel asked if she had ever fallen in love after her Russian prince, to which the Dowager Countess responded that she never answered “anything more incriminating than ‘Do you need a rug?’”
This being Downton, Isobel needed her tag team partner to deal with Amelia, the mouse-a-like with terrifyingly sharp incisors.
Isobel told the hideous Amelia and Larry she intended to marry Lord G as soon as possible: “I’ve let you steer us long enough.” And Larry told his son: “As my son I love you, but I’ve tried and failed to like you.” The only thing missing from the scene was the Dowager Countess walloping Amelia with her walking stick.
Once liberated and married as swiftly as Downton does these things, it was revealed by poor Dr. Clarkson—himself a better match for Isobel, but not, alas, in Fellowes’s mind—that Lord M had regular anemia, which could be treated.
Another moment of wrongs being righted came with the sisters, and Edith noting of Mary’s successful machinations to reunite her and Bertie: “You’re such a paradox. You make me miserable for years, then give me my life back.”
“We’re blood and we’re stuck with it, so let’s try and do a little better in the future,” Mary said.
Downstairs, Daisy—armed with Lady Mary’s new-fangled hairdryer—gave herself a very natty Clara Bow bob, and finally woke up to the attentions of Andy, the junior footman who had a final episode side-line as the show’s Diet Coke guy, clad in grubby white T-shirt doing some roof repair work down on Mr. Mason’s farm.
“It’s mighty helpful to have the use of a young man’s muscles,” said Mr. Mason, and a certain section of the audience nodded emphatically.
Daisy and Andy’s nervy relationship seemed very odd and unnecessary, not least because Daisy kept asking why should she be coupled up with someone to be happy—Fellowes’s reflex action for all vaguely single female characters.
By the end, even Mrs. Patmore—happiest with a pie-making crisis only she can deal with—was signaled to end up with Mr. Mason, and that Daisy would be happy about that too, her surrogate mother and father-in-law happily united.
Denker’s plot to displace Spratt in the professional affections of the Dowager C by revealing he was Lady Edith’s secret newspaper agony aunt failed when the Dowager C said his advice was so good she’d be asking for his counsel herself.
Cora magically awoke from what has always seemed an almost feline-like slumber to deliver the zingiest zingers, second only to her mother-in-law.
Before hearing Edith’s volcanic marriage news, Cora sighed: “Is she pregnant again? Has she been arrested for treason?”—both utterly plausible within Downton’s walls.
When Cora said she had a meeting at the village hospital (I won’t miss that hospital—will you?), so would not be around for wedding flower preparations, Robert reminded her that this was “your second child who has hardly known a day’s happiness in the last ten years.” To which Cora replied that she didn’t need “the Gettysburg Address” from him. Brilliant.
On being taken to watch his wife in a local hospital meeting action by Rose, Lord G accepted how brilliant she was.
In the last minutes, the action moved forward a few months to a snowy winter scene, and Edith and Bertie’s New Year’s Eve 1925 wedding.
The Dowager C noted that the “happy ever after” of a wedding was often a “happy enough.” When Aunt Rosamund asked what made the English the way they were, the Dowager C said, perfectly, “Some say it’s our history, I blame the weather.”
That pearl was convincingly undercut with the quiet sweetness of Lord Grantham asking Edith—dressed in her wedding finery—to let him be a “little bit proud, I’ll calm down eventually,” about how beautiful she looked and happy she finally seemed.
He felt, he told Cora, an “illogical” sense of achievement to have “the last one off my hands.”
Apologizing for being a dick about her hospital gig, he told Cora, “You are a woman of real substance and I’m lucky enough to call you my wife.”
She would have carried on with the job anyway, but it was “so much sweeter” with his approval, she said.
Rather less convincingly, but what the hell, we’ll buy it, the Dowager Countess conceded warmly that Cora was running her “kingdom” very well, and Cora kissed her—their testy relationship balanced again.
All was set fair for the future, Lord G said, very Shakespeare-ishly.
And so it was, because then the final cliffhanger broke the boundaries between upstairs and downstairs definitively, when Anna had her and Mr Bates’s child in Lady Mary’s bedroom, ultimately cradling their child in Lady Mary’s bed.
You just knew that in a few years, that child will be arrested for a murder he did not commit, and his parents will gaze proudly upon his wrongly accused head for continuing the Bates family tradition.
“I’m a father and I have a son,” said Bates—creepily ignoring his wife.
“We have a son, John,” Mrs. Bates said, gently correcting his creepiness.
The Dowager Countess would have found the servant in her mistress’s bed having given birth unorthodox, Lord G noted, but Cora said the more adaptable they were, the more chance they had of surviving.
Lord G summarized the various happy turns of events for all of them, and the “very good chance” they would live old to watch their family grow and prosper.
As midnight struck, the Scottish Mrs. Hughes led a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” that sweetly mournful New Year’s standard.
This cued up Fellowes to create a conclusion that was both moving, meaningful, and just a little bit spiky.
A panoply of shots showing the characters as happy as they could be segued to the Dowager Countess saying to Isobel that it made her smile, this drinking to the future whatever it might bring.
What else could they drink to, they were going forward into the future—not back to the past, said Isobel.
“If only we had the choice,” noted the Dowager Countess, laughing, and then throwing one of those askance looks of hers at nothing and no one in particular, i.e., at everything.
Change has been the motor of Downton Abbey—its inevitability and incontestability, yet Fellowes has balanced it with an unrepentant nostalgia for a time when order and structure reigned. That tension, you sense, is within him, and it was played out on the show.
Of course, we know the future would extinguish most of this way of life. While the British upper classes would remain, they would change and the people living and working for them would change too. But a structure still remains, and class is as much a part of British life as it ever was. It is just more diffuse and finely calibrated now.
The chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” resumed, as the camera panned up to Downton’s lovely Christmas tree, and then we were looking at the house from the outside as snow fluttered down—its own snow globe of the past. We left Downton’s occupants, frozen as warmly as Fellowes could allow, firmly in the past.