It’s the end of the world as Downton Abbey knows it, and no one is feeling fine about it. The final season of the English import is set in 1925, and the privileged, provincial life of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his blue-blood lot is falling out of favor and draining their coffers. With his neighbors liquidating and downsizing, slashing the help and relocating to the city, the Earl of Grantham wonders how long before he must do the same. No one is more nervous about Downton’s changing fortunes than chief of staff Carson (Jim Carter) and his crew of underbutlers, housekeepers, footmen, chauffeurs, cooks, scullery maids, and valets who depend on the Abbey for their livelihood. Call it trickle-down anxiety. “Neither you nor I can hold back time,” Robert tells Carson in the premiere. “Who has an underbutler these days?!”
Bowing out at a moment when a new kind of royally soapy Empire reigns supreme, Downton Abbey chases a graceful exit with knowing melodrama about irrelevancy-challenged people pursuing the same thing. As is always the case in this dense and sprawling enterprise, the results vary from scene to scene, by turns wise and sentimental, condescending and hilarious. The season is best when it attends to the fears and fury of those in the underclass at risk of becoming even more marginalized by social flux. No one sweats more than Thomas (Robert James-Collier), the gay underbutler. Certain he’ll be the first sacked, Thomas, ever the proactive striver, begins searching for new employment, an increasingly despairing quest, frustrated by bigotry and his own pride. It’s a powerful, resonant arc.
But it’s the women of Downton Abbey who drive the show. Writer Julian Fellowes imbues them with authority—Mary (Michelle Dockery) runs the business of the estate; Edith (Laura Carmichael) takes the reins of a magazine—and sits back and watches them use it. Sometimes he sits back too much, more content with symbolic statements than drama. One exception pits the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), Isobel (Penelope Wilton), and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) against one another as they debate a plan to modernize the local hospital they oversee through a merger. The bickering grows tedious, but builds to a defining moment.
More relational mergers and more personal gender politics charge the season’s second half. The sweet late-life romance between Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns comically sour and feeds the show’s interest in patriarchal humbling as the exacting, controlling bachelor butler adjusts poorly to his new relationship status. Just when everything starts to drag, Matthew Goode’s coolly charismatic race-car enthusiast Henry Talbot roars back into the saga and guns it for Mary. Their fraught courtship gathers up the season’s themes of letting go and moving on, power and privilege, and sets up a series finale (not made available to the press) that promises to be an emotional doozy for those who give a crumpet. B