Downton Abbey series finale review
At the wedding of poor, poor, poor-no-more! Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) to Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), the marquis with moralistic mother issues, the imminently quotable Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) reached into her seemingly bottomless handbag of quips and explained “the English version of a happy ending” to frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton): “There’s a lot of risk, but with any luck, they’ll be happy enough.”
The “Christmas Special” capper of Downton Abbey was flocked with such grace. Compensating for years of inflicting so much melodramatic woe on his characters and audience, Julian Fellowes went full Oprah, raining parting gifts of love and hope and opportunity on his people, albeit some were wrapped with some gentle keepin’-it-real about life’s fragility. No one got a new car – but Henry (Matthew Goode) and Tom (Allen Leech) did giddily reinvent themselves as used car salesmen. As much as it tried to temper the sentimentality, the finale was an unapologetically feel-good send-off that also wasn’t afraid to be blunt about its politics and idealism. “We like strong women here. We like them very much,” said Tom, double underscoring with thick black pen the season’s feminist bent. Subtlety was scarce, but good cheer abounded. Downton’s good-bye was a roasted chestnut – warm, sweet, slightly salted.
For the last time, we got the pleasure of Fellowes’ busybody storytelling, quickly flitting from character to character and poking them forward with often exquisite pithiness. Providing the episode with a spine was a character who’s grown one over the course of so much soapy suffering, Edith. She rekindled her romance with Bertie thanks to ever-meddling big sis Mary (Michelle Dockery), doing penance for petulantly blowing up the ‘ship in the penultimate ep. (“You are such a paradox,” Edith told Mary. “You make my life miserable for years and then you give me my life back!” It’s the finale, silly. Don’t thank your sister. Thank cancelation.) But would Mrs. Pelham (Patricia Hodge), Bertie’s moralistic mom, approve of a union to one of those free-thinking liberal media types and single mom career gals? Given that this was Edith, there was suspense: would Fellowes deny poor, poor Edith happiness once more? Nope. Mrs. Pelham was goosed to lean in (or at least swallow her pride) by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) with a realpolitik pitch: compromise or lose your child forever. Way to apply six season of life lessons, old chap.
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Such was the episode’s uplift and Downton Abbey’s appealing optimism: responsibility, redemption, collective destiny. In a turn that made me fret for a few fleeting moments that the finale would try to break our hearts with manipulative tragedy, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) came down with the same palsy that felled his father and grandfather, something we might assume to be Parkinson’s Disease. But Fellowes used the storyline to hit once more and hard themes of communal weight-bearing and the importance – and folly – of finding self-worth in what we do, not who we are. For Lord Grantham, Carson was not a tool to be discarded when it had lost its utility. His years of loyalty and his personhood meant something more. Robert gave him a pension and twilight years purpose: mentoring a replacement, Thomas (Robert James-Collier), who, after a lonely, overworked stint elsewhere, accepted the mantle and a return to the fellowship of Downton from a place of gratitude and selflessness. The promotion culminated Thomas’ tortured but affecting transformation from outsider to insider, rogue to hero. Just as important was a significance that went unstated: a gay man in a position of authority. The closest I came to squirting a tear was when Carson conferred fatherly blessing upon Thomas. Could the young man do the job? Of course he could, declared Carson. “I trained him.” Robert’s last scene with Carson was equally tender and loaded. His expression of thanks to his longtime chief of staff seemed to silently cop to the profound bogusness and unfairness of their divide and social roles.
Other ironies, winks, metaphors and layered meanings were more obvious, sometimes artlessly so. Among the condescending groaners: “I hate goodbyes. There seems to be so many of them these days” and “I think the future is no lady’s maids at all, but we haven’t quite got there.” The latter line could be used against the show: the finale didn’t have the guts to follow through on the season’s other major tension, the downsizing and liquidating of the estate and the phase-out of the Granthams’ increasingly untenable aristocratic way of life. Downton Abbey has long been criticized for romanticizing everything it appears to critique. The finale could easily be picked apart for doing the same. Still, the wish-fulfillment was frequently clever and satisfying. And why would anyone expect anything less than aggressive fan service? For all the ridiculous amounts of misery, Downton Abbey was never a bleak chic cable drama. It was nostalgic to a fault (something I recognize but don’t feel, given that I’m not British; I viewed the show as allegory, not history), it was also a welcome if flawed tonic to TV’s fixation with cool kid nihilism. (As much as I found it easier and easier to resist Downton Abbey as it went, it rarely failed to charm me when I watched it. It wasn’t until Anna’s rape that I emotionally broke-up with the show and became an intermittent viewer.)
There was so much gooey romance in the finale, it was like Fellowes decided to ring out by doing his best imitation of Love, Actually. (Pause to indulge a fantasy of Dame Nellie Melba making a return appearance to sing “All I Want For Christmas is You” at Edith’s wedding. Okay, moving on…) There was awkward young folk crushing ‘twixt Daisy (Sophie McShera), who got a cute bob makeover helped by the episode’s featured Symbol of Technological Advancement, an electric blow dryer, and Andy (Michael Fox), who made her swoon by pitting out a T-shirt playing hunky handyman for her poor father-in-law. But my favorite love story of the finale was the romance between old(er) folks Isobel and sickly Lord Merton (Douglas Reith). The climax inverted some familiar rom-com denouements about princely studs racing to claim or rescue their distressed beloved, with Isobel laying claim to her man and liberating him from his loathsome, snooty children. I half expected her to make like Cary Grant in Notorious and take her ailing beau in her arms and guide him down that flight of stairs and out the door and into the sunset. (Merton got one of the best kiss-offs of the night: “Larry, as my son, I love you, but I have tried and failed to like you.”)
Downton Abbey was always a progressive fairy tale, but never more so than in the finale. From top to bottom — upstairs to downstairs — entrenched, conservative power adapting or changing breaking from tradition to provide cover and opportunity for the marginalized and the misfits. Complimenting the Grantham-Carson-Thomas movement: Edith expanding Spratt’s (Jeremy Swift) Agony Aunt advice column in The Sketch and Violet rejecting big meanie Denker’s (Sue Johnston) vindictive bid to expose Spratt’s closeted life as “Cassandra Jones.” (Troublemaker Denker forgot that Violet loves to trouble, too.) I loved the moment when Violet capped her victory by laughing gaily as she read Spratt’s juicy dish and clever ideas for “combining comfort and elegance.”
Another choice Violet line: “Why can’t men ever paint themselves out of a corner?” So there was a lot of painting in the finale. Robert’s last, defining arc: overcoming his grumpy patriarchal attitudes about Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), spending so much time leading the local hospital and finding identity in anything else but being his wife. The intimation was that their union was imperiled (yeah, right) and that they wouldn’t last unless he moved forward or she moved backward. You can guess who budged. His turn came when he watched run a meeting, wielding power with vision, firmness and grace and commanding the respect of people both high and low. (She struck me as rather presidential, didn’t you think?) Men were allowed to keep or attain significance in the finale as long as they weren’t reckless arrogant greedy dicks about it — as long as they paid a price of humility. Henry’s angst ironically echoed Cora’s: it wasn’t enough to be spouse to a wealthy, powerful person, i.e., his wife, Mary, Downton’s executor. He, too, yearned for identity away from the estate and to make something of himself and for himself. Downshifting from thrill-seeking, hot-hot race car driver to partnering with bootstrapping Tom on a second-hand car business — still a rather novel thing here in the early years of the automobile revolution — could be seen as a metaphor for many things, including Fellowes’ final statement on futurism, that it should be chased with deliberate, thoughtful care that finds value in the things of the past.
If you had told me a few years ago that Downton Abbey’s series finale wouldn’t have Mary, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) front and center in the series finale, I would’ve assumed it was because the actors had pulled a Dan Stevens and quit. Remember how vital they once were? Perhaps things would have been different if Fellowes hadn’t burned out the batteries in Bates and Anna with an overload of mildly pulpy melodrama that never seemed of a piece with the show, and if Fellowes didn’t feel he had to kill off Stevens’ Matthew Crawley, Mary’s first true love and (with all due respect to Henry/Goode, whom I like quite a bit) her most compelling relationship. In the alternate reality where Matthew didn’t drive into a ditch and his death didn’t disrupt whatever arc Fellowes originally envisioned for Mary (presuming he had a vision for one at all), I imagine Downton Abbey’s feel-good happy ending finale would be structured around re-affirming their bond. But maybe that’s just my ‘ship colors showing.
That said, Anna, Bates and Mary factored into the last moments. As Edith’s New Year’s Eve wedding wound to a close and everyone in the house — those upstairs, those downstairs — gathered on the ground floor to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” Anna, high-risk pregnant all season long, finally and predictably went into a labor. Unable to get to a hospital or home — the hour was late; the roads, icy — Anna gave birth to a son in Mary’s bedroom, and she and Bates and their miracle boy were allowed to stay there for the night. Talk about a “Christmas special:” It was a Mary and Joseph story, of course, but set in a rich man’s manor instead of a lowly man’s barn. We closed on another role reversal: Mary and her family serving to their servants, attending to their needs and retreating downstairs. The last image was as pretty as a snow globe at rest (and, perhaps, a sly homage to St. Elsewhere?): Downton Abbey in the dark, the windows bright with light, the grounds, frozen. (What Violet said about what makes British people British: “Some say the history, but I blame the weather.”) We were asked to imagine the warm life inside, people of many kinds and classes coming together as equals on the same floor to toast the future. Only the neediest among them were elevated. Goodbye, Downton Abbey. Thanks for the chestnuts. B
The war is over, but intrigue, crisis, romance, and change still grip the beloved estate.