Parting thoughts on “Downton Abbey”

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WARNING: Massive spoilers ahoy. Tread lightly.

Another picturesque morning dawns at Downton Abbey and finds the extended Crawley clan – Lord Robert Grantham and his wife, Lady Cora; their headstrong and heretofore unattainable daughter Mary, with her freshly pressed husband of less than five cumulative wedded minutes onscreen, the former race car driver Henry, and her young son from a previous marriage, George; their perpetually lightning struck middle daughter turned surprisingly capable modern woman, Edith, and her official “ward” but natural daughter, Marigold; their Irish widower son-in-law, the former revolutionary turned estate agent and erstwhile matchmaker, Tom, with his daughter Sybil (named after his late wife, the Grantham’s youngest daughter); their cousin Isobel, sensible, empathetic mother of the former widow Mary’s late first husband – strolling the grounds and talking idly about this plan or the other, in no particular apparent hurry to get any underway. To see this group of “formers” together, content, convivial, and out of doors, freed of the magnificent bunker that is its ancestral castle and largely unencumbered even by fawning servants, is our first indication that things have somewhat changed, or else are ripe to. Lady Mary, for once, proceeds at the back of the pack rather than in her traditional alpha position, languidly, holding her new husband by the crook of his arm. She barely even interjects something snippy or withering into the conversation as her sister discusses her potential future as a career woman living full time in cosmopolitan London. Edith has professional prospects and a presentable apartment, but surely she doesn’t mean to live alone? She won’t be living alone, she protests, as long as Marigold is with her. Besides, she says, “I’m a spinster, and spinsters live alone.” And on the occasion of this, our final ever extended stay at Downton Abbey, that kind of blanket statement is what is known in the business of television as foreshadowing.

Any work of fiction that focuses on turn of the (20th) century British aristocracy or before is going to carry with it, in terms of both architectural opulence and sartorial splendor, at least a hint of the great country house mysteries penned by Agatha Christie among others. Indeed, Downton Abbey writer/ creator/all-seeing eye Julian Fellowes got his breakthrough, if not his start (for he was an actor decades before putting figurative quill to parchment), by writing the droll Robert Altman film Gosford Park, which was itself a busy, classic sort of upstairs/downstairs whodunnit. The show that cemented Fellowes’ legacy, however, has never been one to indulge in mysteries much deeper than he said/she said, will they/won’t they, what will he/she decide, and what if/when will the press find(s) out. Beneath those breathtaking period trappings and manners so exact you could break a carving knife trying to dissect them, Downton Abbey has always been an unabashed soap opera, a counterintuitively warm and insinuating viewing experience that neither encourages nor rewards subtlety. For its series finale, the show pulled out even more stops than usual, several in service to providing an end only slightly removed from full-on fantasy princess coronation for its long-standing, longer-suffering house mascot of unluckiness and despair, the plucky magazine owner and budding feminist Lady Edith, she of numerous notable loves unrequited, unresponsive, literally runaway, and lost at sea, each one a sharper, more lingering sting than its predecessors. Edith’s dalliance years earlier with charming editor Michael Gregson both filled her heart and delivered to her an out-of-wedlock child. That first reality dealt an especially crushing blow upon the news of his disappearance, while the second hung over her head as a potential scandal just waiting, if publicized, to ruin her ancient society family. Edith’s subsequent sweet, fluid, and, frankly, well-earned surprise romance with the altogether decent Bertie Pellham had no reason acceptable to modern audiences to fail, yet did so all the same, when the truth she’d been hiding from him finally, explosively (for this show anyway) came out.

You might notice my final musings on Downton Abbey have a bit less reverent ring than what you’ll find elsewhere. This has nothing to do with my like or dislike for the underlying show itself – indeed, I’ve enjoyed season six as much as any since the premiere, in no small part because Fellowes has allowed the viewer to spend previously unheard of amounts of time lounging with his wonderful cast and characters rather than twisting them into a jumbo pretzel of contrivances – but instead is an organic, albeit knee-jerk, reaction to a series finale so pathologically committed to tying up loose ends with a silken bow – adjusting for 91 years of inflation, it likely costs more than your full Monday wardrobe – and providing like a doting father for the future and wellbeing of every single character with more than four lines that it lost its unpredictability, not to mention more than a little potency. This Christmas Special – that fine British television tradition where a show returns from hiatus with a super-sized sort of second finale – is sweeping, beautifully mounted live coverage of a ninety-minute rainbow, barely interrupted, and even then for nothing so sinister as random cutaways to married or otherwise involved couples clearly taking stock of their lives and smiling at one another in a pointed and baldly symbolic way. As soon as you come to grips with the fact that almost nothing of ill consequence is going to come from these proceedings, they are embarrassingly great fun. I’m used to being manipulated emotionally by this show, and I still felt myself welling up as a regular, maddening, involuntary occurrence. It’s just that normally there’s a touch more uncertainty at play here, instead of me having to invent it whole cloth in an effort to amuse or entertain myself. Edith is conspicuously afforded the grand affair for her nuptials – Downton’s third high-profile wedding of the season – that the show largely glossed over for Mary’s in the finale. Some shows leave characters dangling on purpose. I’m not saying it’s proper, necessarily, or even preferable, just that it’s done.

By following her own well-defined muse and refusing, just this once, to repress her baser instincts, Mary more or less ruined her sister’s life in the finale by letting slip Marigold’s bastard parentage to a shocked Bertie, who promptly, if grudgingly, broke off the engagement. It’s a nice bit of reciprocal humanity then that she should be the one to facilitate their reconciliation – via clandestine surprise dinner meeting brokered by their aunt – though everything with Mary is some species or other of power play, whether or not she even realizes it. I enjoyed when the finale at least took a few direct shots at humbling her before the foregone conclusion of her storybook ending. Lord and Lady Grantham process the news of Edith’s reengagement with giddy incredulity – “You’re not going to believe it.” “She’s pregnant again? She’s been arrested for treason?” – and Edith’s path toward allowing herself, horror of horrors, to revel in authentic joy betrayed the tentativeness and deliberate nature of someone who had only been hurt before a dozen times or so. Knowing and playing off of her rich and extensive history of abject misery allowed Fellowes to cruelly if somewhat imperceptibly turn up audience tension via the mere outlaw act of showing Edith blissfully happy for longer than an uninterrupted tea time. Part of me didn’t believe it – frankly, couldn’t believe it – and was on edge, waiting for the other dainty shoe to drop on her with the force of a guillotine. It was not unlike watching Meadow trying and repeatedly failing to parallel park her stupid car in the final minute of The Sopranos finale. I half expected the late Michael Gregson to put in some sort of miraculous, show-stopping appearance, first bursting into the hall straight out of The Graduate and proclaiming his love when the priest asked if anyone had objections to the marriage, then as the poignant last in the receiving line – possibly a “blink and he’s gone” optical illusion – as Edith and Bertie left for their honeymoon, or, failing that, as some sort of benevolent Jedi ghost, looking on from a hill in the near distance as the car pulled away, watching approvingly, now and forever, Yoda and Kenobi by his side.

Like a mafia hitman gone rogue – the image I could never quite shake was creator as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, intent, at any cost, on settling all “family business” – Fellowes has a troubling, well-documented history of resolving high profile financial disputes among his cast in the most permanent and grisly way possible. I’m half convinced that all that truly saved Lady Edith from a fate worse than her brother-in-law Matthew’s (fatal wreck on the way home from holding his newborn son for the first time) or that of her younger sister Sybil (mysterious mortal complications heartbreakingly soon after childbirth) was the lateness of the metaphorical hour, and not some benevolent wish from on high for everyone to live happily ever after. And yet in this finale, happy endings were the order of the day, scores of them, victories both great and small, overspilling the cavernous confines of the castle’s great hall and tumbling out the receiving door. Thomas Barrow, the under-butler who was the show’s de facto villain for its first couple years and has been a wounded, self-loathing enigma since, received not one but two of them, first parlaying his new job at a modest local house into a heartfelt farewell from Lord Grantham* and later assuming a position as Downton’s head butler not through trickery but on his own merits. Mr. Mason’s pig farm became ground zero through which the downstairs staff might channel/forge their respective futures, as footman Andrew went from illiterate hand to right hand man, cook’s apprentice Daisy moved onto the property and learned to stop being so picky about men and go for Andrew, and folksy cook Mrs. Patmore realized the farmer had not unwelcome romantic designs on her. Cousin Rose had a baby, Cousin Isobel got a husband (off-camera), and Lady Cora grew into a hospital administration job she could be proud of, plus validation from her life’s two biggest, albeit loving, obstacles, her exasperating husband and officious mother-in-law. Anna and Mr. Bates, after multiple miscarriages, to say nothing of the interminable years one or the other spent squarely on Scotland Yard’s radar, finally became parents, and when Anna’s water broke as she attended Lady Mary, Fellowes was even able to sneak in a nice but obvious unspoken observation about the latter’s growth beyond snobbery, having now allowed a common servant to give birth whilst nestled in her 1800-thread-count sheets.

*When Thomas asks the lord and lady of Downton to give his best to Lady Edith, Cora can’t help but speak up. “We’ll always be grateful for you saving her from the fire!” Something about how warmly and earnestly Elizabeth McGovern delivers that line, years removed now from the occasion of that particular plot contrivance, just makes me giggle. What a weird and wonderful house this has been.

In truth, only three vaguely disagreeable occurrences dare to briefly obscure the famous low England sun in the finale’s ninety-minute entirety. The Crawley clan girds itself to celebrate and, hopefully, accelerate Edith’s engagement, while keeping the theoretically scandalous truth of Marigold’s parentage from Bertie’s old guard mother, the sort of venerable high society scion who talks pointedly about how important it is to the nation at large that its aristocracy stands as an unimpeachable beacon of moral strength. Having fretted over that exact secret for so long, yet being somehow unable in a castle full of itchy noses, prying eyes, and inveterate gossips, to keep it from her father, sister, or brother-in-law, Edith decides to break the cycle and come clean. No points for predicting that Bertie’s mother doesn’t take the news well initially, or doesn’t eventually see reason and grudgingly bless the marriage anyway. Then there’s Isobel’s “forceful” invasion, with the Dowager Countess in tow as hype man, of her spurned beau Mr. Merton’s home to, rather bluntly and delightfully, whisk him off, against his greedy son and spiteful daughter-in-law’s wishes, to a life of sudden wedded bliss – albeit a life, given his diagnosis of “Pernicious Anemia”, whose time may be rapidly dwindling. It’s a little cruel that they had to spend the balance of the several month time jump directly to Edith’s New Year’s Eve wedding relentlessly pondering Merton’s mortality, but it allows Fellowes the chance to almost casually offer them a miraculous last minute reprieve in the person of a revised diagnosis of regular old garden variety Anemia. Oops! You may now kiss the bride. Finally, of course, there is the quick onset trouble with Mr. Carson, whose hands have begun to tremble so seriously that he is unable to perform his butlery duties of pouring wine and tea. Carson knows this disease, which is technically nameless but undeniably hereditary, will prove the death knell for his professional life, as it was for his father and grandfather before him. In a great house allergic to change despite the inexorable march of time, Carson has always been its staunchest opponent, and the scenes in which he levels with his wife Mrs. Hughes, receives humane counsel from Lord Grantham, and tokens of kind respect from longtime adversary Thomas are among the most moving the Christmas Special has to offer.

The Crawleys and their staff define themselves in terms of tradition and service. In a world rapidly eroding beneath their feet, this symbiotic relationship gives their lives extra meaning, unexpected, largely unremarked upon, and wholly undeniable. It’s why Mr. Molesley, despite his full time teaching gig, comes back to the Abbey to sling drinks on special occasions. It’s why Thomas, despite their oft-contentious relationship and his own recent suicidal downslide, is able to see that succeeding Carson gracefully is as much about affording dignity to his wounded mentor as it is advancing, or reviving, his own career. There’s a comfort to watching these proud people go about their lives and duties in modest hopes and high style. Predictability comes with the territory, and renders any of the various mild complaints I’ve voiced here effectively moot. If you expected anything but a happy ending from Downton Abbey, you’ve been paying attention too closely to all the wrong things, and missing the forest for the trees, or rather the estate for the furniture. All is just as it should be, more or less. From the second I first saw Carson’s hand shake, I knew Thomas would somehow succeed him, but that he and Mrs. Hughes would also stay on at Downton to supervise, just as from the second Anna announced her baby was due in ten days, I knew he’d be arriving both inconveniently and rather earlier. From the second I heard Cousin Isobel mistake “Pernicious Anemia” for its non-pernicious understudy, I knew she wouldn’t be the only one to make that mistake. I knew from the second odious Dower house lady’s maid Mrs. Denker started poking around the extracurricular activities of cowed butler Mr. Spratt, she would make a not particularly devious play at getting him fired that would fall apart completely** under the delicious scrutiny of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. After so many petulant protestations to the contrary, I knew Robert would finally come around on Cora’s involvement with the hospital, and that he and his wife would both have and take multiple occasions at the end to rhapsodize their perfect lives and the prospect of growing old together as their grandchildren grew up around them.

**Watching Denker eat it, and Cousin Violet elegantly one-up/eviscerate her, doesn’t ever stop being fun, but is she ever insufferable in the meantime.

I would say that from the second Edith proclaimed aloud her perpetual spinsterhood, I knew her wedding would be the centerpiece of our final stay at the Abbey, but the truth is I knew from the second her engagement was tragically, temporarily broken in the preceding episode. I’m not asking for credit. It was only too obvious. And, of course, I knew that even though Mary had already gotten a head start on the rest of her life, Fellowes would be unable to restrain himself from letting slip the news of her pregnancy at the wedding (though Mary does actually deserve minor kudos/display minute but actual growth for not using such an excuse to impose on or overshadow Edith’s big day). Downton Abbey was never a subtle show, but it was, from the start and basically forever, a particularly transporting and often rewarding one. Committed to neither revise nor overreach, its Christmas Special followed suit, a fond, and exceedingly sweet, kiss farewell.

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