It is that rare occurrence in television where a mega-popular show’s run in the country occurs later than another part of the Western world. It is with that in mind that I began to watch the last season of Downton Abbey, fully cognizant that all of this had already been seen elsewhere and that though we have eight weeks of episodes, plus a Christmas special, to go here, in the UK, Downton had laid down to rest for good.
Lord Grantham: If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would. But I can’t, Carson. Nor you nor I can hold back time.
And though mega fans of the show are probably wailing and gnashing their teeth, I think most of us realize it was time. It was time a long time ago. Some will argue, and I won’t say they are wrong, that Fellowes should never have agreed to do a second season, that the first season was perfect on its own, and that it was a fool’s errand to make a soap opera series based on this somewhat lackadaisical historical piece, where we checked in on the Granthams like a stone skimming the top of a pond over the last days of the Edwardian era, before World War I arrived and put an end to all that.
Some might argue that when Dan Stevens walked in Season 3, the show should have ended then. Personally, I thought losing Stevens gave Fellowes a direction for an extra season , and that if Stevens had stayed on the show would have gone moldy faster. But by last season, it was clear we were out of ideas. Storylines like the Bates’ legal woes dragged out beyond measure. Others found themselves in virtual reruns of earlier plots. Only Edith had a anything of real meat to deal with, but unfortunately, in many places it either didn’t land, or it her responses to her situation didn’t resonate with the modern audience. For thirty seconds there was almost something meaty with Mary, as Gillingham threatened to force her into marriage by holding her willingness to sleep with him out-of-wedlock over her head. But Fellowes didn’t have the stomach to really go there, and it fizzled.
Violet: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”
Part of the reason the show felt listless last season was the continuing open-ended nature of the production. With no end point in sight, and ITV willing to take the show as far as it would go as long as it remained profitable, Fellowes had to keep churning things along without resolve. But all that ended last spring when Maggie Smith said that she was point-blank refusing to sign beyond the upcoming season. She could tell this production was running on fumes, and at the age of 80, she was not prepared to continue to tie herself to the rigors of a TV production schedule. Though ITV and Downton‘s producers did their best to walk back her statements, Fellowes announcing only a few weeks after that Season 6 would be the last one suggested that Smith had made her point, and would not be moved. (There have been a few insider interviews in the last week or so that confirmed this as well.) As Violet observed tonight, “Sometimes it’s good to rule by fear.”
But the sudden discovery of an end point seems to have done the show some good. Like losing Stevens in Season 4, suddenly Fellowes has something to focus on again. . Also, he seems to have suddenly remembered the story he was trying to tell: the end of the aristocracy, and the rise of egalitarianism. To that end, this episode was practically littered with references to how times are changing and the Grantham’s lifestyles along with it. Who keeps an underbutler anymore? Denker, you’re fired. (Hooray!) Your lot is finished, Lady Mar. And just to drive the point home, let’s all head over to the next estate down the road at Mallerton Hall and watch as the estate sale sets up for both an empty historical building that Antiques Roadshow can rent out in 50 years’ time, for the descendants of those who had the winning bring round these historical treasures to be inspected.
Lady Mary: I’m impressed. My darling papa, transformed into Machiavelli at a touch. Will wonders never cease?
Lord Grantham: Is that a compliment?
As for the family we know and love, it is to be a happy ending for all and for all a good life. This episode began to set the stage for the end game: Edith is once again going to attempt to be a “modern woman” with a child and a job. Anna and Bates had their ongoing legal troubles wrapped up with a bow on them. Daisy began to really discover how little she likes being a servant for a living, or dependent on the rich for survival. (Though, as is always the case with Daisy, that eruption of independent thinking came at the worst time possible, and nearly got her sacked.)
Lady Mary continues to be both horrific and Fellowes’ favorite. I was disappointed to see that in order to redirect her towards an ending, the show once again felt the need to rewind her back to an earlier point, much like they did post Steven’s departure. First they went back to “blackmail over sex outside of marriage” again, but it turned out to be less effective since it wasn’t Lord Gillingham doing the honors. The whole bit about questioning her running the estate seemed odd, considering how last season she was all about running the estate, and it seemed like everyone was perfectly ok with it. I will say that I missed Branson far more than I realized I would, even if his removal gave Robert more room to be accidentally awesome in his own way.
Mrs. Hughes: I’m not sure I can let him see me as I am now.
Mrs. Patmore: Then keep the lights off.
But the real focus of these early episodes seems to be the pairing off of Carson and Mrs. Hughes, and how one navigates the relationship waters when one has not done so for decades, and it’s 1925 and one was brought up to never exactly talk about…intimate things. Putting Mrs. Patmore in the middle was rather unfortunate (I had visions of her turning into Hermione and yelling “I’m not an owl!”), but it did give her something to do other than freak out over the refrigerator. Personally, I don’t know why they felt the need to do that–Mrs. Patmore versus modern technology is a perfectly good way to spend an hour. Let’s hope the rest of the season gives her more of it.