Downton Abbey debuted six seasons ago as a fairly serious costume drama, quickly morphed into a high-end soap opera, and concluded the series Sunday night as a fairy tale with a distinctly “they lived happily ever after” vibe. It’s almost as if Julian Fellowes came on the set one day and started pointing to each cast member like Oprah, yelling “You get a happy ending!” “You get a happy ending!” You get a happy ending!” Did he run a fan fiction contest and decide to give the fans exactly what they most desired for every last character? Seems so.
The biggest surprise of this episode was that there were no surprises. None of the craziest theories came true. Almost everything that happened this season was preordained from the the final episode of last season, when the Crawley girls met the men who would ultimately become their husbands. Oh sure, our heroes and heroines met some mild resistance as they marched relentlessly forward to their ultimate rewards, but these barriers were easily swept away. That’s what happens when a deadline is looming. I’m sure Baron Fellowes would have loved to wallow in a protracted and painful conflict involving Edith and Bertie’s dragon lady mom, but alas, he ran out of time and was forced to have the old bird simply change her mind. Boy that was easy!
If there was anything unexpected about the episode (Season 6, Episode 9), it was that for all Fellowes’ talk about women’s advancement, he still fell back on the old Noah’s Ark approach to happiness: everyone needed to be paired up two-by-two. And if they weren’t married by series end they were definitely headed that way.
The other great Down Abbey theme has been “times are changing.” You can’t watch the series for more than ten minutes without someone bringing it up. In the end, all the characters succumb (as we all must) to the inevitability of change. But some are still not resigned to it, and I’m not sure where Julian Fellowes himself lands. In the very last lines of spoken dialogue Isobel says, “we’re going forward into the future, not back into the past,” to which the Dowager Countess replies,”If only we could.” And if those last words aren’t ambiguous enough, the series ends with CGI snow falling on the house (which looks suspiciously like it exists in a snow globe) and everyone singing that most nostalgic of songs, “Auld Lang Syne.” So are we supposed to mourn or celebrate the passing of an era? Both I guess.
In any event, the plot developments came so fast and furious that there really wasn’t time to dwell on big picture themes. Here are the highlights:
- Edith got married! Did anyone think this wouldn’t happen? In a more mature series Edith would have moved to London and become a successful businesswoman and perhaps met another successful London proprietor. Nope. Not only does she have to be married but she has to marry a Marquess. She’s back in town for exactly one day when Mary arranges for Bertie to meet her and propose again. Apparently he had a change of heart about those “I couldn’t trust someone who doesn’t trust me” principles. The only barrier is his uptight mother, who wants Brancaster Castle to become a moral center for the county. She certainly won’t want a fallen woman for daughter-in-law, right? Well, right, but only for about five minutes. When Edith drops the Marigold bombshell she initially tries to break up the match (just as Lord Sinderby tried to break up up his son’s marriage to Rose) but eventually (wait for it — here it comes) she changes her mind.“Should I turn down a daughter-in-law who, in addition to having birth and brains, is entirely and unimpeachably honest?” she asks. “She was prepared to deny herself a great position, to say nothing of happiness, rather than claim it by deceit. We must applaud her.” Oh brother.
- (Speaking of Edith, the only time I laughed out loud during the episode is when Lord Grantham gets the news of her engagement and rushes into tell his wife: “That was Edith. You’re never going to believe it!” “She’s pregnant again!” Cora exclaims.)
- (Speaking of the wedding, you have to hand it to Julian Fellows for lingering on the cleric’s line about whether any man can give just cause why Edith and Bertie shouldn’t get married. He was definitely messing with us. How many of you thought Michael Greggson might re-emerge at that moment?)
- Isobel and Lord Merton got married! As is explained to us multiple times in the episode, when they thought Merty would live a long life, his beastly son and daughter-in-law were only too happy to have Isobel take him off their hands so they wouldn’t have to care for him in his dotage. But when it looked like he was going to pop off immediately from pernicious anemia (apparently a real thing) they decide to keep him close so there would be no messy complications from a deathbed marriage to a second wife. Intuiting that Merty has been kidnapped by his own family, Isobel and the Dowager Countess burst into the house and demand to see him. Fortunately Merty he hears the commotion and runs away with them, leaving his rotten son in charge of the house. And then it turns out that he doesn’t have pernicious anemia after all, just regular anemia. Another happy ending! Because what would an episode of Downton Abbey be like without at least one medical miracle to celebrate?
- Carson retires! Speaking of medical miracles, it looks like there won’t be a one for Carson, who has a palsy (presumably some form of Parkinson’s). He can no long reliably pour wine, which is about the most essential job in the house, so he offers to resign. This would normally be considered a sad ending, but it’s a sad ending with the softest possible landing because his replacement will be Thomas Barrow, who takes the job with the understanding that Carson will be a sort of non-executive Chairman of the Board (i.e., in charge of the strategic issues at the house but not the day-to-day operations.) So he gets to semi-retire with his dignity intact.
- Barrow goes and comes! As for the aforementioned Thomas Barrow, he’s had a personality transplant this year and turned over a new leaf, trying to be a nice person. The Granthams tried to get rid of him all season and as soon as he gets a job somewhere else, they want him back. And now he’ll have the same relationship with Master George that Mary has with Carson.
- Daisy succumbs. Daisy’s romantic problems have been among the most boring subplots of the whole series. As Mrs. Patmore (aka Sigmund Freud) points out, she has exhibited a pattern of behavior in which she doesn’t like her suitors if they like her and only likes the suitors that don’t reciprocate. Andy has been sniffing around for a while and Daisy could not have cared less, but when she gets a good look at him doing manly labor in his undershirt she is nearly undone with lust. So she decides to move into the farm with Mr. Mason and there is a strong hint that she will hook up with Andy and Mr. Mason and Mrs. Patmore will also get married. And so much for passing all those exams if she’s just going to be a pig farmers wife.
- Oh, Molesly gets a full-time job at the school and Baxter finally decides not to go see her seducer in prison so that he will have “no power over [her].” (Why is this sub-sub-plot even still under discussion?) Also, it looks like two of them will hook up eventually.
- Denker outs Spratt and outfoxes herself. Denker deduces that Spratt is ghosting the advice column for Edith’s magazine and tells The Dowager Countess about it. How she did that is unclear, and why she spilled the beans is also unclear. I guess she ratted on him for the pure pleasure of being a bitch and because she hasn’t done anything pernicious in a while. But if she really wanted to get rid of him all she needed to do was tattle on him hiding his fugitive nephew a few episodes ago. I think we’ve seen that the Dowager Countess doesn’t like her servants tattling on each other. Doesn’t Denker remember this? In any event, the Dowager Countess finds the column highly amusing and Spratt rises in her estimate at Denker’s expense.
- Lord Grantham appreciates the hospital president. Like a spoiled child who’s jealous of a younger sibling, Lord Grantham thinks that his wife is spending too much time on hospital business. But when Rose (yes, she’s back too) takes him to a public meeting where the new consolidation plans are discussed, he’s very impressed indeed and gets over his qualms.
- Miss Edmunds catches the bouquet! Tom and Edith’s editor have been making eyes at each other for several episodes and the bouquet-catch is a signal that they too will pair off eventually. After all Tom has the most romantic come-on ever: “We like strong women. We like them very much.” Oh brother.
- Anna delivers Baby Bates! This is the kind of show where you know exactly when a pregnant woman’s water is going to break and it happens in Mary’s bedroom during the reception for Edith’s wedding. This is also apparently the kind of show where the mother-to-be has to deliver the baby in the very spot where her water broke. So instead of walking her to a more convenient spot they put her in Mary’s bed. Out pops the baby in no time. But no worries about Anna needing to give up her job. Apparently the Granthams offer on-site daycare so the little tyke will be put in the nursery with all the Grantham childen (and raised as their equal? I think not.)
- Tom and Henry go into business! The last remaining subplot concerns Henry Talbot’s future occupation. Guess what? You’ll never believe it! He and Tom are opening a car dealership in downtown Downton. Who could have ever predicted that, what with Tom carrying on about his love of cars and his obvious man-crush on Henry? Henry has conveniently lost his enthusiasm for racing after the death of his friend in the fiery crash, but he has to do something. As Tom explains: “Women don’t understand that a man is what he does. At least to himself.” I don’t think that last part came out exactly right, but now Tom and Henry will have their toys to play with. They are even thinking about manufacturing cars. WHAAAAAT? They’re going to turn the town of Downton into a Yorkshire Detroit? Doubtful.
The series ends in a warm bath of sweet syrup. All our friends have had their innings and are in a happy place when the series ends. It’s understood that Downton has endured its challenges. And so what if none of the servants are working full time any more, what with all the pig-farming and B&B operating on the side? Somehow everyone will get by.
Fortunately the Downton denizens don’t know what’s ahead of them. They’ll be hit by a world-wide Depression in just four years and ten years after that will be World War II. Master George will almost certainly serve in the war and Downton itself might be requisitioned by the government for military purposes. And after the war they’ll face high inheritance taxes and almost certainly be forced to turn over the estate to the National Trust.
No need to dwell on that now. We leave Downton on New Year’s Eve 1926, at a time of peace and prosperity. In that spirit, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.