I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a parting bow to “Downton Abbey,” which ended its six-season run last week with a two-hour episode that left all the main characters (all 20 of them) accounted for and, in almost every instance, happily sent off into the sunset of television paradise. (The finale had run on Christmas Eve in England; U.S. audiences always saw the episodes three months later.) The closing episode was written by series creator Julian Fellowes, who had also written all of the other 51 episodes. To say this show was his baby is a bit of an understatement.
Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal significant details of the last episode (and those preceding it).
As well as events culminated for the upstairs and downstairs denizens, there was no small touch of irony in the fortunes for the terminally unpleasant, generally mean-spirited Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who, after nearly checking out in a suicide attempt in the penultimate episode, gained the lion’s share of audience attention, if not affection, in his quick return from exile to become the new butler of the manor as dear Carson (Jim Carter) accepted a quasi-retirement position as the executive director (for want of a better title) of the service staff.
And talk about happy endings: this episode was a primer, if there ever was one, on how to have everyone looking at life favorably after a good many hints of less cheerful denouements in the preceding weeks. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) finally got her man and her wedding and even her haughty new mother-in-law’s respect, if not admiration. Anna (Emmy award winning Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) got their newborn child, a healthy boy. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) revealed she was pregnant and happy that her new hubby was giving up racing (to join in a car business with her brother-in-law). And said brother-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the forlorn widower who just couldn’t stay away after escaping to America, reconnected with the socialist school teacher who suddenly appeared as a guest at Lady Edith’s wedding. (Hey, why not?)
Other happy endings were allowed for Isobel Crawley (the wonderful Penelope Wilton) who got her man, too, after Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) ended up not having pernicious anemia after all (but of course he didn’t, especially after she had vowed to marry him even if he was dying; such a saint). And her principal foil, cum best friend, the Grand Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith, so delightful) even seemed pleased for her (and for everyone else, for that matter; so much for harrumphing and all that balderdash). She even took delight in learning that her butler Spratt (Jeremy Swift) was the secret author of all the tips-for-women columns in Lady Edith’s magazine.
Other happy endings were delivered for Daisy (Sophie McShera), the kitchen maid, who finally woke up to the romantic prospects offered by Andy (Michael Fox), the footman who had just about given up on carrying a torch for her; and for the good-hearted Moseley (Kevin Doyle), who not only got a teacher’s gig but also might finally have something going with the also good-hearted Baxter (Raquel Cassidy); and for precious Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the reliable cook and overall good person, who may well have a love interest of her own in Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), Daisy’s deceased husband’s dad.
And, of course, Earl Robert (Hugh Bonneville) finally figured out that his wife, Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) was actually one very talented woman, and he shared his undying admiration for her to put a bow on it.
Have I left anyone out? Butler Carson suffered the only real downer of sorts when he developed palsy in his hands, resulting in his “retirement” to the executive director position. His ever-loving wife, Mrs. Hughes (the superb Phyllis Logan), will most assuredly be by his side as she continues to manage the distaff side of the downstairs crew. Even Lady Rose (Lily James) returned for the finale with her husband to join in the festivities. They left the children behind because you can only have so many children running around in the spacious halls of Downton.
The new year rang in as everyone sang a joyous chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” which was only bittersweet because it heralded the end of the series.
So what made this show so popular? How did it captivate the sizeable audience both in the U.S. and abroad, when, in fact, it was little more than a grandly produced soap opera, and very much G-rated at that?
The intermingling of a working class and a wealthy class certainly had its appeal, especially when individual characters from both sides were so readily identifiable. Viewers related equally to the travails of Anna and Lady Edith, of Lord Grantham and Carson, of Daisy and Lady Rose. Life can be hard for everyone, even if the perspective that makes it so will differ from income level to income level and from social class to social class.
And, too, the way individuals from each side of the divide related to each other was intriguing. Carson, for example, was as much a father-figure to Mary and her sisters as was Robert, and viewers had to believe he felt no less love for them. The pattern was replicated in Thomas’s relationship with Mary’s son in the last few episodes.
The crossing of the artificial barriers of class and wealth distinction was no more pronounced than in Tom Branson, who began as the chauffeur/mechanic who was not even part of the household service staff and yet ended up being accepted not just as a son-in-law but as a member of the clan, as it were.
Barriers: those that the proprieties imposed and those that reality dissolved. That was, perhaps, the ultimate appeal of this wonderful show. As viewers, we didn’t care that some lived upstairs and some downstairs. We just cared that they were a family and that each of them had a bond with the others that, even in the case of Thomas, could not be broken.