Critic's Notebook: Farewell to 'Downton Abbey,' and to a More Gracious Time

Nick Briggs

The appeal of 'Downton Abbey' was the access it offered viewers to a fantasy land of elegance and gentility — values that seem especially quaint now that the era of Trump is upon us.

Even after most critics stopped caring, I have adored all six seasons of Downton Abbey, that escapist soap bubble of a series. But, yes, it was time for the show to end. After all, it had always worked best as a wish-fulfillment fantasy: The aristocratic Crawley family was glamorous and enviable, and the downstairs servants didn’t even resent them. But as the story moved from its start in 1912 through the last scenes, with the clock ringing in New Year’s 1926, the class structure beneath that fantasy began to crumble — and the strain on Downton showed.  

When Sybil Crawley married the chauffeur, Tom Branson, in season 2, it was an act of romantic eccentricity that outraged the family. By the end of the series, class mobility was the norm. The fact that the Crawleys grappled with those changes — to Lord Grantham’s horror, this season paying tourists were allowed into Downton! — may have been realistic, but realism had very little part in the show’s allure. Its appeal relied on two imperious, larger-than-life heroines: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her scene-stealing Granny, the tradition-bound Dowager Countess, delivering withering lines as only Maggie Smith could.

Mary was the more complex, rebelling when it suited her yet longing for rank and respectability. She wanted to sleep with Turkish diplomat Mr. Pamuk and to cover up the scandal when he died in her bed. That incident was an infamous highlight of season 1, and Mary remained true to her often selfish, sometimes kind character for most of the series. Through her marriage to Matthew and widowhood, her love affairs, even her grasp of Downton’s business matters, she was a guilty-pleasure surrogate for every viewer with a princess complex (we know who we are.)

But in the series finale, Mary is taken to a car showroom to see the business started by her new husband, the poor but handsome Henry Talbot, and Tom Branson. She looks around and asks them, “You’re second-hand car salesmen?” Henry asks if she’s ashamed of him, and Mary answers without a hint of irony: “I’m as proud as anyone living!” Really? Mary marrying a used-car salesman may show character growth, but that’s not why we liked her or watched her. There are traces of the fantasy left; I still want all her clothes and both her husbands. But when Lady Mary has become egalitarian, it’s time for Downton to close shop.

Writer Julian Fellowes had always attached viewers to the characters not because they were credible or relatable, but because they were emotional and full of fascinating contradictions. We loved Carson, the butler, whose rules and sense of decorum were more rigid than the King’s, because we could see his melting heart. It had always been there for Mary, whom he loved as if she were his own child. He eventually declared his feelings for the always empathetic housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes.

Lord Grantham was a softie, too, growling about liking the old ways but becoming the protective, loving father when confronted with one of his daughters’ scandals. He even accepted his illegitimate grandchild, Edith’s daughter, Marigold.

Ah, Poor Edith, as she became universally known. More than any other character, hers revealed the show’s struggle to find its footing in the 1920s. Sybil had been a natural feminist and rebel. (Who knows where the plot might have gone if she hadn’t been killed off when Jessica Brown Findlay, who played her, decided to leave the show?) Edith, who had once been jilted at the altar, seemed a modern woman by default. She accidentally became a single mother when her married lover was killed before he could figure out how to dump his insane wife. She inherited his magazine to edit. In the finale, when announcing her plan to live alone in London, she explained, “I’m a spinster, aren’t I? And spinsters live alone.” That’s why Edith was such a pill, her character so unconvincing: Her actions said independence but her tone was endlessly self-pitying.

Her abrupt, Old World happy ending eats up much of the finale, which might have been stronger if it had been less about her. She marries and becomes a Marchioness, outranking Mary. Ouch, and heavy irony for the squabbling sisters plot. The grand wedding on New Year’s Eve, with the giant Downton Christmas tree on display, is a nod to tradition even as change arrives. Fellowes gives everyone a satisfying or at least bittersweet conclusion. Barrow, the reformed villain, becomes butler to replace Carson, whose shaking hands force him into retirement and create the finale’s most poignant moments. Isobel marries Lord Merton, and they later discover that he is not, as he’d been informed, suffering from a fatal disease (over the series, those Downton doctors have had a lot of explaining to do).

Anna, the perfect ladies maid, goes into labor in Mary’s room and gives birth in her bed. As Anna and Bates coo over their new son, it wouldn’t have been shocking if a corpse had fallen out from behind the draperies; those two had a tiresome way of becoming innocently attached to murder. But no one was killed off, not even the elderly Dowager, who gets the last bit of dialogue. Raising a glass to the New Year, she remarks that it’s odd we always toast the future. Practical Isobel says, “We’re going forward to the future, not back into the past,” and the Dowager answers with a wish that speaks to the essence of Downton: “If only we had the choice.”

For six seasons, that was the choice Downton gave us: an escape to a past more elegant and structured than our own. In real life, it would have been horrible for most of us. No one envied the kitchen maid Daisy, whose happy ending meant moving to a pig farm and settling for Andrew the footman. But we didn’t have to identify with her. Despite its attention to social change, Downton’s appeal was that it gave us access to a magical place.

The very final scene begins in the servants’ quarters, where Mrs. Hughes starts singing “Auld Lang Syne” and everyone joins in. It was obvious and sentimental, but the emotion was earned. In my heart I will miss the series, even if my head says it is ending not a minute too soon. After all, we live in an era when presidential candidates shout vulgar insults at each other across a debate stage, and there may not be enough fantasy in the universe to escape that. Downton Abbey was about — and may be for — a more gracious time. 

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