Downton Abbey is back! Did you miss Downton Abbey while it was gone? Will you miss Downton Abbey forever once the final moments of the series air, clutching your Daisy the Kitchen Maid doll and weeping softly into your linen-and-lace hanky while pretending to ring for tea, even though you don’t have servants, a bell, or tea in the house? The answers are yes and yes.
Or at least, Julian Fellowes is betting on as much with this opening salvo on the close of the story. Everything is here: Mary and Edith’s simmering distaste for each other, Anna and her Daily Cry rituals, Carson and Hughes being all repressed and proper, Patmore being awesome – but NOT a frolicker (never THAT) – Thomas thinking everyone hates him, The Dowager and Isobel going at each other hammer and tongs while Cora looks on in a heavy-lidded daze, Daisy getting all fired on the the cause of the working man, evil chamber maids, everyone hating Thomas, creepy aristocratic toddlers who talk like automatons, and endless, endless, ENDLESS conversations about how Everything Is Changing. In fact, despite “change” being one of the strongest and most persistent themes in a series that wasn’t always great about sticking to its themes, the great comfort of Downton as a series is quite evident in this episode: It’s still Downton Abbey, despite the constant threats it faces. In other words, Everything Is Changing But Some Things Never Change.
THAT, in full defiance of history, is the true overriding theme of Downton Abbey: Stubbornly comforting inertia. Robert may ask “Who keeps an under butler any more?” but the answer is staring him (and us) in the face: People who still host fox hunts on their estates in 1925, that’s who. Maybe the working classes are making more money and finding their voices, and maybe other estates are shuttering their doors and having rummage sales, but Downton will soldier ever on. Without making any predictions of the season, it’s a sure thing that we the audience will never see a Downton falling into disrepair or abandoned by its family. And it’s a pretty sure bet we’ll never see one without a staff of at least a dozen people running it. Fellowes likes to touch lightly on his themes but he never delves too deeply, even if history is staring him in the face.
This is not, however, a complaint or a criticism. Indeed, in its sixth and final season, it’s more obvious than ever that this is what the audience of Downton Abbey wants. We’ve long espoused the idea that Downton could quite easily become a franchise, with a series detailing the courtship of Robert and Cora or a series detailing the WWII-era lives of George, Sybbie and Marigold. Both ideas just seem like good common sense to us, rather than attempts to wring every last bit of story and revenue out of the original idea. But we have to admit, it’s pretty clear that the fans of the show want to tune in every season to watch the Dowager be the Dowager or to see Carson in charge in perpetuity. Since Fellowes can’t make any of his characters immortal and since he burned through 14 years of story in 6 years, we either have to sit through the coming decline and a series of deaths and layoffs, or we can have one final spin around the ballroom floor before with every character. Guess which one Fellowes chose? Can you blame him?
And yes, we mean a dance with EVERY character. It’s astonishing to us how much story was crammed into this hour-plus, but strangely, none of it ever felt over-stuffed. We got Mary’s blackmail scheme, Edith’s plans for the future, a massive fight between the Dowager and Isobel (with Cora caught in the middle), the daily trials and tribulations of the Bateses, Thomas being lonely and hated and shoo’d away from any cute footmen that cross his path, Denker and Spratt shenanigans, Patmore, Hughes and Carson once again revealing that they are truly the best, most beloved people on that entire estate, Daisy getting all fired up, Mr. Mason doing his hobbit schtick, and Dickie Merton being all Dickie. We even heard news from Tom and Rose, even though neither of them are in the story anymore. It’s one big family reunion of an episode that shouldn’t have worked but somehow felt just right. No, Fellowes knows what he’s doing, even if he can be intensely frustrating as a creator at times.
This does not mean it was a flawless hour of television, however. Fellowes does tend to treat his characters like dolls in a dollhouse, which means motivations shift or get dropped like a hot potato time and time again in order to force characters into scenes and situations that don’t quite make a lot of sense. Sure, we can buy that Daisy would get fired up over the plight of the working man, especially in the face of her beloved father-in-law being tossed out onto the street, but there’s no version of reality (in this story) that’ll have us accepting the idea that she would defy Lord Grantham and Lady Grantham to their faces while causing a huge scene in the middle of an estate that she’s not even familiar with. We’ve watched Daisy nervously scurry away any time she was found on the main floors of the house she’s lived in for the past decade and a half so it’s simply impossible for us to believe that she’d act this way not only in front of her own employers, but in the house of another so-called “great family” that she’s never even seen. She may be more politically aware and educated than she was in the past, but such evolutions in character shouldn’t result in moments so out-of-character that they seem almost surreal.
Then again, she watched the chauffeur try to poison a dinner guest one time and he wound up sitting at the family table and running the estate, so we suppose she can be forgiven for being a little confused on the matter.
Similarly, Mary’s whole blackmail scheme struck us as totally pointless, except it gave Fellowes another chance to reveal his odd fascination with evil chamber maids. And can someone explain how a blackmail scheme against his daughter for having a weeklong shagfest in a Liverpool hotel somehow convinced Robert to hand over the running of the estate to her? Can someone even explain why he felt the need to bestow his blessing at all, since she’s been running the estate for years now?
In other news that makes no sense, Robert raises a glass to “British justice,” which, according to this show amounts to constantly arresting people on murder charges until they can actually find the guilty party and get them to confess. Or they find pie crust on their fingers. Or something. Whatever. The point is, the Bateses are free from all worries! Yay! So naturally, Anna cries a half-dozen times in the episode. “Plus ça change,” as the Dowager might say.
And that’s effectively the hook for the season: Things are changing, but you can rely on your old Downton pals to give you that tingle that made you fall in love with them in the first place. Sure, Fellowes is rehashing plot lines at this point and yes, it’s frustrating to spend years listening to characters talk about change that the show stubbornly refuses to enact on them, and God knows none of this is being rendered with anything approaching subtlety (the evil, cloche-hat-wearing Miss Bevin literally had Mary dragged through the mud just by looking at her), but if we can get a few supremely human moments along the way, like that masterful scene between Carson and Patmore, it’ll all be fine by us. Downton is back, and Julian Fellowes is determined to forestall history until the very last frame.
[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015]