We can officially pen the epitaph to one of television’s outstandingly sublime entertainments; Downton Abbey (2010-2015); writer/director, Julian Fellowes’ sumptuous character study of the slowly imploding Edwardian aristocracy as viewed through the occasionally close-knit, though frequently feuding Crawley clan. In hindsight, Gosford Park (2001), director, Robert Altman’s superbly assembled murder mystery – set in the same period and written by Fellowes – seems a dry run for the machinations unfurled in Downton Abbey; Fellowes, composing on a much broader canvas and in true epic TV miniseries style; these compelling vignettes sheathed in the lavish surroundings of Highclere Castle – a 19th century behemoth nestled in the rolling hills; also, the nearby picturesque village of Bampton in Oxfordshire, outwardly untouched by the hand of progress these many decades. Such locations add considerable cache and a timeless regality to the splendor of this generational gathering. For six years, the Crawleys have survived the upheavals of more graceless changing times; some, like patriarchal head of this reigning dynasty, Robert – the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his caustic mama, Violet – the Dowager Countess (played with delicious rigidity by Maggie Smith) and his ever-devoted and staunchly traditionalist butler, Charles Ernest Carson (the impeccable Jim Carter), dragged kicking and screaming into this ‘new world’; while others, particularly, the family’s trio of bright-eyed, determined and highly eligible maidens; ladies Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) have led a valiant charge into the age of modernity.
It has been a long and winding road to say the least, with all manner of intrigues intervening along the way; Fellowes, touching upon the topical tribulations of the Irish Revolution, woman’s suffrage and even the First World War. Wisely, Fellowes has kept these larger-than-life historical events in the ever-evolving 20th century tapestry a social commentary mostly set in the backdrop; the series, densely concentrated – at times with somewhat stifling myopathy – on the family and the goings on below stairs; the Crawleys touched by personal loss thrice – two cousins; Patrick, lost in the Titanic disaster even before the start of Season One; the other, second cousin, Matthew (Dan Stevens) unceremoniously killed in a motor wreck at the end of Season Three (to satisfy Stevens’ desire to pursue a semi-lucrative film career apart from the show); the quiet passing of second footman, William Mason (Thomas Howes) from wounds sustained in the war, and the shockingly unanticipated sacrifice of Lady Sybil from preeclampsia, thinning out the herd, as it were. In hindsight, Season Three was the proverbial ‘game changer’ for Downton Abbey; what, with both Sybil and Matthew stripped from the very fiber of the show, leaving Mary and Matthew’s mother, the irrepressible, Isobel (Penelope Wilton) to grieve in their own way – apart and, later, together; Season Four, interrupted by the rather inexplicable disappearance of lady’s maid and formidable baddie, Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), skulking off in the dead of night to pursue another career in service with a rival employer (again, to compensate for Finneran’s refusal to renew her contract).
The first three seasons of Downton Abbey were so intricately centralized around these characters; Sybil’s enterprisingly of-the-day and spur-of-the-moment elopement with the family’s chauffeur, strapping Irish Republican, Tom Branson (Allen Leech); Matthew’s tempestuous – and frequently emotional roller coaster ride to the altar with Lady Mary – culminating in their all too briefly happy marriage and birth of a son, George (Oliver Zac Barker) – the future heir apparent – and finally, O’Brien’s ruthless alliance with closeted and venomous under butler, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) – his blackmail over her dirty secret (that she skillfully placed a bar of soap on the wet bathroom tile floor after falsely assuming her future employment with the household to be in question, causing the pregnant Countess of Grantham, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) to fall and miscarry, coupled with O’Brien and Barrow’s insidious scheming against the Earl’s new valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his ever-devoted young Miss; lady’s maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), soon to become the second Mrs. Bates after his first, Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is discovered strangled on the kitchen floor; ah me, the rich and their below-stairs appendages did have their artful follies and sins to confess.
Some of these were never entirely resolved – at least to my satisfaction. For starters, no one ever became the wiser over the circumstances surrounding the untimely demise of visiting Turkish dignitary, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James) in Season One; he, having barged into Lady Mary’s boudoir for a passionate midnight flagrante delicto, only to suddenly die in her arms of a presumed heart attack; his naked remains silently carried back along the darkened upstairs corridor to his own room by Mary and Anna – the incident secretively witnessed by Daisy (Sophie McShera), the kitchen maid. We must too recall how earlier, Pamuk was the object of Thomas’ affections; his ‘familiarity’ dashed away by the repulsed Pamuk with a promise to expose Thomas’ homosexuality to Lord Grantham in the morning (likely to have spelled certain dismissal at the very least, and possibly, charges laid by Pamuk for the crime of attempted buggery). This, of course, never happened since Pamuk expired before daybreak. Could Thomas have laced Pamuk’s nightcap with a narcotic strong enough to inadvertently prove fatal? Hmmm.
We will never know. Ditto for who killed Vera Bates. While a devoted friend of the deceased claimed to have seen the estranged, though as yet not divorced, John Bates leaving Vera’s home shortly before the body was discovered – and Bates was indeed later convicted of the crime of murder, serving a partial sentence before being exonerated (thanks to Anna’s due diligence, proactive investigation of the facts and never-waning faith in his innocence) the real culprit was never revealed. Personally, I have my suspicions it was Lady Mary’s ill-fitted and rather sadistic suitor, newspaper magnet, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen). Having learned of Mary’s secret and menaced by Vera, Richard bought the rights to her story as ‘an exclusive’; determined to bury, rather than print it; Vera, pressuring Carlisle with a lawsuit and he, with steely-eyed resolve, openly threatening her in a manner suggesting he was capable of anything. The first three seasons of Downton Abbey, which saw the Granthams through these scandalous times, tinged by improbably romantic notions of wartime valor and home front sacrifices, were so intricately and tightly interwoven that, at the end of Season Three the show’s creator was presented with a narrative conundrum, only partially solved by the arrival of the free-spirited Lady Rose; daughter of Hugh 'Shrimpie' MacClare, the Marquess of Flintshire (Peter Egan).
Even so, Season Four struggled to regain Downton Abbey’s verve for narrative finesse, wallowing for far too long in Mary’s mourning; her failed dalliances with two amiable suitors, Lord Anthony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and his good friend, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), serving as a sort of efficiency expert working for the government to assess the damage done by the war on these feudal tenancies. As a modern woman, Mary begs Anna to buy her contraception; then, beds Gillingham and Blake, finding neither a suitable prospect to spend the rest of her days. In place of intrigue, as without O’Brien, Barrow’s scheming against the family steadily appeared as both insufficient and rather self-destructively misguided; ditto for his insidious endeavor to blackmail newly arrived lady’s maid, Baxter (Raquel Cassidy); herself, shielding a dark truth regarding her former employer. Instead, Fellowes shifted the series’ focus to an interminable cavalcade of almost lethally dull dead-end romantic entanglements; Rose’s impetuous affair de Coeur with black jazz band leader, Jack Ross (Gary Carr), mercifully rescued by the elaborate staging of a debutante’s ball at Buckingham Palace and edifying whirlwind romance (eventually leading to marriage) with a rather goony Lochinvar, Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber).
Also on tap throughout Seasons Four and Five; a bungled seduction between newly hired upstairs maid, Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring) and Sir Robert (suffering the briefest of momentary weaknesses after feeling neglected by Cora’s burgeoning desire to do something ‘useful’ in the community) and, an equally as stultifying attraction brewing, though never consummated, betwixt Tom Branson and outspoken Bolshevik-liberal school teacher, Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis). Even the elderly in this ensemble were not immune to Cupid’s arrow; Carson, warming to the transparently tender affections of housekeeper, Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) – the two toddling off into the quietly rolling surf on a gloriously sun-filled afternoon at the beach; The Dowager, inveigled in a twilight romance lingering only in her memory from a fondly recalled youthful tryst with Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), since thrown into penniless exile after the Russian Revolution; the town’s resident physician, Dr. Clarkson’s (David Robb) genuine affections for Isobel quashed, almost as ruthlessly as her own dreams to wed Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) are insipidly wrecked by outspoken accusations of being a social climber, razed by Merton’s boorish eldest son, Larry Grey (Charlie Anson).
Grey, who previously spiked Tom Branson’s drink, causing him to momentarily forget himself during a grand party, was later exposed for his deceit by Edith’s elderly beau, Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathhurst), soon to leave her jilted at the altar. The Crowley’s middle child, oft overlooked and generally exploited as Mary’s favorite punching bag, Edith eventually found temporary prospects in married magazine editor, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards); their love affair resulting in the birth of an illegitimate child, Marigold (Eva Samms); her shame covered up by an empathetic Aunt Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond). Alas, Gregson never returns from his fact-finding trip in Germany; presumably the victim of a fatal assault by Hitler’s brown shirts. Instead, it was later revealed he had successfully divorced his estranged wife and managed to bequeath his entire publishing empire to Edith before his demise; thereby making her an independently wealthy woman of this new century, destined to make a difference in ways Lady Mary can only dream about.
Last, but certainly not least, of these fleeting complexities to be resolved – badly, in fact – was the rather too conveniently dispatch of whatever became of Mr. Green (Nigel Harman), the vial valet working for one of Lady Mary’s prospective post-Matthew suitors, Lord Gillingham; Green, having raped Anna below stairs while the others were enjoying a concert in the grand hall – his crime eventually unearthed by Bates, despite his wife’s tortured silence – suddenly pushed to his death in heavy traffic in a London street, suspiciously on the very same afternoon Bates was presumably ‘out’ on an errand. It was later explained away, with far too much convenience, how another undisclosed woman, wronged by Green, had exacted her revenge; Bates, then Anna, first suspected of the crime, the latter briefly charged but, predictably, released when the truth became clear. By the end of Season Five, Downton Abbey had ostensibly run its course and, bewilderingly, run mostly out of steam; the prospects for this final season leaving much to be desired.
Mercifully, Season Six returns to the series’ roots. Better still; Julian Fellowes is exceptionally anchored to restoring the principles that made Downton Abbey great in the first place. Elemental plot points are fleshed out with narrative arteries having both purpose and a past; the unanticipated arrival of Season One’s former housemaid, Gwen Dawson (Rose Leslie), now a lady herself but ever-so humble, a pleasant reminder of the old days in general, though particularly, the gracious rectitude of the late Lady Sybil. The action in Season Six is swifter too, perhaps because Fellowes knows he has a lot of ground to cover before the grand finale. We begin Season Six in April, 1925; Robert, more than ever, realizing his way of life is fast coming to an end and far more flexible, not only about accepting change, but also encouraging and embracing it, much to Carson’s chagrin. Carson remains, as ever, steadfast and set in his ways. This does not bode well for expectations of his new bride, Elsie Hughes’; her meager culinary skills increasingly coming under Carson’s scrutiny, Hughes relying on Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) expertise in the kitchen to please him.
Meanwhile, the pace of life at the abbey is anything but leisurely. The Dowager and Mrs. Crawley begin a tug-o-war over the new hospital administration: the larger York County concern preparing to annex the local administration. Dr. Clarkson sides with the Dowager – at first. But Isobel gains a valuable alley in Cora, who can see how joining the larger and more prosperous government-run hospital can only result in more advanced medical treatments made available to their local community. At the same time, Robert is plagued by chronic indigestion which Dr. Clarkson rightly has diagnosed as a peptic ulcer. Season Six begins with a minor intrigue: Rita Bevan (Nichola Burley), a former chambermaid at the hotel where Mary and Tony Gillingham engaged in their weekend affair, makes repeated attempts at blackmail. Mary staunchly refuses to pay Bevan one red cent. But Robert buys the girl off for a fraction of her initial asking price, also getting her to sign a confession, thus preventing any further schemes. Admiring Mary’s verve, Robert feels more securely than ever Mary has what it takes to manage the estate in Tom’s absence.
One of the minor misfires in Season Six is the chronic reappearance of Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) who lingers around the abbey like a doting mother hen, overseeing various brouhahas concerning the staff. His first order of business is to alleviate Anna and Bates’ concern over Mr. Green, after an unknown woman confesses to Green’s murder. Later, Willis returns to encourage Baxter to testify against the man who once made her steal some valuable jewels from a former employer for him; this unseen lecher, preying on other young women – two, so we are told, having become prostitutes since; another, dead. At first refusing to comply, Baxter is stealthily coaxed by Joseph Mosley (Kevin Doyle) to reconsider testifying at trial in order to free her, once and for all from this evil man’s influence. Besides, the trial will allow her to permanently lay this sordid past to rest. Finally, Sergeant Willis informs Mrs. Patmore one of her recent tenants at the bed and breakfast she and her cousin have newly begun, is a philanderer; his infidelity shadowed by private investigator, the scandal splashed across the pages of a tabloid and marking Patmore’s establishment as ‘a house of ill repute’; much to Mrs. Patmore’s chagrin. To put these rumors to rest, Robert, Cora and Rosamund agree to have tea at Mrs. Patmore’s and be photographed leaving the establishment – something Robert, at least in the old days, would never have considered. The staged luncheon clears Mrs. Patmore’s name of any wrong doing and saves the fledgling business from being ostracized by the entire community.
Meanwhile, Anna, having suffered one miscarriage, grows gravely concerned she is about to have another. Mary whisks Anna off to London under a false pretext; the two visiting a highly reputable doctor who inserts a large stitch in Anna’s uterine wall to prevent a reoccurrence. The Crawleys attend the auction of a nearby estate – a sign of more ominous times on the horizon, as another once-prominent household falls. Daisy learns her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley) is being turned out of his tenancy by the new owner of the estate. Making an impassioned plea for clemency does not win Mr. Mason any favors, and Anna eventually turns to Cora to secure Mr. Mason a new tenancy at Downton; later, mistakenly assuming Cora has already managed a place for him at Yew Tree farm, presently occupied by Timothy (Andrew Scarborough) and Margie Drewe (Emma Lowndes). The Drewes have been in turmoil ever since Edith elected to regain custody of Marigold, previously placed in their care to conceal her identity. Margie has never been able to let go of the child as her own and, during a county fair, she kidnaps Marigold back to the farm. Realizing Margie will never be able to accept Edith as Marigold’s mother Timothy informs Robert he intends to leave Yew Tree for a new tenancy far, far away from the abbey’s influence. Of course, this bodes well for Mr. Mason.
As the family grapples with these changing times, Violet and Isobel’s tenuous friendship is superficially threatened by their polar opposite views on what is to be done about the local hospital. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ wedding plans present yet another short-lived crisis. Robert has offered Carson the servant’s hall for their reception. Mary suggests the great hall instead. Robert wholeheartedly concurs. But Mrs. Hughes urges her bridegroom to reconsider a fresh start would be better served in more familiar surroundings befitting their station in life. Such independence from the great house would have been frowned upon in the good old days. In truth, Carson regrets Hughes’ decision and, at one point, even refuses to discuss it with her. Eventually, the couple see eye to eye. Robert and the family support their decision; the service held in a modest church nearby; the reception, at the local school house. Having previously left for America with his child, Sybbie (Fifi Hart), Tom Branson makes a welcome return during the Carsons’ wedding reception, since realized he belongs at the abbey. Robert, Cora and the rest of the family could not be more pleased and the occasion is a joyous one.
But almost immediately, Edith begins to needle Mary about Tom coming back as Downton’s agent – managing the estate as he had begun with Matthew so long ago. Mary is hardly territorial, and suggests they jointly govern. Tom sincerely concurs. Meanwhile, it becomes rather painfully clear to Carson Robert intends to trim the already paired down staff even further. It is the perfect opportunity for Carson to rid himself of Thomas Barrow, whom he has always disliked – not without merit – though perhaps, occasionally misjudged solely on the basis of his homosexuality. Throughout the course of Season Six, Barrow experiences a remarkable conversion, thanks to Baxter’s kindly influence. At one point in Season Four, he tried to ‘cure’ himself of his homosexual tendencies in a desperate attempt to fit into the household. Now, Carson applies pressure on Barrow to seek employment elsewhere. But Barrow’s first few interviews are not promising, particularly one with an eccentric widower, Sir Michael Reresby (Ronald Pickup) who still lives in the past in the decrepit decay of Dryden Park. His fears about the future, coupled with an imploding sense of loneliness, lead Barrow to a crisis of conscience and later, a failed suicide attempt that proves an eye-opener for the rest of the staff and the family; rescued at the last possible moment by Baxter’s quick thinking, and ably assisted by Anna and first footman, Andy (Michael Fox), whom Barrow has been secretly tutoring to read.
Andy has agreed to help Mr. Mason work his land; also, to manage his books and take on more responsibilities wherever necessary. In truth, the lad is very much in love with Daisy, though it will take her nearly this entire season to recognize his true potential as the great love in her life. Season Six involves Daisy Mason in some rather interesting – although not altogether successful – vignettes. Part of Daisy’s appeal throughout the series was her rather backward timidity and innocence, marginally tinged by moments of fitful jealousy; mostly directed in Season Four at the more comely kitchen maid, Ivy Stuart (Cara Theobold) who very much had captured the heart of brash second footman, Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers), later expelled from Downton for a sexual indiscretion with his former employer. Perhaps to flesh out Daisy’s character, also to expand upon her maturity and personal growth, Season Six gives her a meatier chunk of the plot to digest; confronting Mr. Mason’s former land owner, then angrily proposing to challenge Cora after she has been falsely led to believe Mr. Mason will be appointed to manage Yew Tree farm.
It is an awkward evolution of the character at best, mostly because actress, Sophia McShera seems incapable of revealing more of Daisy without becoming somewhat harsh, shrewish and generally unappealing in the process. Daisy’s eventual acceptance of Andy is predicated mostly on Mrs. Patmore’s sustained – and occasionally, inpatient – guidance, rather than any great understanding or love for the man. At the same time, Daisy makes several clumsy misfires to prevent a burgeoning romance between Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason, though he clearly would like to see more of her; even sending Mrs. Patmore a letter of invitation, by way of thanks for helping him move into Yew Tree cottage and set up his housekeeping.
Meanwhile, the Dowager’s butler, Septimus Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and her lady in waiting, Gladys Denker (Sue Johnston) increasingly grate on each other’s nerves. In truth, the two have never seen eye to eye. In retrospect, Denker is a rather transparent ‘replacement’ to the post of series’ bitch vacated by the scheming O’Brien. Neither Denker nor Spratt is particularly engaging beyond mere comic relief, largely because they function apart from the abbey. Nevertheless, Gladys discovers Spratt has a wayward nephew, newly escaped from prison, and briefly sheltered by Spratt from the police. Denker uses this tidbit to blackmail Spratt into convincing the Dowager she should remain in her employ after a minor altercation between Denker and Dr. Clarkson threatens her with immediate dismissal. Spratt is successful at salvaging Denker’s reputation from certain ruin and thus, in preserving his own as well.
Prudence, the Dowager Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter) arrives at Downton at Violet’s request to support her in the dispute over the hospital. However, Prudence quickly throws her support towards the amalgamation instead. Her nephew, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is a racing enthusiast, an enigmatic gentleman and the most promising young suitor Mary has had in quite some time. She, of course, resists him; partly to quell her understandable fear of automobiles, but also because Talbot is a strong male, virtually unintimidated by her formidable resolve. Isobel wholeheartedly approves of this match. But Mary remains unconvinced. She does agree to attend Henry’s next race under the auspices of offering her moral support, the whole Crawley clan turning out for this grand races. Regrettably, tragedy strikes: Henry’s best friend, Charlie Rogers (Sebastian Dunn) killed in a hellacious wreck, incinerated when his car crashes into a tree-lined embankment and bursts into flames. Mary cannot bear the sight and, despite Henry’s obvious torment over the loss, immediately and tearfully breaks off their relationship.
Meanwhile, to bolster support in the fight for the hospital, the Dowager enlists the help of the newly appointed Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain (Rupert Frazer), whom she bribes with an old family scandal into attending a formal dinner at Downton. Alas, the evening proves anything but cordial. Bickering between the Dowager, Isobel and Cora quickly escalates and Robert, who has been unwell in the days leading up, suddenly has his ulcer rupture, spewing blood and collapsing at table. He is rushed to the local hospital where Dr. Clarkson performs the necessary surgery to spare his life. While Robert convalesces, Edith returns to London to manage her publication, ‘The Sketch’, hiring a new lady editor, Laura Edmunds (Antonia Bernath) to replace the caustic Mr. Skinner; the women jointly managing the magazine’s content. Together they unearth yet another secret: their latest contributing writer, the reclusive Miss Charlotte, is none other than Spratt doling out advice on love, life and ladies fashions under a non de plume.
Season Six can justly be subtitled ‘the age of Edith’ – the mousy and generally passed over middle child – quiet suddenly and remarkably coming into her own. Not only does she unapologetically assume the upbringing of her daughter, but Edith also takes on the challenge of running a business while becoming romantically involved with Herbert ‘Bertie’ Pelham, the 7th Marquess of Hexham (Harry Hadden-Paton) and the first man since Michael Gregson to be truly Edith’s equal, passionately in love with her. In short order, Bertie proposes. Edith hesitates, but later reveals her mutual affections with a stolen kiss, promising to give Bertie her answer before too long. Meanwhile, Bertie’s cousin, Peter is tragically lost in Tangiers, instantly making him heir to the family’s formidable fortunes and title. Should she choose to marry him now, Edith’s status would be elevated above her own family bloodline. Naturally, this sticks in Mary’s craw. Inadvertently learning from Tom that Marigold is Edith’s illegitimate daughter, Mary wastes no time in hinting as much to Bertie, thus, forcing Edith to publicly confess it. Wounded that Edith did not think enough of him to confide the truth on her own, Bertie momentarily breaks off their engagement.
In a confrontation audiences have been waiting six seasons to take place, Edith and Mary have it out. Mary feigns ignorance. But Edith refuses to let her back-peddle from this grotesque betrayal. She chides Mary, calling her out as a cruel and unrepentant bitch, forcing Mary to look deeply inside herself and reconsider her sisterly spite. Below stairs, Baxter encourages Mr. Mosley to accept a part-time position at the local school; the headmaster, very impressed with Mosley’s rich and varied knowledge. At the same time, the headmaster offers to take Andy under his wing, to teach him to read and write so he might assume the rigorous responsibilities of managing Mr. Mason’s pig farm. To help raise funds for the hospital, Cora agrees to open Downton to the public. Robert cannot see the point, but is pleasantly astonished when the intake from this one day’s open house contributes a sizeable endowment to the running of the house. The family contemplates making Downton available for public viewing on a regular basis; a proposition Carson finds distasteful. Sometime later, Carson begins to exhibit the first signs of Parkinsons Disease; his hands prone to uncontrollable tremors.
Meanwhile, Isobel is perplexed after being approached by Amelia Cruikshank (Phoebe Sparrow), Larry Grey’s fiancée. Amelia suggests a truce, hinting Isobel reconsider marriage to Lord Merton. In previous years, Isobel declined Merton’s proposal, after the priggish Larry made it abundantly clear he despised her. Revealing the particulars of her visit with Amelia to Violet, the Dowager takes on the task to disinter Amelia’s true motives. What she stealthily uncovers is Lord Merton is ill with pernicious anemia, a condition threatening his life. Amelia is not about to look after her ailing father-in-law, but rather hoping to trick Isobel into marriage as Merton’s nursemaid, responsible for his short-lived, though chronic care until his death. Making a rather bad enemy of Amelia, who is revealed to be a rather heartless shrew, Violet explains the situation frankly to Isobel. Knowing something of loneliness after Matthew’s death, Isobel resolves to remain close to Lord Merton in whatever capacity he would prefer.
However, she is denied even access to his home by Amelia; the newlyweds holding Merton a veritable hostage in his upstairs bedroom. Violet backs Isobel and together the two barge into Merton’s estate, demanding to see him. Both Amelia and Larry order the women from the house. But Merton, who has overheard their voices echoing in the hall, descends the stairs to welcome them. Isobel reveals to Merton his diagnosis of pernicious anemia is a mistake. He has only anemia, not a fatal condition, and likely to live for quite some time. Aghast his own flesh and blood would deny him the solace of an old friend in his presumably waning years, Lord Merton divests himself of his ungrateful son and scheming daughter-in-law; granting them the title, house and grounds (all they ever cared about anyway), and thereafter marrying Isobel, the two determined to blissfully share whatever remains of their emeritus years together.
Tom challenges Mary to reconsider her relationship with Henry. His matchmaking pays off. To make a mends in her life once and for all, Mary confides in Edith a renewal of their sisterly bond; one, presumably to be predicated on more genuine affections than vindictive one-upmanship. As ever, Edith is the more forgiving, allowing Mary to move on and accept Henry as her husband. The two are married. Learning of Carson’s affliction at the wedding reception, Robert re-evaluates his decision to dismiss Barrow. Instead, Carson will remain on staff as an advisor, with Barrow assuming the reigns as Head Butler. The family gathers together for the Christmas holidays; Lady Rosamund, Rose and Atticus rejoining them for New Year’s Eve. As the countdown to midnight begins, everyone rejoices in the promise of the forthcoming twelve months; their optimism for better days ahead renewed.
Downton Abbey might have gone on for several more seasons. Clearly, there is a lot more to these characters’ lives that, sadly, we will only be allowed to speculate about from now on. Perhaps, Julian Fellowes is right to conclude the franchise on a high note. By 1925, the loves and lives of the real aristocracy in England were either a thing of the past or coming to a finite conclusion for many, if not all of the ruling class. Too, certain characters from this aging entourage would not be allowed to endure for purely logistical reasons; the show’s rapidly advancing timeline necessitating the Dowager, Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton among the first to go if the series had continued. Besides, Fellowes has resolved enough of the story lines in Season Six to satisfy most of his viewership.
Hypothesizing aside, it would have been something to see where Lady Edith’s new life as an influential modern woman and wife of the Marquess had taken her; ditto for Mary’s marriage to the enterprising Henry and his fervent desire to go into business with Tom Branson. Aside: Allen Leech’s cherub-faced chauffeur cum estate agent and entrepreneur is rather wasted in Season Six; deprived of an identity, as it were; his sole function now as the deus ex machina in Mary and Henry’s turbulent trip to the altar. Would the Crawleys have managed to keep the great house from falling prey to these swiftly changing winds or would they be forced to leave their beloved palatial estate? What of the onset of WWII and its’ crippling aftermath and effects on the household? Perhaps, Fellowes and some of the principle cast should consider a spinoff series, miniseries or reunion special. Whatever the future holds for this franchise, one thing remains for certain. Downton Abbey has been a unique and intensely satisfying television experience not likely to be duplicated or even copied for a very long while. It has etched some indelible characters and situations into our collective consciousness and these too will endure as touchstones by which all other like-minded endeavors ostensibly will take their cue.
It ought to be stated: nobody does period drama better than the British – for obvious reasons; their legacy in culture, architecture and traditions well-preserved. Such devotion to the past is oft’ misconstrued as ‘backward’ thinking. But in retrospect it speaks well, not only of a national pride, but of a willingness in Britain’s entertainment industry to remain steadfast and loyal to ever-green and timeless aphorisms. Let’s be honest. If not for WWII, golden age Hollywood would not have achieved its legendary status as the envy of the world’s most popular entertainments. The surplus of Brit-born talent that came to Hollywood then, and has since found advantages to remain on this side of the pond have elevated the visual storytelling art form on both sides of the Atlantic. Out from under the yolk of war-time restrictions, Britain’s own picture-making biz has steadily evolved into a major competitor; Downton Abbey, a prime example of the cross-continental appeal in programming initially designed for U.K viewership.
In America, change – of any kind - gets misconstrued as ‘progress.’ However, it is important to denote that simply moving in a forward direction does not necessarily guarantee ‘evolution’ – nee ‘progress. That Downton Abbey not only could have broken into, but equally gone on to thrive in the American milieu, increasingly dominated by comic book-based flicks and a fairly tepid proliferation of cheaply spun-off horror franchises is, in and of itself, a minor miracle; one that, frankly, gives me hope for the future – not only for more like-minded product to proliferate the small screen, but also to mark a sincere return to the kinds of entertainment that, as T.S. Elliot once put it, “enlarges the sympathies, stimulates the mind, the spirit, that warms the heart, punctures the balloons of hypocrisy, greed and sham, tickles the funny bone and leaves us with the glow that comes when we have been well entertained.” Bravo, indeed! I could not have put it better myself. I won’t even try.
NBC/Universal Home Video’s release of this final season of Downton Abbey on Blu-ray carries over the very satisfying hi-def mastering exhibited elsewhere in the previous five seasons. I have no doubt the distributors are probably already conspiring on a lavishly appointed box set to encompass all six seasons – likely for a Christmas reissue. Color fidelity on these Blu-rays is extraordinary, as is fine detail and contrast; all contributing to show off Caroline McCall, Anna Robbins, Susannah Buxton and Rosalind Ebbutt’s richly evocative period costumes; also Donal Woods, and Charmian Adams’ production design, revisited over the course of the series by cinematographers, Nigel Willoughby, Graham Frake, Gavin Struthers, David Katznelson, David Marsh, Adam Gillham, David Raedek and Michael McDonough. Here is a troupe of behind-the-scenes craftsmen who know how to light, stage and photograph period drama. Of course, it sincerely helps they are blessed with actors who can hold our attention in long takes. Suffice it to state, Downton Abbey Season Six is one hell of a treat in 1080p; Highclere and its cast looking formidably resplendent. The 5.1 DTS audio is, of course, up to snuff, capturing the subtlest nuances in this dialogue-driven series and celebrating John Lunn’s evocative underscore, richly designed around reoccurring leitmotifs. Extras are a little thin this time around, perhaps because so much has been covered in prior releases. It would have been prudent to have the cast reflect on their impressions – particularly since this is their swan song. We do get minor contemplations; alas, severely truncated and distilled into three very brief featurettes: Changing Times, The Cars of Downton Abbey, and Farewell to Highclere.
So, we bid the Crawleys adieu, though hardly goodbye, as I suspect we will all be revisiting this enigmatic ensemble for a very long time yet to come. Thank you, then, to Julian Fellowes, and to all working tirelessly in front of and behind the cameras; to you who made it not merely possible, but enthralling, heartwarming, and yes, thoroughly compelling ‘must see’ TV for six life-enriching years – hearty good thanks and cheers. As with all seminal moments in life, I find myself at a crossroads of mixed emotions herein; a sort of heart-sore affection and strange loss of something quite eloquent and unrepeatable – a feeling I have not had about any TV series for a very – VERY – long while. It is difficult to quantify, but it is a feeling that continues to resonate as I conclude this review. Around this household then, Downton Abbey will be profoundly missed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1 to 3 – 5+
Season 4 – 3.5
Season 5 – 3
Season 6 – 5+