So this weekend is the end of “Downton Abbey” here in the States, and I’m ready to say goodbye. It’s been a fun run with all the ups and downs you want from a soap opera. And it is, most definitely, a soap opera. I have great affection for soaps. I haven’t seen one in thirty years, but my mother and grandmother both watched them when I was a child, and I learned a LOT. I was introduced to plot twists, character development, the notion that a happy ending is not nearly as interesting as a “happy for now” ending, homosexuality, the missionary position, and the fact that children can age from infancy to adolescence in six weeks during sweeps. And we’ve had HEAPS of these things in “Downton”, haven’t we?
From a structural standpoint, “Downton” is a mixed bag. Like serialized novels in Victorian times, “Downton” has depended upon a writer who doesn’t always know where the story is going–the ultimate “pantser” experience as a creator. This has led to some blind alleys, some repetitions, and some thunderbolt moments of drama that came so hard and fast, we felt gut-punched. But for all its variety in pacing and consistency–and this is in NO way a criticism because let’s be real, I would NOT want to have tiptoed around in Julian Fellowes’s shoes for the past few years–there are some things that have been consistently, gloriously right from the beginning.
*Setting. Both in time and place, “Downton” has been divine. Using Highclere Castle, the seat of the Earls of Carnarvon was a wee bit of nepotism. (Fellowes is a pal of the current earl and countess.) But I’m all for nepotism when it serves the greater good, and Highclere most certainly does. It’s imposing and beautiful, grand in all the right ways. When I walked into Castle Howard in Yorkshire, an even grander and more imposing stately home, I was immediately struck by the absolute weight of the place. You don’t own a house like that. The very idea is as ridiculous as thinking you could own the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. Those houses are monuments to wealth and privilege, and you can never be more than a caretaker. Those houses own YOU. The stewardship of a stately home must be rewarding, daunting, terrifying, and thrilling all at the same time. You get to live amid beauty, but you have to pay the insurance premiums and listen for deathwatch beetle, and if the roof falls down on your watch, YOU FAILED. “Downton” does a superb job of capturing the heft of that responsibility along with the rewards. As for the setting in time, we’ve had the Titanic sinking, WWI, the Irish question, suffragettes, and women taking employment across the classes. The period after WWI was one of the most dynamic for change in the UK, and “Downton” has touched on this over and over again, letting it shape the narrative while keeping the focus on how people responded to change for better or worse.
*Lady Mary. I am unapologetic in my love for Mary. She’s not nice; she’s not even particularly likeable. But she doesn’t have to be. She is fiercely proud, clever, loyal, and courageous. She’s also domineering, rude, manipulative, and snobbish. It’s that complexity that makes her interesting. She has had development through the seasons; do we really think the gorgeous girl riding side-saddle in season one would have deigned to consider marriage to a racing car driver, no matter how exalted his surname? Of course not. But times have changed, and she has changed with them even though it’s cost her much. She’s been humbled by her own machinations, forced to face her shortcomings, and she has used those opportunities to improve herself. She is the very backbone of Downton, the force that will propel the estate far into the twentieth century, pushing for whatever adaptations are required for it to thrive. She will be a formidable old woman, and it doesn’t take much imagination to picture her as a new Violet in her dotage, a ferocious dowager who takes no prisoners but is capable of great warmth and consideration. In contrast, Edith, a more conventionally likeable character is a human blancmange. While she’s also developed over the seasons, she remains morally weak. When faced with the question of whether to make a clean breast of her past to her fiance–the same situation Mary faced with Matthew–Edith vacillates where Mary seized the bull by the horns. Both of them are character studies in grey, complex and variable, but I prefer my characters to drive the action rather than wait around for things to happen to them. (And while Edith has become more sympathetic in recent years, she has shown a capacity for viciousness in the past. Edith is incapable of organizing a happy ending for herself. If she gets one–and I hope she does–it will be by accident.)
If you’ve enjoyed “Downton” and are sorry to see it go, you might want to check out any of the companion books by Jessica Fellowes. There are at least four that I know of, all beautifully done with tons of photographs and lots of historical detail that couldn’t make it into the show but is endlessly interesting.