So all the tea cups have been washed and the crumbs gently whisked off the lace tablecloth. “Auld Lang Syne” has been sung, and the Christmas snow has fallen on the great house for one last time. Time to say goodbye.
Except that I can’t, quite, and not for the good reasons that make you wish a story wouldn’t end: the wonderful characters you can’t let go, the adventure of watching their stories unfold, the aura of having been in an enchanted world for awhile. I wish Downton Abbey had ended that way, but it didn’t, not for me. Instead, I found myself peeved that such rich material had been so poorly handled.
Before the hate mail starts flooding in, let me say that I consider myself a Downton fan. I loved the first three seasons. The dialogue was snappy, the characters were sharply differentiated and each had his or her own arc, the interplay between world events and the smaller world of the manor was well woven, and the costuming and production were gorgeous. (How did they get that one petal to fall from the white rose and make such a lovely composition when it landed? That shot in the opening sequence never fails to get me.) My Sunday nights were reserved for the upstairs-downstairs saga, and like every other fan I ate it up and spent the week between each episode speculating about what Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer, had up his sleeve for us next.
So it was with considerable dismay that I watched the final two episodes and realized all I really wanted to do was slap Mary, tell Tom Branson to shut up with his mansplaining, and ask Daisy when she had become such an obnoxious little snot.
I’m fairly certain that’s not what Sir Julian was going for.
But, really, look what chances were missed to deepen the characters. Take Mary’s betrayal of Edith’s secret as the most striking example. Whoa, time warp! That’s exactly what she did to her sister all the way back in season one at the garden party when Sir Anthony Strallen was going to propose to Edith. Since that time, Mary has suffered the loss of their sister Sybil and the death of her own husband, witnessed at close hand the aftermath of the WWI battlefield while the Abbey was a convalescent hospital, shared at least some of Anna’s fear and desperation when Bates was convicted of murder, and damned near lost both her parents to medical crises. Didn’t any of that sink in? Are we really to believe that Mary at the age of thirty-six hasn’t matured at all from the vindictive, self-centered brat she was at twenty-one? What a wonderful opportunity to show a character having come to such a different place in her life that, when presented with the opportunity to destroy Edith’s life again, she chooses not to take it. That would have been a very satisfying arc, I think, a resonant one.
Similarly, more could have been done with Daisy’s story. For much of the season, we had watched her studying to achieve the education that would allow her to have more out of her life than being an assistant cook (her words, not mine). OK, so patient Mr. Mosley does a heck of a job of tutoring her, she sits the matric exam, and passes all her tests with flying colors. The next thing we know, she’s moving to the farm with her father-in-law and is presumably going to pair up with Andy, having gotten the message from everyone that Andy is a nice boy who’s sweet on her and she could do worse. Excuse me? So…she’s achieved a nearly-impossible feat for an uneducated servant girl, and now she can settle down and get married, and no one, not even Daisy herself, proposes any alternative. Yow. Way to let a character arc go flat, especially when the threads of a different story had already been laid. Remember Daisy’s budding political awareness when she spoke about the Labour Party and confronted the new owner of the estate where her father-in-law got kicked off his tenant farm? Remember that Edith got invited to be on the board of the foundation or college (started by a former housemaid of Downton’s who had made another career for herself as a secretary and married well) that was designed to help other women from the lower classes to go to college? Daisy would have been the perfect candidate for that, I’d have thought. Another missed opportunity.
Finally, Thomas Barrow’s attempted suicide. What a cheap string-puller that was, and how cheesily ‘solved.’ The man gets so desperate at the impending loss of the only career he knows and his niche at Downton that he tries a clumsy (very clumsy, considering that Thomas was an Army medic) suicide. The whole thing is hushed up, the people who know about it feel some pangs of remorse for the way they’ve treated him, Barrow is lucky enough to land another job, goes away briefly, but returns to Downton as the new butler when Mr. Carson (in a development that took less than 10 minutes of screen time) can no longer do his job. Check off the little box marked Thomas Barrow. Never mind that the fresh start at a new house with people who didn’t know him was what was going to enable him to be the kinder person he wanted to be. Never mind that he will now be locked into a position that will preclude any chance at happiness for him as a gay man, which we have been waiting all series to see happen. Never mind.
There’s much to miss about Downton Abbey, chiefly the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess, but the show had outlasted its creative impulse, it seems to me. Time to say goodbye.
Cue the falling rose petal.