I’m going through a Downton Abbey withdrawal right now. When the finale to this wonderfully crafted six years old show aired on PBS recently, I cried and I cried as the whole cast, upstairs and downstairs, began to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and then the credits rolled by because it was the LAST episode ever!
The Downtown Abbey finale was so perfect in the way it neatly tied up so many of the compelling story lines. Edith FINALLY gets married with the surprising help of Mary (and the comical irony is that the frequently over-looked middle sister Edith, who has waged a competitive battle of status, insults and bitchiness with her older sister, Mary, throughout their whole lives, obtained a higher-status title of Marchioness.)
Thomas, whose character has evolved dramatically throughout the entire show from a hated villain to a more sympathetic person, finally lands his dream job of Butler at Downton Abbey when the moral bastion of the estate, Carson, has to retire due to health problems. Isobel and Lord Merton marry in spite of the bitchy manipulations of his asshole son, Larry, and new daughter-in-law. Robert and Cora renew their love and respect for each other. Daisy finds requited love with Andy and an implied new future together at her father-in-law’s farm. Mrs. Patmore will most likely become Daisy’s step-mother-in-law, which is appropriate since Daisy and Mrs. Patmore have long had a tumultuous yet loving relationship that often resembles a mother-daughter connection . Anna and Bates, whose love and marriage went through so much turmoil and strife with both being wrongfully accused of murders, finally have their long-hoped-for baby boy. Tom and Henry logically combine their experiences as a chauffeur and a race car driver into a joint car dealership, which pleases Mary who is newly pregnant with her and Henry’s first child. And Violet finally and graciously accepts Cora’s position as the female head of the family and her new leadership in the community yet Violet acquiesces her retirement in her own inimitable way.
But the most pleasant surprise of this whole show has been the transformation of poor Mr. Molesley. He went from his exalted positions of valet and butler in Isobel’s and Matthew’s household to a lowly road-repairer and groceries delivery man to a footman and then finally to the highly respected position of a certified teacher at the local school with an implied future with Cora’s lady’s maid, Baxter.
Molesley, a gentle soul whose vast insecurities and awkwardness outside of his life-long training as a valet, became a beloved character on Downton Abbey. He was the “everyman” during those turbulent times in English history when so many social and economic upheavals occurred. All Molesley ever wanted, and tried so hard to achieve in his unsure and clumsy ways, was a reliable and respectable job, friends, and a relationship with a nice woman.
Molesley was the character we loved even when he was his own worst enemy. We laughed at his goofy Highland dancing while he was unintentionally half-drunk. His eagerness to be the best substitute butler as a last-minute replacement for Carson at a very important Downton Abbey event was endearing because of his awkward insecurities. But then he tasted a few too many times all of the confusing variety of the different wines that were to be served with the numerous courses of the fancy dinner to the point that he ended up sick and inebriated. We laughed and shook at our heads at Molesley, once again, being Molesley.
We laughed and groaned when he attempted to impress everybody at Downtown with his vast knowledge of the finer points of how to play cricket but Molesley only ended up proving that, in spite of all he knew, he couldn’t actually play cricket at all, and was, in fact, horrible at it during the important match between the estate and the village.
As a life-long avid reader of history, I personally adored and admired Downtown Abbey so much because of the exquisite attention to the large and to the tiniest historical details throughout the entire series. The show was set in Yorkshire, England during the post-Edwardian years between 1912-1926 and it superbly highlighted the many upheavals in the lives of the well-to-do and the not-so-well-to-do during those changing times.The eventual decline of the aristocratic way of living on large estates with hundreds of servants and the parallel rise of the working class through increased education, employment and business opportunities was a constant theme throughout the Downton Abbey series.
The very first episode opened with how the sinking of the Titanic personally affected the aristocratic Crawleys, their servants and their estate, Downton Abbey, and the show continued to explore how the history of those times from the first World War, the pandemic Spanish Flu, even the creation of the Republic of Ireland and the Beer Hall Putsch in Germany, influenced and shaped the decisions and lives of everyone during those times.
During the show’s time period in English history, there were many technological advances such as the introduction of electricity for home use and the invention of conveniences such as refrigerators, electric mixers, the telephone, the increased use of automobiles and tractors, and those innovations also played their historical part in the lives of everyone.
Even its celebrated use of Highclere Castle as the setting for Downton Abbey contributed immensely to the authentic atmosphere of the show. It would have been tremendously expensive to have tried to recreate on a sound stage the many richly appointed rooms of Highclere Castle and that recreation could never have been as successful as being allowed to actually film at Highclere Castle the many important scenes in the lives of the characters who lived, worked, fought and loved within Downton Abbey. Highclere Castle was in itself a background character of the show and Downton Abbey would have immensely suffered if it had been filmed anywhere else.
Downton Abbey’s historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, and the show’s art department, producers, costumers and hair stylists continuously did a fantastic job of meticulously researching every facet and every detail for the design of each episode. The sumptuous dresses, jewelry and hairstyles of the aristocratic women were swooned over by the millions of its female viewers. Most of the costumes were vintage or parts of found pieces of authentic fabrics from the show’s era were incorporated into new costumes. Everything from how and when the footmen wore white gloves, the genuine military medals on Lord Grantham’s uniform, even the authentic use of rulers for the elaborate and precise placement of chairs, dinnerware and candlesticks, etc., were exhaustively researched for their historical accuracy.
Everyone associated with Downton Abbey contributed to its always entertaining and beloved popularity. The cast, including the perennially wonderful Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern who so convincingly played the long-married but still in love Lord and Lady Grantham, Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle who played the lady’s maid, Anna, married to the Lord’s valet, John Bates, Alan Leech who played Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married Earl Grantham’s daughter, Lady Sybil, performed by Jessica Brown Findlay, all so excellently portrayed their characters that we welcomed them as newly found friends. Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Rob James Collier, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol. Penelope Wilton, Dan Stevens and the many, many other fine actors also contributed immensely to the success of Downton Abbey.
The wonderful writing of each episode, primarily done by Julian Fellowes, was also a major contributor to the popularity of the show. Most of the greatest, and frequently humorous lines, were given to the esteemed Dowager Countess Grantham. Some of her best lines include: “At my age, one must ration one’s excitement.” “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.” “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class.” “Every woman goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.” And this priceless gem of tart exchange between the Dowager Countess and her cousin, Isobel Crawley: “(Dowager Countess) You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal. (Isobel Crawley) I take that as a compliment. (Dowager Countess) I must have said it wrong.”
There were two things I learned though from watching Downton Abbey. The first is that apparently it is quite easy to inherit lots of money, businesses, and real estate. Matthew Crawley inherited oodles of money from a man he barely knew and was not related to: his almost future father-in-law, Reggie Swire. Edith inherited Michael Gregson’s money, magazine business and his London home as well. The second thing I learned is to never, ever stay overnight and fall asleep in any of the numerous bedrooms in Downton Abbey because you might not wake up. Kamal Pamuk, Lavinia Swire, Sybil Crawley-Branson and even Isis, Robert’s dog, all died in different bedrooms at different times.
There were a few plot twists that I had been hoping would be explained in the very last show but were not. Who really was that man who much later showed up injured during World War I claiming he was Patrick Crawley, Robert’s heir, the heir who was presumed to have died on the Titanic in the very first episode? Was he or wasn’t he Patrick? That was never definitively solved so it was a small irritation that Downton Abbey’s faithful viewers were left hanging by that ambiguous situation. Exactly how did Bates save Robert’s life in the Boer War so that Robert always felt such a deep loyalty and affection for Bates, even when he was accused of murder? And how could Edith inherit everything of Michael Gregson’s when they were not married and he still had a living wife, albeit a supposedly insane one? Why wasn’t there ever a legal contest about his will? I am sure that any relative of his wife’s, even a shirt-tail relation, would have contested Michael Gregson’s will in the real world.
But in spite of those unexplained questions, to have all of the characters and their lives and storylines reach such satisfying conclusions was so gratifying. Yet Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, left his viewers with the distinct and important impression that their stories and their lives will continue on; they will just be lived without our knowledge.
The magic of Downton Abbey is that from the very first episode we were all so captivated by these characters and the minute details of their lives. There was equal fascination with the lives of the downstairs servants and the upstairs well-bred Crawley clan. So captivated were we from the very beginning that we felt like we had made a dozen or more new friends and we were immediately sucked into their dramas and their lives’ many complications. We became happily emotionally exhausted each week as we enjoyed these vicarious relationships.
But our friends, who have been with us for six years, have left and no longer can we eagerly see what will happen to Robert, Cora, Violet, Mrs. Patmore, Thomas, Molesley, etc. No longer can we eagerly wait until the next week’s episode to get our Downton Abbey fix for our addiction. Sunday nights will no longer be the same.
But, luckily for me, I have the first 5 years of Downton Abbey on DVD and I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the last season’s episodes. I also ordered the companion book to the show, “Downton Abbey: A Celebration – The Official Companion to All Six Seasons” by Jessica Fellowes and Julian Fellowes.
So now when my Downton Abbey addiction goes through extreme withdrawal symptoms, I can either happily get lost in the book or happily load up my DVD player with the entire series, then sit back and load up my crack pipe with their tales, trials and tribulations. Because that is exactly what Downton Abbey is: the best crack cocaine of soap operas. But what elegant, decadent, captivating crack cocaine it is!