It’s finally here. The final season of Downton Abbey began last night. Fellow PBS watchers will sympathize with me when I say that I don’t want to see another ad or promo for the final season. Not since Mad Men have I been inundated with so much hoopla and hype over the end of the show.
Given all this hype, I expected the first episode to be a snoozer, and I was wrong. Given that Downton Abbey sort of lost the plot in the past couple seasons, I was surprised at how engaging, touching, and funny the first episode was. There were still some of the weak spots that plague the show – too many characters, too much of Mr. Bates and Anna, too many characters commenting on how “things are changing” – but overall, it was a solid hour of entertainment.
Those who confuse Downton Abbey with anything other than a classy soap opera should watch the show again. Even though everyone speaks with an English accent, this is just a tarted-up All My Children. As much as the show likes to go on and on about how change is coming, there are still some very static plot lines.
I’ll mention the Bates’ story first only because I want to get the most boring one out of the way. It’s funny because in the first season, I found Mr. Bates to be one of the most interesting characters on the show, but he quickly dovetailed into one of the most tiring and irksome. And he dragged Anna down with him. This is no knock against Brendan Coyle or Joanne Froggatt – the two cry and suffer well – but the writers really cannot seem to make them anything more than just a BBC version of Luke and Laura. Given that Anna has been cleared of murder, one would think they’d finally heave a sigh of relief, but wait for it, Anna has some more bad news: she can’t have kids. And because Bates is the kind of plaster saint that only exists in fairy tales and evening prayers, he’s fine with it – but of course Anna doesn’t believe he’s fine, and though everyone else in the house is celebrating Anna’s long-overdue freedom, she’s still grinding her teeth, guaranteeing another slate of episodes in which the Bateses get to be miserable.
Another recurring plot device has the Dowager Countess, Violet, square off against Isobel. We’ve seen this over and over again. And if it weren’t for the fantastic work of Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, I’d be tired of this, as well. Given all of the changes that are happening, one of them seems to be the hospital being taken over – Isobel is fine with that, as long as it’s in the patients’ best interest, while the Dowager Countess wants to remain in control. The result is the two snipe at each other, yet again, enacting their version of The Odd Couple for the amusement and merriment of all of us. Underneath the silly fight is something more poignant and serious: Violet is seeing that she’s becoming increasingly irrelevant as time moves on. She understands that she’s a relic and that scares her. When begging off going to a land auction, she sniffs that she hates to see former homes being sold, the possessions piled up like junk. It’s clear that she’s also worried about the state of Downton.
Though, the shifting economic fortunes of Downton provide some angst and stress, it also is the cause for some crackling comedy, as well. Robert confides in his mother, explaining that Downton’s bloated staff will have to be reduced. Violet lets her lady’s maid, Denker (Sue Johnston) in on this sad bit of business, and the grim creature runs to Downton on her break to strike fear into every servant’s heart. Spratt, Violet’s butler, is the main butt of Denker’s cruelty, so it’s fitting that when Violet learns of Denker’s meanness, she turns the tables, sighing, ““Oh, Denker, you are a wonder, I shall miss you,” giving the lady’s maid a chance to share in the terror that everyone else is at these changing times.
The other poignant, yet humorous, story line involved Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore. As Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are engaged to be married, there are some logistical questions to be answered, one of which is whether the marriage is one of platonic companionship, or will they be having sex. It must be excruciating for fuddy duddies like Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes to have to talk about these things (remember, this is a few decades before Oprah), so the latter gets help from Mrs. Patmore, no sexual libertine herself. She interviews Mr. Carson on her friend’s behalf, asking if Mr. Carson is interested in a physical relationship – all of this is done with just the right amount of comedy – not too much that it dips into cheap easy smut, but just enough to shine a light on the absurdity of extreme prudishness. When Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes come to an understanding that their marriage will a full and complete one, it leaves their story line with a satisfying conclusion: though, I still maintain that the two characters shouldn’t have fallen in love with each other.
The other stories in the episode were much heavier. Starting with Lady Mary, it appears as if her virtue is in question again. As with the Hughes/Carson/Patmore plot, sexuality and puratinism rears its head again, though this time the result is ugly: she’s being blackmailed by a chambermaid from the Liverpool hotel in which Mary spent a week in sin with Lord Gillingham. The chambermaid, Rita Bevan, appears like a nasty phantom during a fox hunt, causing Mary to fall off her horse and land in a pool of mud (of course, even covered in muck, she looked fab). Bevan then appears throughout the episode, a gnat in Mary’s ear, constantly reminding her of the huge scandal that would break out, should she open her big mouth. She wants a £1,000 – a ridiculous sum. Instead of letting herself be swindled, Mary decides to stand her ground, but not before Robert intervenes and sends her off with £50 and a note confessing to her attempt to blackmail. Instead of being pissed off, Robert is proud that Mary was planning on standing her ground – that left me thinking, “I guess…” Robert’s pride and understanding may be his growth and change, but it left me thinking that this was a tiny bit of wonky writing on Julian Fellowes’ part to tie up a not-particularly interesting bit of intrigue. Still, Mary’s resolve (plus her gorgeous costumes), all make for an above-average subplot, that benefited from Michelle Dockery’s preternatural ability to seem bored and contemptuous.
The other major event in this episode is the auction at Mallerton Hall. Sir John Darnley, like Robert, believed that life would remain the same no matter what happens in the outside world. He mused sagely at the auction that houses like Mallerton Hall would end up as institutions by the decade’s end – not a wholly incorrect assessment. The sale is sad in that everything must go, including gifts from the servants and Darnley’s portrait of his grandmother. Another side effect of the sale is Daisy’s father-in-law may lose rights to his farm. In a fit of pique, she rages at the new owners, imperiling his chances of holding on to his farm, as well as her own job. Of course, all’s well that ends well, and Daisy doesn’t get fired, but Mr. Moseley’s fate is still up in the air.
As I wrote earlier, my take on Downton Abbey is a little more critical as the last season had moments that were so boring, they were practically unwatchable. And though this opener isn’t as great as the first or second season, it’s still a good one – and it’s a sign of maybe good things to come for the final episodes. I hope that when we hear about all of these changes that are coming, we actually see the effect the changes have on the characters – I don’t like platitudes about growing and learning. I’d like to see the stakes of the Granthams become higher.
- I didn’t mention Lady Edith – she’s a la-di-da London publisher now, rubbing elbows with Virginia Woolf. I like Edith and hope that the writers don’t bang the pooch with her story line by making her pathetic.
- Barrow essentially had a cameo in this episode. Like some other characters on this show (Anna, Bates, Cora), I think he’s outlived his usefulness, and should be jettisoned.
- By the way, speaking of Cora, ugh, what the hell has Julian Fellowes done to Elizabeth McGovern? Her character was once funny, spiky, alluring – now she’s a simpering dud, who just floats around in the peripheral, whispering her lines in her hushed voice, and looking downcast all the time.
- Maggie Smith had some great one liners, the best one being ““If you were talking in Urdu, I couldn’t understand you less.”