There’s a whole lot of loose ends to tie up in an extra-long series finale, so let’s get to it…
Cora keeps ducking out of family obligations for meetings at the hospital, and Robert doesn’t bally well like it. But when Lady Rose (visiting from New York and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies") takes him to secretly watch her running one of those meetings, Robert swells with pride at her accomplishment. It’s odd to use Rose for this, as she’s one of the few who have not been subjected to this never-ending hospital plotline. Later on, Violet tells Cora that she has fully accepted that fact that it’s now Cora’s hospital and Cora’s village to take of. It’s one of many torches passed.
They spend an awful lot of time on the resolution of the relationship between Isobel and Lord Merton, which I’m not sure too many people were clamoring for. Merton is seriously ill, and his awful son and daughter-in-law are keeping him virtually prisoner in their home, waiting for him to die. Isobel realizes that she was a fool for turning down his marriage proposal, and with Violet backing her up, she barges in and frees him from his captivity. Merton gets one of the best lines in the episode, telling his son that he loves him, but he doesn’t like him. Merton and Isobel are married, and he moves in with her for whatever time he has left. Then Dr. Clarkson brings the news that Merton was misdiagnosed, his illness is treatable and he will live many more years. I get that a series finale can mean happy endings for everyone, but I can’t help feel that the episode would have been better off using some of the time spent on this story in other places that got short shrift. Is Lord Merton really the person we want to spend so much of this last episode with?
Age eventually catches up to everyone, and now it’s Carson’s turn. He develops a tremor in his hands which renders him unable to pour wine without spilling it everywhere. Carson tries to hide it for as long as he can, but it quickly becomes clear that it’s a major problem. He confesses that it’s a hereditary condition that ended the careers of both his father and grandfather, and that there’s no cure. The only thing to do is offer his resignation and offer to train the next butler. Robert and Mary are horrified at the idea of life without Carson – Mary is particularly upset – and they float the idea of having Carson stay on to "supervise" the new butler. But Carson doesn’t believe anybody would take the job under those conditions. I bet we can all think of someone who would.
The episode spans several months, over which Anna’s pregnancy safely develops. Finally her water breaks – while she’s in Lady Mary’s room. Mary hustles her into her own bed, where she delivers a healthy baby boy while Bates beams. Of all the characters that this show has done a disservice too, I think Bates has suffered the most. When "Downton" began, Bates was a breakout star, one of the characters that everyone gravitated towards. But they’ve had no idea what to with him for years, so now he just sits around and dispenses platitudes. A waste.
Spinsters Have More Fun
Edith goes down to London and is invited to dinner by Aunt Rosamund. And who should be waiting for them but Bertie! He still loves her, and he still wants to marry her. But the most shocking thing is that the dinner was arranged by Mary, trying to make amends for spilling the beans about Marigold. (We’ve gotten so used to Mary using Edith as a punching bag that it’s easy to forget that back in Season 1, it was Edith who tried to destroy Mary by sending a letter to the Turkish ambassador about what really happened to Poor Mister Pamuk.)
Edith accepts Bertie’s proposal, but the Marigold question still remains. Bertie doesn’t want to tell his mother the truth because it will turn her against Edith, but he’s willing to deal with the consequences if the news does get out. That plan is easier said that done, especially when Mrs. Pelham goes on about how Bertie must restore "morality" to the area – a none-too-subtle reference to their late cousin’s homosexuality – and how they can’t afford any hint of scandal. The deck is stacked pretty heavily against telling her the truth, but Edith cannot live with deception any longer. She takes it upon herself to tell Mrs. Pelham everything about Marigold. Bertie’s mother is appalled and insists that the engagement be called off, but Bertie refuses to listen. This sets up a potentially ugly public showdown between mother and son in front of the assembled guests at the engagement dinner. But at the last minute, Mrs. Pelham relents – after a timely interjection from Robert. Though she’s clearly not happy about the situation, she decides that Edith’s honesty should be rewarded. Or that she has more to lose by opposing her son that by supporting him.
Either way, the engagement goes forward, and we jump ahead three months to the wedding. Everybody is shocked that Edith actually ends up with a happy ending. Of course, Marigold’s parentage is still a secret, albeit one with an ever-widening number of people who know the truth But will anyone ever tell Marigold who her real parents are? I guess we’ll have to wait for "Downton Abbey: The Next Generation" to find out.
Lady Mary’s Husband: Somebody Might Have An Opinion
One last episode means one more chance for a patented "Downton" storyline where a character talks repeatedly about having to make a decision without doing anything towards resolving it. This time, it’s Henry who gets the dubious honors – he’s lost the taste for racing, but has to find something else to do with his life lest Mary find him an embarrassment.
So after multiple scenes of wondering aloud what to do, Henry and Tom hatch a plan to go into business selling used cars. For a moment, it looks like Mary is going to be furious and Henry panics. But she’s thrilled at the prospect, and also shares the news that she’s pregnant. Henry is overjoyed – but Mary tells him they have to keep it a secret for now because she doesn’t want to upstage Edith. Who is this person and what have they done with Mary Crawley?
To Molesley With Love
Mr. Dawes informs Molesley that one of the teachers is retiring, and that the job is his if he wants it. It even comes with a cottage, which would allow Molesley to leave service once and for all. It’s a big decision, and he takes his time making it. Baxter, of course, is enthusiastically in favor of the idea. Carson, reeling from his impending retirement, is panicked at the thought of losing both Molesley and Barrow. Molesley finally decides to take the job, while offering to come back and help serve during holidays and big events. Looks like everything’s coming up Molesley. Kudos to Kevin Doyle for taking a character that began mostly as a joke and endowing him with depth and conviction.
The Depressed Under-Butler Market
Barrow has recovered from his suicide attempt, and the way the house rallied around him has helped him find a measure of peace. He finally finds a new position, as the butler in a small house nearby, and he resolves to start the new job with a new attitude. He’s practically tearful when he says his goodbyes, getting handshakes from Robert and Bates, well-wishes from Anna and Baxter, and "thank you"s from many others. When young George asks Barrow not to leave, he almost breaks down. But off he goes to a brighter future… Except not so much – the new job turns out to be for a very old couple, with not much of a staff. Barrow is practically alone, and plainly misses the bustle and camaraderie of Downton.
Barrow is invited to Edith and Bertie’s wedding, and steps in to help serve when Carson’s tremors become too much for him to bear. Robert comes up with a brilliant idea which we’ve seen coming since Carson’s first wobble – Barrow will return to Downton to take Carson’s position as butler and Carson will stay on in an advisory role. Even though it’s the obvious solution, it’s a satisfying payoff to six years of Barrow trying to find his place in the world, especially when curmudgeonly Carson gives his blessing.
One more episode means one more chance to put Daisy through the wringer. The arrival of a hair dryer inspires her to change her hairstyle for the wedding. But of course, she doesn’t know how to use it properly and mangles her hair. Fortunately, Anna knows how to fix it, but only after Daisy embarrass herself in front of the staff.
Andy continues to moon about over Daisy but she keeps pushing him away, until Mrs. Patmore accuses her of only liking people when they don’t like her. So when Andy gets the hint and stops paying attention to Daisy, she suddenly decides that maybe she does fancy him after all. Daisy decides she is finally going to accept Mason’s offer to move to the farm. When she tells Andy, she says that she’s "decided a lot of things." Yup, Daisy and Andy are totally going to happen.
The Denker And Spratt Show
Denker tells Violet the truth about Spratt’s side job as an advice columnist, trying to get him fired. But Violet dissolves into laughter, and later tells Spratt that she will consult him in all matters about fashion from now on. Spratt tells Denker she forgot the most important thing about the Dowager Countess — she never likes to be predictable.
Several characters from earlier in the show make return appearances or are mentioned. But even with a two-hour episode, there are many characters that don’t get full resolutions, just nods toward their futures.
Tom is oddly peripheral to this episode. He goes in with Henry on the car dealership, but doesn’t have much else to do. At the wedding, he chats with Miss Edmunds, the editor of Edith’s newspaper and they clearly hit it off. Later, she catches Edith’s bouquet and gives Tom a meaningful look – clear television code that they will end up together.
Another relationship that has been hinted at for a long time yet which we won’t see happen is Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason. They’ve been sending notes to each other for a while, and it’s clear there’s affection. With Daisy moving to the farm, the next obvious step is for Mrs. P to join them, and continue her role as Daisy’s surrogate mother. I’d have rather seen this resolved on screen than the Isobel/Merton relationship.
Another relationship that has been endlessly teased but never actualized is Molesley and Baxter. They are obviously sweet on each other, but I guess servant characters are rarely allowed to have actual desires in the way the upstairs characters do. Baxter does finally make a decision in her perpetual waffle about visiting Mr. Coyle in prison, and she chooses not to. Good call, but the moment would have been more effective three episodes ago.
The occasion of Edith and Bertie’s wedding is a chance to bring back a few characters we haven’t seen in a while, and mention others who don’t appear. Cousin Rose and her husband Atticus come all the way from New York. Rose’s father Shrimpie makes an appearance. I love a good Shrimpie sighting, and only wish they’d somehow found a way to get Matt Berry on the show to repeatedly shout his name. And while they didn’t manage to get Shirley Maclaine back, they did read a telegram from her Mrs. Levinson.
And that’s our show. As the house rings in the New Year, Robert and Carson share a quiet moment and a handshake. As the respective patriarchs of upstairs and downstairs, they both recognize the long road they’ve traveled since the beginning of the series. It’s a nice moment, well-earned.
In my reviews of this season, I’ve been hard on this show. While I loved the first few years of it, I’ve found the past several seasons to be supremely frustrating. It’s a beautifully done program, impeccably shot, gorgeously designed and brilliantly acted. And that’s been what’s kept me hanging on. But at the end of the day, the writing has been continually disappointing. The Julian Fellowes method of constructing a scene is frustratingly expositional, repetitive and prone to deus-ex-machinas that remove agency from his characters. The British model of television production where one writer is responsible for everything can sometimes result in vertiginously great storytelling, but can also get bogged down in narrative quicksand (I’m looking at you, Steven Moffat). I wish that three seasons ago they would have hired a writing staff to help; I think it would have made this a much better show.
That being said, the accomplishment of "Downton Abbey" as a whole should not be diminished, even if its last few seasons were not what I’d hoped for. And no matter how frustrating it could get, it was still miles better than the attempted reboot of "Upstairs, Downstairs."
Great acting can cover up a lot of problems with bad writing. And this show has featured some wonderful performances. I’ve called out Michelle Dockery and Robert James-Collier many times for their great work, but it’s really an ensemble of fabulous actors in every role. And so many people have already left this show and gone on to do great stuff – see Rose Leslie on "Game of Thrones," Dan Stevens in The Guest (a performance so charismatic and unsettling that it thrusts him into the conversation about who should be the next James Bond) or Jessica Brown Findlay in "Black Mirror" – that I can’t wait to see what these performers will get to do next.