What a warm, sentimental, and satisfying farewell to “Downton Abbey.” The final episode of the series was like the end of a Dickens or Austen novel, in that all the good guys finally earned the happy endings they’d been working toward — most especially Edith, who will not die as a spinster in a lonely London flat as she feared. She will no longer be Poor Edith. She will be the Marchioness of Hexham and of All Great Happiness Ever After.
The Internet’s #TeamEdith was triumphant; the tissue companies who preferred her constantly sobbing were less so.
This ending was neat and orderly, as show creator Julian Fellowes tied everything up in a pretty bow. Mary found out she was pregnant AND she kept it quiet to let Edith have her moment. Isobel and Dickie reconnected AND his anemia was not pernicious (unlike his daughter-in-law). Mr. Barrow, the show’s recovering Cruella de Vil, got to return to his Downton family AND become the new butler. Henry gave up racing AND started a car business with Tom Branson. Mrs. Patmore — life coach and mistress of raspberry puddings — helped Daisy and Andy find each other AND had promising eye contact with Mr. Mason. The Bateses had a healthy baby boy AND they didn’t name him Norman. Mr. Molesley became a full-time teacher! Spratt the advice columnist got a full page!
Rather than turn the show into a more modern comment on the human condition, Fellowes took an old-fashioned approach. After years of withholding, fate was finally resolutely generous to the Crawleys and their servants. In a sadder version of the “Downton” finale, one more akin to Thomas Hardy than Austen, Edith would have continued to feel disgrace and alienation, living out her life as a symbol of how unkind history could be to women. The servants would have lost their jobs, with Daisy forced to sell flowers and apples — or worse — on the streets. Robert would have demanded that Cora stop working at the hospital, and she would have obeyed.
But Fellowes went for optimism, focusing on the positive developments of the era. He gave us all sweet dreams, and I can’t deny that I enjoyed every minute of it. At this point, six seasons in, I’m pretty bonded with these people. In the UK, the last episode of “Downton Abbey” was a Christmas special, and it truly was a happy gift.
As I ponder the end of “Downton,” I do feel an odd but undeniable need to make one last defense of the show. Yes, it became a soap opera in its repetitions; yes, it succumbed to the TV call for more, more, more. It should have ended at season three. No one has made more fun of Mr. Carson’s eyebrows, or Cora’s accent, or the Bateses’ legal bummers than I have.
That said, it has nonetheless been an insightful take on social change and an escape from TV’s many, many real-crime and fictional crime dramas. I have loved watching it for the costumes and the setting and the dish, but I’ve more deeply enjoyed considering the manners and mores of an earlier age. Reading classic novels brings a similar thrill, of tasting the small moments of a very different time, of overhearing the conversations and intuiting their more complicated subtexts.
Fellowes showed us — usually without turning the characters into mere vessels for ideas — how political and economic shifts can reach into people’s lives. He showed us how, across decades, the servant class started gaining power and the wealthy became less sacred, and how that altered personal and professional relationships. He showed us women of all classes financially dependent and being judged by unfair standards, and how that drove their choices. He showed us the limited options for gay people and how, at least in the case of Barrow, that can twist a person up inside. Even with its nostalgia for the styles of the early 1900s, “Downton” was always written with a contemporary consciousness of the profound inequalities of its time.
Sure, the characters made some progressive baby steps — we celebrated when Edith and Mary found professional empowerment, when premarital sex became slightly less stigmatized, when Gwen got a secretarial job, and when even Violet admitted that love mattered more than money. But they lived in a rarefied, unrealistic, unsustainable world. That obscene home had to become a museum. Democracy, or something close to it, was winning out. Downton Abbey, as well as “Downton Abbey,” had to end.