2016 is a year in which, sadly, so many good things are coming to an end. America as a shining example of pluralism and democracy, for one. And the show Downton Abbey, for another.
I’m not sure which one I’ll mourn more: the end of America or the end of Downton Abbey. While viewers of the show can’t do much to stop our fellow knuckleheads from electing a nasty orange Oompa Loompa as our President, we can take time from the madness to stop and watch the finale of Downton Abbey, a lovefest that might prove to be an antidote to the hatefest that is going on in this election cycle.
And what a lovefest it was! Two weddings, no funerals, and enough foreshadowing of future match-ups to make the folks at The Bachelor look like the amateurs they are when it comes to trying to find two compatible people to bring together in wedded bliss.
Apparently the best way to find happiness at Downton is to find a mate. This fact alone makes the show more retro than anything the costume designers can dream up. Really, I can’t think of any parallel contemporary show that puts such a premium on love and marriage. The weddings came so fast and thick at the end that the producers didn’t even bother to show us Isobel and Lord Merton’s wedding. No time for it. Come to think of it, however, this might have been intentional. Isobel is the most progressive of all the upstairs folk. She might have decided that a marriage license is just a piece of paper, after all, and who needs a piece of paper to give one permission to take care of a man with pernicious anemia?
Pernicious anemia is a terrible, terrible disease. Just the worst. No one knows what it is, but we do know that eating a pile of spinach and sucking down an iron pill is not going to take care of it. Pernicious anemia will kill a man. What a relief it was then, to find out that Lord Merton didn’t have pernicious anemia after all! This news came after Isobel discovered she was in love with him and had already (we can only assume) married him. So she’s stuck with him now, and will have to make the best of being married to a relatively healthy man. Isobel tried to hide her crestfallen face when Dr. Sensible leaned forward from where he was sitting in the pew behind them at Edith’s wedding to let her know that Lord M would be alive for some time to come. Isobel is glad of it, on balance, but she had been looking forward to hours and hours of changing bed linens and dressing the weeping, open sores caused by pernicious anemia in its end stages. Oh well. The good news is that the village hospital is still open and there will always be a steady supply of sick people to look after, even if her own husband is not among them, disappointingly enough.
So Isobel received a happy-ish ending, and the viewers received the satisfaction of watching the despicable Lord Gary-Larry BabyMerton and his equally despicable wife, Lady Amelia CrookedShanks-Merton, get their comeuppance when Granny Grantham showed up in the foyer of their fancy house and told them what was what. She and Isobel practically hauled Lord Merton out of bed, spiriting him away in the horseless carriage waiting outside. Lord Merton, clad only in his bathrobe and pajamas, readily complied, in the manner of all men on Downton Abbey.
Granny Grantham received a happy ending as well in that she didn’t die in the finale (though really, all things considered, she may have preferred to go out feet first) and that she reconciled with Cora. She also was given the honor of uttering the final line of the entire series. This line, however, was a bit of a letdown, something or other about how great the past was and that she wished we could all get in a time machine and be whisked away to another era where women wore corsets and it took two hours to travel six miles. No, she didn’t say that, but it did seem like a bummer that Granny’s last line was a complaint about the future. At the end of Granny’s final pronouncement, Isobel tossed her head and rolled her eyes, giving her, in a way, the last word. Not cool, Julian Fellowes. No need to make Granny look irrelevant in her final moments on the show, especially since she is the only member of the family who makes sense much of the time.
Overall, it was a great finale, with all the plot points brought to a tidy conclusion and all the bad people either put in their place or utterly reformed. And best of all, Edith finally got her day. She was married to one Bertram Grothangham-Bonington-Foxtrot Pelham, Marchquesne (or something) of a Very Giant Castle. A place which, frankly, looked like a nightmare to take care of. So much stuff to dust. So many fires in so many rooms to light. So many people to pay to help keep the place from crumbling into a decrepit pile of rocks. Keeping the lawn trim where it abuts the castle walls without the aid of a gas-powered weed-eater would alone employ three people full-time.
But really, who cares about any of that? The point is, Edith got her Marchwequesne and Mary got her used car salesman and now Mary will have to allow Edith to enter every room ahead of her and sit at the head of every table and receive curtsies instead of her for the rest of their lives. Hahahahaha!
I realize that this is petty, that being so satisfied that Edith exceeded expectations and Mary fell so far short of them on the marrying front is not an admirable on my part. Besides, the real point of each of their marriages is that both women married for love. And no one cares about titles and status anyway in 1925. The aristocracy is so 19th-century and everyone is over it. Sort of.
The fact remains, however, that Lady Mary, she of the stone cold visage and snob factor so intense she could melt caked mud from a pig’s snout with the force of her gaze alone, has married way, way down. The husband of Lady Mary, mother of the heir to Downton Abbey, Grand Lady of Yorkshire and All Parts North, is now part of the merchant class, in business with a former chauffeur selling used cars right in the village, where everyone can see them. This may not mean much to a 21st century American viewer, as we’ve never had an aristocracy and don’t understand the obligations such a class system entails. It is roughly the equivalent of say, having a President in the White House whose third wife is a fashion model and a shill for a self-branded line of vodka, clothing, and tote bags. Oh wait.
Tom & the lady Editor, Daisy & Andrew, Patmore & Mason, Molesley & Baxter, Barrow & Downton
The rest of the Downtonians, high and low, were paired off like top-class breeders at a Fat Stock Show. We don’t get to see the happy ending for all the couples listed, but we know it is waiting in the wings. Cottages and teatime and babies and pigs and math exams and sewing machines and opening the front door of Downton await our characters and their mates, respectively.
The lady Editor caught Edith’s bouquet at her wedding, where she was strategically positioned in such a way that she would have to be ham-handed indeed to miss it. Tom, bloated as ever in his best brown worsted suit, beamed at the lady Editor, a twinkle in his Irish eyes. I’m aginna murry yew! his eyes said.
Daisy finally gave up on her love affair with Math and turned her attention to one of her fellow human beings, Andy aka Andrew, who unfortunately by this time had given up on her and turned his attention to farming. All Daisy needed to discover a love for Andy was to see how capable he was at repairing shingles in his shirt sleeves. All Andy needed to re-fall in love with Daisy was for her to acquire a new haircut. Daisy bungled the latter, of course, because she is an idiot, but Anna helped her out and in the end she looked like Louise Brooks, only dumber.
Missus Patmore came through like a champ, telling Daisy to get a grip, making food for various dinners and weddings, conspiring with Missus Hughes and catching Farmer Mason’s eye, who knows good stock when he sees it. I don’t know what she will do with her bed ‘n’ breakfast after she marries Farmer Mason, but the salient point is that she has career opportunities galore, which is saying something for a woman who has spent her entire life toiling in other people’s kitchens.
Baxter and Molesley smiled at one another in a more meaningful fashion than ever before, and we can only hope that Baxter will put down her sewing long enough to finally marry Molesley. Molesley has found his vocation, and will be leaving Downton to spend his days as a schoolteacher. His qualifications include an abiding love of education and a belief in its transformative powers as well as a harried, work-worn visage and the demeanor of kicked dog. It’s like he’s been teaching for 30 years already. One sad aspect of Molesley’s departure is that he will have to leave his Footman costume behind at Downton. Carson told him in no uncertain terms that he is not allowed to take the uniform with him.
Carson, very wisely, refuses to part with Molesley’s Second Footman outfit as the fabric is archival-quality. He plans to make a little shrine to Downton’s past in the third library, where the uniforms of the former First, Second and Third Footmen, the Second Valet, the Under Scullery Maid, the Clothes Courier, the Drawer of the Bath, the Third Bottle Washer, and Under Second Livery Boy will be displayed for future tour-takers of Downton Abbey. This display will serve as a homage to the past, which was so great.
Finally, Our Barrow leaves Downton, expressing contrition and shaking hands all-round, and heads over to an elderly couple’s estate, where he waits table all by himself in a dining room approximately the size of the Crawley kids’ day nursery. Barrow, to his credit, does not disparage the pathetic living conditions in which he finds himself, with only a cook to torment. Instead, Barrow learns from the mistakes he’s made his entire life, and gallantly soldiers on, the missing fingertip he shot off when he was a real soldier in an effort to escape the front during World War I not stopping him from attending to his duties. His attention to self-reform is rewarded when he shows up at Downton for Edith’s wedding reception and the family is all like “Hey Barrow! We’ve missed your handsome sneak-face! Come back because Carson is on his way out and we want to find someone who will be the Butler in his stead but still take orders from him!” Barrow nearly bursts into tears at the prospect. Even Carson is more or less happy with this plan, because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Barrow has realized a Very Important Lesson: absence makes the heart grow fonder, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, and if you love something let it go and if it comes back to you it is yours. Barrow + Downton 4ever.
Some dumb things: Rose. Even though she showed up to complete the important task of helping Lord G understand the importance of Lady G’s important hospital career (and all the related can’t-miss meetings) in a very touching scene, I will always dislike vapid-face Rose. And poor Atticus just showed up to grin at everyone and shrug his shoulders a few times. Another dumb thing: Anna having the littlest Bates in Mary’s bed. There are approximately 70 bedrooms in Downton. No need to ruin the most expensive sheets in the house. The baby was not in danger of dropping to the floor when Anna’s water broke; there was ample time to find another bed. I think Anna herself would have been miserable to be stuck in her employer’s bedroom during such a personal time, not to mention all the men standing around a few feet from Lady Mary’s unmentionables. I thought everyone back in the day knew how to deliver babies, since it was more or less a DIY kind of thing before babies were regularly born in hospitals, so surely someone would have known that Anna could have the baby in another location without endangering her life. In the time it took for Edith to cut the cake and throw the bouquet downstairs, Anna’s water broke, she had the baby, and some elves came to clean up the enormous mess such an occasion entails. But of course, we don’t watch Downton for realism, I guess.
One more dumb thing: it was strange that Bertie’s mom was set up as such a formidable moralist and yet turned on a dime. It seems impossible that this sort of woman, with her sense of the obligations of the aristocracy to set a moral example, would ever reconcile herself to Edith’s illegitimate child, and certainly impossible that she would do so publicly. For the sake of integrity, it was nice that Edith told her about Marigold, but it doesn’t change the fact that Marigold could never, ever have been recognized as Edith’s daughter and Bertie’s stepchild. The social barriers would have been too great. But again, I don’t know why I’m hoping for realism in this soap opera.
But watching Downton is not anything if it’s not about hoping that the show will deliver top-notch stuff, week after week, year after year. Our good faith wasn’t always rewarded, but it didn’t stop us from hoping for beautiful costumes, excellent characters, meaningful dialogue, and an immersion into another time, when giant houses and a strict code of conduct were the order of the day — with a class system in place to maintain both elements. Contemporary American viewers (most of us working class ourselves) don’t wish for a return to the era of Downton Abbey, even while being intrigued by its story. So much has changed since the early 20th century, and so much has changed for the better. But still. We join the Dowager Countess in certain aspects of her wistfulness. We don’t mourn the -isms associated with misery for so many: classism, racism, paternalism, etc., but mourn it for other reasons. We mourn the loss of a sense of duty, of certain virtues, of the kind of beauty that order can provide — all of it so different from aspects of 21st century life that feel chaotic, in disarray, with a populace ready to elect one scoundrel or another as the leader of the free world. Maybe we aren’t much better than the inhabitants of the early 20th century, after all, in spite of our contemporary assessment of all the ways in which the humans who have lived before us failed.
If he could, I bet Carson would thoroughly agree with this assessment. Ah Carson. We will miss you, most of all.
Next Time on Downton:
A lifetime of happiness for everybody, with enough money and little pastries and beautiful clothes for everyone in all of Yorkshire. Nobody is ever murdered, or accused of murder. Sargent Willis has nothing to do but go fishing all day. No necklaces are ever stolen, the footmen are all virtuous, and all the pigs win all the ribbons.
Thank you Downton Abbey, for all that you offered viewers through the years. A heavy dose of escapism, beauty, imperfect historicism and utter, absolute foolishness. It has been a delight.