Originally published on rickey.org
After six years, Downton Abbey has come to an end with a Christmas Special that fluctuated between genuinely touching moments and the usual moderately-paced drama that has come to characterize this series. At times, you’d never know this was the final episode of the show, from how leisurely the pace felt. And yet, that feeling of business continuing as usual, that this isn’t an episode any different from any other, is part of what made this so poignant. In some ways, we’re leaving this show the way we left it, with old friendships and relationships coming to the fore. In other ways, we’re leaving this show better than we found it, with old grudges buried, new relationships formed, and happy endings achieved against the odds. This wasn’t exactly what you’d call an “epic” finale, especially in comparison to previous holiday specials, but I thought this was a beautiful two hours of television, just the same.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this finale was that there really weren’t any major surprises. No time skip at the end to show us what happens to the characters in the subsequent years, no deaths, no 11th hour complications, no heartbreak or tragedy. Just people piecing their lives together.
For example, two of the major storylines of the episode center on health scares. Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) discovers he has pernicious anemia, and the realization of his imminent death has Isobel (Penelope Wilton) reconsidering their relationship. Eventually, Merton discovers the courage to tell his awful son and his equally terrible wife to shove it, while Isobel discovers the courage to ask Merton to marry her. And together, they discover that Merton doesn’t really have pernicious anemia, he simply has an iron deficiency. It’s exactly the type of happy reversal of fortune this show does so well, rewarding its characters for embracing the future — despite the darkness ahead — by removing that darkness from the equation.
Granted, the situation isn’t nearly as happy for Carson (Jim Carter), who finds himself inflicted with the same palsy that ended the careers of his father and grandfather. Of course, while there’s no sudden, miraculous cure for him, there’s poignancy to the storyline, as it brings his relationship with Thomas (Rob James-Collier) full circle: in accepting that he must step down from his role as head butler at Downton, it’s decided that Thomas will take up the role. This, after a season of Carson trying to force Thomas out, and Thomas coming to the sorrowful conclusion that he isn’t needed. Granted, this twist would have been a thousand times more poignant if it had been Carson deciding that Thomas should succeed him rather than Robert (Hugh Bonneville) coming to that conclusion and then forcing it on the old man. But Julian Fellowes finds a way around this by having both Thomas and Carson address the situation, with both men saying they don’t want to force the other into doing something they don’t want to do. In making peace with one another, Carson essentially passes the torch to Thomas, as each man expresses respect for the other. It’s one of the most poignant moments of the series, and it’s all the more stirring for how affecting the goodbye scene is earlier in the episode. Thomas gets a new job at a nearby house, and his farewell to George and the rest of the residents of Downton is one of those heartrending moments that I would have thought impossible in the early seasons, when Thomas was presented as a straight-up villain. And yet, Thomas promising George that he’ll always have a friend in “Mr. Barrow” was one of those touching scenes that illustrated just how far Thomas has come as a character. By the same token, his goodbye to Robert, in which he expresses how the opportunity to work at Downton Abbey has shaped him as a man, was a surprisingly emotional punch to the gut. I was prepared for Thomas’s story to essentially end right there, in fact. But to bring it back around and have him accept Carson’s old position, even while it might feel a tad convenient, just feels right, in my opinion.
And it’s hardly the only element of this finale that just feels right. Edith (Laura Carmichael) finally gets her happy ending, as Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) realizes the error of his ways, and pleads with Edith to take him back, leading to one last, lavish Downton Abbey wedding. I don’t really consider myself a big crier, but it was hard not to get a little choked up when Edith comes down the stairs in her wedding gown, in an echo of her failed wedding to Sir Anthony Strallan, to find Robert waiting for her to express his pride in everything she’s accomplished in her life. It’s the sort of sweet moment that’s been long denied to Edith, since every twinge of happiness she receives is ultimately tainted by some sort of catch.
Here, it was Bertie’s uptight mother, who fears a scandal will break out once it’s discovered that her son is marrying a woman with a child out of wedlock. But Fellowes smartly realizes that this isn’t a storyline that will carry much in the way of dramatic weight, so it he doesn’t particularly drag it out. By the time the wedding day has come, Bertie’s mother has made peace with the marriage, and even tells Edith that she’ll simply be happy if Edith loves her son faithfully. It’s in keeping with the finale’s overall theme of making peace, as we see Edith do just that with Mary (Michelle Dockery), who admits that while they might never be friends, they’ll always be sisters. And frankly, that’s good enough, considering how troubled their relationship has been over the course of this series.
For her part, Mary is finding a happy ending of her own with Talbot (Matthew Goode), who goes into business with Branson (Allen Leech). They start their own car dealership, as a compromise that allows Talbot to keep cars in his life, without having to actually race them. Mary, naturally, is proud of Talbot, and she’s got happy news of her own, a new pregnancy (in a lovely touch, Mary keeps the news from everyone but Henry, since she doesn’t want to upstage Edith on her big day. It’s another one of those moments that illustrates just how a character has changed, as Mary shows Edith the kind of consideration and respect that would have seemed unthinkable in the old days).
A similar moment of growth comes when both Robert and Violet (Maggie Smith) come to the realization that they’ve been unfair to Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) over this whole hospital business. Rose (Lily James) takes Robert to a board meeting to show him just what Cora does, and how vital her work truly is. But more than that, she shows him just how good Cora is at managing the hospital, which helps him discover a newfound respect and admiration for what she does. By the same token, Violet realizes that this is now Cora’s village, and Cora’s hospital. She’s essentially passing the torch to Cora, who might one day be the same acerbic, witty, universally respected pillar of the community that the Dowager Countess has been all these years.
Of course, no Downton Abbey finale would be complete without checking in on Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle), or all the other downstairs regulars who’ve helped provide such striking contrast to the soap operatic drama of their upstairs counterparts. It’s with a certain relief that Anna gives birth to a son without incident. In fact, it almost goes entirely in the other direction to where there’s no drama in it at all. Her water breaks, we return to Edith and Bertie’s wedding reception downstairs for a scene or two, and then we return upstairs and…well, Bates and Anna are parents! And you know what? I don’t mind that one bit. If any characters deserve a no-frills, zero-complications happy ending, it’s Anna and Bates. Considering how things have gone for them in the past, I kept expecting there to be some sort of cruel twist, such as Anna losing the baby, or the baby surviving only for Anna to die. But nope. Things went off without a hitch, and I honestly couldn’t be happier about it.
Similarly, I was kind of surprised by how happy I was when Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) announced that she would not visit Coyle in prison, because she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Her declaration that he no longer has power over her has been a long time in coming, and while the friendship between she and Molesley (Kevin Doyle) never flowers into a romance, I’d still count this as a happy ending. Besides, we get enough romance from Daisy (Sophie McShera) finally getting together with Andy (Michael Fox), and Mr. Mason (Paul Copley) finally making his move on Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). It’s as if every single thing that could have possibly gone well did. Again, not a whole lot of drama in things going so well with so little incident. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t satisfying as hell.
For Downton Abbey, it’s business as usual at the end, but with a sense of happy finality that was somewhat unexpected, honestly. I don’t know why I should have expected anything else, but to find so little heartache or tragedy here was a welcome surprise. These are characters who’ve been through a lot, and it’s beautiful to see so many of them receive the endings they deserve. Ultimately, it’s fitting that a series characterized by soap opera twists, deaths, tragedy and heartache should go so steeply in the other direction for its final episode. This was a lovely finale, and a wonderful way to close the series.