Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
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Novels

'Downton Abbey' Finale: A Grand British Story With an American Finish
New York Times, March 6, 2016

We felt it from the opening credits, didn't we, Abbots?

We heard the familiar chords. We watched Lord Grantham and his yellow lab (Isis? Tiaa?) take their last stroll together across the green. We registered the final iterations of the ringing bell, the simmering pot, the lamp, the chandelier. One last time, we thought. And no more.

And the whole while Baron Fellowes seemed to be thinking: Right. Let's clean this up, shall we?

Indeed, from a certain angle, the final episode of "Downton Abbey" was just about getting people out of the fine messes their creator had gotten them into, and hustling them with all due celerity toward the finish line.

In some cases, it required only a little nudge. Take that eminently decent Bertie fellow, who's still crazy for Edith but doesn't know what to do about it. Thanks to a timely (and surprising) (and not surprising) intervention by Mary, he's all "I want you back" and "Would you believe me if I said I couldn't live without you?" and "The only thing I'm not ready for is a life without you."

There's only one problem, and her name is Mum, or Mrs. Pelham, a puritanical figure who wants to rebuild Brancaster Castle as "a moral center for the area" and wants her son to be "a moral man leading by example." Ruh-roh. What's she going to say when she learns that her son is marrying Hester Prynne?

I'm guessing that, if Baron Fellowes had his druthers, he would have drawn out this plot line till the days go by, wrapping it up only when Edith was well past her reproductive window. But time was a-wasting, so Mummy Pelham, after blanching a little at Edith's "sordid revelations," quickly rallied.

"Should I turn down a daughter-in-law who, in addition to having birth and brains, is entirely and unimpeachably honest?" she asked. "She was prepared to deny herself a great position, to say nothing of happiness, rather than claim it by deceit. We must applaud her."

And so the second Crawley daughter finally gets the wedding of her dreams—and, as an added bonus, a higher rank than her sister. The only question that need trouble her now: How does one avoid going slowly and irrevocably insane in a drafty castle the size of an Italian hill town? Daphne du Maurier could conjure great things out of Brancaster.

Right, says Baron Fellowes. We can strike Edith off the list. Now what to do with Henry?

He's as handsome and velvet-voiced as ever but getting a little bored living off his wife's money. Seems the fiery automotive death of his pal Charlie has "taken all the fun out of driving," as well it might. But he still wants to keep his hand in the biz, so he hits on the idea of selling previously used vehicles with his new brother-in-law. Mary, after some demurral, declares she's "as proud as anyone living," which I interpreted as "I could use a little me time." ("For better or for worse," my grandmother used to say, "but not for lunch.")

Mary then proceeds to one-up Henry by announcing that another crawling Crawley—oh, very well, Talbot—is on its way. We will take it as a sign of her newfound emotional maturity that she asks Henry to sit on the news—"I don't want to steal Edith's thunder"—but she must have forgotten to share that intention with Anna, whose water inconveniently breaks before the newlyweds have even made it out the door.

Never mind, Dr. Clarkson is on the spot, and Lady Mary's bedchamber will make a fine delivery room—won't it, Carson?—and, in something like record time, out pops Baby Boy Bates, whose life, we can only hope, will be easier than his parents'. At the very least, he should steer clear of the slammer and anyone named Green. There's nothing we can do about World War II.

(Anna, by the way, may be the only mother ever to emerge from an unexpected and epidural-free labor looking like a Pre-Raphaelite nymph. Makes you wonder what Clarkson was slipping her during the contractions.)

Right, says Baron Fellowes. We've steered the Bateses to safety. Now what are we to do with Isobel?

Make her an avenging angel, that's what. When she learns that her onetime fiancé, Lord Merton, is dying of pernicious anemia and kept prisoner in his own home, she barges in with Violet and practically airlifts the poor fellow out. She offers to marry him for good measure, which means that Lord M, in addition to shacking up with his honey, gets to (1) tell his son what a loser he is ("I've tried and failed to like you"); (2) bear up manfully under a terminal diagnosis ("I'm not too downcast. I've had a good innings"); and then (3) rejoice when the diagnosis is amended (by none other than his romantic rival, Dr. Clarkson). I call that Dickiepalooza.

And it's fully in keeping with tonight's modus operandi, which is to banish all hint of tragedy or discord. Violet buries the hatchet with her daughter-in-law. Robert accepts the fact that he's married to a high-powered health care chief executive. Molesley leaves service behind to mold-sley the next generation of Yorkshire minds. Mrs. Patmore is ready, it seems, to cast off a lifetime of maidenhood for the pig farmer of her heart.

And Andy ... well, he gets the dubious pleasure of Daisy.

Let's credit Baron Fellowes for at least trying to make the wretched girl endearing by putting her through that whole business of massacring her hair. And let's credit Daisy herself with recognizing that Andy looks plenty all right on a ladder in his undershirt. She "could do worse," indeed, and after enough back-and-forthing and cold-shouldering to set the corridors of a high school ablaze, the two appear to be on track to cofounding a Mason pork-products empire. (Which will, of course, be supplying the Mrs. Patmore bed-and-breakfast empire.)

Right, says Baron Fellowes. Now what of Carson?

As you know, Abbots, this needs the heaviest lift because, in a very short space, Downton's second paterfamilias has become Downton's Mussolini. (You mistreat Mrs. Hughes at your own peril.) So what's the Fellowes strategy? Break the man down at a cellular level.

Thus, out of nowhere, Charlie Carson, like his father and grandfather before him, develops a palsy, as ruinous for a butler as for a neurosurgeon. Having spilled a little too much water and a little too much wine, Carson is ready to ship himself off to the glue factory when an unexpected solution presents itself: Mr. Barrow! He's hating life at the Stiles Mausoleum ("This is not 1850, you know") and jumps at the chance to put on the old livery.

So before the new year has even arrived, Carson is relegated to the role of "elder statesman," "seeing eye," manager of "grand events and so on." Everybody thinks it's a capital idea except Carson, whose welling eyes suggest that the glue factory might have been a more humane outcome.

There, says Baron Fellowes, audibly dusting his hands. That's that.

And so end all the wild guesses, conspiracy theories and fan-fiction scenarios that have been circumnavigating the Internet all these months. Mary and Tom will not wed. Michael Gregson will not come staggering back from whatever German hellhole he's supposedly been moldering in to reclaim the mother of his child. (Although Baron Fellowes did lean rather hard on that "If any man can show just cause" moment. Surely he was giving us a tweak?)

Baxter will not hook up again with her old seducer, Peter Coyle, belatedly and blessedly severing one of the show's least rewarding narrative threads. And Barrow will be no closer to getting lucky than he was four seasons ago.

In fact, poor Thomas is pretty much the only character who doesn't find or keep his heart's desire, so rampant is the general happiness. And yes, if this were a grittier program (closer in spirit, say, to the Fellowes-scripted "Gosford Park"), Edith would have remained single, Dickie Grey would have gone to his maker, Henry would have run screaming back to London, and Spratt, in the act of impersonating a woman, would have come to some new understanding of himself. But that's not the show we signed up for.

A fact that Baron Fellowes seems to acknowledge when, in the minutes leading up to Edith's wedding, Violet proffers her definition of an English happy ending: "There's a lot of risk, but with any luck they'll be happy enough."

I think it's fair to say that Julian Fellowes has given us an American happy ending. And why shouldn't he? Haven't we loved these foolish Granthams with all the fervor of their countrymen? Don't we have the operational tear ducts to prove it? And when that Scottish songstress Mrs. H launched into Bobby Burns's old lyric "Auld Lang Syne," didn't we ache at the thought of leaving behind these silly, maddening, wonderful people?

Downton Abbey and its residents were no more real than Middle-earth and, in the end, how little that mattered. We asked them into our homes, and when their time was done, we sent them on their way.

Best scene: The granny-commando raid on Lord Merton's house, which climaxes in this delicious exchange.

Amelia: "Mrs. Crawley wants to take you away from your son and your family and kidnap you into marriage. What do you say?"

Lord M: "How perfectly marvelous."

Best line: Violet was in her usual good form: "Never let tenderness be a bar to a bit of snooping"; "If reason fails, try force"; "I never answer any question more incriminating than whether or not I need a rug." But I must particularly salute her arresting comparison of Denker to Salome, "dancing rings around Spratt's Herod." (And didn't Sue Johnston kind of live up to that billing?)

This week's drinking game: A gulp of White Lady for every time the eyes of Amelia Grey (née Cruikshank) gleam with homicidal intent.

I Google so you don't have to: Bulldog Drummond was a popular detective hero from a series of novels by Sapper. (I can still hear Ronald Colman's cadences from the movie: "I'm too rich to work, too intelligent to play—much.") Clara Bow was, of course, the sexy American "It Girl" whom Daisy only wishes she resembled.

Department of other stuff....

  • Shrimpie's back! That means nothing, I just wanted to say "Shrimpie" one last time.
  • Tom and Miss Edmunds are indeed getting it on. Because who else is left for either of them?
  • Meanwhile, the reciprocal man-crush between Tom and Henry has reached quite bizarre heights ("It can be hard for a woman to understand that a man is what he does") and only gets more ridiculous when Atticus enters the mix and tells the boys they needn't reinvent themselves because "I rather like the old models." Get a room, you three.
  • Speaking of Atticus, he had far and away the most dreadful lines in tonight's episode. I hope Matt Barber got combat pay.
  • Shampoo comes from India. Who knew?
  • Patricia Hodge (Mrs. Pelham) does things with her mouth that haven't been done since the silent era. (Some Abbots may recall Ms. Hodge from the 1983 film adaptation of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal.")
  • Loved the bit where Andy asks if Daisy is "interested in men" and Mrs. P snaps, "What on earth are you implying?" (That's a story for Sarah Waters to tell.)
  • Also loved Lady Rose's encouraging words for the heavily pregnant Anna: "But it's such fun after." Spoken like a parent with a full-time nanny. A nanny who, uh, "won't let" Rose and Atticus cross the ocean with their child.
  • Didn't it seem like the servants were more interested in seeing off the newlyweds than checking on Anna? Whatever.

Here, I normally pose questions about the show's future, but with that avenue closed, I fall back on remembrance. We've all been together a long time, as Mrs. Patmore said—a couple of years, at any rate—and from my side, I can only say how much I've relished your company, your commentary and your camaraderie. The show may be finished, but the spirit of Abbotry follows me wherever I go.

Till the gong calls us back....



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Louis Bayard