For six seasons, Downton Abbey has been the most unlikely worldwide phenomenon.
Downton Abbey was hardly the first classy British period drama to wash up on other shores. It won’t be the last by a long shot. It was often absorbing and at times distinctly frustrating. It was brilliantly cast. At its best, the show’s writing could be lyrical.
The glimpse into the lives of an early 20th century aristocratic family and the many servants who kept their world running provided fans with a window into a bygone culture far removed from most of our lives. The sheer machinery necessary to keep that world running was fascinating. Seeing the characters grow, while attitudes and styles evolved over the dozen or so years of the show’s timeline, provided a nicely illustrated history lesson.
One leaves Downton Abbey thinking of its characters.
Dowager Countess Violet, brought to life by the brilliant Maggie Smith, may be the show’s most enduring legacy in the years to come. She was a non-stop font of memorable quips, often shocking other characters with her candid, unvarnished insights. Yet there was a lot of depth to what could otherwise have been a stock “wisecracking granny” role. Smith and the writers made sure the Dowager was more than that.
Central heroine Mary Crawley was an iconic ice princess. That fans flocked to such a willful, self-absorbed, sometimes casually cruel creature is amazing. The strong performance of Michelle Dockery had a lot to do with that. Even falling in love only softened the character’s edges just so much. That the writers declined to warm her up too much was admirable, even kind of bold. Also fascinating was that Mary’s closest, most genuine bonds were with the two servants with whom she shared a mutual devotion. Butler Carson was often a stronger paternal figure in Mary’s life than her actual father. In many ways, lady’s maid Anna was closer to Mary than her actual sisters, possibly the most crucial relationship in Mary’s world.
That was the kind of thing that Downton Abbey excelled at. Showing the odd bonds inspired by that peculiar social system. The series covered enough time to show the peak and decline of that way of life. The effect of World War I and the age of modernity that followed it took a slow, inexorable effect. By the end, even the most stubborn of adherents to “the old ways” was resigned to the necessity of change.
With Downton Abbey at an end, certain thoughts creep in.
Bates and Anna were often presented almost as living saints. And yet both halves of the couple were arrested (wrongfully) for murder.
The real saint of Downton Abbey may have been cook Mrs. Patmore, who spent years in the kitchen with the almost defiantly moronic Daisy and somehow refrained from deploying any of the numerous knives or blunt objects at hand on her frustrating assistant.
Miss Bunting? We do not speak of Miss Bunting.
Downton Abbey was always a quality production. But somehow the story never quite recovered from the loss, one after another, of fan favorite characters Sybil, Matthew and O’Brien, when their portrayers all chose to jump ship after the third season.
At times, viewers had to wonder if creator/writer Julian Fellowes just enjoyed torturing middle Crawley daughter, Edith. The “hey, it looks like Edith’s going to be happy… ha ha, just kidding” construct played out time and time again.
That Lord and Lady Grantham’s warm, romantic attachment to one another was regarded as something of an oddity among their class was one of Downton Abbey’s more interesting plot points. Contrasted rather nicely by the marriage of Robert’s terrible cousin, Susan, and her long-suffering husband, “Shrimpie” (because of course).
If you were able to watch Downton Abbey and not have the urge to walk the grounds with one of the family’s adorable dogs, you might want to reconsider your priorities.
Okay, let the withdrawal start.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 7, 2016.