‘Downton Abbey’ Finale Review: Warning, Icebergs Ahead

Downton Abbey Season 4

Fourth season finally fell short of PBS hit's previous highs

Well, at least nobody drove a car off the road. No, the fourth season of “Downton Abbey” pretty much stayed in its lane – and also proved less satisfying, ultimately, than any of its predecessors, getting mildly dinged up, after a promising start, on two parallel tracks.

That’s not to say PBS’ breakthrough hit still isn’t enormous fun – or that viewers won’t be lined up waiting for season five, which is already loading up on prestigious new players – but rather that some of the events of season four, and this season’s major one, didn’t fully pan out.

While there’s good reason to give series creator Julian Fellowes considerable leeway (and SPOILER ALERT if you’re two seasons behind) over the death of Matthew Crawley – Dan Stevens wanted out of the show, and with such an enormous cast, the writer graciously obliged him – watching his widow Mary (Michelle Dockery) sift through assorted new suitors wasn’t nearly as much fun as it promised to be. Indeed, for some reason all the wooing pushed “Downton” closer to Jane Austen territory, with a lot of prolonged foreplay and flowery banter.

As for the downstairs contingent, the rape of Anna (Joanne Froggatt) by a visiting servant dominated most of the season, producing two threads: First, her painful efforts to conceal what happened from her husband, Bates (Brendan Coyle), straining their storybook romance; and subsequent concerns Bates might have sought vengeance, raising questions about whether those around them feel compelled to express their suspicions – at the risk of sending him back to prison. (Bates, incidentally, turned out to be a Batman-like figure, adept at all sorts of nefarious activities, including forgery. Who knew?)

Having made a public-relations splash with the casting of Shirley MacLaine as the mother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Downton’s American heiress, the show also stumbled a bit by going back to that well and introducing Cora’s playboy brother, portrayed by Paul Giamatti. While Giamatti was perfectly fine (it’s hard to remember him being bad in anything), the character didn’t really add much to the overarching drama, other than fretting about whether someone might love him for something other than his money.

Because season four left several plots unresolved – starting with Mary’s decision on which swoon-worthy blueblood to embrace – “Downton” will begin season five with no shortage of avenues to pursue. And to his credit, Fellowes does such a remarkable job juggling so many characters it’s hard to see anyone growing tired of the show soon. (A bit involving Jim Carter’s buttoned-up butler Carson trying to plan a vacation for the servants – getting gently prodded by Phyllis Logan’s marvelous Mrs. Hughes – was itself worth the price of admission in Sunday’s finale.)

That said, looking forward the “Masterpiece” production might need to make a relatively bold move – realizing that huge historical events (the sinking of the Titanic, followed by the onset of World War I) set the program in motion and beautifully framed season one, whereas this latest year simply became a period melodrama.

“Downton” can certainly drift along happily on the strength of its cast, but there’s a long lapse until the run-up toward World War II (dealt with, incidentally, in the update of “Upstairs, Downstairs”), raising questions about where the show goes during this intervening stretch.

Of course, when a series is this successful, the tendency is not to rock the boat, and even with half the audience this would still be a monster hit by PBS’ standards. Indeed, public television has rarely been so eager to discuss ratings.

Nevertheless, however impregnable “Downton Abbey” might appear, its makers should know better than anyone that you can’t always tell how big the icebergs are just from what you see on the horizon.

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  1. Sandra says:

    One of the worst series I’ve watched and I’m only on season 4. I’m not sure who this series was made for…the brits? …or for their of anything American.

  2. I always spent my half an hour to read this webpage’s articles or reviews everyday along
    with a mug of coffee.

  3. Carol taylor says:

    Seems you expect Julian Fellows to write at an incredible rate. There are times when the audience needs to catch up and adjust to the story line, especially when it’s another age and so vastly different than ours.
    To enjoy all aspects of the entire cast, it is a tad more complicated than most TV dramas. I love the program as it mirrors stories my grandmother told.

  4. Rhett says:

    Downton Abbey has a few marvelous actors but is no Upstairs Downstairs. Not even close. Almost a parody.

  5. Sheila M says:

    I love Masterpiece the way they capture a time period in an authentic way. However, Downtown is starting to modernize things that don’t really work here. I did not like the flow of the finale at all. Story lines were not developed well. Are the directors having the women talk more annoying or whiny on purpose? The way they spoke did not sound natural at all. I would like to see next season written better. Overall it is a wonderful series and I hope it stays that way. You don’t always have to introduce controversial social aspects to every mini series.

  6. kittyMack says:

    I have to agree with the author. This finale was not as interesting as finales in the. But I still love the series. Another great review on why we Americans love this series that I read follows:

    http://gennaeast.hubpages.com/hub/Downton-AbbeyWhy-Americans-Love-This-British-Import

  7. J B Henderson says:

    What is the matter with me? After reading the comments I have decided that all my taste must be in my mouth. I enjoyed season four and looking forward to more in the future.

  8. 2/24/24 7:23p Downton Abbey Finale
    This Finale was bloated, over crowded with Royals, we know how boring they can be. Mary is so over rated as a “Catch” she is a Dull, Annoying, Shrew and a Snob and she said so herself. Only with Anna has she shown any Human Traits. Tom Barrow has two more enemies: Joseph Molesley, he won’t allow him to bully Baxter, I don’t like the idea that Tom Branson felt a need to explain himself to Barrow; once and for all this Asshole deserves a severe Beat Down. Tom Branson told Edith to fight back and she had an idea that I didn’t like, giving up the Baby to Tim Drewe, the Farmer. I don’t know how it will work out but I am glad Edith is making decisions on her own. Edith please get rid of that whiney voice and create scenes and say what your thinking. Learn from the Wicked Sister: Mary.

  9. Roger Tyson says:

    “Dpwnton Abbey” has jumped the shark:

  10. H. Klein says:

    Of course, even something as wonderful as “Downton Abbey” is subject to Spenglerian fatigue and
    Julian Fellowes is still king of the hill compared to any show runners, writers or idea people who
    toil in our own TV vineyards. Yes, certain threads seemed a bit frayed, others dangled a bit too long
    but this is sort of like saying “Hey, see that Rembrandt portrait of a merchant, I noticed a paint
    chip on his sleeve”. This series is by far the very best of anything on television since the Sopranos–and
    while depicting wildly different universes, each in its own way has the unmistakable stamp of
    genius: both evident in the work of Fellowes and David Chase. Unforgettable characters, wonderful
    biting dialogue that even if you never knew a mob guy or an English aristo, have the remarkable
    bite of truth about them, universal human truths expressed magnificently through the mouths
    of superb actors and settings that set them in perfect context. Facing another hiatus now makes
    Sunday nights the bummer that it always is even worse.
    Hail Britannia–those dudes know how to do it.

  11. Alice Darr says:

    The season finale was a bit disappointing, but not as mean spirited as killing off Matthew. I am really sick and tired of the Mary line; she is so snobby and one uninteresting pampered pouche. I was hoping for a more vigorous line on Edith and her baby as well as a wrap up of the Gregson line. Afterall, a daughter having a baby out of wed-lock was an aweful big deal back then. Hurry up for the new season!

  12. richard says:

    My only criticism is why does Mary waffle so much on the question of Bates’ involvement? First she seems perfectly fine with ignoring any wrongdoing and even gets her position supported when one of her many suitors agrees that he would say nothing. Then she reverses and gives Mrs. Hughes the impression that she will turn him in. Finally, after Bates saves the family undue embarrassment, by singlehandedly stealing the letter back, Mary burns the jacket. BTW, why would Bates wear such a poor quality jacket that it will be donated to the Russian refugees? Answer:to allow the plot development of discovering for sure that Bates killed Green.

  13. michael wells says:

    Great Show. Great cast. Wonderful acting. Being part English I have great identification with the show. Even thought that part of the family came here in the 1880’s.

    • Col. Angus says:

      Mary burned the stub of the ticket to London, not the coat. I don’t think the coat was necessarily poor quality, simply old and worn.

  14. Jason says:

    Show sucks. Over rated garbage watched my senior citizens who just live the over design. Stupid show for stupid people. It’s gotten boring you people say. Stop watching it so they will stop making this boring crisp

    • Marge Claybourne says:

      I saw the finale this evening and Downton Abby has officially turned into a soap opera which is perfectly okay if you like that sort of thing – I don’t. The rape of Anna could have been handled less graphically with the same results. There was no announcement by PBS that there would be content not suitable for younger children. There were 3 young people in my living room when that unfolded and it has had very definite detrimental effects on all three. I wrote to PBS about this and they never bothered to respond. So, I will no longer be making financial contributions to PBS. I find myself less interested in these characters with each new installment. I thought that in the finale they would tie up loose ends but it appeared to me they created more loose ends to keep people interested. As for the demise of Green, I expected a short flashback on the streets of Piccadilly showing who actually pushed Green into the street – that didn’t happen. A poor production choice in my estimation. And the Barrow character. I had hoped he would get his comeuppances but it appears they are going to drag that on and on and on. I was happy to see the entrance of Julian Ovenden however [plays Charles Blake] from Foyle’s War fame. He is aging well and suitable for the part he is playing. He’s about the only interesting element in Downton Abby – hope Fellowes doesn’t screw that part up. He seems to think this series will continue to between 10 and 15 seasons – I doubt that very much if the last installment is any indication of what lay ahead.

      • Lisa says:

        PBS stated at the beginning of the rape episode that it was rated PG-14.

      • Malena Scordia says:

        How young were the young people watching the show? Dowtown comes on very late for “young” people to be up at night. Deterimental effects? Seriously? So besides Cartoons what are they watching? Because everything on TV now is either violent, sexual or both.
        So I’m not sure what is worse – you hiding things from “young” people or you not telling them to be in bed at a decent hour.
        Try again. You sound like a very silly woman.

  15. sharihodges says:

    Don’t count on it. Downton is here to stay. This season was much better. Season ending was great.

    • Marge Claybourne says:

      Well Malena Scordia you certainly are good at calling people names. I may be a lot of things but silly is pretty far down on the list. The three young girls were my nieces [I have seven grown daughters] and all three are 13 years of age. They were on a sleep over at my home. And Downton Abbey comes on at 8 p.m. in my area. I was very strict with my children when it came to TV and my daughters are even more strict then I was. If you wish to know the detrimental effects you’ll have to ask their mothers. But I assure you that you will be well advised to keep your sharp tongue in your mouth because they are not as tolerant as I am and will truck non of your silly nonsense. I believe Mark Twain said something that fits you perfectly: It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Love, Marge.

    • silver says:

      If it was so boring, why was you watching.

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