Given how fashionable it has become to grouse about “Downton Abbey,” Sunday’s fifth-season finale offered a welcome reminder of just how splendid the show can be – warm, funny and emotional on a dazzling assortment of fronts. Taking the term “Christmas episode” to heart, series creator Julian Fellowes advanced so many storylines to satisfying points it frankly wouldn’t have been a bad place to end the show entirely; still, for those who eagerly anticipate a new journey into the past each January, PBS’ show horse happily gallops on.
Admittedly, the continuing arc surrounding the murder mystery and police suspicion directed at Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and her husband Bates (Brendan Coyle) has grown a bit tedious. Even with a British gift for stiff-upper-lipped understatement, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) wasn’t kidding when he said, “Lord knows they don’t deserve their luck, those two.”
Then again, it’s hard to build a melodrama without some big flourishes, and Fellowes has essentially relied on the rape/murder plot to provide that, while slowly building his character arcs elsewhere. The finale also engaged (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) in another fine bit of guest casting with the other butler played by Alun Armstrong, whose churlishness gave Thomas (Rob James-Collier) a chance to fully unleash his scheming nature.
“I’m not a novice anywhere,” Armstrong sneered at one point, one of those brilliant lines Fellowes tosses out with regularity.
Where the finale truly excelled, though, had less to do with the younger players than the elder class, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton’s wonderful interplay throughout the season and their unexpected brushes with romance at this late stage in the game.
Ditto for the ongoing friendship of butler Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), whose attempts to plan for the future – and her admission of her limited financial means – prompted a surprising but very decent proposal. Although the moment came a bit out of left field – or at least, felt somewhat abrupt – as played the sequence proved so touching it’s hard to imagine many dry eyes in the house.
Truth be told, Fellowes’ sentimental side was on full display throughout the hour, whether that was Tom (Allen Leech) preparing to take leave of the great estate or Robert embracing his daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her illegitimate child. Moreover, the closing Christmas party yielded the amusing spectacle of a drunken Lord Grantham being determined to make a speech and his kids cleverly rescuing him from the embarrassment.
It’s easy to forget that “Downton” has spanned a dozen years since the fictional story began, punctuated by events like the sinking of the Titanic and World War I. While the rise of Nazism and the second World War loom in the distance, one suspects the core cast will have scattered long before Fellowes can get close to that chapter of British history, which is perhaps the fitting end date for this look at the evolving idea of an aristocracy.
Still, no matter where this beautifully rendered novel for television concludes, it’s been one heck of a voyage, with relatively few icebergs along the way. And unlike poor Anna and Bates, those who have been on board since the beginning should feel fortunate, indeed.