Watching the final few episodes of “Downton Abbey,” including the series finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t yet), brought to mind the accusation leveled at Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca,” by Claude Rains’ Captain Renault: “As I suspected, you’re a rank sentimentalist.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that in this case, as series creator Julian Fellowes clearly exhibited an affection for his cast, and a desire to see them enjoy the equivalent of an uplifting ride into the sunset on this towering PBS drama.
Granted, the way of life represented in the series has been living on borrowed time for a while. And just as “Downton” began with the sinking of the Titanic and encompassed the tumult of World War I, the specter of World War II looms over the future of all these characters, or at least those likely to be around another 15 years or more.
Still, Fellowes is content, seemingly, to leave tomorrow for another day. “Downton” had its funerals; as big life events go, the finale was about weddings and births. And if the episode raced around a bit to tie up loose ends and pair off characters, its warmth didn’t feel forced but rather proved inordinately satisfying, perhaps because of all the angst and melodrama that preceded it.
Despite the sprawling assortment of players, both upstairs and downstairs, the linchpin to that happy ending ran through the relationship between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael). Ultimately, Edith – having given birth to a daughter while unmarried – was spared from a life of being “damaged goods” by the intervention of her sister and longtime tormentor.
Edith dubbed Mary “a paradox,” though that has always been the case – a character that could be loving and imperious, callous and caring, sometimes all at once. In that regard, the key moment actually came during the penultimate episode, when the sisters discussed how the memories the two shared as siblings, that unique bond, would some day be all that was left of the great estate and its inhabitants. Fellowes’ generosity, however, extended well beyond that – including the long-suffering Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who finally had their baby (albeit at the most inopportune of times); and perhaps especially Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the scheming butler, who found redemption, ultimately, in being allowed to return thanks to the physical condition hampering Carson (Jim Carter).
Not all of the beats were wholly convincing, such as the contortions involving Daisy (Sophie McShera), or the flirtation somewhat abruptly created for Mrs. Padmore (Lesley Nicol). Yet once it was apparent that Fellowes didn’t intend to introduce any late crises to offset the happiness and new beginnings, as creative indulgences go, it was fairly easy to forgive.
“Even good things come to an end,” Barrow said upon his departure, one of several lines tinged with a knowing sense of both hope and melancholy, from the final chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” to the last word (spoken, appropriately, by Maggie Smith’s Dowager). When Isobel (Penelope Wilton, equally marvelous) observed that time marches forward, not back, her frequent sparring partner noted ruefully, “If only we had the choice.”
If it all spoke to a certain nostalgia, those pangs were probably felt nowhere more acutely than around the offices of PBS. “Downton” certainly raised the bar in terms of expectations with its gaudy ratings, but that massive popularity shouldn’t obscure its simpler pleasures. Those ranged from virtually every scene involving Smith and Wilton to the sheer joy of hearing Hugh Bonneville’s stately Earl of Grantham say, “Golly.”
Beyond the beautiful, pastoral trappings and the lustrous nature of John Lunn’s score, those are the elements that viewers will surely miss after their annual winter escapes into this time machine. On that score, about the only solace to be offered is that the unfinished nature of the story, what with that nursery full of Crawley children, leaves open the possibility that at some point Fellowes might be inclined to pick up his pen again and delve into what the future holds, perhaps a generation or even two down the road.
England, of course, is in for a hard time of it in terms of that next generation, as is the aristocracy that the program portrayed. Yet even if that encore never comes, as Rick might say, we’ll always have “Downton.”