Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the series finale of “Downton Abbey,” season 6, episode 9, airing March 6.
The series finale of “Downton Abbey” ended with happy endings all around — including for Edith Crawley, the most beleaguered of all the show’s characters, much to viewers’ delight.
“Obviously you’re sad,” executive producer Julian Fellowes, who created the series and wrote all the episodes, tells Variety. ‘You invent these characters and they become quasi-real to you so when you say goodbye there is a bit of a pang. But on the other hand, I don’t think we’ve made a mistake. I haven’t at any point since we made the decision thought, ‘oh my god, what are we doing?'”
Adds executive producer Gareth Neame, “We went into season 6 knowing that we had to bring a pretty large ensemble of 20 or so characters to rest. Some very big, powerful stories had to come to conclusion. There had to be an idea that the camera was pulling away from Downton Abbey for the last time and we were leaving this characters to get on with their lives. The b—h fight between Edith and Mary that we’ve all been waiting for, Mary going to her late husband’s gravestone to seek his permission to marry again — these were iconic beats that made the end of the final season really satisfying.”
Here, Fellowes and Neame tell Variety about giving Edith her long-awaited happy ending, their plans for a “Downton” movie, and who they’d like to see star in a spinoff.
Was there a theme you wanted to set for the finale?
Fellowes: We had a double theme, really. We had a sense of the world of Downton Abbey starting to unravel in good earnest. It’s not that people stopped living in those houses or stopped having people come in to cook or clean. But that structure, that way of life that we’d enjoyed with them really came to a close for most people of their sort with the Second World War. There’s a moment when Cora says something like we’ll be fine if we’re flexible. Those families that approached the changing world with imagination and willingness to do things differently often got through and are still living in their houses and their estates having a lovely time. But the ones who dug in and wouldn’t shift or change a thing all went down, I think. The other theme was time to resolve the characters. Not every knot is tied tight. But we sort of know where most of them are going. And that feels right.
Neame: The thing that was most important of all to me was to show that we are more connected to the characters than we thought we were. That by the last season, they don’t feel that they’re 80 or 90 years ago. As people, they feel much more like us. An example would be the episode where they open the house to the public. That would be how you or I would go see a house like that today. We’d look around it like a museum. It was bringing the story into our times. These are people with all the same cares and ambitions that human beings have today. They just have slightly different technology — and etiquette and clothes. But mostly what’s driving them is similar to what’s driving us.
There’s a theme of feminism as well. All the women find roles outside their titles.
Neame: The show always has (had that theme). But you do feel that very strongly in the Edith story particularly. By George, Edith got a happy ending. It was a very cheeky idea of Julian’s that she started off as the loser of the family for years and years and that everything that can go wrong for somebody goes wrong to her and then of course she ends up marrying someone very powerful. She ends up senior to everyone else in her family. Mary hates that her sister has trumped her. The rest of the family thinks it’s quite amusing and well deserved. It’s really interesting to imagine what Edith’s future might be. Maybe we’ll see that if there’s a movie.
Fellowes: One of the things I believe is that life was alright for the women who found something to do that was meaningful. If you were married to a good estate, it could be pretty rewarding. But the trap of that life, if you were an upper-class woman, there was nothing you could do professionally. You just were expected to keep changing your clothes and sitting there. It was the First World War that began to release them. The trick of that living that life was to find a way to busy. That’s why both Edith and Mary have found a way to be busy. They don’t wake up in the morning and say ‘what shall I do today?’ They know very well what they’ve got to do today. I think that’s an essential ingredient to a well-spent life.
And Cora, too.
Fellowes: Exactly. Robert, who’s adorable but a stick in the mud, thinks the hospital takes up too much of her time, they take advantage of her, which is why Rose takes him to see Cora at work. He’s never really seen her doing her thing. But Rose felt correctly that he needed not to hear about it but to see it. It brings him round. Robert’s not an ungenerous man. He’s just sometimes an unimaginative one.
Having lived through her parents’ divorce, Rose didn’t want to see another one.
Fellowes: If anyone knows about unsuccessful marriages, it’s Rose. It was the First World War that started to release upper class people to get divorced. Before then it was a huge scandal. After 1919 things began to change. While that’s a very good thing, it makes divorce more of an option. So Rose’s nervousness about their marriage breaking down was quite realistic.
Edith got her happy ending, ironically thanks to Mary.
Fellowes: [Laughs.] Although I always think that Mary is going to be slightly irritated that her sister goes ahead of her into a room. I don’t think she’s changed that much. There’s a moment when Edith comes back for Mary’s marriage and says, we’re going to be the only two who remember Granny and Carson and all the rest of the people who made up their childhood. I didn’t come from a particularly close family with my siblings. The older we get, the more we’re the only people who remember the cast of our childhood. That does mean something. I didn’t want them to be sentimental and have them throw their arms around each other. I think there’s always going to be a slightly difficult, spiky relationship. But there’s an element of affection that was perhaps missing earlier on.
Neame: People have loved how at odds these two sisters have been. Julian feels that siblings on TV are always depicted as having a good relationship. But he and his brothers weren’t always comfortable, always argumentative and very different people. So he enjoyed writing these two very different characters. We knew we were pushing it a bit when we had Mary spill the beans about Marigold to Bertie. And that people would hate Mary for doing it. But we thought, we’re near the end and we really want the mother of all battles between them. She saves it by putting it right. So there’s redemption.
The finale offered happy endings for nearly everyone else, too, even Barrow.
Fellowes: I love happy endings. Trollope is always attacked for loving happy endings, but I’m on his side. A long running series is very different from a movie. I can watch a tragic movie and enjoy it very much. You’ve been involved with these people for 100 minutes, and then you go home. I just watched “The West Wing,” and that ran seven years. You’ve been with them for so long, I wanted the cat happy by that stage. So I didn’t want to disappoint people. There was a wonderful quote on Twitter: “If Edith Crawley isn’t happy by the end of the series, Julian Fellowes better sleep with one eye open.”
Neame: The series has had a lot of sadness but it’s overwhelmingly an optimistic show. Our lives are a combination of good luck and bad luck, of the comedic and the dramatic. “Downton Abbey,” you wouldn’t call it a comedy, but it’s funny. That’s real life. We all lead our lives through humor. All in all, the message is no matter what life throws at you, you do your best to get by. It’s right to leave the show with an optimistic bent.
There’s been talk of a “Downton” movie. Where does that stand?
Fellowes: I’m completely up for a movie. There are various considerations, which of the cast would be available. That would be a big thing. If we couldn’t get enough of them to do it, it wouldn’t really work. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m completely up for it.
Neame: There may be but still there’s nothing to confirm at the moment. These are all conversations we are having. Julian and I haven’t shied away from saying we would like to do it. The cast would be up for doing it. But it’s a whole new thing to put together. It’s a whole new beast. It’s a whole way off were it to happen.
What’s the legacy of the show?
Neame: I think the legacy is it’s been a very important part of the globalization of TV and drama in particular. Before “Downton,” U.S. programmers would be saying there’s no interest in this kind of material. When I was trying to put this project together, it’s what I was being told time and time again. No one in the U.S. would be interested. For it to be one of the highest rated shows in America, if it helps to chip away at the prejudices of what kinds of stories can be told, this shows that audiences will watch a show set in any time or place, with actors they don’t know, they’ll fall in love with those actors and make them famous. For a non American show to be that popular in America, for the cast to win the SAG award for ensemble, when no foreign show had ever won that category before, that’s quite something. I think it’s referenced a lot in development. It’s helped with reminding everyone that there are great stories to be told in the past. They don’t have to just be now and in the future.
Fellowes: I don’t need (a legacy). I think if you managed to keep people amused for six years, keep them entertained, make them laugh, make them cry, that’s enough for me. I don’t need to feel that I’ve changed western civilization.
If you were to do a spinoff, who would you focus on?
Fellowes: I think Carson and Mrs. Hughes running a B&B hotel, I could see that. I think you could do Branson and Henry running the car business and building it up and having all the saga of cars in the ’20s.
Neame: I would come back in the 1960s and Master George would now be the Earl of Grantham. He’d have no staff, maybe two, and he’d be trying to run the estate. He might have turned it into a theme park type thing. Or I would do a half-hour show with Carson and Mrs. Hughes, when they’ve gotten their own property and he’s making her cook him dinner every night. I loved those scenes!
And you gave the Dowager Countess the last word.
Fellowes: I think she had to have the last word. I feel that Violet was our sort of greek chorus throughout the show. She often didn’t participate in stories but she commented on all of them. And she was a kind of tentpole figure observing how they were all getting on. In that she became the martriach of matriachs. I felt it was right to finish on her. Maggie’s been fab. She’s been great to write for. She never misses a trick.
Neame: It felt fitting. Maybe Julian and I were too scared if we didn’t give her the last line.