The final season of “Downton Abbey” starts slowly, even by the show’s stately standards. Gradually, though, the plots deepens, building toward addressing long-festering issues, set against the backdrop of the receding of the great house’s way of life, with characters well aware of the inexorable tide. Series creator Julian Fellowes seems understandably sentimental in penning these episodes, exhibiting a fondness for this world shared by fans who made the program such a rousing success for PBS. Whatever the finish holds (eight of nine chapters were previewed), Masterpiece’s crown jewel will be worth savoring until the last note of John Lunn’s score.
As always, Fellowes explores the lives of his sprawling cast – both the aristocratic upstairs family and the downstairs servants who attend to them – with wit, unabashed romance and no shortage of humor. At least in the early going, moreover, he largely steers clear of the concocted travails that have occasionally made the series teeter too far into melodrama, including the long-suffering legal woes of Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
Without giving too much away, the season opens in 1925, with Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), grappling with the issue of whether Downton needs to downsize, a prospect that ripples throughout the food chain as other great estates face similar challenges. “If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would,” he muses. “But I can’t.”
Naturally, that macro view is merely part of a tableau filled with smaller micro conflicts, including the riotously proper relationship between Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) after his very decent proposal; possible romances for Mary (Michelle Dockery, at her imperious best) and Edith (Laura Carmichael); yet another tussle between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton); and new issues for Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and the kind-hearted Molesley (Kevin Doyle).
The situations, frankly, often take a back seat to the show’s small moments and insights, each drawn as meticulously as the way the silverware is laid out in the great dining room. In one of the later episodes, for example, there’s as good an exchange about what bonds siblings together, whatever their differences, as you’re apt to hear.
Granted, some of the plots feel a tad rushed down the home stretch, relying on the natural charm of the players – including Dockery and Matthew Goode – to make them plausible. It’s as if Fellowes is assuming the role of a meticulous footman, racing around to neatly tidy up loose ends.
As for that aforementioned sentimental streak, “Downton” has always exhibited certain qualities resembling the works of Jane Austen, where love has a way of triumphing, despite the hurdles thrown its way. Yet the 20th-century window has also punctuated those personal interactions with tumultuous events, with the sinking of the Titanic initially setting the plot in motion, World War I exacting a bitter toll, and the sobering prospect of World War II looming over the not-too-distant horizon. (The Christmas special, and in this case series finale, was as usual withheld from PBS’ advance screener, and will be reviewed closer to its airing in the U.S.)
At its core, “Downton Abbey” chronicles a changing society, rooted in traditions that were as comforting as they were confining. One could thus escape into the program’s sweeping countryside and elegant trappings while pondering how shackled the key players were by their stiffly defined roles.
What seems clear, as “Downton” strolls toward the finish line, is that the show’s influence will reverberate well beyond its five-year run. Because in hastening the demand for British imports and helping demonstrate – along with a series that premiered relatively close to it, “The Walking Dead” – that hits now have more to do with content than platform, this nostalgic look at the past actually did its part, TV-wise, in paving the path toward the future.