“All’s well that end’s well”, “everything comes out in the wash”, and “they all lived happily ever after” describe the grand finale of Downton Abbey, the wildly popular British period drama about life in one of England’s grand country houses.
Charles Dickens would have been proud. Coincidences, meddling, and the triumph of goodness all contributed to the final episode with the hopes and aspirations of almost every character coming to fruition.
I was hooked on Downton from the very first episode. The acting, the set, the costumes (could there have been more beautiful dresses than the ones on display in the finale?), the character development, the social commentary, and even the incredible plot twists that occasionally tried my patience, kept me engaged.
Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Violet the Dowager Countess, had me laughing with her flawless delivery of hilarious, usually biting, and frequently wise one-liners. (As someone prone to over-thinking, I heartedly agreed with her when she said, “In my experience, second thoughts are vastly over-rated”.)
But I appreciated Downton for other reasons, too. I could relate to the characters and their struggles. Even though my modern day middle class lifestyle bears no resemblance to the upstairs/downstairs lifestyle that was the series’ lifeblood, themes of change and transformation united us.
It was easy to empathize with Carson, the butler, who was suspicious of the telephone, or with Mrs. Patmore, the cook who was afraid of an electric mixer because I was once hesitant to accept new technology. In 1995, when we bought our first home computer, I resisted my children’s pleas to sign up for the Internet. I felt like the Dowager Countess when she quipped, “First electricity. Now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.”
It was difficult, too, for the characters of Downton to adapt to changing social and moral norms. After the Great War, the idyllic and idle existence of the privileged crumbled beneath the aspirations of a generation that fought in the trenches and kept the home fires burning. Like the great houses slated for demolition, a way of life was coming to an end. Dissatisfied with the roles thrust upon them by an accident of birth, servants like Daisy looked to education to change her lot, while Ladies Mary and Edith challenged conventions to become successful businesswomen.
As the familiar gave way to new possibilities, the interior struggles reshaped characters from the inside out. Over six seasons, the characters grew, becoming a little more holy, as they came to grips with their imperfections and unhappiness. Haughty Lady Mary became less selfish, mean-spirited Barrow grew in kindness, and “Poor Little Me” Lady Edith discovered her self-worth. Character transformation kept me watching Downton Abbey religiously on a Sunday night.
Religion, though, was curiously absent from Downton, except for a few notable exceptions. Alastair Bruce, historical expert for the series, said in an interview with The Telegraph, that the executives wanted to keep religion out of it; “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”
Still, religious traditions and morality played a role in the lives of the characters. Values, such as decency, kindness, loyalty, kinship, and concern for others, called forth the best from characters as they struggled to overcome their pettiness. And Christian rituals, even when undertaken out of a sense of tradition rather than faith, marked life’s rites of passage. Baptism celebrated birth, Christian burial accompanied death, and wedding ceremonies united lovers. Prayer too made an occasional appearance. With an honesty and poignancy that echoes the reality of prayer, Lady Mary knelt to pray for Matthew (whom she eventually marries after much plot wrangling). “Dear Lord, I don’t pretend to have much credit with you. I’m not even sure that you’re there. But if you are, and if I’ve ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe.”
In Downton Abbey’s final season, characters embraced the winds of change; even Carson began to come around, wistfully admitting, “The world is a different place from the way it was.” But it was Violet, the Dowager Countess, who once again hit the nail on the head. “It makes me smile, the way we drink every year to what the future may bring.”
While the future is uncertain, change is inevitable. Downton Abbey wrapped that theme up beautifully in the form of good entertainment.