The series finale of Downton Abbey (with the Christmas special still to come) doesn’t pull any punches: a death, a sudden ascent to nobility, a sister’s betrayal, a broken engagement, a house of ill repute, a staged photo op, a spurned lover, a meddling brother-in-law, the Dowager Countess hotfooting it back from the Continent, several reconciliations of differing degrees, and a hasty, happy wedding. “To say nothing,” in Carson’s words, “of a suicidal footman in the attic!”
Given an extra-long running time and a lot to wrap up, the show just goes bananas, complete with Edith and her editor chiming out “Bananas!” as a minor mystery is solved. It’s as if Downton Abbey overshot the overwrought timbre of a soap opera and started dishing out pantomime-theater cues.
It’s a weird tone for an episode where Barrow slits his wrists in the bathtub, Mary has a heart-to-heart with her husband’s gravestone, Edith stiff-upper-lips her way through another broken engagement, and the lifelong resentment between sisters boils over. Like a Punch and Judy show, it makes hilarity from familiar beats of hostility and heartache. It’s a mess, and it’s a lot of fun.
The stories are dramatic but told with the cadence of a comedy, complete with set-ups and smash cuts. Assuaging Carson’s fear that the Crawleys will learn of Mrs. Patmore’s B&B scandal, Mrs. Hughes promises, “I’m not going to tell them!” just before the camera cuts to Anna and Mary laughing their heads off over the thought of Mrs. Patmore running a bawdy house.
Tallying up the social disasters, Carson consoles himself, “I only thank God the Dowager isn’t here to witness it!”
Oh, isn’t she?
This episode is bananas even before it reveals that Cassandra Jones, the agony aunt writing for Edith’s smart magazine, is…
You heard me.
Minutes after Tom and Bertie treat the children to a Punch and Judy show, Mary and Henry put on their own show on the staircase, where anyone might overhear. Mary rubs in the distaste she assumes Henry would feel for spending the rest of his life in her ancestral home, “outranked by your own stepson.” Henry accuses Mary of chasing money instead of marrying for love. It’s a grubby squabble, but it airs more emotion than all of their courtship’s raised eyebrows and pointed looks put together.
Like their fight, the episode centers around rank. When Bertie’s cousin dies, making him “a genuine copper-bottomed marquess,” the Crawleys are overjoyed. Robert goes bananas. “Golly gumdrops, what a turn-up!” Only Mary refuses to grasp it. If Bertie’s the new Marquess of Hexham, that would make Edith… “Edith would outrank us all!” Robert exults.
It’s a joke, but a joke that illuminates all of Downton Abbey. This is a family where one member can quite literally pull rank on another. Rank and status underlie much of Downton Abbey, but here they’re brought to the forefront, making subtext into text—text as big and bold as the headlines that kick off so much action in this episode.
Title and wealth weave through Downton Abbey’s stories, with even marriages assessed by “qualifications” and “credentials,” but there are other ways to pull rank. When Rosamund offers advice on Edith’s secret, Robert snaps, “You don’t have children, you don’t understand,” obviously hitting a sore spot. Carson pulls rank in reverse, overriding Bertie Pelham’s wishes to remain “Mr. Pelham” until after his cousin’s memorial.
Mary shuts down Tom with emotional blackmail, warning him to drop the subject of Henry “if you want to remain in my good graces,” and shuts him out using her pedigree, reminding him that “people like us … need to marry sensibly, especially if we’re going to inherit the family show.” In my notes, I initially mistyped inherit as inhabit, which makes a certain poetic sense. Central to Downton Abbey is the expectation of abiding by the social rank you’re born to and the difficulty of escaping it, whether it’s high or humble.
Unexpectedly, Molesley might be Downton Abbey’s biggest success story. Leaving school at 12, he’s worked as butler, valet, footman, gardener, and ditch-digger. He pled for work and resented his lowered rank before growing eager to give others the education he never had. His devotion to Daisy’s lessons earned him a chance to better his own position, and he’s achieving the dream he once thought out of reach.
“You must never think education is only for special people, for clever people, for toffs,” Molesley tells his pupils, revealing his humble origins and earning their trust before moving on to a lesson questioning the divine right of royalty. Teaching them that “kings are like anyone else,” he plants a promise of equality in impressionable minds.
The rousing populist moral of Molesley’s schoolroom lesson—and the larger lesson of his success—is undermined by a quieter lesson in the episode. The Crawleys use their standing to good effect, saving Mrs. Patmore’s reputation by having tea at her disgraced B&B. Lord Grantham quiets Carson’s carping, telling him, “Mrs. Patmore has been loyal to this house and now this house must be loyal to her.” It’s the pact of noble and servant idealized, with the great and powerful making a gesture to save the day, because from the great and powerful, a gesture (a pleasant teatime, a benevolent smile, a single newspaper portrait) is enough.
In the same way, superficially this is the episode where “poor old Edith, who couldn’t make her dolls do what she wanted” finally lets Mary have it. Packing for yet another retreat to London, Edith cuts off Mary’s huffy insincerity and pulls rank as only a sibling can, reminding her sister that they’ve known each other their whole lives, better than anyone. Edith knows “the same old Mary who wants her cake and her ha’penny,” and she knows that Mary “to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch.”
Whether it’s the pressure of being groomed to use her beauty, wit, and charm to save the estate, or just her nature, Mary is nasty, jealous, and scheming. Since Matthew’s death, she’s sublimated grief as surely as Don Draper does, but she’s also been a sharp-tongued, cold-blooded backstabber since the series began. (Edith isn’t blameless. Mary’s lightning bolt to Bertie Pelham is retribution, 13 years later, for Edith’s poison-pen letter about poor Mr. Pamuk.)
So it’s galling to see Edith’s anger simmer down so quickly, and to see Mary’s redemption come so easily. She makes a few feints toward empathy and compassion, furrowing her brow over “poor Mrs. Patmore” and telling Anna, but not Edith, how sorry she is to have destroyed her sister’s engagement. Lectured by sister, brother-in-law, and grandmother on her own psychology, she still doesn’t come to grips with it. After confessing to Violet that she jilted Henry because “I can’t be a crash widow twice!,” Mary says nothing of it to Henry. Instead, she whistles him back to Downton, admits her love, and marries him days later. She suffers briefly, then falls face-first into happiness.
Behold Mary and Henry, beaming with joy!
These two are the chilliest fish that ever swam upstream, but they accept—even love—their reserve and the intensity it masks. “I’m not 20, trembling at the touch of your hand,” she tells him, but she knows she’s met her match, even if it took Tom to remind her that equality in marriage isn’t only about rank and her hidebound Granny to nudge her past her fears.
On Mary’s wedding day, Edith arrives to make peace with the sister whose entire apology to date consists of “Look, I wasn’t to know you hadn’t told him.” (By contrast, in a scene with Anna, Mary says “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” three times. She’s saying it to the wrong person, but maybe the only person who would believe her.) Their détente is poignant, but it’s unsatisfying that all the work falls to Edith. Why does Edith, not Mary, make the overture? Tom, Edith, and Violet have laid out Mary’s motivations to her, so why should Edith excavate them again for Mary’s benefit? Why must Edith, the injured party, recognize that their connection outranks their rancor?
In its last throes, Downton Abbey makes bald use of a parallel I wasn’t sure Julian Fellowes recognized. In despair, Thomas Barrow slits his wrists; to paper over her misery, Mary Crawley stabs her sister in the back. The visit Mary pays to Barrow after his thwarted suicide explicitly likens the scheming, self-loathing footman, rebuffed everywhere after years of contempt for his equals and betters, to the earl’s daughter who distances herself with witty scorn. As Edith says of the sisters’ row, I wish this had all come out years ago. Exploring those similarities would have given Downton Abbey valuable texture and depth.
Downton Abbey wants layered, conflicted characters and it wants quick, easy resolutions. That’s how we end up cheering on Mary the copper-bottomed bitch and weeping for Mary the anguished loner. Downton Abbey’s Carson is both a martinet habitually belittling those in his power and a darling curmudgeon whose wife answers his gibes with smooches. It pays lip service to egalitarian values while painting the intersection of fealty and noblesse oblige as fulfilling and ennobling. It wants the tragedy of suicidal despair and the comfort of swift recovery. And, in this episode, it wants to tease out the last ounces of drama and still hit high-comedy laugh lines. Like Mary, Downton Abbey wants to have its cake and its ha’penny.
- Once again, Baxter exists only to read other people’s letters (twice in this episode) or ferret out their tragic secrets, and to recite the episode’s moral. When Molesley dreads his students learning he’s a servant, she asks, “Why not tell them? Then they wouldn’t have to find out.” Her advice might have saved Edith, too.
- I laughed and laughed at Kevin Doyle’s line reading, which adds syllables to Molesley’s description of his first class as “quite a challenge.”
- Peter, the late Marquess of Hexham, is “delicate,” “lyrical,” unappreciated by his family, unmarried at 39 (with a tentative fiancée in the background) despite pressure to carry on his line, and “a frequent visitor” to Tangiers who loved to watch the young fishermen cast their nets. That’s a whole lot of 1920s code hinting at his homosexuality.
- “Oh, I was doing… various… car things.” Henry, if you’re going to keep up with Mary, learn to think on your feet.
- “One more mouthful and we’d explode!” Watch your phrasing, Rosamund.
- “Your sister hasn’t been helpful.” Understatement of the week from Laura Edmunds.
- As I mention above, this is the last episode proper of Downton Abbey, but I’ll see you back here in two weeks for the final Christmas episode! Given Robert’s plea not to let Edith’s secret spoil her happiness and his closing rumination of more surprises ahead, I suspect Downton Abbey will once again eat its cake and have it.