Change comes slowly, sometimes insufferably so, and is usually only apparent in hindsight. Every character in Downton Abbey, however, is painfully aware of change. And in the show’s sixth and final season, more so than any other, it’s all anyone can talk about.
It’s 1925, and England’s social hierarchy is no longer simply in flux, as it was in earlier seasons, but unraveling post haste, with the titled elite in danger of losing their position and estates, and their lower-class servants at risk of losing their livelihoods. The country’s post-World War I struggle to adapt to changing times has been a long-running theme throughout the series, but the final season strains to find an adequate spokesperson for the subsequent angst, instead forcing obvious platitudes about the past and future into the mouths of nearly every character.
Far from the endearing spitfire of the new world she’s meant to be, feisty assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera) has become overbearing in her strident complaints about “the system,” while Tom Branson (Allen Leech)—back from New England for dubiously explained reasons—seems more intent on playing matchmaker for sister-in-law Mary (Michelle Dockery) than in rekindling his revolutionary past or establishing a new existence for himself. Elsewhere, Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) willingness to take on a larger role in her professional life serves no other narrative purpose than to introduce another potentially failed romance for the long-suffering middle child (it’s no wonder Dad calls her “poor old Edith”).
Downton Abbey has always been a talky series, relying on lazy exposition to fill in the blanks for viewers: “Who’s that?” a character will ask, and someone will promptly supply an answer complete with biographical background. There are moments, though, akin to subtle grace notes that convey more meaning and historical insight than an entire dinner-party debate about the merits of centralized medicine. In episode three, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) laments an unexpected dinner guest to her maid, Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), oblivious to the fact that the woman, who methodically lays Cora’s garments out on the bed, is facing a dilemma of far more life-altering consequences.
Other moments, ripe with potential to deepen our understanding of how the other half lives, are thrown away. When the Crawleys are forced to open Downton Abbey to prying eyes in order to pay the bills, they (and we) realize the family doesn’t know very much about the house they’ve lived in for decades. But the sequence is staged like a sitcom, scored with plucky strings, failing to allow even one character to fully absorb the embarrassing irony of their ignorance. Instead we’re meant to self-righteously shake our heads, and even snicker, as we watch from houses and cities and countries we likely know just as little about.
There are plotlines throughout the season, as in former housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) returning to Downton and reluctantly revealing how the late Sybil helped her get a job as a secretary, when we’re reminded of how politically potent the series can be, and how those who take a stand that goes against their own interests are often the most effective agents of change. A shocking and bloody scene midway through the season, in which one character’s otherwise eye-rollingly telegraphed illness is literally laid out on the table, is likewise a reminder of how gruesome and authentic the series can be when it wants to be.
But it’s the penultimate episode, a soap-operatic tour de force that finds the seasons-long sibling rivalry between Mary and Edith finally coming to an unexpectedly expletive-ridden head, where Downton Abbey is at its narratively richest and most compelling. Mary’s sabotage of both her own happiness and Edith’s is enough to summon Granny (Maggie Smith) from her sojourn in the south of France to give her eldest granddaughter a pep talk to end all pep talks.
Smith is too rarely given more to do than skillfully supply fodder for YouTube montages of the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s savory one-liners. But her scene with Mary reveals a three-dimensional woman who’s far more complicated than the stalwart, silver-tongued traditionalist she typically presents. “Brilliant careers, rich lives, are seldom led without just an element of love,” she poignantly advises Mary, her equal in stubbornness.
Dockery is exceptional here as well, allowing Mary’s icy façade to crack like the shell of a hard-boiled egg rather than playing for the cheap seats by letting it all spill out at once, revealing what we knew the moment she uttered, “How fast!,” at the sight of new beau Henry’s (Matthew Goode) racecar a few episodes earlier: that she can’t bear to be a “crash widow” again. (The scene is especially powerful in the wake of the death of Dockery’s real-life fiancé earlier this month.)
Mary’s happiness naturally allows for Edith’s, which has been treated as such an impossibility by the show’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, and everyone around her that when it seems like she might actually be given a happy ending, one expects it to blow up in a fiery ball of tragic irony. But after six years of flaunting his sadistic impulses, it turns out Fellowes is a helpless romantic at heart, with all of his characters—save for the gay and inexplicably chaste Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), of course—pairing off like lovebirds. For a series dedicated to supposed historical realism, Downton Abbey wraps things up with a bow of pure fantasy.