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TV Review: Downton Abbey Season Finale

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The first season of Downton Abbey ended very well, with lots of issues brought up and even a few resolved. But there were a few cliffhangers, too, as the First World War had the nerve to break out and spoil the sumptuous garden party. The party was pretty to look at, but beneath the lovely white linen clothes there was plenty of drama to go around, with characters having hopes raised and then horribly dashed. Just another day in the life of the Earl of Grantham and his family in 1914 England …

Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

If you missed any of this excellent program, from Academy Award winning Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes, or want to re-immerse yourself in its large cast of characters, it can still be viewed online. All of the acting is top-drawer, with one of the highlights Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, the Earl’s mother. She can be impossibly stuffy “One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a constant state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper,” or out-of-touch “I couldn’t have electricity in the house, I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about,” or just plain vinegary, “No one wants to kiss a girl in black.” Even when you can see her coming, she manages to be unexpected. And delightful.

So much happened in this episode. The terrible first footman Thomas and his sidekick, lady’s maid O’Brien, tried to weave a web to entrap valet Mr. Bates, using poor besotted-with-Thomas kitchen maid Daisy as their accomplice. We found out a little more about Bates’s character, which was intriguing, but what was truly interesting was the conspirators—when faced with a crisis, Thomas stayed true to his nasty self, Daisy finally worked out who was nice and who wasn’t, and O’Brien thought better of her scheming ways, although unfortunately a little too late. She will have to live with, and looks to be shattered by, the results of her misplaced and malicious actions.

The Earl’s two eldest daughters, Mary and Edith, could teach modern mean girls a thing or two as they played a dangerous one-upmanship game which threatened Mary’s reputation and Edith’s chances for a happy marriage. We’ll just have to wait until the new season to see if the two are still at each other’s throats. Things look so socially black for both of them at the end of this series that the only reputation- and sisterhood-saving choice would be for the girls to call a truce and both admit to telling terrible lies about each other. But as they are “ladies” that probably won’t be allowed. Their appalling behavior is a definite result of their having too much idle time on their hands. They need a hobby. They are surprisingly young for their age. No matter how badly they behave it’s hard not to feel sorry for both of them, as their stupid choices also lead to their own heartbreak as well as their rival’s.

Edith, Mary and Sybil (Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery and Jessica Brown-Findlay)

Youngest sister Sybil is more emotionally mature than her sisters and also possibly her parents. She is a suffragette and doesn’t know it yet. She attends political elections and helps the help—housemaid Gwen—move up in the world by getting employment with a future, as a secretary. She also has eyes for Mr. Crawley, their cousin and heir to Downton Abbey. Watch out Mary, you may be wasting your time fighting with Edith when you’ve got a lot more to worry about with Sybil.

Crawley is in love with Mary and Mary thinks she’s in love with him, but they both had to act like a couple of asses in the final episode to heighten the drama. I haven’t seen such mis-communication, stupid breaking-up and almost getting-together since Moonlighting. People probably did act that “noble” once upon a time, but it’s hard to watch in 2011. The things that separate this couple don’t seem as daunting as the class barriers in another filmic Edwardian England—Helena Bonham-Carter’s Helen Schlegel and Samuel West’s Mr. Bast in Howards End, but I may be underestimating the impact of Lady Mary’s fling with the gorgeous Turk in an earlier episode. Today such an event would be slightly scandalous, but certainly not the end of a girl’s social life. An upper class lady’s reputation in the early 1900s was crucial. She at least needed to appear spotless to her peers and potential suitors.

“Who’s really in charge?” kept running through my mind as I watched butler Mr. Carson solve all manner of problems upstairs and downstairs. Lady Mary can be such a cold character, but she always lets Carson in. And he is wonderful with her, letting her drop her reserve and be vulnerable and even loving. Something she can’t seem to do with either parent. Her mother may favor her, but only because she is obsessed with “settling” her eldest.

Mr. Carson, with Thomas lurking in background (Jim Carter, with Rob James-Collier)

As enjoyable as it has been to live vicariously in the castle, it will be even more fascinating to watch how this privileged way of life completely falls apart as World War I takes its toll and everyone’s world is shattered. I know from my Agatha Christies that very few large houses like Downton were able to continue running in the same opulent manner post-war. Most were turned into hospitals or other institutions. Young people who had served in the war did not come home eager to be “in service.” It was a whole new world, and needed to build itself up again. How many of the staff at Downton will enlist or be drafted? How many of the gentlemen? How many will survive? What about Mr. Crawley? If he serves and doesn’t survive, where will that leave Downton and the entail?

It’s a credit to everyone involved with Downton Abbey how involved the viewer feels in all of their lives and in their way of life. The dignity and grace that are displayed via modes of address and in the daily rituals of dressing for dinner are not just limited to the Earl and his family. Apart from the creepy Thomas, the staff at Downton have a code of behavior and decorum that they adhere to. After the Great War a good many new and wonderful innovations happened that led to how we live our lives today—women getting the vote and entering the workplace, the rise of the telephone, the gradual dissolving of the stricter divisions of class in society. But there was also a more formal, more polite way of speaking that was a result of that rigid structure that has all but disappeared. I wouldn’t trade my opportunities and station in life for any of these ladies, upstairs or downstairs, but I do wish that people could communicate with one another in a more thoughtful and meaningful way, as they seem to do at Downton Abbey. It’s a depiction of a lost era, but it makes me wonder about how much we have all lost.

Images from Jane Austen’s World

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