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For the Crawleys and ‘Downton Abbey,’ the Beginning of the End

1 January 2016

From The New York Times:

Downton Abbey — the country house, if not the wildly popular PBS drama — begins the show’s final season on Sunday night in a depleted state. Servants are not being replaced, and Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, is hinting that further reductions may be needed. Upstairs, both Tom Branson and Rose MacClare (now Lady Rose Aldridge) have sailed for America, taking with them some of the show’s energy and audience good will. When the Granthams gather in the morning, it’s a sad showing, just Robert, Mary and Edith around a small table.

Beneath the melodrama, the withering put-downs and the fetishism of period décor and costumes, “Downton Abbey” has more or less consistently been about the end of a way of life. In Season 6, the show’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, homes in on that theme in one story line after another. While Robert and his daughter Mary fight to keep the estate profitable, his wife, Cora, and his mother, the formidable dowager countess Violet, squabble over modernizing the local hospital. Edith’s focus shifts to London and the magazine she has inherited. Daisy, the increasingly radicalized assistant cook, risks her job standing up for the rights of her tenant-farmer father-in-law.

. . . .

This spotlight on the evolution of British society and the fate of Downton — working estate or future National Trust museum, with a few descendants living in the rafters — gives the early episodes a vitality and focus that haven’t been present since, arguably, Season 1. Then, too, Mr. Fellowes had a sturdy plot device: the entail, or requirement of a male heir, which drove the story through several seasons, even as the subplots became less interesting and the ratio of witty banter to wooden exposition began to shift.

The Crawleys’ need to dredge up a presentable male relative also resulted in the show’s most interesting and multidimensional character, Matthew, ably played by Dan Stevens. Matthew gave the story some depth and emotion, until Mr. Stevens’s departure led to the fatal auto accident that ended the third season and sent fans into an uproar.

. . . .

 But one person’s tepid and implausible drama can be another person’s — or 10 million people’s — enjoyable soap opera, and “Downton” has been the most popular scripted show in PBS history. Some of this can be attributed to its grand locations and glowing cinematography, and doubtless a number of viewers find satisfaction in a story in which good manners matter greatly and small questions of ethics are debated to a fare-thee-well. Actors like Hugh Bonneville (Robert), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) also brought more subtlety and texture to their characters than was necessarily there on the page.

Link to the rest at The New York Times


9 Comments to “For the Crawleys and ‘Downton Abbey,’ the Beginning of the End”

  1. Gee, almost sounds like ‘The New York Times’, slowly winding down as the staff leaves and isn’t replaced and people notice/refer/trust it less and less …

  2. We watched Season 6 all the way to the finale this Christmas, and it was fantastic. That series was a really good piece of writing, and it did a picture-perfect denouement. 🙂

  3. We’ve watched all of it too. The Christmas special was excellent. Very satisfying. We’ll miss it so much. Although we’ve got a mega dramatisation of War and Peace starting on BBC TV in a couple of days!

  4. We’re big Downton Abbey fans in this house too. At first it was the draw of the upcoming WW1 drama, but then I sort of just liked (or liked to hate) the characters. I’ll be sorry to see it go.

  5. And let’s not forget the very fine actors as well as the production. A superior show, regardless of what the critic has to say. We don’t get good stuff like that in the U.S.

  6. Never cared for depictions of service as a jolly and benevolent patriarchy.

    • Well of course it wasn’t always jolly and benevolent. But just as when I was a student and doing vacation jobs in hotels, it was far better to work in a big hotel where you had a role and did it, than skivvying day and night in a small hotel with not enough staff, I think it was generally better to be a member of staff in a huge house like Downton rather than a maid-of-all-work for a skinflint middle class household! Many years ago there was a superb series on UK television called The Victorian Kitchen, presented by an elderly woman who had been a cook back in thirties England. One of the things that stuck in my mind about it was that because of the shortage of servants, jobs were reasonably easy to come by. She remarked in the course of one of the programmes that ‘if you didn’t like where you were, you just pottered off and found somewhere else’ – which she seemed to have done several times. And you were indisputably better off in service than you were – like my forebears – as lead miners in the Yorkshire Dales!

  7. Presented Mrs. D.C. with Christmas tickets for Dressing Downton in Chicago.

    Thought it was an odd gift but she wanted it.


    Now, I’m kinda, sorta, maybe looking forward to it.

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