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.
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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.
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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.