‘Downton Abbey': The Final Voyage

The British TV drama ends Sunday, capping the journey of an unlikely hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The most recent "Downtown Abbey" ended with Lord Grantham, he of the exploding ulcer, striking a rare note of tranquility after the sudden marriage of his tempest-in-a-fascinator daughter, Lady Mary.

"It seems all our ships are coming into port," he declared.

The maritime imagery proved appropriate for the UK period piece, which launched with the 1912 Titanic disaster and wended its way over six seasons to 1925. The sinking of the supposedly invincible British passenger liner set the course for a series chronicling the last vestiges of a feudal-based, outmoded way of life, buffeted by disruptive technological and social upheaval, not to mention modern warfare.

Lord Grantham's peaceful post-wedding reflection could have provided a neat-enough ending for the ITV-PBS drama's run. But "Downton Abbey" sets sail one last time Sunday, marking a final voyage for an unlikely hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Downton," emerged from its post-Edwardian trappings to connect with today’s audience. Much of the credit goes to creator Julian Fellowes for imbuing the program with a (mostly) strong balance of wit and character-driven upstairs-downstairs drama set against a vibrant, century-past landscape.

He also instilled in “Downton” a quasi-contemporary sensibility: If there were Reality TV at the time, feuding sisters Mary and Edith would have been casting cinches for "The Real Ladies of Yorkshire." Conflict stoked by progress (remember how the arrival of a telephone flummoxed head butler Carson in Season 1?) also proved relatable – as did tensions between the One Percent and the rest of the world.

Not that there was ever any chance of armed insurrection at Grantham Manor. Lord Grantham takes seriously, to the point of worrying himself sick, his duty to care for his underlings, wielding a high hand cloaked in a velvet glove. Carson is even more dedicated to the old ways, keeping up appearances at all costs amid new economic realities.

One of the strengths of the show’s final run rests in watching various characters slowly acclimate to a rapidly evolving world, one that’s soon to change far faster and more irrevocably than any of the Downton set could imagine.

Tom and Mary are managing the estate with a forward-looking practicality. Edith broke barriers to run a women's magazine. Sure, Maggie Smith's wisecracking Dowager Countess lost her battle to keep control of the local hospital. But she's shown a practical streak in holding her tongue amid scandal that suggests she's learned how to survive at the top.

Adaptation extends to the servants' quarters: Mrs. Patmore, Downton’s earthy cook, opened her own (scandal-plagued) bed-and-breakfast. Newlyweds Carson and Mrs. Hughes appear poised to follow suit (presumably sans intrigue). Seemingly ditsy kitchen hand Daisy learned to embrace education – and gained a sense of social justice. Ditto for Mr. Molesley, who is on his way to becoming an effective school teacher.

Stubborn social mores, though, make life tougher for some than others. Footman Thomas struggled to find a reason to live in an era unaccepting of the love that dare not speak its name. Poor Lady Edith apparently blew her last chance at happiness by concealing her out-of-wedlock daughter from a principled (and newly titled) man who would have accepted the truth, but couldn't live with her deception.

Speaking of kids, perhaps perennially star-crossed servants Anna and Bates, thanks to medical advances, will find lasting happiness through a child of their own.

Anna's pregnancy and all the little Crawleys running around the manor offer a reminder of what viewers know is on tap for the world, beyond mid-1920s Downton. The offspring will come of age during World War II. Looming even sooner is the 1929 stock market crash, when old money – and new – sunk into a dark abyss overnight.

Smooth sailing may prove elusive for the Downton denizens, even in the short term. As he enjoyed his moment of satisfaction in the latest episode, Lord Grantham, allowed that the manor is destined for new surprises: "I'm sure we haven't seen the last one yet."

His words and a preview of the finale portend for some waves as "Downton Abbey" sails off into the sun as it sets on the British Empire.  

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter. 
Copyright FREEL - NBC Local Media
Contact Us