I binge-watched the first season of Downton Abbey just before Season Two started, giving in to the good reviews. I liked it OK. By the end of Season Two, my grade had fallen to the “B” range. By the end of Season Four, it was more clear that by “B range” I meant “B-“ at best. I made it through six season kinda like I did with The L Word: habit. But I wasn’t getting much out of it by the end, and if my wife didn’t watch it, I might have given up long ago.
Julian Fellowes gave us a very careful finale that allowed everyone on the show to leave with a happy ending, or, in the words of the Dowager Countess, “happy enough”. Everyone who had feuded made up. Everyone had their health, except Carson, who still has Mrs. Hughes, and even Carson’s illness meant a triumphant return for the reformed Barrow. Babies were born or were expected, people with lives in flux found direction, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was in all likelihood exactly the kind of ending the show’s fans wanted.
I never figured out why I was a fan, and my central concerns, even when I liked it, never went away. Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikeable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.
More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.
I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.
So yes, the finale was nice and tidy, and in the future, I’ll remember the better things about the show, and hopefully forget about the endless legal problems of Bates, or the pointless cattiness of Mary against her sister Edith, or any of the other plotlines that served only as digressions designed to get us through another season. Downton Abbey is not the worst show that I stuck with for six seasons, but it is far from the best.