No one could have anticipated the cultural juggernaut that Downton Abbey became, and while it never quite reached the heights of its first two seasons, the sixth and final season was a return to pleasant form. Everything may have ended up a little too tidily, with every single core character finding contentment and happiness, romantic or otherwise, but this isn’t Game of Thrones. While there has been quite a body count over the years for a costume drama, romance and happy endings are part of the deal.
Upstairs, the Crawleys have come through quite a bit of pain before reaching the end of the line. The loss of Sybil and Matthew in season three may have opened up some new storylines for Tom and Mary, but both still bear the scars. Mary moves on in more obvious ways, having dealt with a host of suitors before finally settling on Henry Talbot, a man of style but not money. Honestly, Mary’s cruel streak returned in a big way during the final season, with her behaving in ways that would have horrified her first husband. Her continued mistreatment of Edith was enough to make many viewers actively root against the ice queen, and her last-minute machinations to save Edith’s wedding, which she almost ruined, feel empty. Still, she’s secured a future for her son and snagged a handsome husband, so I guess that counts as a win. While they have to adjust to working alongside their staff in many ways, not that much changes for Lord and Lady Grantham. An adjustment in role and staff size will take time, but there is still that giant house and family money to keep them warm. Similarly, while the Dowager Countess Violet has to adjust to a new life where she cannot call every shot, she still has her maid, her butler, and the ability to head to the French countryside to pout when things don’t go her way. That’s not a bad life.
However, the best development has been for Tom and Edith. It was definitely for the best for Tom to not rush into another romantic relationship; his courting and marriage to Sybil was easily the best and most beautiful on the show. Instead, Tom found his place with the family and peace in his new station. By realizing all of the good that he can do with his newfound influence, Tom finally found the power to institute the real change that he had always craved as a penniless revolutionary. Similarly, Edith’s path has been one of heartache, between broken engagements, lost lovers, a complicated relationship with her illegitimate daughter, and the constant torment from her older sister. However, with an unexpectedly progressive and indomitable spirit, she manages to rise above her situation to find success running a magazine and patches things up with the kind Bertie Pelham, who happens to be a marquis (how delightful for her to finally outrank Mary). While it appeared that show runner Julian Fellowes had used Edith as the show’s whipping boy for a good portion of the series’ run, she ended up with a career, daughter, and loving husband. Not too shabby for the least-favorite daughter.
The bulk of the change and progress happens to the staff downstairs. With the shrinking staff needs and widening world, many are left thinking about their lives after service. As Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson adjust to married life and impending retirement, Carson, afflicted with an unnamed palsy, eases into a more background role in the household, with Thomas Barrow finally finding success as the new head butler. After seasons of being miserable and a suicide attempt, it was good to see the recently softening man find a little bit of peace. Mr. Molesly finally finds something that he’s good at, finding success as a teacher and love with the gentle Ms. Baxter. Daisy quit whining about her life long enough to realize she reciprocated Andy’s ardent feelings, and even Mrs. Patmore had her own romance with Mr. Mason. Finally, the long-suffering Anna and Mr. Bates managed to go an entire season without murder, assault, and heartbreak, finally having a child of their own. It’s a lovely fairy tale to have every single character so matched up and in love, but Downton wouldn’t have it any other way.
Because really, a huge part of the appeal of Downton is the fantasy. When Lord Grantham isn’t wasting the family fortune on doomed railroads, the wealth, leisure, and romance is appealing. However, those are really just vestiges of a world that can no longer be. While it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of ball gowns and fox hunts, you’ll also grow to appreciate the world as it is now. Progress happens slowly at Downton Abbey, and it hasn’t always shown the need for change in ways other than economic; Rose’s brief relationship with a black man was clumsily handled, and Thomas’ storylines often regressed into homosexual stereotypes. However, that’s a perverse part of the appeal. While we may marvel over the costumes and the manners, there’s just enough injustice to make you glad to live in the modern world instead. The finale ends with Isobel and Violet having one last well-meaning sparring match, with the optimistic Isobel (who also manages to find love with Lord Merton before the end) reminding Violet that they “are going forward into the future, not back into the past,” to which the imperious Violet responds “If only we had the choice!” They may be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, but it’s a better world ahead.