TV review

You Stay Crazy, ‘Downton’—Your Fans Like You That Way

The Daily Beast

March 2, 2015

Downton Abbey is making its fans mad. Not angry. Insane. We quite like it, to be honest.

Because the show proceeds at such a snail’s pace—a snail wearing a big hat, obviously, with a lady-in-waiting holding a bustle making the snail even slower—the season finale traditionally seems like it’s lost its mind. In 10 minutes, a lot tends to happen.

Do you remember those triple Dynasty cliffhangers (somebody back from the dead, somebody else driven off a bridge, somebody else beamed up by a UFO)? That is the Downton model to get us back for more sniping over the duck breast and Lady Mary boudoir ak-shon for next January.

If the pace and bug-eyed action-packedness of these finales strikes American fans as weird, bear in mind that in Britain they are shown on Christmas Day, when the main TV channels vie fiercely for ratings among a sofa-bound audience with raging sugar highs and alcohol goggles.

On Sunday night, at the end of Season 5, in a storyline that Downton’s creator and writer Julian Fellowes is strangely wedded to (but not us fans, who are bemused as to why it is still going on), Mr. Bates returned to Downton after his confession to killing his wife’s rapist was decided to be invalid because was drinking in a pub in York. And this could now be proved.

Confusingly, his wife had just been freed because of his wrongful confession.

And so Mr. Bates said to her that they had that moment, and to make the most of it, and so they hugged. Presumably, one of them will be rearrested and jailed again at the beginning of Season 6 because really, what would Downton Abbey be without one of Mr. Bates or Mrs. Bates in jail for a crime they didn’t commit?

And anyway, why does she call him Mr. Bates when she’s married to him, and he gets to call her Anna?

Despite doomy predictions that the end of Downton is nigh and that Dame Maggie Smith is leaving (she hasn’t actually said that, merely that she cannot imagine her character being aged to 110), Fellowes told The New York Times on Monday that how long the show continues isn’t his decision.

“I don’t own Downton Abbey now,” he said. “NBC Universal [which owns Carnival Films] owns Downton Abbey. So I could walk away, but I wouldn’t walk away. It’s too much my baby. It won’t go on forever—I’m not a believer in that. But I can’t immediately now tell you where the end will be.”

There’s a sadomasochistic pattern to watching Downton: The beginning of the season opens with excitement (it’s back!); then disappointment quickly sets in (nothing’s happening, oh no, the estate’s not in peril again); glimpses of pleasure (Dame Maggie’s zingers, Lady Mary being a total cow to Lady Edith); and then the exhilaration of a bonkers season finale (WTF was that all about?).

On Sunday night, also in the crazed blur, Mr. Carson proposed to Mrs. Hughes. Now, OK, it was sweet when the two chief servants paddled into the sea together at the end of another season. And episode in, episode out, it’s always good to see them resolve problems and exchange confidences over a glass of sherry. And as a couple they make sense, because they are indubitably good people. But does their companionship need marriage? Who cares? When she called him her “booby,” my love for Mrs. Hughes erupted into an audible “Awwww.” Just like Anna on Sunday night, suddenly Mrs. Hughes had a crazy family back-story placed on her. For, deliciously, no reason whatsoever.

After an incredibly slow and meandering Season 5, the finale was a welcome narrative shot in the arm, as ridiculous as some of the plotting seemed.

Molesley and Baxter became the show’s Hart to Hart, in their mission to York to prove Mr. Bates’s innocence, and even evil Barrow put his evil scheming to good purpose to put one over on awful Lord Sinderby, Rose’s new father-in-law.

But then when Rose saved him from having his infidelity (and bastard child) revealed in public, he became a bit nicer, after all. Everybody was happy.

Downton drives us mad—happily mad, I’d say at the end of Season 5—because it is full of its own internal fiendish games, and tropes. And it has its sweet scenes that happen once in a blue moon, which make you sob a bit—like Robert being nice to Edith on Sunday night about her bastard child. It has bizarre lines that jar pleasurably, but are so Downton, like Branson saying to his father-in-law (originally I thought it was the other way round—you see what I mean about happy confusion?), “I love how you love her,” about Branson’s daughter (and Lord G’s granddaughter), Sybbie.

Season 6 may well be the last—Fellowes is drinking in the last chance saloon when it comes to vital letters being sent or never received. Or read and misunderstood. Or read and anguished over. Letters, letters, letters, full of declarations, intentions, and threats.

Imagine the show ever endures long enough for these people to discover mobile phones and the Internet. The dowager countess with an iPhone and an unlimited friends-and-family plan would lead the estate to surefire bankruptcy in six days.

Who has the easiest job on television? Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, mistress of Downton, who wafts around the house, saying, “Oh, Raabert,” and “Poor Edith” on rotation, and who during the dining scenes is filmed always looking with wonder at a chandelier or nodding, fascinated, at whomever her neighbor is.

This season, she got the hint of a romantic storyline with Richard E. Grant, but she just looked at some art, Raabert got jealous, and that was that.

Lady Mary ended the season as she had progressed through it: being thrown a man by Fellowes and then toying with him as a cat does with a ball of yarn. At least in this case, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) met her archness with archness—and when he fired his gun so skillfully, Ms. “Fifty Shades of Crawley” smiled even more lasciviously. We’ll see him again next year.

As for “Poor Edith,” somehow Downton’s most sadistically downtrodden character now has her own secret love child in her care, after palming her off with an estate worker and his wife. There was even a hint of romance for Edith in this finale, and he seemed nice—not infirm or liable to disappear, which is an improvement.

But Edith happy? Never. Her name is “Poor Edith,” not “Edith.” Or, as Fellowes told The New York Times: “I think in life there are people who are unlucky—the bread always falls with the butter side down. Edith is an example of that.”

Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married into the family but who never lost the smell of class-conflict gunpowder in his nostrils, elected to go to Boston with little Sybbie, and Lord Grantham, in saying a drunken goodbye, looked like he would have a heart attack to go along with the diagnosis of angina earlier in the episode. But he stayed upright.

There was even a Fellowes classic food-hilarity storyline involving Denker making a chicken soup for the dowager countess, and her other servant Spratt trying to sabotage it and her employment. The dowager countess didn’t end up rekindling things with the Russian prince with the ’80s mullet (Michael Bolton, as tortured Chekhov protagonist), instead reuniting him with his sour-faced estranged wife. Still, it was nice to be lusted after, she said.

If the overall feeling was one of amity Sunday night, do not expect it to last—even for poor Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, whose progress to the altar may not be smooth. Or for the perennially unlucky, wrongfully convicted and jailed Mr. and Mrs. Bates. But we will return. And we will bitch about its infuriating plot twists and inconsistencies. And we will say it’s done, and tired, and get frustrated at yet another misplaced letter. And of course Lady Edith will be shamed anew. And of course Lady Mary will court yet more scandal. And of course Mr. and Mrs. Bates will never be happy, and they will suffer this nobly.

Fellowes closed his New York Times interview, laughing. “Well, you know, Downton is a bumpy path.” Praise be for that.