At long last, it is time to say goodbye to the Crawley family. After six seasons featuring plenty of heartbreak, scandal, near-financial ruin and a good deal of snobbery, “Downton Abbey” (2011 – present in the United States) is signing off for good. The show, which wrapped up its U.K. run in December, is currently airing its sixth and final season on PBS, giving American audiences a chance to bid farewell to the beloved Crawley family and its many servants.
“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes has undertaken the unenviable task of making a viewing audience sympathetic to the often unrelatable concerns of an earl’s family in the early 20th century. “Downton” is at its best when it is able to make these affairs compelling and important, and over its six seasons, especially in its early years, the show has largely been successful on this front.
Season six, thus far, has been somewhat hit or miss—a critique that could easily be leveled at recent seasons of “Downton.” Perhaps one of the most gratifying aspects of this season has been Fellowes’ willingness to grant some measure of happiness to the show’s most long-suffering characters, namely Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and the very unlucky Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle). Lady Edith has been happily reunited with her illegitimate daughter and is finding success running her late fiancé’s publishing company. It’s a refreshing development to see that Edith, who began the series as whiny, rather spiteful young woman who suffered through several seasons of heartbreak, has matured into an impressively capable, confident mother and editor. Meanwhile, fan-favorite couple Anna and John, the faithful servants of the Crawleys, have been subjected to a frankly incredulous amount of misfortune since their season two weddin, but mercifully, it appears Fellowes has decided to allow them a bit of joy. After several miscarriages, Anna, thanks to some help from Lady Mary’s(Michelle Dockery) fertility specialist, is safely pregnant and the much-tormented couple can rest easy.
This season, however, has not been without its missteps. The most egregious of these has been a storyline featuring the irrelevant characters Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Miss Denker (Sue Johnston), respectively the butler and maid to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), attempting to embarrass each other in front of their boss. It is unclear why Fellowes thinks this unnecessary and irritating plot line is a compelling or interesting one. Perhaps it was added for comic relief — if so, it has failed rather miserably. Its only redeeming quality is the inclusion of the delightful Smith, who, as ever, remains easily the best part of the series; she continues to deliver her lines with charm and wit while also imbuing her character with a surprising amount of empathy and warmth.
The show has always been concerned with the challenges that the changing social and economic landscape brings to Downton, and this season is no exception. Indeed, the show is rather heavy-handed in conveying anxieties about the estate’s uncertain future— over and over again we are told that great families like the Crawleys and great houses like Downton no longer have a role in the modernizing world. It’s hard to begrudge “Downton Abbey” this lack of subtlety, however; melodrama has always been the show’s strong suit. After all, at its heart, “Downton” has always been a soap opera. This fact can be obscured by the haughty accents, the beautiful costumes and the exquisitely detailed sets, but often it is in its most cloyingly sentimental moments where “Downton” truly shines.
It is clear, however, that “Downton” must come to an end. It will surely be hard for the millions who tune in each week to say goodbye to beloved characters, nor will it be any easier for PBS, which loses the highest rated drama in its history when “Downton” takes its bow in March. However sad it may be for fans to let go of these characters, it has become obvious that the stories worth telling about them have already been told. After countless scenes set around Downton’s elaborate dinner table or in the servants’ hall, it is time to bid the Crawley family—and its servants—adieu.