Downton Abbey: Season 6 Recap

Deborah Gilbert | March 14, 2016

by Deborah Gilbert, British TV Maven & thirteen.org contributor

As we stare into the Downtonless abyss, let us pause and remember where we were when Season 6 began, and take heart: Mary was all dressed up, only to sit alone playing solitaire, thinking her life was up the spout; Edith said to Rosamund, “sometimes I feel I’ve been given a little bit of happiness and that will have to do.”; Mr. Mason thought he had bought the farm; Lord Grantham admitted out loud (and to Mummy Violet no less) that he wondered how long they could go on – and we attended the going out of business auction at Mallarton, where the Lord in residence had lost everything, and had a dire warning for Robert; even that nasty chambermaid proclaimed, “Your lot’s finished!”. It seemed as if everything was circling the drain. Admit it, we all had the feeling that as the season (and series) drew to a close, we would watch the Crawleys drive away from Downton for the last time with all their belongings tied to the car Grapes of Wrath-style. Little did they (and we) know that they were on the verge of better things. We couldn’t see around the bend in the road, so we thought it was the end; instead it was the beginning of all sorts of new possibilities – a bit like life.

The End of the Beginning:

What did the Downton Abbey finale teach us? Lady Edith has dimples! I don’t think I had ever noticed that before, had you? Then again, that could be because she never had much chance to use them until now. But in the finale she really got to take them out for a spin. It was dimples, dimples everywhere, and way too much use of the h-word (happy) for my nervous, jinx-fearing heart. We all know what happens when a character says they’re happy – cue the lighting strike! But hey, I’ll go with it and hope for the best. I do hope that at whatever point in the future there is a sequel, Edith and Bertie, and Marigold (and a younger sibling to be named later) will be living happily enough ever after – even with the old bat (though I still think one of them is going to get tossed into the moat). This final season also reminded us of the characters who left us and how they left an imprint that still resonates today: William’s sacrifice saved Matthew, and Matthew left Mary with Master George, and Downton an heir, and Lady Sybil left the example of how kindness transforms lives.

Girl Power:

Right now we’re disappointed that Downton has ended and we’re a bit like Lady Mary that first morning we met her, looking out on another uninspiring day and ringing for assistance – but like Lady Edith, we will move on and triumph. All of these characters have taken quite a journey these last thirteen years – and they have taken us along for the ride with them. While the story of Downton Abbey takes place at a time when a patriarchal society ruled the day and women had very little control over their own lives, it has always been the experiences of women that have propelled these stories forward. I do believe that Edith has taken the most interesting journey of all (or maybe that’s just because her journey was the most recognizable and relatable to the modern woman). She started out as the Edwardian Jan Brady and through disappointment and heartbreak she had no choice but to reimagine her life, and in so doing she ended up becoming the accidental feminist. From the disappointment and heartbreak rose something brighter. Had Sir Anthony not taken off running, Edith would now be a bored housewife and an old man’s drudge. Around the corner was Editor Charming and the Bloomsbury set and Marigold and a career, and a purpose driven life. Even if Bertie hadn’t come along, she is surely better off than she would have been. And as for Mary, if Matthew hadn’t gone splat she wouldn’t have…oh wait, she probably would have been better off living out her days with Matthew – but it would not have been as interesting for the audience. Like the characters, Julian Fellowes made the best of a situation thrust upon him and he made it sing.

Three Times a Lady:

If Mary’s expiration date with Pamuk had happened in 2012 instead of 1912, she would not have been terrified of the ruin the scandal would bring her; her only worry would be about having the right team to field all the offers she’d be getting from all the reality TV show producers and other media beating a path to her door. That’s one area where 1912 has it over us! Despite their big differences, the rock ‘em, sock ‘em Crawley sisters have always had something in common: The burden of expectation. For Mary it was the burden of great expectation, and for Edith it was the burden no expectation at all, other than (dare I say) spinsterhood. (Ladies, aren’t we glad this term has been retired from the lexicon??) Could it be that this was always the source of their animosity? Mary always seemed to have it all, or at least, liked to give the impression of having at all. That was all part of the expectation and really led her to doubt herself every step of the way. In the end with Snappy Talbot, did she lower her standards or did she just let stop letting her breeding interfere with her heart? When she finally let go of that weight of what her choices would look like to other people, of that expectation of whom she should marry, rather than who she was in love with, she found her used-car salesman. The same goes for her downstairs dad: Carson, the most stalwart in the anti-change brigade, made possibly the biggest leap of all when he finally opened his heart and let Mrs. Hughes in. Likewise with Isobel and sweet Lord Tingleberry. Isobel helped him escape the clutches of his poisonous ne’re do well monsters and finally stopped allowing their hatefulness to have power over her. Love won out again, and it was a sprint to the altar all around. Great business for all the haberdashers in the village.

Love Will Keep Us Together:

We never did find out the secrets Bates holds that made him feel like he was nothing, or that made Robert owe a debt to him. (Though one supposes they are separate secrets, but who knows?)  It shall always remain the riddle of the Sphinx. In the beginning, Downton was the only thing that stood between him and the workhouse and it didn’t look too good for him early on. Now he’s got Anna and a son and a life (until the cops come knocking again). Similarly, when we met Mr. Molesley he was a spare part, never quite fitting in anywhere. He was the downstairs Edith. Now he’s got a new lease on life as a teacher, and maybe a future with Baxter.

Of all the characters, I think Daisy has changed the least. The only thing we ever learned about her back story is that she was only ever special to William and Mr. Mason, so we are left to assume that she was an orphan who created a family for herself at Downton. In a way they have all created a family there. And Daisy’s surrogate mother Mrs. Patmore, the ‘cross, red-faced old woman’, is still the same as when we met her, though we know of the caring behind her so we see the humor in her more than we did initially. That is often the lesson of drama: As the layers of the onion peel back we learn that there is more to people that what appears at first glance. Yes, she can be a cross, red-faced old woman, but she is also so much more than that. She is a confessor, advocate, referee and counselor – and when needed, she can fill Dr. Ruth’s sensible shoes, albeit, with a lot more blushing and internal screaming. Is there a future for her with Mr. Mason?

It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish:

The best change, for the future of Downton is that it is out of Lord Never Met A Nigerian Spam Scam He Didn’t Fall For’s control. While Mary is definitely her father’s daughter, she’s smarter and a bit tougher. That bodes well, though as I’ve mention before, we are just a few years away from the great depression, so who knows who that will affect everyone at Downton. But for now, with Downton safe in Mary and Tom’s hands, Robert can concentrate on alternatively dismissing, then rediscovering Cora from here to eternity. He’s a little bit country, she’s a little bit rock and roll. He resented her working at the hospital until he realized that a little nurses’ outfit could spice things up a little. All’s well that ends well.
Rainbow Connection:

Of everyone at Downton, Thomas probably would have benefitted the most if Downton had folded its tent for good and he had to forge a new life. Yes, he wanted to stay at Downton, but I can’t help but think that had he resettled in London, he would have found community and maybe love. Maybe he still can somehow. We’d like to hope he can. If you think about it, the Pamuk scandal, the event that has rippled through every season since, didn’t really start with Edith’s letter to the Turkish Embassy, or even Pamuk creeping into Lady Mary’s bedroom — it began with Thomas. It began with the secret Thomas had to keep, that he was gay (which was illegal in the UK up until 1974 and could have been his ruin, had it been exposed in the way Pamuk threatened). The fear of that exposure gave Pamuk a big mallet to hold over Thomas’ head, forcing him to show Pamuk to Mary’s room in the first place – and the rest is history. So really, the overarching scandal to Downton’s biggest scandal was caused by the unjust way society treated Thomas and so many others like him.

The Notorious Dow G:

And then there is The Dowager. She had the last word. It wasn’t scripted that way, she just took it, the same way she stole every other scene she was in for six seasons. What can we say about Violet Crawley. Downton Abbey was so perfectly cast that we cannot imagine anyone else playing any of these characters, none more so than Maggie Smith. She is simply miraculous, the best there is, and how lucky have we been to watch her, to watch all of them for all these years? We cannot even imagine what it would have been like if we had gotten to Downton and not found her there. So we end with the perfect line, with the perfect person to deliver it. Will she still be around for the rumored sequel? Well, last week there was a news story about a 112-year-old man so why not? We live in hope.

He Said, She Said: 

It is interesting to note that Lord Fellowes is an advocate for gender neutral primogeniture. It may be because his wife was the niece of an Earl, and because her uncle no children, she would have inherited the title – if women were allowed to inherit. That has still not changed; titles are passed through the male line only. Instead, because there were no male heirs, when her uncle died his title became extinct. That could be why we began this story with the death of the male heir and the search for the new one – and Violet and Cora’s attempts to see if they could shift anything over to Mary. This makes me ask: Is she the inspiration for Mary? And as I mentioned last week, Lord Fellowes has Essential Tremor, the same malady he gave to Carson, which makes me wonder: Has Carson been his alter ego all along? We already know that Violet was based on a great aunt; could it be that these two touchstone characters, Lady Mary and Carson, one upstairs and one downstairs, were based on Julian Fellowes and his wife? That’s a question, one among many, to which I’d love to know the answer!

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: 

Like Violet, ‘I hate Greek drama, where everything happens off-stage.’ And now that our time at Downton is over, everything that happens to the Crawleys and company will be happening off stage, out of our sight. But we do imagine it all goes on, don’t we? It’s like getting to the end of a great novel and wondering what happens to the characters next. Lord Fellowes did set up happy endings all around (or planted the seeds of them, leaving wiggle room for future incarnations), but who knows? Like Robert said, anything can happen.

Here’s what I think will happen:

  • Carson will undoubtedly retire but continue to live nearby on the estate (except for his eyebrows, which will go to a petting zoo in York);
  • Of course, Mrs. Hughes will eventually retire as well, but she doesn’t have to do so right now, the way he feels he must, so that is up in the air, but I think she’ll continue working if for no other reason than being stuck in that cottage with him all day and night just might turn them into Ralph and Alice Kramden;
  • It looks like Branson and Lady Editor started to spark there and she even caught the bouquet – definite possibilities;
  • Andy and Daisy will get married and move into Mr. Mason’s farmhouse;
  • In about twelve years, Molesley will finally summon the courage to ask Baxter to marry him (and they’ll have a son, and she will name him Coyle);
  • Madge the phantom housemaid will become a famous Motivational Speaker;
  • Mrs. Drewe will cause a great scandal in the village by running off with Evelyn Napier, and together they will start a 12-step program for Crawley Castoffs;
  • Mrs. Patmore will become a notorious madam (naturally);
  • Dickie and Isobel will try to spend down all his money and bankrupt his estate, sliding into home on empty so there is none left for his mongrels;
  • And the kinder, gentler Thomas 2.0 will become the Carson to the next generation – and so it goes (though I do hope he gets to spend some time in London to go sketching with Annabelle Portsmouth’s brother).

But what of Anna and Bates? The possibilities I see for them might be the ones I’d most like to see in a Downton Abbey sequel: I think they will live on at Downton for life, their son will grow up in the Downton nursery alongside Master George and the baby Mary is expecting, (hopefully a daughter who, when she is older, will take up with young Bates – and what a palava that will cause!) How much fun would that be? And if they jump far enough into the future, who could play Master George as an adult? Dan Stevens, I say. What say you?

You can bet your Dutch Thingamajig: 

For years to come, every new TV season there will be shows that are touted as ‘the next Downton Abbey’. I also expect that for at least as long, people will ask why Downton Abbey became such a huge phenomenon and everyone will have their own theory. Here’s mine: I think the answer is very simple and lies within what Lady Mary said to Lord Tony last season (after she unceremoniously dumped him), and I paraphrase, ‘It was what we needed, when we needed it.’ Yes, Downton Abbey was brilliantly written, perfectly cast (with the kind of chemistry and kismet you can never plan for), it had amazing production values and loving attention to every tiny detail (historic and otherwise); all of which created nothing short of magic – but it was more than that. It was also timing. At a time when we were still in recovery from the devastating economic downturn, when coarseness and rudeness were the order of the day in the public sphere (especially in politics and the media), when our own world seemed to be fracturing and spinning out of control in every possible direction and there are no answers and no security, along came Downton Abbey. It allowed us to escape into the fantasy of this perfectly ordered world where there was tradition and service; dedication and nobility; caring (with a side dish of devious plotting and adversity to overcome) and civility. Hello! Civility! It was a world where Carson and Mrs. Hughes had all the answers. They gave us hot cocoa and tucked us into bed, reassured, every Sunday night.

And why could we make that escape? Because of PBS. It’s no secret that Downton has been a bigger hit here than back home in the UK and I believe that is because we got to watch it commercial-free on PBS, while in the UK it was on commercial TV. Downton Abbey would have been a completely different experience had it been interrupted every fifteen minutes for commercials about toenail fungus and (shall we say) performance enhancing drugs. Here, we got an uninterrupted bliss that allowed us to fall into the fantasy and just spend an hour inside that world. How terribly splendid!

Let It Snow Globe:

It’s funny, back in Season 2, in one of my Dish recaps I wrote that Downton was just a big snow globe that the Dowager shakes at will, and as the camera pulled away from Downton in that final scene, it did look like that’s just what it was! Even though we will now be taking leave of Crawley and company, their story hasn’t really ended. All these vividly drawn, allegedly fictional characters will live on in our imaginations. We will now have to create their stories for ourselves – and here is one thing I know for sure: These auld acquaintances will not be forgot. Not by any of us, not anytime soon (I’m actually getting a little choked up as I’m typing this). Thank you Mrs. Hughes. It really has been a wonderful slice of life!

FYI: It Ain’t Over Till…Well, It Ain’t Over At All:

This isn’t the end for the Downton Abbey Dish! I will continue to write about British programs for THIRTEEN. Later this month two favorites are back; Grantchester and Mr. Selfridge, followed by Call the Midwife in April. And then there’s Mr. Scythe himself, Poldark; he’ll be back in June – though hopefully his shirt won’t get here till July (not that I’m shallow). Please keep checking back to read up on these fantabulous programs that jump the pond courtesy of PBS!

On top of that, the archive of Downton Abbey Dishes will remain here on thirteen.org, so in the future, whether you re-watch Downton Abbey (as I know you will) on the DVDs you pledged for, or on the FABULOUS new THIRTEEN Passport, you will be able to search THIRTEEN’s website to find the Dish that corresponds with whatever episode you’re watching (starting with Season 2, Episode 1). Enjoy!

So it’s not goodbye. It’s just ta-ta for now! And you can follow me every day on Twitter: If you’re on Twitter, please join us there by following me at @E20Launderette and THIRTEEN at @ThirteenWNET.