Downton Abbey Dish #36

Deborah Gilbert | March 30, 2015

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ ~Winston Churchill

OK, so maybe it is the beginning of the end. But in a week where, from the global village to the East Village, it seemed like there was nothing but bad news to be had, the disappointment of fans upset at losing their favorite TV show doesn’t seem to amount to a hill of beans in this world. Yet it was sad all the same – maybe because it is the outlet of being able to take a break and lose yourself in the beautifully drawn world of a great drama for an hour on a Sunday evening that helps make the real one a bit easier to take the rest of the week.

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy!:

As I was writing this first off-season Downton Abbey Dish update, we were still basking in the post-Season 5 glow and there was a lot of ground to cover because, weeks after the finale, Downton was still in the news every single day. And much of that news centered around three formidable women (when does Downton ever not center around formidable women?) But this post-season was all about two Kates and a Maggie – more specifically, Duchess Kate, Cate Blanchett and Maggie Smith.

For weeks there was giddy anticipation of Duchess Kate’s visit to the Downton Abbey set at Ealing Studios in London. And when she finally arrived the video reports were fun to watch because it was pretty obvious that she is a fan and was just as excited to meet the actors in character as any of us would be. Check out these two clips:

I especially love the moment where she suddenly realizes that Bates is standing there behind her! Those royals, they’re just like us. Kinda. If that wasn’t exciting enough, then, like every other actress with a pulse, Cate Blanchett mentioned in an interview that she’d love to guest on Downton Abbey. She was doing publicity for the new Cinderella film costarring Lily James (Cousin Rose) and Sophie McShera (Daisy) when she let it slip that she’d reached out via official and unofficial channels. She joins the long list of actresses trying to catapult themselves over the transom and into producer Gareth Naeme’s office. Most I have no interest in seeing at Downton. But the thought of Cate Blanchett on Downton Abbey immediately made my mind race thinking about whom she might play. She could show up as Editor Charming’s loony wife; maybe no longer loony, or maybe never loony, just estranged, and now ready to tangle with Lady Edith over his estate. Wouldn’t that be delicious?

Maggie May:

Besides that excitement, there was the alarming news from Dame Maggie Smith, that Season 6 of Downton would be her last, taken from an off-hand joke she made in an interview with a tabloid about how old the Dowager must be at this point in the show. Somehow this turned into the Dowager was being killed off, and ran in virtually every media outlet on the planet, all based on that one piece in that British tabloid. (Does no one double-source anymore?) It became such a BIG story that both her publicist and the Downton front office came out and denied it, saying that she was committed to the show for its entire run. Sigh. Millions exhaled, champagne corks popped, Labradors stopped howling at the moon. All was right in Yorkshire and the greater world…

Then this happened:

In case you haven’t heard, it was announced, officially, that Season 6 would be Downton Abbey‘s last. Wait, what? One supposes there was some truth in Maggie’s jest after all, but she let the cat out of the proverbial bag too soon. Yes, she was committed to the full run of Downton Abbey, but turns out, Season 6 is the last for everyone. Let wailing commence! But let’s not start sitting shiva just yet. We’ve got a ways to go first!

The Boys in the Band:

Downton Abbey has been (arguably) the biggest British import since the Beatles. And just like the Beatles, they are breaking up while still at their peak. From the time the Fab Four turned left at Greenland and hit Ed Sullivan to the time they broke up was about six years. The same as Downton Abbey. It was six glorious years, full of fresh fun, innovation, and pop culture magic that has stood the test of time. Downton, like the Beatles, will call it quits while everyone still wants more and while there are still new stories and old characters are still revealing new, interesting layers. And just like with the Beatles there are legions of fans who will forevermore hope that someday they’ll see the band to get back together. Hey, maybe Lorne Michaels will offer the Downton Abbey cast $3000 to reunite for a sketch on SNL. Even though emotionally we want them to keep going, intellectually we understand that it is better to exit the stage with the audience asking, “why now?” rather than, “when already?”

Do You Believe In Magic?:

What a fun ride this has been, and I am certain it will continue for Season 6! I am also certain that writers and showbiz types will be trying to analyze the Downton Abbey phenomenon for years after it’s gone; trying to crack the enigma code of its’ popularity so they can attempt to copy it or grab some of its’ secret sauce for their own projects. Somehow I doubt they will be able to. This show has truly been something special. But as great as it is, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that is part of its charm as well. Yes, the Historical Oracle is there making sure the details are just right, but it knows how to laugh at itself, and so do we.

Simply put, Downton Abbey caught lightning in a bottle. It is a magic that happens when the right actors meet the right words and ideas, and the chemistry (that you cannot ever really cast for) comes into play and brings it to life – and then production artistry ties it all up in a beautiful bespoke confection. It is creativity and hard work, mixed with the ethereal, all in equal measure. One cannot ever figure out for sure why or how it happened. It just did. And it’s just plain fun!

Maybe timing had a part in its popularity as well. Arriving as it did, during a global recession, it was set in a world apart from ours. But even at the beginning it was relatable. The characters strived and struggled as we do, with the threat of financial and social ruin and the burden of unforgiving expectation. Technology was changing their world as it is changing ours. Today, as many families no longer eat together, this family, both upstairs and down, sits down together every night for the sometimes passive/aggressive theater known as ‘dinner’. As communities fracture in the modern day, Downton Abbey depicts a community that is bound together by rules both written and unwritten, with characters held in place by invisible chains and gilded cages – and caring, because there is great care in this place. It made each of us wonder where our place would be in this mythical world. Would we fit upstairs or down? Could we be as good as Anna? As wise as Mrs. Hughes? Could we navigate having zero rights with the aplomb of some of the female characters? Where is our Carson when we need a draft of self-confidence? Could we put all our own hopes and wants aside to serve in this way? It also made us even more grateful that today, thanks to the shoulders we stand on, we have more choices.

All of this starts with the writing of Julian Fellowes. He has a way of writing and storytelling that leaves breathing room for the audience has and has allowed the imaginations of fans to take flight, like few other programs in the history of television. Downton has become part of cultural iconography. Everyone who has been on this show will always be remembered for being on Downton Abbey, no matter what else they do in their careers. Even if they become EGOTs or Nobel Prize laureates or marry into the royal family, Rob-James Collier will always be Thomas; Jim Carter will always be Carson; Michelle Dockery will always be Lady Mary, and so on. They are bound together in the same manner as John, Paul, George and Ringo. They were part of a crazy, life-altering moment that only they can understand.

Parting Will Be Such Sweet Sorrow:

How would you like to see the show (dare I say) end? Are there certain story aspects that are essential for you to see to be able to go in peace? Are there questions you need answers to before the Familia Crawley et al. go off into that good night? If you’re like me there is a long list! I’d like to finally know what the big secret is behind Mr. Bates. I’ve always thought there is something dark there, something that makes him think, “I am nothing”; and that has made him willing to go to jail for two different wives. (The first one, he didn’t even like!) What could there be in his past that makes him think he must pay? I want to know. And how will it affect our PollyAnna going forward? Will they ever have kids? Will the law ever leave them alone or will Daisy have to continue her studies and become lawyer, just to keep them out of jail?

Will there be ‘and they lived happily ever after’ endings for the rock’em sock’em Crawley girls? I think not, because life just isn’t that way. But what form will that not-necessarily-happy-ending take? Will Mary finally get so tired of looking for Lord Right that she decides to settle…for Evelyn Napier? Might the one with the most gifts and promise at the start end up the most ordinary at the end? And what of unlucky Edith, accidental feminist and publishing magnate? There’s no doubt she’s keeping Marigold, but one doubts it will be smooth sailing. We still don’t know if Marigold thinks of her as mummy or the nice lady who took her away from mummy.

And of course the romantic in me would love to see some broom jumping for Carson and Mrs. Hughes; Baxter and Molesley; and Isobel and Dickie Merton. I’d like to find out whatever happened to Ethel and little Charlie, and the Canadian Mummy, and even O’Brien. I want Thomas to find love, as much as that was possible at the time. I want to find out who killed Green, if he was intentionally killed, especially if it was someone we know. I want to find out who knows what secrets. I want Madge to get at least one line before this is over, so the extra who plays her can have something to show her grandkids. And while we’re at it, I want a pony.

Viva La Violet!:

Is there anything that you hope does NOT happen? Personally, I hope Violet lives on beyond the ending. According to Wikipedia, Violet was born in 1842. That makes her 83 in 1925. Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (the Queen Mum) lived to be 101, and if George Gershwin is to be believed, Methuselah lived 900 years. It is not unreasonable that Violet should survive Season 6 and still be available to be wheeled in for the occasional bon mot, should the gang reassemble at some point in the not too distant future…like say, the late 30’s? And even if that never happens I’d like to go off into the sunset thinking she’s still out there somewhere, if only in my imagination, torturing the servants, sparring with Isobel, and wreaking her own brand of slightly subversive havoc on the county at large.

Gareth Naeme has teased that there might, might, be the possibility of a Downton Abbey movie in the future. There are no plans for it right now, but he said that if he and Lord Fellowes could “get all their ducks in a row”, he would be game. Having seen pre-season preview events where the show is projected on a big movie screen and looks absolutely GORGEOUS, I’d say that is a tantalizing prospect. Made further tantalizing by him saying that he would consider it a separate thing, that the story could take place in any time frame, not necessarily after 1925 when Season 6 ends. Interesting. One supposes that means Matthew or Sybil or even O’Brien could figure in. A Downton Abbey movie! Would you go see it? I would!

These are things I want and don’t want, but what does the mind of Julian Fellowes want? That remains to be seen. Will he feel pressure to give fans the happy endings he knows they want? Did the hullabaloo over Matthew’s death give him a fear of the pitchforks and torches that could accompany bad news and ill-timed splats? Or will he fearlessly follow his vision wherever it takes him? Will the Crawleys even be able to keep the estate in the end? Or will the ending be that they finally lose it all and have to watch as the ‘family’, both upstairs and down, scatter in the wind? There is still so much story to tell!

When I was in the circus, one of the arenas we played was in Anaheim, California. It was probably my favorite stop on the tour (next to Madison Square Garden) because every night of our two-week stay, as we finished one of our big numbers and ran off stage, we could watch the nightly fireworks display going off over Disneyland across the street. It was truly special. But I started to think about all the people who lived in the neighborhood, and I wondered if, to them, fireworks were just a ho-hum, no big deal kind of thing. After all, they saw them every night, so maybe they took them for granted. Perhaps that’s what happens when something brilliant sticks around for too long, no matter how great it is. Downton Abbey will never get the chance to be taken for granted.

Whenever I finish a great book or movie, I always find myself wondering what happened to the characters after it ended. The characters live on in my imagination. And that is where all the residents of Downton Abbey will reside after Season 6; in our collective imaginations.

‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’ ~ Dr. Seuss

But let’s pull it together, people! We really should wait until (at least) episode 7 of Season 6, that’s sometime next February, before we start crying over this or we’ll all get dehydrated and never make it through! So cheer up! And for now, forget about a cat in a hat; here’s a dog in a hat! Yes, something to make you smile: Isis in a trilby from Allen Leech’s Twitter feed.


Cooler Aid:

Downton does have its detractors, mostly people who haven’t watched it and are just sick of hearing about it. I have to say that I work with a couple. (You didn’t think I just watch Downton Abbey all day, did you?) My co-workers just didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Finally, about a month ago I suggested they have a look and offered to lend them my DVD set. I have made this offer a few times before but this time they took me up on it. Now they are hooked, and almost every day I come in to questions about Thomas, and Carson, and about how upset they’ll be if Bates goes to jail, and what’s with this entail stuff, and will we ever see Gwen again, and declarations of love for Sybil, and on and on. But after this big announcement, you may have encountered the other sort; the people who don’t get it and are a bit smug about it, gloating that the end is nigh. Here’s how to handle it:

When one of them asks you if you’ll miss Downton Abbey when it’s over, just answer, “Of course I’ll miss it, you old booby!” and turn on your heel and walk away, giggling to yourself, at the confused expression on their face. An expression that only another Downtonian could understand.

I know. But we’ll get through it. Remember the words of Seuss (above), often.

Get a roundup of broadcast and digital premieres, special offers, and events with our weekly newsletter.