A warning to any Americans reading this: spoilers!
For the past eight Sundays, I’ve been faithfully watching the sixth series of Downton Abbey – which also happens to be the last ever series, aside from the upcoming Christmas special to round things off. But whenever it’s on, I’m always going back and forth between the TV and Twitter, looking at other people’s amusing live-tweets while adding my own.
I never live-tweet with Doctor Who. I take that show about an immortal time-travelling alien very seriously, so I give it my full attention, make a few notes and then blog about how I felt afterwards. But for this last series of Downton, and the previous one to a lesser extent, much of the enjoyment has come from poking fun at it. That’s partly because it does have some silly moments – in one scene, Lady Mary and her latest beau Henry Talbot are walking down a street when there’s a sudden thunderclap and rain instantly starts to fall, like something out of Sesame Street. It’s also because a lot of this latest series has been pretty dull: there’s been an ongoing storyline about the administration of the local hospital that I didn’t understand and had no desire to.
This series demonstrated perfectly that it was the right time to finish, because the producers were running low on ideas. Eventually, they resorted to plain old shock value to keep the audience engaged. For a few episodes, Lord Grantham made occasional complaints about a pain in his stomach, which he reassured everyone was just indigestion. Now of course on TV, when someone sneezes, they have a cold; when they cough, they’re terminally ill; and when they’re complaining of indigestion, they’re about to have a heart attack. Clearly, something distressing was coming. But in the fateful episode – which warned of “shocking scenes” before it started – Lord Grantham’s problem turned out to be an ulcer, which burst while he was having dinner. He got up from the table, clearly in discomfort, and then projectile-vomited blood everywhere like something out of Alien. Not what you expect from a quaint period drama.
I did get properly emotionally engaged with the characters again for the series finale however, in that I felt deep sympathy for Lady Edith – temporarily forgetting her selfish child abduction last series – and deep hatred for Lady Mary. In the old days, we were all rooting for Mary to find happiness with Matthew, and the relationship seemed to be doing her good, defrosting her ice queen persona. But then Matthew died, and she turned all cold and bitchy again, barely ever acknowledging that she has a son now, and going back-and-forth between two identical-looking, cardboard-cutout suitors. In the series finale, Mary’s behaviour came to a head as she decisively sabotaged Edith’s relationship with a man who had just become a marquess – a move clearly motivated by Mary being unable to bear the thought of Edith becoming her social superior. As Edith later put it to Mary, “You were unhappy, so you wanted me to be unhappy too.”
So yes, I have no sympathy for Mary anymore, and I wasn’t impressed when she “learned her lesson” and got a happy ending by marrying Henry Talbot. One, she doesn’t deserve a happy ending while Ever-Luckless Edith is still waiting for one (though hopefully that will change with the Christmas special). And two, Talbot is as lacking in personality as Mary’s other two suitors, and even looks identical to them, as if they were run off an assembly line. Other characters talked about how “strong” Talbot was and how he was a match for Mary, but this really seemed to be a case of telling and not showing.
I did hear some people suggest that Mary might get together with her youngest sister’s widower, Tom Branson. On paper, they do have a lot in common; and as possibly the central character of the entire show, Mary ought to marry a man with an actual personality. But on screen, there was always little to suggest anything other than platonic chemistry: Downton Abbey is usually quite heavy-handed in its foreshadowing, so if Mary and Branson were going to get together, it would have been made all but certain beforehand.
Come Christmas, Downton Abbey will be done, and even though this seems to be a mostly negative blog post, I will miss it. It’s had plenty of heart in its best moments, and was at least good for a giggle otherwise. I’m hoping the Christmas special will end with a flash-forward to several decades later – perhaps showing an elderly Lady Mary sitting around in Downton, looked after faithfully by her put-upon son George, whose name she gets wrong half the time.