For detractors, it was a triumph. For fans, it was a body blow. Downton Abbey – ITV’s juggernaut period drama-cum-soap opera – is ending after its sixth series and Christmas Special this year.
It has been a bumpy six years for the show, with high viewing figures and international cultural impact on one hand, and questionable plotting and a critical backlash on the other. It’s true – the Julian Fellowes-penned drama is usually best enjoyed as nonsense, beautifully-shot and acted Sunday night entertainment. Its lauded breakthrough series, and in my view brilliant second series, softened all our knives towards the less successful later series.
But now it’s the last series! Downton has to pull something great out of the bag, as it is the show’s last chance to do so. So here they are – the ten things this viewer believes will ensure the curtain can fall on Downton with grace:
Warning: Series 1-5 spoilers ahead!
1. Give everyone a chance to shine!
The Downton Abbey cast of characters is much-loved and deservedly so. Who doesn’t have a soft spot for battleaxe Mrs Patmore, sweet Mrs Hughes, sweet Mrs Crawley, sweet Anna (they’re all very sweet) and snubbed Edith? Although some of the later additions have failed to ignite in the way the originals have, the actors are without exception strong, and Downton has had a tendency in the past to neglect one or two of them, or trap them in repetitive plots. Series 6 must rectify this!
2. Wrap up those storylines that have been going for far too long… and soon
Lady Mary has been choosing between two men for approximately 6829 years. Similarly, Anna and Bates have been playing ‘eeny meeny miney moe’ to see who’s going to prison for four series. That’s far too long to be playing out a storyline of that nature. It has resulted in repetitive, often-dull plotting and a general feeling of nothing achieved when you finish an episode. Please, Julian Fellowes, climax those stories early in the sixth run and tell some exciting new tales!
3. Being back Branson!
The petition starts here! I’ve always been a huge fan of the socialist chauffeur, played wonderfully by Allen Leach. After clinging on for a few years after his wife’s death, the character bowed out quietly, seemingly having realised the scripts were refusing to give him anything to do. In his final few episodes last year all he did was stand around saying, “I’m going to have to leave Downton soon”, to the point where I’m sure we all were shouting at the TV “JUST GO ALREADY!” It would be great if Branson and little Sybbie could bring with them from America a link to one of those handy historical events, that Downton loves linking itself too so gracelessly. The thorny issue of the socialist drinking champagne, Branson’s reluctant assimilation into the Grantham family after his posh wife’s death, is such an interesting strand that can always be paid more lip service.
4. Also bring back Samantha Bond! And O’Brien! And the beautiful Gary Carr!
Just bring back everyone! (No, not William.) While it is a double-edged sword to see a deluge of reunions and reminiscences of endings, it always gives a finale a pleasing sense of nostalgia – something the Abbey was built on. That’s why it would be great to see Siobhan Finneran’s O’Brien back, who decided to swap the Abbey for Benidorm (more chance of a tan I guess). Samantha Bond’s Lady Rosamund is always popping up so hopefully she will continue to do so in Series 6 – she’s a fine actress. Plus, I always felt like Gary Carr’s Jack Ross was given up on by Rose and the family far too easily. Carr is a great actor and his storyline had real potential, and also he’s very handsome but that’s by-the-by.
Can we have Lavinia back too? (Let’s face it, someone returning from the dead wouldn’t actually be Downton‘s biggest knock to realism…!)
5. Focus on Mary’s inheritance. After all, that’s how it all started…
This, for me, is one of the few areas in which Fellowes’s plotting has (so far) not disappointed. The series began when the inheritance of the estate was thrown into question by the sinking of the Titanic. Mary as the eldest daughter has been denied sole inheritance so the show shifted focus onto her love life. The brilliant love story between Mary and Matthew story kept us on tenterhooks until Matthew was killed and the whole question was thrown wide open again. Series 4 and 5 have then explored Mary’s other romantic options, as she now stands to inherit but all on her own. Series 6 must give place some emphasis on this strand – not just who Mary will end up with, but where Mary will end up, as a character. The most interesting character of the lot has been sorely underdeveloped since her mourning over Matthew. This strand really was the main story of Downton, so it needs that attention.
Also, rounding off this story surely calls for a significant nod to Matthew – one of the jewels in Downton‘s crown, Dan Stevens is still missed!
6. Let’s see Daisy move on and up!
One of the most heart-warming stories from later in the canon has been Daisy aspiring for better. The Downton dog’s body was suffering a severe lack of development until she’s started to grow dissatisfied with her position and trying to improve her academic abilities. It would be wonderful if this rare Downton example of someone bettering themselves rather than being bettered by inherited money, was developed in the final run. Maybe Daisy should rise through the ranks and end up running the estate, with an elderly Cora serving her drinks? Just a suggestion.
7. This is a crucial one – Series 6 needs to have a big midpoint climax that gets people talking
That is to my mind Downton‘s best success – and perhaps one of the few dramatic innovations it has achieved. Across five years it has given us events such as (spoilers) the cover-up of the death of Kemal Pamuk, the shock death of Sybil and the rape of Anna Bates. It’s surprisingly unusual to find a TV drama that doesn’t either start with a catalyst like this, or culminate with it. Putting these events in the middle has inspired much speculation, and allows Downton to leisurely stroll to and form the event in the episodes either side. It also prevents the slump in viewing figures that almost all TV dramas suffer from. Especially Sybil’s passing due to pre-eclampsia had tremendous impact – and not just because it was one of the finest episodes of Downton ever made. It resulted in a lot of exciting speculation the following year, when the programme again held back their preview tapes, as we knew the last time this was done, death was coming to Downton…
The production team seemed to run out of ideas for similar dramatic climax points, and as a result the big event in the middle of Series 5 was……. Lady Mary got a haircut!!!!!!! (To be fair, it was a very nice haircut.) The worry is that the show will become complacent, knowing it needn’t create a huge talking point because the fact that the show is very publicly ending is enough of a talking point. But that isn’t good enough for the plot – we want something big to explode in the middle of Downton 6, to give it the energy to power its final episodes!
If you want my idea – and I can tell that you do – I think it’s about time we saw a proper murder mystery in the Abbey! We have had plenty of deaths and even some terribly suspicious ones, but none where the audience and the cast don’t know who has “dunnit”, and plotted properly and thoroughly with clues and red herrings. (No, endless references to Bates’s bus ticket does not count.) Downton as a drama has often been about the minutiae, the tiny details that arc over the series and take on greater significance – and that’s exactly what a soap opera is. Plus, Downton has often been called a soap, and the murder mystery is an old favourite of that genre. In fact, maybe they could tie this idea into the next one…..
(And now for the controversial ones. Look away Downton Purists….)
8. Kill the Dowager
I love Maggie Smith, and I feel cruel even writing this. But I really think it would be one of the best ways for the show to end – with the death of its most prominent and loved character, the character who represents the legacy of the past, passing over.
9. … and kill the estate – or are times not really a-changing?
For five years now we have had to put up with Hugh Bonneville grumbling that times they are a-changing. And yet, in truth we have seen little evidence of this. This is what puts Abbey on the back foot for me, compared to, for example, the BBC’s revival of Upstairs, Downstairs. Set in London with a politician in the house, that period drama had its finger on the pulse of historical affairs. The Abbey, in the wilds of the North, featuring characters resisting change, has to fight to shoehorn current affairs into the drama. Sometimes it has worked well (the Abbey becoming a convalescent home in Series 2) and often it has not (that time Sybil rang home from a phone box in the middle of The Troubles In Ireland to report some historical context….)
Downton Abbey‘s very first script made reference to the world that it represents fading away, but we see very little actual tangible evidence of this. The estate has been under threat for years… surely the final series is prime time to see it come to some sort of close? It would be emotional, momentous and timely. It’s a shame that in the show’s narrative we are only up to 1924 – I would have liked it to run into the 60s and 70s, with an old snobby Mary moaning about immigration as the house around her is turned into a Marriott hotel. Having said that, endless grumbling about a lack of funds (which is reportedly what features in Series 6 episode 1) might not endear the show to an audience, most of whom don’t earn nearly as much as Lord Grantham is sat on. Apart from Myleene Klass who is no doubt watching and beaming at how little tax they have to pay on that lovely big house!
10. End at Christmastime!
The final final episode is due to air on 25 December, and as regular readers of my articles will know, I like my Christmas specials Christmassy! It’s only logical isn’t it? When Downton‘s specials haven’t been Christmassy, (2012’s Journey to the Highlands and 2013’s The London Season) they have also been rubbish. Coincidence? No! So please, Downton, while ensuring the pay off six years of storytelling sufficiently, give us some snow?