‘Downton Abbey’ Season Finale Recap: Much Ado About Nothing

The fifth season is over—but what was it about?

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Downton Abbey. (photo: Masterpiece)

Horror movies, sporting events, Shonda Rhimes shows: These programs, and not elegantly staged costume dramas, are the kinds of things one typically associates with shouting at the screen. Yet there I was, in the final minutes of Downton Abbey Season Five’s final episode (which aired as the annual standalone Christmas Special in the U.K.), hooting and hollering and pumping my fists in the air. Why? Because after half a decade of simmering sexual tension—hey, just calling it like I see it—the imperious butler, Carson, finally softened up enough to pop the question to the kindly head of housekeeping, Mrs. Hughes. I yelled “WHAAAAAAAAAAAT???” at an unseemly volume, and my slack-jawed grin was wide enough to comfortably store a gramophone. It was a moment of pure, unmitigated delight—the kind that can’t be produced without years of painstaking character work bent on depicting these two crazy kids as thoughtful, goodhearted, lonely people who’ve quietly come to care about and count upon each other more than anyone else in the world. In short, it was fantastic television, and I’m grateful to have witnessed it.

But was anything else this season its equal?

I’ve made no secret of my ongoing enjoyment and appreciation of Downton Abbey. It’s a show that mines subtle yet deep and rich rewards from exploring the emotional nooks and crannies of fundamentally stable long-term relationships. It’s sumptuously costumed, beautifully shot (think of the strong, stark imagery of the slate-gray prison that opened tonight’s episode), and performed by a cast with some of the most striking faces and voices on TV. Yes, it’s a soap, but we’re all adults here, capable of understanding that when it comes to “guilty pleasures,” the pleasure ought to overpower the guilt. It’s a fine show.

Yet by the end of this giant-sized 90-minute episode, I found myself wondering what, exactly, I’d spent the past two months watching. Season One introduced us to the setting and depicted on the culture class between middle-class Matthew Crawley and the aristocrats to whom he’d suddenly become the heir. Season Two showed us the Great War’s effect on the household and resolved the abortive romance between Matthew and Mary at last. Season Three gave us their wedding, forced Lord Robert to face the modern world, and of course produced two of the most shocking deaths in television history, Sybil’s and Matthew’s. Season Four focused on how Mary, Tom and Isobel slowly overcame their grief. Season Five…had some awkward dinner parties?

Honestly, I’m stumped as to what could be considered this season’s over-arching story or theme. Certainly by the time of this final episode, most, if not all, of the potential claimants to the title of “major storyline” had been resolved to the characters’ satisfaction. Lady Mary survived her sexual experimentation with Tony Gillingham, successfully rebuffing him after she realized he wasn’t the one but he was too stubborn to see it himself. Lord Robert affected a rapprochement with Lady Cora over her flirtation with the art expert Mr. Bricker, giving her both the attention and the trust she deserved. Despite her atrocious behavior toward poor Mrs. Drewe, the farmer’s wife, Lady Edith went unpunished, reuniting with her secret daughter Marigold under the Abbey’s loving eaves. Tom’s decision to move to America, which had pretty much always been presented as a fait accompli, went forward as planned. Aside from Edith’s lovely and affecting scene with Lord Robert, in which her father was as welcoming to her and her daughter as we’d long known he would be, none of these stories provided any grist for the emotional or narrative mill whatsoever during these final 90 minutes.

What were we left with to sustain us instead? Well, there was Cousin Rose, her new husband Atticus, and her fllnt-hearted father-in-law Lord Sinderby. As was evident last week, he’s a terrific antagonist, commanding the screen with his every outburst and cutting remark, while his wife Rachel is both a sweetheart and a spitfire. Yet Rose has never been much but a free-spirited flibbertigibbet, and Atticus is an uncomplicated hero; it’s hard to muster much concern for their future, since they seem too congenitally happy to ever be anything but.

Then there’s the Great Bates Murder Mystery—the second such storyline, keep in mind, and no more compelling for the repetition. With every second of screen time spent on this, I kept thinking “They’re not seriously asking us to care about this again, are they?” Bates didn’t do it. Anna didn’t do it. Case closed! Why string this thing out for an entire season just to tell us what we already know! The finale did itself no favors by introducing and resolving a Bates-on-the-run subplot, seemingly just to run out the clock. It pulled the same trick with Robert’s “It’s angina! It’s a heart attack! Nevermind, it’s just an ulcer” health scare, Lord Sinderby’s “Oh no, it’s my mistress and love child, I’ll be ruined! Nevermind, Rose took care of it in about two minutes” scandal, and Lady Mary’s “Look, it’s a handsome but arrogant aristocrat played by handsome but arrogant actor Matthew Goode, just in time to be my new love interest!” flirtation. I’m not buying it in any case. The end of a season should resolve conflicts of long standing, not create new ones out of whole cloth.

There were, however, two storylines that could have given the proceedings the emotional weight required, and made the whole season feel like it was about something: the importance, and difficulty, of finding someone to love and be loved by in your autumn years. In Prince Kuragin, Lady Violet had a suitor with genuine history and heat behind him, invigorating and enlivening the Dowager Countess as a character in ways she’d never been before. In Lord Merton, Isobel Crawley had an even more impressive beau, a man who’d done the emotional work of showing her he cared; the love they shared was all the more precious for the way the two of them had to tend to it like a garden to get it to grow. Each relationship had impressive obstacles as well: Princess Kuragin and Lady Violet’s own moral reservations on the one hand, Lord Merton’s classist sons and Isobel’s unwillingness to come between a man and his family on the other. In the end, those obstacles were too much: Lady Violet let go of Prince Kuragin willingly, Isobel gave up on Dickie Merton reluctantly.

Yet these storylines were oddly sidelined in favor of the younger generations, despite them having so much less to worry about—or interest for us. The Violet-Kuragin relationship ended with a joke about her having received her last indecent proposal, while the Isobel-Merton engagement ended with a Dowager wisecrack about how happy Dr. Clarkson will be to find Mrs. Crawley back on the market. The show settled for a rimshot when it could have given us a full orchestral flourish, in other words. And to mix metaphors, this reduced a season that could have felt like a seven-course meal to a meringue-like confection—delicious, but airy and insubstantial. Carson and Hughes have great hopes for their future together. Should we? I know the answer that Downton Abbey, the most optimistic drama on the air, would give us. But Season Six will be a leap of faith nonetheless.

‘Downton Abbey’ Season Finale Recap: Much Ado About Nothing