Tom’s in his Downton, all’s right with the world. I hope you’re sitting down, but yes, I, Sean Thomas Patrick Collins, am Irish-American. So when it comes to Downton Abbey, I relate to and root for chauffeur-turned-radicalt-turned-suitor-turned-aristocrat-turned-widow-turned-American Tom Branson the way tomboys connect to Arya Stark, or hoe people who believe sociopaths who slaughter human beings like pigs just need someone to love pull for Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham to finally make it official. So imagine, just effing imagine, my unspoiled delight when I heard his dulcet brogue ring out from off screen during the wedding reception for Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Picture my unbridled joy when he said he’s back from Boston for good, ready to rejoin the family and the place he loves. Take my hand in yours and pray with me that finally, finally, he and Lady Mary will get together, a romance I ship like the Royal goddamn Navy. And imagine the entire spontaneous outpouring of emotion, complete with cheering and laughing and literal clapping at my TV screen, occurring in the final sixty seconds of the episode, with no prior warning. That’s good television, ladies and gents.
Now I’m sure some of you have already seen this entire season via pirated copies of the episodes when they aired on the Beeb a few months back; others may have simply consulted wikipedia or entered the relevant search terms into google or twitter. No doubt you’re chomping at the bit to spoil the surprise for me, to tell me that no, Branson simply settles in to live on the land, or with that ghastly bolshevik schoolteacher from last season, and that Mary jaunts off to be wed to the odious Matthew Goode, or his character, whichever. I do not want to hear it. For one thing, spoilers screw with the rate at which narrative fiction doles out information and the locations in the narrative at which it does so—every bit as vital and valid a component of artistic expression as cinematography or aspect ratio or performance.
But mainly, pleasant surprises of this sort are what Downton Abbey is. This is a series about, well, quite a few things actually, despite appearances to the contrary. (As previously noted, if you think all it has to say is “change is coming and it’s necessary but also hard to accept,” I’m going to make you take your intro-level English course over again.) One of those things: small pleasures. This theme finds its expression in ways obvious and subtle, within the story and on the level of filmmaking itself. Think of how many times the handheld camera used to chronicle the lives of the help has followed one through the corridors to a room where a secret will be shared, a gift given, a confidence earned. Think of the crew banding together to get Hughes a decent dress to be married in as well as to hide it from her, or Denker tailing Spratt to see his rendezvous with his jailbroken nephew only to stay mum when the cops come calling, or Edith and her new suitor Bertie moving to and fro through the office with the guts of her magazine’s latest edition, assembling a relationship as they assemble the issue. The movement draws us in and along, making us receptive to whatever little treat we find at the end of the hall.
But this conflation of movement and emotion can be used to elicit sadness as well as happiness. Take Sir Michael, the faded aristocrat with whom Barrow inquires for a job. Their stroll through his vast, empty house wordlessly conveys his fallen stature in the world, but he has movement of a different sort in mind: The thing he remembers most fondly about the house in its glory days was watching the women walk upstairs to bed, lit by the fire, “their diamonds twinkling as they climbed up into the dark.” Sir Michael’s nostalgia is so powerful as to qualify as a sort of delusion: “We can’t let them down, you see,” he tells Thomas, referring to the great lords and ladies, kings and queens of old. “When the good times return and they all come back, we must be ready. Can’t let our standards slip.” Nevertheless, it’s not the Queen of Spain’s visit he fixates on, but the site of a lovely woman going up to bed. His delusions of grandeur are sure to be disappointed, but the small pleasures make the disappointment bearable.
Maybe that’s what I’m hoping for from the end of Downton Abbey. I still feel the loss of Matthew and Sybil to real-world actor departures was a blow from which the show never full recovered; however fine its exploration of grief by fine actors like Penelope Wilton and Michelle Dockery may have been, their loss took the driving conflicts of the show with them. I’d have to have lost that material, but a series that ended with Robert, Matthew, and Tom celebrating on the cricket pitch prior to that fateful Christmas special would have been a stronger one overall, it’s difficult to deny. But perhaps all the meandering it’s done over the past couple of years is just one last handheld shot through the corridor, and at the end there awaits an ending happy enough, well conceived and written and acted enough, to leave Irish eyes smiling.