It chugs toward the exit with the all the endearing charms and maddening annoyances that have kept PBS viewers paying attention for five seasons.
“Downton Abbey” will end on March 6. It is arguably the most popular British import on public broadcasting since “Upstairs Downstairs.” It will be missed — that is one thing everyone can agree on. Whether it always merited the attention it received can be and has been debated, but the first eight episodes of the sixth and final season, although not flawless, remind us of why we care about the show. The ninth episode, which will be made available to critics later and which will be broadcast on March 6, aired in Great Britain on Christmas day and drew 6.9 million viewers. No doubt if you want to spoil the fun, you can noodle around social media to find out how it ends.
The new season, premiering on Sunday, Jan. 3, is set in 1925 — a rather significant year in the cultural evolution of the past century. The year saw the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs.Dalloway,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
From the very beginning of the series, “Downton” has been about social and political change and the conflict between the old guard and the new that inevitably ensues. Traditionalists of the Crawley family tried to hold the fort against changing times, and often succeeded. But change was inevitable, and “Downton” writer-creator Julian Fellowes always made good use of our hindsight knowledge of that fact. The Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), that organdy battleship who has always been the most vivid character in the series, may have used her formidable power to keep newness at bay, but we always know her victories are going to be temporary. We know the world economy would be shaken in 1929, that Hitler would rise to power in Germany in the early 30’s, that England would be swept up in another world war at the end of that decade as well.
As the season opens, the Crawley family is struggling not only to keep their lifestyle intact, but the family manse as well. The number of servants has been reduced and more layoffs may be coming, a fact causing particular worry to the under butler Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who’s never been well liked by Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, household manager and staunch family loyalist. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) has been studying to better herself and is taking increasing interest in the fate of Mason (Paul Copley), the father of Daisy’s persistent suitor, who was killed in the war.
Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) balances her duties as the cook with getting a house in town ready to open as a bed and breakfast. Other members of the household staff — Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) — face new, unexpected challenges in the new season.
With Tom Branson (Allen Leech) off seeking a new life in Boston, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has become the agent for the estate, while her surviving sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), is quarreling constantly with the editor of the magazine she has inherited from Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards).
The conflict between old and new is represented in the new season by the ongoing family debate over the fate of the local hospital. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) is in favor of a proposal to allow the larger regional hospital in York to take over the smaller local institution, which has been governed by the Crawleys for many years. That puts Isobel in direct conflict with the Dowager Countess, who serves as president of the local hospital. Isobel argues that the alliance will be beneficial for the patients. But which side will other family members take? Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) tries to stay out of the conflict, especially when his American born wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) retains an open mind as she gathers more information about the merger.
On a personal level, Mary and Edith may focus heavily on their respective careers, but the heart will not be ignored. Can they find a way to balance work with love and perhaps marriage? Or will their respective pasts provide challenges to personal happiness?
At every turn, you can feel Fellowes moving the characters toward possible resolution of their lives, concerns and fears, with each journey carefully set within the context of a rapidly changing world.
As we consider the possibilities for these characters, whom we’ve come to love and know so well over the previous seasons, we cannot be immune to the sense of anticipation Fellowes carefully weaves into the story.
Our love for the characters enables us to overlook the vexing problems in the script, Fellowes’ tendency to have important conversations conveniently overheard, or the arrival of letters to shortcut more naturalistic development of key plot points. The episodes are, once again, structured as a succession of short, “who’s on first” scenes. It’s like a motorboat tour of an Anglicized “It’s a Small World” trying to keep up with this subplot, then that one, then another one. Most egregiously, one of last season’s major cliffhangers is flicked away in a virtual aside early in the first episode, as if it was completely unimportant all along.
Maddening, of course, and it’s this kind of second-rate writing that has driven some previously faithful to abandon the series. But “Downton” earned its keep and will be remembered for its very human stories and for its melancholy exploitation of the fundamental truth of existence — that time passes and things change, and all of us are forced to change as well. Some of us adapt willingly, others try to hold on to the past, but time is always an unyielding opponent.
David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The sixth and final season of “Downton Abbey” starts with the 9-10:30 p.m. show Jan. 3 on Idaho Public Television.