Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley on “Downton Abbey.” (Image from pbs.org)

‘Downton Abbey’ to tease its fans to the end

Spoilers have always been a part of my “Downton Abbey” experience. My wife, Linda, and I came to the show a shade late. If I’m remembering right, we watched at least the first season on DVD before starting to watch the broadcasts. Before then, I would catch bits of episodes and piece those together with the AP stories I was reading at work as part of my duties as arts and entertainment editor at a local newspaper. So I was always in wait of what I knew was coming. Then, thanks again to AP, I learned that Matthew (Dan Stevens) would die at the end of season 3. I didn’t know how precisely, only that his end was near. Now I shared none of this with Linda. In fact in the case of Matthew’s demise I didn’t even hint I knew there was a major plot point afoot (driven, it turns out, by standard British contract law). I just sat in my ancient easy chair, sipped my whiskey, and watched anxiously as the Downton men headed out for a shooting excursion. Oh, this is it. No, that wasn’t it. Then I recalled an earlier bit of dialogue about Matthew’s roadster. He drove away from the hospital where Mary had given birth, and that was it.

So now on the cusp of the new and final season, I find myself again knowing how a key plot element will resolve. That’s what I get, I guess, for trolling social media on Christmas Day right after “Downton” had just ended its run back in its home country. But I know, and that’s all I’ll say. Thanks to WGTE-TV in Toledo I have seen the season’s first episode scheduled to air Sunday night at 9. Now there’s something else I must make clear; I’m not a particular “Downton Abbey” devotee. These last two seasons, I’ve found Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and the rest have been trying my patience. Only Violet (Maggie Smith) has kept me reliably amused. And I’ve found less resistance than I expected when the show conflicted with the New England Patriots’ pursuit of another Super Bowl trophy, and we needed to time-shift our Downton visit. Thanks to our Roku we can always watch later.

Throughout our “Downton” watching, Linda has tolerated my talk of narrative integrity. There is a bond between the storyteller and the audience. That is based on the storyteller creating and being true to the internal logic of the tale — and that logic grows from the characters. When a character or situation is introduced simply to add another plot complication that’s extraneous to the central conceit, I, as an audience member, feel cheated. The entire rape storyline involving Anna (Joanne Froggatt) struck me as a whole stinking can of red herring. Then there was the purloined letter involving the Prince of Wales that seemed a set up only to reveal that Bates (Brendan Coyle) was a master forger. So was he guilty of killing his wife? I know these kind of turns are what keep certain fans twisting in the wind. But I am a hard audience. The stack of unfinished books littering my space and unfinished series littering my Netflix queue are testament to that. Still we have stuck it out. Linda likes it. Truth be told, probably more than football, and we watch a lot more of that than “Downton Abbey.”

Sports and the long-form narrative both make the best use of television. After all, since before television began, soap operas have been a staple. While daytime soaps are a fading form, the night-time weekly narrative is flourishing — “Masterpiece Theatre” was a pioneer in the form. Seeing a tale unfold week after week, season after season, year after year, offers a depth of experience traditional half-hour and hour-long forms cannot. But that brings us back to narrative integrity. Is a series continuing because it has an audience or because there really is a narrative arc? The ultimate test is whether a series will end when its story has been resolved, no matter what the ratings are or what is in the hopper to take its place. The first episode of season 6 of “Downton Abbey” displayed both the promise of the series and its occasional lapses. It seemed too calculated when, in the first scene, Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) calls out to the fox hunting party: “I think we’re all here. I’m looking forward to this.” A bit of meta-promotion, I thought. Yes, he’s talking about the hunt, but the remark, coming as it does, after an extended scene in which just about every major character has made an appearance, does seem a wink to the audience.

This first episode is the opening gambit for the show’s final season. We all expect resolution, and given the generally upbeat nature of the production, we can anticipate mostly satisfaction in the end, but before then there’ll be drama. That much is evident here. Is that mystery woman really gone for good, or will she further complicate Lady Mary’s life? Or as I suspect, was she simply present to shine light on Mary’s situation — still unattached romantically, but more and more involved in running the estate. The overarching line in the narrative is the future of the estate. It’s what Robert Crawley obsesses over, even as he finds a new way to bungle it. This is at root a changing-of-the-guard story: Robert the last of the old guard passing it on to Mary, who is the wave of the future.

This concerns not just the family but its responsibility to those in its employ. Those numbers have dwindled, and fewer people are interested in the life of service that Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) have embraced. Of course in their own repressed way they’ve embraced each other. Their impeding nuptials will certainly provide a dominant subplot throughout the season. In the first episode, a muddle over certain marital expectations provides the most entertaining moments as Mrs. Patmor must play a painfully reluctant go-between involving a very delicate matter that, in truth, none of the parties know much about. Lesley Nicol, as the household cook, delivers an absolutely delicious comic performance reminding us just what a spark she has been. As much as she’s been a spark, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has been just as reliably a wet blanket — even her triumphs have been fleeting, and leading to more heartache. Her dour nature provides the counterbalance to her sister’s bite and spunk. I wonder if her lover and the father of her daughter (I’ve lost track, by the way, of who knows what about the child’s parentage) has really been written out of the picture having done his duty by providing Edith further complications. Maybe he’ll wrest himself from the clutches of the brown shirts to make a final appearance and give us a foreshadowing of what lies ahead for England.

That may very well set up a Downton film reunion somewhere down the line. But come March 6 when the special two-hour finale airs, fans of “Downton Abbey” will have to be content with what television has had to offer. It seems from these initial signs that the series will leave them satisfied.

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