There comes a point in a TV series when you watch it simply because you’ve already watched so much of it you have to see it through to its inevitable conclusion. And then at some point before it screeches mercifully to a halt, you hate yourself for continuing to watch. You watch for sentimental reasons, perhaps, in the hopes that the show’s slide into maudlin, desperate self-awareness will be redeemed by one last moment of greatness, one more witty bit of repartee or stunning cinematography which will remind you of what once was. But no. At the end of every pitiful and pointless episode you turn it off feeling tawdry, used, disappointed, and rather sad. You feel bad for the actors, the crew, even the scenery. You want to slap Julian Fellows in his sincere face.
OK — look; we all know that Downton Abbey is a bit of theater, and a masterpiece it originally was; but lately — the last two seasons, say — it’s become a ghastly mockery of itself. No episode was more redolent of its decay than this penultimate dénouement in which long-suffering Edith finally, finally! does what we’ve all wanted to do for a long time: call her sister, the insufferable Lady Mary, a bitch. Holy hallelujah, it was about time someone did. Mary is the Godzilla of period drama, destroying everything in her withering and superior gaze. The only two people who love her are Carson, the butler, for whom she has a clichéd attachment, and the writer, for whom Mary can do no wrong, no matter how much wrong he has her do.
Fellows commits the worst sort of audience bludgeoning by creating a character who is clearly meant to be the heroine we empathize with (oh how we hoped she and Matthew would get together! Oh how we sobbed when he cruelly died in a freak accident after surviving the War! Oh how we were supposed to care about Mary finding love once more with a socially suitable paramour! Oh how we were expected to condone her shocking extramarital activities!) — yet who is so utterly unlikable. Who among us hasn’t wanted to throw a glass of champagne in her haughty face? She is the very personification of the phrase “fuck off.”
Badly-acted Edith (sorry Laura Carmichael, but it looks like you’re concealing a grin at all times), after suffering the last of a great many injustices at the mouth of her evil sister, finally fucks off herself, and by so doing grows the big hairy sack of balls you hope to God has been swinging under that skirt all these years, but no! it turns out she’s exactly the spineless twat she’s been written to be all along. Well, Edith, you deserve what you get.
The “romance” between Carson and Mrs. Hughes, or marriage of convenience regarding the plot, it absurd. Carson is nobody’s lovable curmudgeon; he’s a sanctimonious misogynist whose tone-deaf torture of Mrs. Patmore makes you hope he chokes on his own righteousness.
As for poor Footman Thomas Barrow, whose job has been disappearing before our eyes into the void of history, it’s all too easy to feel sorry for him now that he feels sorry for himself. After years of making him despicable, it feels cheap to draw on our heartstrings with a pithy storyline about his loneliness and our hubris — with the constant reminder that it might all be because he’s (shhhh) a GAY. Everyone must have their happy ending, and that goes for Barrow too, who can’t even kill himself in peace, without being rescued (just in time!) and having to kow-tow to Master George from his convalescent bed. Apparently no-one notices his bandaged wrists and pale demeanor at the wedding, which is a bit odd for someone suffering from “the flu,” especially given that in 1925, the flu was to be avoided like the plague. It was, in fact, a plague. Passing his suicide attempt off as a touch of influenza is as believable a historical detail as the absolute lack of signs of the passage of time on any of the cast’s faces.
Speaking of cast, Tom Branson’s sudden midseason return as a woman named the Grand Deus ex Machina of Ireland is entirely wasted. There are others to play the role of a social conscience now, notably Mr. Molesley and Daisy, now that they’re edumacated and can vote. If Mr. Carson allows them time off on election day (unlikely). If the household was trying to reduce costs by ousting Barrow, how come they host Branson for free? It’s the economy, stupid.
It’s been 13 years since we first met these characters in 1912, when they seemed really to live in their world. That was back when Downton Abbey was a fascinating glimpse into an archaic time. It opened with the news of a ship sinking; the irony is that it’s become that ship. Now, the show is the chocolate box you hoped it wasn’t going to be — only with this version, you always know which one you’re going to get.