Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
[SPOILER ALERT! Readers: please be aware that this post discusses the long-awaited final episode of Downton Abbey.]
After the last episode of the final (sixth) season of Downton Abbey, Louis Bayard, who writes for the New York Times’ Arts Beat Blog, declared:
I think it’s fair to say that Julian Fellowes has given us an American happy ending. And why shouldn’t he? Haven’t we loved these foolish Granthams with all the fervor of their countrymen?
Over the years, Bayard has provided a hilarious running commentary on Downton's plot twists. Here’s part of his amusing summary of the show’s finale: “Robert accepts the fact that he’s married to a high-powered health care chief executive. Molesley leaves service behind to mold-sley the next generation of Yorkshire minds.”
But Bayard never had much to say about the things that I will miss about Downton Abbey. My husband and I made a point to watch all six seasons of the show because of its deep and true depiction of daily domestic life at its best.
Julian Fellowes, Downton’s Catholic creator, understands the show's powerful appeal for a 21st Century audience. In a recent interview, he said the finale, which features a wedding, a birth, and many other happy resolutions to various relationships, reflects Downton’s “optimistic” spirit:
These were decent people doing their best, whether they were upstairs or below. And I felt that we had to have an ending that went on in the tone of that warmth. There was a wonderful tweet on Twitter that said if Edith Crawley isn’t happy by Christmas night, “Julian Fellowes better sleep with one eye open.” That was the fairly general feeling. I wasn’t prepared to buck it.
Fellowes also noted that the household's ability to adapt to changing times showed how some aristocratic families stayed strong as their world was turned upside down. Why should this matter to me, a first-generation Irish-American? In fact, the Crawleys’ challenging mission resonates with our own modern efforts to keep our marriages, families and communities stable, happy and productive.
External forces, starting with World War One, threaten the Crawleys’ future, but so do character flaws and bad judgment. Each episode contains a meditation on under-appreciated virtues, from fortitude to prudence, from justice to mercy.
During tumultuous times, the characters must learn to distinguish between peripheral matters and essential values. Despite Carson’s initial horror at the introduction of the telephone, he learns to live with technology. More importantly, the plot forces him to modify his tendency to give more weight to justice than mercy. Early in the series, Carson wants to fire Mr. Bates, in part, because the valet's physical limitations hamper his work. But the Earl of Grantham reverses that decision and Bates is allowed to stay. At the end of the series, it is Carson who comes down with palsy, and the Earl provides a safe landing place for him.
The evolution of Mary and Edith is equally instructive. At the start of the series, the two are bored, entitled aristocrats who snipe at each other, as they wait for a suitable proposal of marriage. Edith begins to make real progress only after she refuses to have an abortion and takes responsibility for her daughter. Mary, in turn, learns to be merciful, if only for the sake of keeping the family together.
Over time, Mary jettisons much of her class snobbery. Who would have imagined her settling down with a used car salesman, or inviting Anna to give birth in her bed?
The characters learn compassion and flexibility, and that helps them foster and accommodate personal change among their colleagues and relatives. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough is when Mr. Barrow, the most damaged character, is invited to take up Carson’s august position as butler. On the other hand, while Mrs. Crawley remains the energetic social reformer, she now operates with more subtly and charity—and even falls for an aristocrat.
Beyond these instructive lessons, I will miss the characters’ lovable quirks: Daisy’s uncomprehending frown, Carson’s eyebrows, and the Dowager Countess’ zingers. “If reason fails, try force," says Volet in the last episode.
Some Catholic fans of the show, myself included, may wish that Fellowes offered more explicit references to his faith. Instead, he presented a vision of life anchored in natural law principles that cross denominational boundaries and are summed up in the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
Now it is time to say goodbye to all that. But what will replace Downton Abbey? From House of Cards to Mad Men to Breaking Bad, the best television writers mostly use their talents to explore the layers of darkness that pervade our culture. Downton may be the most popular Masterpiece Theater show ever produced, but only audiences seem to appreciate that fact.
Cultural elites have thoroughly deconstructed the traditional family and the American Dream. Along the way, marriage vows and respect for the common good are treated with skepticism, at best.
Downton's world of happy endings isn’t entirely real. But we all need to be reminded of the larger truth: ordinary decency isn't extinct. Families that embrace Christian virtues can thrive in the most challenging times. Let's not forget that.