(Warning: Spoilers galore ahead)
At the beginning of the end of the “Downton Abbey” series finale, head butler Carson, who fiercely clings to tradition, starts to lose his grip – literally – as his shaking hands make it difficult to pour wine for the dining aristocracy.
Carson can’t accept change – least of all in himself. His life, after all, is built upon maintaining Downton Abbey's tradition of unerring service.
“The plain truth is, I’m done for,” he tells his wife, the head maid who still goes by Mrs. Hughes, as to not inconvenience her bosses with a new name.
Carson needn’t have fretted. “Downton Abbey,” which ended Sunday night with a 1926 New Years toast by the servants and nobility alike, served its audience well, delivering the series’ trademark style, humor and sentiment to the final drop. After six seasons of chronicling nearly 14 years of British and world history through the prism of an anachronistic Yorkshire estate, the ITV-PBS drama sealed its run with an overflowing dollop of old-fashioned sap.
Save for Carson’s crisis, there was nary a Downton downer in sight: Lady Mary and her new husband Henry learned they’re having a baby. Tom Branson and Henry opened their own auto dealership. Self-educated footman Mr. Molesley secured a teaching position. Isobel Crawley rescued her beloved Lord Dickey Merton from his heartless son and daughter-in-law, married him and saw him through a health scare.
Young kitchen hand Daisy and footman Andy look like they’re on their way to becoming a couple. The same could be said for aging cook Mrs. Patmore and pig farmer Mr. Mason. Lady Cora Crawley found her life’s work – and, eventually her husband and mother-in-law’s blessings – running the local hospital.
Lovebird servants Anna and Bates, who weathered murder accusations and worse over the years, didn’t have time to make it the hospital for the birth of their son. He arrived in Lady Mary’s bed shortly after Anna’s water broke during Lady Edith’s wedding ceremony.
Ah, Lady Edith’s wedding, which qualifies as a Downton miracle. Perhaps the show’s most star-crossed figure ended up in the best position of all to deal with an uncertain future: She’s a 1920s liberated woman, running a magazine and married to a moneyed marquis named Bertie, who happens to be a nice guy unafraid of the potential scandal her out-of-wedlock child could bring.
It’s a tribute to this unlikely hit show that viewers became invested enough to smile and perhaps tear up at some of the happy – if not, as history bodes, happily-ever-after – endings for characters we met with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and saw through war and other assorted tragedies. Like “Mad Men,” another recently departed Sunday night favorite, “Downton” succeeded in being both of its time and our time.
The British drama didn’t end with a “eureka” moment like “Mad Men,” but offered a series of satisfying heart-tuggers.
Lady Mary, despite years of bad blood with Edith, engineered her sister’s reunion with Bertie, leading the siblings to a familial détente (“Look, we’re blood and we’re stuck with it,” Mary said. “So let’s try to do a little better in the future”).
Mary proved far more tender consoling the ailing Carson, her longtime non-judgmental father figure: “You know how dear you are to me and if there changes that need to be made, we mustn’t be afraid to face them.”
In the show’s emotional high point, Robert Crawley – the Earl of Grantham and Carson’s fellow bulwark against change – brings back exiled former footman Thomas to be the new head butler. Thomas, who started as a nasty schemer and found kindness amid personal struggles, was tapped to serve under Carson’s supervision.
Now Carson will be just like his aging boss, who learned to leave the heavy lifting of supervising the estate to Tom Branson and Lady Mary.
“Downton will be a very different place without you at the helm,” Crawley tells Carson, who seems to finally accept the time's demands: “The world is a different place from the way it was, my lord, and Downton Abbey must change with it.”
Robert, in a moment alone with his beloved Cora, strikes a rare positive note for the future. “We never know what’s coming, of course, who does? But I’d say we have a good chance,” he declared, without so much as a “golly.”
The final word, though, appropriately went to his elderly mother, Maggie Smith’s Violet, the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess, both the most traditional and practical of the Downton denizens.
When Violet questions ringing in the New Year with a toast, Isobel counters, “What else could we drink to? We’re going forward into the future, not backward into the past.”
“If only we had the choice!” Violet riposted with a hearty laugh.
She wouldn’t be laughing if she knew about the 20th Century turmoil soon to roil the estate, its inhabitants and their progeny. Or perhaps she’s learned that humor is the only defense against what’s beyond her control. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with a little laughter, at least not on New Year’s Day, 1926, to celebrate a show that notched its place in TV history by capturing moments in time.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.