Lessons from Downton Abbey

February 28, 2015
The family, including the late Isis, their dog, who had a bigger role this season. But had to die, apparently.

The family, including the late Isis, their dog, who had a bigger role this season. But had to die, apparently.

SPOILER ALERT! This post discusses the second last episode, which hints at the season ending.

It’s coming. The second-to-last-season of Downton Abbey will end this weekend and so will the series next year.  The Grantham House family–and I include the servants in that–have grown on me over the past three years. The thought that they’ll be relegated to Masterpiece Theatre history makes me a little sad.

And yet, there are lessons from Downton Abbey.

As the fifth season drew to a close, the connections between the inhabitants of Grantham House took center stage and we began to see them as a true family, upstairs and down, and Grantham House as the safe haven for them all.

The relationship between British aristocracy and their servants has always seemed so formal and distant, but as the years passed at Downton Abbey, their interdependence became clear. Upstairs simply couldn’t exist without Downstairs, and vice versa.

While class differences were made clear, so were the respect, responsibility and affection that the Upstairs family felt for the servants. This was made supremely clear in the case of a town monument Lord Grantham was having made to honor locals who died in the war. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, had a nephew shot for cowardice during World War I. There were hints of shell shock or a nervous breakdown, and Mrs. Patmore asked Lord G if he could be included in the monument. Although her nephew wasn’t local, she felt he, too, was a casualty of war. Lord G. refused and she was terribly upset.

Weeks passed.

Then, Fellowes cleverly allowed us to think that Lord Grantham had called in a stone carver to make a headstone for his beloved dog, Isis, who had just passed away. To our surprise, the Lord had instead ordered a small monument for the cook’s nephew.  Watching Lord Grantham do right by Mrs. Patmore showed us his inherent humanity and the regard in which he held this vital member of the downstairs staff.

While British class differences of the era put the servants in a different “category,” it was one in which they felt safe and protected. By today’s standards, that sounds paternalistic and outmoded. But I’m not so sure that world of proscribed roles was all that bad. Everyone knew their roles and Downstairs had the security of knowing that the family would take care of them if at all possible. Over the years, that’s included legal help. Left on their own without clout or means, servants would have had a much tougher row to hoe. At least within the family, they had a place and a position.


Tom and Mary grew close as they worked with Lord Grantham to develop some of the estate property.

It’s clear that Fellowes is preparing us for Tom’s departure and the wait is painful. We know it’s coming and so do the family.  “We have our memories,” Tom tells Mary, in a moving scene meant to show us that the family’s grown to love Tom. So have I: he has become one of my favorite characters and I’ll miss him. I’m pretty sure he leaves this weekend in the last episode.

"Ho-hum, I suppose I'll just sit here in my beautiful gown looking bored."

“Ho-hum, I suppose I’ll just sit here in my beautiful gown looking bored.”

Mary, who has worn an almost sardonic veneer of ennui for the entire run of the show, is beginning to shed her cloak of superiority.  Surprisingly, Fellowes has allowed us to see her vulnerability and it becomes her. She’s at loose ends now–with so much change in the air, what will happen to her?  We see the crack in her cynical shell widen in a downstairs conversation she has with Mr. Bates, in which she tells the butler that he is someone who knows her so well. And again, Fellowes shows us the intimacy between the family and staff.

Happy mom and child.

Happy mom and child.

Edith cut a break (finally) and got her daughter, Marigold, back. The truth of their relationship is becoming evident and we can see how the family’s kindness and compassion are winning out over stilted propriety. Edith is happy, and that seems most important. Finally. Edith is deeper than we think.

“Mary talks like she is the only one who will miss you, but  I will, too,” she tells Tom. The family’s first move toward accepting the changing times was their growing acceptance of Tom after Sybil died. His maturing from a firebrand chauffeur who married the Lord’s daughter happened slowly at Grantham House after he was widowed.  This little mini-plot point was the finest hour for both the Granthams and Tom, really. Of course Tom must leave in the interests of the story, but I harbor a secret hope he’ll stay.

Two very different women, Violet and Isobel, find common ground.

Two very different women, Violet and Isobel, find common ground.

During the series’ run, the Dowager Violet has learned about friendship for the very first time. Her relationship with Isobel has grown so close, and some of the most wonderful scenes lately have been between the two old women as they exchanged confidences about love and romance. Apparently, you are never too old for love. Some of the finest acting of the series is between these two women.

As proof that even villains can grow, we see that the evil Tom has changed his ways. Who’d have thunk it?

Mrs. Patmore and Daisy

Mrs. Patmore and Daisy

Daisy is beginning to feel her oats and is learning the power that education gives her; Mrs. Patmore’s tears at how much she’ll miss Daisy when she leaves (which she inevitably will) foreshadows the day when this series will end and the Grantham family will no longer be part of our lives, even in the small way they are.

In a brilliant piece of filmmaking, Fellowes closed the second last episode of the series with a shot of the family walking back from the dedication of a memorial to those lost in war.  (I think it should have been the final scene of the season.)  Rather than distance us from the characters, that long shot showed their connection.

It’s particularly moving for me because that kind of bond is something I’ve never experienced.

My family has always been dysfunctional with a capital D and throughout the years I’ve had to make my own safe haven within myself. My Sunday nights with Downton have turned out to be some of the most thought-provoking, showing me how family ties can be strong even through differences as vast as those of the British class system.

We now see Grantham House for the living organism it is.

The end is coming: one more episode in this season and one more season overall.

20 comments on “Lessons from Downton Abbey
  1. Haralee says:

    I am sad to see it end this weekend. The story changing with the times has been great. I love the Violet and Isobel conversations. Friends, who would have thought a few years back?

  2. I was so pleased with the tablet for Archie!

    This is an insightful review of the show. They should hire you on as a staff writer for the final season.

  3. Sorry! Had to scroll quickly to the comment section as I’m an episode behind. Will certainly miss the Abbey gang in a week or so (perhaps House of Cards will help fill the hole).

  4. It sounds like it’s time for me to finally start watching this series. All my friends do and I feel so left out!

  5. Carolann says:

    I didn’t start out loving DA but do now! I will be so sad for the last episode for sure. We all have dysfunction in our families for sure – I can relate to that one for sure Carol. Looking forward to your post about the last episode too!

  6. Suzanne says:

    This season has been a bit of a disappointment for me (will the Bates saga never end???) and will poor Edith ever find happiness? (maybe…hopefully) and other niggling plot lines, and yet, there I am faithfully every Sunday night, glued to the television to watch the Grantham family and their faithful servants. I will miss the series when it ends, but will now have time for other great PBS series to fit into the schedule.

  7. i love this series. I’ve thought this season has been dull but thinking about it after your wrap-up I now understand the the gentle arch that is leading us to the end. For me the best part of the story has been the friendship between Violet and Isobel.

  8. Andi says:

    I haven’t watched any of this show yet! I like to wait until several years have passed and then I stream it in giant marathons to absorb it all! I am looking forward to watching the series once I get going!

  9. Toni McCloe says:

    I love Downton Abbey. I am 73 and in the past few years I have been watching less and less television, wanting not to waste the precious amount of time I have left – but Downton Abbey has been my one exception. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure about all that upstairs/downstairs stuff. It’s just great drama.

  10. Lana says:

    Why am I not watching this show? Putting it on my Netflix right now.

  11. Kay Lynn says:

    I am so sad the season ends with tonight’s episode. I agree that last week was a stellar episode except for Anna’s arrest. That storyline is so ridiculous but I’ll overlook it because the rest of the season has been very satisfying.

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