[This is a review of Downton Abbey season 6, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
For five seasons the Crawley family has weathered scandal, war, and the impending threat of financial ruin. As their world continues to change all around them, they and their household staff are faced with two options -- either change with it or be left behind.
In this sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, that sense of an era coming to a close hangs heavily over its premiere episode. The financial concerns of running the illustrious estate continue to weigh on Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), causing worry among the staff that some may lose their jobs. The local hospital is at risk of being taken over by a larger, County-run hospital, pitting the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) against Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton). But perhaps most telling is the auction held at a neighboring estate. As property and possessions are sold off to the highest bidder, the auction is itself something of a funeral for the upper classes -- a fate Downton and the Crawley's may share in time.
Though the aristocracy's days are numbered, they aren't paupers yet. Grantham's daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael), each represent different ways the rich will react to the oncoming change. Mary wraps herself in the trappings of her class: fox hunting, managing the estate, all while retaining her willful nature to do things her way. Edith, on the other hand, has always been stifled by life in the upper class, and as she begins taking a more active role in managing the magazine, considering a permanent move to London, she may actually come out ahead in all this. (Which, honestly, considering the short shrift paid to Edith these past seasons, it'd be nice to see her succeed.)
While the premiere gives a stronger focus to the tension between the old ways of life and the new, Downton Abbey season 6 is not without melodrama. The marriage of Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) continues to suffer heartache, once again with fear of arrest in Mr. Green's murder followed by another miscarriage for Anna. "There isn’t a couple in the world who’ve had as many worries as we have," says Bates at one point and isn't that the truth! Hopefully, season 6 brings more good than bad their way as there's little enjoyment in seeing their relationship suffer one setback after another.
Yet it isn't the Bates who receive the most attention, instead it's Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson's (Jim Carter) impending nuptials. Admittedly, this story line begins quite awkwardly as we're forced to endure Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) first discussing the nature of their marriage -- as it specifically pertains to the bedroom and what it is married couples do there -- with Mrs. Hughes and later Carson. However, for a subplot that begins as cringe-worthy as listening to your parents discuss their sex life, it soon evolves into quite the moving and emotional moment thanks to Carson's frank yet sincere confession of love and intent for Mrs. Hughes. It's only too bad she had to hear it secondhand.
The battle over the hospital is one that will likely last all season, again positioning Violet as the keeper of how things were and Isobel the harbinger of change. But their fight is for more than who runs the hospital and is fueled by both stubbornness and jealousy. Violet continues to fear she's losing her place within society, losing the important role she once played and the power she held. Isobel, however, claims to seek only progress, but may in fact be letting her emotions get the better of her -- specifically those concerning both Dr. Clarkson and Lord Merton -- which may cause her to slip a little from her moral high ground.
It's hard to say just where this plot thread will lead or whether their local hospital would actually benefit from added oversight, but it may tie-in with another surprising theme Downton Abbey's season 6 premiere introduces: concern over how the changing times affects poorer classes, not only the wealthy. Though there are some servants seeking better employment as shop attendants and the like, not all would be guaranteed work were their positions on a household staff no longer available. This isn't to say retaining a large number of servants is practical or recommended, but even Violet appears aware of the concern for the future among her small staff, making a point to remind her butler, Spratt of his worth (hilariously at the expense of her lady's maid, Denker).
But nowhere is this threat to the poor more apparent than in Mr. Mason, Daisy's (Sophie McShera) father-in-law, being removed from the farm he and his family have tended for generations. It's a result of that estate being purchased from its aristocratic family by new money -- an emerging class whose wealth isn't tied to any lineage or titles. Along with property and possessions goes the tenants who've worked the land, and though they're compensated, there's little concern over where they'll go or what they'll do. When Daisy chooses to make a public outcry against the unfair treatment of Mr. Mason, she's reprimanded and scorned for speaking out. The former estate owner and the Grantham's may appear sympathetic, but the new owner is offended, refusing to change his mind. It's a telling moment, and one that signals that though the current class system is certainly outdated and harmful, the society that replaces it won't be any kinder or accepting of those in the lower classes. There's an elitism to the aristocracy, surely, but there's also a respect for those who work for them -- especially between the Crawley's and their staff.
Tension between the upper and lower classes and a fear of the emerging modern world have been at the heart of Downton Abbey since it first aired, but previous seasons were more concerned with the revolving drama of the estate's residents than how they were coping with the end of an era. Season 6 is putting that struggle back in focus, hopefully giving solid closure to a family and their way of life on the eve of its demise.
Even when the series drifts towards the boring or trite, its exemplary cast and the endearing characters they play are enough to hold our attention. Downton Abbey has already proven itself a television series deserving of awards and accolades, all it need do now is to end on a smart, compelling season -- and this final season seems off to a strong start.
Downton Abbey continues its final season Sundays @9pm on PBS.
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