As Lady Violet, the acid-tongued Dowager Countess, said of two soon-to-be married characters on Sunday’s finale of “Downton Abbey”: “There’s a lot at risk, but with any luck, they'll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.”
So it went for the fictional aristocrats of the Crawley family and their household staff at the conclusion to the sixth and final season of this PBS “Masterpiece” period drama. Without quite closing the book on these characters, this episode left many of them happy enough.
In contrast to the blunt irrevocability of U.S. TV finales (which sometimes come with body counts), Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of “Downton Abbey,” said in a recent interview that he wanted a last episode that felt upbeat and open-ended. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: It was decided some time ago that this would be the final season of “Downton Abbey.” What did you want to achieve with its ending?
A: There’s a line at the end, when Robert is talking about his mother being shocked at the maid having a baby in Mary’s bedroom, and Cora says, “I think the more adaptable we are, the more chance we have of getting through.” That is my philosophy. To chart the ending of that way of life – the ordered world of four footmen and all of that – in the 1920s and ’30s. The families who were able to go along with the rocking kept their footing. The ones who were too stiff and too grand and couldn’t adjust are the ones that went down.
Q: Did you ever consider a conclusion that might feel more definitive – the house shutting down or laying off a large portion of the household staff?
A: You have to remember, “Downton” was essentially an optimistic show – that on the whole, 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.
Q: So, no tearful scene set around the deathbed of the Dowager Countess?
A: I don’t think it’s that sort of show. I just watched the whole of “West Wing,” and then after that, the last season of “Mad Men.” I’m drowning in endings. “Mad Men” was a darker show than “Downton,” and it had happy endings. Even to the point of Elisabeth Moss suddenly deciding in one scene that she’s in love with the guy who’s working in her department, so even she could have a happy ending. You have been with these people so long, you want to feel their immediate future, at any rate, is reasonably benevolent.
Q: After years of misfortune, Lady Edith finally had her storybook wedding. What did you think about her overall story arc?
A: Edith was an example of what happened to a lot of those women (of that era). If there had never been a war, if things had never changed, she would have married a local landowner and probably never asked herself whether she enjoyed her life or not. But she had love affairs, and she gets into business. By making her an unlucky person as opposed to a lucky person, it avoids her turning into some kind of curmudgeon who drives everyone mad.
Q: Meanwhile, in the penultimate episode, Lady Mary revealed a malicious side of herself.
A: (laughs) They hated each other. I never believe, in television and film, that brothers and sisters always enjoy each other. In real life, that’s just not been my experience.
Q: Mr. Carson’s life was stricken by tragedy. Is he meant to be showing early signs of Parkinson’s disease?
A: He’s got a tremor, and they don’t really know if it’s Parkinson’s or not. We now call it an essential tremor. But in Carson’s time, it didn’t have a name. You just had the shakes and that was that. It was just to show that, in the end, it will be our own bodies that let us down. And it’s a sign that the Grim Reaper’s waiting at the other end of the passage. But I also wanted that very sad moment when he leaves. Because we know the house won’t be the same again.
Q: This also sets up Thomas as the house’s new butler. Is that a happy ending for anyone?
A: For Thomas? Well, I think it’s a reasonably happy ending for him. I mean, he’s not the easiest. I don’t think he’s ever going to be cozy to you.
Q: You’ve been done with your work on “Downton Abbey” for several months. How does it feel now?
A: There may be a movie – they still haven’t decided – in which case we'll jump back in with them. But I can’t pretend it’s not at all strange, because for six or seven years of my life, the show completely dominated almost every waking moment. I would start writing it in September and I would write until July. To have that suddenly removed from my routine is very strange.
Q: If there were other “Downton” follow-ups – a TV spinoff; a musical – could they be pursued without your involvement?
A: I’m sort of half of it. Although it’s all quite nebulous. Because when you write something, there is a moment where the production company takes over the rights. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be intransigent. These things have a natural rhythm, and if the right thing came along – a film, I would definitely be part of – I would enjoy that.
Q: So the TV finale is not the end of the “Downton” story, as far as you’re concerned?
A: Not necessarily. Let’s see what happens. I like the idea of seeing it as something that is continuing, as opposed to finishing with Manderley burning down and that story’s over. I want to feel that in some part of the atmosphere, Mrs. Patmore is taking in her paying guests and Mary is wrestling with farming methods. I like that idea.
Q: Do you ever find yourself these days thinking up a great one-liner for the Dowager Countess, then realizing you have nowhere to put it?
A: No, but I will.