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March 18, 2012



Over and Out at the Abbey

Not sure if you abandoned the Crawleys right after your seventeen-hour marathon, but now that the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey is over I'd say it's time to take stock, review favorite characters and episodes, examine roads not taken and puzzling moments, and in general say goodbye -- until an updated holiday multi-part extravaganza all-star special, or movie (set presumably in the 1930s), comes knocking on our doors.

For me two of the unluckier-in-love characters -- Thomas Barrow played by Rob James-Collier and Lady Edith Crawley played by Laura Carmichael -- turned out to be my favorites. Lady Edith, fourth or fifth time lucky, finally finds happiness with a Marquess and oversees the running of her own business, while Thomas, a five-time loser in love and a sometime villain of exquisite vulnerability, eventually becomes butler at Downton and presumably will take some well-deserved satisfaction from being married to his job.

One road not taken stands out in particular for me. We are told early on that Thomas knows a lot about clocks, having learned this from his father. I thought for sure that this would be developed in the WW I sequences, where I expected Thomas to be recognized as a potentially gifted bomb-defuser because of his ability with clocks, or maybe even an adept at code-breaking. I also thought he might be compromised in this because of his sexual proclivities, but nothing came of any of this probably because it would have taken too much time away from the primary action at the Abbey. However, if a sequel is eventually set during WW II . . . .

Another lost opportunity in my opinion was not getting Charlotte Rampling to play Thomas's mother. She and James-Collier look very much alike, especially around the mouth. Too bad also that no roles could be found in the series for Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Judy Parfitt, Tom Courtenay, or other sterling actors -- although I was happy to see the great Alun Armstrong (who can even out-basso-profondo Jim Carter as Mr. Carson) as an imperious butler in one Christmas episode.

I also had fun seeing how many times the upstairs characters exclaimed "Crikey," with by my count Matthew, Robert, and Mary uttering it once, and Edith twice. And just how many shades of orange could Edith possibly be dressed in (quite a few in point of fact)? Another few moments of reflection had to do with James-Collier partway through the series changing his first name from Rob to Robert. Did he as with Larry Fishburne, Lou Gossett, and Tom Hulce want to formalize his diminutive moniker for good, or would he eventually go back to the diminutive the way Hulce did? As they say, only time will tell.

The biggest puzzling moment for me was the flower show prize sequence where Maggie Smith as Violet bows to pressure from cousin Isobel and forfeits her own annual win by announcing the name of Molesley's father as the winner. I recognized the scene immediately as a nearly shot-for-shot replay of the one in William Wyler's 1942 film Mrs. Miniver, where Dame May Whitty cedes her prize to Henry Travers (and where both actors received Oscar nominations, largely for this affecting scene). I assumed that since the scene was so blatant a borrowing it was some sort of homage to Wyler or his film. But later I found out that Downton screenwriter Julian Fellowes had been accused of plagiarism for writing this scene. He defended himself by saying that the borrowing was purely unconscious on his part -- pretty hard to believe in my opinion. It was also said by some that the scene where the increasingly cataracted Mrs. Patmore mistakenly substitutes salt for sugar in the pudding course of an important dinner was a borrowing from Little Women, again explained by Fellowes to be an unconscious one on his part.

I also wondered about the child playing Edith's daughter Marigold. She seemed possibly slow or retarded to me, with her large head flattened at the sides and her scenes where she appears to be about to topple forward while running. A disability of this nature does not seem likely for a child actor, although there has been some talk on the internet that the girl may be somewhere on the autism spectrum -- equally unlikely it seems to me.

The series was undoubtedly soapy, sometimes far-fetched (Did the Crawleys really not wonder why Edith was away in Switzerland for so long and came back so keenly attached to her young "ward" Marigold? How did undercook Daisy become so book-smart so fast?), and quite frequently had characters whose only purpose seemed to be to telegraph intent or summarize plot strands in near boilerplate (chauffeur Branson, Dr. Clarkson, or the ever accommodating but increasingly busybodyish Mrs. Hughes). But the writing was highly skilled and managed to move the plot forward, often in imaginative and poignant ways (I particularly liked Thomas's attachment to the family's young children and their delight at his playing horsey and airplane with them, and the orphaned Daisy's finding parent substitutes in Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason). And the acting was expressive and trenchant, as only an expert British cast could make it.

It was funny, moving, suspenseful, informative, and beautifully made and presented. It had me spellbound from the get-go and I will miss it now that it is done. But somehow I feel it won't be too long before we hear from the Crawleys and their retinue once more. I can hardly wait.

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