Warts and All

New York Times, January 3, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

"Right," says the Earl of Grantham, drawing back the reins of his steed. "We're off."

And with that, the final season of "Downton Abbey" comes charging out of the gate.

Well, maybe not charging, Abbots. We must first clear the hurdle of the World's Longest-Lasting Murder Investigation.

Mr. Green, who killed thee?

Dost thou know who killed thee?

Took thy life and made us spend

Endless months, wondering when the hell it would end?

It's true, my meter sprawled a bit at the finish, but that's nothing to how "Downton Abbey" has elongated this particular plotline. As the episode begins, Anna is still out on bail, and Mr. Bates is still "on tenterhooks," and when Bates asks, "Do you ever think of a time when we're told the whole Mr. Green business is over?" you will be pardoned for shrieking: "Yes! Yes! Devoutly yes!"

So it is with a song in my heart that I announce: Our long trans-Atlantic nightmare is over. Anna walks free when an unidentified mystery woman confesses to the crime, and loyal viewers, after all this time, may be inspired to follow the Downton example and break out the gramophone and Veuve Clicquot.

"Can this really be the end of it?" Lady Mary wonders. Mary knows from long roads. Her post-Matthew love life has been drawn out even longer than the Mr. Green thread and shows even less sign of resolution. Indeed, the only value of her past dalliances seems to be their ability to come back to haunt her.

Enter Miss Bevan, a saucy chambermaid who attended to Mary and Lord Gillingham during their Liverpool tryst and now wants a thousand pounds to keep quiet. "If I pay her," Mary reasons, "I have a bloodsucking vampire on my back for the rest of my life. If I refuse, I'm ruined."

By episode's end, she has opted for ruin—only to be saved at the last minute by Daddy, who sends the blackmailer on her way with just 50 quid and the threat of future prosecution. Somehow, Earl G. concludes from this experience that "my eldest child is a child no more and quite tough enough to run this estate. Indeed she could clearly run the kingdom should she be called upon to do so."

But we know that already, don't we, just from the rather terrifying way she commands little Georgie to "run to Mummy." If he's still got dry undies by the time he gets there, I'd be amazed.

Mary says she'd rather be alone than with the wrong man. Mrs. Hughes has a rather different problem: She's found the right man, but would he rather be alone? How conjugal does Mr. Carson want their relations to be? And will he still love her au naturel?

"I'm not sure I can let him see me as I am now," she frets. To which the supremely sensible Mrs. Patmore replies: "Then keep the lights off."

After some prodding, Carson sweetly spells out his intentions for his intended: "I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on Earth." "Well then," says Mrs. H. "If you want me, you can have me. To quote Oliver Cromwell, 'warts and all.'"

We will give her points for erudition even as we question the wisdom of bringing up warts at a time like this.

We will also cross fingers that the Carsons keep their jobs. Remember the old days when vacancies at Downton Abbey were determined by which actors had had their fill? (We still miss you, O'Brien.) Now it's a Hobbesian thinning of the ranks. Footmen reduced to a third of their original number. Two housemaids, one hall boy, not a kitchen maid in sight, and who keeps an underbutler anymore?

"These are days of uncertainty," intones Earl G., and lest we miss the point, the Crawleys are dispatched to a local estate auction, where the vacating squire informs them: "This life is over for us. It won't come back. ... I'm afraid we held on for far too long, and now there's nothing left. Learn from us!"

God, I'll miss Baron Fellowes and his subtle underscorings. The good news is that, as far as viewers are concerned, Downton has to hold on for only one more season. The bad news? Viewers can only hold on to "Downton Abbey" for one more season. Time to stiffen our sinews, Abbots.

Best scene: That delicious bit of marriage brokerage between Mrs. Patmore and Carson. Prudishness and discomfort blossom into gorgeous human comedy. Carson: "Well, that was an awkward mission for you, if you like." Mrs. P: "I'll say."

Best line: We can always count on Violet to score off Isobel, and Sunday night was no exception: "Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?" But for sheer hoots, I must salute the Earl's climactic toast: "To British justice, the envy of the world."

This week's drinking game: A mouthful of Carling Black Label for every time Denker and Spratt exchange basilisk gazes.

I Google so you don't have to

  1. Almoner: a hospital social worker (and apparently a road to power in 1920s Yorkshire).

  2. News of the World: a scandal sheet that managed to survive all the way to 2011 before being killed off by a scandal.

Things I'd plumb forgotten about

  1. Mrs. H's first name is Elsie.

  2. Despite her title, Mrs. Patmore has neither been married nor, if I read her correctly, deflowered. (Defloured, maybe.)

Department of other stuff ...

  • A doff of the top hat to cinematographer David Raedeker for his stunning vistas in the hunting sequence.

  • Earl G. being introduced to the refrigerator reminded me of the day George H.W. Bush met the supermarket scanner.

  • Your pulse surely began to pound at the news that the Downton Cottage Hospital might be taken over by the Royal Yorkshire County Hospital, which, depending on whom you ask, could mean a decline in local autonomy or else greater bureaucratic efficiency, not to mention enhanced fund-raising capacity and ... skyrrrxxjiklqrrxqv;wbimo (... sorry, that was my head nodding gently onto the keyboard. I recognize Violet and Isobel need some new excuse to go at it, but health care consolidation?)

  • Dear sweet cankerless Lady Rose is reportedly "hectic and happy" in New York. And if you think you've heard the last of her ... well, you may have.

  • Daisy is every bit as annoying as she was last season.

  • Either I've developed cataracts, or I actually saw Hissing Thomas giving piggyback rides to the Downton children. Is he quite all right?

Speak, Abbots. Will Earl G. next get acquainted with the mop? Will Thomas start rescuing kittens from wells? Will Mr. Mason keep his farm? Will Edith explain to the Bateses how adoption works? Will Dr. Clarkson declare his feelings for Isobel? Will Mary figure out that the guy she met at the end of last season is as good as it's going to get? (Return, Matthew Goode.) Which Downton staffers will be placed on the Do Not Resuscitate list?

And maybe the biggest question of all: What does a world without Downton even look like?

Onward ...