Now that the last episode of Downton Abbey has aired, I can reflect back on the series and revisit some of the most surprising scenes. Indeed, the unexpected plot developments, which kept the viewers on their toes, helped to make this series so unforgettable. Throw luscious costumes into the mix, stunning locations, a wealth of detail about Edwardian life, and great acting and you get one of the best costume dramas in recent years. Oh, the series had its faults with one or two too many stereotypical characters, but overall I give it a grade of A.
Reader alert: Spoilers!!
Surprise #1: Thomas kisses the Duke
This scene, which upset parents watching with their children, helped to seal the character of Thomas, the first footman, and clued the viewer into the the Duke’s motives for hightailing it to Downton Abbey when he thinks Mary will come into a boatload of money.
The Duke finds and burns Thomas’s letters, which were the footman’s only means of blackmailing him, and then he scurries away the moment he discovers that Lord Grantham’s estate is entailed to the closest male heir, making his chance to marry into the Grantham fortune less than zero. Thomas goes on to demonstrate his sleazy character in many more ways, but his move on the Duke packed a real punch.
Surprise #2: Lady Mary is not just another cookie cutter heroine
From the moment we meet her, Lady Mary comes off as a cold, calculating, and complex woman, whose vulnerability does not come into full view until the third episode. When the viewer meets her, she worries about having to wear black after the death of her fiance on the Titanic and only mourns the fact that she cannot mourn him. Haughty and immodestly aware of her attraction to men, her pursuit of a wealthy and titled husband begins to take on a hint of desperation, which is why her fall from grace with Evelyn Napier’s attractive Turkish friend, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), is even more shocking.
Surprise #3: Lady Mary, Lady Cora, and Anna share a terrible secret that cannot be contained
The scene in which Pamuk dies in Lady Mary’s bed and the women secretly carry him back to his bedroom could have descended into slapstick comedy, but it did not due to great directing and acting. As I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or whoop it up. All I knew was that in no way did I anticipate this plot development, which would affect Mary’s story arc and uneasy relationship with her mother for the rest of the mini-series.
Handsome Pamuk is reduced to a limp corpse. And Mary? What on earth was she thinking? When Matthew finally proposes, Cora reveals to Violet that Mary wants to confess about the circumstances of Pamuk’s death, prompting the dowager to exclaim: “She reads too many novels. One way or the other, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden!”
Surprise #4: The Enjoyable Saga of One Upmanship Between Two Well-Matched Battle Axes
Violet and Isobel: Two strong-willed women, both firm in their belief that they are right, one with modern notions, the other clinging to old-fashioned ways, provide a colorful but minor story line. Isobel Crawley, despite her comparative lack of social status (when matched against the Dowager Countess), manages to make her will known and felt. Violet can only sputter and rage at Isobel’s interference, and she finds scant satisfaction in proving Isobel’s diagnosis and treatment of Molesley’s skin condition wrong. But Isobel was not born yesterday, and at the Flowershow Death Match she shames Violet into giving the trophy for best roses to Molesley’s papa, instead of appropriating it as her own for the umpteenth time.
In their scenes together, Penelope Wilton gave the incomparable Maggie Smith a run for her money. The enjoyable interplay between these two marvelous actresses was as surprising as it was worth watching.
Surprise #5: Cora’s Pregnancy
Did you see this scene coming? I did not, although it made sense, for this unexpected pregnancy explains much about the entail and why Matthew Crawley was only the presumptive heir and therefore essentially helpless in changing his situation. As long as the earl could possibly sire a son, Matthew’s claim to the inheritance would remain tenuous. The entail could not be broken for the Grantham was still a healthy and virile man, as this scene shows. The pregnancy led us to discover…
Surprise #6: O’Brien’s True Malevolent Impulses
Cora’s fatal flaw was in thinking that she and O’Brien had developed a mutual friendship and trust. While Cora receives glimpses of O’Brien’s true character, she never fully understood the anger and insecurity that her ladies maid harbored. O’Brien’s pang of conscience about shoving the broken half of the bar of soap from under the bath tub came too late, and Cora slipped and fell, losing the male heir that she and Lord Grantham so desperately wanted. O’Brien’s dark impulse was for naught. Cora wasn’t actively looking to replace her, but only helping her mother-in-law in hiring a new ladies maid. This surprising news hit the viewer at the same time as it did O’Brien.
Surprise #8: The Spiteful Tug of War Between Two Sisters
At first the viewer felt a great deal of sympathy towards plain Lady Edith, who was only to happy to go after Lady Mary’s leavings. But as the mini-series progressed, the viewer came to understand just how much animosity the two women felt towards one another and how far they would go to extract their revenge, Lady Edith writing the Turkish embassy about Mary’s part in Pamuk’s death, and Lady Mary sabotaging Lady Edith’s happiness with Sir Anthony Strallan, who was about to propose.
In the end, neither sister came up smelling like a rose. The surprise was that their story line was written so well that many viewers came away feeling sympathy towards both women.
Surprise #9: Lady Sybil’s Firm Stance Behind Women’s Rights
Lady Sybil’s story arc did not truly begin until the second episode and reached its full glory in episode four, when she is struck during an election rally and is carried from the scene bleeding.
A smart, independent, and kind woman, one can only hope that Lady Sybil’s character gains traction in the second series that is currently being filmed. The surprise here is that quiet, sweet Lady Sybil is truly the most daring and courageous of the three sisters. Jessica Brown-Findlay has true star status, and any time she came on the small screen, she lit it up.
Surprise #10: The ending
Obviously a second series is in the works, for the story line is left hanging. World War I has broken out, causing consternation among the group.
Lady Mary accepts Matthew’s proposal, but he refuses her, unsure of whether the baby’s death had anything to do with her acceptance, and he declares his intention to leave Downton Abbey and make his own way in the world. Lady Mary, in a Scarlet O’Hara moment, realizes too late that she waited too long to accept Matthew.
Bates, who cares for Anna as much as she cares for him, refuses to discuss his wife’s whereabouts with her.
And so, the viewer must wait an entire year to see what will happen to the characters in Downton Abbey, testing our patience sorely.
In addition to my ten choices, there were other surprises and great story arcs in Downton Abbey: Cook’s failing eyesight and the operation that saved it, Daisy’s blindness towards Thomas’s true character, which leads her to lie,
Mrs. Hughes’s longing for her own family, which made her momentarily receptive to an old flame’s advances, and Mr. Carson’s past as a performer, of which he is ashamed.
For those of you who missed certain episodes or who would like to watch the series again, PBS has made it available for online viewing until February 22. DVD’s are also available for sale.
My question to you is this: Of all the characters and story lines, which was your favorite? Please feel free to leave a comment.