After six years of drama, upstairs and down, Downton Abbey has shuttered its massive doors. While fans in the UK saw the finale on Christmas Day, U.S. audiences had to wait until tonight. That’s been a frustration for many throughout the show’s run, but the good news is: All’s well that ends well for the Crawley family (yes, even Edith) and their faithful servants (yes, even Thomas).
Created by Gosford Park Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey was a groundbreaker when it began airing on ITV in the UK in 2010, breathing new life into the period drama and proving that the BBC wasn’t the only game in town for the genre. But the series really took off on a global scale when U.S. audiences soaked up the trials and tribulations of the post-Edwardian clan, and learned what the hell an entail was — in turn energizing PBS’ Masterpiece profile.
The Carnival Films/Masterpiece co-production grabbed the zeitgeist, made stars out of its largely unknown cast (and in some cases their body parts, see Lady Mary’s Eyebrows on Twitter), and spawned a whole new vernacular. Even JJ Abrams is known to say “Let’s Downton Abbey this up a bit” on set, Lesley Nicol (Mrs Patmore) has told me.
The game-changer has had its fair share of sad season conclusions from the outbreak of World War I to Matthew’s death by car crash. But turns of events as the Crawley family rang in 1926 in the final finale kept things cheerful with Edith marrying — and outranking her entire family; Mary expecting her second child; Anna and Bates welcoming their first; Tom and Henry christening their fancy new car dealership; Robert accepting Cora’s role outside the house; Isobel and Lord Merton in wedded bliss; and more blossoming romance for the downstairs crew: Mrs Patmore & Mr Mason, Daisy & Andy, Baxter & Molesely… Also notable and emotional was the resolution of Thomas’ arc from footman-you-love-to-hate, to tortured soul, and finally a place of honor on the estate — which even a somewhat humbled Carson couldn’t argue.
But, it’s Maggie Smith’s inimitable Dowager Countess, who has the last word. And that’s fitting, Fellowes tells me below. We recently discussed the finale and looked back on the series’ themes of feminism and redemption, as well as why the grim reaper sometimes came calling — and what’s next for the Crawleys (that movie?).
DEADLINE: Let’s start with the final scene. How did that ending come about? Had you always wanted Violet to have the last word?
FELLOWES: I knew we would finish with the triumph of Edith and I was particularly keen that in the end she would outrank all of them and live in the grander house. That seemed a fun way of ending a career when she was always so unlucky. I felt we needed to end on a line for Violet because Maggie had set the tone for the show because she is very gifted and such a layered actress and can play sorrow and drama and comedy with equal facility. That was the key of Downton, that it had these very dramatic stories and yet was always quite funny. It felt right to go out with her when Isobel says, “We’re going towards the future, not back to the past” and Violet says, “If only we had a choice.”
DEADLINE: Edith has been through so much and finally got her happy ending. Was that always how things were going to go?
FELLOWES: I always knew that, but not from the very get-go. You’re still feeling your way into creating characters and writing for the performances you’re getting. In a way, you fashion characters with actors and their process of performance changes the way you write. But Laura (Carmichael/Edith) had this marvelous for me sort of gallant feeling underneath all her defeats. She was wretched and vulnerable, but you knew she was going to bounce back. There was a kind of decency, even though she wasn’t decent to Mary, but Mary wasn’t decent to her so fair enough. But her refusal to give up the child — and there are stories like that — you had to be pretty brave to risk exposure and all the things that might happen; I felt Laura develop into this courageous person that worked.
DEADLINE: Did Edith and Mary have to get married to have their happy endings? Does that go against the feminist bent of the show?
FELLOWES: Things were moving forward for women of that generation who achieved enormous things. The point is, they pushed down the fence and their daughters and granddaughters have been able to benefit. But having said that, it was part of the upper class society that depended on marriage. I could have left one of them on their own but it wouldn’t have been realistic to put them into an unmarried relationship. There’s a limit to how you can make them behave in a modern way to be sympathetic.
DEADLINE: With the evolution of the series, so much had focused on Mary’s issues, but Edith seemed to move more front and center in the past few years. Was it important to resolve Mary’s situation first and then Edith’s in terms of the characters’ growth? Will they remain friends?
FELLOWES: I think the sisters moved forward fairly evenly, although of course because Mary was the ‘lucky one’ and Edith was the ‘unlucky one,’ it seemed at times as if Mary was center stage. But Edith’s story was a slow burn and because her failures and disappointments had forced her to learn more about herself and life, by the finish I felt she was if anything the more sophisticated of the two.
At the end, I wanted them to find some sort of resolution in their feuding but I would not say they will never quarrel again. They are too unlike for that as personalities. For me, the myth in many films and television shows is that siblings always adore each other, when my experience has told me that life ain’t always like that. As for Edith’s plot resolution and triumph coming last, I felt that Edith’s luck finally turning, so that she ends up loved and valued and richer and grander than her sister, was so satisfying to the underdog in all of us, it should be the last hurrah of the show.
DEADLINE: The show has gone through so many arcs and had fan favorites at different times. Why has Edith struck such a chord over the past few seasons?
FELLOWES: A lot of people out there are leading lives that are not panning out the way they wanted. And they are trying as hard as everyone else, but it isn’t happening for them. It’s a pretty common feeling. Almost all of us have felt that at some point or another. Edith is the banner-bearer for those people. She was trying her best, but things just didn’t fall into place for her. She gets a lot of empathy.
DEADLINE: How was writing the finale similar to and different from the pilot six years ago?
FELLOWES: By the time I was writing the finale, they were old friends. I’m an admirer of Anthony Trollope, I like happy endings. When you’ve gone through six years with their troubles, emotions and hearts… I said, “Blimey, when we say goodbye let’s say they’re going to be happy.” I recently watched the West Wing and Mad Men final seasons and when I got to the last episodes of both, I wanted them to be happy. In Mad Men, they made the decision to kill off January Jones with cancer and in a way I could have had one sad strand that one of the characters died of cancer, but I didn’t feel I wanted that. I wanted it to be warm and sad in a good way.
DEADLINE: OK, no cancer, but you gave Carson Parkinson’s Disease…
FELLOWES: It’s either Parkinson’s or it isn’t. There was something called “the tremor” at the time, it didn’t have a name but it doesn’t necessarily lead to Parkinson’s, or maybe it is…
DEADLINE: Will he ever learn to like Mrs Hughes’ cooking?
FELLOWES: (Laughs) All marriages are a series of negotiations. Theirs will be no different.
DEADLINE: Was there ever a time you considered killing off another character?
FELLOWES: The only person we killed off really was William the footman. We decided we couldn’t get the whole household through World War I and nobody dies. In my own family, my grandfather died in the trenches, an uncle died from injuries, there were four more cousins who died — including one woman who was on a ship that was torpedoed. That’s one family, so it wasn’t realistic. We kind of drew lots and it was William. Also, Lavinia came in to die. We knew that. Those are the only two I killed.
The others died because the actors wanted to leave the show. When a servant leaves like O’Brien, she just got another job. But if it’s a member of the family and you know you’re not going to set eyes on them again… With Jessica (Brown Findlay/Sybil) and Dan (Stevens/Matthew), we said, “Would you be prepared to do two or three episodes? You’ll go away and come back.” Neither wanted to do that. I’m not critical of that. They wanted to move on in their careers and not be pulled back into something they left which I understand. But the fact is they wanted to go so that meant the grim reaper, I’m afraid.
DEADLINE: Can you speak to the evolution of Thomas from a villain into a tortured soul who ultimately finds his place and the show’s take on homosexuality?
FELLOWES: One of the things I like doing is when you create a character who initially the audience doesn’t take to but as the situation gradually unfurls and you understand the predicament, you start to see a point of view. Thomas was very aided by Rob James Collier’s performance and gradually the audience became aware that being a homosexual in 1912-1925 was very tough. It was a crime — one moment of indiscretion, one drink too many and your life is in ruins. Even if you’re not in prison, you’re unemployable, so this is all the time hanging overhead like a sword and by making the audience aware of his sense of loneliness, that his family didn’t accept him and he craves acceptance, to belong to something… He is constantly denied that so by the end even very stuffy old colonels would still secretly feel quite sympathetic. That’s what I’m hoping. You gradually enter into the situation of someone who in real life you might not take to, but maybe the next time you might think differently.
DEADLINE: What about Tom and Henry’s business as the former marries his initial chauffeur role with his elevated standing in the house; and the latter puts his passion to safer use?
FELLOWES: Those gentlemen drivers like Henry Segrave were a phenomenon at the time and I rather liked the idea of them getting into what would be a boom time. In the 20s and 30s automobile production was fantastic and many are still considered great works of art. Now, if a young man went into the car industry it would be rather more ordinary, but in those days there was a pioneering element. I also thought it was fun to have someone getting into production which is modern and not just wandering around wondering if the sheep are looking quite healthy. Henry had the sense to go into business with someone knowing about cars. I don’t know how successful they will be. This sounds quite sexist, but if men marry a great heiress, it’s important they have a completely independent field of operations and not be dependent on their wife’s money. They might be a diplomat or a barrister but I think it’s a hard position for a man to marry an enormously rich woman.
DEADLINE: Were there alternate endings considered?
FELLOWES: I can’t think of any. All of them were fairly organic. We had conceived Season 6 as the end, so there were resolutions and marriages and it was all about endings and change finally coming. The staff being fewer and fewer was woven into the sixth season so in a sense, the endings it led to were a part of that.
DEADLINE: Were there any previous cast members invited who didn’t come back for the finale?
FELLOWES: I don’t think anyone refused. There were other people I would have liked, but there’s only just so much room in a show — and resolution. Because it was the last, I couldn’t leave much hanging in the wind with some characters. We had to sort of in a way let them resolve themselves in the ether. We got Shrimpie (Peter Egan) back to do the wedding speech to show that everything is OK, but without his wife. The audience infers from that I hope, that they have separated but he’s not sad. We’ve had a lot of very good actors over the years so in a way you want everyone back, but it’s just not possible.
DEADLINE: Where will the characters be in five or 10 years?
FELLOWES: I haven’t completely worked that out, but I do think the Crawleys would have been one of the families that survived. Contrary to popular belief, quite a few survived in those houses or estates that are now open to the public or belong to the National Trust. The families that survived were quite imaginative and flexible and knew they would have to change. Probably a cook or butler stayed on in another guise. If you were a reasonably good business person, I think you could get through. Mary is all of those things. She’s snobbish and cold, but she has a good brain on her shoulders and she’s confident and has worked out that she has to work at it so I don’t see why she shouldn’t be able to run things effectively. Edith is settled with Bertie and has a better funded estate and house so we don’t have to worry about them. As for the rest, Thomas would stay on in an increasingly informal role as kind of almost a caretaking manservant. I think the formal role of butler would become for entertaining only and the rest like a management job. The maids would cease to live in the house.
DEADLINE: What about any potential spinoffs?
FELLOWES: There’s plenty of potential, but as far as I know there are none planned.
DEADLINE: And the movie that’s been discussed?
FELLOWES: I’m very pro-movie. I hope and think there’s a very good shot. They have to be sure to have enough of the cast. They’ve all rushed off into other work in television, films, plays… so I imagine it would be quite a job getting all the ducks in a row. But I’m not anti it at all.
DEADLINE: Your new show, Doctor Thorne, debuted in the UK tonight on ITV in the same slot as Downton while Downton was ending in the U.S. Coincidence?
FELLOWES: Splashed all over the front of the Radio Times it says “Doctor Thorne is the new Downton.” Not at all. It’s a miniseries of three parts which I hope are quite charming, but it’s also quite a dark story of Victorian England in the 1850s. I’m pleased with it. It is what it is, a love story for spring.
DEADLINE: What’s next? Are you working on your NBC series, Gilded Age? When might we see that?
FELLOWES: I’m trying to tidy my life up after Downton. I have a serial novel coming out in April, Belgravia, but I am writing the pilot for Gilded Age. Then they have to make the decision: Will they make the pilot and like it and commission the rest of the series. None of that is my decision. I hope it could be for late autumn 2017 but it’s not for me to say. If everyone loves it. They may read it and think, “Not in a month of Sundays.” I’m immersed in 1880s New York. What a wonderful city it must have been.
DEADLINE: Now that Downton is over, again, how are you feeling?
FELLOWES: It’s been a good ride. In a way, you’re sad because seven years has been dominated by this and I was writing for most of the year. I would start in September and write until July and that’s suddenly gone. I think that thing of being part of an enormous success is something that a lot of people who have been in this business for years, and are even quite successful, but never quite have that — it is a sort of privilege to have been part of one of the major media whatever you call it. But (in ending it) I never for a moment thought we were doing the wrong thing.