The roaring twenties are stirring up a storm, and things are “positively frugal” at the Downton Abbey. With only two handmaidens and a single hall boy left, how will the lords and ladies manage to go on? It’s 1925, and those who can’t keep up are left behind. So, let the flapper dresses and jazz music run wild — Downton is entering the new age. Women’s rights, secret daughters, marriages and threats of bankruptcy are all on the horizon in the Masterpiece Classic’s final season, along with the usual dose of snobbery and back-handed sass, of course. In true “Downton Abbey” fashion, the lords and ladies eagerly trample into their backyard expanse for a weekend hunt as the final season springs to life, promising to tie up loose ends without unraveling too many new threads.
After winning three Golden Globes and 12 Primetime Emmys, the British period drama’s sixth season premiere lives up to the expectations set by its resounding critical acclaim. Consistently showcasing episodes of breathtaking cinematography and precise dialogue, “Downton Abbey” proves, once again, to be anything but a passive viewing experience. Much of the series’ merit lies in the nuances: the witty remarks, oftentimes delivered by the brilliant Maggie Smith (“Harry Potter”) as Countess Violet Crawley, and the exchange of snooty looks color even the smallest moments. Perhaps this attention to detail is what drew audiences to the series in the first place. “Downton Abbey” has proven to be more than a historical analysis of the highbrow upper class elite juxtaposed with the slim pickings lives of their working-class staff. Instead, the show highlights the surprising relativity of human nature, even within seemingly opposite groups of people.
Other than showing some ankle and sporting dramatic hairdos (winning the series three Primetime Emmy awards for outstanding hairstyles), the women of Downton continue to challenge the boundaries of the status quo. The opening hunting scene shows Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, “Non-Stop”) straddling her horse rather than riding side-saddle, which, as Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, “Iris”) points out, is “so much more graceful.” Meanwhile, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, “Burn Burn Burn”) toils with her editor, whose male ego cannot handle working for a woman. In tune with previous seasons, Lady Mary and her sisters (past and present) bring the “modern” into a house desperately holding on to the traditional past, and the familiar themes of progress and inevitable change ring through.
Going back to the basics, “Downton Abbey” starts its sixth season with what it does best: blackmail with the intent of social destruction. The secret fling between Lady Mary and Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen, “Weekend”) was brought back from the dead when a gold-digging employee of their getaway hotel comes to haunt the Abbey’s reputation. The scandal is put to rest (for now), but the most significant takeaway from the interaction is Mary’s intent to stay single — until the right man comes along, anyway. Her growing self-sufficiency has allowed the focus of Mary’s character to switch from juggling her budding love life to honing her shrewd business savvy, and exploring the idea that a woman in the 1920s is not defined by the husband at her side. Mary’s relationship status could take a variety of directions by the series’ end, a creative decision that will make a significant statement to the progression of women into a new era.
Romances are heating up downstairs too, as Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, “The Golden Compass”) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, “Secrets and Lies”) take the next step before officially tying the knot. As the Abbey’s relationships go, there have been matches both political and passionate, and everything in between. Yet, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ love is one rarely depicted on screen, and it’s executed fantastically on “Downton Abbey.” The two middle-aged singles have devoted their life to work, and have grown to love each other years after the conventional timeframe of typical newlyweds. Mrs. Hughes’ reservations before setting the date of the wedding, however, are of the unspeakable nature: she is worried about Mr. Carson’s sexual expectations. Both comical and surprisingly relatable, the story arc brings out an innocence and vulnerability within the characters and serves as a gentle reminder that love is never too late. Although their relationship is not bold or passionate, the nuances in their friendly exchanges hold more weight than a grand, romantic gesture. After all, hearing Mr. Carson say he is tickled when she walks into a room is infinitely more satisfying than an over-the-top declaration of eternal love.
Half a world and nearly a century away from the modern day America, the Abbey’s dramas and scandals have found a place within the emotions of its audience. In a season premiere that showcases unforgettable visuals and the emotional versatility of the cast, “Downton Abbey” sets up high expectations to do the beloved characters justice as their stories, after five years, come to a close.