When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go … to Downton. Not that it’s an easy ride: The past five seasons of Julian Fellowes’s early 20th-century aristocratic soap opera have been fraught with drama, heartbreak, aristocratic disgrace, and the specter of socialism, which looms over the ridiculously privileged Crawley family even more insistently than rain clouds hover over Yorkshire. Still, there’s something about the combination of upstairs/downstairs antics, manor-house glamour, and the Dowager Countess’s bon mots that makes even the silliest storylines bearable.
The sixth and final season of Downton Abbey returns to PBS Sunday night, and for once, things might be looking up. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who got engaged at the end of season five, are preparing for their marriage, the potential intimate details of which prompt a heart-to-heart between Carson and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) that reminds viewers how Downton really peaks when it’s a genteel sex comedy. Anna (Joanne Froggatt), out on bail after being accused of the murder of her rapist, might finally be off the hook after another of his victims comes forward to confess (the show hints at self-awareness by having both Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) continually refer to Anna as the most long-suffering woman in England). Little Marigold is finally ensconced at the Abbey with everyone apart from Mary having cottoned on to the fact that Edith (Laura Carmichael) is her mother. And Violet (Maggie Smith) is still gloriously, acerbically Violet, storing up one-liner after one-liner for The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and her countless parody Twitter accounts.
Downton, for all its charms, has never quite managed to find a balance when it comes to plot, which is why the darker threads of season four were so jarring—it’s hard to see one beloved character die and another be brutally attacked while the rest of the ensemble cast is cheerfully fretting about the newfangled refrigerator possibly emitting toxic electricity rays, or whether the pigs are dehydrated. The final season, at least in its early episodes, seems to have wisely decided to ease toward a happy ending, without much in the way of Greek drama. This does, of course, mean more time spent on the less pressing issues afflicting the Crawley family and their good-natured servants. Remember the fuss last season over the proposed war memorial in the village? And the drama over whether the family could get a wireless? If season six has more in the way of these small-stakes storylines, it’s compensated by the comic exuberance of the show at its best.
In 1925, the most serious problems the Crawley family face continue to revolve around the future of Downton. With Tom now in Boston, the estate needs a new manager, and Robert (Hugh Bonneville) doesn’t seem all that amenable to letting Mary have a go, especially since the first conversation they have in the new season involves him reprimanding her for not riding her horse side-saddle (“so much more graceful”). The wage bill for the servants has tripled since the war ended, leaving Mr. Carson faced with the prospect of laying off a servant or two, even while stuck between Mrs. Hughes and Lady Mary in his own uncomfortable version of Bride Wars. More to the point, great houses all over the country are going bankrupt, reminding Robert and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) that the sanctity of their status as lord and lady of the manor is anything but certain.
Still, not everyone is threatened by the rising tide of progress: Edith is leaning in as the publisher of the magazine she inherited from her late boyfriend, Daisy (Sophie McShera) continues her studies, Mrs. Patmore hopes to turn her inheritance into a small business of her own, and even Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) has a dream. If the show has had a recurring theme over six seasons, it’s that you can’t stop progress by leaping aboard the steam train of history and yelling stop (with Mrs. Patmore’s skepticism regarding all new kitchen inventions serving as a metaphor for a larger fear of modernity). Set 13 years after its pilot episode—which dealt with the sinking of the Titanic—in 1925, Downton has seen the first Great War of the 20th century, a wealth of technological innovation, the election of a Labour government, and the birth of the movement for women’s rights. If the way in which it points to real history is sometimes a little heavy-handed (ahem, Cora reading the paper), it’s at least refreshing that it doesn’t simply romanticize a time when so much was shared by so few.
Devoted and casual fans of the series alike will doubtless enjoy the gentle winding up of stories that have progressed over so many years, with new beaus for Mary and Edith introduced at the end of last season, an increasing degree of liberation for the servants, and even a glimpse of happiness for the tragedy-ridden Bateses. Meanwhile Downton’s villains, always cartoonish, remain so: Denker the lady’s maid (Sue Johnston) is Cruella de Vil with a northern accent, and there’s a sassy new visitor for Lady Mary who seems hellbent on destroying the aristocracy one teacup at a time. But with the stakes kept pleasantly low, all Downton has to do is gently point out how much we’re going to miss it when it’s gone.