Spoilers ahead for the series finale of Downton Abbey.
The doors to Downton Abbey permanently closed on Sunday night and, of course, the Dowager Countess of Grantham got the last word. Would we have it any other way?
Masterpiece Theatre’s most popular show in its 45-year history quickly became America’s biggest British-TV import. With its upstairs-downstairs setup, soapy tendencies, and Maggie Smith’s delicious zingers, Downton Abbey won our hearts, three Golden Globes, and 12 Emmys. (And it could pick up a few more trophies this year.) Executive producer Gareth Neame spoke to Vulture about the show’s legacy, the possibility of a movie, and the little surprises creator (and sole writer of all 52 episodes) Julian Fellowes left for the fans.
Violet had the last word, of course. What were you were thinking about going into the last moments of the show?
I can’t remember whether it’s something we talked about or when Julian sent me the first draft, that’s the way he wrote it. But there was never any more debate about it. She had to have the last word. Of course she did. It’s nice that so many people noticed it. It feels very right. There are other little things in there I like. Just before that, Anna calls her husband by his name, John, the only time in 60 hours or something of the show. It’s the only time she’s ever called him by his name.
And Carson calls Mrs. Hughes “Elsie.”
Maybe it was the whole atmosphere of Christmas.
One of the episode’s highlights was Anna giving birth in Lady Mary’s room, the place where they have had all these intimate conversations and secrets. You know, the Pamuk of it all.
It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful. I just love in the midst of it all you cut away to Carson, and Mrs. Hughes says to him, “She’s giving birth now,” and he says, “Not in Lady Mary’s room, surely.” It’s all wonderful really. And it’s funny and it’s happy-making.
Why is this the right time to say good-bye?
Because all good things must come to an end. While I’m sure we could have done seven good seasons, maybe even eight, we wanted to make sure we ended on a high. We wanted people to love this last season as much as they loved the first. And I think we’ve achieved that. Very often the commercial pressures make people milk things, where they should be allowed to come to a more natural end. It was something we all agreed on. And as much as all of our networks would’ve liked the show to continue, they were very supportive. They didn’t really put pressure on to keep it going. They allowed us to decide when we wanted to end it. I think that is as good as we could have made a TV show, the six years. I hope that will make people cherish the show because it stayed on such good form.
These last few episodes were really strong. Lady Mary was infuriating. Were you trying to make her as awful as she could be?
That was a low point for Mary and a low point for their relationship. Having brought them to a low point, it allows us to oversee there being that rapprochement between them. It’s really lovely when Edith decides that blood is thicker than water and she comes back for Mary’s wedding. And then Mary does her a favor. Mary decides and determines that she is going to get her sister and Bertie back together again.
How would you sum up what you were trying to accomplish with the final season and finale? It had a hopeful tone.
Even in the last season you still had that incredibly horrific moment with Robert, where he was going to die at the dinner table, splattering Cora with blood. We had that terrible accident with motor racing, and that death playing into the relationship between Henry and Mary. So there were lots of dark and surprising things that happened in the last season. But you’re right. Many of our characters have died. Nonetheless, despite all of the slings and arrows, it is uplifting, and it is optimistic, and it’s about people trying to do the right thing and get through life in the best way they know how. By the time you get into the last couple of episodes of the show, because we knew the audience would be so sad to see the end of this show, [we] wanted to give them something. They would be really sad about missing the characters, but feel happy that they had good outcomes. It’s a positive show at its heart.
Was there ever a real consideration of having Lord Grantham die?
No. Obviously, we wanted the empathy of it all, but I can’t think we would ever have killed him, no.
Another great touch was that Edith ends up outranking the whole family.
It’s just brilliant. That was Julian Fellowes’s plan from the outset. He pitched it to me very early on. It effortlessly allows all of Edith’s bad luck of five and a half seasons [to be] put right. It puts hierarchy and class, which has always been the heart of the drama and the comedy, it keeps it right there to the finale. The very fact that everyone is thrilled for Edith except for Mary, who’s furious. After all of that, her hopeless sister is going to end up triumphing. She’s got together with a guy who feels quite suitable for Edith. He’s very unassuming and he’s not successful. He’s very low-key. Then, of course, ends up making this massive inheritance, which nobody predicted. I just love the way that Mary’s furious about it and the way Michelle Dockery played that. It was really delicious.
Not every story closed tightly. I wanted to get your thoughts on a few loose ends: Where do you think Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason end up?
I liked the fact there’s a little bit of a hint towards something there. There’s a bit of a hint about Tom Branson and Edith’s editor, Laura, and that even for Daisy, who’s always been so hopeless and always looking in the wrong direction when it comes to boys, you know. There’s a hint of happiness for others, but we don’t dwell on it.
So much love in the air. Am I wrong to think the same of Molesley and Mrs. O’Brien? Or are they just good friends?
I think they’re two very fragile characters who found each other and offered mutual support. Maybe something would happen between them, but I don’t think it’s very clear. Romance is important, but it’s not like everyone’s getting it together at the same time.
What do you think is going to be the legacy of the show?
Its legacy is to say to audiences in America and to Hollywood that stories can come from anywhere and that people will watch any story that’s well told. There are certain taboos about this story that people thought might not work. It’s not desperately violent, and it’s an optimistic, heartfelt show and audiences all around the world were watching it in whatever language it’d been dubbed into [and] have responded to well-drawn characters, a mixture of drama, comedy, and romance. The legacy, I hope, will be a show that people remember fondly, in the way people talk about I Love Lucy from decades ago. I’d love to think that people will still care about this show decades into the future.
You’ve seen other movies and shows where they showed the upstairs-downstairs relationship. What was unique here was that, even though they do keep separate, they actually did in some ways end up caring about each other, like Mary and Carson and Mary and Anna.
You’re absolutely right. It’s a great, big extended family. I think it’s realistic that, okay, you’re not going to love your servant like you love your own family, but these are relationships that could span many, many years. It was particularly strong between the children and the servants, because the social barriers between the classes wouldn’t have existed for the kids. So Mary would have grown up her entire life knowing Carson, and that’s why from the beginning we’ve had that relationship where he’s almost like another father, like a stepfather to her. And she loves him. They love each other very, very much. Carson is upstanding, professional, and his other characteristic is he’s extremely conservative. And there’s a lot of humor from the fact that he always sees things in the most traditional, conservative way. But he also has this incredible bond with Mary, which gives a whole other dimension.
One of the characters we saw change most over time was Thomas. Why didn’t you let him die when he attempted suicide?
We became conscious of the fans, and we were sort of migrating from thinking he’s this evil villain to feeling more and more sympathy for him in the last couple of seasons, and [him] feeling misunderstood. A man who could never really make a way for himself. And the idea that life for a homosexual would have been almost impossible. And he’s just so good. [Rob James-Collier] is such a good actor, and it was such a popular character. The idea that we go through all the emotions of him leaving, but then quite neatly bring him back because of Carson’s own declining health — you kind of get two bites of the cherry. You get the sadness of him leaving and the happiness when you realize that he can be brought back.
I hear you might be bringing him back one more time. Is a movie in the works?
We are contemplating that. We’d be pleased to do a film if we could make it work and pull the elements together. Nothing’s definite about that at the moment.
So, it’s not actually being developed right now?
We’re talking about stories, and we’d have to get all the actors back from all the other things they’re up to. I wouldn’t rule it out is what I’d say now. But I can’t give you anything more solid than that.