The Emmy-winning PBS series “Downton Abbey: The Final Season” premiered Sunday, Jan. 3 (check local listings), and a cloud hangs over several of the main characters. There’s a blackmailer threatening Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) with a potential scandal (yes, another one!), while Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) withholds a heartbreaking secret from her husband (Brendan Coyle) even as she awaits her legal fate. Not even the happiest event at the close of last season — the betrothal of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan) — is a matter for unbridled joy, as Mrs. Hughes nervously wonders whether her fiancé wants and expects “a complete marriage” in all its intimacy.
Moreover, there’s another seismic change looming across England, where more owners of great houses like Downton Abbey are being forced by economics to downsize their household staffs or sell off their estates completely. Thanks to shrewd co-management by Mary and Tom Branson (Allen Leech), Downton itself is momentarily safe, but as Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) confides to a grim-faced Carson, wages at Downton have tripled since their pre-war levels. “Who has an underbutler nowadays?” Robert asks rhetorically.
The year is 1925, and the gracious if socially stratified world these characters have known all their lives is slipping further into the past. Then again, coping with sweeping changes has become part of their DNA, points out “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton.
“Ever since the Titanic went down in Season 1 and then Matthew Crawley, a lawyer, was going to become the next Earl of Grantham, things have been in flux for these characters,” she tells Zap2it. “And now they’re talking about what we know is coming: a major change in the social fabric of England.”
It was series creator Julian Fellowes who decided to wrap up the series at the end of this nine-episode season, but Eaton says that Fellowes by no means was running out of story material. In fact, he is said to be pondering a “Downton Abbey” film at some point in the future.
“I can’t speak for Julian, but I do think six years was a long time for him to spend writing every word of this entire series,” she says. “That worked out to about 10 and a half hours per season, and it was just really intense. Certainly, in terms of world events, there’s a huge, rich story still to come, in terms of the 1929 [stock market] crash and the Second World War. I think his decision was more personal. He had said what he had to say.”
Under its previous handle, “Masterpiece Theatre,” the drama showcase had a similar hit in the 1970s with “Upstairs, Downstairs,” but “Downton Abbey” exploded into the pop culture on an unprecedented scale partly because it arrived just as viewers were really starting to change how they watched TV.
“The show premiered as technology was giving viewers different options to sitting down together and watching on Sunday nights,” Eaton says. “People could record and watch each episode when they wanted or even stream a complete season all at once.”