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As 'Downton' Draws To A Close, A Look Back On What Made The Show Great

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, is played by Elizabeth McGovern.
Nick Briggs
Courtesy of PBS
Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, is played by Elizabeth McGovern.

Forget all that stiff-upper-lip stuff. If you're looking for evidence that the British have a big, beating heart underneath their reputation for reserve and restraint, look no further than Sunday's finale of their popular TV export, Downton Abbey.

It's a sprawling, 90-minute affair which wraps up six seasons worth of storylines. Longtime fans of television's most mannered soap opera know there are oceans of emotion beneath some of the characters' tiniest gestures — a welcome reward for fans who have endured secret scandals, thwarted passions, unexpected deaths and unforeseen imprisonments.

Castmember Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley, the American heiress married into Downton's British nobility, says the show's setting in a more understated time likely fueled its success.

"In today's world, we contend with more information than we can actually absorb and handle in our emotional development, and it produces a sort of low grade anxiety all the time," McGovern said last year during a press conference.

"But in the world of Downton Abbey, we all only know the circle that is right in front of our face and we know our job and we know our place and we know how to behave. And there are limits to that life, of course, but it's peaceful."

Of course, for women and poor people and nonwhite people, the days when "everybody knew their place" seem a lot less admirable.

Still, Downton soared by playing with that tension as much as possible. The show's two towering male characters — Hugh Bonneville's Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and Jim Carter's fatherly butler Charles Carson — personified the struggle to retain the stability that comes from long-held tradition, while allowing compassion and good sense to overrule strictures that don't compute in a changing world.

Actor Hugh Bonneville plays Robert Crawley, also known as Lord Grantham.
Nick Briggs / Courtesy of PBS
Courtesy of PBS
Actor Hugh Bonneville plays Robert Crawley, also known as Lord Grantham.

Before Sunday's finale, the biggest questions loom: Will Lady Edith get a happy ending? Will the Crawleys wind up serving their own food after half the Abbey's staff leaves for middle-class careers or other households?

As fans prepare to watch the final new episode of Downton Abbey airing in the U.S. — British TV already aired the series finale last Christmas Day — here's my list of great things I'll miss about the show.

It was one of the few popular TV shows to depict a range of older characters with vital lives. From servants Carson and Mrs. Hughes finally getting married to Isobel Crawley handling interest from several men, Downton Abbey has always provided meaty story lines for characters played by 60-something actors. And its best character — the witty, perceptive and fiercely protective Dowager Countess — is played by Smith, an 81-year-old acting icon who remains the show's linchpin right until the final scene.

It made prestige TV of a towering soap opera. Maybe it was the British accents and the co-production deal between PBS and England's ITV. But Downton has always been a magnet for honors, including a Golden Globe and Emmy as best miniseries, despite indulging some of the classic characteristics of soap operas. Along with Sherlock, Downton Abbey helped PBS get back in the prestige drama game, though the network is still struggling to replicate that success. Yes, Downton's characters are often too easily identified as "virtuous" or "scheming," and the subplots involving these folks can feel predictable as the next Coldplay single. But ...

It tells a redemption story for at least one evil character. It's no spoiler to note that the story of Robert James-Collier's underbutler Thomas Barrow has arced from scheming antagonist to wounded victim over the show's run. His manner has always been irritating: In early seasons, he was an unceasing villain. More recently, he's a self-pitying martyr. Barrow is one of the few characters who has morphed from bad to good, hanging around longer than most of the show's cartoonish antagonists. And while I also liked the story lines revealing his life as a closeted gay man, it troubles me that those plots have been used to transform him into a noble victim, implying his previous bad acts may have been inspired by the turmoil of hiding who he truly is. Still, it remains a tribute to the producers' skill that viewers will likely care very much about his fate in Sunday's finale.

It was the definition of first-world problems. As politics and war in the real world grow more nightmarish, it was a pleasure to spend time with a drama where the most pressing problem might be how long it takes Lord Grantham to realize he's surrounded by smart and capable women worthy of holding jobs and running things. Sure, there were death and rape and murder charges wrapped in Downton's storylines, but the core of the show's appeal was its characters' focus on issues we as viewers knew would be resolved with time's passage — including growing independence for women, the rise of the middle class and gay rights.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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