Article by Julie Miller for Vanity Fair
Beware, gentle spoilers ahead.
With two weeks of filming remaining on Downton Abbey, cast members Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Hugh Bonneville, Joanne Froggatt, Elizabeth McGovern, and Penelope Wilton traveled to Los Angeles to tease the drama’s final season to the Television Critics Association on Saturday. The cast had already said goodbye to locals, Highclere Castle, and a few cast members whose storylines had ended, and the mood onstage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel was bittersweet. But the famously tight-lipped cast, perhaps feeling a bit nostalgic, seemed to be more forthcoming about plot details of the upcoming season than in years past.
“The final season very much has a flavor of the end of an era,” Bonneville shared. About an hour earlier, Downton Abbey executive producer Gareth Neame told us privately that the entire series has indeed been about the end of an era but “that concept comes in really sharply in the final season. It is just accelerating the idea that Downton Abbey can’t continue the way it has so the idea of scaling down and downsizing becomes more and more clear.”
Bonneville surprised press by describing one pivotal scene in the last episodes that seems to be a major turning point for his character, Lord Grantham, who has been the most resistant to change along with Jim Carter’s Carson and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.
“We visit a neighbor in the county who literally has to sell the estate’s silver. . . this once [great] estate is being fragmented,” Bonneville said. “Robert, the dinosaur that he has been this time. . does adapt. . does see that change is necessary. He wants to conserve the best of the past but absolutely understands that the future beckons.”
Season-six footage reaffirmed the theme, showing Lord Grantham pressure Carson to downsize the staff. Carson reminds him that Downton started with six footmen and five housemaids. Now, Carson says, there are only two footmen and housemaids and no kitchen maids at all. Grantham, a fire lit under him apparently after seeing his neighbor sell off his cutlery, harrumphs, “Who has an underbutler these days?”
While answering one of our questions, Neame revealed something that felt, to us at least, like a major clue to the show’s final scenes. “Sometimes people lose their jobs,” he told us, “and have to go out and find another job. It doesn’t come across as sad in the show but it will hopefully make it feel like an ending and we will get to the final episode and the camera will drift away and that is the last time we will ever see [those characters].”
Neame emphasized that the final season won’t be as depressing as it sounds because the downsizing serves as a backdrop, and the footage shown to press does have its share of light moments. Lady Mary, her haircut shorter and her waistlines longer than ever before, makes more deliciously cutting comments about Lady Edith, who is galavanting around London. The middle Crawley sister seems to have moved to the big city, assumed full control of Gregson’s company, and resigned herself to her relatively hapless fate. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been given one little bit of happiness and that will do,” she tells Aunt Rosamund, who dutifully reminds Edith of her daughter Marigold. (By the way, when the series resumes in 1925, Dockery dished that “Mary is still in the dark about Marigold [being Edith’s daughter] because she just doesn’t take enough interest in people’s lives.”)
When Mary, who has taken more control over the family estate, isn’t complaining about Edith’s big-city whereabouts and “wretched” new suitor, she receives letters from Branson, who is stationed in Boston but has teary dreams about Downton—suggesting that he and Sybbie might return. Anna discusses cobbling together a wedding dress for Hughes. Cora and Daisy work together to try to solve a vague problem. The Dowager Countess cuts down Isobel, per usual, in a business meeting while wearing an exquisitely bejeweled new hat. (Small victories.) Carson bristles when Hughes suggests he start calling her by her first name at Downton since they are engaged. (“But we’re at work,” he shudders.) And in perhaps the most jarring snippet of footage shown, at least from Carson’s perspective, Robert and Cora sneak into the kitchen, marvel at the new refrigerator, and fix themselves a snack. If the Lord and Lady of Downton Abbey making themselves a midnight snack doesn’t signal the end of an era, we’re not quite sure what does.
In our discussion with Neame, the executive producer said that historical events don’t play as much of a role in the final episodes as they have in the past. “They’re less significant in the last season, just as there are fewer guest stars, because the focus is on the household.” Neame was careful to say that although there will be “some shocks and surprises and things that don’t quite turn out as you’d expect,” he and series creator Julian Fellowes scripted the final season with fans in mind and were very conscious in trying to “not piss them off.”
Neame maintained that he and Fellowes are “definitely considering a film” that would pick up after the finale’s events. He said that Fellowes would be able to write the film’s screenplay while juggling his NBC period drama The Gilded Age. And if there is a spin-off series, it sounds as though it would be a prequel—but as Neame mentioned multiple times, no further Downton Abbey plans have been cemented. For now, the cast said, they are just focusing on completing the series.
“We finished at Highclere a couple weeks ago,” Bonneville told press about the estate that doubles as Downton. “In fact we celebrated when we finished in the dining room because the longest scenes take place there. We had a team photo in there.”
“It was very strange saying goodbye to the castle,” Carmichael added, “because it felt like in a split second it wasn’t our home anymore. And of course it was never our home,” she laughed. “It was Highclere Castle. And the second they yelled cut that day, you realized it was just pretend.”
“Laura and I wandered around for the last time. . . we didn’t want to leave,” Dockery said. “We went and sat on Matthew’s bench.”
“And we had a good cry,” revealed Carmichael.
The waterworks will likely resume on August 15 when Downton Abbey finishes the last of its filming on a sound stage overseas. The tears, for fans, will begin sometime after the series returns in the U.S. on January 3.