When Downton Abbey, which wrapped up its fifth-season run on PBS Sunday night, is fun, it's so much fun. And when it's not good, it's usually talking about Mr. Bates and Anna and somebody getting murdered.
The final episode — which aired in the UK as the Christmas special — found Tom preparing to leave Downton with his daughter, Edith making peace with her father over the presence of her less-and-less-secret daughter, the Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley both managing complicated romantic entanglements, and Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes considering purchasing a B&B together.
One of the strongest elements of the fifth season has been its richness for the older half of its cast, both upstairs (Violet and Isobel) and downstairs (Carson and Hughes). Maggie Smith has always been a huge asset to the show, but she's often been used primarily as a one-liner delivery mechanism. Great one-liners, but not the full extent of her gifts. Both the exploration of her surprising romantic past and especially the growth of her friendship with Isobel have given her more to do than say funny things and be surprisingly tender at funerals. The number of shows that are giving older actors such rich lives is regrettably small, and this was the first season when it really seemed that Smith, Penelope Wilton as Isobel, Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes, and Jim Carter as Mr. Carson were being fully employed.
At the same time, Edith's sad-sack history didn't change very much for the better (though that fellow she was dancing with seems to like her), but it did stop endlessly repeating. It was painful to see Edith, having made the decision to keep Marigold nearby, mistreat the woman who had effectively adopted and mothered the child — who didn't know Edith was her biological mother — by imposing on the family against the mother's wishes and ultimately yanking Marigold out of her only home. At the same time, the mercilessly difficult choices Edith faced made it easier to understand how a fundamentally decent person did what seemed at times like a series of incredibly selfish things. For once, she did something other than mope about rejection and loss: she acted, whether she acted right or not.
It was also delightful to see the return of the more complex woman Mary originally was — loving but self-centered, often insensitive, but funny and sharp. Part of what made her romance with Matthew compelling in the beginning was her prickly resistance and its unlikely collision with his weaponized pleasantness. But as they became the show's central romance, she became sweeter, softer, more of a big hug in well-dressed human form. As much as Dan Stevens is missed, it was nice to see mean old Mary back again, playing pretty thoughtlessly with the feelings of two men for a good chunk of the season, winding up with neither of them, and not really caring that much. (And, of course, torturing Edith, sometimes without realizing it.) The arrival of Matthew Goode — how was he not already on this show? — as Henry Talbot seemed to perk her up; we'll see how that goes.
I enjoyed Rose, too — her nicely uncomplicated relationship with Atticus, though enormously complicated by prejudices on both sides of their joined families, felt like the kind of sweetness the show does well. And when Rose ... uh, rose to the occasion to save a young woman from embarrassment at the hands of mean old Barrow (10 or 12 years into all of this, he's fleshed out but still brutal), it cut that sweetness a bit with the assurance that Rose has not only swooning adoration of her new husband (as he has of her), but also initiative and, as her father-in-law said in a moment of gratitude, resourcefulness.
And now, the negative: It's a widely held opinion that one of the least pleasurable elements of the second and third seasons of Downton was the too-long and too-boring story of Mr. Bates being wrongfully imprisoned for supposedly murdering his first wife. It thus seemed almost incomprehensible when the fourth and fifth seasons stuck the Bates in a long story that ultimately found both Bates and Anna wrongfully accused of murdering the man who had raped Anna.
Even setting aside the regrettable constancy of rape storylines as drivers of drama, another murder story? Another one? For the same people? Even the characters on the show began to comment on it, mentioning that of course, Bates has already beaten a bogus murder charge, so Anna should beat a totally unrelated one, too. At the very least, you'd think someone would comment on the bad luck of finding oneself and one's wife both wrongfully imprisoned for murder within a few years of each other. For whatever reason, writing Bates and Anna as happy, even for a brief time, seems out of the question, but really: the murder thing is used up, guys. At least have them falsely accused of something else. Fraud?
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.