'Downton Abbey' recap: The proposal we've all been waiting for

After an otherwise lackluster season, 'Downton Abbey' delivers a terrific finale

"Of course I'll marry you, you old booby."

Have more poetic words ever been spoken in the English language? I think not.

In Sunday's season finale of "Downton Abbey," Carson fulfills the dreams of millions of viewers and more than a few fan-fiction writers by proposing marriage to Mrs. Hughes. It's a moment many of us have been waiting for since these two waded hand in hand into the ocean at the close of last season (if not before) but few of us actually believed would happen. And yet here it is, as lovely and as satisfying as can be.

Let's savor the details, shall we? There are hints throughout the episode that a full-fledged romance may be in the works, as Carson and Mrs. Hughes go house-hunting together (quick, HGTV, get us a spinoff series!) and share a conspicuous number of late-night glasses of sherry. Just as they're about to decide on a house, Mrs. Hughes reveals that she's destitute because she's been supporting an institutionalized sister. Cut to Christmas, and Carson tells Mrs. Hughes he's got something he'd like to discuss.

While I figured Carson would go ahead and buy the house anyway, I was honestly surprised -- and delighted -- that he proposed. As usual, Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter are both perfectly charming and adorable in their roles. There are no professions of love, but there probably don't need to be. "One thing I do know, I'm not marrying anyone else," says Carson, setting all our hearts a-patter.

Of course there will be naysayers out there who will remind us that it's risky -- see also: "Moonlighting," "Cheers," "Friends" -- but we're pretty late in the game here at "Downton Abbey," and a new romance downstairs is more likely to inject new life into the series rather than kill off vital will-they-or-won't-they tension. 

It's a fitting way to conclude a season that felt like it was going nowhere in most ways but has shined whenever it's focused on the elders of "Downton Abbey," such as Isobel's (now-stalled) engagement to Lord Merton, Violet's repressed passion for Prince Kuragin, and Violet and Isobel's deepening friendship. Maybe it's simply that Julian Fellowes is better at writing older characters, or maybe there's something refreshingly novel about seeing late-in-life relationships depicted in pop culture, or maybe it's just that we're just bored with the young folks at Downton Abbey. Whatever the case may be, it's a welcome turn for the show.

Even before Carson popped the question, this Christmas special was shaping up quite nicely. Heavy on the sentiment, sure, but that's what holiday episodes are for -- a fact that "Downton Abbey" hasn't always remembered. (Need I remind you of the Chrismas special that ended in an extreme closeup of Matthew's bloody, lifeless face?) For a moment there as Lord Grantham complained about his "tummy" pains, I thought more tragedy might be in store. Happily, it turns out he's got an ulcer and the only "tragedy" is that his lordship has to lay off the hooch for a few months so that by the time Christmas rolls around, he's tanked after a single cup of punch. Steady on!

This episode offers us so many delights in addition to a drunk Grantham. In the grand tradition of the "Downton Abbey" Christmas special, the Crawleys hit the road and don their finest tweed for a grouse shooting party at scenic Brancaster Castle, a Northumberland estate rented by Lord and Lady Sinderby. The place, surrounded by lovely fields of heather, is so vast it has both a library and an ante library -- whatever that is -- and is probably visible from space. (Fun fact: The location, Alnwick Castle, stood in for Hogwarts in the "Harry Potter" films and is still inhabited by the Duke of Northumberland and his family.) 

In a postwar period when young eligible men were about as abundant as Faberge eggs, both Mary and Edith meet cute bachelors (with Mary's love interest played by the swoon-worthy Matthew Goode). But more compelling are the romantic developments back at home: Isobel decides not to go through with her marriage to Lord Merton because of his odious sons, while Princess Kuragin arrives in town and crushes Violet's dreams of running off with her long-lost Russian love -- for the second time, it is revealed.

As much as I'd love to see these ladies married off, I'm just as happy for them both to remain single. Their friendship, which has grown to the point that they'd rather sneak away to chat with each other than hang out with the rest of the family at the Downton Christmas party, is a genuine treat.

This episode celebrates and reaffirms virtually every bond within the Crawley family and its staff, leaving no opportunity for heartwarming, tear-jerking sentiment untapped. (And manages to do so without making me roll my eyes.) Branson gets a loving send-off from the whole clan, there's an homage to Sybil that could wring tears out of the Grinch, and Grantham and Branson tell Edith they know the truth about Marigold -- and are just fine with it.

To keep things amusing, there's an entire subplot about chicken broth, something that only "Downton Abbey" could get away with, plus a butler named Stowell who brings new meaning to the word "prig."  I mean, what's not to love?

This episode gives me such an acute case of the warm-and-fuzzies that I can't even complain about the haphazard twists in the Anna and Bates saga, or the egregious expository dialogue that's exchanged along the way. (Anna: "You know my father was a laborer?" Bates: "And he was killed in an accident at work." Anna: "Yes, when I was about 6.") All I know is that their long nightmare seems to be over, leaving the Bateses free to be nice and boring once again next season, and that is truly something to cheer.

One thing I will complain about: Mary's version of "Silent Night." What's with those lyrics?

Now if you need me, I'm going upstairs to take off my hat. See you next season!

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.

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