‘Downton Abbey’s’ Julian Fellowes balanced resolution and change in final season
“Downton Abbey” bid farewell on Sunday night in a bittersweet (but mostly sweet) finale that ticked off all the boxes with a long-awaited wedding, a birth, a pregnancy and the promise of future romance all around. There was just a tinge of sadness as well, as one beloved character grappled with debilitating illness. Here, creator and writer Julian Fellowes reflects on the end of “Downton Abbey” and explains why he too thought Edith should finally get a break. Obviously, spoilers abound.
What were your storytelling priorities going into the final season?
There was this constant theme — one way resolution and in another way change. Those two themes go through the season. I didn’t want to tie up absolutely every last string, but I wanted to resolve the future for most of the characters, and at least indicate what it was probably going to be like. Like Anthony Trollope, I like happy endings. I didn’t want to kill someone with cancer or knock them over on the road. I just felt the audience had earned happy endings, particularly for Edith, because Edith’s has had nothing but bad luck for six years, and so it seemed nice that she should triumph after the last. That was fixed pretty early on in my mind. Apart from that it was just bringing everyone gradually into port, really.
Are you influenced by fan feedback? Fans certainly wanted Edith to catch a break.
There was one wonderful Twitter thing that I was told about, because I don’t do Twitter. It said, “If Edith Crawley isn’t happy at the end of the last episode, Julian Fellowes had better sleep with one eye open.”
And of course I wrote to that because Laura produced this performance, which I thought was very, very good. In a series, you’re writing to performances you can see. When you write a film or a play or musical, that’s not true, you just write it and then they cast it and then the actor plays it. With a series you really develop the characters in collusion with the actors, you’re bringing them on together really. “Downton” was no different.
Were there any other performances that shaped your writing?
Kevin [Doyle] was like that with Molesley. He came in as the butler/valet in Mrs. Crawley’s house, and I didn’t know whether he’d stay more than one or two seasons. I thought he had this incredibly kind of poignant but humorous performance that I really enjoyed. So I started to envisage him staying all the way. That was in response to Kevin. There’s no question about it. I thought he was brilliant, and I hope he flourishes.
You haven’t been afraid to really take Mary to some dark, challenging places this season.
For that to happen, I wanted Mary to do something that was almost unforgivable and she realizes herself that it was too much and so she compensates by bringing them together again. I thought it worked well, but one of the reasons it worked well is that Michelle is one of those actresses, and actually so is Maggie, who is not afraid to be disliked. You give them a story and if it’s good to play and if it’s interesting, then the fact that the audience will dislike them for it, they don’t mind. That’s such a gift for a writer. Often actors will shy away from stories that will make them seem unloving or cold or hostile or whatever. Michelle’s not like that. She’s a very interesting, courageous actress.
Virtually everyone in the finale gets a happy ending, with the possible exception of Carson.
Carson has a slightly qualified happy ending because I felt I wanted a seismic, emotional way of saying that actually Downton will never be the same again and for me, Carson leaving was the clearest way I could send that message, by giving him a physical condition which may be just a tremor or it may be the beginning of Parkinson’s. I don’t think I’ve made him miserable because he’s happily married with Mrs. Hughes, and they know where they’re living on the estate. But that’s the only kind of shadow on the story. I wanted a sort of sad moment when we realized that this era is coming to an end, and giving that scene between Carson and Robert Grantham was a way of marking the moment, that you know the old Downton is finished now.
When Lord Grantham’s ulcer burst, I thought that’s what that was going to be.
At some point, romance really took over the series.
I mean obviously in the final episode there was a lot of romance, because on the whole if you want to give people a happy ending, you give them a love story. But romance was always a solid part of it. For most people, their life is really three things: Where they live, what they do for a living, and who they share their emotional life with. Those three elements are the main strands of 98% of our lives. Obviously where they live in the case of “Downton Abbey” was a fairly major character, most of them had careers and the third stand is love, and we had a lot of that.
A lot of big shows have gone off the air in the last few years. Were there any finales you looked to for “Downton’s” farewell?
I was a big, big fan of “The West Wing” and a big, big fan of “Mad Men.” I absolutely adored both of those series. The end of “Downton” was closer to “West Wing.” It was a mixture of everyone being happy and at the same time a certain poignancy because it had come to an end. However much we felt Martin Sheen and Stockard Channing were fine, nevertheless his major job in life was gone. From now on he was essentially an ex-president. That put a poignancy into the business of the episode in which almost everyone else was happy, again with a lot of romance and career fulfillment.
In a way I think that was quite similar. With “Mad Men.” Matthew Weiner took a different choice and turned him into a creature of the ‘60s. And also he had a bit of tragedy. Killing January Jones with cancer. He went in a darker direction.
What I do feel is a final episode of the show is not the same as another episode. It’s not designed to bring in new viewers. It’s not designed to speak to people who’ve never watched the show before. It’s made for your faithful viewers. It’s a letter from the makers of the program to their followers and that marks it apart.
You put the characters away months ago now. Do you miss them?
They live in the back of my head slightly because there may be a film and it rumbles on, in which case they’ll all come dancing back into my life. I’d be completely up for a film. It’s a different kind of narrative. I think it would be interesting to do if we can get the actors. They all rushed off into other jobs, doing plays and making films.
I don’t know about an alien spaceship, but I like contemporary drama very much. Probably one of my favorite pieces was called “Separate Lies,” with Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson and Rupert Everett. So I would like to do more contemporary drama. In a way, I don’t think that one should be ungrateful for the fact that you’ve become the go-to guy for one particular sort of thing. There are plenty of people who never have that. I’m jolly lucky to have it.
How has the show changed your life?
It was an extraordinary phenomenon to be a part of. Many, many careers, even busy, good careers, never find themselves at the center of a whirlwind like that and really we all realized we were caught up in a phenomenon that would probably not be equaled again in our working life. Everyone who was on board the good ship “Downton” now knows what it’s like to be at the center of a world hit. We had millions viewing it everywhere. We were given awards all over the world. We were flown all over the world. The whole thing was extraordinary phenomenon. People would burst into tears. When you’re in the middle of that, a lot of it is very surreal. I’m very, very grateful that I’ve known what it’s like.
Any particularly surreal moments?
I was in Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York and I was walking around from table to table. This woman was following me and I could sort of see her hovering and following and finally I turned to her and I said, “Can I help?” She looked at me and her lip quivered and she said, “Just let Edith be happy!” You do rather wonder what you’ve started up. I remember suddenly getting a message I had to run to No. 10 Downing Street with a signed script to give to a head of state. There were so many strange happenings over the six or seven years. As I say, it was all fantastic to be a part of.
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