Downton Abbey continues to plough towards its final season, and now faces an exciting and unpredictable future, which is kind of ironic for a show set right before World War II. Season 5 ended with ups (LIKE MATTHEW GOODE! SERIOUSLY MATTHEW GOODE IS IN THIS NOW!) and downs (Like the Bates story arch continuing into eternity). We've seen the deaths of a fair few major players, and even the beloved dog, Isis. Though with that name, perhaps it was a good move. The show has truly blossomed into a trashy soap masquerading as a tasteful period piece, and I love it!
What a shame, then, that it's losing it's greatest constant of all!
Who doesn't love Maggie Smith? She's not just a constant for Downton Abbey, but one for actors in general. I can't remember a time when Maggie Smith wasn't around. Well, that's because I'm not 85, but you see what I mean. She's one of those actors who remains unchanged through the years, and who is often taken for granted considering she's been appearing in things since the 50s. That's why it comes almost as a shock to hear she may be leaving Downton after Season 6. In its humble beginnings, she was most notable face in the cast, and it was her's used to sell it. What will Downton be with Maggie Smith gone? Or more importantly, what will be lost with her?
Downton Abbey is a hilarious show. I don't know why, and that kind of scares me. I don't mean the show's actual content is funny. It's amusing enough to make your grandma chuckle with delight, but I enjoy it in a more meta way. I don't find Downton Abbey funny, I find it funny to find it funny. The very fact it has a fandom so eager they would probably crowd fund it's own trading card game is hilarious. Any connection actors have with Downton Abbey immediately becomes amusing. From people demanding Charles Edwards in the street, asking how he could break Lady Edith's heart, to Dan Stevens simply being in other things. Most brilliantly, The Guest.
Despite my jovial approach to the show, the one source of genuine comedy that remains is Maggie Smith. Lady Grantham has a general air of disdain for things that seem below her, or a displeasure at being superseded by her sister, and yet she somehow doesn't come off as malicious, it's funny. What's more is that Maggie Smith seems to genuinely embody these qualities in a harmless way. She's so good at appearing constantly sour, that when she lets a little sweetness through her unimpressed demeanour, we get a character both fabricated and incredibly human. Everyone else on Downton appear as modern actors in a show, and while that's fine, Smith seems to be the only person who could've actually existed in the 20s. She simply has an air of heritage to her, which brings me to my next point.
The reason Downton Abbey gained the traction it did lies undoubtedly in how it apes and romanticises the forms of a pre-war England in a way that tickles the audience just right. There is something cathartic to looking at the archaic customs of pseudo nobility. It almost makes you forget that these class structures persist in the UK and prevent social mobility to this day and whoops I'm getting political! Before we realised this show has fans that fawn over it's many characters to a level that rivals Game of Thrones, it was sold on it's faux classiness.
So who in the show is there to embody this aged long-lost sense of taste and decorum? Hugh Bonneville may play the Earl of Grantham himself, but come on! The man looks more suited for Top Gear than for Lordship!
The character who really brings that element of palatable elitism is Lady Grantham. This isn't just in the way Smith portrays her as wry and unimpressed with the frivolities of the modern world, but in the very exposure the character gets in the story. I may be wrong, but Lady Grantham seems to get that little bit less screen time than characters with more dramatic storylines. This makes her seem enigmatic. Even her story arcs are little more removed. Her lost romance with Igor Kuragin, a refugee of the Russian Revolution, paints her as someone of an older world, yet not so old that she loses relevance in our minds. Sadly, with Maggie Smith leaving the show, that may have to become the case. Her persona was not just a novelty, but solidified the entire theme of the show.
The glue that holds Downton Together
This may sound cynical. I am of course not suggesting that Downton Abbey will lose all coherency if Maggie Smith leaves in Season 6. She comparatively doesn't have much screen time, and little of the drama is driven by her character. The show will survive, no doubt, but its spirit will be lessened. Downton Abbey is a show about class hierarchy so strong that the people within are blind to it. The show both criticises it, and admits its strange elegance. It is Maggie Smith that punctuates all of this. Lady Grantham is a figure that embodies the rigid walls both real and cultural that block people from each other. Some characters like Tom Branson are able to climb the ranks, maybe even become someone new, but the likes of him will never truly join the likes of her. Maggie Smith is the constant that reminds us of that, and without her, the show will still be the same, just a little vaguer.
Hugh Bonneville is all very good at being Hugh Bonneville, but the vital figure that punctuates the story will no doubt be lost if Maggie Smith leaves. Now, if a sick dog getting to sleep in its owners bed got people teary last year, how might they choose to write out Lady Grantham? We can only wait and see.