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Senior Correspondent

(Spoiler alert! Details about "Downton Abbey" revealed below.)

Ouch. Yes, I knew. March 1 would be the final episode of the fifth season of “Downton Abbey,” the much-loved Masterpiece series on PBS about a titled British family just before and after World War I. Even knowing, there’s a big void on the night it ran.

Not only did we get to know the family of Robert, earl of Grantham, and his American wife Cora (whose money finances the gorgeous home and gardens and employs the group of servants — upstairs, downstairs, and outside — needed to run it), but many of us have our favorites and we care deeply about what may happen to them. We are assured of a sixth season, but beyond that, we don’t know. Maggie Smith, the dowager countess, has already announced her retirement after next season.

Why are we fascinated with the lives of these characters? Americans have  always enjoyed the British royal family.The Downton family is not regal, but their titles place them high up. And unlike privacy issues that draw a screen over much of the royal family’s private lives, in Downton we are right in their bedrooms, listening to their conversations with other family members. And, thanks to the staff, household life in Downton is lived in a well-ordered way.  How nice to wake up and have everything in order for the day.

The future is up to Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of the show. And he is extremely clever at leading us to think one thing is about to happen when it is another. For instance, when Robert recently lost his beloved dog he was seen talking to a stone cutter about a memorial tablet. But no, the tablet is not for the dog, but for cook Mrs. Patmore’s soldier nephew, who has been excluded from memorials to the fallen. The unveiling of that tablet made for a very fine scene indeed.

I haven’t forgiven Fellowes for playing havoc with my emotions at the end of one of the early seasons when Lady Mary’s husband, Matthew, is ecstatic at the birth of their son, calling him “dear little chap.” The next scene, minutes later, has Matthew lying dead besides his flashy roadster, having collided head-on with a farm vehicle after leaving the hospital.

Speaking of Lady Mary, she has been steadily unkind in her treatment of sister Edith, starting in an early episode when a suitor of Edith’s is expected to propose at a large garden party. Mary quickly puts the kibosh on that, so that the gentleman departs rapidly without explanation, leaving a puzzled Edith and a smirking Mary. Whether it’s her clothing or her taste in men, Mary is constantly critical of this sister. No wonder that many of us are hoping for some happy outcome for Edith, who hasn’t had the same chances at happiness as others.

Widower Tom Branson, who started as the household chauffeur and won the heart of the late Lady Sybil, sister of Edith and Mary, seems poised to emigrate to Boston, where he has relatives, taking with him tiny daughter Sybby, one of three youngsters in the plot. He and Edith have things in common, some have observed, so would she also go to America? 

Another question mark is Thomas Barrow, the conniving footman who has caused all kinds of mischief and embarrassment for other characters. It was Thomas who directed the visiting Turkish diplomat to Lady Mary’s bedroom in an early episode. Later the visitor was found dead in Lady Mary’s bed, requiring fast action by Mary and Cora to avert a dreadful scandal (the kind that would taint a woman’s chances for a suitable marriage forever.) Barrow made sure that Mr. Bates, hired as valet to Robert and victim of an injury that causes him to limp, trips and falls flat in front of assembled family and servants, just the start of ongoing harassment by Barrow. What Fellowes will do with this character I am eager to see.

One thing that Fellowes has tackled is new romance, not just for the young, but for mature cast members. Both the dowager countess and Mrs. Crawley turned down ardent suitors at the end of season five. (Mrs. Crawley had already turned down the gentlemanly Dr. Clarkson, family physician, in an earlier episode.) Not to mention downstairs couple Carson and Mrs. Hughes. I found it hard to swallow the dowager’s story of attending an elegant wedding in Moscow just before the revolution and falling in love with the groom. (This strait-laced Englishwoman?) She and this prince eloped in his carriage, with the bride in hot pursuit. That lady dragged our countess from the groom’s carriage. The meeting of these two women, plus the prince, was a high point in last season’s final episode.

No wonder that next January, when season six is to be broadcast in the United States, seems awfully far off!

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