The moment every Downton Abbey fan has been dreading has sadly arrived. The period drama has debuted the first episode of its final season and while the premiere was lifted by the dry humour viewers have become fond of, it is hard to ignore the tinges of melancholy laced throughout.
With season six of the ITV series being the last fans will see of the complicated Crawley family, the question looms: What is the future looking like for the residents of Downton Abbey and their employees? Frankly, pretty uncertain. Set in 1925, the socio-economic horizon is rapidly changing with technological advances – the introductions of hair dryers and fridges – and the accessibility of education for the underprivileged.
Not everyone is adjusting to the changes. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has her eyes wide open and is taking charge of the dire finances of the family's estate – a stark difference to how her father, Earl Of Grantham Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), is handling the austerity.
The reality of their situation dawns on Lord Grantham and the rest of the aristocratic family when their neighbour, unable to maintain their property and its staff, is forced to put their sprawling Mallerton estate up for auction. Of course, this puts the jeepers into the downstairs employees at Downton who begin hearing whispers of job cuts.
Perhaps fitting with the finality of the series, Lady Mary's nonchalant attitude is surprising when she is blackmailed by a woman who witnessed her weekend of fun with Lord Gillingham. Robert's eldest daughter just can not be bothered to entertain the opportunist but it also signals everything winding down at Downton. After all the chaos and heartache, Lady Mary simply refuses to bring more drama into her life.
While the widow spurns any potential problems from the offset, lady's maid Anna can not help but think cynically even after she is rightfully cleared of murdering Mr Green. It should be a fresh start for Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) but the couple are now struggling to conceive. Will they ever get their happy ending?
However, it is not all doom and gloom in Downton. The episode is relieved with light moments of humour courtesy of Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson (Jim Carter), who resemble awkward teenagers when trying to approach the subject of sex ahead of their wedding. Mrs Hughes is worried about consummating their marriage having waited all her life to find "Mr right" and enlists cook Mrs Patmore to have "the talk" with her fiance on her behalf. Watching elderly – and experienced – people fumble around the topic of intimacy is already a favourite moment of the season.
Watch the Downton Abbey series six trailer:
Hinting at what is set to become a particularly interesting arc of the show's last outing, Lady Edith and downstairs cook Daisy triumph in the issues surrounding gender and education, both of which are playing out in wider society. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is getting stuck into her role as the new editor of a magazine but is being challenged by a male employee who can not quite adjust to have a female boss. She is also embracing her new life in London where the publication is based - so will she be swapping the countryside for the capital?
Meanwhile, Daisy is transforming into quite the empowered female, furthering her education and becoming increasingly outspoken by challenging authority. Not a soul in Downton can escape the changes in society but as series six progresses, it will be interesting to see who swims with the tide and who struggles against the waves of change.
Whatever dramas the family and employees are embroiled in, the big question always boils down to love and romance. It remains unanswered, but Lady Mary makes it very clear that finding a new husband is the last thing on her mind as she states dryly: "I'd rather be single." Something suggests this mindset will not last very long.
ITV's Downton Abbey returns with episode two on 27 September.