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'Downton Abbey' season finale review: Beautiful

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham, is

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham, is shown in a scene from the second season on "Downton Abbey." Credit: AP

THE SERIES "Downton Abbey"

WHEN | WHERE Season finale Sunday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the third season finale -- called simply the "Christmas Special" when it aired last year in the U.K. -- the Crawleys head to Duneagle Castle in Scotland, seat of Robert, Earl of Grantham's (Hugh Bonneville) cousin, Hugh "Shrimpie" MacClare, Marquess of Flintshire (Peter Egan).

Shrimpie's in an unhappy marriage, and father of a genuine wild child -- Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), last seen in a London nightclub in her cups and in the arms of a married man.

Meanwhile, most of the staff remains behind at Downton, and to paraphrase Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), while the cat's away...

MY SAY Real "Downton" fans -- presumably you -- will not want to miss a second of Sunday night's finale, and not simply because this may be the most cinematically beautiful hour and 32 minutes of television all year (much was filmed in Scotland).

There has been "spoiler" press about some especially dramatic turns, and no reason to get into that here.

But this "Christmas Special" manages to be both a gift and a sweeping thematic expression of what "Downton" has been about all season. The third season has tracked shifting fortunes -- power gained, power lost and the fragility of human dignity -- but the press of time is accelerating, too. Roles are changing, particularly gender roles, and Robert remains resolutely stuck in an Edwardian past. Or as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) observed last week, "Poor Robert. The postwar world is not being kind to him." The Crawleys don't know it -- we do -- but another war looms, which will further erode the bedrock of England, or their England. Children are representative of that new world, too, but they've been particularly hard to come by here -- an heir finally born to Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who then died in childbirth. This may well be series' creator Julian Fellowes' way of saying just how tenuous that future is.

Be warned that Sunday's finale has a hard conclusion, but what you'll finally be left with of this luminous season is an even deeper affection -- and appreciation -- for this treasure.

BOTTOM LINE The finale of a superb season does not disappoint.


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