Downton Abbey: Through a Bates Darkly

Posted on January 27, 2014

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey, on PBS

 

If Julian Fellowes were a more nuanced sort of writer, we wouldn’t feel the need to ask this question, but after this last episode, we have to wonder. Does he realize he’s writing Mr. Bates like an ominous, dangerous, dark figure? Because he seems to think he’s writing him as a loving, supportive, moral man. But what’s coming across onscreen is that all of Mr. Bates outward gentleness and support is merely a facade covering up the dangerously violent man who apparently lurks underneath. To be honest, we’d love it if this was Fellowes’ intent and the story was going to explore more of this. The idea that Anna may have made a mistake in marrying Bates is something the show never even hinted at before, but if they really had the balls to explore it, their relationship – which has been both full of ridiculous roadblocks and at the same time curiously boring – would be rendered in a much more interesting light.

But we’re not fools. That’s not where Fellowes is going with this. He may be toying with Bates’ dark side this season – and we are appreciative of that, because he’s been so saintly and put-upon in the past – but it’s still being presented as part and parcel of the “Mr. Bates, Good Husband” mode of thinking about the character. In other words, Fellowes gets to toy with the idea of a murderous Bates while still making him look like a supportive and loving (if no longer saintly) character. This has probably been the most frustrating thing about Downton Abbey as a series; Fellowes’ unwillingness to let any of his characters (except for the mustache-twirling villainous types) look too bad in the long run. He always skirts right up to really delving into someone’s dark side and then backs off from it. Robert’s behavior on the night of Sybil’s death was so awful that it should have forever cast him as an imperious, snobbish dolt of a man, but instead great care was made to ensure us that he’s really not so bad and besides, he feels really terrible about it. Then it never got mentioned again. This pattern plays out over and over again. Look at Mary. Sure, every once in a while someone calls her on her bullshit, but for the most part, everyone glosses over the fact that she’s been a shallow bitch over and over again; especially in her romantic dealings with men, and she glides into most scenes, secure in her place as the heroine of this tale.

Or take Tom, who is, by our way of thinking, easily the most interesting “upstairs” character right now and who has been rendered disappointingly bland and obsequious by Fellowes. You could write an entire series of epic novels based on the Irish revolutionary who married into English aristocracy, lost his wife, and wound up living a life he not only never saw for himself but actively despised for the entirety of his previous life. That’s some meaty stuff right there. But instead he dances with bejeweled dowagers at fancy parties and takes tea in the library with great ease and even skill, despite his protestations of discomfort. And even that would be something interesting to explore; this idea that under it all, he’s something of a hypocrite who loves the high life too much to cling to his former beliefs. But all Fellowes is doing with the character is showing him quite happily ensconced on the estate – but sporting a slightly furrowed brow. Dressed in gorgeous tweeds or white tie and tails – but ever so concerned about it. Sure, he’s talking about moving to America, but let’s see a show of hands: who thinks that’s really going to happen? No, he’ll wind up living in Crawley House or something, but he’s not going to leave the estate. He’ll stay and always pay lip service to the idea that he’s an outsider. And to be honest, he really should be more of one. The way the family treats him as a son is very sweet to watch, but kind of hard to believe. They seem even more protective of him than they were of Matthew, who was the heir apparent.

Anyway, back to the Bates marriage and its latest set of problems. We’re vaguely uncomfortable (but not at all surprised) that Anna’s rape has become all about Mr. Bates. On the other hand, the storyline has done a great job of playing on the characters’ histories and there’s enough darkness in Bates for us to truly believe that Anna’s probably right to withhold as much information from him as she can. Still, it says something about her choice of husband that she has to suffer this much in order to keep him from being hanged. And like we said, we doubt Fellowes will have the balls to explore that idea to its endpoint.

In other news, we have a mysterious new ladies maid (Is there any other kind?) who seems to be Thomas’ attempt at building himself his very own O’Brien. Also: Daisy something Alfred. Dowager something something gardener something Isobel. And there’s a hot little Yorkshireman who seems to be a setup for some sort of payoff down the line.

Oh! Evelyn Napier is back! And he apparently no longer thinks Mary is tainted for sleeping Mr. Pamuk to death. He’s clearly smitten. And she’s clearly THRILLED to have a man smitten with her since Lord Poutylips had the nerve to not pine after her for the rest of his life, instead choosing to become engaged without her permission. It’s a little gross how much flirting Mary’s been doing while still in her mourning clothes. We’re surprised no one’s called her on it. But like we said, she rarely gets called on her behavior. Not that we think she’s a whore or anything; just that we’re surprised Edith or the Dowager haven’t made some sort of bitchslap at her, just for the fun of it. Oh, and Edith’s probably pregnant, right? She wasn’t heading into that doctor’s office for some Botox. Dimples McNazi better haul ass back from Germany pronto.

 

 

 

 

[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE]