Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey, on PBS
This is the episode where we have to stop our constant ragging on Julian Fellowes and actually pay him a compliment. But don’t fret, darlings. We’re still going to complain a little so you’ll recognize us. But only a little; promise.
Here’s the thing: by the time we got to the end of this episode, we realized just how much we’ve been enjoying this season and how good a job Fellowes has done of re-aligning the show after the death of Matthew, who was never the main character of the show but who nonetheless anchored several plotlines central to the first few seasons; specifically who was going to inherit the title and estate and who was going to marry Lady Mary. With his death at the end of last season, it felt like the show had nowhere to go; no stories left to tell. And sure, you could argue that might be true, considering the stories told this season (unplanned pregnancy, lovers gone missing, interracial love affairs, a grieving woman with multiple suitors falling all over her, a brutal rape and the near-dissolution of a marriage over it, a downstairs love triangle) have been, for the most part, kept as light as possible (even Anna’s rape, since it became more about intrigue than about the actual act and its effects on her). But look at all those plotlines we just listed. They’re classic soap opera plots – if you want to be kind about it; cliched soap opera plots, if you want to be a bit more critical. It’s as if Fellowes, after hearing time and again that his baby was “only” a soap opera, decided, “Fine. I’ll give you whiners a soap opera, then. I’ll give you the glossiest soap opera you bitches have ever seen.”
Well, mission accomplished, then. Without the weight of the war, or influenza outbreaks, or killing off beloved characters whose actors want out of their contracts, the show has lightened up considerably. That may not be what you want out of your Downton Abbey, a light period drama/soap opera, but to our way of thinking, it’s just the show coming to terms with what it’s always been and embracing that. There’s value in any piece of expression that knows what it is and plays to that.
Put it this way: Anna’s, Edith’s, Mary’s, and even Rose’s storylines this season have been nothing but a string of cliches, seen plenty of times before. And yet, we’ll take any of these arcs over the utter ridiculousness of ANYTHING having to do with Lavinia Swire, from her ability to cure paralysis by tripping over footstools, to her outrageously productive death, which gave Matthew permission to love Mary AND gave her the time to write a letter to her father which later saved Downton Abbey, and even to her post-death message by Ouija board, giving her blessing to the Crawley cousin marriage. She was, by far, the most ridiculous character the show’s ever had, and every plotline in which she was involved was utterly cringe-inducing in its silliness. The only other plot/character that came close to her was “Patrick,” the half muppet, half burn victim who almost swept poor Edith off her feet. In his attempt to elevate a simple period soap opera to something grander, Fellowes wound up lapsing into some major silliness. With this season, that ambition to make the show more than it is got swept away and he got down to the brass tacks of producing a really good period soap opera.
This is semi-long way of saying that there’s almost no point in recapping the events of the episode, because when we type them out, they sound a little dull:
Rose pursues Jack Ross, to Tom and Mary’s consternation. Mary puts the kibosh on the relationship quietly and respectfully. Anna tells Mary about Gillingham’s valet and what he’s done. Mary gets Gillingham to fire him. He dies mysteriously soon after. Edith tells her grandmother that she’s pregnant. Violet and Rosamunde conspire to whisk her off to Switzerland to give the baby up. Tom meets another really pushy woman who takes it upon herself to question his choices and values as soon as she meets him. As with the other times this has happened, she gets under his skin and a romance seems likely. Mary fends off three suitors, all of whom follow her around the estate like puppies. She pretends not to notice or care. Downstairs, Molesly and Baxter seem to be starting a romance even as the Daisy/Ivy/Alfred triangle comes to its end.
Boring, right? But a recapping doesn’t let you see Mary’s horrified reaction when she realizes what Anna’s telling her. It doesn’t give you the satisfaction of Violet taking control of a family situation (“I see I’m going to have to take the long way around”) and dealing with it in the least messy, least judgmental, most efficient way possible. It doesn’t show the sweetness of Daisy as she truly wishes Alfred well, or the loveliness and poignancy of Mrs. Patmore effectively calling Daisy her daughter. It doesn’t get across the oddly strong longing for them to succeed that wells up in you as you watch two damaged and wounded people like Molesley and Baxter slowly fumble their way toward each other in the dark. The acting and the characters have always been the strong point in Downton Abbey, but by keeping the plots relatively simple, Fellowes has allowed that fact to become more prominent. Stop making these characters jump through ridiculous hoops and they all become better for it.
Having said that, there is something just a bit annoying about how repetitive this all is. Watching Mary fend off all these men doesn’t seem remotely different from when she was doing the exact same thing ten years before, in season one. Sure, Fellowes puts a paper in her hand every now and then to let us know that she’s mature and focussed and running the estate now, but that doesn’t make any of the courting scenes interesting. Oh, you broke off your engagement? That’s very different from the times all those other characters broke off their engagements. And as much as Fellowes wanted us to be interested in it, the downstairs triangle went on way too long and wound up looping back on itself. And how many times is Bates going to take a trip for the day, only to have a dead body be the seeming result? And how many times is a member of the family going to cover for him or explain away his tendencies/history? We don’t care if he was Lord Grantham’s batman; he’s a nightmare employee for any estate to hold onto. And just what is it with Tom and incredibly pushy, incredibly judgmental women getting his motor running (pun intended), time and again? It’s fine if you want to explore the part of him that are conflicted about his status in life, but to have these pushy female characters always be the voice of that conflict, and to have him wind up attracted to them for it, is getting a little old. Go ahead and marry another aristocrat, Tom. You know you want to. Stop letting these housemaids and schoolteachers get under your skin. Nothing good can come of it. Look at Isobel. Her husband dies, her son dies, and Fellowes bestows on her the very best thing he could think of as a consolation prize: an aristocrat who’s hot for her. We suspect that the final episode of the show will have Oprah leaping up from behind a settee and shouting “YOU GET AN ARISTOCRAT! AND YOU GET AN ARISTOCRAT! EVERYBODY GETS AN ARISTOCRAT!” And all the characters, down to Daisy and Mrs. Patmore all live happily ever after wearing tiaras and living on huge estates.
Still, like we said, we’re enjoying ourselves right now – and we really can’t wait for Rose’s coming out next week, when the show ramps up the glamour and pomp to heretofore unseen levels. Gowns and diamonds, darlings. We’re all about that.
Oh, and one more thing: Cora’s an idiot if she can’t see what’s going on with Edith.
[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE]