Downton Abbey S1E7: A Freight Train Bearing Down

Posted on January 04, 2012

With this final installment of the first series of Downton Abbey, it seems to us that the writers did everything they could to wrap up every storyline of the series while leaving just enough dangling plot threads to entice the viewer to come back for more. Of course, ending just as World War I breaks out is intriguing enough on its own, but we suppose they felt they had to leave some things unanswered and un-resolved. We didn’t really need that much of a wrapup, although we suppose it was justified in case the show didn’t come back for a second series. It’s just that some of the wrapups were just a bit too rushed to have an impact.

Thomas and William’s growing animosity toward each other? All wrapped up. William gets a couple good punches in, Daisy swoons, and we’re done. Thomas’ stealing and attempts to frame Bates for it? All wrapped up because Molesly caught him red-handed. Bates’ irritating reticence and spotty past? Wrapped up in a tidy bow by Anna, which gets him to keep his job. All that stuff that was so horrible he dare not speak of it? Actually not that horrible at all and kind of disappointing, really. Mrs. Patmore’s blindness? Cured! Gwen’s quest for betterment? Completed!

Really now. It was a bit dizzying.

It was also a bit telling, because all of these wrapups were about the staff. All of the family subplots continue on with nary a bump in the road. Mary is indecisive (and frankly, quite stupid on this point) over Matthew, forcing him to leave Downton, even though they both love each other. Edith is still struggling for relevance in the family and trying to find a way out of it on her own. Sibyl is still politically active. The entail drama and the marriage drama all ends pretty much in the exact same state they were introduced to us in episode one.

Granted, things aren’t completely resolved downstairs, what with Bates and Anna’s relationship, as well as O’Brien’s tremendous fall from grace, but if Downton Abbey had never come back for a second series, we’d have felt satisfied with most of the downstairs stuff but completely annoyed with the lack of closure upstairs. That’s not really a criticism so much as an observation: the staff’s lives tend to be more dynamic than the family’s. The latter are stuck in a world of tradition and expectations (and it’s choking at least one of them) while the staff’s world comes with employee turnover and the hint of upward mobility. The staff can actually do things in their lives that the family simply can’t.

As for the developments this episode, nothing was sillier than the sudden pregnancy. We don’t say “silly” in the sense that it’s unbelievable; Elizabeth McGovern is playing a character several years younger than herself, after all. We mean “silly” in the soap opera plot development sense. There’s been all this gender-based inheritance drama driving the entire story up till now and right at the end of the series, this combination of roadblock and solution presents itself, throwing everything up into the air. It’s just a bit too easy to see the writers coming up with this one. “I know! We’ll make Cora PREGNANT!”

And it seems that the writers have a primary goal of making Mary look as awful as possible while still expecting us to root for her and sympathize with her. We have always felt that Mary was the most interesting character on the show because she’s damaged by the social and gender expectations of the time and desperate for some sort of control over her own life. We like that she’s something of a bitch to the world because she’s so conflicted and under so much pressure. We even find her sniping with Edith to be enjoyable fun, even if it’s sometimes a shock the lengths to which both girls will go to ruin the other’s life. But we have not ever been able to sign on to her whole treatment of Matthew. In this episode, she all but confirms to his face that she can’t give him an answer on his proposal until she finds out how much he’s worth. It’s a little hard to take her gently weeping in Carson’s avuncular embrace after that. We’d have rather seen Mrs. Hughes tell her to get her head out of her ass and stop being such a shallow bitch.

Actually, we’d have rather seen her mother and grandmother take her to the woodshed. We’re sorry, but we have the hardest time believing – in a story that makes it clear over and over again how limited one’s choices are in this kind of life – that the older women of the family (including Isobel) would just sigh and shake their heads over Mary’s willfulness. You can’t build a character’s story entirely around the idea of social pressure and how it’s choking her while at the same time allowing the character to make all kinds of decisions on her own, with very little overt pressure to do otherwise being depicted.

Mary: Everyone tells me what to do and the pressure is killing me! Now I’m going to make a series of extremely ill-advised choices!

Everyone Else (indulgently): Oh, Mary.

Meanwhile, Edith got slapped back pretty hard by Mary and while we feel for the poor forgotten middle child, what she did to Mary was so wrong that we can’t really help thinking she got what she deserved. Of course once again, someone else is caught in the middle of their games and it was quite sad to see Sir Anthony’s face when Mary told him Edith had been making fun of him. Those girls are bitches.

Sibyl is not a bitch, but she’s as dumb as the other two when it comes to her romantic life. Granted, she hasn’t actually done anything with Branson, but it’s pretty obvious where this is heading. So obvious that Mrs. Hughes actually called him out on it. This was another instance of the characters claiming all these terrible social restrictions while at the same time demonstrating a keen willingness to ignore them. Mrs. Hughes gave him some kindly, maternal advice when what she should have done with the knowledge that the chauffeur is getting too close to the family’s youngest daughter is bring the full weight of both her wrath and Mr. Carson’s down on him. Never mind the completely unbelievable sight of the youngest daughter running through a garden party with the chauffeur and then indulging in a group hug with him and a housemaid, all in full view of the guests, it was Mrs. Hughes’ extremely gentle rebuke to him that had us howling in disbelief.

O’Brien does the most soap-opera villainous evil thing she’s ever done. The only thing that raises this part of the story up from being merely a soap opera is the time spent on her while she pondered what she’d done. Rarely do you see a soap opera villain almost overcome with regret and guilt like that. It added a nice dimension to her character. Thomas, on the other hand, twirled his moustache and went into full-on evil mode. Frankly, we found his actions here more than a little silly and ridiculous. It’s one thing to have the character needle William about his dead mother, although even that strained belief because the kitchen staff did nothing about it. But to have them all stand around impotently while he suddenly starts sneering over the Lady Grantham’s miscarriage is silly in the extreme. And then to have him and William engage in a plate-smashing throwdown in the kitchen and have almost nothing come of it is almost insulting to the viewer. Especially since this was the wrapup for a season-long storyline of Thomas trying to get Bates fired. All that plotting and scheming and wondering what was going to happen and then at the last minute Thomas starts sneering over dead babies and stealing from the butler.

We can think of no better illustration of the sloppy, rushed plotting in this episode than this: The Dowager Countess, after her daughter-in-law miscarried and her granddaughter turned down an important marriage proposal, is seen at the garden party pretty much unconcerned over these two events (both of which involve the only two things that have motivated the character up to now: saving Downton for the family and getting Mary married off) and cheerfully asking O’Brien for help with hiring her new maid. Pardon us, but what the fuck, writers?

We’ve heard the complaints about the upcoming second season and we’ve been spoiled a bit on some of the story developments. While it seems pretty certain that the show gets very soap opera in the second season, we don’t actually mind that so much. Outrageous plot developments can be fun, but unearned ones or ones that make no sense for the setting or ones that are rushed and don’t offer the viewer any sense of closure – THAT’S the kind of stuff that disappoints. DA was great in the plotting of the first several hours of the series, but as time went on, you could “see the seams” in the writing a bit too much.

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