Well. Apparently, it’s all about the ladies right now.
Isobel, Violet, Cora and Mary all have men throwing themselves at them this season, while Edith keeps throwing herself at poor, confused Marigold and Miss Bunting throws herself into one horrifying social faux pas after another trying to embarrass Tom into loving her(?). Downstairs, Miss Baxter is throwing herself on the mercy of the Countess, while Mrs. Patmore is throwing fits over her dead nephew (again) and Daisy’s throwing herself into, and then out of, her studies. And Anna walks around looking like she wants to throw up.
It’s not that the men aren’t getting any storylines, but most of them – Robert, Bates, Molesley, Tom, Tony – are just reacting to the women around them, who are driving all the stories. Not that we’re complaining; just that it becomes much more obvious in an episode like this, where Cora all but goes on a date and even the Dowager herself is revealed to have desired a man or two other than her husband, in her time. Obviously, Julian Fellowes is writing a bit toward the show’s main audience, and giving virtually every woman a proposal or proposition to mull over this season. Suddenly, every female with a Crawley last name is irresistible.
Except Edith, of course. Even the farmers don’t like her. Say, didn’t she, like, inherit a newspaper or something? Isn’t she supposed to be running it? It’s not like there were a lot of telecommuting opportunities in 1924.
Meanwhile, Mary’s got buyer’s remorse because Tony Gillingham is a lousy lay. It’s always a tradeoff with Fellowes. He’ll give all the women characters storylines, but then make most of the storylines kind of dumb.
Miss Bunting has now bested her world record for offending someone as soon as she meets them. It really is hilarious how blind Fellowes is to how he tends to write these sorts of characters. We’re supposed to believe that Tom is somehow torn between his affections for her and his affection for the family when in fact, she’s been horrible to him AND to his family at almost every turn. There’s literally no reason for him to feel anything for her except that she has political ideas that are mildly in line with his own. Meanwhile, Mary and Tom are literally declaring their love for each other. Isn’t it time something was made of this? While it would seem very weird for Mary to have an affair with her dead sister’s widower, we’ll give Fellowes credit for writing these characters into a believable relationship. We don’t think either of them have ever entertained a romantic notion toward the other, but when the show makes SO MUCH of each of their attempts to find love after their spouses died and how they seem most comfortable with each other, well. It’s time to shit or get off the pot as our grandmothers used to say. A Tom/Mary romance would be just the shot in the arm this series needs. Ludicrous in a soap opera kind of way, but at least it would be something new.
Not that we’re not enjoying this season. It’s all smoothly entertaining, but the characters are basically windup dolls at this point, saying and doing the same things over and over. Sure, much was made of Mary’s sexcapade, but ALL of the daughters and adopted daughters of Downton pursued scandalous and occasionally sexual relationships with men. It’s just so played out at this point that it’s starting to become funny. By post-Edwardian standards, all of the Crawley girls would be considered enormous sluts and the family would have a terrible reputation.
Oh, and speaking of rehashing old bits, we have an entirely new and completely uninteresting storyline about Mrs. Patmore’s nephew, who died years before and never spend a moment on camera. We know nothing about him except what she’s mentioned and we’re somehow supposed to be invested in Mrs. Patmore’s pain. Similarly, the whole “Daisy learns math” subplot is going nowhere rather quickly.
But nothing says “rehashing old bits” better than “There’s a policeman here to see Mr. Bates!” We would seriously like to know – show of hands – who in the audience cares about this storyline? Who, at this point, is really thinking “Gosh! I hope Bates doesn’t go to jail for murdering someone!” We’d wager this is an epic miscalculation on Fellowes’ part and most of the audience would happily see the mopey, murderous (allegedly) valet carted off. And when did Anna turn into such a prudish, unhappy, judgmental woman? Okay, yes. We know when. We just hate this character turn. It’s why men need to be very careful when they’re writing rape story lines, because they tend to fall into the trap of destroying the victim while turning the victim’s lover into an avenger. IT’S NOT INTERESTING.
By the way, has there ever been a ladies maid at Downton who isn’t miserable all the time?
Which leads us to Baxter and her draaaaagggggged-the-hell-out confession to Cora. Shrug. The only thing that elevates this story line at all is Raquel Cassidy’s painful and shame-filled performance. Otherwise, she’s just the female Bates now. Yet another high-ranking servant who did jail time and seems doomed to moping about it forever. And while it’s nice to see Molesley doing something productive for once, he’s essentially the Anna in this relationship, all but repeating lines she said to Bates years ago.
Oh, and remember when Bates had himself fitted for some horribly painful correcting brace that almost crippled him further because he couldn’t accept who he was? Here’s Thomas, deciding after all this time that he’s going to get his homosexuality cured, 1924-style. Which, come to think of it, probably isn’t much different than attempting to cure it 2015-style, sad to say. We have every reason to doubt that Fellowes will give this storyline the space it deserves or that it will shake out any differently than Bates’ version. It’s just something for Thomas to do this season, like Rose and her Russians or Isobel and her suitor. We strongly suspect – because it sure looks that way in the writing – that Fellowes literally does something like that when it comes time to write each season. He dreams up things for the characters to do, somewhat independent of past actions and in the most superficial manner. Why is Rose helping Russians out? Why does Tom feel anything for Miss Bunting? Why is Isobel so annoyed to have a decent man showing interest in her? Why is Edith making such a fool of herself in a manner that would all but assure access to her daughter would be taken away from her? Why did Mr. Drewe help her in the first place? Why did Cora take weeks to decide whether or not to fire the ladies maid with a criminal record? Why did Spratt corner Mary to let her know he saw her in Liverpool and why didn’t the Dowager fire him on the spot for that kind of impertinence? The answer to every single one of these questions is “Because they needed to be given something to do this season.” It doesn’t matter if it makes sense for the character or if it’s a rehash of a storyline from earlier seasons. Everyone must be wound up and set back down to walk around in circles and say just the sort of things their character would be expected to say.
And we’re the fools here, because after all this time, we still find ourselves hoping the show could be more than it is and live up to the potential it has. We’re glad the days of amnesia and instant spinal injury cures are behind us (to say nothing of the literal messages from the dead), but now it feels like nothing of any consequence happens anymore; or if it does, it’s a rehash of something that happened years before.
It’s not bad television and we still find it entertaining, but it’s mostly just a costume parade with witty retorts.
[Photo Credit: Courtesy of (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE]
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