In our review last week we noted that that the show was basically a costume parade with witty retorts, and wouldn’t you know it? Here comes Julian Fellowes this week to prove us exactly right, with a literal costume parade followed by lots of claw-baring and quippery, if not outright bitchery.
By the fifth season of any successful show – but especially a phenom like Downton Abbey – it’s practically impossible to avoid the Fonzie Effect, which is when show writers and producers pretty much inevitably succumb to giving the audience what they want the most, tossing out subtlety and prior character development and reducing the more popular of the show’s characters to catchphrase-spewing action figures. So Mary Crawley goes to fashion shows and gets verbally bitchslapped before dumping the man she slept with – all in the same episode, mind you – because that’s the kind of stuff Fellowes knows (or assumes) the audience is going to enjoy. As we’ve been saying all along, almost nothing about this season feels fresh or engaging in any way. It’s all dolls in dollhouses now. But at least we can appreciate that Fellowes is deliberately trying to make things light and entertaining. In other words, we have the same problems with this episode as we have with most latter Downton Abbey episode, but as long as we get a fabulous runway show in the middle of it all, we can’t stay mad.
This season so far is almost entirely about the ladies, and this episode in particular provided a primer on how and how not to deal with a marriage proposal you don’t quite want. Is it any surprise that Mary’s method was self-serving and in many ways disrespectful (at the very least, she should have come up with a convincing reason for Tony) and Isobel’s was proper, tasteful, and deeply empathetic? Granted, we can’t blame Mary one bit for dumping the increasingly petulant and controlling Tony while we want to take Isobel aside and lightly slap her across each cheek and tell her to snap the hell out of it and TAP THAT. Still, we have to admit, we loved that whole scene with Isobel and Lord Merton. Was that not the most English declaration of love you ever saw? All so very proper and without the mess of emotions.
Meanwhile, Violet is not being entirely honest about her past with Count Chocula. That Faberge frame story doesn’t quite scan and it doesn’t explain her strange obsession with finding Princess Kuragin and reuniting her with her husband. There’s more to this story, and in a way, as silly as it may seem, we’d love to see Violet’s years of judging her granddaughters for their various (and numerous) wanton ways (Who else is aware of both poor dead Mr. Pamuk AND Marigold?) blow up in her face a little.
In other news, Tom is a very confused socialist who spends his days coming up with money-making schemes for his father-in-law’s massive estate and his nights begging his new girlfriend to try not to be such an asshole all the time; a request she is clearly unable to fulfill. What a hilariously silly character Miss Bunting is. Fellowes is clearly trying to say something with her, but she comes off so badly that it’s hard to see the point. On the surface, she hasn’t said a thing most people in the 21st Century would disagree with, but Fellowes simply can’t have a person from a lower class (or worse, an American) criticize the old social order without making them a buffoon or a tactless monster.
Edith is so mopey and melodramatic that we find ourselves not caring at all that she lost the love of her life and had to give up their baby. You ruined it, Edith. Now nobody cares. Even the one guy who knows all your secrets and promised to do everything he could to help you is all “Uh… listen… your melodrama’s all a bit too much for this farmer’s family.”
Similarly, the investigation into Mr. Greene’s death gets more ludicrous by the moment. We’re supposed to believe that this case was so pressing that the police posted a 24-hour surveillance on Tony Gillingham’s house because … ? That’s never really explained. What’s important is that the ladies maid from Downton Abbey was seen in the neighborhood, which is suspicious, according to the police. Why? Just because. This is reaching “amnesiac cousin” and “instantaneous paralysis cure” levels of storytelling stupidity. It’s not really all that hard to write a basic murder mystery – and Fellowes has more than a little experience in the area – but this has all been written so half-assedly that it’s coming off like an insult to the audience. Someone got raped and then the rapist died and then … well, you know. That’s the story. That’s as much of a setup as we’re going to get. And the idea that now Anna is the Bates family member under suspicion of murder is just too ridiculous to consider.
Thomas is trying to cure himself of homosexuality by shooting up heroin? It’s not really made clear and we find ourselves not caring, because this character has long been paper-thin, with Fellowes merely flipping the paper over as the story suits him. On this side, eeeeeeeevil mastermind who hates everyone. On this side, wounded man born too soon. Feh.
Which reminds us: Why is Carson such an unrelenting dick to Mr. Molesley, who, from what we can tell, has had his workload double (at the very least) and appears to be competently good at his job?
Also, perhaps it would be best if Fellowes merely interrupted every scene so Mrs. Patmore could enter and quietly weep over her long-dead and never-seen nephew. He clearly loves seeing her do it. In fact, why not be subtle about it and just place her somewhere in the background of every scene, perhaps behind a pillar or tapestry, softly weeping and moaning “Archie” ever now and then? It’ll never get old.
The only thing that feels interesting right now is Violet’s lingering obsession with Count Chocula and his wife, as well as Isobel’s marriage proposal from Lord Merton. The former gives the character quite a bit of depth we’d never have figured on and the latter is storyline that could upset the status quo of the series quite drastically if Fellowes wanted it to – or could result in Isobel being written out. But the likelihood, of course, is that nothing much will come of either of these developments. It’s hard to picture either woman having romantic relationships with their respective paramours, but it sure would be fun to see Isobel become Lady Merton.
Everything with Rose and Shrimpie feels like setup for something to come. Fellowes seems to find Shrimpie and Susan a bit more fascinating than we do, but then again, we suppose they should be mentioned and shown now and then, since they’re Rose’s parents.
And here’s your discussion point: Every single “upstairs” woman is dealing either with a romance (Mary, Isobel), a potential romance (Cora, Miss Bunting), or the fallout from one (Edith, Violet). Quite tellingly, most of the downstairs women have arcs this season as well, but they revolve entirely around choices, both good (Daisy) and bad (Baxter), an unrelenting victimhood (Anna), and family pride (Mrs. Patmore). It’s a broader range of subjects but collectively they hint at a bleaker, simpler life in comparison to their upstairs counterparts.
[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE]