Downton Abbey: Spare Change

Posted on February 02, 2015

Dowton-Abbey-Season-5-Episode-5-Television-Series-Review-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLOMichelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville on PBS’ “Downton Abbey”


Hey! Did you know that, now that the War is over and we can see lady ankles everywhere, that means change is coming? And that’s a good thing, because this week (like every week at Downton Abbey since at least the sinking of the Titanic) everyone wants to talk about change! Everyone wants to state their own position on the subject of change! Daisy’s all for it! Edith’s all for it! Miss Bunting’s all for it! Robert is not for it but accepts it as an inevitability that he would like to control! Violet hates it! Spratt hates it! Cora’s all for cocktail parties! Mary wears hats!

We’ve been on this planet long enough to know that people never really speak accurately about the times they live in, if they ever manage to bring up the topic at all. The characters on Downton Abbey all represent one of the worst mistakes a writer can make when putting together a period piece: they all talk about the period as if they were looking back at it from far in the future. And because the period between the wars – especially for Europe – was a period of great social change, we get treated to a whole lot of unrealistic and clunky conversations that all but state “Let us discuss the theme of this series, shall we? Surprise! It’s change.”

But this has always been a feature of the show, this need to have the characters speak as if they’re reading from history books. It’s not going to change any time soon, but we sure wish Julian Fellowes would ease up a bit on the reins. We suspect “change” was used at least as many times as “the” in this week’s script.

We bring up the ever-present change conversations because we suspect their ubiquity is indicative of just how much Fellowes is coasting this season, letting the ease of the actors (who’ve been playing these characters for years now) and an array of costumes do most of the work of keeping us entertained. Think about it. What are the plots this season, now that we’re five episodes into it? Mary’s latest husband-hunt and bedding scandal just waiting to happen. Edith is obsessed with her baby and dead lover. Cora keeps flirting with some creepy dude. Robert is blustery and whiny but usually right about everything, from the lack of breeding found in Mr. Bricker to the correct way to honor the dead. Mrs. Patmore cries about her nephew. Daisy learns to count. Tom doesn’t feel at home at Downton Abbey, even as he dresses up happily in white tie every night for dinner. Mrs. Bunting is the latest horribly inappropriate working class person to grace the Abbey. Thomas sneers a lot and tries to be eeeeeevil. A Bates killed someone. Twist! It’s Anna this time!

There’s not a new or original plot element anywhere in there, let alone an interesting one. As we said before, the only two developments that spark any real interest in us are Isobel’s marriage proposal and the story behind Violet and Count Chocula. But given how he tends to resolve storylines (see: Miss Bunting, who has been all but exiled from the village of Grantham for life), we doubt either of these will wrap up in an interesting or game-changing way. Fellowes has quite clearly run out of things to say about most of these characters. It’s only the ease with which Maggie Smith can deliver a bitchy line or Michelle Dockery can take off a glove in a fit of pique that keeps this series afloat now. And what a shame that is; that one of the very best ensemble casts on television right now is being wasted this way.

But hey, we can shut our brains off as well as the next two people and the show still provides its moments of enjoyment, even if they’re much broader and more farcical than the show we were first introduced to back in season one. Is it high drama, having Robert and Mr. Bricker engage in a ridiculous fistfight in Cora’s bedroom while wearing silly costumes? No, and it doesn’t try to be, any more than it tries to be original about Rose’s meet-cute with a nice Jewish boy or Thomas’ slow change into a werewolf (or whatever it is that’s happening to him caused by whatever it is that he’s injecting into himself). Dolls in dollhouses. We keep saying it, and we’re sorry we keep saying it because we risk being accused of the same lack of originality Fellowes stands accused of, but it’s true. They’re just figures to be picked up and put down as the script requires.

So let Daisy rant about the system and how the man is keeping her down. Let Mary put on and take off accessories with panache and flair. Let Edith mope her way through life. This is the show. This is what you get. In a grand moment of irony, it just occurred to us that despite the need to constantly discuss change, this is one show determined not to.



[Photo Credit: Courtesy of (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE]

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