In this, the latest installment of “Gosh, Aristocrats are So Awesome,” a former housemaid-made-good claims the entire decade of upward mobility she accomplished after leaving service was all due to a kindly aristocrat, a former socialist revolutionary-made-good simply loves sipping cocktails with the upper class set and lovingly advising on them on matters of the heart, and a former scullery maid-made-assistant-cook plans to attack an aristocrat to get what she wants – except the aristocrats are all happy to give it to her anyway! Also: The Dowager Countess makes an impassioned speech about getting the government off the backs of the working class. Or something. We confess, it all sounded like gibberish to us by that point.
While this wasn’t necessarily a bad episode of Downton Abbey – and hardly comes close to being the most nonsensical (despite trying) – we did find it all a little deadly dull and occasionally silly. Julian Fellowes continues to find plotting too unpleasant to follow up on, and so storylines get dropped and/or picked up again with dizzying rapidity. Anna went from unable to have children, to pregnant, to almost having another miscarriage, to truly and permanently pregnant with no problems whatsoever, all in the space of two episodes. Or at least, that’s how her storyline played out. She and Bates celebrated their impending child without any fear that she might lose this one too because the script told them it was time to move on and stop worrying about it. Lady Mary solved her problem through the power of aristocracy and therefore, it will stay solved forever. Or until Julian Fellowes decides to torture the Bateses again.
In other downstairs news, Daisy worked for the same family for 15 years, learned how to read last year, and now she hates them. That’s her story in a nutshell. That’s how Fellowes tries to handle class consciousness. The execrable Miss Bunting lives on in the increasingly unlikeable Daisy, who’s zoomed past “enlightened” and headed straight into “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” territory, thanks to some insultingly unimaginative writing. What was she going to do, beat Cora into giving her father-in-law the farm? And why was the entire downstairs staff – including her direct superiors Mrs. Patmore and Thomas – completely unable to restrain her from barreling upstairs? Is everyone on the staff just free to do what they want at any time? We ask this after years of watching them induce miscarriages, steal, probably commit murder, sexually assault underlings, elope with a daughter of the house, dispose of dead bodies and attempt to assault dinner guests so… yeah. They pretty much are free to do what they want in this world. And at the end, you get to pick a co-worker and marry them, after which His Lordship will give you a house. We don’t know why Daisy’s always bitching about “the system.” From where she’s sitting, it looks like a pretty good gig, according to Julian Fellowes.
Even the surprisingly lovely scene with the returning Gwen left a slightly sour taste in our mouths. On the one hand, it was fun to hear her recount old stories and scenes from long ago in our viewing, allowing us to reminisce right along with the characters. On the other hand, it turned the conversation, which had been up until that point about young women from the lower classes learning to better themselves and make something of their lives, into a hagiography of Lady Sybil, with Gwen all but declaring that all her hard work meant nothing compared to the time an aristocrat helped her out. And in typical Fellowes fashion, this scene depicting a former housemaid sitting down to dine with the family that formerly employed her (a scene ripe with dramatic possibilities) ended abruptly, with Gwen given little to say about how it must have felt for her to wind up in that place after all that time. Instead, Thomas twirled his villain mustache and everyone talked about Saint Sybil.
In the meantime, we are invited to suffer through more tedious conversation about who gets to be in charge of the local hospital – a storyline about as interesting as sitting in on a board meeting where you get no say in the outcome. Oh, wait. That IS the storyline. Honestly, we have no idea why Fellowes will drop stories like Mary’s blackmailer, Anna’s fertility issues or the increasingly unhinged Mrs. Drewe – all of which have potential for further drama – just so we can watch a bunch of high-born ladies sip tea and argue in less and less polite tones about nothing more than administrative matters that only barely concern most of them. Suddenly Rosamund is all fired up and “opposing” her mother on an issue we’ve never even heard her express an opinion on before this episode – and probably never will after it. Suddenly, Violet’s all about getting the government off the backs of the people, even though it was clear up until now that she was more concerned about loss of status and control. It’s like Thomas and his constant merry-go-round of “Why does everyone hate me?” followed by “I’m just going to fuck with people because it makes me feel powerful” followed by “Why does everyone hate me?” Don’t even get us started on Tom Branson, the former socialist revolutionary who, it should be pointed out, is in exile from his home country for taking part in an act of terrorism, who now quite clearly loves to be the under-lord of the manor. Fellowes won’t even think to examine how Tom got to this point or whether his reversal is a good thing for him or a betrayal of his principles (remember, Sybil never wanted to live at Downton after marrying him). Instead, he’s hugged upon his return and he never once shows the slightest inkling that it represents a massive turnaround on his part or that he might have returned for less than noble reasons.
After a while, it all gets so tedious and so unlike normal human behavior and relationships that you just have to sit back and accept that you’re essentially watching a puppet show. A very pretty and occasionally entertaining puppet show, but still. We sound much angrier about this episode than we actually feel. Like we said, it was perfectly entertaining in that lowered-expectations way one approaches Downton Abbey in its final season. Just don’t think about it too much and you’ll be fine.
[Photo Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2015]