DOWNTON ABBEY: “Episode 403”

It’s all opera singing and drama this week at Downton, and you cannot say I didn’t warn you.

If you happened to read my season preview a couple of weeks ago, you know how I feel about the fourth season, as a whole. If you didn’t catch it, let me sum it up for you….I am not a fan.

Ah, the rich. It matters little how much money they have; if an occasion arises to throw a party, the show must go on. And what is a party weekend without a special moment, muses Lady Grantham: and thus, a famous opera singer is bought and paid for. Never mind that the Abbey might be sold off in pieces just to pay taxes, let’s hire an opera singer to sing in the library!

The overall theme of the fourth series (change and the death of the old ways) is noted by Mr. Carson to Mrs. Hughes when commenting on the small number of servants arriving with the party. The war has happened, and although the rich still gather to marvel in the excesses of old, they bring along less employees to do all the work.

The great thing about an ensemble show like Downton Abbey is that all of the stories can take place, Robert Altman style, under one roof. As the characters pass through the many halls, conversations carry us in new directions with every staircase and behind every corner. You never feel lost because the characters have all become family to us, and I applaud Fellowes for this. (Except for Edith. Please kill Edith and bring Sybil back. I’ll let you borrow some rope.)

Now that the black clothes are stored for the next funeral, Lady Mary is put back up on the auction block, as a trail of suitors introduced this season begin to parade their feathers and throw their hats into her ring. She has designs, however, on reclaiming herself, and it makes the scenes with her many men all the more weak because none, save for best friend Tom, gives her the opportunity to achieve that goal. She’ll always be the swooning, little woman to these men with titles. I’d rather see her alone than with any man the show throws her way.  Unfortunately, this storyline does not go away in the foreseeable future, and we are forced to watch dogs go after Mary’s bone every episode.

Very often, a buzzy show, such as Downton Abbey goes through a certain cycle:

  1. Season One: Characters are introduced. There is unrequited love, star-crossed love, and some sort of mystery. A character we love falls or falters in some way, and the audience is raptured.
  2. Season Two: Rapid fan base returns to see if their favorite will they/won’t they couple will. (They will.) Mystery is solved. New mysteries take shape. All seems perfect for about twelve seconds half an episode until a new road block is introduced. Characters evolve.
  3. Season Three: Show hits its stride. Often the best of the series.  Will they/won’t they couple do. Someone dies. (Someones, in the case of DA).
  4. Season Four: The show reboots due to death and to sustain popularity, to varying results.

Not every show follows all the rules, but it is a basic formula that can be applied to nearly all popular drama from the last 20 years. And Downton fits right in. Julian Fellowes is attempting to keep his show fresh, and that is completely understandable and fair. The problem arises when the writers completely ignore the growth a character has shown in an effort to produce what they think is better opportunity for superior story arcs.

I understand the need to “reboot” Lady Mary; she went through a devastating ordeal, and as headstrong as she is, it is necessary for her to let the Mary she was with Matthew die with him. It is a lovely idea, and justifiable by her circumstances. The same goes for Isobel, although she is showing more growth, and I find her relationship with Violet — and increasing screen time — refreshing.

And I love watching the hapless Mr. Molesley continue to be knocked down like Marvin the robot; it’s a story of the times. I chuckle with sweet sorrow for the man, and he’s a very real, complex character, especially for a supporting role.

Now, for the bad news. Thomas Barrow is the Thomas Barrow we first met. It is as if the war never happened; his friendship, and subsequent fallout, with O’Brien never happened; the war never happened. Last episode, he had Nanny sacked for perpetrating what he saw as a slight against him, and though it turned out well for everyone in the end, that was never his intention. He also caused trouble for Anna with Edna, just because he felt like it. What happed to his friendship with Jimmy? And if he loved Lady Sybil so much, what is his problem with Tom Branson? Shouldn’t he see above his envy? And if he cannot, the writers are missing a huge opportunity for subtlety here. We are constantly beaten over the head with Barrow’s willful arrogance. I am sure he can act out in more creative ways. Use a corkboard and some index cards, and figure it out writers! This is what you get paid for!

Bates. Oh, my sweet Bates. What in God’s name have they done to you? Since when have you ever been jealous of Anna speaking to another man? And before you scream at me through your computer, dear reader, know that I understand that this was foreshadowing…just terrible, overwhelming, I-think-my-audience-will-never-understand-that-this-is-a-bad-bad-man foreshadowing. Subtlety, writers. Subtlety.

Lady Edith is determined to push Michael Gregson onto her family, much to the chagrin of Lord Grantham. He’s learning German to become a citizen, in order to divorce is wife and marry Edith. Regardless of the circumstances, what a guy! When Michael becomes a sort-of hero to the party of men, exposing a cheat, he finally earns a small approval from Daddy. (Yawn.)

The parties are still difficult for Tom, but shouldn’t he show some improvement in dealing with the class he has been pushed into by marriage? Everyone is quite accommodating, except Barrow, of course, and there is really no reason for his nerves, apart from the reason to make him desperate. Conveniently, Tom drinks to calm his nerves, and needs to get a little something-something.

He turns to Edna…I thought, at this point, I had turned over to “General Hospital.” But alas, this was Downton.

And so, it comes to pass that the most horrendous act against a person, next to murder, happens to Anna. The lovely, sweet, kind, unblemished Anna. And moreover, the poor dear blames herself, and is determine to keep it to herself, to keep Mrs. Hughes mum. I do not understand the motivation for this storyline. There are more ways to give Joanne Froggatt’s Anna something to do. Crimes against women happened frequently in the 1920’s, and there was little justice when something like this happened. So it is understandable that Anna would not want to bring light to the crime, relegating herself to the embarrassment and shame. But to not tell her husband, even if he would look at her differently. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see Anna want this man to pay with his life? To turn her soul dark where it has always light? And if she is determined to hold her head high, why make her cold? It’s such juvenile writing, and it belongs on daytime television. It’s salacious, and cheap, and a huge failing of the show. Rape happens, it should be discussed, and I have no issue with a story like this being used for art and entertainment. I do, however, know where this story goes, and there is no art to it.

Final Thoughts: I get it. We ALL get it. Some men see women as servants, even among servants…ugh, I can’t. I just can’t. Am I wrong? Feel free to comment! Only five more episodes until the fantastic final episode!

Episode Grade: D (YES, I gave it a “D.” If it was an episode of “General Hospital,” I’d give it a B+ )


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