Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Downton Abbey: the (almost) missing ingredient


I've been enjoying Downton Abbey ever since I started watching it in 2012.  I now own all of the DVD's and have just finished watching Season 4. I love the characters, the interplay between the upstairs and downstairs lives, the moral dilemmas and decisions, the sumptuous costumes and settings.


For me, Season 4 is lacking something that the other three all had in abundance:  inspiring moments of heroism.  I'm not talking about lifesaving acts (like William protecting Matthew in battle) or charitable projects (like Isobel's many social outreach efforts).  Instead, I'm referring to isolated moments when characters call on something deeper than the circumstances, do or say what they know is right, and make us as viewers hope that we would do the same in their situation.

Let's look back at a few of the uplifting moments from the first three seasons:

Season 1:
- Lord Grantham changes his mind about dismissing Bates from his employ and runs after the departing car to tell Bates to come back.  "It wasn't right, Carson," he says.  "I just didn't think it was right."
- Carson persists in giving Bates the benefit of the doubt, even when the circumstances seem so damning.  "I hope you don't feel I'm being unfair," Carson says; Bates replies, "On the contrary -- I'm astonished by your kindness."

Season 2:
- In spite of her heartbreak over Matthew's engagement to Lavinia, Mary extends kindness to Lavinia and refuses to do anything to undermine her.  (Ironically, Lavinia is the only woman in the entire show -- besides her maid, Anna -- whom we could really call Mary's friend.)  When Mary insists that Lavinia stay at Downton after Matthew is wounded, Lord Grantham pauses and looks at her in silent admiration; the viewer does the same.
- Lord Grantham, having finally learned about Mary's past, doesn't condemn her, but encourages her to break her engagement and start fresh:  "I want a good man for you -- a brave man."
- Mary refuses to take the easy way out when Carlisle leaves Downton.  Instead of hiding, she faces him, saying, "I didn't want our final words to be angry ones."
- When Anna is angry about O'Brien's courtroom testimony, Bates urges Anna to forgive her:  "We've not been friends, but she doesn't want me here."

Season 3:
- Because he knows what it's like to feel helpless, Bates sets aside his animosity toward Thomas and helps him find a way to thwart O'Brien's scheme and remain employed at Downton.
- After Thomas is injured while protecting Jimmy, they eventually talk openly about Thomas's attraction to Jimmy and agree to be friends.  This is the one moment in the whole show that Jimmy strays from Mrs. Hughes' characterization of him:  "a vain and silly flirt."
- Mrs. Hughes speaks courageously to Branson, comforting him in his grief and confusion and telling him kindly, "Be your own man, and carry your own tune."

In my opinion, season 4 has had too few of these heroic moments -- and the few that there have been seem to involve only the lowest servants.  My favourite occurs when the perpetual loser, Molesley, finally stops feeling sorry for himself and helps someone else, urging Miss Baxter to stand up to Thomas's bullying and blackmail.  She responds with appreciation:  "Your strength has made me strong." In another instance, Daisy shows real maturity by not avoiding Alfred when he leaves Downton, but giving him a gift and parting from him with words of friendship.  And in response, Mrs. Patmore pats Daisy's shoulder and says, "If you were me own daughter, I couldn't be prouder of you than I am right now."

But these instances stand out because they are so isolated.  (And they all appear in the final episode!)  By contrast, most of the rest of what we've seen in Season 4 involves scheming and lying.  Anna lies to Bates about her attacker.  Bates -- we assume -- lies to Anna about his trip to York.  Mrs. Hughes lies to Bates -- while swearing on her mother's grave!  Carson and Mrs. Hughes lie to Alfred to prevent him fueling the maids' spat.  Thomas lies about the Bateses even though Bates helped save his job before; and he inexplicably lies about Branson even though they were friends at the cricket match and country fair at the end of Season 3.  Rose lies about pretty much everything.  Rosamund and Edith lie about their trip to Switzerland.  (Good thing Lady Grantham is so clueless:  who knew that the stress of organizing a church bazaar would cancel out all the observation and intuition that raising three adult daughters can confer on a person?)  Lord Grantham and company lie about the contrived card game.  And on and on and on.  In fact, most of the plot lines have to do with lies -- as if the integrity the characters showed in the earlier seasons is being sacrificed in favour of deceptions and stratagems.

But for me, these schemes and manipulations really aren't that engaging; rather, I think the best moments in the show occur when characters speak from the depths of what they know is right and true.  (Come to think of it, that's the case in real life, too.)  So it's interesting to see that it's primarily the lowest-ranked people showing this kind of integrity in Season 4.  It's as if, for the upstairs crowd, anything goes.  

Lady Mary seems to be the main upstairs exception.  Of all the Crawleys, she is the one who most consistently shows her true self.  She speaks out to her family about the pressure they are putting on her in her grief; she gives Lord Gillingham a heartfelt refusal when he proposes; she tells Tom quite openly that she expects she may come to regret that refusal.  She tells us archly in the final episode that "I don't mind lying," but in fact, honesty is her best trait.  She may put on a brave facade when things are tough, but even then she is honest about why she does so, as when she told Matthew in Season 3, "If I ever look as if I'm finding it easy to lose my home, then I am putting on an act."  And one of her very first comments in Season 1 gave us a clue to the real person beneath the cool, snippy exterior:  "I always apologize when I'm in the wrong;  it's a habit of mine."

I've always considered Lady Mary the moral centre of the show, but the lower staff members are starting to take over that role big-time.  I hope Season 5 provides more opportunities for a wider range of characters to dig deep and tap into their better selves, because those are the moments when Downton Abbey rises above soap-opera status -- and Season 4 has had far too few of them.  The humblest staff are now occupying the moral high ground; it's time for everyone else, especially the aristocrats, to quit plotting, conniving and lying -- and join them!


What about you?  Do you agree that Season 4 is missing something?  Do you like the characters' deceptions and schemes, or do you prefer their authentic moments?  Which character(s) do you consider Downton Abbey's moral centre?


  1. The story line about retrieving the Prince of Wales' letter looked like it was straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel, but without the humor. And without the humor it really fell flat. Just scheming and conniving with a foregone conclusion: all will be well in the end.

    Thomas's change in behavior to Branson and to Bates is inexplicable. Thomas is not a scorpion who can only act in his nature of vileness. He was a more nuanced and complex character in previous seasons. They turned him into a one dimensional villain this season and for what? So Moseley could show some backbone? They could have done that without cheapening Thomas's character.

    And don't get me started on Rose falling for the jazz singer. Not that it wouldn't have happened back then, but the idea that she was so tone deaf on how it would be perceived and what she could really expect from it just didn't seem true to her character or station in society.

    Oh well, no need for me to rant on about this. I still enjoyed every episode and I'm looking forward to season 5!

    1. I'm the same, Tim: I loved every episode and will probably re-watch every single one to get all the nuances; and I agree with everything you've said!

  2. I stopped watching after the assault on Anna, and haven't watched since. That whole affair really, really annoyed me. It seemed like the writers somehow felt that they didn't have enough material to work with, and had to inject this enormously traumatizing event to give the show more drama or something. All they had to work with was the complete collapse of a centuries-old social system, from the perspectives of the upper and lower classes - of course that wasn't enough!

    Ahem. Rant ends. Yes, I agree with your point Jeannie. The show hasn't had the "heart" this season it had before.


    1. Yes, the Anna thing was a definite turning point, and not for the better. Thanks for commenting, Errol!

  3. Jeannie, your assessment is brilliant and beautifully articulated. Very astute as to Mary standing out - though she may lack tact and modern sensibilities, she has integrity which tops everything. Character complexity has made this series a cut above other TV. At the core, I think the problem with season 4 is that the story line seems to have taken on a life of its own irrespective of the characterizations established from Series 1 - 3. As a writer I see that story evolves through the characters, not the other way around.
    Perhaps a problem arose for the writer when nasty (name escapes me, please remind me!) ladies' maid for Mrs G left the series. Somehow, her lack of character seems to have trickled into many of the others instead.
    Will there be a series 5 or has the BBC said, "Let's stop while the interest is still peaked!"

    1. That makes so much sense, Sarah: the story should evolve through the characters, not in spite of them!

      There is a Season 5 planned; beyond that, I don't know. It will be very interesting to see what they do with that. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Hey Jeannie - I love Downton Abbey too (watch it over and over...) and I would agree that Season 4 was different then the first 3, but I couldn't tell you why - your thoughts certainly have given me something to think about when I watch it again. I do really enjoy Lady Mary and have since season one for the same reason that you mentioned - she speaks her mind and is truly authentic. Thanks for sharing and I'm excited to know another fan! Can't wait til season 5!

    1. I can't wait either ... it seems so long between seasons. But on one of the making-of features, it said that one hour-long episode takes two weeks to film. So I guess we have to cut them some slack. :-)

      Thanks for commenting, Amy -- I enjoy finding other Downton fans too!


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