Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The ten worst Downton Abbey subplots, seasons 1-5

It's time to take a break from the trivial subjects I usually write about and talk about something important: Downton Abbey. I love this TV show, and I love sharing my opinions about it with anyone who will listen.  

In this post I'm discussing what I consider the show's ten worst subplots, starting with the least worst and ending with the absolute worst.  Do you agree or disagree?  Please make your opinion known in the comments; I'd love to hear what you think!

Note:  there are numerous spoilers ahead, so if you're watching Downton Abbey but haven't reached the end of Season 5 yet, you may want to skip this post.

10. The Denker-Spratt rivalry (season 5).  Spratt is such a stuffed shirt that we're eager to see him meet his match -- but his rivalry witih Denker quickly wears out its welcome.  Spratt hides one of the Dowager's suitcases -- ooh, wouldn't it be fun to see Violet arrive in London without her underwear? --  but nothing comes of it; Denker discovers the omission right away, so the sparks instantly fizzle.  And pardon me, but who cares if Denker can make delicious broth?????   

(Come to think of it, why do so many lame side plots occur at the Dower House?  Violet's illness, which no one in her family seems at all concerned about ... Violet's gardener, who might have been a thief but isn't ... yawwwwn ...) 

9.  Anthony Strallan and Edith (3).  This romance shows Edith at her most lovely and radiant, but Strallan proves to be a jerk, giving a pathetic excuse for not marrying her (and waiting until they're at the altar to tell her he can't go through with it).  Let's wipe this one from the family memory book, shall we?

8.  Sarah Bunting and Tom (4-5).  If there was any real chemistry between Miss Bunting and Tom, we might believe him when he says that she's made him remember who he used to be. But he never seems remotely comfortable in her presence.  Tom himself has shown that it's actually possible to be decent to people whose values you don't share -- but Miss Bunting seems unable to do that.  She would be a poor replacement for the sweet, spirited Sybil.  I'm not a bit sorry to see her go.

7. Edna Braithwaite's return (4).   Edna was bad enough in season 3 when she was dogging Tom's steps as a housemaid; now in 4 she returns to plague him and annoy everyone else (except the clueless Cora, who thinks Edna's just fine and dandy and castigates anyone who dares to hint that she might not be quite right for the job).  Edna is an irritating character with no interesting backstory and no redeeming qualities.  Please, let this be the last of her.

6. The mysterious soldier (2).  The sudden appearance of a disfigured (and therefore unrecognizable) soldier who might-or-might-not be the supposedly dead Patrick Crawley is straight from the cliche pile.  This subplot was disposed of within a single episode, thank goodness.

5.  Alfred and the kitchen maids (3-4).  Everyone, Mr. Carson in particular, goes on about how nice Alfred is and how hard he works, but I can't warm to his oafish character.  And the triangle between Alfred and Daisy and Ivy (or quadrangle, if you include Jimmy) just doesn't make sense to me.  When Ivy first appears, Daisy resents her -- but by the end of season 3, they're great friends, arm in arm at the county fair. Then in season 4, Daisy is again spouting venom at Ivy every chance she gets.  But why?  Maybe I missed something, but I can't see that Ivy leads Alfred on at all.  And anyway, if Daisy couldn't love William, who was a fine, upstanding person, how can she love a dope like Alfred?  (He's also related to Miss O'Brien, a black mark that, in my opinion, he'll never be able to overcome.)

4. Michael Gregson and his aftermath (3-5).  OK, Edith's only past writing experience appears to be penning a nasty letter about Mary, but it may not be too far-fetched to believe she could be an accomplished columnist.  And Michael does seem to love Edith.  But to complicate their romance by giving Gregson a mad wife ... hasn't that been done in literature before?  Give me a break!  And then there's Edith's pregnancy, which she cleverly hides from her mother by suddenly going to Switzerland for a six-month vacation. (At least that gives Cora time to return from whatever planet she's on.)  And Edith's obsession with little Marigold, however understandable, leads her (twice!) to wrench the child from the only family she knows, finally bringing her to Downton where she ... promptly leaves Marigold with nannies in order to take trips to London and Duneagle.  Sheesh.  (And by the way, when Robert says that Marigold reminds him of Michael Gregson, that's just not credible scriptwriting.  It would make much more sense for Robert to observe that Marigold looks like Edith did when she was a baby.) 

3.  Mary's suitors (4-5).  Tony Gillingham seems like a promising prospect for Mary.  Their attraction appears genuine, and their kiss when she refuses his proposal is lovely.  While I understand Mary's reluctance to marry him so soon after Matthew's death, I'm rooting for him.  But then Charles Blake comes along and complicates matters ... or does he?  His relationship with Mary is really much more brother-and-sisterly (seeing as it involves throwing pig manure at each other and all).  Does he ever even mention loving her?  To these guys, courtship appears to consist of showing up at every event Mary attends and glowering at each other.  (So ... the way to a woman's heart is to trail after her like a puppy?  Who knew?)  I feel sorry for Tony:  he goes from being almost too nice to being a pathetic hanger-on to being dumped for no apparent reason other than that Mary has changed her mind.  Her rejection of him, and Charles' scheme to help her jilt him and send him back to Mabel, seems phony and contrived.  Mary shows ten times more true emotion over Tom's leaving Downton than over any of her suitors. The truth is, no one can really replace Matthew* in her heart -- or ours -- regardless of what may happen in season 6. 
*Note that I'm not including Matthew's death in this list, for the sole reason that it was forced on the writers because of the actor's desire to leave the show -- it wasn't an event that they forced on the script.

2.  The Prince of Wales and the letter (4).   From the fake card party to the ransacking of Sampson's apartment to Bates exercising his forgery skills, this subplot is weak and farcical.  In fact, there are too many new characters in this final episode of season 4, yet nothing to really make us care about any of them:  the Prince of Wales, his mistress, Cora's brother, the old man who woos Cora's mother, the old man's daughter who -- inexplicably -- falls for Cora's brother... See, I can't even remember any of their names.  For a season finale, this one is pretty shabby.

1.  Anna being sexually assaulted by Green (4).  As a Twitter friend said recently, "I've never been a big fan of violence against women as a salacious plot point." At the point when this event takes place, Series 4 is barely under way and there are plenty of interesting plots that could be pursued.  To have a central character attacked so brutally -- and in a way so inconsistent with the whole tone of the show -- seems totally inappropriate.  I'm not suggesting such a thing could not happen to women of the servant class (or any class) in that period, but here it seems gratuitous.  It also leads to a flood of complication and lies that muddle character development rather than enhancing it. The Downton household's support for Bates at his previous trial was based on the staunch belief that he was not capable of murder:  yes, he hated Vera; yes, he threatened Vera; but he would never have killed Vera.  Yet why does Anna lie to Bates about her assault?  Because she thinks he is capable of murder.  So then what are we supposed to think about him, or about her, or about their relationship?  Currently, at the end of season 5, Anna herself is charged with the murder, which is ridiculous.  The Anna-Bates storyline has always been one of the best things about the show; it could have been deepened without making Anna a victim of senseless violence. Actually, I see this subplot as a perfect example of what's called "jumping the shark" -- an unexpected, gimmicky plot device that signals desperation and a show's declining quality.  While I still love Downton and will of course be watching when the final season airs next year, I  think the overall quality has declined:  note that almost all of the subplots in my "10 worst" list took place in seasons 4 and 5.

Well, I've had my say on this significant issue. Now it's your turn ...


  1. You've hit on a lot of the same plot problems I've seen as well. Jeannie. On an upswing, though, I loved the way they handled Rose's maturation in the last season.

    1. agree, Tim: what a difference from the flighty party girl she was at first, trying to defy "Mummy" at every turn. I loved it when she told her father just before the wedding that she didn't want to know who tried to trick Atticus: "I don't want to hate anyone today." (BTW, did you see her (and Daisy) in "Cinderella"?)

      I also liked how Tom Branson became more calm and sure of himself and his decisions as season 5 went on. I've always liked his character.

  2. Hey Jeannie - I'm impressed with your ability to remember all those details! I enjoyed the show, but could never remember the names of the main characters, let alone all the minor characters and intricate plot twists! By the by, have I mentioned my current love of a Spanish series called Grand Hotel (available on Netflix)? Well worth watching, despite having to read subtitles. It's set in a luxury hotel in early twentieth-century Spain. The characters are owners, managers, guests, servants and detectives, and the show is filled with mystery, murder, intrigue, romance and humour. It's full of unlikely (understatement) twists and turns, but somehow it seems to be rather tongue-in-cheek about them (especially about the fact that people are constantly lurking around corners at just the right moment), so I find it to be part of the fun of the show. Since there are a number of films etc. with a similar title, I'll include the wikipedia link:

    1. That sounds really good, Franceen -- thanks for the suggestion. And about the plot twists in DA -- maybe the writers are hoping we WON'T pay too much attention to inconsistencies or things that don't quite work!

  3. Oh I loved Downton Abby, Jeannie, but I stopped watching after Season 3. I got fed up when Matthew died so soon after he and Mary finally married. I couldn't take it! (And I agree with you about subplot #9. Totally.) You have me thinking I might want to take it up again. So addictive though. I can't watch on Sundays, so my daughter and I binge watch.... :-)

    1. I know what you mean about Mary and Matthew -- that was heartbreaking! I suppose that really should have been #1 on my list, but as I said it was kind of forced on the writers. I can't imagine them using a different actor for such a significant character. I still think it's worth watching up to date, though. And yes: it IS addictive!


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