Oh, Downton Abbey lovers, why can’t you make up your minds?
Season 3 saw the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew, as actors Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay sought to capitalize on their Downton fame and move on to new projects.
And you Downton-ites were furious. Livid! Especially at the surprising death of Matthew in an auto accident at the end of the season.
So you say, well, Adam, you seem to know a lot about this. Aren’t you a fan? Weren’t you upset?
It would be a stretch to call me a fan. Maybe “interested observer” better encapsulates my relationship with Downton Abbey. My wife is an avid fan, so I usually watch with her, sometimes engrossed in what’s happening, sometimes reading a book and half paying attention.
As to the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew, I say this: Best thing to happen to the show.
Not that I’m big on racking up body counts just to be racking up body counts. It doesn’t make horror or action dramas more interesting, and it sure won’t work in a period soap opera like Downtown Abbey. I am of the Joss Whedon school of tragedy. When you kill a character and you do it with thoughtful deliberation – think Fred in the final season of Angel – you open the floodgates of guilt, fear, sadness, anxiety and more from those who survive. Wesley Windham Price became a better, deeper, darker character with the loss of his love. Even Lorne, maybe the lightest of light characters in all of the Whedon-verse, gained depth and profoundness from the loss of the beloved Birkle.
In the case of Downton, I thought the deaths of these two characters helped make their spouses, Lady Mary and Tom, much, much more interesting. Lady Mary has always been grating and snobby, and that’s both intentional and a tribute to the writing and the performance of Michelle Dockery. But I was really never interested in the character, not like I was invested in Lady Mary’s parents or a significant part of the servant staff. The opening of season 4 changed that, with Lady Mary clearly in shock and unable to shake it off. And while I thought the pursuit of Lady Mary by a number of suitors in Season 4 often bordered on Bachelorette parody, the way she handled it, admitting her feelings while simultaneously admitting she wasn’t ready to move on from Matthew, really elevated the character. The same for Tom Branson, the chauffeur-turned-aristocrat. I found his relationship with Sybil to be one of the most annoying aspects of the show and would often tune out. But post-Sybil Tom is a terrific character, a man who has reluctantly yet easily become part of his dead spouse’s aristocratic family, still grappling with how his socialist beliefs apply as this evolution happens. The show and two of its most important characters are stronger in the wake of the passing of Lady Sybil and Matthew. Go team Downton!
But the minds behind Downton heard the kvetching after season 3, so season 4 they gave you Downton-ites your happy ending. The hand-in-hand walk through the sea by Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes was a moment of serenity in a season of upheavel, a peaceful coda. I thought it was one of the nicer scenes in the series’ history.
And how did you respond? Folks weren’t happy with that either. Why, I don’t understand. Damned if you, damned if you don’t, I guess.
There is something every Downton-ite should be upset with from season 4, but other than my wife, I haven’t heard much about it. The issue: The resolution of the storyline about Anna’s sexual assault.
Anna’s rape was a horrifying moment in Downtown history, and led to some of the best drama the show has seen. Her taking Mrs. Hughes into her confidence, and Mrs. Hughes struggling to help Anna and not give away anything to Mr. Bates, Ann’s proud and strong-willed hubby. Anna’s reduced fondness for the butler (valet? All of these positions confuse me) of one of Lady Mary’s would-be boyfriends that tips Bates as to who the real villain is. It was really well handled, and again, tragedy took key characters to interesting places, as it should.
And then Julian Fellowes, series creator and the man who wrote the season finale, plays us for fools. Is there anyone who as ever watched an episode of Downton who honestly believes Bates is stupid enough to have left the train ticket for the fateful trip when he killed his wife’s rapist in his frigging coat pocket? We spent the bulk of the two-hour finale watching Bates commit acts of fraud and theft, subtly and deftly defending the Crawley family, sometimes unbeknownst to anyone. Then we’re supposed to believe that same man was dumb enough not to toss his ticket stub, evidence that could result in his hanging, in one of the 72 fireplaces inside Downton the second he returned home?
What an awful, lazy piece of writing, all done seemingly in an effort to get us to the point where Lady Mary decides to burn the ticket rather than turn Bates in to the police. Mr. Fellowes, you could have just had a stage hand stand behind Lady Mary with an enormous sign that says “She’s no longer the cold, aristocratic gal you once knew” because, quite frankly, that would have been just as subtle and more respectful of your audience’s intelligence
Of course, in the end, Mr. Fellowes, you win. Because you know that no matter what you do, we’ll be back for next season. Yes, this interested observer as well.