End of Season Report: Downton Abbey, Season 4

19 Mar

Downton's upstairs folk

Downton Abbey has somewhat struggled as it has aged, desperately trying to come up with a whole bunch of new compelling plotlines each season, and finding the well a little dryer each time. This report comes a little bit after the season ended here in the U.S., and it’s not because I needed time to compose my thoughts, but because it took me a while to get through the season, which has become a big of a slog. The characters feel like they’re repeating patterns and the show no longer feels as engaging as it did when it first aired. It’s hard to keep a show interesting over the years, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth remarking on. There are a couple of plotlines that I’ll address one by one, and then follow that with a couple of overall season comments.

First, the most talked about plotline of the season, Anna’s rape and the ensuing consequences. I’m not the first to say it, but this arc was deeply flawed and it didn’t work for me at all, with the exception of Anna’s anguish, portrayed by Joanne Froggatt, who consistently does a very good job. The main problem is that instead of being about Anna, the plot ends up really being about Bates – how will he react, how will he view Anna. Bates is one of my absolute least favorite characters on the show. I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to think of Bates as a stoic loyal gentleman, but to me he comes off as an broody emo, anti-social, anti-fun character, and the only thing worse than the fact that Anna has to worry about whether Bates would kill the man who raped her if he found out is the fact that she was totally right to worry. Is that the kind of man anyone would want to spend the rest of their life with? One who doesn’t actually care what his wife’s opinion is on the matter, but just does it because it fits his own personal code of justice. Obviously it’s tragic to see the rapist go unpunished; I don’t think anyone thinks that is the ideal state of affairs. Still, it’s not Bates’ call to decide what the punishment will be, and act as judge, jury, and executioner. It would be one thing if he called upon extralegal means with Anna’s assent, but without it, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on (Mr. Bates’ cripple pun unintentional).

Can we also spend a second to talk about how in the world Bates didn’t throw out his train ticket to London after MONTHS? There’s just no good answer to this, other than Downton wanted the characters to figure it out, so I’m not even going to attempt to address it because it’s so obviously ridiculous.

The Alfred-Daisy-Ivy-James love quadrangle (one could say rectangle, but I won’t) has gotten stale, and I’m glad it’s finally broken up by the end of the season, particularly by Alfred, one of my favorite characters, moving up in the world to chef.  Some things just remain the same too long. We get it, Daisy likes Alfred, Ivy likes James, James and Alfred both like Ivy, but James is a bit of a cad. It’s fine that this exists – to expect otherwise is to not understand what kind of show Downton Abbey is – but to just go over it again and again is tiresome.

Why is Thomas still working at Downton? Can someone please explain this to me? Nobody likes him. He’s always obviously scheming and by now it’s not like anybody doesn’t know about it. They admittedly mostly toned him down but still remind us every once in a while that he’s mostly just kind of an asshole. His trying to constantly pump the new lady’s maid for information throughout the entire season was largely uninteresting.

Poor Edith just can’t catch a fucking break.  Edith is one of the few character I’ve actually grown to like more over the course of Downton, and it’s almost cruel at this point how misfortune just seems to follow her around. She actually finds someone who cares about her, and he knocks her up and then disappears off the face of the Earth in Germany. Oh, and Mary is still constantly mean to her. This is less a straight criticism of the show as much as just a commentary on how much I’m rooting for Edith, which would have shocked watching-first-season me.

The arc dealing with Rose and her black bandleader boyfriend, Jack, didn’t really work for me.  I do appreciate the effort to diversify the cast, but I think Downton would probably have been better off not even attempting a meaningful commentary on race as a show that’s by its nature poorly equipped to do so.  Downton simply wouldn’t have been diverse at that time period, so it would have been realistic to see nothing by white people everywhere these characters went.  The story wrapped up too neatly, and it felt like a story rooted in modern attitudes tweaked for the times rather than an honest portrayal of what would have happened if this situation occurred at this time in real life (though I’m not a historical expert, so I certainly can’t say for sure).

Mary is back to choosing between suitors. Not that I don’t think Mary can’t be charming or don’t like Michelle Dockery, but it sometimes seems a bit much how every single man of eligible age seems to melt directly at the sight of Lady Mary. Again, it’s not that I can’t believe it would happen, but it just seems to happen every single time.  One of the two prime potential suitors dislikes Mary, spends one night in which she shows her mettle by getting down and dirty with the pigs, and is henceforth in complete and utter love with her. The series was so invested in the Matthew – Mary coupling that it’s hard to get reinvested in one of these new suitors for Mary that we don’t know nearly as well as Matthew.

The Lady Crawley – Dowager Countess tet a tet continues to give us the best parts of the series. Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith are both jewels and are delightful as the old liberal and old conservative, a classic combination.

As for everything else? It just feels like the series is running in place. It’s not bad, really. Bad is too harsh. Downton, as I’ve said before, is a soap, masquerading occasionally as a serious drama of some historical importance, but that’s really nothing more than a facade. A fascinating façade, and one that draws some of the interest in the show, But a façade still. A soap needs new blood. The show needs fresh storylines and new likable characters and I’m not sure Downton can deliver that anymore.

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