My second post on the UVA-East Carolina series, about the four major position player prospects on Virginia, is up for Insiders now.
I haven’t written about Downton Abbey in two years, skipping any commentary on season three, probably just because of time but maybe because I found that season to be such a disappointment. Three of the original cast members chose not to return after the end of their three-season contracts, so series creator Julian Fellowes killed two of their characters off, one in the most incongruous and seemingly spiteful ways imaginable. Along with some other absurd subplots – not that this show has ever been a model of realism, but Fellowes at least kept it in the realm of the highbrow soap opera most of the time, rather than trying to be General Hospital with English accents – the third season was a huge letdown after two strong ones to start the series.
The fourth season, which finished airing in the U.S. just two days ago and wrapped up in the U.K. in December, was a significant and surpising comeback for the series, which is still soapy but found a better balance between the serious and the sentimental this time around. Few series bounce back from the kind of dropoff Downton Abbey had in season three, but the fourth season was wittier, saw real character development from several principles, and righted a few of the ships set adrift with those two deaths the previous go-round.
Rather than try to unravel the various interwoven plot strands, I thought I’d tackle a few of those central characters who had major roles this season – nearly all female, as it turns out, another unusual feature in a show with such broad appeal.
* Lady Mary begins the season in mourning, but the offscreen passage of time allows Fellowes to move her past that to the point where we can at least see Michelle Dockery smile on occasion and display her razor-sharp delivery of acerbic humor, which for my money has to be half of why she is constantly beset by suitors. (She’s attractive enough, but you’d think she was Heidi Klum by the way men abase themselves before her in the show.) The emergence of Lady Mary from the dour, unpleasant character she was before marrying Matthew into a more mature, strong-willed woman willing to take on a leadership role at Downton while also showing incredible mindfulness of her own emotional state as a recently widowed young woman – without shedding the occasional viciousness that was an essential part of her character – was the season’s greatest development. She is the show’s clear center at this part, a flawed heroine, still capable of owning a scene, whether it’s her involvement as confidant in Anna’s subplot or her presence as commentator on family scenes. Her quip in the Christmas special about “grandmama” and the poker game is the funniest line in the series’ history uttered by anyone other than Lady Violet. Of course, if Mary eventually chooses to marry Mr. Blake, Fellowes must cast Michael Kitchen as the father of the groom, or all of England might lynch him.
* Anna Bates’ subplot was the most serious in the show’s history, and for my money an unwelcome one – not that such things don’t or didn’t happen (they most certainly do), but that it was a darker story than anything else across its four seasons to date, and didn’t do anything we haven’t seen many times before in fictional rape narratives. The victim blames herself and is caught in a spiral of shame and guilt, incredibly frustrating to any viewer who just wants someone to make her understand that none of what happened was her fault; or the victim fights back, presses charges, testifies, and everyone pretends to live happily ever after. Fellowes chose the first route, as if he needed some kind of subplot to cause strife in the Bates’ happy marriage, and perhaps something more meaty for Joanne Froggatt to tackle, rather than standing around and looking cute most of the time. The only real value the storyline provided to the viewer was the connection to the purloined letter in the Christmas special – an episode where we got to see a good bit more of Bates’ nefarious side, another example of the character development in the season that made it, on the whole, so positive, but not something that seemed to extend to Anna after her story’s resolution.
* Lady Rose would like to go to London, please.
* Isobel was left adrift for too much of the season, a waste of the very talented Penelope Wilton, although her occasional moments with Tom Branson as two outsiders trying to figure out whether they still fit in at Downton after their respective losses were strengths – something we should see more of, as they have that natural kinship, and Isobel’s maternal affection for Branson is evident.
* The Alfred-Jimmy-Ivy-Daisy storyline played itself out too quickly for the season, and eventually became tiresome other than the sweet – maybe a little too sweet – conclusion where Daisy gets advice from her father-in-law, another character we could use a little more of. Daisy likes Alfred, who likes Ivy, who likes Jimmy, who likes himself. Something in that chain had to break or reverse or Mrs. Patmore was going to have to club someone with a cast-iron skillet. (Mrs. Patmore also got a little more breadth to her character, appearing more confident than in seasons one and two and more like the captain of her kitchen than a harassed and perhaps not-that-competent servant.)
* And then we have Lady Edith, whose subplot was clearly too good to be true for a character who gets punched in the stomach at least one per season despite deserving pretty much none of it. Her witchiness toward Mary has evaporated post-Sybil, and if she has a character flaw remaining it was absent this past season. The story had more than a touch of the absurd, while also dropping her whole bid for independence through writing, and I can only hope the two revelations in the Christmas special, extending this storyline into season five, provide more value than we got from it this season. Even the brief foray into the dangers facing a woman who sought to end a pregnancy in a time when abortion was illegal, and thus practiced in circumstances that posed great risks to the woman, was over before having any impact. With these seasons set in the inter-war period, a time of great social change, Fellowes has some room for social commentary, especially on the roles of women, and other than boosting Lady Mary to a more central role, I don’t think he did enough of that.
* Oddly enough, of all the male characters on the show, it was Moseley who had the most to do in season four, getting knocked down but getting up again, and by the end of the season playing a pivotal role in the culture downstairs. I think the idea that Moseley’s descent from a valet to a footman was almost too big a fall for him to bear can’t resonate with modern audiences – isn’t a lesser job at the Abbey better than pouring tar, or being unemployed? – but putting him in the lower quarters while he worked to find his own self-respect had interesting consequences, and may finally give Thomas a proper foil for his intrigues.
* Finally, Lady Violet was in rare form all season; I thought her dialogue was wittier and Fellowes was careful not to excessively liberalize her given what was going on with her granddaughters. She needs to be the guardian of the old ways, in a sense, while balancing that with her love and care for Mary and Edith. Dame Maggie Smith has shown she can handle anything – just watch her virtuoso, Oscar-winning turn as the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and Fellowes should continue to challenge her with the character. Besides, who else could deliver a rejoinder to Isobel’s “How you hate to be wrong” like Smith did with Lady Violet’s retort, “I wouldn’t know; I’m not familiar with the sensation?”