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Downton Abbey: “Season Three, Episode Three”

Illustration for article titled iDownton Abbey/i: “Season Three, Episode Three”
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Oh, Downton. I’m not mad. I’m disappointed.

Honey, you know I’m your friend. You know I’m here for you. I listened to you go on and on about Lavinia Swire when—to be brutally honest, sweetheart—no one else cared. Look, we all knew how that was going to end, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important for you to go through a period of growth, you know, to learn something about yourself and about the world. That’s okay. I understand. And I really want you to know that I’m here for you.


But listen. I have to ask. Downton, what kind of show do you want to be? Because look at your life. Look at your choices. This isn’t the behavior of a healthy show that wants to get awards or even keep its audience happy. This isn’t the behavior of a show that has self-respect. Don’t you want people to take you seriously? Don’t you want awards like all the other British shows? Do you want to be a soap opera? How are you going to get an Emmy if you keep flirting with these sad plotlines that you know aren’t going anywhere real?

For example—and I don’t mean to be too harsh here, sweetheart, because you know I care about you—but we need to talk about this weird obsession you have with John Bates. I get that he must have been kind of interesting at the beginning, as this demonstration of disability in a world that had no room for it, but it’s been increasingly unclear why you still spend time with him. I know you think he has a good heart—I know that his wife Anna is a gem, one of the few well-written characters on the show—but do you really have to spend so much time with him? I mean, the man is in prison. He’s a convicted murderer. I want to believe he’s good, really I do, but there is in fact no evidence to the contrary. But here’s the more important question: How do you actually feel about him? Do you think he’s innocent? Because honestly, it seems like you think he’s guilty a lot of the time, and it’s been a little confusing trying to keep up. (On a side note, if you could explain to me what exactly is going on in that prison, I’d appreciate it. I feel like I’m up to speed on your typical gossip, about the house and its servants, so all this prison talk is very confusing.)

I just think that you’ve always had the potential to be more than a soap opera, but this week’s episode? What even happens? Is there a narrative arc? The only thing that feels like it has a beginning and an end is a lackluster adventure involving prison correspondence that demonstrates nothing we didn’t already know. Otherwise, what? Branson burned some rich person’s house down and now feels bad about it? Sybil ran from her house while pregnant? These actions don’t feel as if they were established over the course of a few episodes of planning—they’re instead erratic plot developments, seemingly pulled out of a hat at random. Perhaps that would be more forgivable if they were not also so boring. I suppose Lord Grantham’s outraged bluster, unleashed disproportionately on two separate occasions, is supposed to count for raised stakes, but the consequences of his bluster are not well-established—indeed, they do not appear to exist. Edith shall not write a letter to the newspaper, except then she does, with no consequences, and Branson shall not benefit from Lord Grantham’s connections to the Home Office, except of course, then he does.

I am going to have trouble, dearest Downton, of caring about any of your stories if they are merely presented as stories about how quaint and old-fashioned things were back in the day, before blessed modernity swept the nation, to bring us modern conveniences like toasters and telephones. It’s kind of a travesty when the strongest story in an episode is that of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson arguing over a toaster. Of course there’s a place in this world for charming light comedy about how silly old people are, but I’m beginning to wonder if you think that’s all you’re good for. There’s a great deal of value in considering the differences of the past, of course, but I don’t think that people loved you, Downton Abbey, because you were a fun history lesson. Certainly that is appealing, but it’s not your only quality. I think those of us who have stuck with you this long are now wondering what exactly we are hanging around for; you seem to have so little respect for yourself that you’re treading water in confusion, trying to stay afloat with minimal movement. I don’t think you care at all how those around you are affected by your behavior—I mean, what am I to make of the scene with Mary and Matthew awkwardly talking about whether or not they’re making babies yet in the nursery? Or this new handsome footman, who has clearly entranced his lordship’s valet, Thomas? What is the point of all this? What are you trying to say?


I will say that I thought the story with Ethel, the maid-turned-prostitute, and her illegitimate son is handled pretty well. You did a good job there showing that an emotionally significant story would have been even more complicated by the norms of the time, and further showed how many different women could come together, despite their different backgrounds, towards a common goal. It seems, though, as if this resolution is too little, too late, for a story that was dead in the water even last season. Ethel was never a character we grew to care about, sadly, because of bad writing and worse characterization. And throwing this story in the microwave after the audience thought it was no longer important smacks of desperation.

It seems, dearest, that you’ve run out of ideas. There isn’t shame in this—it happens to the best of us—but for god’s sake, if that’s the case, why not hire someone else to infuse the writing with new life? Or take a hiatus? Or just quit while you’re still a little ahead? We don’t all have to go out and be gorgeous television shows every day, you know. We can sometimes sit inside our houses and think about things, like climate change, or Doritos. There’s no shame in that. You have to respect your limits.


So ask yourself: Do you really care about Daisy’s love interest? Do you in fact want to put Thomas in the position of being a rapacious homosexual man? Do you have a sense of who the Bransons are as people, as a functioning couple? Was your grand plan for Edith really to be a professional letter-writer? Where’s the narrative? Where are the stakes? Why does any of this matter?

It’s okay. Nobody said making a television show was easy. If tonight’s episode is any indication, you are not a television natural. I know. I know. But look, here, take my hand. I bought us a spa package for this weekend. Let’s go and put our feet up. And I’m sure when we get back we’ll figure out just what it is you think you can do next.


We are going to get through this together.

Stray observations:

  • Oh man, a television show broke me again. Someone please send help.
  • I liked the scene with Matthew and Mary making fun of O’Brien. That might be the first Matthew/Mary scene I’ve enjoyed since their wedding.
  • Almost every plotline in this episode competes with the others in a contest called, “which one do we care about least?” Is it: Anna and Bates? Ethel and the in-laws from hell? Daisy and the overly tall footman? Edith writes a letter? Matthew wants a baby?
  • I have to say, I am most intrigued (and possibly also deeply disturbed) by the exchanges between Jimmy, the handsome new footman, and our old friend Thomas. I don’t love what they’re doing to Thomas, but the scene where Jimmy is changing his shirt and first Thomas, then O’Brien walk by, each seeing and noting everything, is well done. But who knows, maybe this will be an opportunity for Thomas to be happy.
  • Mary’s face is pretty much the highlight of any scene involving family drama. She has the best reactions to things, and her eyebrows are so weird.

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