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Downton Abbey: “Series Three, Episode One”

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Why do we watch Downton Abbey? Though I have seen every episode, I’m not quite sure why I feel the compulsion to tune in. Certainly the production values are incredible—the costuming, the decor, the cinematography. It is a beautiful show to watch at all times. (Even prison scenes are tinged with the romantic mood lighting that wronged men deserve.) But it’s not a show known for its terribly nuanced writing or psychological realism. The characters typically seem like adorable dollhouse figurines, doing and saying what we think people who live in a grand house might say. This is particularly true of the downstairs cast, a team of servants who spout the oddest, unironic statements about tradition and culture despite being on some of the lowest levels of the social totem pole. And yet, it’s kind of narcotic, too. There’s that music, and all the rich visuals, and the characters are all so familiar, and they have such silly problems, like telephones, right? What are telephones?!

My favorite theory on Downton Abbey’s appeal comes from Alexander Chee, who writes that the show’s audience finds itself caught between tradition and modernity much as the characters are. In particular, Lady Mary Crawley resonates with us, as a character who seems doomed to a world where she’s damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. That strikes me as getting to the heart of it. It’s the same audience driven to watch Mad Men or The Wire, to observe the darker realities of our lives, and perhaps even to grapple with the struggle of how to be a person in a big, and complicated, world.


I fully believe that at its best, Downton Abbey is a lens for that constant struggle between the old and the new. It used to work very well, especially in season one. The primary romantic relationship of the show, between Mary and Matthew, is a microcosm of the larger issues being worked out in the show. They are both subject to circumstance, both trying to find their own path, and slowly (very slowly), they realize they can form a future for themselves together.

But this episode doesn’t even try to tackle that big cultural conflict—let alone do it well. Though it begins to sparkle in the middle with the wedding of the (20th) century, the episode lacks those events of universal import, the ones that contextualized the lives of our characters. There’s no Titanic sinking and no declaration of war—we appear to be in a bubble where nothing much happens except sometimes our main characters kiss. Without that backdrop of integrating the traditional and the modern, the other elements of the show shrink down and seem rather trivial. Now that Mary and Matthew are hitched, the writers seem to have decided that their struggles can cease—which seems both boring and highly unlikely. The show is trying to find itself now that Matthew and Mary are a done deal, and that’s fine. But it’s doing so by cheapening a rich relationship into a caricature of itself. Despite the splendor of the wedding and their courtly sex jokes, their relationship doesn’t feel real at all.  Both characters seem markedly off from who they used to be, and as a result, their natural chemistry seems a bit misplaced. And the stakes are much lower. Mary is now apparently very pleased to be growing up to be the future Countess of Grantham, and Matthew appears to be largely content with his strange moral code. That tension of self-identity is gone entirely for both of them. I get that I’m supposed to believe that they are merely happy, but that seems like a leap, and a disservice to what their relationship used to represent.

In addition to ditching general context, the show has also chosen to forego characterization. Rather than see any of the characters grow or change, we are instead following them all on small, isolated little adventures: Mrs. Hughes has a lump in her breast; Isabel Crawley is working in a shelter for prostitutes; O’Brien is trying to get her nephew up the chain of command. These all could be interesting, if it weren’t for the fact that no one changes. There are very few moments where a character must grapple with her values or is forced to admit something new. In this mega-episode, a whole two hours long, there are almost none. This is most egregious in the “oh no we might lose Downton” storyline (which is hard to take seriously because what are they going to do, change the name of the show?) Robert’s lost all of Cora’s money in a risky investment, and no one stops to say anything like, “Oh, should this man not be in charge of everyone’s finances? Is there anything wrong with the way we live? Should we rethink, you know, everything?” Robert himself is appreciably devastated, but barely moved to question his own actions.

Of course, due to a pretty ridiculous plot point, Matthew has now come into possession of a great deal of money that could save Downton Abbey. How convenient! Except, of course, he won’t, because… principles? Lavinia’s ghost? The demands of an eight-episode season? Michelle Dockery does what she can with Mary (who has always been the most emotionally nuanced character on the show) but there’s no denying the absurdity of the plot point, contrived into a conflict that is so unlikely as to be meaningless. It would be more interesting to hear Mary and Matthew talk about money if they would really get angry, or let off kissing each other after each slightly catty statement. As it is, it doesn’t seem important enough to be relevant, though Mary’s scene the night before the wedding, when she loses her cool and snaps at Matthew, is pretty good.


Downton Abbey seems to have transformed from self-aware period drama to theme-park time-capsule—a land where things are kind of frozen. (Including everyone’s appearances: Given that it was 1912, when this series started, many of our characters are wearing a near-decade of age rather well.) It’s reliable for excellent one-liners from the Dowager Countess—Maggie Smith never disappoints—but beyond that, the show seems willing to continue treading water where it is. I can see that working for some viewers. It can be entertaining to check in on characters living a predictable set of lives, exclaiming over phenomena that are commonplace in our world. But the entire vision lacks narrative structure, which is going to make for difficult viewing as the season wears on. Two hours of these characters faffing around in their dresses might be fine… but 10?

The cast is bloated with too many characters and the show seems to have forgotten entirely about the Pamuk scandal, at least for today. Bates’ prison term and Edith’s outcry about the men who died in the war are two brief moments where the past seems to come to bear on the present. Otherwise, it seems as if the other characters have glibly flitted on to new adventures. With the exception of Mary and Matthew’s relationship, most of the stories lack a sense of grounding. If anything, some of the conflicts are just repeats: Last season, Mrs. Hughes worried about Carson’s health; now, it’s the reverse. Thomas still wants to ladder-climb. O’Brien is still devious. Edith is still desperate. This is a world in a crystal ball. You can turn it around and shake it up, and snow will fall, but that doesn’t mean anything is going to truly change. (One of the biggest conflicts, leading to the most radical change in behavior, is that Branson is going to wear a tuxedo to the wedding. Dra-a-a-ma!)


The one crucial exception to this is the wedding, which seemed like the most vital plot moment in the episode. Plot and characterization, for once, go hand-in-hand. Mary wears a lovely dress. There’s nothing to dislike. Of course, neither Matthew nor Mary are going to change their views about money, because that would require character growth, and dear Lord, that’s so middle-class. But I suppose the middle-class can keep their “psychological realism” if the upper-class can have their fantastic weddings.

Generally Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother Martha is wasted, though she manages to bring the episode to a nice close by turning the whole question of the “worth” of Downton on its head by having a nice party without all the fuss that the house normally requires. Mary and the Dowager Countess are trying to use the dinner as a way to prove to Martha that Downton matters; I suppose it is somewhat ironic that they do not succeed. The viewer is left unclear as to whether or not Downton in fact does matter, which is not the most compelling way to end a two-hour episode that is full of the estate’s own self-importance. If Downton doesn’t matter… well, why would I tune in next week?


Stray observations:

  • I’m Laura Linney, and THIS is my favorite part of the episode.
  • At this point, it would make the most sense if Bates actually did kill his wife. If anyone still cared.
  • You know, when Mary’s crying in her room to Anna, it suddenly occurred to me that she in fact has no friends except for her maid, and that made me feel a bit sorry for her.
  • I’ll admit I enjoyed the Branson storyline. Allen Leech is carrying his fair share of character weight, which is good, because almost no one else is. Seriously, are they all just phoning it in because they know only Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith get the Emmy nominations?
  • Oh, Edith. I rather admire your dedication to browbeating a man into marrying you.
  • All American girls walk up to boys and tell them exactly how they would like to be kissed. It’s actually in the Constitution, right there next to “and boys shall alloweth no girls in the treehouse."

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