Last week I boldly proclaimed that “Downton Abbey” had jumped the shark. Very proud of myself for having spoken truth to power, I then Googled “Downton Abbey jumps the shark” to see who else agreed with me and found hundreds of results going back years. Apparently viewers have been saying that “Downton’s” best days were over since at least January 2012, so I am hardly the first one to this party.
When a show has as many preposterous plotlines as “Downton” (the emergence of a long-lost disfigured amnesiatic Canadian cousin in Season 2 was the first nadir) it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when it actually begins to smell like a rotting fish, but I’m going to maintain that Anna’s rape was a turning point until I’m disproved by events yet foreseen.
I say this because last Sunday’s episode was particularly dull and lifeless. None of the characteristics we’ve come to love (or more often, love to hate) were in evidence. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was largely silenced – her best line was the rather banal observation, “If we only had moral thoughts, what would the poor churchman do?” The upper classes – even that idiot Lord Grantham – managed to keep their moronic tendencies in check. The downstairs skullduggery was also largely absent too, except for the very abrupt conclusion to the burgeoning Edna/Tom blackmail plot.
Instead of the good stuff, what we got a lot of lame recycled plots from previous seasons. Are we supposed to be surprised when Rose dances with an inappropriate man in a jazz club and needs to be recalled to the table? Well, it happened last year. Or how about Mary being such a fox that affianced men keep trying to marry her? That’s the Lavinia/Matthew plot all over again. And here we go with another edition of: “The sainted Anna/Bates relationship is under threat because one party maintains a secret about which he/she feels guilty even though no sane person would judge him/her to be so.”
There was one storyline that I found satisfying, although typically Downtownian in its lack of logic. Last week’s episode ended with Edna the conniving lady’s maid, slipping into Tom’s bedroom after she had plied him with drink and stoked his feelings of insecurity. To the surprise of no one, she now emerges as a sexual predator, intent on forcing Tom to marry her if she turns out to be pregnant. Tom is taken aback by Edna’s claim that she might be knocked up a mere 12 hours after they did the deed, and does what everyone at Downtown should do when they’re in trouble: he goes running to Mrs. Hughes.
Now, PBS launched a new episode of “Sherlock” last night immediately after “Downton,” but that seems superfluous when we’ve got Mrs. Hughes. She summons Edna and confronts her with the incriminating evidence of her plot. We’ve seen that Mrs. Hughes has no scruples about rooting around in other people’s wastebaskets and clothes drawers, and this case is no different for she unveils proof that Edna is not pregnant. Why, here’s a sex manual, “Married Love” by Marie Stropes, an early advocate of birth control (it’s still for sale on Amazon if you’re interested). J’Accuse!! With her Sherlockian logic, Mrs. Hughes deduces that Edna practiced birth control to ensure she didn’t get pregnant with Tom, but if she secured his promise to marry her if/when she was in a family way, intended to go out and actually get herself with child by another man. Whew, what a convoluted scheme, and it has more that a few holes. In any event, it doesn’t seem like Edna read the sex book very carefully, because when Mrs. Hughes threatens to lock her in the room and bring in a doctor to prove she isn’t pregnant now, she folds, apparently not knowing that you couldn’t prove or disprove a pregnancy so soon.
So exeunt Edna, immediately packing her suitcase and escaping as stealthily as O’Brien in episode one, but not before one last delicious confrontation with Thomas Barrow. She seems to have forgotten that Thomas got her off the hook with Lady Crawley two episodes ago when she ruined a garment and he managed to shift the blame to Anna. At that time they had seemed to be the new Axis of Evil, but in the Downtown world there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests, and in a parting scene they unload on each other like two vipers in a bottle: “Do you ever wonder why people dislike you? It’s because you’re sly, oily and smug,” she says. “If we’re playing the truth game, then you’re a manipulative little witch, and if your schemes have come to nothing, I’m delighted,” he counters. Snap!
As satisfying as this Edna resolution is, it illustrates a persistent problem with “Downtown Abbey.” The story lines are either resolved unnaturally quickly or they drag on too long. After all, we were just re-introduced to Edna and only beginning to settling in to her evil machinations and now – poof – she’s gone.
There’s a similar problem with Lord Gillingham’s courtship of Lady Mary. Consider the timeline of the past two episodes. Last week’s episode began Friday, when the guests arrived for the house party. Gillingham meets Mary that night. The next day, Saturday, they go for a ride and make eyes at each other. Last night’s episode begins Monday morning when the house party is over and the partiers are saying their goodbyes. Then Mary and Gillignham hook up again on Wednesday in London; he follows her back to Downton on Thursday and proposes; the next day, Friday, she says it’s too soon. I’ll bloody say it’s too soon! In less than a week he falls in love with her and proposes and when she says it’s too soon, he’s like, OK, tick tock, I can’t wait for you to get over Matthew so I’m just going to go ahead and marry the runner-up, Miss Mabel Lane-Fox. My guess is that Julian Fellowes put this plot on the fast track because he has lots more in store for Gillingham. Unfortunately, there was no Spanish flu epidemic in the 1920s so he won’t be able to dispatch the (yet-to-be-seen) Mabel as easily as he got rid of Matthew Crawley’s fiancé.
If the Gillingham/Mary plot proceeds at an overly accelerated pace, the downstairs love quadrangle starring James/Ivy/Daisy/Alfred is a crashing bore. Why is this plotline even lingering from last season? First of all, who cares if Ivy likes James or Alfred? Second, why is it taking Alfred so long to figure out the score? Talk about dense! I’m not bothering to recap else about this story because it’s taking up way too much time. I appreciate that Julian Fellowes wants to give the servants an inner life equal to the lives of the upstairs folks but he no feel for it. Try harder.
Now to the plot that made me so mad last week: Anna’s rape. I continue to maintain that it was a brutal scene completely inappropriate for a show that is largely about escapism. I don’t deny that women were raped at aristocratic houses in the 1920s, and I do recognize that “Downton” has had its share of tragic events, including the deaths of Sybil and Matthew. But death on a soap opera can be a cathartic event. We all feel sad that someone died, we may even shed a tear, but we don’t feel depressed about the human condition. Depictions of rape, child abuse, torture and other kinds of violence belong on a different kind of show – a grown-up show where reality prevails. Besides, except for the deaths, there’s always a happy ending on “Downton,” and I’d bet anything that this storyline also ends “happily.” (I could go on Wikipedia and actually find out but I don’t want to deliberately expose myself spoilers.)
In any event, as could be seen coming a mile away, the rape is distancing Anna from Bates. She doesn’t even want him to touch her and then decides to move out of their love nest and back into the main house. Here’s her logic: he’s a perfect human being except for this one little thing about him being so violent that if he knew the truth he would proceed to kill the rapist and get himself executed; at the same time, she explains, “I’m not good enough for him. I feel dirty. I’m soiled.” Victims, of course, frequently blame themselves, but Anna seems to be overdoing it. If she said, I feel guilty because I didn’t listen to my husband and accidentally led this man on, those feelings would be more believable, although equally unfair to herself. But by saying, “I’m not good enough for him,” she takes a high road that seems designed for plot purposes more than anything else. Anna and Bates have always been too noble for this world, even if that nobility and their own moral calculations bring unnecessary pain to others.
Bates doesn’t seem to be particularly fast on the draw, it must be said. One minute, the two of them are sitting contently listening to Nellie Melba, and then 45 minutes later he finds her downstairs with her face battered, wearing a new dress and suddenly cold to him and he doesn’t wonder what happened during those 45 minutes? Instead he thinks he did something wrong? (How often do husbands think their wives’ bad moods are all about them? Uh, every time.) And why isn’t everyone else jumping to the obvious conclusion, which is that Bates is the one who beat her? Think about it: Everyone can see she’s been beaten and now she’s moving out of their house. Why shouldn’t everyone think he’s the cause?
Some additional thoughts:
— The plot with Rose and Jack Ross, the black bandleader, is shaping up to be unbelievably obvious and boring. I’d almost rather have a full episode of Alfred and Daisy than watch this story unfold. It is interesting to know, though, that Jack Ross is based on a real person, Leslie Hutchinson, who was a popular cabaret singer during the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was also notoriously involved with Edwina Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip and the last Viceroy of India. This video of Hutchinson shows that he had a lot more charisma than the fictional Jack Ross.
— Poor Edith, always relegated to an afterthought by “Downton” recappers as well as by her own family. Her boyfriend Gregson romantically entices her into a sleepover after thoughtfully sending the servants away – but not before getting her to sign some paper that allegedly gives her some kind of power of attorney while he’s off in Germany getting German citizenship. Of course she never even looks at the paper, so who knows what she’s signed? Then when she does the walk of shame back to Aunt Rosamund’s house, a sneaky maid rats her out and she has to endure a lecture on propriety, which is a bit rich coming from Rosamund, who’s probably seen and done a lot worse. In any event, this storyline is currently the most ridiculous one we’ve got. A card shark magazine editor, with a lunatic wife stashed away someplace, who’s so gaga over Edith that he’ll revoke his British citizenship so he can obtain a German divorce and then marry her. The whole thing sounds fishy and of course Lord Grantham, dolt that he is, has never bothered to check Gregson out to see if he’s married or what.
— What a wimp Tom has turned into. He was always weak – remember him escaping from Ireland and leaving the pregnant Sybil behind in the clutches of the Irish authorities? Not his finest hour. Now he gets himself in trouble by allowing Edna to climb into his bed and then blackmail him, before finally running off to Mrs. Hughes to solve his problem. And when he’s not letting ladies maids having their way with him, he’s moping around about wearing white tie and needing to chat with duchesses. Geez, man up, Tom. Snap out of it.
— Mrs. Hughes is turning into my favorite character. She’s big-hearted, but not as goody-goody as those Bates’s and not as wooly-headed as that upper-middle-class do-gooder Isobel Crawley. She’s clear-eyed and practical and she gets stuff done. And she’s not above using her powers of manipulation for a good cause, even if it involves breaking into someone else’s bedroom. Consider this: she gives Carson a nice framed photo of his ex-girlfriend. 1) She must have rooted around in his desk to retrieve the unframed photo, 2) She is probably trying to bring the old coot to life so he will realize his true feelings for her. She’s a master.
— I like Lord Grantham dispensing vaporous marital advice to Bates, like the Dear Abby he was always meant to be. “The damage cannot be irreparable when a man and a women love each other as much as you two do.” Pause. “My goodness! That was strong talk for an Englishman.” My thoughts exactly.
— The one plot that I am actually interested in – how they are going to resolve the death duties – gets short shrift this week. Mary and Tom go to London to talk it out with the authorities and next they are headed to York for more discussions. It looks like they will borrow the money to pay the taxes rather than sell off property and render the estate unsustainable. Well, that got resolved fast!
— Lord Gillingham should thank his stars that Mary declined his impetuous marriage proposal. He doesn’t seem to realize that every man she sleeps with comes to a sudden violent end. Of course it’s unlikely that she will marry him anyway because that would require her to move away from Downton Abbey, which would upset the balance of the show.
Final word goes to Mr. Carson, who truly is becoming the leading existentialist on the show: “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end that’s all there is.”