An Off Season For Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey -- Mary, Matthew and babySeason three of Downton Abbey is finished, and I’m sad.  Oh not to worry, I’ll find another way to spend my Sunday evenings until Mad Men resumes on April 7 and Homeland returns… whenever.  Actually, I’ve got the blues because the show I once loved to dish about at the water cooler on Mondays has gone so decidedly downhill.

Downton’s season one was fantastic.  The writing was clever and there was some significance to the plot.  It was historical fiction on par with films like The Other Boleyn Girl or Chariots of Fire. When enjoyed with a big glass of wine, it allowed us to close out the weekend by learning a little something about post-Edwardian Britain, without trying too hard.

By midway through season two, though, Downton began to lose its way.  World War I was over and it seemed the writers didn’t have a clue where these characters were going.  Some plotlines rushed by so fast, if you blinked you might have missed them. (Spanish Flu Hits Downton!)  Others – like Daisy wearing a hair shirt over misleading William about her feelings for him — dragged on at a glacial pace.  If I close my eyes I can still hear her whine in her Yorkshire accent, protesting for the hundredth time a visit to William’s father at his farm:  “But I didn’t love him!  It would be dishonest!”

I hoped for better things from season three, but was disappointed.  It felt as if writers wrote each episode on the fly.  They killed off Lady Sybil, seemingly without a plan for her heartbroken husband Tom Branson.  He got a new set of tails and forged a warmer relationship with the family, but he remained not-of-the-manor-born.  There was so much they could have done with the former chauffeur, but in each episode Tom always felt like an afterthought.

In season three, we once again had laborious plotlines like Bates in prison.  Fans of the show knew he’d be released.  He wasn’t about to be shived at the hands of his mumbling, wacked-out cellmate – whose hatred of Bates was never adequately explained.   When Bates was finally sprung, the rationale was so flimsy we viewers collectively rolled our eyes.  Disgusted?  Yes, but also grateful to say good-bye to watching him wait in the chow line for his bowl of gruel.

I can see another such storyline on the horizon, with Lady Edith and her besotted editor.  He’s married.  His wife is in an asylum, and he can’t divorce her.  Resolving this could take some time.  Of course, that could be a good thing for Edith.  Once the Grantham girls get married, they usually get pregnant… and then somebody has to die.

In the last two seasons of Downton, writers introduced random maids and footmen, as if these grand old houses had a revolving staff.  OK, it made some sense pre- and post-WWI when young men were either leaving for, or returning from, battle.  But over time it seemed more like a lazy plot device.

Hey, we need more sex in this show.  Let’s introduce a pretty young housemaid for Lord Grantham to make clumsy passes at!

Hey, now that Sybil is dead we need to do something about mopey Tom Branson.  Let’s introduce an over-sexed new housemaid no one has ever seen before, to make not-so-clumsy passes at him!

What’s more, this was pre-organized labor right?  Weren’t servants a dime a dozen back then, as big estates like Downton toppled like dominoes?  Last night Edna purred and pranced around Tom, within spitting distance of Mrs. Hughes, and I wondered why on earth it was so hard to sack a useless housemaid?  It took nearly the entire two-hour episode, until at last Edna claimed she couldn’t complete her chores for the day because she had a lunch date with Branson in the local pub.  That did it.  I thought Carson would have a stroke.

Breathe deeply, Mr. Carson.  In through the nose and out through the mouth.

Writers also took to inexplicably introducing annual family traditions that viewers who had watched the show for more than 10 years (Downton years, that is) had never heard mentioned.  I am of course referring to the annual town vs. manor cricket match, which came out of NOWHERE.   An enormous fuss was made, yet we never even learned which team won.

Likewise, there was the heretofore unmentioned yearly journey to Duneagle Castle in Scotland, to visit “Shrimpy” and his shrew-wife Susan MacClare, Marchioness of Flintshire.  FLINTshire, I kid you not.  The name fits; she is a cross between Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, and Mrs. Danvers from the film Rebecca.

During so much of Downton Abbey’s season three, I was left asking myself… what was the point of all that?  Why do I care if Shrimpy and his wife — who I had never heard of until last night — don’t get along?  They are moving to India soon anyway.  If a justification for daughter Rose’s relocating to Downton was needed, wouldn’t that have been good enough?

I can’t say I’m sorry that Matthew’s character died last night.  He’s one of the better actors on the show, but his story was going nowhere — and his role as peacemaker between Edith and Mary, and Lord Grantham and Tom, would eventually have worn thin.  It wasn’t a surprise – we’d all read that Dan Stevens did not sign on for Season Four.  But I thought the final scene, with Mary holding her baby while waiting for Matthew to return to the hospital, was pretty poignant.

I’m also intrigued by the potential for mature romance between Matthew’s mother Isobel Crawley, and Dr. Clarkson.  Isobel gave Clarkson the brush off last night, but I get a whiff of perseverance from the good doctor – and she’ll need consolation over the loss of her only child.

Hopefully Downton Abbey’s writers will use this hiatus to breathe new life into a once-entertaining show.  I’m skeptical, but still there’s enough left to bring me back for season four.  Until then, nothing else to do but hope… and prepare for Mad Men.

Zou Bisou Bisou to you!