This post contains spoilers through the February 5 episode of Downton Abbey:
This seems like a worthwhile moment to make the salient if somewhat disappointing observation that Downton Abbey, while handsome and as well-acted as ever, really seems to have devolved into a common melodrama this season. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with common melodrama—Revenge has thrived on camp and plot twists. But while that show’s remained relatively focused, telling us how the various developments we’re seeing on screen illuminate the central story of who framed David Clark and why, Downton Abbey’s dangerously close to feeling like a mish-mash of dramatic plot devices tossed together for effect: these are flash bombs, producing a lot of temporary light, but I’m not sure the heat they’re generating is nearly enough to scorch the ends of Peter/Patrick’s hair, much less maim him permanently.
Speaking of which, why don’t we start there? I think there would be a fascinating story to tell about a maimed war veteran who, amidst his trauma, is ambitious and clever enough to try to upjump himself using the opportunities presented by the war. But it’s a story that’s much more interesting if it’s told from the perspective of the perpetrator than from the perspective of the objects of his long con. And it needs to be a long con for there to be any sense of investment or risk. If an impostor is so easily dismissed and driven out, both from the plot and from the consciences of most of the characters, why bring him up at all? This ought to have been a storyline with profound implications for the succession question that Downton Abbey has taken as its overall framework, but instead it became a soap opera drama of the week, and that feels like a substantial failing.
And I feel the same way about Mrs. Bates’ death. Now, there’s no question that divorce trials can be protracted things, but they have to come to an end at some point. The show could have taken some time off-estate to handle the proceedings, or could have had Vera hang around to raise the temperature of things between Sir Richard and Mary (he could always release Vera from her contract, ruining Mary and saving himself from having to do it directly, which for a gentleman with aspirations of truly finding his place in the nobility would have been the place to do it). Killing her off feels like succumbing to the temptation to have a dramatic event thrown into the mix, rather than to actually carry out a process to its full conclusion—it’s a rather American way to deal with an English problem of prolonged longing and suffering.
The only plotline the show is actually letting build to a true boiling point is the dynamic between Matthew and Lavinia and Mary and Sir Richard, two couples who are in the rather delicious position of being affianced—and thus allowed certain intimacies—but not not married—leaving some barriers and dangers intact. There’s no question that Mary and Matthew are deeply emotionally engaged. “I shall have arms like Jack Johnson if I’m not careful,” she jokes during one of the afternoons with Matthew that have aroused so much comment. “I’m strong enough to wheel myself,” he says, but Mary insists “I shall be the judge of that.” There’s no clearer sign of intimacy than a proprietary air about another person. Matthew may insist that “I can only relax because I know you have a real life coming…I have nothing to give and nothing to share. And if you were not engaged to be married I wouldn’t let you anywhere near me,” but I’m not sure he even believes himself.
It’s rough competition Sir Richard faces, and he doesn’t quite know how to play by the rules of the society that he wants to enter (not that it’s clear he’d be allowed to play, given Mary’s rather withering “Your lot buys it. My lot inherits it.”). When he tries to woo Mary with a new home, asking ” Shall we give the house another chapter?” she responds rather drearily, “Well, I suppose one has to live somewhere.” Starting a new house will never quite have the romance of continuing an ancient line. And buying someone’s reputation is not quite the same as saving them—it lacks a certain selflessness. But unlike almost everyone else in this world, Sir Richard isn’t content to be limited by the rules of decorum: what he can’t have with ease, he’s willing to force, an attitude that puts Mary at a sexual and strategic disadvantage. Punctuating a warning that “If you think you can jilt me or in osme way set me aside, you have given me the power to destroy you, and don’t think I won’t use it…I want to be a good husband, but don’t cross me. Ever. Do you understand? Absolutely never,” with kisses is not something she has a defense again. At least not yet.
And of everything left to juggle in this story, that’s the one thing I’m left excited to find out, just as I’m desperate to know who the body on the beach is in Revenge. There’s something to be said for setting up a central mystery and sticking to it. Downton Abbey‘s always going to be a more complex story than Revenge because it’s about society, rather than individuals. But that doesn’t mean this prestige drama couldn’t learn something about storytelling, focus, and impact from ABC’s soap.