This post discusses plot points throughout the third season of Downton Abbey.
It’s profoundly irritating that Downton Abbey was railroaded into perhaps the most soap operatic ending in its existence by Dan Stevens’ demand to be let out of the show. Having Matthew run off the road by a country burgher driving a truck down a narrow road, the accident perhaps facilitated by Matthew’s distractingly powerful joy over the birth of his son and heir, is a cheap solution to a problem created by Stevens’ assessment of his market value, an event without any of the larger points or ideas that normally attach to developments at Downton Abbey, even in a superficial way. It’s cruel to see the show reach a logical, happy closing point, only to torpedo it: “We’ve done our duty. Downton is safe. Papa must be dancing a jig,” Mary told him when she presented their child to him in the hospital. “I’m dancing a jig!” her husband declared. “I feel like I’ve swallowed a box of fireworks.”
But as irksome as it is to see Downton succumb to its sudsiest instincts, Matthew’s death raises a fascinating question that the show has been unable to pose before. Who is Lady Mary, and what does she want, now that she’s not required to secure Downton Abbey’s financial future or line of succession. Without those obligations, Mary’s sisters were able to explore various answers to those queries, from nursing, to Branson, to Sir Anthony, to a newspaper column, to Mr. Gregson. Mary was turned sour by her inability to even consider what she might want, lead into misadventure with Mr. Pamuk, and only after marrying Matthew, found a version of herself that both let her fulfill her responsibilities and that she actually liked. “I hope I’m allowed to be your version of Mary Crawley for all eternity,” she told Matthew, immediately before his death. But who is Mary’s version of herself? What is the life she can be pleased with that she’s also truly chosen? And what can she choose, now that she has a child, and the time her sisters spent in various experiments has passed her by? As irritated as I am by Matthew’s death, this is genuinely rich dramatic territory, and I’m encouraged to see Downton explore it, along with the fact that Lord Grantham is left with Branson as his only son-in-law, and one he might find acceptable in comparison to Michael Gregson as Edith’s lover.
The conclusion to Thomas’ story this season seems to be more definitively closed, with Thomas proving his decency and friendship, and Jimmy surmounting his prejudice to recognize the best of Thomas. After Thomas takes a beating intended for Jimmy after Jimmy pulls a fast one on the betting on a tug-of-war, Jimmy does the right thing and comes to visit Thomas in recovery, an act that opens up the possibility of honest conversation between them. “I shouldn’t have run off,” Jimmy blames himself. “Yes you should have,” Thomas tells him, in one of the few honest confessions of emotion he’s allowed himself on the show. “Otherwise what was I bloody doing it for?” Jimmy is tentative, warning Thomas “I can never give you what you want.” And Thomas seems to have resigned himself, both to his position at Downton as under-butler, and his role in Jimmy’s life. “I understand that, I do, and I don’t ask for it,” Thomas tells him. “But I’d like it if we could be friends.” Sometimes, settling isn’t so bad.
But as much as some of this season worked better than last, and this finale has some emotional high points, I think Downton has a more significant problem: it’s gotten too big. The show seems determined to replace characters as they move on or up, but the substitutions don’t seem as compelling as the originals. Rose seems intended to fill in the gap left in the lineup of the Crawley girls by Sybil’s death, but her flightiness and attachment to London nightlife don’t yet have the weight of Sybil’s awakening social conscience. Ivy’s no substitute for the maids who have gone before.
And the determination to keep the character slots balanced means the show doesn’t have time to do justice to existing characters. It was a real disappointment to see the prospect of Daisy’s independence raised, only to see that storyline essentially peter out in favor of attention to her flirtation with Alfred. Hearing Alfred’s ambition, out of nowhere, to cook, opens up the possibility of London storylines or independent businesses, but he isn’t sufficiently well-established as a character for him suddenly to become an object of interest, particularly given his treatment of Thomas earlier in the season. Mrs. Patmore’s flirtation was in an gone in an episode, ignoring the emotional weight that the prospect of her departure might have had for Mrs. Hughes, and the way the possibility of promotion might have affected Daisy’s decision-making process.
Downton‘s ambitions have always been as big and as cluttered as the house whose inhabitants its follow, and whose survival is its crucial stake. But those ambitions increasingly aren’t a match for its structure and scope. Much of the time, we talk about British shows as superior to American ones because their shorter runs leave less room for filler, and for a better match between story and running length. But as much as I get pleasure out of Downton Abbey, it’s the rare British show that seems like it could use an American-sized season, and an American writers’ room to support the weight of its aimed-for grandeur.